Let’s face it: Many employers treat a diploma like a ticket to employment, advancement, and recognition. We see education as the doorway to “the good life.” And so, the college or university is turning into a “credential-mart”—a place where tuition dollars are exchanged for a credential that says to potential employers that this particular applicant has earned the right of access.
Education used to be so much more than a dreary means to a materialistic end. In fact, the university was originally intended to be a place where students came to a better understanding of themselves and God’s created world. That is, universities were founded as places of wonder, exploration, and service.
Many of these ideals were incorporated into college and university mottos. The oldest institution of higher education in the United States is Harvard. Established in 1636 as a place for the training of Christian clergy, it has a profound motto: Veritas, christo et ecclesiae (“Truth, for Christ and church”). Many Canadian universities are the same. Western University, where I serve, was originally founded as an evangelical Anglican seminary for the training of missionaries for a rapidly expanding frontier. Today, Western is more known for its elite business school than for its Christian roots, and yet its motto remains Veritas et Utilitas (“truth and service”). Though their foundations as distinctly Christian institutions have taken a serious beating over decades of cultural drift, small signs such as school mottos betray different origins.
As universities capitulated to a market economy worldview when it came to educational “services,” faith was often marginalized. Truth no longer came from revelation, but from rational scientific proof. In response, faith became subject to the individual (belief) and relegated to the sidelines of the university experience. Students who desired the soothing comfort of faith could join a student club or attend their place of worship on the weekend, but the university would no longer be a hospitable place to religion. Rather than “values,” the university was about the pursuit of “truth.” The result was a fracture between the personal or private and the public—knowledge was public truth based on reason, while faith was personal belief rooted in tradition, superstition, or individual values. Students came to perform according to the expectations of the secular university mindset in the classroom, perhaps maintaining virtuous and faithful lives in their subjective interiority and on the weekends.
Beginning in the mid-1990s, this paradigm came under increasing scrutiny and serious questioning by leading evangelical Christian scholars. In 1994, George Marsden of Notre Dame wrote about The Soul of the American University. The subtitle said it all: From Protestant Establishment to Established Nonbelief. Then, the following year, Mark Noll (also from Notre Dame) ventured into this territory with his provocatively titled book The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind. And then in 1998, Marsden came out with another slender publication that outright challenged Christian academics with the call to pursue distinctly Christian scholarship: The Outrageous Idea of Christian Scholarship.
All of these publications (and many more) sought to question the inherited relationship between silenced Christian reflection and the university system, with its shifting political and ideological commitments. As John C. Greene wrote in The New York Times, “If a professor talks about studying something from a Marxist point of view, others might disagree but not dismiss the notion. But if a professor proposed to study something from a Catholic or Protestant point of view, it would be treated like proposing something from a Martian point of view.”
Today, twenty years after these clarion calls to greater Christian attention (and commitment) to the pursuit of knowledge generally and the university specifically, have things really improved? Are young Christian students entering the university prepared to take a decisive (and winsome) stance as Christians in the classroom? Are young freshly minted Ph.D. students-turned-professors willing and ready to stand out as committed to working within the Christian intellectual tradition? There are exceptions, but for the most part the university seems quite adept at assimilating Christian students and professors into its project.
Is it possible to renew Christian scholarship (at both the student and professor levels) as one aspect of holistic discipleship? If Christ calls us to love the Lord with all our heart, soul, strength, and mind, then is there more to being a Christian on campus than simply moving through the “credential-mart” as on a conveyor belt while possibly singing praise songs within the Christian ghetto? Is there a way to cultivate a Christian mind that can be a form of Christian witness in the hustle-bustle life of academia?
These are questions I wrestle with virtually every day as the director of a Christian study centre at Western. I’m hounded by the question of whether we can find our way back from the apathetic and anti-intellectual milieu we are in today, or whether we are going to be content allowing the university to continue shaping the visions and values of generations that aim no higher than a rising bank account balance.
If Christian students and teachers will find the way toward greater academic faithfulness, it is going to occur through the formation of disciplines (or loves/affections) we haven’t seen around our churches for a while. I’d like to highlight three that I have come to believe are essential: curiosity and delight, questioning, and service.
