- The Countercultural Idea of a Christian University
- An Urgent Message to the World, Church, American Academia, and Christian Colleges
- Academic Freedom in Context
- Why Maine’s religious schools are likely to decline state funding
- Count the Cost: The Hidden Dangers of Government Funding of Religious Education
This post is an edited and compiled version of my last six essays. Together they present a message I believe is sorely needed among educators, colleges and churches. Please pass it on to anyone you think could benefit from reading it. I want it to be read far and wide by people who know me and by those who do not.
To the World
Everyone agrees that you are messed up and need to change, but this is where the agreement ends. Is the problem the disparity between rich and poor? Do we need freer markets or more regulation? Do we need higher taxes and greater government expenditures or lower taxes and a smaller government? Are racism, xenophobia, sexism, homophobia, and other prejudices the source of your ills? Or, is the problem moral laxity and cultural decadence? Is the greatest problem faced by humanity climate change? War? Corporate greed? Police brutality? Systemic racism? White privilege? Capitalism? Marxism? Or Socialism?
How Do You Stand Before God?
I have a message for you. It is the message Jesus Christ proclaimed and that his apostles continued to teach. It is the only message that the Christian church has been given authority to proclaim to you. Apart from this message, I have no advice to give: You are indeed messed up, and need to change. But the diagnoses and solutions listed above do not get at your most fundamental problem. The root problem is not economic, social, or political. No solution to the real problem will be found from these quarters. Your problem is theological. You have forgotten that the most important issue is how you stand with God, “the Judge of all the earth” (Gen 18:25). Compared to this question everything else fades into insignificance. And as long as you think that the most important challenges you face are economic, social, and political, you demonstrate that you are not right with God. Indeed you show that whereas the Thessalonians “turned to God from idols” (1 Thess 1:9) you have turned from God to idols. For you look to worldly powers and goods rather than to God for your well-being and salvation.
My message is not a message about how to gain wealth or political power or freedom to do as you please. It is not a formula for world peace or social justice or psychological health or long life. These things matter only as long as you are alive. And today or tomorrow, sooner or later, you will die. Your nation will die. Your planet will die. Then what? In the end, how you stand with God is all that matters. And if this will be true in the end, it is true now. Your most urgent task is to seek God and make sure you align your life with his will and character.
Be Reconciled to God
I have a message for you. It did not originate with me. I received it and embraced it. Now my task is to pass it on to you unchanged: Jesus Christ is the image of the invisible God (Col 1:5). If you want to see God and learn how to get right with him, you must look to Jesus. Jesus is the Word of God (John 1:1-4). If you want to hear the voice of God, “listen to him” (Mark 9:7). The “rulers of this age” crucified him (1 Cor 2:6), but God raised Jesus from the dead. In the resurrection, God declared Jesus to be Lord and Messiah (Rom 1:4; Acts 2:36). You owe him your allegiance, and you will give it sooner or later (Phil 2:10-11). Jesus Christ is the only Savior (Acts 4:12). Trust him and you will set yourself on the path to salvation and eternal life. Reject him and you will continue on the path to destruction of both body and soul. Whatever honor, glory, wealth, and power you gain in this life, unless you gain God’s approval, death, obliquity, obscurity, and nothingness await you.
I have a message for you. I have no authority to command you, but I am under authority to warn you. Stop cursing, hating, worrying, fighting, fretting, shouting, and despairing about the state of the world. Do not blame the stars, fate, chance, your ancestors, or the system. Stop talking about the sins of others, and look in the mirror. You are wholly responsible for that person, and you will answer for their sins and theirs alone. So, the message I have for you is the same one Paul and the other apostles had for the world of their day: “We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God” (2 Cor 5:20).
To a Forgetful Church
I would like to remind you of something. I have no authority to made demands, and I offer no new revelation from on high. I cannot read minds or infallibly discern hearts. My message is more an expression of longing than of prophetic denunciation: I want you to live up to your better self. I want you to remember who you are and why you are in this world. I want you to be free, fearless, and determined. I want you to be clear and confident.
