The Opposite of Critical Thinking is Fear

I’ve always said that biblical scholars have it rough because they know stuff. They know that the context of that verse we like to throw around doesn’t support what we want it to mean. They know that there are many nuances in the original language that our translations and paraphrases don’t capture. They know that there are many interesting theological, psychological, sociological, and political questions raised when we seriously examine texts.

Knowing stuff (and asking the questions that help them do that) opens them up to criticism from those who have more of an apologetic bent. The latter are quick to find fault for even asking the questions or exploring the difficult territory. The challenges of critical thinking have been on my mind over the past week as I read Peter Enns‘ blog. Pete had asked Eric Seibert, Old Testament professor at Messiah College,  to guest write three pieces dealing with violence in the Old Testament. Seibert raises some interesting challenges dealing with triumphalism, power, and Jesus. The posts were provocative but dealt carefully with the challenges that faithful believers find in the texts. I have colleagues teaching a course on the theology of war and piece and gladly shared Seibert’s blogs — not because I fully agreed but because I thought he asked fruitful questions for class discussion.

The first response I saw in the blogosphere showed up last weekend in this piece by Owen Strachan of Boyce College. Strachan asked how it was that Messiah could allow Seibert to even teach there, given that Messiah’s statement of faith includes a commitment to the authority of scripture (others have pointed out that other parts of Messiah’s statement celebrate the importance of inquiry). Friday, Christianity Today posted this piece discussing the posts by Seibert and mentioning Strachan. Strachan linked that in another post that says CT sees “controversy” while he uses a somewhat obscure passing remark by Scot McKnight as his title.

Yesterday,  Pete posted this amazing link. Apparently a commenter to the previous series had written as if he were Jesus (I’m giving Jesus the benefit of the doubt that it wasn’t really him — the sentence structure and illogical argument do not represent The Lord well). Other commenters suggested that asking such questions would find Peter without faith somewhere in the future. I mentioned last week that Spring Arbor is committed to seeing “Jesus as the perspective for learning”. I’m certain this is NOT what it means.

Pete Enns, Eric Seibert, and I work in schools affiliated with the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. Owen Strachan teaches at a Bible College (all the BA degrees are in Bible and they have a certificate for seminary wives) affiliated with Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville. Boyce is a very different place from Eastern or Messiah or Spring Arbor. CCCU schools run the risk of using critical thinking as a tool of faith. Many Bible colleges (but not all) prefer to deal in tight arguments explaining how things fit together.

It’s not just biblical scholars of course. Biologists have to deal with issues of evolution. Sociologists have to deal with the changing nature of the Modern Family. Nobody worries too much about the economists or the chemists or the music theorists.

When we don’t ask questions it’s because we’re afraid of what happens if we do. If we tug on that particular piece of fabric the whole garment might come unravelled. Much is lost when the fear keeps us from exploring the Truth. And, to stay with my metaphor, we wind up walking around wearing garments with threads dangling all over the place — not very attractive.

Many of Jesus’ encounters with the Pharisees involved matters of interpretation vs. letter of the law (“why do you heal on the sabbath?”). Thomas asks questions we would today see as blasphemous (“you expect me to believe he was raised from the dead?”). Why do we ask such questions? In order to better understand. To not ask them is to hide from difficulty. But asking opens up valuable conversations. It lets us figure out the complexity of the world and keeps faith engaged.

I don’t know if I agree with Seibert’s positions or not. But I certainly appreciate him asking the questions. As I listen to other responses and perspectives, I’m better for it. We would only act to stop his comments if we were afraid of where they’d lead. But if the disciples weren’t supposed to fear a raging storm, why would Christians fear the writings of a college professor in Pennsylvania?

To critics like Strachan, questions are problematic because they could upset the entire apple cart. Liberal Arts institutions know that the apples are only good when you take them down and eat them.

Governor McCrory, please meet Mr. Buechner

Higher Ed sources were abuzz this week when North Carolina governor Pat McCrory told Bill Bennett that he wanted to focus on education that led to jobs instead of the liberal arts. Specifically, he contrasted programs that lead to jobs with pursuing things like gender studies (which Bennett had been mocking). In the interview, McCrory suggested that “educational elites” are encouraging programs that won’t lead to jobs. This last bit paints a horrendous picture of faculty members, suggesting that we delight in our students pursuing liberal arts programs that won’t lead to jobs.

