Christians in Academe, Christian Academe

Christian Academe vs. Christians in Academe

Bill Hager of UGA’s Christian Faculty Forum apparently distributes this essay periodically, because I remember reading it a couple years ago, and it showed up in my inbox Monday morning.  I enjoy its invocation of T.S. Eliot’s somewhat-famous reflections on Christian education, but I also like its shift of focus away from students’ “safety”:

I know parents who want their children to go to a school with Christian roots because they think their children are less likely to get involved in drugs, less likely to get AIDS, less likely to fall in love with a non-Christian, less likely to… well, it’s a long list — but the list goes right down to less likely to end up wearing a ring in their lip.

I don’t want to make light of these parental concerns. But my concept of Christian higher education travels in a different direction than rules of student conduct. I happen not to think that Christian higher education should be safe. I think Christian higher education should have an edge to it, just as it was dangerous to hang around with Jesus.

Of course, if a school gets even a little dangerous in my tradition, the label “liberal” immediately surfaces (even though, in my experience, Milligan’s graduates tend to be more loyal to the particulars of our traditions than are graduates of our Bible colleges).  But no matter: I still think it’s better to be dangerous.

He does not leave the questions with vague answers either, giving a nice definition from the world of economics as he explores what teaching at a Christian college might involve:

I mention all these because the difference between Christians in higher education and Christian higher education is not minor, cosmetic, or even converging. Christian higher education should be radically different. And if my French were better, I would say, vive la difference.

Teaching. It probably goes without saying that when a physicist at ACU teaches Bernoulli’s theorem, it is not taught differently than it would be taught at UVa. When I teach the economic principle of elasticity of demand at UVa, I am confident the same formula is taught at ACU.

But when I teach the economic theory of income distribution at UVa, it is not fair game for me to ask: What might the Biblical principle of gleaning — leaving some extra grain in the fields for the poor — teach about income distribution in an industrialized society?

But one can and should have this kind of conversation in Christian higher education.

This is called integration: integrating the Christian faith with one’s discipline. It is not easy to do. And it will involve different shapes and forms in different disciplines to take the Bible’s great themes of Creation, Fall, and Redemption and weave them into classroom discourse.

To my mind, this is the great distinctive between Christian higher education and Christians in higher education. The classrooms and laboratories and seminar rooms of Christian higher education are places where faculty and students are free to explore topics that are, to some extent, off-limits to Christians at secular universities, or simply irrelevant to the academic discourse at secular schools.

I know that passage ranged longer than a block quote in a blog should, but the thought is so solid that I couldn’t help myself.

The essay also explores questions of grades and prestige, wondering in text what an alumni magazine might look like if a school praised those things that Paul praised and regarded as worthless what Paul found worthless.  Then he encourages faculty at Christian colleges to take mentoring seriously and to enjoy the opportunity to teach in ways that simply are not available to professors in secular colleges.

All in all, I dig this little piece.  Granted, it’s a view of things that makes the grass look greener than sometimes it can be in an actual Christian college week to week.  But it’s nice sometimes to think about what places should be as well as what they’ve become.

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9 Comments

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9 responses to “Christians in Academe, Christian Academe

  1. The problem isn’t potential discourse; the problem is always how it plays out, who dominates the conversations. And, as you well know, those who are loudest–and, therefore, usually, the most readily recognizable–aren’t the ones speaking and thinking with subtlety.

  2. Out of curiosity, to which problem are you referring? I imagine you have a valid point; I just have no idea to what you’re responding.

  3. vaindeludingjoys

    Oh, sorry; the problem to which I was referring was the application of this freedom that Christian institutions have to address subjects verboten/irrelevant in traditional, secular classrooms, this ability to explore subjects alongside and through Christianity. Regardless of where the conversations happen, the loudest voices are often not the ones doing the subtle, progressive, and vital thinking and talking. To take an extreme example: George W. Bush: his faith has been a well-touted aspect of his decision process.

    Integration for those of that faith system is great in theory, but the practice tends to go quite wrong.

