She's bright, homeschooled, and devout. She is definitely college material. So her parents, having read about the relativism and debauchery of the nation's secular universities, send her to a Christian college.
After her parents finish hauling boxes into her dorm and drive away, she is thrilled at the chance to study with so many others who share her faith. By the first week of class, she already has made many Christian friends and has joined a good Bible study. Her classes, though, are confusing.
In her Introduction to Bible class, her professor explains that the Bible was written by many different authors over many centuries and so cannot be taken literally. The professor in her psych class, who calls herself a feminist, teaches that "homophobia," not homosexuality, is a mental illness. In English, she has to read a modern novel filled with profanity and graphic sex scenes. Her biology class teaches Darwinian evolution and makes fun of "creationists" who believe in Intelligent Design.
When she asks her professors about the disconnect between what is going on in the classroom and the college's professed Christian identity, they tell her, "We are just trying to open your mind. That's what a college education is all about. Yes, we are Christians, but we have to challenge our incoming students' narrow fundamentalism in order to broaden their perspectives and make them well-educated." She marvels that these teachers don't seem to recognize that the ideologies they are so impressed with are far narrower than what the Bible teaches. After four years, she graduates, with an education that is little different from that of her friends who went to secular schools.
This scenario plays out over and over again, to the consternation of many students and their parents. As John Mark Reynolds, a professor and director of the honors program at Biola University, observes, "Many profs view their mission as helping poor, right-wing Christian children outgrow their parents' faith."
But not all professors and Christian colleges are like that. In a time when the postmodernist academy is jettisoning truth, reason, and the Western tradition, Christians-with a worldview well suited for education-have a dramatic opportunity to exert intellectual and cultural leadership. In many cases, Christian colleges do give their students a first-rate education, even as they contribute positively to the student's spiritual formation.
Certainly, the demand for what Christian colleges can offer is booming. Between 1990 and 2002, enrollment in the 100 evangelical schools that make up the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities rose by 60 percent.
So to kick off the new academic year, WORLD brought together a panel of distinguished veterans of Christian education: John H. White, president-emeritus of Geneva College; Samuel T. Logan, former president and now chancellor of Westminster Theological Seminary; and Al Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. As a Christian college English professor for just under 20 years, I also participated in the discussions. What follows represents our common general assessment of the state of Christian colleges.
Conservative Christians tend to value the colleges that were founded by their church bodies or that exist to transmit their particular intellectual and theological heritage. But sometimes those colleges promote theological ideas that undermine that heritage: "the openness of God" movement that denies God's omniscience and omnipotence, "new perspectives on Paul" that deny justification by faith, and feminist theology pushing for the ordination of women.
In The Dying of the Light: The Disengagement of Colleges and Universities from Their Christian Churches (1998), Catholic scholar James Burtchaell studies the history of religiously founded schools, documenting how time and again colleges founded in a specific theological tradition shift to generic Christianity, then to being "church-related," then to holding Christian "values" if not belief, until finally they are as secularized as any public university.
This process is already complete in most institutions founded by mainline Protestants-from Southern Methodist University to Princeton. Catholics held out a little longer, but a study by Patrick Reilly, president of the Cardinal Newman Society, in The Catholic World Report found that Catholic universities now make their students less Catholic. He found that 45 percent of incoming freshmen at the major Catholic universities believe that abortion should be legal; by the time they are seniors, 57 percent believe in abortion, contrary to church teaching. Fifty-five percent of freshmen believe in homosexual marriage; by the time they graduate, 71 percent do. Only 30 percent of freshmen approve of casual sex, but by the time they are seniors, 50 percent do.
Evangelical colleges tend to resist the tide, but not always. In 1988, sociologist James Davison Hunter, in his book Evangelicalism: The Coming Generation, found a similar phenomenon in evangelical institutions. In a survey of students from nine members of the Christian College Consortium (Wheaton, Gordon, Westmont, Bethel, Houghton, Seattle-Pacific, George Fox, Taylor, and Messiah), he found that while 56 percent of incoming students scored high on his "religious orthodoxy" index, that number declined to 42 percent when the students were seniors.
Those holding traditional views of the family plummeted from 45 percent to 30 percent for men, and 34 percent to 14 percent for women. "Contemporary Christian higher education," Mr. Hunter concludes, "produces individual Christians who are either less certain of their attachments to the traditions of their faith or altogether disaffected from them."
But that was in 1988. In her book God on the Quad: How Religious Colleges and the Missionary Generation Are Changing America, Jewish researcher Naomi Schaefer Riley cites Mr. Hunter's research, but reports that recent evidence shows Christian college graduates to be more conservative morally and theologically.
"I believe the tide is moving the other way rather than a watering down," said panelist Mr. White. He sees "an openness and hunger on the part of young faculty" to relate their faith to their discipline. "When I began teaching a biblical worldview course 30 years ago," he said, "other than [theologian Francis] Schaeffer and some obscure Dutch work in the Kuyper tradition, there were no books for college students. Now there are many that are well-written."
