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.

Theology & Culture (12): My Favorite Colleges, Persons, Blogs, Journals, and Books

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By way of conclusion, allow me to point out a few institutions, persons, and publications which seek to approach to theology and culture in a robustly Christian manner. Please keep in mind that I must be concise to the extreme; even in an attempt at concision, this last installment is more than twice as long as I intended.

Institutions of Higher Education

I am happy to mention The College at Southeastern (C@SE), where I serve as a dean and professor, as a unique evangelical and Baptist institution of higher learning which takes seriously the integration of faith and learning. One unique aspect of our college is our core curriculum which centers not only on biblical-theological studies but also on the great books and ideas of western civilization. Each student who enrolls to pursue their baccalaureate education at C@SE will take at least four seminars in History of Ideas. In these seminars, they read philosophers such as Plato, Aristotle, Descartes, Locke, Kant, Hegel, and Nietzsche; they read theologians such as Augustine, Aquinas, Erasmus, Calvin, and Luther; they read literature by Homer, Virgil, Dante, Milton, Chaucer, Sartre, and DuBois. As they read these texts and many others, they trace the influence of ideas, they critique those ideas theologically and philosophically, and they develop their own rational and creative capacities. All of this is done with an eye toward bringing their core theological convictions into conversation with the arts, the sciences, the public square disciplines, etc.

Among universities, it would be difficult to find a more exemplary institution than Union University, led by David Dockery whose Renewing Minds (Nashville: B&H, 2008) sets forth a coherent and compelling vision for how Christian higher education can serve the church and society. Union’s faculty members are publishing serious academic research in their respective disciplines, and doing so precisely because they take seriously the integration of faith and learning. Houston Baptist University is a research institution with which to be reckoned, and which is serious about faith and learning, as is exemplified in the hiring of Robert Sloan and the subsequent launch of their new journal The City (a journal of intellectual, social, and cultural consequence, even after only two years of publication). There are quite a few other exemplary institutions, but for the purposes of this brief blogpost, I have focused on the aforementioned three, all of which are aligned with my network of churches, the Southern Baptist Convention.

Exemplary Persons

Over the course of the past 50 years, there have arisen some great men and women who exemplify Christian interaction in various dimensions of American culture. In the discipline of philosophy, I think of Alvin Plantinga, Nicholas Wolterstorff, Arthur Holmes, David Cook, and William Lane Craig. In the arts, I am reminded of Leland Ryken, Gene Veith, and Alan Jacobs. In the natural sciences, I think of Michael Behe, Stephen Barr, and Charles Thaxton. In public theology and the public square, I am reminded of Francis Schaeffer, Richard John Neuhaus, Lesslie Newbigin, and Al Mohler. And the list could go on, but this short list suffices to point out that younger evangelicals have some excellent (though imperfect) models of faithful cultural engagement and cultural work.

Informative Blogs

Al Mohler’s Blog. I began reading Al Mohler’s blog soon after I returned from my two year stint in Central Asia. Dr. Mohler blogs daily about a wide range of issues, and does so from a conservative evangelical perspective. If you would like to be acquainted (from an evangelical perspective) with the latest books being published, the most important issues surfacing in public discussion, and the most influential thinkers in contemporary life, this blog is perhaps the best place to start. For students who are interested in expanding their mind, I would say to you: Mohler’s blogposts can be read in 5 minutes or so, and are much more profitable than espn.go.com. (Although there’s nothing wrong with ESPN. Just sayin’.)

Justin Taylor’s Blog. This blog aggregate points its readers to the best books and blogs in the Christian world, many of which deal with theology and culture.

Arts & Letters Daily. I’ve just recently started browsing this website, whose niche is linking to significant blogs and essays daily. These blogs and essays are “here comes everybody.” They are written by men and women from across the ideological spectrum, and therefore are helpful for keeping the pulse of contemporary society and culture.

Substantive Journals

First Things. Richard John Neuhaus started this journal, which is published by the Institute on Religion and Public Life. First Things is founded on the premise that ideas matter, and that the ideas that matter most are those involving religion, culture, and politics. Its essays are written by world-class scholars and cover nearly any topic at the intersection of theology and culture. For eleven years, I have looked forward to the day that this invigorating monthly arrives in my mailbox.

Touchstone. This magazine is a journal of “Mere Christianity,” styled after the likes of C. S. Lewis and G. K. Chesteron. Worth a read.

The City. This elegant journal, published by Houston Baptist University, is an evangelical counterpart to First Things, covering nearly any topic at the intersection of theology and culture.