You are God’s People
You are not like other people. You are different. You were chosen by God, assigned a mission, and empowered for a task. You know something other people do not know. Your sense of identity stretches backward before the world began and forward into eternity. The meaning of what you do daily is determined not merely by its immediate causes and effects but by its relationship to God.
When you think of yourself you must not think first of your national, social, or ethnic identity. You are not first male or female, black or white, rich or poor, or educated or uneducated. Like Paul, we must consider all these marks of identity and distinction “garbage” compared to knowing Jesus Christ (Phil 3:8). We are the person God chose us to be in Christ.
Church, please rise above these distinctions. Do not fall into the pattern of contemporary society by giving these distinctions the importance nonbelievers give them and allowing them to cause divisions within God’s people. Nonbelievers, of course, have their identity in the world. That is all they know. But we know of another homeland and another family. I am not speaking here of mere politeness while you are at a church assembly. I am talking about what goes on in the deep recesses of your hearts. Know with clarity and in the depth of your soul that you are a child of God. Let that knowledge free you from the bonds of other identifiers.
Bear Witness to Jesus
Why did God choose, call, and empower you? You have one task, that is, to bear witness to the crucified and risen Lord Jesus Christ. You are obligated to point people to him as Lord and Savior. You are supposed to manifest to everyone the power and quality of life that Jesus lived. Jesus must live in your entire life, in every dimension, in every relationship, for every moment, and into and throughout your soul. Paul again speaks the word we need to hear: “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Gal 2:20).
Bear witness to Jesus in the way you speak. Bless and never curse. Turn away from anger and offense. Do not retaliate for evil done or insults given. Do not do it on social media, in your car, at work, or in your heart of hearts. When nothing good can be said or done, keep silent. Bear witness to Jesus in how you act toward others. Never act unlovingly or unjustly toward anyone. Help those in need. Be faithful, loyal, and truthful. And when someone asks you why you live as you do, tell them how Jesus changed you.
I Worry About You
Church, I am worried about you. Please keep your divinely given mission close to your heart: your charge is to witness to Jesus by living as he lived. Do not import worldly agendas into your life. How tempting it is to adopt contemporary social causes as if they were divine obligations! After all, these causes seem to be working for good ends. Should not the church stand against injustice, poverty, oppression, abuse of the environment, inequity, and racism? Should not the church call out immorality, irresponsible behavior, and envy? Many contemporary believers find this argument unanswerable. For the church also considers these things to be sinful and would happily see them removed. Indeed it would, but not by the world’s methods.
Politicians and social activists want to channel the energy of the church into secular political causes, but they care nothing for the gospel and the life of discipleship to Jesus.
Church, you must never let any part of your moral vision be disengaged from a complete vision of life in Christ and from the call to repent and believe in Jesus. That is what politicians and social activists want you to do. They want to channel the energy of the church into secular political causes, but they care nothing for the gospel and the life of discipleship to Jesus. Do not be fooled. Do not join their causes–right, left, or center–no matter what evil it fights or what good it proposes. Their solutions to evil are intimidation, law, violence, rudeness, slander, obscenity, persecution, protest, coercion, and police action. Such activities cause strife and division among believers and between believers and nonbelievers. You must follow a different path. You must preach the gospel, do good works in the name of Jesus, and set an example of a comprehensively good life, individually and communally.
With affection and concern,
To American Academia
Dear American Academia:
Except for a few years between degree programs, you have been my home for my whole life. After age eighteen, I spent thirteen years in college and graduate school. Since receiving my PhD in 1988, I have given thirty-two years to teaching in colleges and universities. I have been through the tenure process, published several books, participated in national and international professional academic societies, and achieved the rank of full professor at a prestigious university. I think I know you pretty well. And it is from my experience that I write.
