Excerpt from Faculty Day Address - Aug. 17, 2022
I confess a certain attraction to a dark view of things, by which I mean something of a special interest in the moribund features of all that lies within this earthly realm. This should be distinguished from a morbid sense of humor: there is nothing funny about death, even if we might mock it when secure in Christ’s triumph over it. Death, sin, the violence of slander, the cruelty of attacking another’s security in a sense of the sacred; these things abound in the world, and like the gathering moments of post-twilight, they can appear at times to be on the verge of overwhelming what remains of the world’s light.
Animated by this sensibility, and wishing to impress my eighth-grade literature teacher, I poured my rather melancholic soul into what my teacher eventually declared to be a most finely written and compelling story. The subject of that story was a young boy, who, having taken to heart the frequent exhortations he, and everyone else during my childhood, received—that he could be anything he wanted so long as he put his mind to it—led to his death when he disproved that claim by failing to fly like Superman. Melodramatic, I know, but I really did pull it off well. I was at first delighted with the praise, but then my teacher told me never to write a story like it again. He said there was darkness enough in the world, and I should never use what gifts God gave me to wallow in it. He said the world needs to see light, especially in those corners where things are most dark, even if I could only manage to cast a little of it in certain places.
It is remarkable how such little moments, a five-minute conversation with a revered teacher, shape the efforts of a lifetime.
That teacher, by the way, was Dr. Rollin Lasseter. A Yale PhD, poet, literary critic, scholar of Yeats, and celebrated teacher at Kentucky and NC State, who had taken a few years off from university teaching to plow his efforts into shaping the writing program at the classical school I was blessed to attend. This is the same Dr. Lasseter who later joined the University of Dallas in 1992 and taught here for many years, where he no doubt refocused the imaginations of many of our alumni and honed their efforts towards similarly light-bearing goals.
I share this story to honor Dr. Lasseter. I share it also to encourage each of us with the reminder that the encounters we have with our students matter deeply, and sometimes matter ultimately. Finally, I share it because, perhaps for you, and certainly for me, that attraction to the dark view of things has been harder to resist of late than in the past.
In my case, perhaps that has something to do with the greater portion of my academic reading list of late: I led a graduate course on the major works of Friedrich Nietzsche through the spring semester, followed by a quick read of Carl Truemann’s sobering The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self, and then a return to some of the works of an author from whom I learned much on a first reading more than a dozen years ago, an author whose life work has been devoted to making sense of the civilizational nightmares of the last 100 years, nightmares which came true when Auschwitz came to stand as the starkest fact and the most telling symbol for the culture wars in which we are enmeshed. I mean of course the late sociologist, Philip Rieff.
These were not random selections, of course. I announced last year that the effort we are engaged in by providing an excellent and liberating education is nothing short of a reclaiming of culture. From what does culture need to be reclaimed? There are many symptoms of cultural madness to which any one of us can point: what are their causes? Most of the explanations to be found amongst the chattering class seem either too shallow or off-base. Deeper explanations often finger Marx and his heirs, but I have always suspected that something else must be going on to abandon the faith of our fathers and to put in for Marxism: there has to be more depth to the account, a propaedeutic for the various destructions we have witnessed and been party to. Marxism does not explain the Shoah. It is this still deeper account which Rieff probes.
Rieff certainly takes a dark view of things. The three-world schema he proposes for making sense of our cultural moment is a simplification, but a useful one. (You should not impose the economic meaning of such terms as “first-world” and “third-world” here; Rieff’s schema is a historical and sociological one). We find ourselves, we exist culturally, Rieff argues in his 2006 work, My Life Among the Deathworks, in our relation to ultimate authority: “Wherever we may be, in the whatness of our whoness, what we are is constituted by where we are in sacred order (3).” Or, perhaps less enigmatically, he writes: “A culture is the vertical in authority, that space between sacred order and social order which is the world made by world makers (45).”
Rieff argues that, after a first world of culture, where ultimate authority lies with fate, as in the pagan cultures of Greece and Rome, arose a second world in which faith in a supreme lawgiving God was framed, as in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Rieff offers the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel as a representation of second world culture: “Here is where culture is, in what is perhaps the most famous image of the via, or the way of authority, known to us. It is the image on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in Rome, Michaelangelo’s Creation of Adam, which is at the same time the creation of our second world culture. There on the right is the figure of the Creator, and on the left the first created. The key element is the space between…. That space is extraordinarily limited. In that apparently little space is all the space in which all humanity lives (45).”
