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This tale of two cities is an all-American drama

April 30, 2010|By ALLAN POWELL

There was at one time a television series, "City Confidential," which reported highly publicized crimes in various U.S. cities. One such segment happened in Lynchburg, Va., and told the sordid tale of two young people who murdered their parents to collect insurance money. The case was made interesting by the fact that Lynchburg is the headquarters of the late leader of the Moral Majority, the Rev. Jerry Falwell. In the background throughout were short clips of a much more famous city just 60 miles away: Charlottesville, Va., the home of Thomas Jefferson.

In this setting, it was natural to consider the use of two cities as a metaphor for two different perspectives just as it had been used before by St. Augustine and Charles Dickens. For St. Augustine, "The City of God" was the residence of the righteous that were in eternal opposition to the evil ones in the "City of Satan." In the end, at the time of God's choosing, the force of good would prevail.

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Later, Charles Dickens, in "A Tale Of Two Cities," compares the relative stability and harmony of London to the turmoil and mayhem in Paris during the French Revolution. Lynchburg and Charlottesville might likewise serve as archetypal images of the struggle between reason and dogma represented by the University of Virginia and Liberty University and the intellectual heritage of Thomas Jefferson and the late Rev. Falwell.

We get a sense of Jefferson's commitment to open, rational thought in his declaration in the Jefferson Memorial. "I have sworn on the alter of God eternal hostility, against every form of tyranny over the mind of man." This zeal for freedom was again made evident in his leadership in the passing of a "Bill For Establishing Religious Freedom" in 1786 that brought an end to the established church in Virginia. One clause is especially powerful. "That to compel a man to furnish contributions of money for the propagation of opinions which he disbelieves is sinful and tyrannical."

Jefferson's continuing contribution to Enlightenment principles survives in an excerpt from the mission statement of the University of Virginia. The goal is, "To offer instruction of the highest quality to the undergraduates from all walks of life, not only by transmitting established knowledge and skills, but by fostering in students the habits of mind and character required to develop a generous receptivity to new ideas from whatever source, a disposition for applying the most rigorous criticism to all ideas and institutions whether old or new, an ability to test hypotheses and reinterpret human experience, and a desire to engage in a lifetime of learning."

The Liberty University mission statement is as follows. "Liberty University is a Christian academic community in the tradition of evangelical institutions of higher education ..." The crucial adjective in this mission statement is "evangelical." In the context of the proclamations and sermons made by the founder of this university, there has never been a doubt that "evangelical" meant biblical literalism and scriptural inerrancy. Therefore, the board and faculty are committed to this as part of their mission.

At the same time, as educators, the faculty also is committed to respect the integrity of the content being taught in science, history and literature classes. Is it possible to harmonize literalism with the concept of uniformity and invariance of natural laws? Should Liberty University have the unique privilege of choosing whatever content they wish to call accepted science, history or literature without regard to the generally accepted opinion of the various disciplines? Is it improper to question whether it is correct to call this institution a university when it is remembered that universality infers the need to rise above parochialism and localism to the wide outlook in range of knowledge, interests and activity?

This does not suggest that fundamentalist institutions of learning should be harassed or persecuted in any way. We live in a pluralistic society and they, too, are free to compete in the market of ideas. This is only a reminder that while they have the freedom to propagate their vision of higher education, others have the responsibility to openly and critically examine their product.

The "Tale Of Two Cities," Charlottesville and Lynchburg, is the tale of two world views competing for acceptance in the modern world. The Jeffersonian world of enlightenment and reason in human affairs will always be a beneficial countervailing influence to the Falwellian sectarian, intellectually cramped world, dominated by an outdated theology.

Allan Powell is a professor emeritus of philosophy at Hagerstown Community College.

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