Exemplary Books

In this section, I will note a few books, journals, and websites under various dimensions of theology and culture. My intention is to provide a few basic books for those readers who would like to begin reading and thinking in various areas of theology and culture. These lists are nowhere near being comprehensive, nor are they necessarily the best books to begin reading on any given topic. Instead, they are selections from my own shelves. They are books that I have found helpful in thinking through the task of living faithfully and thinking Christianly within my own (American) cultural context.

Christianity & Culture (General)

Crouch, Andy. Culture Making: Recovering our Creative Calling. An engaging and persuasive treatise on the Christian community’s calling to “make culture” rather than merely “engage the culture.”

Goheen, Mike and Craig Bartholomew. Living at the Crossroads: An Introduction to Christian Worldview. In my opinion this is the best one-stop introduction on how the biblical narrative fosters a worldview that in turn shapes the entirety of the Christian life, including especially culture work and cultural engagement.

Horton, Michael. Where in the World is the Church? A fine introduction to the role of the Christian in culture.

Hunter, James Davison. To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, & Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World. A recent and influential argument that Christian strategies for “changing the world” are doomed from the start, because they fail to recognize the role of the cultural elite in fostering such change.

Kuyper, Abraham. Lectures on Calvinism. A classic text discussing Reformed theology as a life-system, fleshing out its implications in religion, politics, science, and art.

Moore, T.M. Culture Matters: A Call for Consensus on Christian Cultural Engagement. A brief little book arguing for Christian cultural engagement based upon the lessons learned from five historical case studies (Augustine, Celts, Calvin, Kuyper, Milosz).

Niebuhr, H. Richard. Christ and Culture. This text has become the modern benchmark for discussing Christianity and culture.

Schaeffer, Francis. How Then Shall We Live? The modern classic on the subject by the doyen of evangelical cultural analysis.

Veith, Gene E. God at Work: Your Christian Vocation in All of Life. An introduction to Martin Luther’s theology of vocation.

Christian Faith & Learning

Dockery, David. Renewing Minds: Serving Church and Society through Christian Higher Education. An excellent and accessible treatise on how to recover a robust and authentic view of faith and learning.

Holmes, Arthur. The Idea of a Christian College (rev. ed.) An evangelical classic. A slim little volume that packs a powerful punch as it sets forth the distinctive mission and contributions of a Christian college.

Marsden, George. The Outrageous Idea of Christian Scholarship. A 20th century classic which provides a compelling argument that mainstream American higher ed needs to be open to explicit expressions of faith in an intellectual context.

Noll, Mark. The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind. A compelling argument that evangelicals should value the life of the mind.

Plantinga, Cornelius. Engaging God’s World: A Christian Vision of Faith, Learning, and Living. A deep and sustained interaction with the biblical narrative and its implications for faith, learning, and living. Very accessible.

Wolterstorff, Nicholas. Educating for Life: Reflections on Christian Teaching and Learning. A collection of essays in which Nicholas Wolterstoff applies his high-octane brain to the notion of faith and learning in Christian high school education.

________. Educating for Shalom: Essays on Christian Higher Education. An collection of essays in which Wolterstoff thinks publicly about faith and learning in higher education.

The Arts

Gallagher, Susan V. and Roger Lundin. Literature Through the Eyes of Faith. An excellent introduction that shows how the reading of literature helps us interpret life and experience.

Godawa, Brian. Hollywood Worldviews: Watching Films with Wisdom and Discernment. This is the single best guide to a theologically astute analysis of movie plots.

O’Connor, Flannery. “The Church and the Fiction Writer” in Mystery and Manners. This essay provides insight into the relationship of faith and writing from the consummate Christian author.

_________. “Novelist and Believer” in Mystery and Manners. This essay provides insight into the relationship of faith and writing from the consummate Christian author.

Rookmaaker, H.R. Modern Art and the Death of a Culture. A modern classic that offers penetrating insight into modern art and the intellectual context beneath it.

Ryken, Leland. Windows to the World: Literature in Christian Perspective. A primer on the subject of literature and truth that shows the importance of the imagination in reading.

Schaeffer, Francis A. Art and the Bible: Two Essays. Two brief essays on how to think about art from a biblical perspective from one of the patriarchs of evangelical cultural analysis.

Veith, Gene E. State of the Arts: From Bezalel to Mapplethorpe. A useful guide to understanding both the biblical foundations for art and the contemporary art world.

