A good bit of my Ph.D. work at Baylor University was devoted to the history of American higher education. It’s a fascinating area of study, especially when we consider what was expected of yesteryear’s colleges and universities with respect to teaching students how God is sovereign over all areas of knowledge and inquiry. Put differently, most institutions at that time knew that a robust college education was one where Christ-following faculty members came alongside students in their education to help them understand how God’s Word and world were inextricably tied together. This way of educating, it was assumed, was truly the most humane way of delivering a college education since the receivers of that education were themselves made imago dei—in God’s image.
Take, for example, Noah Porter, president of Yale in the late nineteenth century. He once delivered a keynote address at a live “cornerstone” event—a ceremony commemorating the newly built Stone Hall (donated by a widow Valeria G. Stone who, in her own words, wanted “the building to be always regarded and used as one that has been sacredly consecrated to the promotion of a truly Christian education and the development of, Christian character and life”) at Wellesley College, a highly regarded, historically female college in Massachusetts.
In his address, Porter put his finger on what is perhaps the perennial question regarding the DNA of a “Christian” college, namely the question of how faith relates to learning. Tertullian, an early church father, asked the question this way: “What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?” As president of Yale, Porter believed that faith and learning were not two non-related spheres. Rather, each informs the other, with faith being the basis for our understanding of reality—faith seeking understanding. Part of Porter’s answer to the faith/learning question had to do with WHO actually needs to think more clearly about the question itself. He argued that we really can be effective in making a “pro” faith and learning argument with only one main constituency—”those who believe in Christianity as permanent and divine, but yet honestly question whether in the present condition of our higher schools of learning and of Christianity itself, it is either wise of practicable any longer to make these schools distinctively and earnestly Christian” (emphasis mine).
Who is this constituency? In my experience at four institutions of higher education (with each one of them offering everything from bachelors degrees to doctorates) often, it is the faculty, the men and women who make up the DNA of the institution itself. One of the most popular arguments I’ve heard coming from faculty who react viscerally anytime they hear “faith” and “learning” used in the same sentence is this: “This is an institution of higher education. I’m not out to destroy anyone’s faith, but at the same time I see it as a part of my job to help these young students test their faith in healthy ways. They need to get in the habit of questioning their faith that they’ve swallowed whole from birth without the proper chewing. That is how I see my role in the classroom with matters regarding “faith and learning.” Ok, fair enough. But is that the end of the professor’s faith and learning “responsibility” to the student? Hardly. President Porter himself would express sympathy with these faculty were he alive today, but with an important qualification. His response to this kind of comment is worth quoting at length:
“During his college and university life the pupil must, at least, begin the critical revisal of his religious and philosophical creed in the light of all that science and history and philosophy and criticism can say in their latest discoveries and reports. To the searching of brightness of these blazing lights the pupil must bring all that he has hitherto received without question. Into this fusing crucible he must cast all his traditionary faiths, to receive them back as they shall leap forth in purer metal and brighter luster, or to reject them as worthless dross or base alloy. He cannot hold these faiths from this fiery trial, though rooted in the convictions of his father and hallowed by the love and prayers of his mother, and made sacred by the aspirations and vows of his youth. He ought not to desire to do so. It is better that they should be reviewed and revised by the light of his maturing judgment. To withdraw them from this light would dwarf his intellect and enfeeble his convictions. It would open a widening and deepening chasm between his practical and intellectual life. It would dishonor Truth, which will not submit to be divided. This process of adjustment must and ought to go on. While it is proceeding, the college or university becomes, of necessity, the church, and the teachers and associates are, for the time being, priests and oracles; for it is in the light of what these attest and prove that the old creed is reaffirmed or questioned or renounced. And what if this church has no religion and the priests have no consecration? What again, if they are thoroughly and unaffectedly Christian? In these times of crisis—and they are always present—a word or look from the living teacher; a chance remark in the one direction or the other; an earnest and candid spirit, or a scoffing and dogmatic doubt, or the combined impression of his intellectual temper and personal spirit—have, in thousands of instances, been fraught with bane or blessing to his confiding pupils. Of many, in this crisis of their spiritual history, it might be said that so far as human counsel and help can come through those intellectual activities which are the absorbing and controlling element of the student’s life” (emphasis mine).*
A question to ask yourself if you are seeking a truly Christ-centered education in college: “how much do I ask for both challenge and guidance from Christ-following faculty mentors as I seek to understand the ways in which God’s Word and his world are related in my field of study?”
*Noah Porter, “The Christian College.” An Address Delivered at Wellesley College, May 27th, 1880, at the Laying of the Cornerstone of Stone Hall (Boston: Frank Wood, printer, 1880).
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