Your Sense of Self-Importance
I get it, you think you are an important social institution. You present yourself to the larger society as the champion of science, the engine of technological innovation, and the guardian of civilization. You market yourself to potential students as a four-year rite of passage into the professional class. I do not deny that much of what you say is true. My life testifies to that. Becoming a professor was my dream from age eighteen onward, and I am still amazed that my dream came true. I would not accept anything in exchange for what I have learned from my teachers and students. I could not have written the books I have authored were I not a professor paid to teach and research. But I am not writing to praise you. Nor do I write to bury you. I write to admonish you and warn those who accept uncritically your rhetoric of self-importance.
The inviting narrative created by your public relations offices and published on your websites and in glossy brochures does not tell the whole story. Whatever your value to the common good, you are but one sector within a larger society encompassed by concentric circles of government power. Well hidden among your noble motives lie the most primitive of all drives: instinct for survival, desire for autonomy, and yearning for honor, security, and economic well-being. I could write an essay on each of these motives. But I want to focus on your quest for autonomy.
I believe your desire to become and remain self-determining is the driving force, the systemic ethos, of your behavior. Autonomy allows you to pursue your self-interest without interference from external factors. It is your most cherished possession, and losing it is your greatest fear. The story is too long to tell here, but you view the history of American higher education as the struggle to free academia from the oppression of what you perceive as its two greatest enemies: right-wing politics and orthodox Christianity. And you tend to combine the two, although they are not natural allies.
You are driven by fear and hatred of these two enemies. You see them as sinister forces ever conspiring to bring you back under their control. You fight orthodox Christianity by attacking its truth and goodness and naively embracing almost any ideology, superstition, moral philosophy, or religion that criticizes it. Your reaction is a perfect illustration of the old saying, “The enemy of my enemy is my friend.” You consider any enemy of Christianity your ally. In your narrative, orthodox Christianity is anti-scientific, superstitious, imperialistic, historically unfounded, metaphysically absurd, morally oppressive, and, well, just plain evil.
You fight orthodox Christianity by attacking its truth and goodness and naively embracing almost any ideology, superstition, moral philosophy, or religion that criticizes it.
Right-wing politics plays the second villainous role in your narrative. You interpret every voice on the right as an echo of the National Socialist (NAZI) takeover of German universities, or of Joseph McCarthy’s attempt to root out communists from the entertainment industry and academia, or of Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority. You fear a right-wing takeover to the point of paranoia. And your fear is compounded by the fact that you have no power of your own with which to resist such a takeover. Hence you seek powerful friends to protect you. To fight the Right you made friends with the Left. To escape the eagle’s nest you fled to the bear’s cave. You are like ancient Israel in the Seventh and Sixth Centuries, BC, a weak vassal state set between two giant empires. In fear of Assyria and Babylon, you seek the protection of Egypt. For you must serve one devil or the other. Over a hundred years ago, when the Right and Christian orthodoxy were much stronger than they are today, you decided that the left-wing empire would give you more autonomy than a right-wing master would allow. And you have kept to that policy right up to the present time.
You have adopted another famous saying as your guiding light: “There are no enemies on the left.” To resist the Right, you embrace any and every cause that weakens it. It has been said in jest that the only thing that unites the modern university is the electrical and heating systems. No ideal, no mission, no philosophy, or moral imperative commands the loyalty of all the factions that congregate on your campuses. But I make no joke when I assert that the unity of the modern university is forged by one thing only: hatred of your common enemies, orthodox Christianity and right-wing politics.
Why do you, the modern university, put such emphasis on ethnic, racial, and gender identity and embrace anarchic, disruptive, and violent movements? Why target white privilege and systemic racism so vociferously? Why celebrate transgression of all traditional moral distinctions? It is not because of your love of humanity. It has little to do with a coherent philosophy of human dignity. Are you a champion of the oppressed? Not really. Are you motivated by your commitment to tolerance? I do not think that is plausible. Do you love justice? No. That’s not it. I know you too well. These causes and movements weaken the Right and Christian orthodoxy. That is the reason you embrace them so fanatically. No enemies on the left! Your autonomy is all that matters to you. And your autonomy is a means to your selfish ends.