  4. Ah, that makes more sense. I agree that many very visible Christian intellectuals don’t do either word much service. That said, I still believe in the Christian intellectual life largely because it has at its disposal categories and practices to call such abuses into question and to formulate better ways to exist. In other words, I don’t have to run over to Foucault’s tool box (or toy box, if you prefer) to make philosophical critiques of public Christian voices; the gospel of Matthew and Augustine’s City of God work quite nicely.

    Of course, there are no “purely” Christian intellectual positions, largely because the very center of our confession is that the Word of God, through whom all was created and is being redeemed, became incarnate as a Jewish peasant carpenter living in occupied Palestine in the formerly-Seleucid end of the Roman Empire (itself regularly contested and influenced by the Parthian Empire) and educated largely in pre-Hellenistic Hebrew scriptures. If someone can find a “pure” strain in there, he’s likely a great fool, and the very complexity of the roots of Christianity make our intellectual traditions, I think, especially adaptable. It doesn’t hurt that we’ve got a two-millennium history of missionary theology at our disposal.

    All of that is to say that, if Christians remember who we are, there’s no need to fear intellectual engagement with all the ideas with which a secular intellectual would engage, largely because we have access to a hermeneutic of memory and recovery that can appropriate the best parts of Continental and Hellenic and all sorts of philosophical matrices and still come out with an intelligibly Christian philosophy.

  5. vaindeludingjoys

    Ah, the Miltonist. There are no bad texts, only bad readers.

    So many bad readers.

  6. A Miltonist to the bone, friend. Can’t think of too many better alternatives.

  7. vaindeludingjoys

    A Calvin and Hobbesist.

  8. Mr Bones

    BTW, I hope I am not encroaching on your blog, but I enjoy reading it.

    A distinction between Christian philosophy and Christian theology is needed once these ideas leave the Christian classroom. Rationally, Augustine’s philosophy is subject to the same rigors as any other philosophy. Theology comes with it own set of assumptions beyond the realm of the rational. These assumptions are not universally recognized. For example, with enough strips, I can draw from the texts of Calvin and Hobbes and produce an “intelligibly” Calvin and Hobbesian philosophy. However, as a philosophy, it is no better or worse than its logic. At that point, any label one applies to it is an artificial construct. It is a good or bad philosophy first, a Calvin and Hobbsian philosophy second.
    Any appeals I make that invoke the authority of Calvin and Hobbes in service of defending my position are not universal appeals. In practical application outside of Christian academia, in a society of secular and Christian citizens, a discussion of “gleaning” as a principle that informs a discussion of distribution in industrialized society is only as valid as the principle of gleaning itself. Where the principle comes from is irrelevant.

  9. Don’t apologize; I enjoy discussing these things, and I always welcome new readers.

    I’m torn, honestly, on the subject of philosophy’s autonomy. It seems to me that ultimately any sort of philosophy is going to end up playing handmaiden to some theological or atheological queen. So a philosophy’s goodness or badness, in my experiences around philosophy types, derives its goodness or badness at least in significant part from the larger, poetic picture that it serves.

    That said, I’ve spent nearly no time around Analytical philosophers, and as I’m sure you know, Continental philosophy and the philosophical theologies derived therefrom tend to wear their atheisms and other confessions on their sleeves.

    With regards to secular applications, I’m intended to follow John Milbank’s lead (itself a “postmodern critical Augustinianism,” to use his description) in saying that philosophies (he thinks of them as plural, and I tend to agree) derive their force not from competition in any sort of shared and regulated arena but from their capacities to compel desire. In other words, philosophies/theologies convince not for strictly logical grounds but in a composite moment that is logical and rhetorical and aesthetic.

    So gleaning might, you’re right, appeal to a secular audience, but what a Foucauldian says about that appeal and what an Augustinian says are going to differ radically, and ultimately one adjudicates across the radical (incommensurable?) difference (I speak here as an Augustinian/Thomist) when one or the other resonates more beautifully with the reasoning, created-in-imago-dei human soul.

    Wow. I do get parenthesis-happy when I start trying to do philosophy.

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