If Christians are going to find their voice in the academic discussions taking place on campuses today—and across our culture—we’re going to need to re-discover our sense of curiosity, delight, and wonder. And we will need to develop an interest for more than the easy answers or trite sound bites. If Christians really believe that a God bigger than our imaginations holds the universe in being, and accomplishes this through his will executed via a multitude of secondary causes, then we’d better be ready to roll up our sleeves and dig down into the amazingly complex stuff of reality. We must be deeply and passionately curious about the world.
Christians will accomplish this only if they’re committed to asking questions—good questions. Our curiosity about the world will need to translate into questions that drive our study in the library, our research in the laboratory, and our conversations in the faculty or residence lounge. Part of asking good questions will be the cultivation of humility—recognizing that we don’t have all the answers and that the answers we’ve been given might need re-examination or updating now and then. Good questions sometimes take the form of questioning our assumptions, the status quo around us, or the very compartmentalization that seeks to limit the conversation from the outset. Christians should be those people, armed with their confidence in a God of grace who will never let us go, who are confident that “all truth is God’s truth” and that therefore there is nothing to fear in discovering more about the world. We don’t need to be afraid of asking questions that will drive us deeper into creation and Creator.
Lastly, Christians will need to develop a greater commitment to serving the public good. Christians will need to find creative ways to move outside of the silo-ization of both the culture and academia and cultivate a fresh interdisciplinarity that seeks to build bridges of understanding. The challenges of the world today are far too complex for one perspective or discipline to fix. Each academic field is necessary. And the insights of the best in non-Christian as well as Christian scholarship will need to be leveraged in community for the good of all, not just our discipline, special interest group, denomination or faith, or political or ideological group. Christians need to be at the front of modelling what service for the common good looks like. We should be known for knowledge that seeks to serve.
The current state of the university didn’t just drop out of the sky yesterday. It is the result of long processes of culturally embedded evolution and debate. Christian students should know how their discipline has arrived at its present state. So, take the time to learn that history, the major developments within the study of your discipline, the crisis points along the way, and what cultural forces contributed to why things are the way they are. In fact, by knowing the evolution of the discipline, Christians will be more equipped to offer constructive criticism within the ongoing development of the discipline—as well as knowing what suggestions have already been made in the past and why they have or have not been adopted.
But Scripture itself also offers the Christian academic resources for fruitful reflection. If Scripture follows the narrative arc of Creation, Fall, and Redemption, these are also good handles for wrestling with an academic subject. First, how does one’s academic discipline participate in the goodness of God’s creation? What within the discipline is part of the very structure of creation? And where are the insights of “secular scholarship” tracking with the creational norms and givens we discern in Scripture?
Second, how has the discipline participated in the religious rebellion we call the Fall? How has the discipline become twisted by cultural idolatry? Where are signs within the discipline of unhelpful developments, moves which are dehumanizing or which contribute to the lack of human or creational flourishing?
And third, where are the healing paths evident within the discipline? That is, what are the insights or contributions that Christian faith can make to address the unhelpful or harmful developments within the discipline? How can the Christian faith offer much-needed correctives to the discipline or offer potential new developments that move inquiry within the discipline forward in helpful or positive or healing ways? How might Christ be at work—through Christians and non-Christians—renewing your discipline?
These are the kinds of questions, the sense of inquisitiveness, that can equip a Christian on campus to make one’s faith and discipleship something that takes a place closer to the centre of the academic enterprise on campus—not in ways which baptize the status quo, but in ways which make the Christian faith a constructive conversation partner which seeks to bless and serve the common good, both on campus and throughout the world.
Here are some resources for the pursuit of Christian scholarship.
- For undergraduates: The Outrageous Idea of Academic Faithfulness: A Guide for Students by Donald Opitz and Derek Melleby (Brazos, 2007)
- For graduate students and faculty: The Intellectual Life: Its Spirit, Conditions, Methods by A.G. Sertillanges (Catholic University of America Press, 1998)
- On the current state of academia: Love the Questions: University Education and Enlightenment by Ian Angus (Arbeiter Ring Publishing, 2009) and Lowering Higher Education: The Rise of Corporate Universities and the Fall of Liberal Education by James Cote (University of Toronto Press, 2011)
- Byron Borger at Hearts and Minds Bookstore
- Christian study centres with resources: The Paideia Centre for Public Theology; the Kuyper Centre for Emerging Scholars; The Chesterton House; The MacLaurin Christian Student Fellowship.