The Absurdity of ARIL*

by William Stringfellow

*A paper presented by William Stringfellow on the occasion of the fortieth anniversary of the Church Society For College Work, ARIL's predecessor organization,  in 1975. In this update, The Association for Religion and Intellectual Life (ARIL) has been substituted for CSCW.

Do not be conformed to this age but be transformed by the renewal of your mnd, that you may prove what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect. Romans: 12.2


To tell the truth ARIL cannot readily be accounted any success.

I mention this, mindful of these forty years, and grateful for them, not as my own insight but as a matter of common knowledge such as this would esteems. To have been a success which the world could recognize, ARIL would have to have been capable of being, somehow, evaluated--an enterprise which could be assessed proximately to goals. To be a success in this age, there must be something to show for an effort: buildings, perhaps, or monuments, endowments (shrewdly capitalized), an enumerable constituency, consistent policy or, at least, some definite schemes, programs (pragmatically implemented), a compelling public repute. ARIL has had none of these features. There are no buildings, only transient premises; there are no monuments except some memories; money has been deemed expendable; the constituency remains indistinct and is, anyway, dispersed; policy has been occasional if not erratic; program is what's happening at the moment; there has been little promotion of an image.

About the maximum that can be said is that, during four decades, ARIL has been a presence, at once agitating and patient, on the university scene in America. But it has not been a success because "success" omens a category of existence alien to the vocational style ARIL signifies in relation to the American university.

This odd genius which has generally characterized ARIL--this freedom to be involved with the university unencumbered by the multifarious distractions of success--is verified by the fact that, in the time of ARIL, the university in this country has not become a better place. If anything, the opposite appears: in the last forty years the profound organic decadence of the American university has become more visible. My remark is not quantitative; I do not consider that the condition of death has lately increased by so much as an iota; the university is no more fallen today than yesterday, or than in 1935, but human perception of demonic reality varies significantly, from time to time, and it may be said to be currently more lucid, or at least less deluded, than it seems to have been in the mid-thirties. It is in this connection that the curious presence of ARIL has been relevant. The thought and word and action occasioned by ARIL has been important in exposing the wretched situation of the American university and in nurturing some human beings--faculty and students, trustees and administrators, chaplains and campus ministers--to cope with the demonic, incarnate and militant in the authority, tradition, ideology and institution of the university. Now we reach a moment when daily events of our common history refute vain and romantic and fraudulent ideas about the university and when political naivete can no longer conceal and academic sophistication can no longer rationalize the rudimentary status of the university as a principality, a fallen domain, similar to any of the other great powers in which death thrives-- like the Central Intelligence Agency or the conglomerates or the Pentagon or the political technocracy. And the aggressive purpose against human life of the university, as with the other principalities, is no longer reserved or disguised but has become blunt and notorious.

Analytically, there are various rubrics by which to attempt comprehension of the present estate of the American university. I name a few, not thereby to exhaust the matter, and not thus to treat them as alternatives. These views are not distinct; they overlap; they are congested. Moreover, the discernment of any of us is partial and tentative; we suffer our own frailty; we glimpse but fragments of awesome reality. If any of these rubrics convenience our understanding of demonic existence in this world, we must nevertheless heed a caution that they oversimplify the activity of the principalities and powers. Yet, for all of that, I try now to speak about the power of death manifest in the university truthfully, which is to say, confessionally. Theologically, the elementary subject is the saga of the Fall. Analytically, it is the actuality of chaos in the present age.

Ideology and the American University

It is increasingly recognized today that the university in its identity as a principality has an ideological aspect. This is a tardy and begrudged recognition. When ARIL came into being, the prevailing view maintained that the university was ideologically neutral, and, further, that this attribute rendered the university an open forum in which assorted and disparate claims of ideology--or of philosophy or of morality or, sometimes, of religion--could contend while human beings, variously persuaded, were left to exercise choices and make commitments. Though the university sponsored this dynamic encounter, the institution itself was conceived to be beyond ideology; aloof, non-partisan, objective, devoted purely to search and research.