Many other people have blogged on McCrory’s remarks over the past few days. Inside Higher Ed’s Matt Reed (formerly Dean Dad) had one of the better autobiographical responses. Reed describes the ways in which his own liberal arts education benefitted him. He goes on to recount what data has shown for years — employers (read “job creators”) are looking for the skill sets that liberal arts provides. There really is little evidence of a decided advantage in majoring in the “get me a job” major without the breadth of experience and perspective that makes liberal arts education unique. (BTW, most accrediting agencies require that accredited institutions provide some breadth of general education programming). Others have rightly pointed out how having students aware of issues in gender studies could be of great value as we navigate the challenges of modern society (did the governor watch any news during the 2012 election cycle?).

This focus on jobs instead of preparation for the future is negatively impacting educational institutions, including and maybe especially Christian universities. We’re regularly told that parents are concerned about student loans and that we need to be prepared to share our “success stories”. I’m an idealist, but I happen to believe that all of our graduates are successes. Almost none of them wind up like Chris Farley’s character “living in a van down by the river”. Admittedly, college has gotten more expensive relative to inflation but it still reflects an amazing return on  investment. Data consistently shows that lifetime earnings for those with college degrees far exceeds those with only high school degrees. We’ve been telling our students that since they were young, so it’s no surprise that they have expectations of getting jobs when they finish their education.

The Higher Education Research Institute (HERI) at UCLA conducts an annual freshman survey, exploring attitudes toward social issues, study skills in high school, and reasons for going to college. Here is the graph on reasons for college attendance from their 2012 survey.


The chart shows the changes over the last 36 years on three reasons why students go to college. Students are asked to evaluate a variety of reasons in terms of their importance. it’s critical to recognize that these aren’t mutually exclusive categories: they could rate all reasons as very important. The data shows some significant increase in those interested in better jobs and minor increases in terms of making money and general education. What strikes me is the relative stability of these three factors from 1982 to 2006 — not only are they all important but they are still supported as “Very Important” by over 60% of college freshmen. While it does appear that the economic downturn and college debt issues have pushed the job numbers up, the general education numbers went up as well, gaining roughly 10 percentage points in less than a decade.

I got some anecdotal insights into this tension in my senior liberal arts capstone class Monday night. I had them in groups trying to explain the SAU mission statement to a high school freshman. One of the groups responsible for “the study and application of the liberal arts” explained that breadth is good because you find things out about yourself along the way and might even switch majors to something you’re passionate about. I asked about the oft-repeated meme that general education courses were boring and nobody wanted them. The student responded that sometimes that particular course didn’t work for you but did for someone else. It was a wonderful testimony to why we study a variety of fields — even gender studies!

Embracing the liberal arts is especially important at a Christian university. We live in community and interact with others whose interests differ from ours. We have to know how to navigate that reality and we learn to do that through courses, chapel, and cafeteria conversations. Along the way, we’re expecting a light to turn on, for a student to say “I know what I’m called to do”. That’s not about their job but about their life.

Frederick Buechner puts it best. In his book, Wishful Thinking, he defines vocation like this: It comes from the Latin vocare, to call, and means the work a person is called to by God. … By and large a good rule for finding out is this: The kind of work God usually calls you to is the kind of work (a) that you need most to do and (b) that the world most needs to have done.

Governor McCrory (and those other job-obsessed folks like him) meet Frederick Buechner. Please.

Framing a Positive Vision for Evangelicals and Higher Education

Last weekend I drove from Michigan to Massachusetts to attend the North Shore Writers Retreat sponsored by Eastern Nazarene College. It was a great time, with presentations by Karl Giberson, Peter Enns, Alissa Wilkinson, Jonathan Merritt, Lil Copan, John Wilson, and hosted by Jonathan Fitzgerald. Some of these people I’ve followed over the years. Others were Facebook friends I’d never met in person.

There were some very good between-sessions conversations about Christian Higher Ed. We had attended such schools and/or taught at them. We all shared some similar questions about the unique challenges of the Christian university.