Though a veteran of many battles to keep his institution faithful to its biblical heritage, Mr. White finds the climate much improved. "After a year of returning to the classroom I find many students and faculty eager to embrace and understand orthodox Christianity and the holism of the Lordship of Christ."
This points to an important shift in the relationship between faith and learning. Historian Douglas Sloan of Columbia University has shown that a "two realms" model dominated Christian scholarship through most of the 20th century. Objective knowledge of the outside world was considered the realm of science. Inner feelings, values, and commitments to meaning were the realm of faith.
In practice, this distinction meant that faith and learning were not integrated at all; faith was not allowed to trespass onto the territory of science, knowledge, and facts. This was a disaster theologically, as faith was turned into an interior set of emotions, with no connection to external truth.
In today's climate, the fact/value distinction-and the exaltation of scientific rationalism-has been shot down, even for secularist scholars. Christian thinkers from Herman Dooyeweerd to Francis Schaeffer have critiqued that dualism. Nancy Pearcey, researcher with the Discovery Institute, in her book Total Truth has exploded the "two realms" model.
Instead, today's Christian scholars tend to approach issues of faith and learning in terms of "worldview." This allows them to see and build upon the distinct biblical assumptions about God and His creation-such as the complexity of human beings having been made in God's image and yet fallen into sin-while still dealing accurately with the various secularist ideologies, each of which can be seen as an alternative worldview.
So if contemporary Christian scholarship has found a way to effectively relate faith and learning, why are so many Christian colleges still struggling to keep their identity? As WORLD's panel of college presidents made clear, the strongest tides faithful schools have to swim against are institutional and cultural.
Financial pressures can change the direction of a school. Presidents, who now have to focus on fundraising, must cultivate wealthy donors. "Once an institution becomes dependent upon a donor base that no longer holds Christian conviction as the central defining mark of the school, a process of liberalization or secularization inevitably follows," said Mr. Mohler. In some institutions, he said, "a loss of Christian conviction and character can be traced to just one major donor who insisted on a more liberal, less church-directed identity. "
Mr. Logan told of donors who offered gifts of a million dollars plus, if Westminster would change its position on apologetics or give a woman an endowed chair. Not that donor requests are necessarily a bad thing, observed Mr. Logan, but they can have unintended consequences. "Suppose, for example, the Lilly Endowment offered a funding initiative in support of multiculturalism in theological education. It is possible that the conditions set by Lilly would not require subtle alterations in institutional identity. But it is also possible that those conditions would require such alterations. It takes great corporate wisdom to make the right decision and it could take extraordinary courage to do what is right (especially if that meant turning away from a lot of Lilly money)."
Mr. Mohler cited another temptation: "Mission creep can quickly pull an institution away from its more clearly articulated Christian identity. As a rule, the broader the scope of the institution, the greater the danger of loosening church and confessional commitments." He gave the example of a college wanting to attract more students and asking, Why not a pharmacy school? The school may not be able to attract evangelical faculty members qualified to teach pharmacy. As a result, hiring practices get loosened. Non-Christian students uninterested in the college's Christian identity come to study pharmacy. Resources get shifted to the pharmacy program and away from the school's original mission.
Faculty hiring is another issue. Mr. Mohler cited the problem of "catalog envy," in which schools hire a new professor with a Ph.D. from a prestigious Ivy League institution over someone from a lesser-known school who might be a better fit with the school's Christian identity. Also, in the postmodernist climate in which words can have different meanings according to each person, it becomes more difficult to ascertain whether a professor subscribes to a particular statement of faith, or what he means when he says he does.
Presidents have to be especially attentive. "I am personally involved in every faculty hire," Mr. Mohler said. "I interview all candidates, read their published material, and check out everything from their resumés to their church responsibilities and their marriage/family commitments. The president must be a scholar who is intellectually engaged, if this is to be effective."
Secularist accrediting agencies can also pressure a school away from its Christian identity. Mr. Mohler told about his institution's social work program. "The Council on Social Work Education is adamantly pro-homosexual and committed to 'non-judgmentalism.' That led to an impasse here, the closing of the school.
"We spent years working to convince our regional accreditation agency that confessionalism allows an authentic academic experience," Mr. Mohler said. "It was so foreign to the visiting committee (in the main) that they were simply at a loss." And yet, eventually, his school did get the accreditation. As did Westminster, said Mr. Logan, after a tough battle.
Thanks in part to the church institutions that stood their ground, most accreditors have switched their approach. Today, said Mr. Logan, "they are generally more likely now to allow Christian schools to define their own missions and to evaluate those schools on the degree to which the schools can demonstrate that they are accomplishing those missions." Mr. White agreed: "My experience is that accreditation is almost always helpful."
So despite the continuing problems, it may be easier now than before, given resolute leadership, constituent support, and faculty committed to the school's Christian mission and identity, to resist the secularizing tide.