This quaint ideal of the university was, in fact, often contradicted in practice by the exclusion from the pluralistic marketplace which the university was supposed to be of those religions contemporaneously prevalent in American society. There could be courses on Marxism or Platonism or positivism or Archaic religion, but none on Christianity or Judaism, at least in their modern expressions. Paradoxically, this cloture was rationalized as a pragmatic accommodation to American pluralism. Withal there was such a plethora of churches, denominations and sects, each with its doctrines and versions, that it would overtax the facility of the university to cope with all of them, while to deal with some would imply bias or preference, or, even, constitute proselytizing. No wonder that a premise of some Christians involved in the early ventures of ARIL regarded the university as alien and hostile: a mission field, as they sometimes referred to it. Bishop Pike, of comforting memory to me and to many, suffered his earliest notoriety because he complained about the prohibitions against the teaching of Christianity in the colleges, a discrimination which he thought betrayed their propagation of "an alternative faith" in scientism. Others thought, grandly, of the idea of a "Christian university." Meanwhile, let it be admitted, church-related colleges were proliferating which were, frequently, at once narrow-minded religiously and educationally.

Gradually, as some of our predecessors of ARIL foreknew, this feigned objective ethos of the university has been exposed as a de facto ideological stance. If, as an ideology, it be not as elaborated and self-conscious as classical ideologies, it has been no more subtle and no less self-serving.

The American academic ideology emerged from the imperious status accorded to science coincident with the industrialization of this society and the efficacy imputed to scientific methodology in the technological mutation of society, especially as that has affected human behavior. The exaltation of scientism-- and the imposition of the regime of science upon the whole university enterprise--was accompanied in the American experience with the popularization of an inflated, virtually superstitious, bielief in education as the veritable secret of salvation. When the mentality of scientism began, more and more, to determine and restrict the conception of education, that fatal optimism concerning education became attached to methodology of science. Within these past forty years, we have beheld a degeneration of this grandiose schemata of salvation into most pernicious doctrines. So heavy has been the concentration upon the specific as if that were unrelated to anything else, upon the substitution of technical capability for moral discretion, upon treatment of human beings as data; upon determinism, upon quantification, upon specialization, upon fabrication, upon mechanization, upon compartmentalization, upon prediction, upon manipulation, upon automation, upon techniks that questions of ethics--of belief and conduct, of commitment and decision, of correlation and consequences, of relationship and impingement, of integrity and wholeness--have seemed abolished. The only ethical issues remaining have been radically privatized, disconnected from everything else, narrowed to matters of proficiency and competence within one's own niche and of loyalty and uncritical obedience at each respective echelon of organization.

Far from being innocuous or neutral, this ideology, in the university and throughout American society, has had, from a human point of view, appalling significance:

•Thus, the usurpation of human accountability and the displacement of constitutional government by technical capability occasions genocidal warfare in Southeast Asia from which there still appears no extrication;

•Thus, this same moral priority surrendered to techniks gluts the market with redundant products which literally waste creation, jeopardize life, deceive intelligence, and program people as compulsive consumers;

•Thus, the ethical rejoinder, in Watergate, to the most calculated and insidious threat to the rule of law in American history is reduced to the plea of dutiful obedience to political superiors;

•Thus, too, the American abhorrence of such myopic ethics, summoned at Nuremberg, proves insufficient to forbid or prevent My Lai while the Nazi war criminals find vindication in American ideology when Lt. Calley is rendered the scapegoat of higher authority and corporate criminality;

•And, thus, in the American university, a fragmentation and isolation has occurred which is both anti-social and anti-societal in principle, which implies an elemental incoherence of knowledge, and which, incidentally, spreads a pervasive illiteracy among members of the university organized and confined in their respective segments and factions.

