Oxford was founded more than a millennium ago. Its first known lecturer was a theologian. And some Muslim centers of learning date back even further. Religion was central to the core identity of the world’s earliest universities. And, in colonial America, a student enrolling at Yale, Princeton, or Columbia would have had a very different experience than what he’d expect today. He wasn’t there to do scientific research or get credentialed for professional school. He was there to shape his soul.
And yet, today American universities may be some of the most secular places in the country. Faith is an afterthought, if that, in most of American higher education. And that’s a pity, because the two grew up together, deeply influenced each other, and still have much to learn from each other. Religious higher education isn’t obsolete; properly conceived, it’s more important than ever.
Harvard, the first college in the United States, for example, was established by Puritans. Ten of its first 12 presidents were ministers. The early Harvard motto was Veritas pro Christo et Ecclesiae — “Truth for Christ and the Church.” For many of America’s first colleges — Brown, Dartmouth, Georgetown, and others — the Christian faith was central to their core identity.
By the mid-19th century, a religious organization founded almost every university and college in the U.S. and Europe. According to the eminent historian George Marsden, until well into the 19th century, “higher education remained primarily a function of the church, as it always had been in Western civilization.” A strong relationship between religious faith and learning was a given, and by the early 1860s, 262 of 288 college presidents were clergy.
After the Civil War, Ivy League educators gradually began distinguishing between “religious” and “scientific” forms of knowledge. “For both practical and ideological reasons, they put religious ways of knowing outside the bounds of academic study,” says Baylor’s Benjamin P. Leavitt, whose research focuses on religion’s place in the history of American higher education.
The historian Mark Noll describes the period between 1870 and 1930 as one of profound change “in assumptions about intellectual life and in conceptions of higher education itself,” including colleges and universities becoming more secular and skeptical, growing more oriented toward research, and moving away from the task of shaping the character of students. “(T)he new university was far too secular, far too skeptical of Common Sense reasoning and Victorian conventions, to retain the Christian rationalism that had defined the intellectual life of American colleges since their beginning.”
Since then, the gap between secular and Christian higher education institutions has widened. The overwhelming influence the Christian faith had on the broader higher education project dramatically diminished — in part, because Christians voluntarily ceded the ground to others.
In an effort to reclaim some of that ground, we witnessed the rise of evangelical liberal arts colleges in the 20th century. But the drifting apart continued, including on matters of teleology. Especially since the 1960s, the trend in higher education was toward fragmentation; Christian colleges, on the other hand, “strove to maintain a synoptic vision,” according to Thomas A. Askew, a historian at Gordon College. In the past, it was widely assumed a liberal education encompassed a theological education. That is hardly the case today. One way to think about it is that colleges and universities that started out with a Christian foundation but have become secular now form the mainland while Christian colleges and universities — especially evangelical liberal arts ones — are the smaller islands dotting the coastline.
So in this third decade of the 21st century — almost 400 years after the founding of Harvard — what does Christianity have to contribute to higher education?
To start with, first-rate scholarship. This includes fields beyond biblical studies, and it is found on campuses where Christianity is considered core to their identity. Marsden says Protestants and Catholics are “producing intellectually rigorous work in just about every academic field.” In a forthcoming essay, Marsden writes that “at no time in history has there been so much fine scholarship from traditionalist Christians concerning so many subjects.” He adds, “This renaissance of Christian scholarship, especially among traditionalist Protestants, is largely a development of the past quarter century or so.” (This renaissance in Christian scholarship is occurring at precisely the same time that anti-intellectualism is spreading in certain parts of American Christianity, particularly within the evangelical subculture.)
The influence of Christianity can also create a richer and more diverse intellectual culture since much of contemporary higher education lacks a spiritual center. In many places the intellectual dimensions of faith simply aren’t taken seriously. Academics in non-Christian colleges and universities may or may not be outwardly hostile to the Christian faith; mostly they find it an alien concept. But Christian thought clearly has something important to contribute to academic discourse. And as an alternative to naturalism and materialism, Christianity rightly understood is at least worth considering, since it strengthens the case for human rights and inherent human dignity.
One of the greatest documents in American history, Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” articulates the grounding for human dignity beautifully. The epistle can’t be understood apart from King’s Christian faith. Neither can the role of faith be pried apart from Augustine’s Confessions, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, C.S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia, the poetry of John Donne and T.S. Eliot, the paintings of Rafael and Michelangelo, or the music of Bach and Handel. Religious faith has inspired excellence in so many different areas.
But that hardly exhausts the list of contributions the Christian faith can make to human life and contemporary higher education. Christian higher education institutions are essential to conserving and transmitting the best of Christian thought.
A few years ago, over breakfast with a renowned social psychologist, Jonathan Haidt, I asked him what constructive contribution Christians could make to public life. An atheist who finds much to admire in religion, Haidt answered simply: “Humility.”
