Harvard’s Slippery Slope?

In my previous entry, I asserted that many Christian universities approach this changing generation by “holding the line“. This conservative stance is not something I mean to make fun of — it’s part of the DNA of much of Christian higher education. I want to explore that stance from a sociological perspective to see if we can find avenues for changing the educational culture of Christian universities without abandoning their core commitments.

First, many Christian universities had their origins either in reaction to perceived problems in traditional higher education or as means to prepare ministers within a particular denominational tradition. The former creates a condition where the outside world is looked upon with some degree of suspicion. The latter privileges the stance of the sponsoring denomination (trustees and donors for nondenominational schools) and thereby brackets critical thinking, opening a critique of such schools as places of indoctrination. The combination of these twin tendencies creates an insulation — those on the “inside” are pleased not to be like those on the “outside”. If you map the member schools of the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities, it’s not surprising to find many in small towns removed from major urban areas (and their institutions of higher learning). It is this tendency that moved Peter Enns to recently ask if evangelical colleges can truly be academic institutions.

Second, many Christian universities place a high premium on clergy trustees. This is seen as important to protecting the core Christian identity of the university. Those schools that have diversified their boards have drawn trustees more heavily from conservative arenas — successful business people who remember fondly their days at their alma mater. In a denominational school, any movement toward the culture was seen as capitulation to “worldliness”. One step outside the line brings an outcry from sponsoring churches and/or bad press in the local paper: neither fits well on a board agenda. (I remember that one of my institutions created an uproar in the churches by having a late-night “air guitar” concert!)

Third, there’s Harvard. I’ve heard this story since I first started working in Christian higher education. Harvard was founded as a Christian school but today the capital-V “Veritas” is replaced by a small-v “veritas”. No longer committed to absolute truth, there is a stereotype that anything goes and that personal convictions are outmoded. I heard this story told this fall at a gathering celebrating the unique spiritual role of the Christian college as the only defense against the inexorable decline. David McKenna, former president of Spring Arbor, Seattle Pacific, and Asbury Seminary recently wrote a book on the modern history of Christian higher education. He points out that many of the changes at Harvard were not the result of some slippery slope but the result of conscious decisions about positioning the university in a key role within the higher education universe. He offers several correctives that can allow the Christian university to hold its mission over time.

James Davison Hunter’s book To Change the World identifies three stances the church (and, by extension, its universities) have taken in response to the broader culture. He defines these as “defensive against”, “relevance to”, and “purity from”. The first sees the broader culture as hostile. I fear that too much of the “Christian Worldview” rhetoric arises out of this perspective (faith and science issues provide one of the best examples). The second adopts the issues of contemporary culture but attempts to “Christianize” them. The third focuses inward on the behaviors or values that set folks apart from the broader culture. This may reflect a focus on chapel services or purity standards (I once had a church official tell me how great it was that a survey showed that Christian institutions showed a significantly lower level of sexual behavior than what he imagined at secular schools even though the figure seemed shockingly high to me).

Hunter pleads for something he calls “Faithful Presence Within”. I take this to mean that there is a unique voice for the Christian university within the cacophony of voices in the culture. But that requires the university’s voice to be affirmatively stated, willing to engage those who are different, and above all, fearless.

Which brings me back to this generation of students. It’s these students who are driving conversations about human trafficking. It is these students who are asking questions about intentional community. It is these students who are trying the force the dialogue on LGBTQ issues on Christian university campuses.

If Christian universities can be the places I believe they can be, they will play a role of faithful presence. They will speak to important issues of contemporary society without defensiveness, because they recognize that they owe it to their students to engage the questions.

Make no mistake — the students will engage these questions. If they don’t find ways of engaging at the Christian university, they’ll do it outside of the faithful presence we should be providing. We may think we’re glad that we prevented those hard conversations from happening on our campuses to have them happen elsewhere. But that elsewhere may be in a bar after graduation or in a Wall Street boardroom or in divorce court. Where then will our faithful presence be?

Sometimes I think that we act like we’re protecting the church and maybe even God Himself from these harder conversations. This has always struck me as sociologically and theologically naive — the Church has been plenty resilient over the last two millennia. The idea that God can’t handle big questions and so we must protect him is nothing short of idolatry.

We’re in no danger of following Harvard off the slippery slope. We’re in danger of being so safe that we can’t adequately explain why we exist.

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4 thoughts on “Harvard’s Slippery Slope?

  1. Thanks, John, for your prophetic insights here. Your final sentence is powerful and even haunting. Although there will always be a necessary tension between fidelity to past works of the Spirit and openness toward present and future works of the same Spirit, I suppose that when the ‘Harvard example’ is bandied about, folks are more often motivated by fear than faith. If there is anything we ought to fear, it should be our propensity to see others as Pharisees but never ourselves. I’m reminded of John 9:41-41:
    Some of the Pharisees near [Jesus] heard this and said to him, ‘Surely we are not blind, are we?’ Jesus said to them, “If you were blind, you would not have sin, but now that you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains.”

    1. Jonas: Thanks for the thoughts. I particularly appreciate your idea that “others” are Pharisees. I do think fear plays into decisions about institutional direction, but it’s also possible to cast it as some sense of Responsibility — trustees are Entrusted with the institution. The question becomes “who are we entrusting it for?”. Too often the answer lies in times past or religious hierarchies. I once heard a student life administrator (school name withheld but it was’t in Michigan) describe the role as “protecting the values of the institution”. One does need to watch those values, but if students aren’t at the center what are we doing?

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