But I find no need to multiply this news, though it is necessary to notice that the predatory character of the ideology fostered in scientism, within the university, is quite definite. That is to say, what is involved is a relentless assault upon the mind; what is threatened by demonic aggression is the retention of sanity and the use of conscience; what is at stake is the pre-emption of those very faculties which distinguish human life as such. It is a fearful--and truly apocalyptic--happening that the university furnishes such hospitality to the purpose of death in this world.

The Commercialization of the Disciplines

All that has been suggested here about the bestial reality of the ideology inculcated in the university is subject to the note that as America moves into an ultimate technocracy, change is accelerating geometrically, the chaotic impact of such change proliferates fantastically, and human beings become demoralized and bewildered, and, sometimes, dissipated in their efforts to comprehend the chaos. Technocracy signifies a most sophisticated totalitarianism and people are delivered into its bondage as much by their own pathetic private attempts to shield themselves or to, somewhere, somehow, escape, as by either captivation or surrender.

The matter of ubiquitous, omniscient surveillance aside, the futility of these poignant illusory retreats is demonstrated in the terms of mere survival dictated in an advanced technocratic society activated by the necessities of redundant warfare and indefinite consumption. Survival in the American technocratic state means indoctrination in operations and skills integral to the technical process. The totalitarianism is so pervasive that there is no place to survive outside the scope of technocracy. There is no way to exist unimplicated in technocracy. Even those discarded by and cast out of this society, those classified as recalcitrant or useless or unemployable--blacks or the Indians or elder citizens or emancipated women or prisoners or the ill and disabled or unconformed youth--remain basically dependent upon gratuitous official dispensations: food stamps, welfare, rent subsidies, medicare, social security and the like. When it comes to college students, the possibility of survival becomes translated into obsessive anxiety about admissions, examinations, grades, the acquisition of market able "know-how," placement. And these, in turn, are quickly converted into sullen conformity to the status quo.

Paradoxically, and even more pathetically, technocracy now brinks a crisis in America in which, should either or both of this society's basic policies --warfare and consumption--be fully implemented, the predictable outcome is national suicide. Hiroshima taught that gruesomely about thermonuclear war; Viet Nam has, ruefully, shown the same to be the fact about any other warfare. Meanwhile, Americans have already pursued the consumption ethic far enough and fast enough to foresee that it can only end in the consumption of everything, beyond any capability of replenishment, in self-consumption. If this be truth, conformity in this society is insanity.

This points to how, under the aegis of scientism, within the ideology prevalent in the university, abetted by the extraordinary momentum of technologically induced change, the disciplines and the arts indigenous to the university have been demeaned and subverted by commercialization. They become commodities. And those who are trained to practice the professions and the arts are consigned a correspondingly humiliated status.

Nowhere is this more sufficiently documented than in the law, the field I know at first hand. When scientism is formulated as jurisprudence it is known as positivism, and it is no happenstance that there is an historical association between totalitarianism and legal positivism. In it the role of lawyer is not as protagonist for justice nor as champion of equity nor even as advocate of the rule of law, but the public responsibility and function of the lawyer is abolished in favor of the lawyer as hired technician obliged only to serve the interests of a client or the cause of the regime. In America that has come, practically, to mean the nigh exclusive commitment to the advantage of the great corporate powers and principalities to an extent to which the rights, causes and complaints of ordinary human beings are virtually obviated. And, thus, the realities of human need, where not utterly disallowed, are deemed parasitical, while any meeting of those needs becomes supererogatory.

I have on occasion said that my only comfort, morally, in being a lawyer is that I am not a doctor. It is not a facetious remark, for, though I can here only speak as victim and not as practitioner, I observe a corruption in the medical profession parallel to that in law where matters of research priorities, costs, distribution of services, response to human need are concerned.

