Culture

Baptist brawl

Culture | Baylor's old guard doesn't like president Robert Sloan's attempt to integrate faith and learning, but his plan may save the university from intellectual incoherence

Issue: "John Kerry: On a roll," Feb. 14, 2004

THE PRESIDENT OF BAYLOR UNIVERSITY, ROBERT Sloan, is pushing a plan that would make the Southern Baptist school a world-class research university while also strengthening its Christian identity. But a minority of faculty members and the old president are doing everything they can to keep Baylor from being recognizably Christian.

In an article in Christian Century, Robert Benne analyzes the conflict between the new administration-which, along with the younger generation of faculty members, believes that Christianity can inform academic excellence-and the old guard who "disagree with Sloan's contention that Christianity has intellectual content."

Mr. Benne, an author and Lutheran college professor, found that 20 percent of the Baylor faculty oppose the Baylor 2012 plan, which builds up the graduate schools, requires faculty scholarship, and, most importantly, mandates that the content of Baylor courses reflect Christianity. Forty percent are neutral, and 40 percent support it.

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But the opposing 20 percent are older professors who have tenure and a stranglehold on the faculty senate, which passed a no-confidence motion on the current president. Mr. Sloan, however, has the overwhelming support of his board of regents, which voted 31-4 to back him.

The issue comes down to two different assumptions about the Christian faith. The former president, Herbert Reynolds-who remains on campus and who is leading the charge against the new initiatives-claims that "fundamentalists" have taken over the university and that he represents the true Baptist tradition.

He says that Baptists do not believe in creeds of any kind, that faith is purely inward, and that individuals have "soul competency" to form their own theology. He says he holds to a "two-spheres" approach, in which faith has nothing to do with the pursuit of objective knowledge. When he was president, it was not accepted to pray in classrooms or even before meals in the faculty dining room. Any overt integration of faith and learning was taboo, just as it is in secular universities. Mr. Reynolds told Mr. Benne that "faculty are not here to engage in religiosity."

Ironically, although Mr. Reynolds rails against "fundamentalists," he himself demonstrates the most extreme consequences of anti-intellectual pietism, which reduces religion to sheer private subjectivity unconnected to truth or the external world. While Baptists claim the right to interpret the Bible for themselves, that surely does not encompass the right not to believe it at all. As Southern Baptists have always known, Christianity rests on objective facts, such as the resurrection of Christ.

Mr. Reynolds's "two spheres" theory seems to borrow from Luther's "two kingdoms" and the Reformed notion of "sphere sovereignty," but he misunderstands both. That God rules the world in a different way than He rules the church doesn't mean that God has nothing to do with the world. None of the various "spheres" are God-free zones.

The approach to Christian education that Mr. Reynolds advocates and that is rampant throughout church-related colleges today is a textbook case of what Francis Schaeffer described as the compartmentalization of the modern mind: Matters of faith, values, and meaning are relegated to the "upper story" and are considered irrational, subjective, and content-free. Facts, knowledge, and the real world constitute the "lower story," the realm of science, reason, and everyday life. Christianity becomes a matter of emotionalism and subjective preferences with no truth claims.

Critics of the efforts to re-Christianize Baylor argue that integrating faith and learning will make the university lose credibility in the secular academic world. That may be true in the short term, although it is really the critics who are being anti-intellectual (as if there are not enough generic graduate schools that are virtually indistinguishable from each other). But in the long run, the two initiatives in Baylor 2012, to increase academic excellence and to increase the biblical worldview, go together.

Mr. Sloan has hired some high-powered scholars who are also committed Christians. The church desperately needs a research university with Ph.D. programs, so that talented Christians can pursue education at the highest level, without wasting time with the obstacles put before them by the anti-Christian academic establishment.

But the academic world itself-bogged down in pseudo-knowledge such as porn studies, politically correct but bogus "reconstructions" of history, and an overarching relativism that makes learning all but impossible-could use a Christian university. Without some foundation for truth, the educational enterprise cannot last for long.

Although there are many Christian colleges, Baylor is almost unique in offering graduate, research degrees in a comprehensive range of fields, from English to the hard sciences. If Southern Baptists can encourage Mr. Sloan to hold the course, Baylor could emerge as America's most important university.

Gene Edward Veith
Gene Edward Veith

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