Christian Higher Education

Kenneth C. Elzinga, the Robert C. Taylor Professor of Economics at the University of Virginia, gave an address on Christian Higher Education to the people of Abilene Christian University. The whole piece is good, but I want to highlight one theme. Elzinga says:

Christian higher education does not start with Christian students. That may surprise you. But I would hope Christian institutions do not have a Christian litmus test for students.

If students want to be a part of Christian higher education, they should be welcome. The Christian faith is defensible; the Christian faith is compelling; the Christian faith is true. So let unbelievers live and learn in the environment of Christian higher education and test the faith.

Jesus did not throw out Doubting Thomas. Christian higher education should be a place that welcomes Doubting Thomases, as students.

But Christian higher education should be dominated by a faculty who are followers of Jesus.
The majority of faculty at a school of Christian higher education should be Christians. The institution makes no sense if that is not the case. Students are transients; they come and go. Christian higher education is defined by a core of faculty who believe that Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life (John 14:16), that every thought is to be made captive to Him and they are not ashamed of the gospel.

For those who would object that a faculty predominantly Christian will suppress freedom of inquiry and the pursuit of truth, I would respond in two ways. The first is the chronicle of how secular authorities have suppressed truth as well. The second is with a rhetorical question: if Christian higher education is not made so by Christian educators, what is the alternative paradigm that merits the label?

If Christian higher education starts with Christian faculty, it must also have rules for living in a Christian community. But the rules are derivative of Christian higher education; they are not the foundation.

Since my undergrad years at a United Methodist school, I’ve been disappointed that our denomination has had (at least in the past generation or two) such a weak understaning of Christian Higher Education. We have a large number of UM “related” schools. We have fewer each decade, however, as they slowly surrender to secularization. My alma mater still identifies itself as “affiliated” with the United Methodist Church, but neither Methodism nor Chistianity in general explicitly figure in its Core Values and public presenation of its self- understanding.

Core Purpose:

Fostering a liberal arts community whose values and actions encourage contributions toward the well-being of humanity.

Core Values:

Promoting lifelong learning and a passion for intellectual and personal growth.

Fostering diverse perspectives.

Being true to oneself and others.

Respecting the worth and dignity of persons.

Encouraging activism in the pursuit of justice and the common good.

Envisioned Future:

We believe we should strive for no less than making the University an inspiration to other preeminent undergraduate colleges because its innovative programs are transforming liberal arts education.

There’s nothing bad here – not even anything anti-Christian. In fact, most if not all could be seen as easily compatible with Christianity. But most of it is also completely indistinguishable from the rest of academia. There is no recognition that these generalities – “well-being of humanity”, “justice and the common good” – are contested concepts. As institution the University is still mired in a modernity that sees a universal concept of rationality and justice, drawn from the Western liberal tradition. That tradition has been influenced by the Christian tradition but is not the same thing.

I’d like to think UM schools could try recovering a distinctively Christian vision for high education – matched by a valuing of distinctively Christian faculty. I may be wrong, but I see two major obstacles to such a move. First, this vision of distinctively Christian higher education is not held by any where near a majority of UM leaders, whether in the church or in the academy. Like good moderns we look at some of the examples out there as proof that Christian higher education is an oxymoron. Anyone who keeps up with the UMC knows we don’t even have (or want!) a shared understanding of the nature of Chritsianity. Secondly, we take great pride in hiring people outside our tradition – whether outside Methodism or outside the Christian faith altogether. We want the best teachers (Ivy League is best) for every subject, and our understanding of “best” is usually exactly the same as any secular school.

Am I arguing for an environment to shelter students, to coddle them so they won’t have to get out into areas of controversy where they might get their feelings hurt? Not at all. I agree with Elzinga:

I happen not to think that Christian higher education should be safe. I think Christian higher education should have an edge to it, just as it was dangerous to hang around with Jesus.

Presenting one’s discipline in a way that integrates one’s Christian faith, not only varies from discipline to discipline, but also is not at all a fideistic, “God says it, I believe it, that settles it” point of view. That won’t do students any good as they seek to live out their faith in a often hostile world. They need truth, but they also need practice and training in how to pursue it, argue for it, and stand up in it.

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4 Responses to Christian Higher Education

  1. Guy says:

    Yes, I’m not sure why it’s so crazy to suggest that professors at a Christian instituion ought to be Christians, but we UMs are not “exclusive” enough to do something like that. Further, a Christian institution ought to be making disciples or contributing in its unique way to this aim. It’s hard for folks who aren’t actually disciples to try to make them. This goes for seminaries as well.

  2. Betty Newman says:

    I don’t believe it is “God says it, I believe it, that settles it”

    But rather, “God said it and that settles it – whether I believe it or not…”


  3. Richard H says:

    The problem, Betty, is not with God’s authority. It’s with identifying the “it” that God said. At least in my experience in the UMC most everyone, regardless of theological perspective, believes God’s word trumps everyone elses. But we have no consensus on what God has said, so the issue degenerates into “it’s just a matter of interpretation.” The truth is not in either extreme. Surely it IS a matter of interpretation: God’s word must be heard and received, at least as far as our human dealings with it go.

    And yes, God does not back off from his word just because I don’t believe it. I have to adapt to God, not God to me. But when we talk theology – especially in an academic setting – we’re not so much talkig about what “God said” as much as we are what “certain people say God said.”

  4. Betty Newman says:

    Good point, Richard. I was mainly speaking in “bumper sticker terms” with that reply.

    I have often said, “Jesus is the Way the Truth, and the Life.” It’s not MY UNDERSTANDING of Jesus that is the way the truth and the life…

    I just have to pray that God speaks to my understanding.


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