Building God-Centered Universities: A Call for Transdisciplinarity in Christian Higher Education

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[Editor's Note: This post originally appeared on May 13, 2013.]

Several weeks ago, I had the privilege of participating in a consultation on “Transdisciplinary Scholarship” sponsored by the Paideia Centre for Public Theology in Ontario, Canada. The meeting lasted for two days and was populated by thirteen scholars or public figures including Craig Bartholomew, R. R. Reno, Hunter Baker, Claudia Beversluis, C. Stephen Evans, Derek Halvorson, Michael Healy, Eric Johnson, Todd Ream, Robert Sloan, W. Jay Wood, Edward Zinke, and your scribe.

The notion of transdisciplinarity is fetching and, in my opinion, significant for the renewal of Christian higher education. Our discussion of transdisciplinarity began with a co-presentation by Bartholomew and Johnson, in which they assessed the state of affairs in Christian higher education. Their presentation was divided into three parts, which I shall try to distill in the next several paragraphs of this post.

First, Bartholomew and Johnson asked “Where are we?” In response, they noted that Christian scholars are still living in the shadow of the so-called death of Modernity, a complex ideological movement that handicaps Christian scholarship in myriad ways. This ideology “can be characterized by a reliance on autonomous reason and the scientific method for knowledge (often synonymous with positivism), skepticism regarding tradition and biblical revelation, the proliferation and growing specialization of knowledge, a commitment to individualism and human rights, and a strong belief in cultural progress.” Although many of the positive aspects of the modern agenda spring from the West’s Christian roots, the negative aspects arose because the Christian worldview was abandoned. Western scholars ultimately displaced a Christian framework for knowledge by embracing a naturalist metaphysic and epistemology, and a secular system of public and scientific discourse. As a result higher education came to have no center, and experienced disciplinary fragmentation.

Second, they asked “What is the next phase in Western thought and practice?” Although evangelicals have tried to overcome de-centered education and disciplinary fragmentation by embarking on a project of “integration,” this project often is tainted by late modern presuppositions and therefore often is unable to offer a truly Christian account of the academic disciplines. For this reason, we must go beyond “integration.” We must recognize the ways in which late modernity has reified and isolated the disciplines from one another, and replace the later modern paradigm with a truly Christian one. In order to do so we leverage the Christian Scriptures and worldview toward the end of promoting a Christian “transdisciplinarity.”

Third, they asked “What is transdisciplinary scholarship? Transdisciplinary scholarship is scholarship which promotes the synthesis of human understanding for a distinctively Christian viewpoint. Against the late modern academic model, which results in ever-increasing specialization and the fragmentation of the disciplines, Bartholomew and Johnson argue that transdisciplinarity’s goal is “the transposition of each discipline into a higher, ever-increasingly unified order of knowledge and love, based on a Christian metaphysic.” Transdisciplinary scholarship relies upon certain metadisciplines (biblical studies, theology, Christian philosophy) to guide it in building an integrated body of knowledge, understanding, and practice. Instead of merely learning within isolated disciplines, therefore, we are able to bring the disciplines into conversation with one another, with each discipline being enriched, and with new transdisciplines being created.

Bartholomew and Johnson’s presentation was followed by several others. Robert Sloan spoke on “The State of the Nation” in regard to higher education. Eric Johnson presented “Transdisciplinary Scholarship as an Alternative Model.” Craig Bartholomew presented “Spiritual Formation, Intellectual Community, and Transdisciplinarity.” C. Stephen Evans presented “Philosophy and Transdisciplinarity.” Finally, yours truly wrapped up the consultation with a presentation which sought to point the way forward in light of the previous presentations.

The consultation was refreshing, in part because it was a small collaborative discussion rather than a sprawling and disconnected “conference,” but also because the concept of transdisciplinarity is a useful one for bringing unity to the field of Christian higher education in upcoming years. I agree with several of the presenters that the academy is experiencing an ever-increasing fragmentation, that this fragmentation keeps us from building an increasingly unified and God-centered body of knowledge, that it further handicaps the specialized disciplines themselves, and that it impoverishes human existence by separating out what ought to be held together.

I am not arguing that the universities and seminaries should discourage specialized knowledge, but that specialized fields of knowledge should remain in conversation with one another, and they should together be informed by certain metadisciplines (such as biblical studies, theology, and Christian philosophy) which are vital to their ultimate fruition. In other words, the Christian university should seek truly to be a uni-versity, a unified endeavor. The Christian university should center itself on biblical studies, Christian theology, and Christian philosophy, allowing the various scholarly disciplines to flourish within this truly Christian framework.