The Magic Mirror
Your fear drives you into hatred, suppression, and violence toward your enemies, whom you hate because you think they are bent on your destruction. You suppress speech in the name of free speech! You persecute dissenters in the name of compassion. You do violence in the name of peace. You preach superstition in the name of science. You demand conformity in the name of diversity. You deny truth for the sake of ideology. You exclude in the name of inclusion. If your enemy praises it as a virtue, you condemn it as a vice. If your enemy condemns it as a vice, you praise it as virtue. You are as closeminded and dogmatic as any “fundamentalist” who ever “thumped a Bible.”
You suppress speech in the name of free speech! You persecute dissenters in the name of compassion. You do violence in the name of peace. You preach superstition in the name of science. You demand conformity in the name of diversity. You deny truth for the sake of ideology. You exclude in the name of inclusion
Look in the mirror! The magic mirror of your conscience! There you will see everything you hate in your enemies, down to the last eyelash. Everyone who loves brightens the world in their own distinct way. But all who hate look alike in the gray shadows they cast.
Let Me Count the Ways
Do I write these harsh things because I hate you? No. You are a second mother to me! I write them because I love you. Or to be precise, I love you for what you could be: a place where friends meet to sharpen each other’s understanding. A symposium in which we explore the meaning of our humanity. A laboratory in which we implore nature to reveal her secrets. A cathedral where everyone worships at the altar of truth and reality. A hall where hypotheses are tested in the furnace of respectful debate. A town square where no one who speaks in the voice of reason is silenced because of what they say. Do not fear that reason is too impotent a power to defend goodness, truth, and beauty against the crude designs of the eagle and the bear. Eventually, reason’s clear, sonorous voice will distinguish itself from the cacophonous babel of party interests.
With much affection and not a little grief,
To Christian Colleges and Universities
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 finalized 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 risen 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 of their charters, policies, mission statements, codes of conduct, and desired outcomes. In Christian universities, these institutional identifiers must affirm the 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.
Christian colleges must remember that their existence makes sense only as a protest and an alternative to the dominant culture of academia.
With affection and hope,
To Christian Colleges and Universities (Part Two): Can They be Academically Sound?
Dear Christian Colleges:
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 seeking to understand the best intellectual achievements a society has to offer. This core meaning has remained 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?
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 to be unenlightened and culturally backward. Lately, one even hears Christian colleges referred to as breeding grounds for racism, colonialism, homophobia, and other moral evils.
The Christian Tradition of Advanced Learning
Advanced Learning as a Contested Idea
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.
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.
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).
The Christian Vision of Advanced Learning
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 the “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. 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.
With Much Love,
To Christian Colleges (Part Three): Where Christian Colleges Go to Die
Dear Christian College:
Faith and Beginnings
As you know, most Christian colleges were founded by people of great faith. The original faculty and administrators believed wholeheartedly in the Christian mission of the college as the decisive reason for its existence. Many colleges founded within the last hundred years began as a protest and an alternative to the dominant culture of academia. Students, faculty, and donors were attracted to these colleges because of their distinctive Christian identity. They unhesitatingly confessed Jesus as Lord and Savior, crucified and risen from the dead. And they expected every teacher and administrator to adhere to this faith and to live consistently with this confession. Students, too, were required to attend worship and to live by the community’s moral code. Beyond this basic evangelical confession, some colleges required adherence to denominational confessions or expanded evangelical confessions, and they expected community members to live according to a strict moral code. Why, then, do so many of these colleges fall away after such a faith-filled beginning?
The Logic of Survival
Warnings from Scripture
“Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, love for the Father is not in them. For everything in the world–the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life–comes not from the Father but from the world. The world and its desires pass away, but whoever does the will of God lives forever” (1 John 2:15-17).
Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God’” (Matt 4:1-4).
The Struggle for Survival
Christian colleges face many of the temptations individual Christians confront. Of course, just as colleges do not have hearts and tongues with which to believe and confess, they do not experience bodily lusts that can lead them astray. However, colleges have a character formed by a combination of its tradition and its current community. It is a kind of collective personality we can call a “soul.” And this soul can be tempted by certain threats and allurements to abandon its founding principles. Holding true may prove costly:
Then he called the crowd to him along with his disciples and said: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it. What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul” (Mark 8:34-36).
