What (Public) Good Is a Christian University?

I’ve just arrived in Liverpool after a bit of a journey (nonstop flight from Vancouver to London, then a few hours in Heathrow before boarding a short flight to Manchester, then an hour’s drive to Liverpool). I’m here to participate in a conference drawing together university presidents, provosts, and professors from several continents to discuss what a Christian university can contribute to a pluralistic society. (Over here they use the word “secular” a lot to describe British society, but I think they’d agree that “pluralist” might be as good a term in some respects as “secular.”)

Canada has a few Christian universities, having seen its once-Christian universities secularize one by one until the 1960s. (Was McMaster or Acadia the last one to give over to the state?) The United States has a lot of them–by various definitions and degrees of “Christian.” Britain hasn’t had any for quite some time, but my hosts here at Liverpool Hope University are (re-)introducing the idea to England.

From a Christian point of view, there can be a number of gifts that a Christian university can bring to the common table. But here are two questions with which I’d like your help:

1. What of those gifts will be, or ought to be, recognized as such by our non-Christian neighbours–or even by our Christian neighbours who see the university as the place in which society in all its diversity works out some of its problems? What are the main contributions a Christian university can make to a secular/pluralist society–in terms that that society will affirm?

2. Even more provocatively, can a Christian university contribute to the public good such that it warrants at least a measure of public funding?

0 Responses to “What (Public) Good Is a Christian University?”

  1. Mike Murdock

    John, the primary obligation of any Christian institution, regardless of theological stripe, ought to be to remain a repository of such knowledge as is anchored to the recognition of a transcendent reality, which clearly is something that secular institutions cannot be relied upon to do. One suspects that though society will probably never thank them, our context will become increasingly Augustinian. However, with regard to your second question, such receipt of public funding will undoubtedly come with strings attached that would be onerous to most orthodox institutions. Consider the stories documented here or here, and we see the slippery slope that results from taking money from the government.

  2. Angie Van De Merwe

    I believe that those who commit to a Christian university, do so for various reasons. Those reasons, are personal choices of value.

    The university, as an institution, also has their priorities, which is primarily to educate college students for their vocations. The professors who work in these Christian institutions should be in agreement with the institution’s value of educatiing college students and preparing them to compete in a competitive job market.

    As to “public good” and Christian institutions, there needs to be an open discussion about recieving funds for research that may or may not be supported by the institution’s “theological commitments” and/or “specific professor’s” personal commitments, or values. Otherwise, there seems to be a lack of integrity to those who would be offended by the institutions pragmatism, at the expense of “distinction”.

  3. Bennett

    One public good I can think of is that by being a Christian university, the school can openly have and teach (and research) a counter-cultural worldview. Even in a pluralistic society there are things that are off limits to professors for fear of losing funding, support, or their job. I’m not familiar with the British education structure or economy for that matter, but I can’t see how this is compatible with public funding. I don’t know if secularist see it this way, but much of English thought, and thereby much of Western Thought as well, is rooted in Christian philosophy. To utterly lose that tradition would surely be a detriment to society.

  4. Angie Van De Merwe

    I am rather ignorant of our “heritage” in America,as to certain historical and political specificities. But, it seems to me that our Constitution and the “rule of law” is something that underwrites Christian faith.

    Justice is recognized by “laws” that keep “peace”, protect “social contract”, and better society through “common good” that is defined by an “ordered structure”, that is not tribalistic and furthers moral, and intellectual development.

    So, Christian is about philosophy that pertains to theology (man, not “god”), development of nation/state, and Church/State relations within a “globalized world”, which includes international law…(unification of diversity, as in our nation/state; Europe’s nation/continent; continent/global….

  5. Angie Van De Merwe

    Sorry to have another entry, but this pertains to “my learning curve” at present…

    In teaching at a Christian university, it seems of utmost importance to teach critical thinking skills, as to values, because, so often the “herd” do not reflect about the reaons, or the implications of a certain viewpoint. This makes mindless students who end up not benefitting society through their ability to discern, but submissive servants of whatever or whoever happens to hold the power and/or the purse strings…This is the strength of our democracy/republic and the purpose of the university is to hone the mind’s skills in understanding…and wisdom…

  6. Karl

    What about the idea of “institutional pluralism” that Duane Litfin has articulated?

    “‘We in Christian higher education,’ Duane Litfin, Wheaton’s president, wrote in 1998, “… believe that a healthy academic marketplace of ideas will view academic freedom as the right not only of individuals, but also of those institutions [made up] of voluntary groups or communities of individuals.” Pluralism, in Litfin’s view, requires the existence of diverse institutions committed to diverse objectives. If there is a threat to academic freedom, it comes from what he calls “dogmatic rationalism.” Naturalism, the belief that everything that exists in the world has a natural origin and can be explained by laws of nature, “becomes dangerous when, like the dogmatists of old, it declares its way of knowing to be the only legitimate one and then seeks to disenfranchise other voices.” Implicit in Litfin’s argument is the idea that the best way to pursue knowledge and to form the character of students is, as Antonin Scalia emphasized in Lee v. Weisman, to work with traditions rather than against them.

