by Joseph Rodriguez
What are universities for? That is a question I spend a great amount of thinking about as a student of the university. We often think of the university as a knowledge-producing institution. Indeed many of the world’s most prestigious universities are committed to truth, and this is often embodied in their mission statements and mottos. So we hear of Harvard’s Veritas; the University of California’s Fiat Lux; Duke’s Eruditio et Religio.
The university has a long and complicated history. When the first universities began in Europe during the Middle Ages, Pope Gregory IX called them “wisdom’s special workshops.”1 This is a sentiment that, though concealed, is largely shared today. To see the university through this lens is to see it through the lens of what the biblical authors call shalom.
The biblical authors use the term shalom to describe the peace, harmony, and well-being that results from the flourishing of all creation. Shalom means completeness, an integrated whole. The word university comes to us from the Latin universitas to denote something similar. There is, I think, a remarkable similarity between the two.
What is this connection? Both shalom and the university are committed to improving the world around them. Of course, shalom is more than mere improvement. But it certainly means just that: pursuing shalom means that we are invited to get involved in the messiness and brokenness of our world. But whereas the university seeks to ameliorate the world and its problems, shalom is about healing the world, once and for all. The work of shalom includes transforming structures that are unjust and striving to bring peace wherever we witness chaos and disorder. This is really what the story of the Bible is all about: what has been done to put creation back into right relationship with its Creator. During Advent we are reminded that the Prince of Shalom, Jesus, has come to make a covenant of shalom with his people.
When the medical student researches how to create cutting-edge technology for vaccines, they are pursuing shalom, and they are working toward the mission of the university; when the student of political science is learning how to create institutions that can mediate international conflict, they are involved in the work of shalom, and working for a more just world; when the law student is learning how to read a legal statute, they are contributing to shalom, to the flourishing of creation. These are all worthwhile pursuits. And they are all connected to the larger story about the restoration and redemption of our world. Insofar as the university is devoted to improving the world, it is devoted to a cause that bears witness to the drama of the Bible. But the university will never be able to fully deliver. It is in this sense just a foretaste of what will fully be accomplished, when the world will be finally healed.
Joseph Rodriguez is a PhD student at Duke University studying political science.
This article is part of the Duke Crux X UVA Bearings 2021 Advent Series, a collaboration between the two Augustine Collective Organizations.
- James Axtell, Wisdom’s Workshop: The Rise of the Modern University (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2016).