About My “Harsh” Letter
As you know, recently I wrote a letter to American academia. Some readers thought it was too harsh and sweeping. Others took it personally. And still others thought my criticisms were aimed at Christian as well as secular higher education. Allow me, then, to correct those misperceptions. As to its harshness, I do not think I can satisfy those who thought it was too harsh. I thought about softening it somewhat, but I decided not to do so lest its impact be lessened. Concerning its target, the letter was aimed at the dominant culture of academia, not at any one person within it. Many wonderful professors, administrators, and staff—some of them sincere Christians—work within this system. They care about students and value reason. My criticisms were directed not at them but at the system that, regardless of the beliefs of any individual, harbors irrational bias against orthodox Christianity and lives in dread of a right-wing takeover. I described it as systemic animus, and I stand by that assessment.
Nor did I have you in mind. You do not fit the pattern of the dominant academic culture. Indeed, your only reason for existence is to protest against that culture and provide a clear alternative. But now I am writing to you. I want to warn you, encourage you, and, yes, advise you about how to guard your identity as a light in darkness.
A Little History
There is so much to say! We go back a long time, and you predate me by hundreds of years. I would love to rehearse your entire history from Colonial America to today. We could learn so much from that story. I will indulge myself, however, with only a few historical observations. Nearly every college founded in the United States between 1636 (Harvard) and 1900 was begun by a Christian denomination. They did not need to call themselves “Christian” because all the colleges were Christian in some sense. However, between 1875 and 1925 many American Colleges began to call themselves “nonsectarian,” meaning generic or cultural, as opposed to confessional Christianity. The case of Johns Hopkins University is instructive. America’s first research university, founded in 1876, JHU labeled itself “nonsectarian” from the beginning. Toward the end of his founding address, the University’s first president Daniel Coit Gilman turned to the Board of Trustees and addressed them in these words:
Before concluding, I repeat in public the assent which I have privately made to your official overtures. In speaking of your freedom from sectarian and political control, you expressed to me a hope that this foundation should be pervaded by the spirit of an enlightened Christianity… I now as then express my cordial and entire concurrence.” https://www.jhu.edu/about/history/gilman-address/.
Only in the Twentieth Century, after the majority of colleges and universities in America had completed the transition from “enlightened Christianity” to complete secularity, did “Christian” colleges begin thinking of themselves as a group in distinction from the secular majority.
What Makes a College “Christian”
I am writing to colleges and universities that wish to be known as “Christian” and market themselves to students, donors, and alumni as such. My first question, then, is this: when you say you are a “Christian” college or university, what do you mean? More importantly, what should you mean?
The Individual “Christian”
I have to ask this question because calling yourself Christian does not make it so for an institution any more than it does for an individual. The New Testament book of Acts reports that “the disciples were called Christians first at Antioch” (Acts 11:26). In the course of history there have been many reasons why people called themselves Christians. But the only reason I will acknowledge as legitimate is that you confess and live by the same faith that the disciples in Antioch held and that Paul, Peter, and John preached: “that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised from the dead on the third day…” (1 Cor. 15:3-8). Paul says in another place,
If you declare with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you profess your faith and are saved (Rom 10:9-10).
There is more to say about what it means to be a Christian, but at minimum professing to be a Christian should be a clear sign that you believe that Jesus is Lord and Savior, crucified and raised from the dead. It should also go without saying that you are committing yourself to live according to Jesus’s and his apostles’ teaching.
The “Christian” College
In the same way, for a college or university to designate itself as “Christian” should mean at minimum that it confesses the same faith that believers in Jerusalem, Antioch, Corinth, and Rome, under the guidance of the apostles, confessed: Jesus is Messiah, Lord, and Savior, crucified and raised from the dead. A Christian college must live out its institutional life under the guidance of this faith. I will not acknowledge as genuinely Christian any college that will not make this confession before the world and conduct its affairs on this basis. There are, of course, differences between the ways Christian colleges and individual Christians live out their faith. Universities do not have hearts with which to believe or mouths with which to confess that Jesus is Lord. As corporate entities, universities exist in and act on the basis their charters, policies, mission statements, codes of conduct, and desired outcomes. In Christian universities, these institutional identifiers must affirm Christian faith clearly at every level, from charter to desired outcomes. Moreover, these commitments mean little unless they are taken seriously in hiring, retention, curriculum, teaching, and student life. Christian colleges must remember that their existence makes sense only as a protest and an alternative to the dominant culture of academia.
To be Continued…
Thank you for another interesting panegyric analysis.
“… academia is currently plagued with a drought of viewpoint diversity, measured along political lines… … truth has nothing to fear from viewpoint diversity”…?
” Christian colleges must remember that their existence makes sense only as a protest and an alternative to the dominant culture of academia.”…?
Here’s a viewpoint from me:
In the 1920’s in America, many Christian colleges’ Christian scientists were working on early quantum mechanics ( some were not Christian of course, some were non-sectarian, some were Jewish, some spies, and some Na*is). But their brave-new-world good-of-mankind egoes were as many ‘ scientists’ are today; genuine, sincere, and God-fearing, dare i say ” pious”. Two of whom were later to join the director of the Manhatten project in 1939-1945, formally started at Los Alamos in 1941, A Einstein and J Oppenheimer.
What were these and many others studying BEFORE Manhatten? One topic was the peaceful production of virtually limitless, cleaner energy from thorium fission reactors.
Now everybody knows the rest of the Los Alamos history, of the race to the A-bomb, and the terrible price paid to supposedly end world wars and world violence. These decisions were, to quote Ron again ” political, political, everything is political…”. By Jove it was politics that made, makes and will make such decisions, is it not?
I want to state the case for Einstein and Oppenheimer, and the vast majority of their colleagues who wondered, and even to the end of their days went on record saying ” oh God what have we done? We have unleashed death itself?”
Does anyone know that America made a fully proven operational thorium reactor capable of consuming waste plutonium in 1957, and to this day, only one attempt has ever been made to carry on? Why? Because politics decided that the best way of keeping the peace was more nuclear weapons!
Politics, politics, and more politics.
I’m greatly saddened to think that Einstein, Oppenheimer and very many of their college colleagues were grossly unhappy with what was seemingly gained, and moreover what was lost.
I pray that Christian scientists, academics, and church folk the world over shall exercise their egoes freely, but maintain a firm grip, and a single-eye on the truth itself; however many viewpoints they encounter.
If you are offended in any way by my reply here, please accept my humble apology, and may the Lord forgive me.
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Ron, I don’t think you are being too harsh.
In my interactions with a very large public university in California, I found that Christianity and church history were taught, but somewhat like amoeba slides under a microscope. In this particular school, there was a push to have anything religious taught by a “non-practitioner,” meaning it was OK for a Muslim to teach Intro to Christianity, but not for a Christian to do so. I know this was a move to eliminate criticism and partisanship, but I don’t think they had rules against foreign languages being taught by those for whom that language was their first language spoken in the home.
On the other hand, students at this school were eager to take such courses.
Thanks Mark. Being a member of the American Academy of Religion for thirty-five years has give me insight into just the practice you describe. Also, my wife taught in the California State system for 18 years. I think it counts as a “hostile work environment” for Christians.