Third world culture, ushered in, Rieff argues, by Nietzsche, Freud, and their many elite heirs, is a grand experiment in attacking what Rieff has named the vertical in authority. We kill God or ridicule providence, and we free ourselves from orientation to the vertical in authority. We deny there are interdicts which descend from on high, and we are liberated to make of ourselves whatever we choose. Efforts to such effect, Rieff argues, abound, and it is these he summarizes with the term deathworks. A prime example Rieff examines as a deathwork is Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ (1987), which is a glass enclosure containing a crucifix submerged in the artist’s own urine. It is not difficult to see this work as subversive of the vertical in authority. What Rieff’s analysis of it provides is a basis for seeing a great many other cultural artifacts, words, and actions as similarly profanations of God, of Moses, of priests, of ministers, of rabbis, and mockeries of those striving to find themselves in a right orientation to the ultimate sacred authority. Rieff reveals that most of these deathworks are far more subtle, and therefore persuasive, than Serrano’s, and that they are legion. Rieff argues that third world culture is at bottom anti-culture since it seeks to destroy that little space between the hand of God and the first human being, that space in which humanity finds its genuine culture. It is impossible to avoid the effects of such deathworks: However hard we may try to maintain the posture of one who sees himself as principally a denizen of the second world culture, we are at war even within ourselves for we cannot but live our lives among the myriad deathworks of contemporary culture.
I warned you this was a dark view of the challenges before us, and, should you pick up Rieff, I suspect everyone in this room, myself included, would find objectionable some of the analyses that Rieff provides, especially in his interpretations of particular works of art, both visual and literary. But I warrant he is on to something, and that, indeed, the challenges are stark, and that even our best and brightest students who have also received an excellent formation in the faith of their fathers and mothers, suffer the intra and inter-personal torments he describes in their efforts to find their way forward as shapers of our culture.
As dark as Rieff’s survey of our contemporary malaise is, even he sees hope. His point in writing this work, he tells us, is to unmask deathworks as deathworks (18). To see them for what they are is to weaken their grip on our souls. His goal is to disarm deathworks. One does not do that with acts of physical violence—like in the recent assassination attempt on Salman Rushdie. Besides violating the interdict against murder, such acts of violence are self-defeating. Nor does Rieff argue that there is no role for subversive art or literature. And, it stands pointing out, that great literature, great works of art, whether subversive or not, deserve study. It also stands pointing out that “subversive” is a pliable word: Rushdie’s playful and engaging literature, to stay with the example, may be subversive of certain strains of Islamist orthodoxy, but is it possibly affirmative of other sorts of right thinking? One cannot judge rightly without study. Rieff’s effort is to liberate us from anti-culture by revealing the subversive as subversive, by naming things what they are. And, we should name things what they are; but a well educated person knows that such naming can really only be the fruit of assessing things himself.
Hope is strengthened still further when you have a university dedicated not just to naming rightly what lurks in the darkness, but to nurturing its students in an education in the true, good, and beautiful. We are explicitly dedicated to strengthening our students’ relation to the vertical in authority by educating them in the best of the Western and Catholic intellectual tradition and encouraging in them a genuinely magnanimous spirit, one that enables them to plow their lifelong efforts into glorious works for the greater glory of God.
But bear in mind that we should not be too quick to dismiss what might seem alien. My reflections on Rieff should not be interpreted as a suggestion to ignore creative works that fall outside comfortable patterns of thought, or worse, as fostering any fear of engaging works that may fall outside our tradition. Liberal education is animated by the principle that there is gold to find in every mine. Our mission statement (https://udallas.edu/about/mission.php ) does indeed dedicate us to “the recovery of the Christian intellectual tradition, and to the renewal of Catholic theology in fidelity to the Church,” but also to do so “in constructive dialogue with the modern world.” If we, the faculty of the University of Dallas do not find a way to do both these things well, who will?
More than ever, our work as educators is of vital importance. We are dedicated in our mission statement to orienting our students to wisdom, truth, and virtue. It is to that orientation we must tend with the very best of our efforts, taking special care to keep our own orientation aright. And for that latter effort, we all ought to be grateful that we are in this work together.
