The Future of Christian Higher Education

I recently had the opportunity to speak at a Baylor conference on Christian higher education. I used the story of Ben Franklin and George Whitefield’s debate about the purposes of Franklin’s “Academy of Philadelphia” (see my post on this topic here) as an illustration to make several observations about challenges for Christian colleges and faculty today. A portion of my remarks are below.

“My first observation is that those of us who are believers teaching at Christian institutions are especially well positioned to address issues of belief and spirituality. Our students obviously need some good shepherding on these matters, but the watching world also needs lots of believing scholars to be able to represent the promise and pitfalls of faith across the disciplines. Of course, there’s always room for strong Christian scholarship that makes no direct connection to faith—such as believing mathematicians or physicists whose work does not warrant frequent mention of the Lord in their publications, but who do their work to his glory.

But it should be no surprise or embarrassment that many believing scholars and teachers will gravitate toward matters related to religion, virtue, and related topics. My hope is that Christian scholars, indeed, will have a winsome testimony by producing some of the highest-quality, most incisive and critical work on religion—I think of examples like the late Jean Bethke Elshtain in political philosophy (Elshtain’s library is now housed at Baylor, by the way), Alvin Plantinga in philosophy, and George Marsden (my doctoral adviser) in history as people who have garnered the highest recognition within their disciplines as people of open Christian profession.

Aspiring to that status, and actually doing it, are of course not the same thing. But it can be done. If we don’t do our part, the gap will be filled by Christian popular writers on history, philosophy, apologetics, and other topics. Those writers may be responsible in their work, or they may not be. But they will almost always have no presence in high-ranking academic discussions. We need to testify that there is a long tradition of the Christian life of the mind. We are modeling that tradition for our students, who will go on to be the next generation of parents, pastors, and teachers, passing on that tradition to the next generation. When we can do so, we need to publish our work in mainstream academic and media outlets, in order to serve as (much-needed) salt and light in those venues.

A second point I would emphasize is that Christian educators are called to outreach for the sake of the Christian mind. The primary point of outreach is our students, so this is something that every single Christian faculty member can do, whatever his or her other audiences. But there will be some of us who also reach out to broader popular audiences or in broader intellectual debates.

Thinking again about my previous point about pop Christian experts, Christian academics have spent too much time wringing their hands about the work of those popularizers, but not actually reaching out themselves. The good news is that social media and blogging have narrowed the distance and lowered the expense of reaching out to that elusive “popular audience.” But some of us have to be willing to engage, and department chairs and other administrators have to be ok with, or to even reward, such outreach activities. In an era when the value of college education in general is very much in question, scholars having an active public presence is one obvious way to make the case for relevance and value.

In higher education, of course, popular outreach can never substitute for outstanding teaching or scholarly expertise, and I can understand discouraging faculty from blogging and similar activities if they are on tenure track, or needing to bolster their research credentials. But I always find it strange that my blogging has no category in annual performance reviews, even though a single prominent blog post reaches a far bigger audience than the typical academic journal article. Obviously, tweets don’t count either! (This is hardly a dilemma at Baylor alone, and Baylor Research did a nice write-up on Baylor faculty and social media in which my work was included.) How will we reach a general audience if we are not engaged in that work?

The final point I would make regarding the future of Christian higher education is that we likely won’t have much of a future if we are not intentionally, overtly Christian, at least in a broadly orthodox way. I don’t have to remind you that there are enormous cultural and bureaucratic pressures coming against us not to be intentionally and overtly Christian. But even if all we care about is student recruitment and tuition dollars, it is hard to imagine why parents would send their student to a Christian college or university that isn’t all that Christian anymore. I have certainly visited Christian colleges that have functionally dropped any overt Christian commitment. Some of those schools, regrettably, are on the edge of closing their doors.

I realize that the threat to the viability of Christian schools is a much more complicated story than just whether a college stays faithful or not. But we have to think about what in particular makes our Christian college distinct from the public school, or secular private school down the road. It’s not enough to have a generically Christian “ethos” of being caring and kind—what liberal arts college would not profess to have that? Even just having Christian content in student life is not enough—if all I want is Christian student life options, I can find unofficial but powerful versions of that at public universities across the country. (I certainly found robust Christian student groups at Clemson, my alma mater and a public university.)