And there are grounds to assay similarly the other professions and arts. The language is debased and perverted into jargon propaganda, code and other babel; literature is regarded as obsolete and threatened with extinction; the performing arts become stereotyped and packaged; any creativity is controversial and is opposed by the powers that be. The situation is quite explicable: technocracy cannot tolerate human creativity because that cannot be quantified, programmed and forecast; so it must be suppressed, destroyed or displaced. As often as not, it is substitution which happens and, then, the nomenclature of the art is misappropriated and applied to the anti-art so as, after a generation or two, even to deprive human memory of the art. Meanwhile, a ridiculous parody of this whole process in technocratic totalitarianism, by which the disciplines are corrupted and dehumanized, is rendered in the realm of sports, both in the university and in society generally, especially in the political use assigned to commercialized sports to supply distraction or vicarious involvement or, otherwise, to nurture public apathy.

Lest anyone mishear my remarks as a diatribe against science, let me make plain that I look at the sciences in the same way that I have cited the professions and the arts and I denounce only the abuse of science, the exaggeration of scientific methodology, the idolatry which is scientism, the overwhelming commercial orientation of the sciences, and the abdication or other absence of human dominion over science.

Respecting all the disciplines of the university, and their potential for human life in society, human originality, creativity, like conscience, which is its next-of-kin, means resistance to the regime of technocracy. The use of the mind-- the exercise of definitely human faculties--signals that resistance, and risks violent reprisal.

An Inherent Violence

What I am saying, analytically, is that violence is inherent in the technocratic state in America, and that inasmuch as the American university in the past forty years has been captivated by the ideology of scientism and has been determined by a technocratic model, it is governed by violence. Theologically, of course, the straightforward meaning of the Fall is that violence takes the place of relationship throughout the whole of creation and, in that sense, violence reigns in the particular fallen domain of the university. Yet that does not spare us from trying to understand and cope with the immediacy of violence in the contemporary university scene. I am not now recollecting the turbulence of student protests in the sixties, so much as reminding that as soon as those protests exceeded the outbursts of late adolescence and indicated a more mature rebellion, the "student movement" was routed, ruthlessly, and devastated by the official violence of political and university authorities. The defeat and repression of the student unrest was, at the time, the only predictable outcome, given the precedent but a few years earlier, of how the American Black revolt had been stopped by a similar deployment of paramilitary police and the federal army. Violence is diverse and often subtle, and verbal, psychological, economic and political sanctions had been enforced prior to the military resort against the students. That serves mainly to disclose that the forms of violence which are not literally physical secrete the threat of physical coercion and, ultimately, the prospect of death.

All this, as you know already, was enacted in the infanticide at Kent State. It was then and there that the message was notarized that if the offspring of the white bourgeoisie would not conform to the function consigned to them in technocratic society they would die. Quickly, after the massacre, economic reprisals--the cutbacks in scholarships, student loans, subsidies for student jobs, research grants--reiterated the same news. And so, defeated, intimidated by the threat of death, immobilized, scared, the students conformed. They remain so. Quietism is the pervasive political mood on American campuses to this day. Resistance is now rare or is reduced to mock protest like the indulgence of neo-Marxist talk. Appropriately for technocracy, the university, more and more, has the facade of a fortress, and the ambience of a factory, and the internal surveillance of a medium security prison. It is said that the students study more, but that comfort is small if what there is to learn is radically diminished and dehumanized. What, in fact, we behold in the university is a principality bereft of autonomy and integrity, and, instead, consigned to a vassal status, subservient to other powers--the political and commercial and military and intelligence institutions prominent among them.

• • •

As I was saying, ARIL cannot really be accounted any success; were it a success the university would be a better place. We need some different way in which to speak of the matter. For that I commend to you the word absurd. It is a word which, at least, befits the name of the Association, which has always seemed to me a curious misnomer.

More than that, in the midst of demonic reality, while death is most awesome, in the present age, ARIL means, absurdly, a resilient presence in the university confessing the power of the Word of God to renew the mind.

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