Ever since the post-apostolic age, the Christian revelation of God and of the world has won the attention of secular thinkers. Even scholars not captivated by its unique power to explain life and reality have recognized in biblical supernaturalism an option that must be openly met and debated. This confrontation has been made all the more necessary because exponents of Christianity have advanced the case for revelational theism within the framework of Western philosophy, and not simply in the tradition of sacred theology.
Moreover, the Christian movement has confidently sponsored schools at all levels of human interest and learning. The religion of the Bible became, in fact, the mother of general education; it boldly established universities and then also kindergartens and Sunday schools. Wherever men have delved into the nature of existence, there Christian thinkers have upheld the scriptural revelation of God as the one coherent explanation of the whole of experience.
But the Christian stake in higher learning has now come upon hard times. The disrepute of Christian perspectives in American public education is shown by the widespread disregard of the Christian world-life view in the classroom. True, people remain sympathetic to the churches, and school administrators and teachers still count church affiliation an asset. But in most public elementary and high schools, teachers seldom expound the governing ideas of the Judeo-Christian revelation and rarely offer the biblical view as a serious option for understanding either God or man. Assembly exercises and devotional programs once served to draw attention to the biblical view; now Supreme Court rulings have stifled even these remnants of revealed religion. So little continuity remains between school instruction and religious instruction that churches and synagogues have become filling stations for doing weekend emergency repair jobs on students whose shaky outlook depends increasingly on naturalistic supports.
At the university level, the assault on the scriptural understanding of life becomes more energetic and explicit. Religion departments are almost invariably slanted against the orthodox biblical heritage. Only a minority of philosophy departments include any competent champion of supernatural perspectives, and many are dominated by exponents of logical positivism or naturalism. Many of the professors who do claim to hold the Christian view misrepresent it in the anti-intellectual mood of liberalism, Barthianism, existentialism, and linguistic theology. Some united campus ministries now provide a platform for death-of-God theologians in order to attract attention to the claims of religion.
There are some significant exceptions. On many campuses one can find in various departments articulate professors who expound the Christian option alongside rival views and who objectively state the merits of the biblical position. In a few situations, they even provide the nucleus of a Christian college within the university.
However, it is virtually impossible for students to base their study programs on these offerings and, within the pluralistic framework of the campus, coordinate the various disciplines of liberal learning with an exposure to Christian views. On most campuses, moreover, the perceptive Christian faculty members are seldom found teaching subjects that especially shape the student mind. Often they are lonely men whose biblical convictions are assailed in university pulpits and by faculty colleagues who regard unitarianism and humanism as pristine expressions of Christianity and disparage evangelical theism as offbeat. What one Christian professor achieves through the objective presentation of scriptural views his colleagues often destroy through distortion and ridicule.
Larger opportunities for Christian influence come outside the classroom when professors identify themselves with evangelical student groups or give their witness within the inclusive context of ecumenical campus agencies. But the effectiveness of this evangelical leaven, even on campuses where a few outstanding professors lend their presence and influence to student causes, need not be a matter of speculation; statistics show that only a very few students are actually confronted by a Christian witness. Still more significant intellectually is the fact that evangelical students are denied the privilege of a comprehensive exposure to the Christian world-life view as it bears upon the disciplines of learning.
Never has a great Christian university been more needed. Our premise here is simply that such a university is necessary; we are not primarily concerned with its feasibility or possibility. It must be noted, however, that some educators who grant that it is feasible still doubt that it is desirable. Why? Their contention, briefly, is that the Christian task force should be completely engaged in penetrating the secular world of learning; to isolate evangelical scholars in a Christian university, they say, would virtually preclude an evangelical influence on secular higher education.
The Alpha and Omega spoke—
The Word we’ve heard, the flesh we’ve seen
Which filled our void, a Cross-ward stroke,
Beginning, end, and in between.
WILLIAM J. SCHMIDT
If this were the probable outcome, proposals for a Christian university should indeed be abandoned. But before conceding the point, we would do well to consider some facts.
Does Penetration Work?
Among my own academic acquaintances, a Christian university has been talked about for at least thirty years; almost ten years ago it was considered and debated in earnest. Now, for almost a decade the advocates of “penetration” have had the field to themselves. In a few places (the universities of Michigan and Iowa, for example) a small nucleus of able Christian scholars has emerged—and that is all to the good. But most campuses, even those that have added new courses in religion, still neglect the evangelical option.
Is this situation an effective alternative to a Christian university? Would it be so even if these gains of the past ten years were doubled in the next ten? Does the pluralistic state of higher education today really offer unlimited opportunities for Christian penetration—even if much more can be (and ought to be) achieved? And, if these opportunities do exist, would not a Christian university, whose graduates took doctoral degrees at prestigious state universities as well as at their alma mater, equip an admirable task force to have a greater effect upon secular learning? Is the ideal that motivated the founders of schools like Harvard, Yale, and Princeton outmoded today? Or has the miscarriage of their ideal created a new need for a university committed to goals these founders cherished?