I came away from the last session with Jonathan Merritt reflecting on two ideas he shared. First, he said that the postmodern world is drawn to story and operates inductively where the modern world operates deductively through argument. I need to be far more attentive to the stories of my students and my colleagues to really build an image of what Christian higher education can look like in the future. Jonathan’s other point that struck home: It’s not enough to draw attention to a problem; you have to offer the compelling alternative.

On the drive home and in the midst of starting the Spring semester Thursday, I’ve been thinking of my arguments about Christian Higher Ed. What I’ve argued is that the past models aren’t sufficient and if we don’t change we run the risk of alienating a generation. But change to what? What does the non-negative vision look like?

The past few days have had me focused anew of the shortcomings of evangelical culture, and by extension, the universities that exist within that culture. On Thursday, Rachel Held Evans posted this blog titled The Scandal of the Evangelical Heart. Drawing on language from Mark Noll’s 1995 book, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, she argues that there’s a real challenge with compassion when “right belief” fosters ambivalence to suffering. Friday, Peter Enns posted a blog also building on Noll’s book. Pete suggests that a problem for evangelical academics is that we can be “free” to pursue ideas as long as they don’t lead to uncomfortable conclusions. Last night I finished  The Great Evangelical Recession by John Dickerson. Dickerson makes some interesting points that have been made elsewhere but ties them together in some useful ways. He draws comparisons between the housing bubble and the exaggerated influence of evangelicalism and suggests a number of structural factors that present great risk (loss of youth, segmentation, financial strain, lack of discipleship, etc.). Today I read Ron Sider’s The Scandal of Evangelical Conscience. Sider effectively documents the statistical similarities between evangelicals and the broader culture on a range of issues like divorce, sexuality, abuse, finance, materialism, and so on.

Taking these pieces as a package, I’m left with a vision of American Evangelicalism which is 1) struggling, 2) culturally uncertain, 3) insufficiently prophetic, 4) interpersonally harsh or condemning, and 5) often very afraid. If these diagnoses are even half on track, this suggests some hard days ahead for traditional evangelical institutions.

So what’s the positive alternative? It’s fine to suggest “don’t be those bad things” but that doesn’t provide us much to go with.  Dickerson calls for a return to biblical authority and a focus on discipling. Sider (like N.T. Wright, Scot McKnight, and many others) suggests we need a better understanding of how Jesus was initiating a Kingdom and not simply providing a way to get to heaven.

There is something about Kingdom language that can be of value to Christian higher education. I’ll unpack some of these thoughts in future posts. For now, let me suggest that the key is to see the Christian university as a place where the Kingdom is in operation. This doesn’t occur in separation from the larger culture as it did in past times. It occurs because we embrace the theological significance of Jesus’ model of sacrificial love, of challenging pharisaicalism, of reaching out to the powerless, and of building a community that takes Paul’s body metaphors seriously. Toward the end of his book, Sider writes, “Indeed, the church ought to be not just different but far ahead of the rest of society.” That’s something I’m continuing to ponder about the Christian University.

Jonathan Fitzgerald, who did such a fine job organizing the Writer’s Retreat, just published an e-book titled Not Your Mothers Morals: How the New Sincerity is Changing Pop Culture for the Better. I really think his idea of the New Sincerity has power. It’s something for us to consider in Christian higher education. We need to present the world as sufficiently complex, to investigate our past positions without abandoning our faith commitments, and above all to tell the truth.

Spring Arbor’s Concept contains the phrase “total commitment to Jesus Christ as the perspective for learning“. I’m coming to realize that this phrase is far more complicated than “What Would Jesus Do?”.  It’s not just affirming a Christian identity. It’s really seeing about seeing the Kingdom that Jesus saw. The more we can learn to  do that, the stronger our educational perspective will be.

The Value of Complex Questions

This morning NPR had this piece titled “More Young People Are Moving Away from Religion, but Why?”. It’s a 7 minute clip from what David Greene reports was a two-hour discussion with six young adults in New York. Three men and three women participated,  ranging in age from 23 to 33. They come from a variety of faith positions: Catholic, Muslim, Jewish, Adventist, and undisclosed “Christian”. In listening to their comments several times, I was struck with how their struggles relate to questions at Christian universities.

