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Robert Royal: Don’t lose grasp on world’s greatest learning

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John Burger - published on 10/09/20

When your appointment was announced, you said it’s important that we form young people who are going to be able to maintain their faith and defend it in public, “who are actually going to be able to advance what is essential for our country to survive and flourish.” What is essential for our country to survive?

There are lots of pieces to that. One thing in particular is if you start out from the biblical view that everyone is fallen, you don’t demand perfection from people in the past. You don’t demand it from Washington or Jefferson or Columbus or Lincoln or whoever it’s going to be. So there’s a Christian realism that we’ve lost in the United States and we now have impulses toward utopias ourselves, that by and large I don’t think are healthy. It’s always good to be looking to improve things, but we’ve seen that there’s some kind of spirit of historical Puritanism — is maybe one way of putting it — that drops out that Christian realism. We’re not only going to encounter evil in others but in ourselves, so there’s got to be a pattern of forgiveness and tolerance and understanding of one another and willingness in love to work with each other as well as we possibly can. And I think those are the deep fundamental things that are starting to fall apart in the country. …

I don’t think we’ve got the Christian perspective that enables us to understand  ourselves, these great texts that we read, our history, in a way that doesn’t get drawn into various ideologies. We’re not out-and-out Marxist, but we’ve got ideas that society can be perfected. That is a Christian heresy. It’s simply not going to happen, and most of the time in Scripture or in history when we see people trying to create utopias they end up as dystopias.

That heresy you mention would be Pelagianism, right?

Yes, exactly, Pelagianism — and maybe a bit of Gnosticism, a belief that we have some transcending wisdom that the past did not.

In your convocation address, you speak of the world being in deep chaos. What is the nature of that chaos? How do you characterize it?  Where is it headed?

The crisis is, I think, the loss of the Christian view of the world. … I see not only in the U.S. but in much of the West that we have these impulses toward perfection in society in race relations, etc., but we don’t know where it comes from or why. As I said in my Columbus book, the way we criticize a figure like Columbus or Jefferson or Washington, it depends on Western Christian values — or you could call them Judaic Christian values — starting with the idea that we are made in the image and likeness of God. If you don’t have that fundamental religious orientation, where do our rights and the need to respect other people come from? I don’t know. I look around in the secular world and I don’t see that there’s any foundation. Since there isn’t, there’s a lot of talk about respecting everybody, including everybody, but there’s a lot of actual disrespect for other people and excluding people. We see this in this “cancel culture,” which is becoming more and more prominent in universities and industries and media.

The crisis is that we’re using portions of our Western Christian tradition to destroy the tradition, and by cutting ourselves off from that foundation, we inevitably are going to generate a lot of turmoil among ourselves. We don’t start out with the idea that we need to be charitable to others because we’re all made in the image and likeness of God; we have this impulse toward utopianism, and the banishing of people who don’t live up to certain portions of current ethics. Inevitably this just tears itself apart. I think we just have to find our way back — or maybe forward to a different understanding of this — but some way of understanding ourselves as all standing within a tradition that was worth preserving, even though it’s been imperfect in its action in the past, because there is no other cultural tradition to my knowledge that says all people are made in the image and likeness of God. When westerners brought that idea to the New World, it was an astonishing revolution. They didn’t always live up to it, but at least it began and we’re trying to continue to make sure that that vision of what human beings and human life is is actually implemented in the world. 

What is missing from much of the secular college education experience today, and is that lacuna turning out to be detrimental to our society?

I’m not dodging this by saying it’s above my pay grade or anything, but that’s a big question that, I’m not sure I’m the best person to ask. It just seems that our universities are not conveying that sense of our tradition, the best parts of our religious tradition and our secular tradition. People tend not to read texts anymore. I hear all the time, and I see people pulling down statues and stomping on statues of Columbus as if he’s Hitler. In fact, there are people who have said outright that he was a genocidal maniac. Frequently, people tell me their kids have learned those exact two words: genocidal maniac.

So to my mind, there’s been a failure to teach history, not only Western but American history, so we don’t know where we come out of all these assumptions of the country and the Church being evil (because there are evils in our past). That’s not taught. Even when texts are engaged, very often they’re dismissed because the person who wrote them was less than perfect. I think it’s very important to read Aristotle’s Ethics and Politics and Logic and what not, but Aristotle believed that some people are slaves by nature. … Do you throw him out simply because he believed something that’s wrong? You can go on and on.

The problem, it seems to me, in most universities right now is there isn’t a willingness — I’m not trying to say there shouldn’t be criticism of our intellectual tradition — but there isn’t a willingness to convey it for the riches it brings as well. 

This is a new, expanded edition of the book I did for the 500th anniversary of Columbus’ first voyage, which was in 1992. I spoke at a couple of dozen colleges and universities, including at Princeton on October 12, 1992, and there were 150 people in the room, and it was possible for me to give a temperate view of Columbus, and there was some exchange and criticism and what not, but it was possible. I think that that’s impossible now. Back then, the university and people from the history department would take me out to dinner, and they would say “Yes, hey, that’s great that you said that; we know that that’s the truth, but we can’t say it. We’re glad that you said it.” Now it would be impossible for somebody like me to speak on campus without being cancelled, having a tremendous uproar…. It shows you how much in the last 30 years even there’s been a kind of traveling away from the ability to debate and recognize good and evil in historical figures, historical currents, to the point where we are now: it’s almost a risk to someone’s career to invite a person like me on a subject like Columbus to come and speak on a campus. 

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