But Isn't Christianity Anti-Learning?

Magdalen College, University of Oxford
Magdalen College, University of Oxford (photo: Shutterstock image)

Father Tim Finigan has a great little post over at The Hermeneutic of Continuity in which he points out, among other things, that the traditional vestments worn at Western graduation ceremonies come directly from universities’ religious pasts. It is quite striking: When I first looked at the picture of the graduation procession in his post, I assumed it was a shot from some kind of church service.

Any modern person immersed in secular wisdom knows that Christianity is an antiquated, superstitious belief system that is antithetical to reason and learning. The religious nuts can sit around and talk about fairies and angels and all the other silly stuff that interests them, but people who really value truth and the pursuit of knowledge set all that aside in order to get a real education.

Interesting, then, that it’s so easy to mistake a photo of a university graduation with a Christian religious event. The iconic square academic cap, or mortarboard, comes to us directly from the birettas worn by Catholic clergy, just as the robes and capes come from the Church’s roba and cappa clausa.

And let’s take a look at some of the original mottos of some of the world’s great universities:

  • Oxford: Dominus illuminatio mea – “The Lord is my light”
  • Cambridge: Hinc lucem et pocula sacra – “From here, light and sacred draughts”
  • Aberdeen: Initium sapientiae timor domini – “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom”
  • Harvard: Veritas Christo et Ecclesiae - “Truth for Christ and the Church”
  • Columbia: In lumine Tuo videbimus lumen - “In Thy light shall we see the light (Psalm 36:9)”

And so on. In fact, a list of the mottos of old universities would leave one with the distinct impression that a love of God ignites a great love of learning. To quote the founders of Harvard, from their Rules and Precepts of 1646:

Let every Student be plainly instructed, and earnestly pressed to consider well, the maine end of his life and studies is, to know God and Jesus Christ which is eternal life (John 17:3) and therefore to lay Christ in the bottome, as the only foundation of all sound knowledge and Learning. And seeing the Lord only giveth wisedome, Let every one seriously set himself by prayer in secret to seeke it of him (Prov. 2:3).

There are a lot of elephants squeezed into the room in the faith vs. learning debate, but the biggest one is this: Most of the people who claim that Christianity hampers enlightened thought were educated in a system founded by Christians. How can you say that religion and the pursuit of knowledge don’t go together when many of the world’s most distinguished institutions of higher learning mention God in their founding mottos? How can you ignore the fact that a love of Jesus Christ built the halls of Harvard? Not only are belief in God and a love of learning not incompatible but, as the history of universities shows, a great zeal for knowledge is in fact a natural result of belief in God.