By Kami L. Rice
James Davison Hunter is the LaBrosse-Levinson Distinguished Professor of Religion, Culture, and Social Theory in the Departments of Sociology and Religious Studies at the University of Virginia and founder and executive director of the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture. He began his higher education career at Gordon College where he earned a bachelor’s degree in sociology before earning master’s and doctoral degrees from Rutgers University.
At the CCCU Presidents Conference in February, Hunter delivered a keynote address in which he began with these questions: What is Christian higher education? What are its aims and purposes? How does it relate to the larger culture and to the larger movement it is part of? In our interview, Hunter expounds on these thoughts.
What is the current role of Christian higher education in higher education—and in the church?
I believe that the Christian liberal arts occupies a very important place in American higher education, and its role in American culture and Christianity is enormously important as well. My encouragement to you is that you step into this leadership role more fully, more boldly, and where possible, more creatively.
How does secularism fail to address human flourishing?
Secularism’s implicit claims of neutrality cloak the inescapable moral commitments made in these contexts and put these commitments off limits to public deliberation. The reality, of course, is that underneath this pose of neutrality is a moral order, a particular understanding of the human being and of the community, which exerts a powerful force within our culture. Thus, we are faced with implicit and inarticulate promises of human flourishing that, in the end, undermine, diminish, and even deny the possibility of human thriving. The meta-narrative of secularization as a story about the weakening, decline, and even disappearance of traditional religion from social life has largely been debunked, but its effects will be felt for a long time.
How does this failure open a door of opportunity for Christian higher education?
If it retrieves and builds upon the best of the Christian intellectual tradition, creatively, cogently, and boldly [responding] to the fundamental questions of our times, Christian higher education has an opportunity to step into the void and speak in the face of the exhaustion of the older paradigms of Christian engagement with the culture. There is an opportunity for the Christian liberal arts to step into this absence and provide creative leadership for the movement as a whole by fashioning a new kind of engagement with the larger world; one that is faithful to the biblical tradition but speaks clearly, convincing, humanely to the world as a whole.
Does the integration of faith and learning mandate take us far enough to address our changing cultural context?
I don’t think it does. The goal of the integration of faith and learning, of course, is the cultivation of a Christian worldview. That’s fine, as far as it goes, but the focus on worldview is driven by an implicit idealism: the belief in the primacy of ideas over everything; that ideas are the engine of history; the things that matter most. The problem with idealism is that it misconstrues agency. Idealism underplays the importance of history and historical forces and its interaction with culture as it is lived and experienced. Further, idealism ignores the powerful role of institutions in the generation, coordination, and organization of culture. In short, idealism communicates the message that if people just have the right values, believe the right things, embrace the right worldview, it will make the decisive difference. It is important, but we know that it is not decisive. I want to suggest that it may be time to go beyond the “integration mandate” to a model of Christian higher learning focused preeminently on an “education for flourishing.”
Why is it time for a model of Christian higher learning focused preeminently on education for human flourishing?
In To Change the World I’ve argued that there are three dominant paradigms by which Christians have tried to engage the world. I call these paradigms “defensive against,” “relevance to,” and “purity from.” All three of these paradigms speak to authentic biblical concerns and genuine worries about the integrity of faith in our historical moment. But I also believe all of them are deeply flawed and thus inadequate to the challenges of our time. It is against these three paradigms that I suggest a fourth: “faithful presence within.” In this paradigm I would suggest education for human flourishing as a better way for Christian institutions of higher education to pursue their ideals.
Please describe the paradigm of “faithful presence within.”
“Faithful presence within” is a paradigm of incarnation. This incarnational paradigm suggests that the calling of the church is to go into the fullness of the culture, bearing the fullness of the gospel, for the purposes of redemption. Unlike the “defensive against” paradigm, the incarnational church seeks to follow Jesus into every sphere of creation. Unlike the “relevance to” paradigm, the incarnational church not only moves fully into the world but also retains the integrity of its God-given character and proclamation as it does so. And unlike the “purity from” paradigm, the incarnational church sees its movement into the world not as an angry movement of conquest but as a hopeful movement of redemptive love, seeking not to triumph over its neighbors, but to work for their flourishing. “Faithful presence” puts the question this way: what if Christians, rather than triumphantly determining to “transform” culture, or apocalyptically seeking to protect themselves from it, sought instead to be fully and redemptively present within it? What if we created institutions of higher learning that self-consciously and perpetually taught men, women, and children to go into every part of our cultural life—every geographic, institutional, and social sphere—and labor there together for the glory of God and the flourishing of our neighbors? What if we were known not for seeking to win the culture wars but for seeking to bring cultural shalom?
How is “faithful presence” both an old and a new paradigm?
At its root, “faithful presence” begins with an acknowledgment of God’s faithful presence to us and that his call upon us is that we be faithfully present to him in return. This is the foundation, the logic, the paradigm. This is an older wisdom, but in the situation in which Christians find themselves today, it holds the markings of a new paradigm.
What are the implications of “faithful presence” for the practices of Christian colleges?
You can already find the impulse toward “faithful presence” within Christian colleges. I believe the challenge is to step more fully and boldly into this paradigm for faculty, students, and the institutions. How this plays out is a big question which space does not allow for here. My overarching contention would be that Christian colleges aspire to be places of flourishing within themselves and for themselves; but they should also be such for the communities that surround them. As institutions, the institutions themselves should tangibly and proactively enact the beauty, grace, love, justice, and hope of the gospel on behalf of their neighbors. Externally, this would allow them to seek the welfare of the cities and the communities of which they are comprised, in every imaginable way. Internally, Christian colleges could work together to create centers of academic excellence in different spheres of inquiry. They must create a culture that expresses and embodies a vision of renewal and restoration that extends to all of life in order to foster the formation of students who will go on to be a faithful presence in the world.
What would you say to encourage and affirm CCCU faculty and administrators in their labors in higher education?
In the history of Western Christianity, every time—at least that I am aware—that the church has engaged the world in ways that were constructively transformative, excellence in education, scholarship, teaching, and erudition was always central, always catalytic. This is true in the ancient church, in the conversion of barbarian Europe, in the Carolingian Renaissance, in the Reformation, and so on. And here we are today—we live in a time of great hurt and great confusion. To step into this hurt and confusion in the framework of your personal and institutional vocations with true excellence, in ways that provide clarity and healing, is a huge burden you bear. But it is also an extraordinary opportunity as well. Much is at stake and so I pray: God-speed in your labors.