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

[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.

Briefly Noted: R. R. Reno on Elshtain, Feminism, and the Family

One gets tired of the usual feminist twaddle and of the mainstream press, which unfailingly describes feminist intellectual gyrations with unctuous laudatory descriptive modifiers such as “bold” and “undaunted.” Jean Bethke Elshtain, however, strikes a different path than most feminists, a path that is more humane and more Christian. This is R. R. Reno’s point in his recent First Things editorial concerning Elshtain’s lectures on “The Nature and Meaning of Loyalty.”[1]

Elshtain, who Reno describes as “a feminist willing to criticize feminism…a contemporary academic willing to talk about God,” argues that one must be loyal to the smallest unit of society—the family—rather than denigrating it and treating it as inferior. Elshtain describes the work of Progressive era feminist Jane Addams, who recognized that “women must often endure very concrete conflicts of loyalty.” The conflict for women is between contributing to society at large, on the one hand, and taking care of one’s family, on the other hand. Elshtain lauded Addams’s realism “and for her conviction that we should never assent to an ideology that demands that we forsake our loyalty to the little platoon of the family.” Reno notes that while this argument does not automatically answer the hard questions of marriage, family, motherhood, and vocation for all women everywhere, it does take a step in figuring out “which paths, often alluring and full of promise, lead in the wrong direction.”

The second key moment from Elshtain’s lecture illustrates the first moment. Elshtain recounted the story of Le Chambon-sur Lignon, a small Protestant village in France that hid Jews during World War II. For Reno, Elshtain’s recounting illumined the meaning of Le Chambon-sur Lignon in a new, fuller way. That is, this small village of French Protestants, “undoubtedly a community of inwardly focused loyalties,” applied its inwardly focused loyalties to the lives of strangers–Jewish neighbors in danger of extermination. As Reno states, “as it turned out, the bonds of family, village, and faith that defined Le Chambon were precisely what provided the indispensable basis for their courageous actions.” Faith in God exercised in the family thus offers the locus for us to work out the right kind of loyalties, in the right way. Or as Reno says, “Loyalty’s disposition of devotion can prepare our hearts for higher loyalties, wider loves.”

I’ll second Reno’s thoughts and add another, taken from Martin Luther. In Luther’s sermons he often talked about the Christian’s multiple callings—callings to family, church, workplace, and citizenship. For Luther, each of these callings is precisely that—a calling from God—and each of them should be regarded with appropriate loyalty. Luther was right. God calls each of us to service in multiple realms; one of life’s most important tasks is to fulfill each of those callings simultaneously without giving inordinate weight to any one of them. Any ideology is fundamentally flawed that causes a person to denigrate one of their fundamental callings. To denigrate the worth and significance of family nurture is deeply inhumane and, more to the point, deeply un-Christian.



[1] R.R. Reno, “The Virtue of Loyalty,” in First Things (December 2012), 7.

 

On Christianity and Politics

Now this is a fetching discussion. In his recent “Public Square” column, R. R. Reno reflects upon the reasons for Christian political involvement.[1] He begins by posing the question: “If we believe in the sure triumph of Christ, why do we allow ourselves to be drawn in to the very unsure world of political conflict?” (p. 3) In response to the question, he notes, “The Lord’s Prayer gives a straightforward answer: Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” (p. 3) Thus, he encourages Christians to have a “double-mindedness” about our citizenship and thus involvement in the civitas: we are citizens of heaven called to serve the King who owns final victory, yet we serve him here in this world–a world that is still groaning and thus largely (sinfully) opposed to the King’s rule. In the article, he goes on to argue that we should be politically active but only with Christ as the center of our hope; otherwise, our political involvement devolves into a sort of political pornography.

Reno’s article caught my attention for several reasons, but foremost because the winter of 2012 is a particularly good time for Christians to reassess their motivation and strategy for political involvement. As I see it, beginning in the early 20th century, evangelicals pretty much abdicated their responsibilities in many sectors of public life. They withdrew from the public realm and lost most of their ability to be faithfully present in the arts, the sciences, the academy, and to some extent the political realm. In fact, I think one of the major reasons we lost our voice in the political realm is because we did not value other related realms such as the arts, the sciences, and the academy. When we devalue or desert Hollywood (the arts), Harvard (the academy), and MIT (the sciences), we lose any sort of plausibility structure we might have had in the political realm. As a result of the fact that we no longer have any real voice in our culture at large, we have found our political “toolbox” reduced to only one tool: political coercion. And, once we have reduced ourselves to coercive activism, we have almost lost.

In light of this situation in which we find ourselves, what can we affirm about political involvement? For the purposes of this blog, I want to argue that we should focus on a broader topic: Christian cultural involvement (politics is shaped by the broader culture and, in turn, shapes culture itself). At least five principles should guide our cultural involvement. [The text below is pasted from the manuscript of a forthcoming book, Gospel & Mission, which will be released by Baker Academic in 2014.]

