A Secondary Thing
What is the telos of university?
The most obvious answer is “truth” –- the word appears on so many university crests. But increasingly, many of America’s top universities are embracing social justice as their telos, or as a second and equal telos. But can any institution or profession have two teloses (or teloi)? What happens if they conflict?
As a social psychologist who studies morality, I have watched these two teloses come into conflict increasingly often during my 30 years in the academy. The conflicts seemed manageable in the 1990s. But the intensity of conflict has grown since then, at the same time as the political diversity of the professoriate was plummeting, and at the same time as American cross-partisan hostility was rising. I believe the conflict reached its boiling point in the fall of 2015 when student protesters at 80 universities demanded that their universities make much greater and more explicit commitments to social justice, often including mandatory courses and training for everyone in social justice perspectives and content.
Now that many university presidents have agreed to implement many of the demands, I believe that the conflict between truth and social justice is likely to become unmanageable. Universities will have to choose, and be explicit about their choice, so that potential students and faculty recruits can make an informed choice. Universities that try to honor both will face increasing incoherence and internal conflict.
(Jonathan Haidt, Why Universities Must Choose One Telos: Truth or Social Justice; H/T Rod Dreher)
Haidt acknowledges that this has been a miserable year for voters, but avers that it’s a great, great year for studying moral psychology, his field, which he thinks can explain it all. There is additional material, an outline, a PowerPoint, and a 66-minute YouTube video of Haidt’s talk on this topic at Duke, all at the preceding link.
I didn’t have time for viewing a long video, but if you’re a stranger to Haidt, you might want to make time.
A First Thing
I would a thousand times rather my Christian children attend a secular college that claims Truth as its telos than attend a Christian college that makes Social Justice its telos, or that fails to make Truth its exclusive telos.
But Haidt’s insight is also true for churches today. If we diligently seek Truth, and seek to conform our lives as much as possible around what we believe to be True, then we will inevitably achieve a form of Social Justice. But there can be no Justice, social or otherwise, without Truth. And Truth can never be what serves a pre-determined goal — the Revolution, the party, equality, the nation, the family, the temporal interests of the Church, nothing.
Those contemporary churches that put anything above the fearless pursuit of Truth, and living in Truth, will die, because they have no way of protecting their vision of the True, the Good, and the Beautiful — which is to say, God. They subordinate it to worldly, temporal concerns, and destroy their only mechanism (so to speak) for perceiving God clearly. To be clear, it is impossible for any church to see the entire Truth, and in any case, for Christians, Truth is not merely a set of propositions, but is a Person, Jesus Christ. This has profound implications that we can’t really get into in this post. My point is, churches, like universities, that place politics, culture, or any other goal over Truth are signing their own death warrants.
Would a Church ever choose “social justice” over truth? Many already have. The social justice Sirens are singing their song to as many others as have not resolutely stopped their ears to them.
This does not mean we resolve to be unjust. It means we refuse to be seduced into a view of justice that does not comport with truth.
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“In learning as in traveling and, of course, in lovemaking, all the charm lies in not coming too quickly to the point, but in meandering around for a while.” (Eva Brann)