We ought not to expect non-Christian scholars to show any great enthusiasm over proposals for a Christian university. Whatever significance these scholars assign to Christianity they find in the emotional or volitional aspects of man’s experience, or in considerations of cultural heritage, rather than in its contemporary intellectual relevance. For them, biblical religion as a system of revealed thought has no durable or decisive bearing on academic learning.
To explain secular disinterest in the Christian view as a matter of hostility of biblical supernaturalism is too simply. Admittedly, a naturalistic bias pervades modern philosophy and permeates much of the campus; the humanities, social sciences, and physical sciences widely reflect this mood. Yet the academic community welcomes pious Christian scholars as faculty colleagues. Moreover, the university seldom attacks the church as a community agency but instead often commends it as a center for promoting humanitarian ideals, or as an emerging instrument of social revolution.
The secular university mind and the Christian mind no longer divide mainly over the problem of miracle, or even over the larger question of the reality of the supernatural. In part this is because of the readiness of influential members of the Christian community to compromise many cardinal tenets of the historic faith. Many university churches have shown a prolonged tolerance of humanism; teachers in church-related colleges have ranged themselves on various sides of most doctrinal issues; and some seminary administrators have brought naturalists into their faculties under the misleading label of “empirical theists.”
Today a deeper cleavage divides non-Christian from historic Christian thought patterns. A generation ago, important surveys of leading American universities lamented the lack of moral and religious certainties on campus, and deplored the academic non-realization of the ideal of rationally integrated learning. Studies of the state of university learning, such as the Minnesota report and the Amherst and Columbia reports, readily admitted the need for a comprehensive correlation of the fragmented elements of classroom study. But today many secular scholars question the very possibility of a rationally consistent world-and-life view. They surrender in advance any hope of embracing man’s knowledge of reality in a single explanatory whole. In fact, the very effort to present a rationale for life and being is often disparaged as an evidence of human pride.
Underlying this depreciation of the ultimate significance of reason are numerous forces that shape modern history and thought. Evolutionary naturalism, the theory that reason is a late evolutionary emergent rather than the constitutive principle of reality, has encouraged the view that life is “deeper” than logic and that experience is “profounder” than consciousness. Recent existentialist philosophy assails the effort to comprehend reality rationally. That man has no cognitive knowledge of the supernatural world, and that such knowledge is unattainable because of the nature of reality or of human experience (or both)—these are controlling tenets of the modern mind.
It is at this level that a Christian university—if it took seriously the ontological nature of reason, man as a creature uniquely lighted by the Logos, the reality of intelligible divine revelation, and the possibility of a logically consistent view of God and the world—would pose a direct threat to the orientation of modern learning. For most secular educators today believe that intellectual synthesis is an excessive goal inherited from the medieval universities, and that the price exacted by scholasticism to achieve it included an arid rationalism and an undue restriction of academic freedom. In higher education today, there is a widespread notion that academic liberty is preserved only when nothing is taken for granted and everything is subject to doubt; as a result, any affirmation of finalities—let alone the quest for intellectual synthesis—seems highly presumptuous.
Regrettably, the church-related or so-called Christian college today often tends to reinforce these objections. Roman Catholic colleges and universities are usually regarded as defender-of-the-faith institutions. (And it must be admitted that they have succeeded better than Protestant colleges in avoiding secularization.) But because of a polemic and defensive classroom spirit, Protestant institutions that have maintained their theological heritage seldom fulfill the alternative image they covet: that of faith-affirming institutions. When able professors leave some of the larger evangelical schools for secular universities, often at little salary increase, many of them are protesting against an intellectually restrictive climate. Proposals for a Christian university therefore raise the spectre of medieval scholasticism, with its rationalistic pretensions on the one hand and its restrictions on human inquiry on the other.
It is not easy to show the difference between the spirit of a nonexistent Christian university and the impressions of evangelical education that secular observers get from some church-related colleges and universities (often those least respectable academically). The failure of established evangelical colleges to penetrate the secular milieu raises the moot question whether a Christian university would not follow the same pattern of cultural isolation or withdrawal. Some of our evangelical colleges, even with a century of history behind them and faculty members now numbering in the hundreds, have produced almost no textbooks that find a place in the mainstream of secular education. For that matter, they have not produced a comprehensive apologetic statement of the Christian view of God and the world for the evangelical constituency. In the main, they have provided a sanctuary from secular ideas and ideals rather than confronting and disputing the tide of contemporary unbelief or giving modern man an explanation of his predicament based on biblical premises.
If a Christian university simply perpetuated this pattern on a grand scale, it would compound the element of tragedy in evangelical higher education. Such a university can be justified only if it will train young intellectuals to introduce Christian ideas and ideals into all areas of dialogue, reflection, and work.
