At a conference I attended recently the moderator introduced us to the “Oxymoron game.” The objective? To come up with as many oxymorons as we could in ten minutes.

An oxymoron, she reminded us, is a “pointedly foolish phrase, combining contradictory or incongruous words in order to make a point, sometimes humorously.”

“Square circle,” ventured the first to speak. “Jumbo shrimp,” said the person on his left. “Victimless crimes,” offered the next.

Soon the pace picked up, but so did a noticeable undercurrent of hostility: “Postal service.” “Painless dentistry.” “Military intelligence.” “Airline food.” Eyeing an attorney, I proposed “legal brief.” Hesitating only a minute to glance at my name (and employer) tag, he curled his lips in a slight sneer and said, “Christian college.”

A discussion ensued, of course. If it is a college, his argument went, it can’t be captive to religious ideology. If it is religious, it can’t offer genuine education.

The gist of my argument was this: “Christian college” is not an oxymoron any more than “secular college” or “religiously neutral college” would be. Secularism is a powerful, life-shaping faith, and the pretense of religious neutrality is self-deception. All colleges and universities operate with and from faith commitments that are implicit, if not explicit.

In fact, Christian colleges can have distinct advantages as “genuine” educational institutions. First, the Christian college can enjoy a greater measure of academic freedom than its secular counterparts precisely because faith is explicitly viewed as a legitimate aspect of curriculum, instruction, and research. The field of study is broader, not narrower. Matters of faith need not be excluded a priori from the classroom, and religious assumptions and values can be treated with the integrity and importance they deserve. For the Christian college, competing ideologies merit respectful, even empathetic, scrutiny. Precisely because a college is Christian it eschews ad hominen treatment of other views and resists demands that it engage in mere indoctrination.

A second advantage for the Christian college lies in its unifying world view. The “uni” is missing from many contemporary universities. Inquiry is compartmentalized, ideologies conflict, and contradictory values chum chaotically. Few even dare to hope for a unifying synthesis of knowledge or truth. The Christian college, on the other hand, faces these same challenges confident in an omniscient Lord, Creator of all truth.

A third advantage is that the Christian college both educates and nurtures. This entails a regard for students as whole persons, created in God’s image. Even though fallen and sinful, they are subjects to the transforming power of divine grace. In the tasks of learning, personal growth, moral development, and spiritual maturation, students and teachers alike can rely on scriptural revelation and the indwelling presence of the Spirit of God. The goals of the Christian college must be bigger than those of other schools.

The Christian college has a further advantage: possession of a profound ideal of community. This concept is rooted in the biblical notion of the people of God. Many colleges and universities are unable to rise above a contentious collection of self-interests competing for power. For the Christian college, the unity of faith forms a basis for mutual caring. There can be gentle admonition, encouragement, cooperation, accountability, and a sense of responsibility shaped by the purpose of divine love. The real risks associated with growth, learning, and the crucible of ideas, so essential to real education, are best handled where this true sense of community under God is lived out.

All our institutions of higher education, public and private, independent or church-related, Christian or otherwise, are important. And I realize that our Christian colleges often fall short of their ideals and standards of excellence.

But “Christian college” is not an oxymoron. The advantages of the Christian college are real.

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