Wolterstorff, Nicholas. Art in Action: Toward a Christian Aesthetic. A fairly technical treatise on the reality that art does not exist merely for aesthetic contemplation but that it functions in everyday life.

The Sciences

Behe, Michael J. Darwin’s Black Box: The Biochemical Challenge to Evolution. A fetching read about a central problem with Darwinian theory by a working biochemist. The book is technical but accessible to the lay reader.

Carlson, Richard F., ed. Science and Christianity: Four Views. Not surprisingly, four views on the relationship of science and Christianity.

Davis, John Jefferson. The Frontiers of Science and Faith. A terrific exploration of ten current scientific issues and their intersection with Christian theology and life.

Hunter, Cornelius. Darwin’s God. A biophysicist examines the theological issues underlying the formulation of Darwin’s theory of origins.

Pearcy, Nancy R. and Charles B. Thaxton. The Soul of Science: Christian Faith and Natural Philosophy. An analysis of the way in which Judeo-Christian thought funds the scientific enterprise, including a look at mathematics and scientific “revolutions,” and the discipline called the “History of Science.”

The Public Square

Audi, Robert and Nicholas Wolterstorff. Religion in the Public Square: The Place of Religious Convictions in Public Debate. A somewhat technical discussion of Christian convictions and the way in which believers should dialogue in the public square. Audi argues that Christians should appear “naked” in the public square, while Wolterstorff (himself a political liberal), argues Christians should come “fully clothed.”

Budziszewski, J. What We Can’t Not Know: A Guide. A useful explication of the way in which natural law benefits discussions about morality in the public square written by a former nihilist turned Christian who teaches philosophy at the University of Texas.

Mouw, Richard J. and Sander Griffioen. Pluralisms and Horizons: An Essay inChristian Public Philosophy. An unpacking of the problem of political consensus in a pluralist environment, which includes a helpful comparison and contrast of major thinkers on the topic, including Rawls, Nozick, and Neuhaus.

Nash, Ronald. Social Justice and the Christian Church. Nash offers an impassioned plea for social justice founded upon biblical principles wedded with free-market ideals.

Neuhaus, Richard John. The Naked Public Square: Religion and Democracy in America. A very influential and well-argued text on the place of Christian conviction in public political discourse. (Fear not, there are no pictures.)

Newbigin, Lesslie: Foolishness to the Greeks: The Gospel & Western Culture. An enduringly influential work on confronting western culture with the gospel.

Novak, Michael. The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism. A vigorous examination of capitalism and democracy with a particularly good articulation of a “theology of democratic capitalism.”

American and Western Culture

Anderson, Walter Truett. Reality Isn’t What it Used to Be: Theatrical Politics, Ready-to-Wear Religion, Global Myths, Primitive Sheik, and Other Wonders of the Postmodern World. An entertaining little romp through contemporary Western culture.

Barzun, Jacques. From Dawn to Decadence: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life. A one-volume history of modern Western culture with particular attention to the intellectual underpinnings of cultural movements.

Bloom, Alan. The Closing of the American Mind: How Higher Education Has Failed Democracy and Impoverished the Souls of Today’s Students. Though this book is a bit dated, it is still an important treatise on the cataclysmic changes in Western civilization in recent years and the influence of higher education upon them.

Cantor, Norman F. The American Century: Varieties of Culture in Modern Times. An interesting tome about 20th century American cultural movements.

Himmelfarb, Gertrude. One Nation, Two Cultures: A Searching Examination of American Society in the Aftermath of Our Cultural Revolution. A fine little analysis of American society and culture with particular attention to the influence of the sexual revolution upon various spheres of culture.

Sorokin, Pitirim A. The Crisis of Our Age. An influential and unfortunately too much ignored monograph that shows the crisis of the materialistic nature of contemporary Western civilization.

Worldview

Goheen, Mike and Craig Bartholomew. Living at the Crossroads: An Introduction to Christian Worldview. In my opinion this is the best one-stop introduction to Christian worldview, ordered by the biblical narrative and applied to such issues as culture work and contextualization.

Nash, Ronald H. Worldviews in Conflict: Choosing Christianity in a World of Ideas. A good introduction to the subject that shows how to adjudicate between worldviews.

Naugle, David K. Worldview: The History of a Concept. The seminal work on the history of the concept of worldview.

Sire, James W. The Universe Next Door: A Basic Worldview Catalog, 3d. ed. A readable presentation of major worldview options.

Wolters, Albert M. Creation Regained: Biblical Basics for a Reformational Worldview. A concise theological reflection on worldview.