The obstacles to building a transdisciplinary Christian university are many, but not insurmountable. Presidents and Provosts must re-prioritize by hiring faculty members who will invest in the project, providing forums in which professors from various disciplines (e.g. arts, sciences) remain in close conversation with one another, and in which they together converse with biblical scholars, theologians, and Christian philosophers. Professors must re-prioritize, by investing time and energy in reading more broadly (in the meta-disciplines and in other disciplines) and engaging in their research projects communally. To re-prioritize in this manner poses a challenge, in light of the fact that many scholars are already stretched thin because of their teaching, advising, writing, and committee-attendance. However, the challenge is not insurmountable, and those persons and universities will be rewarded who meet the challenge in order to forge a genuinely transdisciplinary environment.

One final note: I hope the reader does not come away from this post with the impression that I think “all is bad” in Christian higher education. On the contrary, there is much about which to be optimistic. There are many Christian universities who have a vision to build a truly Christian university and who are realizing the fruits of their efforts. Union University, California Baptist University, and Houston Baptist University immediately come to mind, as do others. However, although everything is not bad, neither is everything good. Christian institutions of higher education have been adversely affected by our late modern and postmodern context, and find themselves struggling to build a truly unified and God-centered framework for knowledge. Toward that end, the concept of transdisciplinary scholarship seems a helpful one, and worthy of extended discussion and reflection.

  14Comments

  1. Allen James   •  

    Hi Bruce,
    I saw that Derek Halvorson was at this meeting. Great guy. Our oldest just finished his freshman year at Covenant. We couldn’t have been more pleased with his education in every way. It is a very good school academically while being centered on Christ. One thing we were very impressed with was the campus life at the school. They have some creative ideas to build campus life and identity at the school. For a small school (1,000 students) it feels more like a larger university in terms of what it offers in the area of social life, sports, athletics, cultural activities, etc. If you want a school to learn from that has similar values to SE college, I’d encourage you to learn all you can from Covenant.

    Grace be with you,
    Allen

  2. Ross Parker   •  

    Bruce,

    Thanks for the summary. I think that you’re right that Christian scholars need to engage in more transdisciplinary work. And I’m also all for the importance of Christian philosophy, theology, and biblical studies informing all aspects of the academic work of the university.

    I also think that you’ve pinpointed the difficulty with this project. As a Philosophy PhD student, I’ve spent the past 4 years trying to do all I can to read widely in the history of philosophy as well as keep up in a minimal way with the cutting-edge work being done in epistemology, metaphysics, ethics, and philosophy of religion (and only keeping up with the Anglo-American branch of contemporary philosophical work). And now that I’m writing my dissertation, I’m even more focused in my research and reading. I simply haven’t had time to read much theology, and even less in Biblical Studies.

    So the challenge will be to have Christian scholars who are working at the cutting edge of their field while also reading widely across the disciplines, while maintaining a strong focus on teaching.

    If there’s any hope to accomplish this, we’ll need to do what you suggested and have cross-discipline conversations. I may not be able to read all the key books in Biblical Studies, but I can talk with colleagues who can distill the ideas and arguments into a form that allows me to grasp the thesis of these works. We simply can’t accomplish the task alone – this is in part why the Christian university is so important.

  3. Bruce Ashford   •     Author

    Allen, hi and thank you for taking the time to read and respond. You are right that Covenant is a fine educational community, and Derek Halverson is as good a president as one could hope for. They provide an excellent model.

  4. Bruce Ashford   •     Author

    Ross,yep. Given the already-existing demands upon faculty members/scholars, the best way to remain conversant across the disciplines is to engage in formal or informal conversation with scholars from other disciplines. One of the most fruitful practices for most scholars will be to share weekly lunches and coffees with a group of scholars from different disciplines.

  5. Wesley L. Handy   •  

    Bruce,

    This is exciting to read! I love the prospects of this line of thinking.

    I can’t help but wonder though what role accrediting agencies have played and may continue to play in the fragmentation of higher education. I’m thinking of the issue regarding faculty credentials in particular.

    I think faculty credential guidelines are helpful in many respects. However, don’t they serve to push institutions towards greater specialization?

    What do you perceive are some steps forward in working to change the prevalent thinking at the meta-IHL(institution of higher learning) level? Is that necessary? Perhaps I’m going too far.

    Respectfully yours,

    Wes

  6. Bruce Ashford   •     Author

    Wes, thank you for jumping into the convo, and asking some tough questions. I think you’ve put your finger on a sore spot. In relation to accreditation standards for faculty credentials, the upside is that those standards help ensure that the faculty member under consideration actually is qualified to teach in the discipline. One of the downsides, however, is exactly what you mentioned: the ever-increasing trend toward specialization which itself often leads toward fragmentation. In short, I think we can have specialization without fragmentation (and accreditation standards for faculty credentials, even without necessarily experiencing fragmentation). In order to uphold transdiciplinarity even in an environment which encourages specialization, we must employ both formal and informal means to encourage it. Formal means might include institutional forums or workshops. Informal means might include regular lunches and coffee sessions that involve faculty members from multiple disciplines conversing with one another. I also think that co-authorship is vital to the project, as co-authors from two disciplines work together to produce a transdisciplinary text. Imagine, for example, how rich a systematic theology would be if it were co-authored by a theologian and an exegete?