The instinct for survival is basic to every human being. When the Lord bragged about Job’s faithfulness, Satan replied, “Skin for skin! A man will give all he has for his own life. But now stretch out your hand and strike his flesh and bones, and he will surely curse you to your face” (Job 2:4-5). Christian colleges, too, want to survive, and that urge can drive them to compromise their Christian mission. Colleges are expensive operations, and the roadside of history is littered with bankrupt colleges. They need tuition-paying students and gifts of money and property. In its efforts to attract students and resources, it will be tempted to broaden its base of support to include people whose priorities do not align with the Christian mission. The college survives but at the cost of its soul.
Christian colleges, too, want to survive, and that urge can drive them to compromise their Christian mission.
Ambition and Assimilation
Jesus warns against the common human desire for approval: “Woe to you when everyone speaks well of you, for that is how their ancestors treated the false prophets” (Luke 6:26)
If a Christian college survives, it faces a second temptation. Colleges are driven by ambition to achieve ever greater prominence. They move beyond the narrow circle of their denominations to gain a regional reputation, and then, they set their sights on national prominence. How does a college gain national prominence? Of course, a college can become well known for its winning athletic teams or its beautiful campus. But I am speaking about its academic ranking. Many factors contribute to academic standing, but one stands out as essential: the academic accomplishments of its faculty. Colleges ambitious to climb the rankings ladder must recruit highly trained, talented faculty and provide them with time and resources to conduct research that gets noticed nationally and internationally. Accomplishing this goal requires a change of priorities. (1) Academic potential becomes the number one qualification for faculty recruitment and retention. Colleges with national ambitions cannot hire and tenure Christian teachers if they are mediocre researchers. (2) It requires lots of money. Nationally ranked colleges and universities must build huge endowments to support reduced teaching loads and research. Seeking grants from government agencies and industry becomes part of faculty job descriptions. (3) The research that faculty members produce must be impressive to the national and international community of scholars working the same fields.
These academic changes will produce a dramatic transformation in college culture. The outstanding faculty will demand the freedoms and privileges enjoyed by their colleagues at “peer” and “aspirational” universities: virtually unlimited academic freedom, near unconditional tenure, and complete control over the curriculum. Having been recruited and tenured for their research prowess or in the name of diversity, they do not devote their primary loyalty to the Christian mission of the college but to their disciplines and their peers in the academy. Hence they find themselves embarrassed by remnants of the old Christian college culture that still remain, which, when measured by the ethos of the national academic culture, appear quaint, unenlightened, narrow, and a host of other less polite adjectives.
But Jesus warns us to be on our guard against embarrassment over him and his way of life: “If anyone is ashamed of me and my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will be ashamed of them when he comes in his Father’s glory with the holy angels” (Mark 8:38)
The Kingdoms of the World
Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor. “All this I will give you,” he said, “if you will bow down and worship me.”
Jesus said to him, “Away from me, Satan! For it is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only’” (Matt 4:8-10).
The college’s new national profile will expose it to scrutiny by the dominant academic culture. Gradually, social pressure from without and from within will force it step by step to conform to the national culture. What began as a protest and an alternative to secular academia becomes celebration and assimilation to that culture. Politics replaces faith, social activism displaces evangelism, and self-expression crowds out moral conscientiousness. The college has gained the world but lost its soul. A poor bargain indeed!
Anxiously awaiting your positive response,
Ron Highfield is Professor of Religion at Pepperdine University in Malibu, California. He is the author of The Faithful Creator: Affirming Creation and Providence in an Age of Anxiety (2015). He teaches classes in Christian theology and Christianity and Culture. He writes short, popular essays on theological topics on his blog ifaqtheology.wordpress.com (infrequently asked questions in theology). Many of his books are available on Amazon.com at https://www.amazon.com/Ron-Highfield/e/B001JS5TK8