What (Public) Good Is a Christian University? Answer #1: Research

Let us begin with the research function of the university, and in my next post, I’ll turn to teaching.

The Christian university contributes to the broader society of which it is a part through research that is of value beyond the Christian community itself. It is likely that some of the research generated within a Christian university will be of interest only to Christians, and perhaps only to those Christians of the same stripe as those sponsoring a particular Christian university. Questions discussed in theology come to mind immediately as an example of such valuable “in-house” research. Most of the research conducted in a Christian university, however, will normally be of interest to a broader audience, and so a Christian university is justified in the eyes of society on the same terms as any other university.

That fact, of course, is also a problem. Why would society want to encourage a Christian university for doing the same thing that a secular university (already) does? To answer this question properly, we will need to convince contemporary society that there are at least two contexts in which good research can flourish.

The first is the secular university, in which research is conducted in the bracing atmosphere of multiple perspectives, multiple agendas, and multiple discourses. I have enjoyed studying, teaching, and researching in this context.

This context is widely seen, alas, as the only context in which legitimate scholarship can be pursued. Any other model is condemned automatically as insular, even self-referential, and thus of no intellectual merit.

The second context in which scholarship can be worthily pursued, however, is the Christian university—and, we can note, other universities of a single general outlook. In this latter kind of university, research is born in the synergistic dialogue of scholars who share that basic worldview. And if our societies are serious about fostering pluralism and receiving the diverse gifts of pluralism, then supporting universities of particular outlooks ought to encourage a plurality of perspectives and deliverances in scholarly discourse – to the enrichment of all.

Two examples come to mind. The first example is that of the renaissance of the philosophy of religion in the English-speaking world in the last generation that was largely incubated at Christian universities, particularly Calvin College, Wheaton College, and the University of Notre Dame—all in the American Mid-West. This conversation has featured distinguished participants from mainstream universities, to be sure, whether Richard Swinburne (Oxford), William Alston (Syracuse), George Mavrodes (Michigan), and the like. But leading the way were Alvin Plantinga, Nicholas Wolterstorff, Thomas Flint, Philip Quinn, and others whose work was nurtured precisely by the stimulus and, I daresay, the protection of Christian schools that cultivated these marginal voices and enabled them at last to speak up—to the eventual good of the whole discipline.

The second example is not a Christian or even a religious one. The so-called Chicago School of economics has flourished for more than half a century at the University of Chicago. Say what you will of the economic philosophies that have dominated discourse in that place (and I am not a proponent of any of them!), a long string of John Bates Clark medals and Nobel Prizes attest to the public good of such a hothouse cultivating its distinctive scholarship and then submitting it to the larger world for appreciation and appropriation.

To be sure, not just any outlook deserves public support in the form of its own university: flat-earthers, racists, and so on cannot find any brief here for their perpectives. But any outlook that is willing to submit its work to public scrutiny (e.g., peer-reviewed publication) and is thereby judged to be doing worthy work by public authorities (e.g., sponsoring governments, academic accrediting agencies, scholarly societies) is an outlook that ought to be publicly encouraged. And that is the Christian university at its best.

0 Responses to “What (Public) Good Is a Christian University? Answer #1: Research”

  1. Angie Van De Merwe

    Research of the kind you are describing, as it concerns “tradition”, is of public good becasue it demonstrates what education can do to overcome prejuidice. But, I would question how one determines that the education itself has made the person prejuidiced in another way. And if that way is more valuable to the public good, if so, why?

    So, would understanding that a Christian university’s job is to educate out of their prejuidicial viewpoint, as prejuidice is viewed as detrimental to the “public good” in our diverse climate?

    I think that one must adhere to the ideals of our nation, as understood individually in one’s civil liberties, otherwise, there is no “freedom of information” and there is discrimination, isn’t there? This is what separation of Church and State is about.

    As to other kinds of research, there is no difference, is there? Then why would one want to be doing their research at a Christian university, if they can be more multiversed in a secular university and paid more, as well?

  2. Doris Goheen

    The value of a Christian University can be compared to the value of a light in the darkness. Each year now for more years than I like to remember, my Alma Mater, makes the news when the Homecoming turns the city into drunken chaos. Although started as a Christian University, the deplorable state of the Theological College there is a prime example of why Christian Universities need to exist today.
    As a parent, I am glad there is a Christian alternative to which a parent can send their young person knowing that drinking is not promoted in order to make money. Many young people come out of Universities addicted because of that.
    Recently, the discoverer of the human genome announced that he has seen God in his discovery because of the complexity and genius behind it. Secular Universities have long tried to debunk the place of a Divine Creator while Christian Universities have remained true to the teachings of the Bible.

  3. Angie Van De Merwe

    The real question for christian parents is; Do they want an education or an indoctrination?

    Scripture should never be used in the academic setting to affirm “beliefs”, but challenge them, help them develop critical thinking skills and hone their talent in excellence.

    As to lifestyle, of course, all of us want our your adults protected, but there will come a time where they will not be in the christian university. Will they have internalized the values you hoped that they would? A protective bubble should not be so insular that they cannot grasp what living in the real world is like. They should develop their skills in all avenues so that they are equipped to handle with grace any social situation.

    That is what a christian university should be about…

  4. blackwasp19

    Can a private institution promote an intellect and inquiry which spawns from a variety of ideological bases? This would be a diversity which allows student hear a multiplicity of perspectives and ideas and allow them to think and search for understanding (Christian students should be able to have a church community as support)?

    I realize that this would be most beneficial for undergrads, but I believe undergraduate education is of fundamental importance.

    I also see a risk – in my idea- of decentralized thought. Unlike at current colleges, both Christian and non, professors may not be surrounded by peers who think similar to them. This may result in a difficulty in he emergence of ideas within a particular ideological framework, but perhaps professors could practice more external connections with other professors who share philosophy

    *I say all these things as thought. I am a believer and product of, as well as a(now)employee in Christian Higher Education.

  5. Barb

    I’m the daughter of a scientist, renowned in his field, who worked his whole career at a large public university. Their resources enabled him to make his discoveries–however, his character made him great. I’m a grad of a Christian college (now a University) and my daughter is now attending there. A friend of hers is a “genius” physics student and I asked him why he choose this Christian school–he said that as a freshman he was taught by three PhDs who already understood the kind of research he wanted to pursue. He plans on going to a top tier grad school.
    To parents who “send” a child to a Christian U. to keep them out of the drinking scene–all I can is “good luck with that plan.” My daughter chose this college because it was the kind of education she wanted and the kind of community she wanted to be in. It’s God’s gift to me that she chose to go there.


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