Why Does Postmodern Society Need Christian Universities?

[This is my November contribution to the Respectful Conversation project. This month’s topic is “Evangelicalism and Higher Education.”]

While much of the history of Christian Higher Education has been focused on separation from the larger society and providing a structural alternative to “secular” education, the future of Christian Higher Education depends upon engaging the broader culture without abandoning our core identity.

The contemporary world is characterized by growing patterns of diversity on issues of faith, morality, values, politics, entertainment, and on and on. We’re seeing the kinds of balkanization in society that Bill Bishop writes about in The Big Sort. I can “like” Facebook pages that affirm my positions and those of “my people”. I can listen to media reports from my cable channel (the one that tells me the Real Truth).

In a world where people are free to dismiss those who disagree, declaring them irrelevant at best and evil at worst, there is a danger of prioritizing the protection of a particular position over the search for Truth. That search for Truth is the central conviction of Christian Higher Education. Notice that I didn’t say “the proclamation of Truth” but “the search for Truth”.

Here’s my answer to the question posed in the title. Because Christian Universities believe that there is Truth at the end of dialogue, we engage the difficult and complex questions that will allow our graduates to participate in the postmodern world as reconcilers. Our graduates will be adept at hearing different positions, understanding how others make value claims, and be comfortable engaging in dialogue intended to allow the Holy Spirit to “lead us into all Truth”. We aren’t trying to win arguments and demonstrate that our way is superior but are trying to faithfully represent Christ and the Gospel.

I’ve argued elsewhere that today’s students represent the first truly postmodern generation (see herehere, and here for examples). The first of the week, I’ll ship to my publisher my book for freshmen entering Christian univerisities. The book attempts to begin where these students are and explore the promise of Christian Higher Ed in new ways (see here and here).

Sevearl of the links in the previous paragraph cite David Kinnaman’s work in You Lost Me. The Barna group gathered data on twenty-somethings who had been formerly active in church but were now estranged. They identify six problems in the contemporary Christian church in America: 1) overprotective, 2) shallow, 3) anti-science, 4) repressive, 5) exclusive, and 6) doubtless.

Clearly, not all of the folks interviewed by Barna would be characterized as evangelicals. And yet, I would argue that today’s evangelical students largely share the concerns raised by Kinnaman’s sample. They may not feel the concerns strongly enough to leave the evangelical fold, but I believe those tensions are present even if it’s not popular to talk about in our colleges and churches.

That tension is not a source of concern but a potential for great impact. Around the time of the birth of the Moral Majority, Robert Wuthnow wrote The Struggle for America’s Soul documenting the separations between the mainline and conservative churches. Wuthnow expressed deep concern about the impact of the chasm he described but ended the book on an optimistic note. He suggested that evangelical college faculty who understand both the faith commitments of the conservatives and the methodology of the mainliners could play the role of translator and begin to bridge the gap, especially by engaging in professional scholarship.

I take Wuthnow’s conclusion a step further: it is the graduates of Christian universities who will bridge chasms, not just within the church, but between various segments of the broader society. They will not do that through formal scholarship but through the informal hearing and telling of stories. By truly engaging those who are other than themselves, they can bring healing where there is strife and wholeness where there is partition and distrust.

At this point, I’d reverse my argument. Christian universities need postmodern students because they will help us address the central questions these students have. This is not to provide them with easy answers but to enable them to engage the questions with the complexity the world sees. This means that Christian universities will have to wrestle with all of the difficulty questions the broader society is wrestling with, maybe even wrestling harder and earlier than the rest of culture. Questions about sexuality, inequality, militarism, narcissism, evolution, bullying, slavery, biotechnology, surveillance, security, and even government must be our stock in trade. We must be better at those convesations than our secular counterparts because the stakes are so high.

It’s at about this point in my argument that someone brings up Harvard.  Harvard, they quickly point out, was founded on Christian princples to train Christian ministers but became secularized over subsequent generations. The capital V Veritas (Truth) in their seal became a small-v veritas. Because they didn’t stay true to their distinctive identity, they’ve become what they are today (one of the most respected and richest universities in the world, but that’s not usually the point made). But a quick review of Harvard’s history onWikipedia shows that this transition began very early and was made intentionally by leaders and trustees. It didn’t reflect a losing on their way because they didn’t hold a hard line on key priciples.

Futhernore, while Harvard was struggling with idenitity from early in its history, Christiain universities have had many years to solidify their missional identity. Of the five institutions I’ve served, four have already celebrated their centennial and the fifth hit the 75 year mark. They’ve had decades to clarify the centrality of their Christian commitments.

The expression of those commitments may shift over time but the core remained solid. As the universities pursued regional accreditation, there was a re-articulation of mission. For a period of time, the “integration of faith and learning” phrase gave expression to that misison in ways consistent with late modernity. Christian universities are completely capable of engaging their postmodern students with honest searching around difficult questions because we believe the Holy Spirit is still leading us to capital-T Truth.

Early in my career, I asked a retired faculty member, “what made a Christian College Christian?” he told me that he didn’t know what that meant because only individuals could become Christian. So his answer was that Christian Colleges were populated by Christian faculty members (and staff and administration). t’s an answer than is less than satisfactory sociologically.

For the last decade, I’ve been unpacking my own answer: what makes a Christian univeristy Christian is that we audaciously believe that the Holy Spirit is in the center of our teaching and learning enterprises. We are atentive to His leading as we navigate differences, grapple with hard questions, tell our stories, and wrestle with our uncertainties. I have come to see the Christian univeristy as an outpost and an exemplar of the Kingdom of God.

If Christian Universities don’t step forward and address the issues of postmodern society, we run the risk of becoming increasingly marginalized and isolated. In some ways, that’s a fate worse than Harvard’s.

Postmodern society needs Christian Universities becasue there are few other sociological entities so positioned to address the complexity of today’s world. There are few other institutions as committed to bridging differences in the face of balkanization.

We in Christian Higher Education can engage today’s issues in an academically grounded manner while avoiding hubris. We can hear others and affirm their struggles and questions. We can keep our Christian commitments without breaking fellowship with others.

In short, we can be the Body of Christ in the World coming alongside others in the search for Truth.

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