In From The Periphery
Perhaps the most significant note in current discussions of advanced Christian education is the acknowledgment (implicit in the many proposals of alternatives to a Christian university) of the urgent need that something new be done to show the relevance of Judeo-Christian truth to the pressing problems of modern thought and life. The Christian colleges are filling an important role in preventing an easy surrender by evangelical youth to the reigning tenets of modernity. And some faculty members in the secular universities effectively present Christian perspectives in academic dialogue. But they are an inconspicuous minority. Evangelical effort persists mainly on the periphery of instruction and does not hold a place as a competitor in the pluralistic situation. University instruction is largely oriented to non-Christian, if not anti-Christian, theory; this fact has created interest in the possibility of a Christian college within a federated campus complex, or, at least, of a group of Christian faculty members within a larger pluralistic context. These proposals hold an advantage over the more modest suggestion of establishing evangelical houses similar to those now functioning in Oxford and Cambridge, each directed by a competent scholar in residence: the advantage is that they make Christian perspectives an integral part of serious academic discussion within a university. It is questionable whether, in a pluralistic situation, a small body of Christian professors can achieve, either for themselves or for their students, the ideal of unified liberal learning in the light of the Judeo-Christian revelation.
Yet neither the proposal for a Christian faculty group nor that for evangelical houses ought to be dismissed summarily because of apparent limitations. Evangelicals must learn not to expect all ends from any one means. They have much to gain from investigating a variety of possibilities and putting into operation the pilot projects that show promise. Even the offering of a master’s degree, and possibly of a doctorate, by every accredited evangelical liberal arts college in the one academic area in which it can best serve the Christian constituency, is overdue. It would be a great gain if one school were to specialize in advanced graduate offerings in philosophy, another in political science, another in music and the arts, another in journalism, and so on.
But these possibilities ought not to be confused with the matter of a Christian university. Such an institution would give Christian scholars at the graduate level a chance to expound all the insights of liberal arts learning in relation to the truth of revelation; this task is not adequately performed by any existing evangelical college or university on either the graduate or the undergraduate level. The proposal of a national Christian university composed of cooperating regionally accredited evangelical liberal arts colleges has the merit of endorsing the need of a Christian university in principle, and of recognizing that no comparable education is now available. But although the ideas of leased lines, coaxial cables, shared library resources, and some mobile faculty personnel should all be creatively explored in an effort to improve existing institutions, the correlation of graduate offerings on half a dozen campuses cannot produce the equivalent of a Christian university. This proposal to pool disparate resources raises some difficult questions: How effectively can a university function without a campus of its own? How can professors who have never instructed students for the doctorate suddenly become eligible to do so? How can libraries that are inadequate for doctoral studies become adequate by an expansion of undergraduate holdings or of minimal graduate holdings? Which institution will offer the degree under state charter and will thus inherit alumni loyalties?
Only with a Christian university can we now hope to fill the need. In a century that esteems education, unshaken by the fact that its terrible world wars were unleashed by two of the most literate modern nations, a Christian university can set an example of human energy in the service of the true, the good, and the beautiful—in short, of man intelligently devoted to God and his revealed will.
A Christian university would pursue scientific interests, adding to man’s curiosity and desire to control nature the further motivations of glorifying God and advancing human well-being. It would study history, not simply for a knowledge of events, but in quest of the revelation of God in history. It would revive the forsaken study of metaphysics, and it would bring theology to bear on all the disciplines of learning. It would be devoted to the whole truth—nothing less. It would offer the academic world a fresh and authentic statement of the Christian option. It would relate all the assured results of learning—both the wisdom of the ages and the discoveries of our own time—to the Christian revelation, and exhibit as a coherent whole the body of truth we possess. It would train scholars and teachers for service in Christian and secular institutions and for a role of intellectual leadership in all areas of work. It would give substance to an apologetic literature for our generation.
Never has the evangelical community had a better opportunity to present a rationally persuasive case for the religion of the Bible. The secular stream of speculation has emptied into the mudbanks of intellectual confusion; the mediating religious options have run the course of anti-intellectualism and are lacking in intellectual power to persuade. This can be a new day for evangelical theism if we merge the fullest and highest resources in the service of truth.
What The Choice Implies
In deciding for or against a Christian university, we do not decide merely whether or not modern learning will concern itself with the whole truth, including the Judeo-Christian revelation. The issue is deeper.
The alternatives are either the permanent loss or the hopeful recovery of intellectually integrated learning. The loss of a unifying frame in liberal arts studies is now acknowledged not only on secular campuses but in many church-related colleges as well. The primary issue, therefore, is whether liberal learning will be permanently abandoned to its present chaotic plight, or whether the Christian rationale will be openly and convincingly asserted in the academic arena.
It is no exaggeration to say that today the case for the ontological significance of reason—the confidence that reality is rationally intelligible—survives among Protestants almost exclusively as an evangelical option. Modernist, dialectical, and existential movements in modern theology have progressively retarded the role of reason in religious experience and have abandoned interest in a Christian view that gathers into one explanatory whole all aspects of human knowledge and experience. Loss of the biblical principle of intelligible divine revelation, based on the creation of the universe by the Logos and of man in the divine image, has immersed theological studies in subjectivism and deprived liberal learning of direct confrontation by the Christian world-life view.
Those who share the vision of a Christian university do not insist that, like Melchizedek, it must appear on the scene of history all at once without apparent parentage. An Institute for Advanced Christian Studies, justifiable on its own merits, could be an ideal intermediate venture. If such an institute were to succeed, it might well open the way for a Christian university; if it were to fail, the case for a Christian university would probably collapse with it.
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