While the separation of church and state is a hallmark of American democracy, the relationship between religion and higher education is less established. Professor Brad Gregory of Notre Dame’s History Department believes there are two ways to respond to the longstanding effects of religious belief upon history: dismiss religion as an outdated, subjective concept that should remain separate from a scholar’s field of study, or creatively and thoroughly incorporate the expansive roots and effects of theism.
Gregory has shaped his career around the latter belief. He finds it nonsensical to divorce religious knowledge from other forms of knowledge on the sole basis that religion requires some metaphysical, non-empirical truths to exist. “Religion is not going anywhere,” asserted Gregory, a renowned historian and scholar of religion, in a lecture on October 12. He expressed the view that a scholar’s duty is to be open to all truth, even if it leads to challenging or surprising conclusions.
Nowhere are academic excellence and athletic pride more gracefully balanced than at Notre Dame. The Alumni Association’s “Football Friday Series” provides visitors incredible opportunities for academic engagement while on campus for Fighting Irish festivities. As the most recent lecturer in this series, Gregory presented his decision to leave his secure position at Stanford University in favor of the Catholic character of Our Lady’s University. While an interesting presentation in and of itself, Gregory made broader points regarding the role of faith and the academic world.
Gregory began by humbly joking that he would keep his narrative short so members of the audience could attend renowned journalist Ted Koppel’s presentation the following hour. This humility is in keeping with an observation by Colin Devine, one of Gregory’s undergraduate students living in Keough Hall: “He is one of the kindest, most sincere people I have encountered at Notre Dame.”
Gregory’s impressive academic record includes degrees from Utah State University, the Catholic University of Leuven in Belgium, the University of Arizona, and Princeton University. In 1996, he left a prestigious postdoctoral program at Harvard, choosing instead to teach and conduct research at Stanford University.
After obtaining early tenure in 2001, Gregory would have been sure of a long and happy career at Stanford, and he made a point to discuss his respect and gratitude towards that institution. At Stanford, however, he encountered resistance to his desire to pursue truth in its fullest manifestations. Gregory firmly believes that Notre Dame provides “greater academic freedom for the pursuit of truth” than any other leading research institution in the nation and perhaps the world because Notre Dame does not dismiss matters of religion without serious consideration.
As an undergraduate student at Utah State, Gregory found that his fledgling Catholic faith was challenged by his Mormon peers. He said that his was an “immature” faith, in part due to the “sheer confusing plurality” that characterizes the modern world. He has since pursued mental preparedness with even greater purpose, demanding that he and his fellow scholars question assumptions and address biases. Gregory emphasized throughout his lecture that the pursuit of truth requires openness to all its forms, not merely the ‘modern’ or empirical ones. He said that there are “very few places [he] would have even considered leaving Stanford to come to,” but expressed unmistakable joy in his position at Notre Dame, claiming that he has never once regretted his decision.
He emphasized once again that one of the defining traits of all secular institutions of higher education, namely the dismissal of religious truth as outdated or subjective, severely limits those institutions in their ability to conduct profound studies in all fields of scholarly research. Gregory would not have been able to raise the topic of metaphysical naturalism in a class at Stanford, nor would he have been permitted to assign writings of Aquinas or Ratzinger. His students and colleagues were comfortable discussing historical depictions of beliefs in miracles, for example, but assumed without discussion that the natural sciences had conclusively proved that all physical processes are determined by prior physical events. As a well-rounded scholar, Gregory desired to give both his head and heart to his work, stating, “at Notre Dame I can give both.”
Gregory is an outstanding witness to the distinctive spirit of Notre Dame; his words were as inspiring as the cheers of the student body at the pep rally later that evening. The last minutes of his lecture were devoted to Notre Dame’s role in the world of higher education. He urged the students, faculty and administration of the university to exert “more active, self-conscious, deliberate” effort to reconcile the experience of religious belief with modern knowledge. If Notre Dame doesn’t accept this challenge, who can?
Becca Self is a prospective English and Spanish major in the First Year of Studies. Fall is her favorite season so if you have a pumpkin spice latte to share, contact her at email@example.com.