Toleration and Conviction on Campus

Originally posted on December 18, 2009, but given the nature of the times, it’s worth a look.

Knife edges are the places where greatness lives in organizations. The sides of a knife don’t cut, but the well-whetted edge of a knife is where the action is. Faith has been placed on the flat side of the knife at universities. For sharpness, there must be two sides to the knife on campus – faith and reason. Truth lives on the deliberately honed edge of faith and reason.

The idea that faith expressed with reason must pollute either or both is wrong-headed. So, too, is the opposite. For intellectual acuity to flourish on our campus, an open mind is needed, as well as a willingness to listen and civilly deliberate perspectives of faith and reason.

There are not many new issues to address regarding faith matters at my church. Nearly all members agree on the most important considerations of the human condition. The omnipotence of God, original sin, the deity of Christ, salvation through grace and human beings as agents of free will created in God’s image: on these points, there are few disagreements. But the university is a crucible that refines me and my faith. But it can only function in the presence of other faiths, and no faith at all is a form of faith in self, nature, process or something else.

Machines alone are without faith.

Many people, who are more studied than I have deliberated on the nexus of tolerance (the product of listening, empathy, and appreciation of different points of view without the sacrifice of personal values) and conviction. Tolerance has become a synonym for thoughtlessness or life without principle. It is maligned by misuse, misunderstanding and moral relativism precisely because matters of faith are not part of public dialog: important anywhere, but essential to a university. Conviction, without a “second perspective” to tolerate, is meaningless. The very purpose and nature of a good university are lost in a theater without faith written into the play.

If ideas are treated as detached or detachable in modern discourse, everyone is happy. In some ways, it is the foundation of postmodern thought: assembling pieces or ideas without a conceptual framework that glues them together. It is possible to have dispassionate discussions about events of history absent any personal connection to them. It is passion and conviction about ideas that cause problems. And by definition, matters of faith require conviction. The scientific method, based as it is on replicability, needs no conviction except allegiance to it. Some would argue this, in itself, to be a manifestation of faith, of a sort.

Current events around global warming show the degree to which matters of ideology, sometimes confused with faith or science, pick your poison, are masquerading as one or the other. Only reveal that which supports your perspective! Where is truth, scientific or divine, in this equation?

The faith that I hold is strong and a matter of personal conviction. I will not allow myself to demand that anyone believes as I do: That is a matter of free will. For example, a person who believes that human life begins at conception is deemed to be intolerant of those who believe life begins at any other time. If asked, I will explain my position relative to my faith, just as assuredly as if asked the rate of descent of a falling apple at sea level, I will respond: 32 feet per second squared, a position explained not by my faith, but by physics.

The idea that these perspectives cannot co-habit is limited. If science appears to disprove a faith view, so be it. And if a deep faith conviction supports that which science cannot, so be it. A cure for cancer will be a product of science, in part or whole. A miraculous healing of the same dread disease, a product of faith, in part or in whole.

Toleration requires that each listen respectfully to all. Conviction demands that personal perspective is valued by you and others through belief, the alchemy of heart and head. These perspectives can live side by side with a thinking human being in search of truth: In fact, they must.

Does our university, or any other, exist for any other purpose?

Walter V. Wendler is President of West Texas A&M University. His weekly columns are available at

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