We could examine any number of ways that overt Christian commitment might manifest itself, from required chapel, to mission-oriented administrative decision-making. From my perspective on the faculty, the number one issue in maintaining an intentional Christian commitment is faculty hiring. Whether or not your school has a statement of faith, Christian schools must go to the next level with prospective faculty candidates and ask probing questions about their involvement with and service in their church. If we expect them to represent the Christian life of the mind before our students, they must be articulate about the Christian life of the mind in their job interview. Are any faculty candidates being turned down because of a lack of mission fit, in spite of their other appealing qualifications? If that’s never happening, I would suggest it is time to revisit how you are handing your hiring practices, in order to maintain that intentional Christian mission.

In summary, let’s make sure amidst all our other plans, that our Christian college or university does not lack “aliquid Christi”—something of Christ—just as Whitefield told Franklin that the plan for the Academy of Philadelphia lacked “aliquid Christi.” Even better, let’s seek to have our schools manifest the fullness of Christ. I believe that if we are outreach-oriented, intentionally Christian, and if we focus on areas of strength where we are likely to make the biggest impact, there can be a vibrant future for Christian higher education.”

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Israel and the Role of Place in Christian Faith

My family and I recently returned from our first trip to Israel. We went with a group led by pastors from our church, Highland Baptist in Waco. As with so many who have gone to Israel, we found the trip to be spiritually invigorating and challenging. Seeing the archaeological digs, historic sites, and memorial churches gave vivid images and texture to places that I once only had vague (and often incorrect) impressions of. Caesaria Philippi, Capernaum, the Sea of Galilee and many more locales will now come with a host of vivid memories when I come across them in my Bible reading.

The remnants of the pagan Temple of Pan at Caesaria Philippi. Wikimedia Commons, public domain.The remnants of the pagan Temple of Pan at Caesaria Philippi. Wikimedia Commons, public domain.

As Christians, we are not spiritually obligated to make pilgrimage. Most Christians in the world will not ever have a chance to visit Israel in this life, though we Christians all hope for the future New Jerusalem [Revelation 21].

As Christians, we also believe that our faith can and is fully incarnated in cultures around the world, so we do not have the kind of connection to a specific place (or language) as do Muslims to Mecca and Arabic, for instance.

Nevertheless, going to Israel reminded me of the utter importance of place to Christianity, especially in its Jewish roots.

Being in Israel helped me to see that my upbringing in an American Christian context and longstanding familiarity with the Bible had taken away some of the radical edge of the Bible’s claims about what actually happened in ancient Israel, especially surrounding the ministry of Jesus of Nazareth. If we forget about the grainy textures of particular places, we drain some of the immediacy of the miracles of the Bible. It is one thing to acknowledge that miracles happened long ago and far away. It is another to stand in those places, and to affirm that here, where we are standing, the miracles did in fact transpire.

It is one thing to affirm that God sent fire to consume Elijah’s “burnt offering and the wood and the stones and the dust” in I Kings 18, in his confrontation with the prophets of Baal. It is another to stand atop Mount Carmel, and to remember that it was here that God did it.

Similarly, it is powerful to take a boat ride onto the Sea of Galilee and to think, it was here that Jesus walked on water and calmed the storm in Matthew 14.

The Garden Tomb, by Kfoulk, Wikimedia Commons. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.The Garden Tomb, by Kfoulk, Wikimedia Commons. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

And of course, it is incomparable to walk the Via Dolorosa, and to think, it was here in these places that Jesus was condemned, mocked, scourged, and crucified. And whether at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre or the Garden Tomb, he was buried and rose again from the dead.

You don’t have to see these places and share these experiences in order to embrace the miracles’ veracity, by faith. But seeing the places challenged me afresh to recognize the strangeness and historicity of the claims of Christian faith. At a specific place and time in history, Jesus taught, loved, healed, worked miracles, died, and rose again.

If these things are true – and they are! – then we can readily appreciate the disciples’ reaction to Jesus walking on water and calming the storm. “Those in the boat worshiped him, saying, ‘Truly you are the Son of God,’” Matthew 14:33 tells us. When we view the places he walked, and return to the Bible’s stunning accounts of what He did, worship is the only fitting response to this Messiah. Casual affirmation just won’t do.

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