All of these folks are older than my students and we weren’t told anything about where they went to college themselves. There are all kinds of questions I’d ask about sampling and representativeness. But still, there are interesting patterns in their answers. And those patterns align nicely with the kinds of things the Barna group found on evangelical young people. When you listen carefully to their comments, they aren’t rejecting religion per se. They are rejecting an overly structured apologetic. It’s not religion that failed them — it was the structure of argument that the were substituting for religion.

For example, one young woman speaks of her Catholic schooling and how she had questions about what she was taught about premarital sex and homosexuality. But she says that she moved from her faith because she couldn’t support such “core beliefs”. The young man with a cross tattoo rejects “religious doctrines” (Greene’s phrase) of a literal hell and homosexuality as sin. The Adventist young man has issues with theodicy — he can prayer be effective when bad stuff was happening in his family and his prayers didn’t stop it. And if the failure of efficacy was him failing some test, wasn’t that as cruel as “burning ants with a magnifying glass?” The Muslim man struggles with a literal understanding of Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice Isaac. Why would God expect such a thing? And isn’t someone who claimed that God wanted that somewhat unhinged?

These are all good questions. They are questions that Christian universities should be engaging better than anyone. We have the ability to separate “core doctrines” from the various social, behavioral, and scientific factors that present challenges. We are able to handle the ambiguity of scriptural texts, recognizing their difficult implications, without abandoning scriptural commitments altogether.

But if our approach to challenging issues is to offer up pat answers, we put our students at risk. Because if a few years, they will be confronted with others who don’t share the easy responses we offer. And when that happens, they run the risk of being in some NPR interview sometime in the future.

The key factors that arose in David Kinnaman’s work in You Lost Me (about disaffected young evangelicals) were judgmentalism, inability to deal with doubt, and lack of complexity (particular on issues related to science). Christian Universities should deal with the grayness of the complex questions. It leads to a deeper faith walk (relates to James Fowler’s stage 5 and above) that isn’t shaken when life challenges the pat answers we had folks memorize.

The Central Task of the Christian University

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the ways in which Christian Higher Education has unique characteristics compared to other segments of the higher ed universe. As someone who did all of my education at a land-grant institution (Boiler Up), I came to teach in Christian universities with some of the analytical detachment that comes with being a sociologist.

This morning my analytical antennae perked up when I saw this piece from Frederick Buechner on his stint as a visiting professor at Wheaton College in 1985. The first paragraph of his reflection (which comes from his book Telling Secrets) speaks of the rules he was expected to live by during his time on campus. The second paragraph speaks to the critical thinking and open-mindedness of the faculty who taught there. I realized that in this short contrast, Buechner captured some of the inherent tensions present in the Christian university. On the one hand, there are sectarian-like rules (some of these vary by institution in type and justification). They are designed to foster good Christian living and a harmonious community atmosphere. Sometimes they simply provide a way for students to avoid the perceived temptations of the large secular university. On the other hand, Christian Universities are populated by faculty members who want students to think for themselves, confront challenging ideas, and deepen their character in the process (this too varies by institutional form — some are more open and others are far more restrained).

What this suggests is that the Christian University, more so than other venues in higher education, stands between a protective view of the world and an exploratory view of the world. Like most organizational forms, these are matters of social construction: one knows you’ve pushed too hard or gotten too lax because problems arise. Short of that, you live in the ambiguity and accept the tension you’re living within. (Advice to young faculty: don’t use that contrast as a teaching point as it’s not always appreciated! Trust me.)

Two things stand out to me from this ambiguity. First, faculty members (and others) model to students how to navigate those tensions. It’s why autobiography is so important in teaching (and any good communicating). The relationship between faculty member and student is a key part of seeing the navigation happen — not simply in the delivery of content but in the greater sense of modeling (I read a lot of Parker Palmer). The second thing that stands out is the changing nature of our students. They, and their parents, have made decisions on various life issues long before attending the college. They made decisions about the social acceptance of wine. They have made decisions about acceptable sexual limits and necessary precautions. Increasing numbers of students will see “the rules” as hindrances and not as helps.

Managing this balance between structure and openness is at the educational heart of the Christian university. It’s why we hire Christian faculty, have classes that are smaller, invest funds in student life programs, and develop robust residential programs. This makes the education more expensive than your average state school (even though Christian universities are less expensive than non-religious private schools).

