A recent Spectator editorial criticizes Nicholas Murray Butler’s 1906 pronouncement that “Columbia is a Christian Institution.” We are supposed to laugh at the bluntness and blindness of such an idea. But if we aren’t a Christian institution, what are we?
For the past two millennia, we’ve only had two alternatives: paganism and secularity (which, as we’ll see, is an alternative not particularly distinct from Christianity).
We certainly aren’t a pagan institution. The Cathedral of St. John the Divine is in our backyard, the tower of Riverside Church is visible from most of campus, and the cross atop St. Paul’s proclaims Christ’s victory over death and hell, even if few of our students do. We follow the Gregorian calendar. Our motto comes from the Psalms and has been used in Christian apologetics for centuries. Ferris dining hall serves seafood on Fridays. And it is no small thing that every student in Columbia College reads Genesis, Exodus, the Gospels, St. Paul’s epistles, and a handful of church fathers and theologians. Our lives are not organized around archaic rituals of sex, calendar, food, and festivals. We live in a recognizably Christian structure.
Nor are we a secular institution. Above the door in Butler Ref Room is an inscription originally written by Francis Bacon: “A MAN IS BUT WHAT HE KNOWETH.” Absurdity. If this were true, we could simply wake up in 2017 and choose to have nothing to do with our heritage, but that’s not how humans are. Would I be the same person I am today if I had never tasted coffee, hugged my mother, been baptized? Or is there something about the historicity of these events that make me who I am—something about the fact that they really did happen?
In the same way, is there not something about the historicity of Columbia’s centuries of Christianity that makes our Christian heritage inescapable? In this sense, Columbia is a Christian institution. It is a baptized place. Atheism or secularity is just a Christian skeleton with the Christian marrow sucked out.
When we studied the Bible, Aquinas, and Augustine in CC, I heard many of my peers preface their in-class remarks with “I was raised Catholic/Lutheran/Christian….” Almost without exception, these students had something good to say about what we were reading, even if they mixed it in with criticisms. Usually their praises were fairly insightful too; it wasn’t just “Jesus is a good example” kind of stuff. It would be foolish to speak for every case, but I suspect that many of these students retain some visceral loyalty to Christ.
All the infrastructure is in place for a Christian university. To come to Columbia is to join this heritage. Much of what is great about this institution, this city, and this country comes, ultimately, from their Christian histories. It’s inescapable, no matter how hard we think otherwise.
Removing all the Christian content from our Christian framework doesn’t make us non-Christians, pagans, or atheists. It makes us Christians who need to catch our thinking up with our environment, not the other way around. At worst, Columbia will only ever be an apostate Christian institution, and like any apostate, we need to be rebuked and set back on the right path. To begin, we must reckon seriously with Columbia’s Christian legacy.
Nathan Barlow (CC’20) is the editor-in-chief of The Columbia Beacon.