Theology & Culture (11): Why The Academy Matters to God

The university is perhaps the most influential institution in American society. It certainly is a funnel though which hundreds of thousands of young people pour out annually into every sector of American life. Further, many universities and academic disciplines have become breeding grounds for adamant (if not militant) resistance to Christian belief and practice. In fact, when 18 year old believers enter college, they will often find a scenario in which the smartest people they now know are opposed to the core convictions of Christianity. It is likely that these same students are utterly unprepared to think critically and therefore tend to either (1) compartmentalize their religious life and their academic life, allowing the two lives to run on parallel tracks and holding the two in an ever-unresolved tension; or (2) allow their academic influencers to overturn their Christian convictions, largely because they (the students) are unaware of any top-shelf minds in their disciplines who take seriously the charge to integrate their Christian faith with their academic learning.

By the time I entered seminary, I had begun to read widely in various academic disciplines because I had encountered faculty members and students on multiple university campuses who seemed to make a good case against Christianity from within their own disciplines. In other words, the broad intellectual milieu in the United States is one in which secular forms of rationality are privileged. As David Dockery puts it, “The ‘cultured despisers’ of religion regard faith, Christian faith in particular, as irrational and obscurantist. They consider that it may be necessary to tolerate and perhaps even accommodate faith on campus by providing or recognizing denominational chaplaincies, student religious groups, and so forth. But religious faith, even when tolerated, is understood as at best irrelevant to, and at worst incompatible with, serious and unfettered intellectual inquiry and the transmission of knowledge to students.”*

I was driven to “vindicate” God. In reality, I knew that I did not have to, and was not able to, “vindicate” God. But I did want to be able to show God’s glory and the truth of his word in every academic discipline and by extension in every dimension of human intellectual life and culture.

After seminary, I lived in the former Soviet Union for two years, at which time I gained an even clearer grasp of what the university looks like bereft of Christian influence. My best Russian friends were taking undergraduate and graduate degrees in philosophy, psychology, philology, and physics, as well as other disciplines. They continually articulated to me a sort of nihilistic worldview, as well as a fragmented and disordered view of the academic disciplines, which is precisely what one would suspect when truths of God’s existence and creation are “banned” from the classroom. Those truths are exactly the truths upon which the academy was founded and began to flourish.

In fact, the founders of Harvard College published a pamphlet in 1643, containing their mission statement: “Let every Student be plainly instructed, and earnestly pressed, to consider well [that] the maine end of his life and studies is to know God and Jesus Christ which is eternall life, Jn 17:3, and therefore to lay Christ in the bottome, as the only foundation of all sound knowledge and Learning.”** Other Ivy League schools had similar Christian foundations which enabled them to view their colleges as “uni-versities,” places of learning in which one could find a “u-nity” of truth, a unity that revolved around a God who created all things, who sustains all things such that they consist in him, and who endowed man with the ability to learn about what he created.

The founders of many of our best universities understood that one of the most profoundly good ways of loving God is to know his handiwork and the most fruitful way to do our learning is to approach the data of our discipline with a Christian framework and core presuppositions. For this reason, Cornelius Plantinga writes, “Learning is therefore a spiritual calling: properly done, it attaches us to God. In addition, the learned person has, so to speak, more to be Christian with.” Indeed we should want to “knead the yeast of the gospel” through everything that happens on campus, so that all of a student’s rational, creative, and relational capacities would be “permeated with the spirit and teaching of Christianity.”***

As we discussed this in our seminar, I observed that my Theology & Culture students came to a consensus on at least several matters: (1) the university is an institution of formidable and formative influence on many or most of our American young people, and God’s people would be naïve and even unfaithful to neglect it; (2) our attempts to be faithfully present in the academy should not be limited to explicitly Christian universities, but also should extend to our public and private universities; (3) a robust biblical theology of culture is deeply consonant with a robust biblical theology of education, such that we should be driven to foster an environment in which our evangelical young people seek earnestly to glorify God in their studies. In a sentence, we should fight the a-theological, non-academic, and even anti-intellectual impulses within the evangelical community; and (4) everything we had discussed in our Theology & Culture seminar, and therefore everything we have discussed so far in this blog series, finds its expression and its deepest and most abiding challenge within the four walls of our educational institutions.

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*David Dockery, Renewing Minds (Nashville: B&H, 2008), xiii.

**”New England’s First Fruits,” quoted in Perry Miller and Thomas H. Johnson, The Puritans (New York: American Book, 1938), 702.

***Cornelius Plantinga, Engaging God’s World: A Christian View of Faith, Learning, and Living (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002), xi; xiii.

  3Comments

  1. Zack   •  

    Good stuff, Bruce.

    I come from a tradition/denomination where men where actually praised for their lack of education.

    I remember, as a freshman in college, telling my pastor that I wanted to go to Seminary, and he told me “Seminaries are usually cemeteries. I wouldn’t waste my time. Just get out there and start doing ministry and you’ll learn more that way.”

    Most pastors in this crowd end up listening to the same 3 or 4 guys and repeating them when they preach, so the same weaknesses and doctrinal flaws are perpetuated through a whole generation.

    Studying the Bible for myself, independent of these men’s interpretation has been mind-blowing.

    Now I just need to find time and money to go to seminary…

  2. Bruce Ashford   •     Author

    Zack,

    I hear you, man! I heard the same thing, many times over, in years gone by. The “don’t get an education” argument is really a “don’t use the capacities God gave you” and “don’t make yourself maximally effective in a 21st century American context” argument. And you’re precisely correct that the men who usually make this type of argument do receive an “education,” but their education is limited to what they hear from several close associates who think the same way they do.

    Shoot me an email. I’ll help you find the time and resources to go to seminary.

  3. Pingback: How’s that? | Civil Commotion

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