God and the academy

Culture | Christians invented the university. Churches founded a good number of America's colleges. But for the last century, God has often been expelled from the classroom. Nevertheless, the nation's colleges and universities are places where students are coming to Christ

Issue: "Who'll be king of the Hill?," Oct. 7, 2000

Today, in many college classrooms, Christianity is not just ignored-as it might be in a public secondary school leery of violating court decisions-but actively attacked and ridiculed. Even many Christian colleges have risen up against the churches that founded them and have become indistinguishable from their secularist peers.

Christians-whose faith centers in a Book-have always championed education, from teaching children to be able to read God's Word to the training of pastors to think theologically. The university was invented during the Middle Ages for the cultivation of learning. The medieval universities followed the tenets of the classical liberal arts, but added a distinctively Christian dimension, organizing their curriculum around three "sciences," or types of knowledge: natural science (the study of the created order); moral science (the study of human beings and their relationships in history and society); and theological science (the study of God).

Theology was the queen of them all, integrating all knowledge in terms of its Creator. The medieval universities-at Oxford, Paris, Cologne-became the training ground first of all for the clergy and then for other professions. Though some may have encouraged a rationalistic scholasticism, it is also true that the Protestant Reformation began in a university, with a professor discovering the gospel while he was preparing to teach a course on the book of Romans. Later, he posted a notice for an academic debate on 95 Theses.

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Christianity continued to be an energizing force in higher education for centuries. Scholars at Cambridge gave the English-speaking church the King James Bible. In the American colonies, Harvard was founded to train ministers. The first president of Princeton was the great Puritan preacher and theologian Jonathan Edwards. (Today, Jonathan Edwards's institution has on its faculty an ethicist, Peter Singer, who believes in not only abortion but also infanticide and the killing of the handicapped.) As the nation gained its independence, moved west, and continued to grow culturally, colleges sprouted up throughout the land, with nearly all Christian denominations founding colleges of their own.

Though the Enlightenment of the18th century began the fissure between intellectuals and the church, universities remained supportive of the Christian faith through much of the 19th century. In Oxford and Cambridge, both students and faculty had to subscribe to the 39 Articles of the Church of England until well into the 19th century. Administrators expelled the poet Shelley when he identified himself as an atheist. The policy was finally changed not to accommodate atheists but to accommodate Catholics and Christians of other confessions. But the 19th century also saw the rise of a new kind of university. In Germany, new institutions that centered around the claims of science replaced the classical Christian liberal arts model of higher education.

These German universities were organized around scientific research. They offered an education that was highly specialized. The faculty was divided up into departments. Students chose specific majors. And the new queen of the sciences was natural science. Truth was what could be empirically verified. Religion was, at best, an inner, subjective state, which could make no claims of objective truth. As other disciplines adopted the assumptions of scientism-including the new liberal theology that tried to apply naturalistic assumptions even to the Bible-all transcendent authorities, including God, were excluded with methodological rigor.

By the 20th century, most institutions of higher education in the United States-including the liberal arts colleges founded by churches-had adopted the model of the German university. Later, something of a synthesis occurred, with a liberal arts core curriculum being grafted onto the specialized major. But the academic climate tended to be skeptical, rationalistic, and resistant to the very concept of revealed religion. Professors factored God out of scholarship, and saw faith as unworthy of a truly educated mind.

For most of the 20th century, Christian students-and faculty members-had to defend their faith against rationalistic attacks. Philosophy classes critiqued the proofs for the existence of God and sought to prove the contrary. Science departments force fed the dogmas of Darwinism. The arts and humanities, in the meantime, cultivated genteel bohemianism, with its rebellious poses against social, moral, and religious traditions.

Today, though, there is a different climate on university campuses. In the aftermath of the '60s and the paradigm shifts of postmodernism, rationalism no longer rules. Such notions as reason, empiricism, even objective truth-which were absolutely fundamental to the heirs of the Enlightenment-are routinely taken apart in classrooms and academic journals. The new queen is social science (a weak descendent of moral science), with its reduction of all knowledge-including scientific data-to a cultural or psychological construction.


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