What (Public) Good Is a Christian University? Answer #2: Teaching

When we turn to teaching, several public goods come into view.

Let’s begin with something pretty basic. The Christian university contributes to society through offering university training with funding otherwise not available to governments via taxes or donations. It is a well-established fact that many parents are willing to pay extra to send their children to a Christian university and many donors will support Christian education that will not contribute to the public university down the street. Thus we see that more money is made available for the educational enterprise if Christian education is allowed to flourish. And when one can make the case to government officials that more money is available, government officials tend to pay attention.

Second, the Christian university contributes to the public good by educating at a high level. Alas, not all Christian colleges and universities have set a high standard for their academic work. But they ought to have done so, since Christianity affirms this kind of activity as obedience to God’s commandments and therefore it should be done with excellence. (The prophet Malachi has some stern things to say about people who offer to God what they would not dare to offer to their governor.)

Third, and this point is worth elaborating, the Christian university trains and motivates citizens in a worldview – the Christian worldview – that encourages values of benefit to society at large.

The Christian university trains students in the virtues of honesty, diligence, patience, thrift, altruism, and more. These values are hardly to be taken for granted in contemporary society, especially given the anomie, hedonism, and even nihilism so common in secular universities and in the intelligentsia at large.

Moreover, the Christian university trains students to respect other people – indeed, to go beyond this contemporary bromide to “respect others” to love other people, and particularly those people one would be inclined to hate: one’s enemies. In societies such as ours that are desperate for goodwill of this sort and for actual models of neighborly cooperation, no one should ignore the resource of Christian universities training exactly the kind of citizens our societies need. Indeed, it is one of the great public relations challenges of Christian universities to show that we do teach these values, rather than the values we are suspected of teaching, namely, contempt for others and self-righteousness among ourselves.

Christian universities can offer still more along these lines. We should be manifesting a theoretical and practical embrace of pluralism under a robust confidence in the providence of God over the whole world. We should be forswearing Christian imperialism for an intentional Christian participation in the “mixed field” of the world.  We can assure our contemporaries that we are not training foot soldiers for a Christian theocracy we hope is just over the horizon. We are training citizens who respect the variety of outlooks and values we see around us and who engage them as citizens should: with curiosity and patience, with eagerness to see the good and willingness to recognize the bad, and in all things with the determination both to contribute to and benefit from the common good.

Traditionally, to be sure, most Christians have believed that the best sort of society is a society run by Christians according to explicit Christian values. Increasingly, however, Christians are not so sure that this is God’s will for society – at least, not until Jesus himself returns. In the meanwhile, it may well be God’s will to allow the wheat and the tares to grow together, and for us to make the best of our world in concert with our fellow citizens who, whether they name the name of God or not, are doing God’s will in the world when they, too, make shalom.

Therefore Christian universities teach respect for institutions as divinely ordained, rather than as hopelessly corrupt, and encourage students to enter into them with goodwill. At the same time, Christian universities teach realism regarding human potential, whether individual or corporate. Thus we seek to instill hope in our students about the potential of cooperating with God and our fellow creatures in making shalom in this disordered, but still fruitful, world. We also train students to expect evil, in ourselves as well as in others, and thus to plan for it and not be perpetually shocked and upset by it. Christian universities thus inculcate a valuable perspective on a global culture disoriented by the effects of greed, yes, but also of mere sloppiness and even by the unintended bad consequences of some policies and actions originally intended for good—as the current economic crisis amply demonstrates in every respect.

What public good is a Christian university? Enough to keep praying for it, keep donating to it, keep sending students to it, keep teaching, studying, or otherwise participating in it, and keep defending it.

0 Responses to “What (Public) Good Is a Christian University? Answer #2: Teaching”

  1. Michael

    This was a challenging and inspiring message to hear. I will be passing it along.

  2. Bob

    Would you apply the same thinking to a Christian high school? Maybe good parenting and value formation can be done at home

  3. Rob

    Professor Stackhouse,
    One particular, very pragmatic, benefit stemming from the Christian University is the education that it provides in Christian counseling… maybe. This might not be what you’re looking for.


  4. J

    Sounds more like what Christian university teaching SHOULD be, not what it is, per se. Some empirics are needed.

  5. Al Hiebert

    Yes, a truly Christian university is for the public good, both in its research and its teaching, to the extent that it brings biblical worldview perspectives to bear relevantly to every domain of human endeavour and that it encourages its students and the public to bring every thought captive to the obedience of Christ as the incarnation of the God of all truth. In my view, that is truly for the public good, whether or not our cultural elites agree.

    A truly Christian university needs to demonstrate in its research and teaching that all humans, of whatever creed or personal orientation on any dimension, are to be respected as created in God’s image, whether friend or foe in any respect. Such a university will also recognize the fallenness of the physical and human world and will seek in its research and teaching to achieve the redemption of both to the greatest extent possible in the present life and the next.

    Though a large majority of universities in Europe, North America and the world pursued such goals at their founding and in their early decades, sadly too many of them have since been overcome by an alien philosophy of secular materialism in all their academic departments so that the views indicated above are now despised as bigotry, arrogance and irrational.

    Hence, too largely today’s Christian scholars, who prefer to research and teach in truly Christian ways, and today’s students who prefer a truly Christian higher education have been pressured to pursue such in private confessional institutions, so that they can exercise the academic freedom that has been denied them in state-supported secular institutions. In my view, an appropriate portion of tax revenue, paid by committed Christian tax-payers should be provided to such truly Christian colleges and universities, without the demands of secularists that these schools replicate an education as secular as the public universities.

    Sadly, Christian universities also employ faculty and staff of all sorts who sometimes express more fallenness than Christ-likeness, and the same is true of their students. Hence, no Christian university can be as truly Christian as they should be or as they may prefer to be or as they may advertise themselves to be in pursuit of donors, staff and students. Still, we should seek ever more faithfulness, regardless of how unfashionable that may be in our contemporary western culture. Happily, many schools across our country and the world are doing so, with or without public funding.

  6. Terry

    This is an important thread. At some point I’d be happy to hear your take on how useful Barna’s latest book, Seven Faith Tribes might be to Canadian Christian educators. You can find a description of his project here: http://www.barna.org/barna-update/article/13-culture/262-americas-seven-faith-tribes-hold-the-key-to-national-restoration

    If Barna is correct regarding the U.S. (and the outline makes some sense to me but it is sketchy), and if Canadian society is in similar trouble to that of the U.S., the potential contribution of Christian schools to the health of Canadian society would be significant.

  7. Al Hiebert

    Perhaps the most serious weakness of secular universities is their commitments to philosophical naturalism (the assumption that all that is or happens has only natural causes, and consists only of matter in motion propelled by natural forces). Since this worldview so massively dominates the perpective of all our cultural elites, it sometimes creeps into Christian universities as well, especially in the research and teaching of professors who have done no formal studies of the Scriptures, theology and Christian ministry beyond Sunday School. These professors sometimes boast that they teach their courses exactly as they would teach them at a secular university. Sadly, this is not truly Christian higher education, regardless of the personal Christian faith of these instructors.

    We can do better. For the sake of Christ and His kingdom, we really need to do better.


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