My summer reading concluded with a return to John Henry Newman’s The Idea of a University. It is remarkable how well this relatively old work responds to our current challenges. Newman’s unflinching defense of learning for its own sake, explored at length in Discourse V, contains the heart of the matter. Liberal education concerns the cultivation of the mind first and foremost, and it is from that cultivation that genuine culture is secured. There are warnings to heed in The Idea of a University as well. For instance, that though learning for its own sake is unarguably a great good, it alone does not make us or our students good. This is why the work we do in student life and campus ministry is so vitally important: cultivating the whole person, integrating the intellectual, moral, and theological virtues, entails focused attention to all areas of university life.
The Idea of a University also contains ample argument for putting to rest fears that practical disciplines, like business, might weaken the liberal arts character of our university. When Newman argues that a liberal arts university is a place in which students and faculty are brought to appreciate the unity of all the disciplines, he really means all the disciplines. So long as the foundation remains the liberating arts and sciences, Newman argues that not just business, but law, medicine, and other practical subjects find their most fitting home in a liberal arts university. As Newman argues in Discourse VII, it is not only that the properly liberal disciplines, though not principally oriented towards usefulness, are nonetheless profoundly useful, for, “that training of the intellect which is best for the individual himself, best enables him[JJS2] to discharge his duties to society (Idea, 136),” but practical disciplines both benefit and are benefitted by their inclusion within a liberal arts university because the faculty of those disciplines enrich the lives of faculty in the more explicitly liberal disciplines and come to appreciate their discipline’s relation to the other disciplines (Idea, 128-9).
Newman concludes Discourse VII arguing not only that a great Catholic liberal arts university must indeed be dedicated first and foremost to the principal task of cultivating the minds of its students, and secondly to preparing them for successful careers in any sort of profession, but also that there is far more to which we must be dedicated. A great Catholic liberal arts university is preparing its students to live lives of rich meaning and purpose, and to shaping the culture in which they find themselves world makers, that is to say, culture formers. Newman’s words on this subject are too fitting to merely gloss:
But a university training is the great ordinary means to a great but ordinary end; it aims at raising the intellectual tone of society, at cultivating the public mind, at purifying the national taste, at supplying true principles to popular enthusiasm and fixed aims to popular aspiration, at giving enlargement and sobriety to the ideas of the age, at facilitating the exercise of political power, and refining the intercourse of private life. It is the education that gives a man a clear conscious view of his own opinions and judgments, a truth in developing them, an eloquence in expressing them, and a force in urging them. It teaches him to see things as they are, to go right to the point, to disentangle a skein of thought, to detect what is sophistical, and to discard what is irrelevant. It prepares him to fill any post with credit and to master any subject with facility. It shows him how to accommodate himself to others, how to throw himself in their state of mind, how to bring before them his own, how to influence them, how to come to an understanding with them, how to bear with them. He is at home in any society, he has common ground with any class; he knows when to speak and when to be silent; he is able to converse, he is able to listen; he can ask a question pertinently, and gain a lesson seasonably, when he has nothing to impart himself; he is ever ready, yet never in the way; he is a pleasant companion, and a comrade you can depend upon; he knows when to be serious and when to trifle, and he has sure tact which enables him to trifle with gracefulness and to be serious with effect. He has the repose of a mind which lives in itself, while it lives in the world, and which has resources of its happiness at home when it cannot go abroad. He has a gift which serves him in public, and supports him in retirement, without which good fortune is but vulgar, and with which failure and disappointment have a charm (Idea, 137).
We, the faculty of the University of Dallas, are the ones who provide this gift to our students. It is a gift of light that penetrates every darkness and strengthens flagging courage. We in turn are gifted to be united in our effort to impart this gift. We do need to be conscious of the cultural challenges before us. We need to name things for what they are so as to loosen their grip on our and our students’ souls. But, let us not linger overlong on the works of darkness. Let us rally our efforts to offer the most excellent of gifts by educating excellently those students who will soon be before us in our classrooms. This is our great work. Let us begin it anew.
Jonathan J. Sanford, Ph.D.
Professor of Philosophy
 Newman, The Idea of a University (Tacoma, WA: Cluny Media, 2016).