Many Christian institutions like the ones I’ve served have diversified their programs to include adult education, online programs, and graduate degrees. These are useful. But the key activity remains the set of relationships the students maintain with faculty, staff, and other students. In the midst of those commitments they learn who they are, how to ask questions even when they don’t have answers, and impact the larger world.

This is why so little of the national dialogues about higher education challenges and reforms speak to the Christian university. I’m a regular reader of Jeff Selingo’s blog in the Chronicle of Higher Ed. He explores the suggested innovations that will deal with rising costs, student debt, job placement, completion, and access. But few of these innovations speak to Christian higher ed. MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) work well when you’ve got huge lecture halls and can explore issues of scale but not when I’m talking to the registrar about bumping my class of 24 to 30 and justifying how it won’t interfere with the personal contact the course demands. Online programs work well for people who don’t have access to traditional university schedule, but my most recent evaluations report that the students prefer to learn face to face. Increased focus on vocational connection may work to enhance enrollment at community colleges but won’t speak to the broader mission of a liberal arts institution. We want students to be employed but we want them to be of impact in thoughtful and creative ways.

The significant challenge for the Christian University is to find new and better ways of talking about our uniqueness. We’re not unique because we dont’ allow drinking for those underage. We’re not unique because we deliver lectures in cost-effective means to thousands of students. We are unique because we embrace the kind of open stance to faithful learning that models how to deal with a complex and changing world.

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.

Today’s Christian University Students

I’m launching this blog as a means of exploring issues within the realm of higher education and the popular culture that directly impact how we think and act as Christian educators. Over the course of my more than 30 years in Christian Colleges and Universities, I have seen a marked shift in my students. This has been true since roughly the beginning of the 21st Century.

In my experience, Christian Universities have been slow to respond to these shifts. Many have gone out of their way to reinforce messages from 40 years ago and take pride in “holding the line“. In the process, they run the risk of making Christian Higher Ed increasingly irrelevant to larger and larger numbers of young people.

I began focusing on this question more academically over the course of the last two years. Jeffery Jensen Arnett‘s work on Emerging Adults is particularly interesting in terms of what is happening with the current generation of 18-30 year olds. I’m currently working on a book for freshmen entering a Christian University that builds upon some of his work.

In September, I made a presentation at Spring Arbor University (where I now teach) summarizing the challenge this postmodern generation brings to Christian Higher Ed. Some of it relates specifically to life at Spring Arbor (the reference to the Concept and the Clock Tower) but most of it can be generalized to other Christian Universities. Here’s the link to the video. If the PowerPoint goes too fast, here’s another version.Community of Learners 9-21-12.

This fall, I had the joy of listening to the audiobook of Rachel Held Evans’s wonderful book, Evolving In Monkey Town. Rachel is a popular blogger in young evangelical circles (including some readers like me who are no longer young!). She grew up around Christian apologetics, Christian high schools, and Christian Colleges. But in her early twenties, she began asking herself hard cultural and intellectual questions that her safe Christian mental models really couldn’t reconcile. She’s not new in that regard — the same has happened to bright, reflective evangelical students over the years.

Many Christian students who face deep questions take one of two tracks: either they compartmentalize their reality so that they just hold to their prior position (“God’s ways are not our ways“) or they junk the Christian presuppositions altogether. Rachel describes interactions with friends in both camps.

What makes her book so important is that she models what it means to embrace the tension. It makes life much more complicated but also more authentic. My presentation to the Spring Arbor Community summarized some research findings from the Barna group on the disaffection of young adults in the evangelical church. There are several themes David Kinnaman and his colleagues uncovered, but central to them is the idea that the evangelical church doesn’t deal with complexity.

As I interact with today’s Christian College students, I find some who compartmentalize and some who abandon. But there seem to be significant numbers of  students attempting to follow Rachel’s more demanding path.

This bodes well for the Christian University. If we can be the places where students begin to work through their challenges, we can provide models and supportive environments where questions are welcomed because we have nothing to fear.

On the other hand, if we insist that our Christian universities can only be places for people who hold the party line we will miss larger and larger sectors of the young adult population. This is not only bad for the universities, it’s damaging to the greater culture.