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    The DtK Book Club: The Christianity-is-a-Relationship-not-a-Religion Fallacy

    February 25, 2014 by Brandy Vencel
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    I really liked this section of the reading, which is why it was so hard for me to narrow it down. So I decided to do the only logical thing, which is to hardly talk about the state of the modern University at all.

    He he.

    There were so many interesting thoughts in this section, thoughts that could run along their own rabbit trails if allowed, and so I decided to let one run and see what happens.

    Smith starts right off making the point that even the “secular” university is religious — that we cannot be not religious. He says this is because {1} we all have a worldview. Now, of course, he doesn’t call it that {instead he says “ultimate commitments”} because he has told us over and over how worldview isn’t the starting place.

    He he.

    That is, I hope, the last wicked laugh of this post. I apologize.

    He writes:

    Our public and private universities all generally pride themselves in being secular: spaces for the enlightened, dispassionate, objective pursuit of truth, unencumbered by the weight of tradition, especially religious tradition. The chief virtue of the university, on this telling, is that it is rational, not faithful. This story has rightly been called into question, focusing on the conditions of knowledge: everyone, it’s pointed out, starts from some ultimate commitments that shape what they consider to be “rational.” So in this sense, the scholar and the university can’t help but be religious; or, in other words, there is no such thing as the secular.

    These “ultimate commitments” are not the only thing, though they are a very powerful thing. Smith goes on:

    The university can’t help but be a formative institution because of powerful {though often unofficial} liturgies that shape our identity and self-understanding.

    As a vivid example of this liturgy, he points to the “secular” Cathedral of Learning at the University of Pittsburgh:

    Towering over the campus {and the city}, the building is intentionally Gothic, invoking the architectural grammar of medieval churches and cathedrals. But here the aspiring, pointed architecture is no longer striving to point to the Creator, but rather seeks to serve a different, more immanent ideal: the truth of enlightened human reason, marshaled for the progress of the race. The the Cathedral of Learning represents the nature and limits of secularization at the university: while on the one hand it seeks to shut out reference to the divine, it nonetheless lives off the borrowed capital of religious aspiration.

    And so Smith concludes:

    [W]hat we get is not a creed, but a cathedral. This is an illustration of the claim I’m making here: what makes the university inherently religious is not just its teaching, and not even just its perspectives, but its practices.

    People who believe that education can be non-religious are a dime a dozen. This is the prevalent mindset of our time.

    For some reason, all of this brought to mind the idea that I encounter over and over among certain types of Christians — the idea that Christianity is a relationship and not a religion. I’ve written about this before, but I couldn’t get away from it when I was thinking through these pages. I’ve heard well meaning Christians say that they are not religious, or that God dislikes religion. Here, Smith turns that on its head by telling us that it is not possible to be not religious.

    It raises the question to these “non-religious” Christians — well, if Christianity is not your religion, what is, exactly? If the vision of the good life defined by Scripture doesn’t define your practices, what does?

    And it is easy to point the finger at “those people” — the ones who speak of religion the way Susan speaks to Lucy in Prince Caspian — in their most annoying adult voice, as if the idea of religion were something all good believers were supposed to outgrow. But what about us? Do we have practices that we have placed outside of our religion, that we have decided are somehow a-moral? We may raise our voices with Kuyper and say that yes! there is no square inch which is not Christ’s, and with Charlotte Mason and say yes! a true education is thoroughly Christian indeed, and yet have orphaned practices that do not actually conform to the vision of the good life which we claim.

    What are they?

    I have started praying that I see them, for I do often think we are blind to our own vices.

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