Humility is a virtue in many realms, including epistemology. Because we have all fallen short, because our judgments are distorted, we “see through a glass darkly,” in the words of the Apostle Paul, knowing only in part.
This doesn’t mean objective truth doesn’t exist; it merely means we have to hold lightly to our ability to perceive truth. The philosopher and theologian Cornelius Van Til said that there is no such thing as a brute fact. Our presumptions alter the way in which we interpret things. True humility allows us to alter our views based on new information and circumstances, to refine and recalibrate our positions, to open the aperture of our understanding rather than go in search of evidence to confirm what we already believe.
Intellectual humility — openness to learning and correction — is needed everywhere, but one would hope it would be found most conspicuously within the walls of academia. Right now, it’s not, and Christianity, when it’s most faithful, can model what it means to search for truth with integrity.
Along similar lines, and in important respects, Christian colleges and universities now model what it means to be a university better than their secular counterparts. I have in mind facilitating and encouraging free inquiry and expression.
Many students at non-Christian colleges are being shielded, or are shielding themselves, from words and ideas they find disrespectful or wounding. They are treated like porcelain dolls, fragile and easily breakable, and therefore in need of safe spaces, trigger warnings, and protection from microaggressions.
Prominent colleges and universities, whose very purpose should include exposing students to competing points of view and allowing intellectual debate to flourish, have instead become institutions that do the opposite. Efforts are made to scrub campuses of words, ideas, and subjects that might challenge preexisting beliefs and cause offense. And professors themselves are self-censoring, afraid that they might be brought up on charges for even raising questions that are deemed threatening.
Christian universities can be on the forefront of creating a culture where free expression is valued. They are hardly perfect in this regard; they have their own challenges to face, their own pressures to resist, doctrines they need to conform with. And unlike secular campuses, the pressure on Christian colleges is often coming from the right rather than the left. Still, the stifling conformity of thought we see in much of American higher education today tends to be less pronounced among Christian colleges and universities, according to a recent National Survey of Student Engagement that found that Christian college students feel they have the most freedom to talk about the most issues.
But there’s something even more fundamental that Christian higher education can provide, which is to embody the liberal arts ideal at precisely the moment when much of the rest of American higher education is moving away from it. Non-Christian institutions of higher education increasingly view a college education as a commodity. Market-based thinking is dominant, and higher future earnings is the mark of success.
At their best, Christian higher education institutions appreciate the fundamental purpose of education, which is to shape the human soul, to pursue the moral good, to love the right things. It is a deeply integrative view. Christian colleges are almost alone today in intentionally developing students who, in the words of the Hebrew prophet Micah, “act justly and love mercy and walk humbly with [their] God.” They do this imperfectly, of course, but more than any other institution in American higher education, they have the best chance to do it. Playing a redemptive role in the world — producing students who will be voices for justice, for truth, for reconciliation — is something about which Christian colleges and universities are explicit. But they also fall short, in some cases dramatically short, and that’s important to acknowledge.
Kristin Du Mez, professor of history and gender studies at Calvin University and author of the bestselling book Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation, told me that in the last couple of years in particular, she has witnessed firsthand “the utter intellectual impoverishment that characterizes many siloed Christian academic spaces.”
According to Du Mez, “They’re essentially engaging in propaganda rather than seeking truth, misconstrue actual academic arguments, and are either unwilling or unable — due to coercive pressure or deficient academic training — to engage in rigorous, good faith conversations about things that matter. And this sort of pseudo-intellectualism is rewarded in their spaces. For a faith that claims to hold to truth, this fundamentally distorts the faith and destroys their witness. And it imperils our democratic system.”
This doesn’t mean — nor would Du Mez argue — that the core mission of Christian colleges and universities is wrong or that the academe, comprised of around 5,300 colleges and universities, wouldn’t benefit from the truths and insights that Christian institutions of higher education can provide.
But it requires individuals to personify that mission in how they conduct themselves, in ways that are faithful and winsome, that manifest integrity and honor. A mission statement without those willing to carry it out is meaningless.
For C.S. Lewis, who held academic positions in English literature at both Oxford University and Cambridge University, “The task of the modern educator is not to cut down jungles but to irrigate deserts. The right defense against false sentiments is to inculcate just sentiments.” He believed students needed to be taught the right order of the loves, to like and dislike what they ought.
Some of us find that vision of education to be compelling because it is taking soulcraft seriously; it is making a correct assessment of the full human person. That isn’t to argue that there isn’t value, even great value, in an education that isn’t aimed at soulcraft. I received an excellent education at the University of Washington and, during my college years, my faith was strengthened by ministries to college students. Still, an education that refines our sentiments, that teaches us to cherish the true and the good, is a gift beyond measure. At their best, this is what Christian colleges and universities have to offer, and it’s a lot.
Peter Wehner is a senior fellow at Trinity Forum and a regular contributor to The Atlantic and The New York Times. This essay originally appeared in the September issue of Deseret Magazine on the fate of the religious university and is reprinted with permission.