Category Archives: Faith and Reason

Christian Colleges and Universities: Can They be Academically Sound?

In my previous letter I addressed the issue of what makes a college Christian. It is now time to tackle the issue of what makes a Christian institution a college.

A Christian College?

There many kinds of institutions and associations that call themselves Christian: Churches, legal societies, charitable organizations, mission societies, adoption agencies, and hundreds of others. And each of these associations can legitimately designate itself “Christian” as long as it confesses and lives by the faith set forth in the New Testament. Each group also claims to be an institution of a certain sort that does the kind of work appropriate to its type. What would you think of a charitable organization that never helped anyone in need, or an adoption agency that never placed a child with loving parents, or a legal society that focused exclusively on raising chickens?

In the same way, Christian colleges must do the essential work that colleges exist to do, or they should cease calling themselves colleges. But here we face our first difficulty. There is no authoritative blueprint defining the nature and work of a college. Nor does any accrediting body or government agency have an intrinsic right to create such a blueprint. What we have instead of such an authority is a history of associations that called themselves “colleges.” As educational endeavors, colleges organize themselves as societies of teachers and students whose purpose for coming together is Advanced learning, which involves coming to understand the best intellectual achievements a society has to offer. This core meaning remains constant throughout all the changes within the history of higher education. Hence a Christian college, if it wishes to identify itself with this history, must at minimum constitute itself as an association of teachers and students whose purpose is higher or advanced learning.

What Counts as Advanced Learning?

Tradition Dependence

What, then, counts as advanced learning? Again we face a difficulty not often acknowledged. There is no unchanging and authoritative blueprint that determines what should be taught in institutions of advanced learning. Every society teaches its young what it judges to be the best wisdom, securest knowledge, and most useful skills. No society would teach its children what it knows to be foolish, erroneous, and useless. But judgment about what is true and useful differs from society to society and from age to age. What counted as advanced learning in Ancient Greece differs from that in fifth-century Rome, thirteenth-century Paris, nineteenth-century Berlin, or twenty-first century Los Angeles.

No society is monolithic in its understanding of what is wise, good, true, and useful. Certainly not contemporary American society! From the beginning, American society has been composed of many competing traditions with differing views on the nature of education in general and of advanced learning in particular. Historically, the pluralism in American higher education has mirrored regional, philosophical, political, and denominational differences. Educational traditions compete with each other for dominance. Ideally, a tradition would support its claim to superiority with rational arguments designed to persuade. However, those seeking power rarely limit themselves to rational persuasion.

The Secular Progressive Tradition

In a story too long and complicated to tell here, the secular progressive tradition of academia, about which I wrote in my letter to American academia, gained dominance over other traditions through a variety of means: championing the latest natural science, allying itself with industry and government, and riding a wave of progressive social and moral thought. It presents itself to the public as the standard that defines the meaning of advanced learning. It considers traditional Catholic, denominational, evangelical, and other conservative colleges unenlightened and culturally backward; lately, one even hears Christian colleges referred to as breeding grounds for racism, colonialism, homophobia, and other moral evils. See George Marsden, The Soul of the American University: From Protestant Establishment to Established Nonbelief, for insight into this story.

The Christian Tradition of Advanced Learning

Despite its arrogant claims, the secular progressive tradition of academia possesses no divine right to set standards for advanced learning. Reason is not its exclusive possession. Its ever-changing vision of what is wise, good, true, and useful can be contested. Hence Christian colleges and universities need not accept its definition of what makes a college academically sound as a pattern to emulate. No external authority has the right to dictate what a college should teach and how.

In fact, Orthodox Christians contest secular progressive academia’s vision of what is wise, good, true, and useful. We understand God, creation, human nature, the human condition, human destiny, and morality, and a thousand other things very differently. We do not share the same vision of human good or of what constitutes a good human being. To love God above all things is the most profound of human obligations. In contrast, idolatry, that is, worshiping anything other than God, is the most profound abandonment of duty and the wellspring of manifold evil (Rom 1:18-32).

For us, the events of the cross and resurrection of Jesus are the most significant events in human history. Because we believe that God raised Jesus from the dead, we also believe that Jesus Christ reveals the true nature, identity, and destiny of humanity (Rom 8:29; 1 John 3:2). Jesus is the image of the invisible God (Col 1:15). He is the Lord and only Savior. Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life (John 14:6). He is “power of God and wisdom of God” (1 Cor 1:24). In Christ “are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” (Col 2:3). Orthodox Christians do not believe that an education that omits or rejects these truths and this vision of human life can provide a foundation for a good life. For us, much of what American academia considers wise, good, true, and useful we consider foolish, bad, false, and useless. In view of the wisdom revealed in Christ, we confidently apply to our own age Paul’s rhetorical jabs given to the “wise” of his age:

Where is the wise person? Where is the teacher of the law? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe (1 Cor 1:20-21).

And this is our rationale for creating and maintaining Christian colleges.