    “These arguments contain some truth. There are political-science departments at elite universities that will not hire anyone unwilling to subscribe to rational-choice theory, just as analytically trained philosophers do not like to hire Continental philosophers and vice versa. To be sure, no formal statements of faith have to be signed, but there are all kinds of ways — from the jargon applicants use to the journals in which they publish — in which commitment to a particular orthodoxy can be established, and hiring committees will look with suspicion on any deviation from whatever happens to be prescribed. But such pluralism as does not exist within academic institutions can still be found among them. America’s system of higher education includes women’s colleges, historically African-American colleges, public and private schools, large and small schools, elite and non-elite, Catholic and Jewish; surely it ought to include Christian colleges, with their own distinctive identity.”

    – From Alan Wolfe’s October 2000 Atlantic Monthly piece, “The Opening of the Evangelical Mind.”

  7. Angie Van De Merwe

    I thin Institutional pluralism is fine, in fact a good idea, as academic freedom is about exposing the students to many viewpoints, so that they can be prepared to “think for themselves, and think on their feet…. as long as faculty is given that “vision” of plurality and the goals of each view is understood, and accepted by those who identify with that paradigm…or philosophical emphasis…

    I think that the free exchange of ideas is an exciting environment that can add dimensionality to all issues!

  8. Todd

    I suspect that our Catholic brothers and sisters have done a better job running Christian universities (Notre Dame, Loyola, Boston College, Georgetown, Santa Clara etc) than Evangelicals. I also suspect that the general public sees these Catholic universites do add value to society at large. Part of their reputation has do with higher academic standards and/or reputation. Excellence generates respect.

    The difficulty here is that large section of the Evangelical community would reject the Catholic universities as having capitulated to society. It’s probably not a coincidence that many of these Catholic universities are Jesuit – who have the label of being the rebels amongst Catholics and thus don’t care or always have been labeled with the “L” word so …

    As for the $$$, I suspect that excellence in education and community involvement will solve most of those problems. On second thought that’s probably naive, but at least a good start.

  9. John Stackhouse

    Quick notes in passing (I’m still jet lagged, so need to get to bed–but thanks for these comments, and keep ’em coming!):

    #2: London School of Theology doesn’t count as a university here, so far as I can tell.

    #7: I agree, and the paper I’m reading tomorrow makes that argument–namely, if a society and its government are committed to pluralism, then one feature of that pluralism might be (responsibly conducted) universities of various single sorts. And by “responsibly conducted” I mean at least two things: willing to be judged by general academic standards for teaching and research, and contributing to the public good, not just to the good of the sponsoring community. (I understand that those two qualifiers need specification, and I’ll maybe be able to do that later.)

    #9: My sense is that Catholic universities vary quite a lot, even those on your short list, as to how intentionally and how thoroughly Catholic they are. I get the feeling at this conference of leaders of a dozen universities around the world, most of them Catholic and one from the USA, that they aren’t nearly as intentionally and thoroughly Christian as any evangelical college of any reputation you could name.

    Whether they have “capitulated to society” or not, several of them have opened up their student body and their faculty ranks to large measures of non-Catholics and, in some of those cases, non-Christians–to the point that it’s not obvious how substantially and usefully Christian, let alone Catholic, they are anymore.

    And that’s what we’re discussing here: In what senses can and should a school try to be Christian?

  10. Todd

    It seems that the Catholic schools have done a better job of preserving their christian identity as compared to Harvard, Yale, Princeton …

  11. Angie Van De Merwe

    Free societies affirms individual choice, and not some moral sttuctureing, moral matienance, or moral determination. Christian universities should be no different in this sense from any other organization that furthers mind expansion.

    Socialism takes from one to give to another, thus undermining moral choice and development in “giving”. Socilaistic countries undermine motivation, as motivation must be from a “free stance”.

    Those whose paychecks go to underwrite these “moral causes” at up to 60% do not feel motivated after long hard hours of working (with limited reward) to give anymore to society…Everytihing that is given for ‘free” from health care to welfare, motivates humans to “take advantage” of the system, thus undermining moral development…

    In free market societies, though there will be ones who choose to use the system for their own ends, at least, the majority of people are free and motivated to participate, as they feel their voice counts. Determine or undermine anyone’s life, and it will undermine self-intiative incentive….People are not robots,or computors alone…Information must be open and forthcoming for there to be a sense of particiapation. We are free to choose in free socieities, even though government and organizational strucutures must determine where their values will play out. This is what makes for legislation.

    Free societies can choose by the voting booth’ free speech through particiapation in writing editorials; picketing; educational endeavors; “tea parties; or getting another job, as we have various oppoortunities.

    But, when there is limitation to economic choice becasue of having to work long and hard hours, there is little free time to become informed, or be a participatory citizen, and government takes care of the family.

    Government should limit their “moral determinative” structuring, as otherwise, we limit contingency, freedom of choice, the environment of diversity, which only enlarges and educates us all…

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