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Dockery envisions reclaiming Christian intellectual tradition

ATLANTA (BP)–A call for Christian higher education to be academically rigorous and unapologetically Christian was sounded by David Dockery during the Southern Association of Colleges and Universities’ annual meeting in Atlanta.

Dockery, president of Union University, a Baptist college in Jackson, Tenn., delivered a paper on “Reclaiming the Christian Intellectual Tradition” during the second year of a panel discussion in conjunction with SACS on a topic related to Christian higher education. Also on the Dec. 5 panel were the president of LeTourneau University in Longview, Texas, and provost of Belhaven College in Jackson, Miss., who presented case studies on integrating academics with a distinctively Christian higher education.

Dockery encouraged Christian higher education leaders to become “resources for serious Christian thinking and scholarship in all disciplines.”

“There is no sphere of humanity to which Jesus Christ is irrelevant,” including the academic world, he said. In a fallen world, secular worldliness produces disorder across the academic spectrum as well as day-to-day life, he said, observing that, “We see it in broken families, in confused understandings of God’s pattern of sexuality, in conflicts between nations, and in the ugly face of racism.”

Since the Christian faith impacts how people live, Dockery called on faculty and their students and Christian higher education’s administrators and staff “to engage the culture to prepare a generation of leaders that can step up to the plate” in the academy, government, healthcare, in the community and throughout society -– as well as the church.

“The breadth and depth of the Christian intellectual tradition must be reclaimed, revitalized and renewed and revived for us to carry forth this vision,” Dockery stated.

Questions raised at the close of the session sought insight on the nuts and bolts of leading institutions toward integration of faith and learning. “All of the panelists agreed that it begins with the hiring of faculty who are not only expert in their respective fields, but also born-again, conservative, evangelical Christians,” said Criswell College professor James W. Bryant who convened the panel.

Dockery turned to the second century’s Clement of Alexander as an example for reclaiming the Christian tradition, noting that Clement found Christ’s influence appropriate in every discipline of academia.

“Clement serves as an instructive guide for us in our context because of his wide range of learning, his love of philosophy and literature, his concern for the cultivation of an intellectually serious Christianity, his interaction with the issues and trends in the changing world of his day, and perhaps most importantly of all because he was a layperson,” Dockery said, noting that 90 percent of the Union University faculty, staff and students share that identification.

Dockery warned, “We can build new buildings, raise significant gifts, recruit great students, create wonderful programs and design creative delivery systems, but if it is not undergirded by serious Christian thinking, then our vision will be misguided.” Dockery noted Clement had a thorough knowledge of the whole range of Christian literature, both orthodox and heretical works.

Clement also provides a model for a type of academic freedom, without the more authoritarian approach of his contemporary Tertullian, Dockery said. “Clement unflinchingly held to the orthodox rule of faith or faithful Christian confessionalism in a context that was like a pot boiling with diverse teachings, all eclectic and syncretistic in nature.”

Dockery appealed to Clement’s example of sanctifying the secular by developing connectedness across the curriculum, allowing faith and values to shape intellectual inquiry and recognizing that the best of Christian intellectual tradition takes advantage of an inter-disciplinary approach to such matters.

Dockery noted, for example:

— There is a place for music and the arts because God is the God of creation and beauty.

— Sociology can make observations to strengthen the family as well as religious structures by recognizing the image of God in His creation of humans.

— Economics can help address problems facing communities and society at large.

— Political science can strategize about ways to work toward justice and peace.

“There is no corner of the universe to which the Christian faith is indifferent,” Dockery said, “and thus a call to sanctify the secular is a recognition of the fullness of the incarnation … [of] Jesus Christ.”

A love for God requires a love for all humanity as Christians become doers of the Word and agents of reconciliation in the church and in society engaging in bridge-building, particularly in regard to the racial divide that has haunted the nation since its inception, Dockery said.

“At the heart of our Christ-centered approach to education is the belief that God has revealed Himself to us in creation, in history, in our conscience and ultimately in Christ, and that this revelation is now primarily available to us in Holy Scripture,” Dockery said, citing Jesus’ claim to be not only the way and life, but also the truth. This God-revealed truth is the framework for understanding and interpreting the world, events of human history and responsibilities toward God and one another, Dockery said.

“This is what it means for us to advance the Christian intellectual tradition, to sanctify the secular, to love God with our heart, our strength, and our mind, even as today we recommit our efforts to loving our neighbor as ourselves.”

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  • Tammi Reed Ledbetter