At Phi Beta Kappa we have learned that the most valued lasting benefit of liberal education is the development of critical thinking and deliberative abilities. Our members consistently say so. This conclusion fits well with what we think about the role of liberal education in fulfilling our rational nature, in equipping us for personal and professional success, in preparing us for participation in a democratic society, and in giving us greater capacities for the joy of understanding and appreciating things.
Cultivating deliberation calls for attention to three things: skill in making and evaluating arguments, a knowledge base sufficient to command facts that can be placed in arguments as reasons, and a sense of what matters.
I think the first two of these are reasonably broadly understood. I think the third has proven most difficult to talk about clearly and productively. Yet unless persons who strive to become (more) deliberative develop appropriate sensibilities, they are likely to fall short in grasping what is worth deliberating, and what makes sense to bring up in an argument. Notoriously, serious disagreements about values are disagreements about what makes sense to bring up.
All this bears in an interesting way on the education of the student who is serious about religion. Such a student is likely to have strong sensibilities, both concerning what is worth talking about and also concerning what the grounds of a sound opinion would be. But those sensibilities are not necessarily likely to be broad, flexible, or engaged with the continuing reality of uncertainty and ambiguity.
In particular, there is a characteristic, though not universal, mode of religious argumentation that actually is intended to kill deliberation. That is, the rhetorical move has a logical force such that, if it is accepted by the interlocutor, the matter is settled. I owe the Latin version of this move to the title of Evan Connell’s book on the crusades: Deus Lo Volt!
God wills it. If you grant that, it no longer makes sense to deliberate what one ought to do. (Whether one does it is a different matter: see Romans
7:15-20, Augustine’s Confessions
, and especially Book Two, and Paradise Lost
, Book 1, lines 249-263.)
We live in a world in which Deus lo volt!
appears as a reason for believing in one account of the origins of the universe and life (rather than others) as a reason for believing that some sorts of relations between the sexes are all right and others are not, as a reason for believing that some forms of government are acceptable and others abominable, and so on seemingly ad infinitum
. There seems to be no corner of life that is not touched by someone, somewhere, with a theological warrant designed to quash all contrary opinion.
I am not saying that religious people necessarily argue in this way or even that most do. How could you survey? But it is undeniable that theological argumentation that is intolerant of opposition, even violently hostile to opposition, influences much of our world. Reliance upon it is an absolute obstacle to the cultivation of deliberative abilities, and is, therefore, inimical to the best fruits of liberal education.
Overcoming this reliance, where it exists, is a matter of changing sensibilities and engaging new virtues, like humility and charity. It is far from clear how that happens, but the starting place has to be facing up to the utter deadlock produced by conflicting claims that God wills this
; No, God wills that
There are many other, happier, and more humane issues raised by the question of the religious student in liberal education. But this one, despite what many have hoped since the 17th century, has not gone away.
John Churchill is Secretary of the Phi Beta Kappa Society and leader of a Teagle Big Questions working group on Deliberation about Things that Matter