The first principle is that culture activity is ordained by God. God created a good world, and followed up his creative activity by giving humanity a good command to bring out the hidden potentials of his creation (Gen 1:26-28; Gen 2:15). This command teaches us that cultural activity is a fundamental aspect of human life and a way in which we image God to the world. In a fallen world, this means that cultural activity is a way that we can promote God and the gospel.

The second principle is that cultural activity is marked by a great antithesis. After the fall, humans have always lived in the midst of a great struggle between the kingdom of light and the kingdom of darkness, between Christ and Satan, and between truth and error. The invisible realities, represented by certain principalities and powers, are always manifested in visible, tangible cultural realities. The New Atheism, for example, is certainly underlain by invisible realities, but also makes itself known in tangible human culture. The atheist denial of Christ’s lordship manifests itself sometimes in a false story of science, in which we are told that Christianity historically proven an impediment to scientific knowledge, and other times in an errant epistemology, in which we are told that empirical science is the only reliable avenue for gaining true knowledge about the world. Likewise, destructive postmodernism is underlain by invisible realities, but makes itself public in philosophical treatises that deny the possibility of objective knowledge and promote moral relativism. This great struggle between light and darkness cuts across the entire creation and every human culture. Christians should resist this comprehensive assault on our shared cultural life. We should fight it tooth and nail, not only from the pulpit, but in the arts, the sciences, politics, business, education, scholarship, and sports. We should resist it in an openly and robustly Christian manner.

The third principle is that cultural activity takes place within ordered realms which have their own creational design. Human cultures can be divided into a variety of realms—such as art, science, business, politics, and education—which each have their own creational design and God-given integrity. However, because we live in a fallen world comprised of sinners, these realms will be to some extent corrupted and directed toward wrong ends. The prince of darkness seeks to hijack these realms to use entirely towards his own ends. We as Christians, therefore, seek to redirect these realms towards their proper end and creational design. To the extent that we are able to do so, we glorify God and provide our neighbors a preview of what it might be like when God rules on a renewed and restored creation.

The fourth principle is that cultural activity takes place under the absolute Lordship of Christ. This principle builds upon the others, and emphasizes Christ’s lordship over all aspects of creation and human life. Christ is the creator and King over all things, and one day will restore all things. He is not merely the Lord over my “heart” or my quiet times; he is Lord over my work, my leisure, and my civil life. He is not merely sovereign over local church gatherings; he is the Lord over artistic, scientific, political, entrepreneurial, and scholarly endeavors. No piece of our (“secular”) life is to be sealed off from Christ’s lordship. Every square inch of it belongs to Christ and ought to be made to honor him. Missional Christians not only proclaim the gospel with words, they promote it in their cultural activities.

The fifth principle is that the architecture of a truly Christian cultural mission will involve answers to at least three questions. In any given cultural realm (e.g. art, science, politics, business, sports, homemaking, academics), three questions must be asked. The first question is, “What is God’s creational design for this particular realm of culture? The second question is, “In what ways have God’s designs for this realm been misdirected and corrupted by cultural idolatry?” The third question is, “In what ways can we redirect this realm and work for its healing?” As missional Christians, we should always be seeking to answer these questions, no matter which culture, or realm of culture, we find ourselves in. In so doing, we will be able to live redemptively on this earth, pointing upwards to God the King, backwards to his loving creational design, and forward to his inbreaking kingdom.

In conclusion, missional Christians do not seek to escape from their earthly existence, but to transform it in light of the gospel. “The difference between the Christian hope of resurrection and a mythological hope,” writes Bonhoeffer, “is that the Christian hope sends a man back to his life on earth in a wholly new way.”[2] Missional Christians recognize that the gospel is always proclaimed, and the Christian life is always lived, within a cultural context. Instead of chafing against this reality, we may participate in the joyful work of making working out the gospel’s implications in those cultures, allowing the gospel to critique them and bring them under the scrutiny of God’s revelation, and seeking to redirect them toward God’s design. “We await the return of Jesus Christ,” writes D. A. Carson, “the arrival of the new heaven and the new earth, the dawning of the resurrection, the glory of perfection, the beauty of holiness. Until that day, we are a people in tension. On the one hand, we belong to the broader culture in which we find ourselves; on the other, we belong to the culture of the consummated kingdom of God, which has dawned upon us.”[3] God restores his creation instead of trashing it and expects us to promote the gospel within our cultural context rather than attempting to withdraw ourselves from it.


[1] R. R. Reno, “The Public Square,” in First Things (Nov 2012), 3-7.

[2] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison, ed. Eberhard Bethge, trans. Reginald Fuller and others, rev. ed. (New York: The Macmillan Co., 1967), 176.

[3] Carson, Christ & Culture Revisited, 64.