God and the academy

"God and the academy" Continued...

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

With relativism comes the celebration of diversity. Differences are to be tolerated. Surely such attitudes should make room for Christianity, shouldn't they? But if the modern university attacked Christianity for being insufficiently reasonable, the postmodern university attacks Christianity for being too reasonable-for believing in objective truth, for positing a "metanarrative" (a story to account for everything) that does not accept the validity of other positions. Postmodernists portray Christianity as intolerant and oppressive, insisting on absolutes that are limiting and restrictive.

Christians used to hear reasoned arguments against their faith, which they could respond to with apologetics of their own. Those are much less common now. Instead, Christians have to put up with moral arguments against them and assaults on their moral beliefs. The modernist universities may have cultivated agnosticism, but they at least kept men and women segregated in the dorms and upheld certain standards of conduct. Many of today's universities, in contrast, have co-ed dorms, classes on pornography, and sensitivity training to cure "homophobia." And woe to the student or faculty member who expresses doubts about feminism or who dissents from the party line about abortion.

Christian colleges are not immune from academic fashions. In his book The Dying of the Light: The Disengagement of Colleges and Universities from Their Christian Churches, Catholic scholar James Burtchaell documents how Christian colleges slide down the slippery slope to secularism. He shows, for example, how colleges change their self-descriptions from a clear identification with a church or theological tradition ("a Methodist college") to generically Christian ("a Christian college")-to being "church-related" or "historically connected" to a church body, to being generically religious ("a values-oriented college"), to being flat-out secular.

Along with this shift in mission statements is one in hiring practices (from hiring only faculty members who are members of the founding church, to hiring other Christians, to hiring faculty members of strong character, to hiring faculty members who have no religious beliefs at all). Mr. Burtchaell studies other factors-churches reducing their financial subsidies, faculty members shifting their loyalty from the church to their professions, and the conflict between the church's theology and the faculty members' research interests-that, in case after case, turn a church college into just another secular institution.

Today, the pressures against Christianity are not so much reasoned intellectual arguments (which are nearly always exceedingly weak to any well-instructed, thinking Christian), nor even moral temptations. Rather, the biggest challenge to Christianity turns out to be social pressure. A Christian student or faculty member wants so much to belong. Christian doctrines and moral teachings are the obstacles to full acceptance in the dorm rooms, the frat houses, and the faculty lounge. The cool people in the student union and the professional organizations don't have these limiting beliefs. To be socially acceptable, Christians in academia often internalize their beliefs, not speaking up in public, parroting instead the party line. Sometimes, they jettison their faith completely, finding lots of excuses in the "hypocrisies of the organized church."

These apostates-who were once religious, only to reject and turn against their former faith-often turn out to be the most virulent enemies of Christianity on campuses. While many professors are surprisingly ignorant about what Christianity is-and so ignore it-the professors who make a crusade of "opening their students' minds" against their "narrow-minded superstitions" are often ex-Christians themselves.

This last teaching technique-"opening the minds" of the "fundamentalists"-is also a favorite device of many Christian professors on Christian campuses. This sometimes creates the impression that some of these professors and colleges are more liberal than they really are. It is true that education is about opening minds. It is also true that many Christians are maddeningly resistant to using them. Mr. Burtchaell and others lay part of the blame for Christians being out of the marketplace of ideas on the church itself, for neglecting its own intellectual tradition and abdicating its responsibility to engage the influential ideas of today with a positive biblical response.

Christian teachers do need to open minds. It is not necessary, though, to assault their students' settled theological beliefs-even if the promise is to "rebuild" them later on in the course. This tactic has the effect instead of driving pious students away from the intellectual life. Christian teachers need to teach their students how the biblical worldview is, in fact, bigger than they may have realized, and far more wondrous and comprehensive than any secular ideologies. Today, the true anti-intellectuals are those who reject reason entirely. Those who are really narrow-minded are the relativists. Those who are truly parochial are those who think all knowledge is just a matter of one's culture. The minds that need to be opened are those of contemporary academia.


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