  7. Sam Webb   •  

    Dr. Ashford,

    Great post! I am very encouraged by your continual focus on academic excellence in Christian higher education. As an attorney with government and business experience, I am interested how you see disciplines like law, economics and political science fitting in your transdisciplinary framework? Further, what do you make of “applied” social sciences, like business (accounting, finance, marketing, management, etc.)?

    My great desire is to see our Christian educational institutions form young minds who see that, truly, all things are from Him, by Him, and for Him.

    To God be the Glory,
    Sam

  8. Bruce Ashford   •     Author

    Sam,

    Greetings! Thank you for for your kind words and for taking the time to weigh in on the issue. You’ve raised two important questions (public square disciplines, applied social science disciplines) that each deserve a book length treatment. In a nutshell, i’d say something like this:

    The academic enterprise can be compared to a tree (kudos to Craig Bartholomew). In this analogy, the roots of the tree are “faith” or the direction of the heart. The roots feed the base of the tree, which in this analogy is biblical studies and biblical theology, which serve as the foundation and trajectory for the growth of the tree. Out of the base grow two main branches, namely, systematic theology and Christian philosophy. These two disciplines are similar, in that they both draw upon the same sources (both special and general revelation) but they differ in that their questions have a different primary focus (Christian philosophy focuses more on the “structure” of reality, while systematic theology focuses more on the “direction” of reality, which is to say matters of redemption and worship). Growing from those two main branches are further branches, which represent the special sciences, the various disciplines each of which have their own creational integrity.

    The two clusters of disciplines to which you referred (public square, applied social science) are special sciences, each of which have their own creational integrity. They are related to theology, and they are related to the other disciplines.

    First, they relate to theology. Take for example the theological notion of idolatry. Sound biblical theology teaches us that human life is “shot through” with human sin/rebellion/idolatry. For this reason, any entrepreneur, marketer, lawyer, or politician should ask of his/her profession three questions: (1) What is God’s creational design for this sort of activity? (2) What are the ways in which idolatry has warped and degraded this realm, and misdirected it away from Christ toward idols? (3) In what ways can we bring healing to this realm by redirecting it toward Christ and his design for it?

    Second, they relate to one another. Because truth is unified, every discipline necessarily relates to every other discipline.

    This is a rather brief and superficial answer to your profound question. I hope its helpful.

    Blessings,
    Bruce

  9. Jessica Waggener   •  

    YES! I was just musing to myself today (probably while washing dishes)… How do we get back to that place where theology was the “Queen of all sciences (disciplines)”? Once upon a time you weren’t considered fit to really study theology until you had mastered every other known and lesser discipline, like theoretical mathematics. Now there’s a course that would be fun to teach: Math for Preachers, pre-req. for Hermeneutics. :)

  10. Bruce Ashford   •     Author

    Jessica, those were the good days, eh?!

  11. Wesley L. Handy   •  

    Jessica has a good point. The seminary is dependent on a whole host of people skilled in mathematical disciplines. Furthermore, while mathematics may not fall directly within the sphere of graduate-level ministerial preparation, the subject does relate to our philosophy of religion and theology of culture, among other things. The Personal Finance course is one integrated approach to the subject as well. Could there be others? And while it may not be a popular draw, I could conceive of a BACS/Mathematics. The thing is, what mathematical thinking does for the human mind fits well with all the disciplines. It sure makes learning languages a whole lot easier.

    Thanks for letting me ride the train down the tracks a little with this comment.

  12. Bruce Ashford   •     Author

    Wesley, yes. Yep. Yeppers.

  13. dr. james willingham   •  

    The sad part is that the Doctor of Ministry I have has been a dead end degree, getting me turned down by many schools, not being taken seriously, etc., even though I have five degrees and work on number six. The sad part is that I was trained to do research and have done it for much of my life (now possessing perhaps 10,000 5×8 notecards, 3000 in church history, 2000 on Agape in I Cors.12:31b-14:1a, 2000 on the first 13 psalms, and more, besides notebooks on various books of the Bible (five on I John). due to the Ph.D. mentality, the university system as we now have it is a no, no for real learning. In fact, it is under the control of money, and that is why we have even the exclusion of Intelligent Design. Just follow the money trail behind the reasons and streams of evolutionists. Don’t be surprised if you should run into Conspiracy…

  14. Bruce Ashford   •     Author

    Dr. Willingham, you’re right that the D.Min. is a fine degree and is, in fact, the most advanced professional ministry degree available.

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