News Articles

FIRST-PERSON: Christian commitment & intellectual inquiry

JACKSON, Tenn. (BP)–“It’s good to go to a college that is religious, but it doesn’t matter to me. What matters to me is getting my education.” So claimed a Georgetown College sophomore in a July 22 New York Times article titled, “Feeling Strains, Baptist Colleges Cut Church Ties.”

The quote summarizes a perception that often exists in secular contexts and, unfortunately, also in some church-related ones. It raises a very interesting question. Can religion and education go together? Furthermore, can genuine confessional Christianity thrive within a context that values serious scholarship and authentic intellectual inquiry?

Some would say that such an idea is a paradox, an antinomy or at best an oxymoron. Yet the very motto of the institution where I serve is “religio et eruditio,” which is a clarion call for us not just to tolerantly hold these ideas together, but to joyfully embrace them.

“Religio et erudition” affirms both our love for God and our love for study, the importance of devotion and the importance of instruction, the place of genuine Christian commitment and the place of serious scholarship, the priority of affirming and passing on the Christian intellectual tradition and the significance of honest intellectual inquiry. Granted, these matters at times are in tension, but not in contradiction -— and rightly understood, they can be seen as connectives that are bound together, and not as exclusive categories.

We begin with “religio” —- a faith commitment that informs “eruditio,” all learning, which in turn shapes expectations for living. The conjunction of faith and learning is the very essence of a Christian university. This joint mission defines the distinctive difference of Christian higher education. Some of our friends in the academy regard such a notion as a medieval remnant at best, or in the words of Kris Kristofferson, “a walking contradiction, partly truth and partly fiction.”

Yet, in recent years, among an increasingly large number of intellectuals, there has arisen a deep suspicion of today’s thoroughly secularized academy, so that there is indeed a renewed appreciation for and openness to what George Marsden of Notre Dame calls “the outrageous idea of Christian Scholarship.” As Mark Schwenn of Valparaiso University has suggested, it may be time to acknowledge that the thorough secularization of the academy is, at least, unfruitful. There is even a renewed interest in many places in the relationship of the church to higher education. “Ex corde ecclesia” is the way our Catholic friends frame this idea, which calls for the church to be at the heart of the university and for the university to be at the heart of the church. While the recent New York Times article suggests that now is the time for Baptist colleges to sever their ties with Baptist conventions, I would suggest that just the opposite is true. It is time for us once again to capture afresh the dreams of Richard Furman, Basil Manly Sr. and other significant shapers of Baptist higher education.

Being a faithful Christian university will involve much more than mere piety or spirituality, which by itself will not sustain the idea of a Christian university. The Christian intellectual tradition calls for rigorous Christian thinking in all areas, as historically exemplified in the work of Origen, Augustine, Aquinas, Bernard of Clairveaux, Erasmus, Luther, Calvin, Kepler, Edwards, Kuyper, Broadus and others. This tradition confesses the sovereignty of the triune God over the whole cosmos, in all spheres and kingdoms, visible and invisible.

This unifying framework helps avoid the error of a spiritualized Gnosticism on the one hand or a purely materialistic metaphysic on the other. This confessional starting point forms the foundation for our affirmation that all truth is God’s truth, whether revealed or discovered. Thus, on the one hand, we respond with grateful wonder at what has been made known to us, and on the other, with exerted effort to discover what has not been clearly manifested.

Our choice is not to be faithful to our Baptist heritage or to be participants in the academy. It is not an unquestioning acceptance of the Christian tradition or open-ended inquiry. Certainly the unquestioning acceptance of tradition can degenerate into traditionalism. Yale historian Jaroslav Pelikan was fond of claiming that if tradition is the living faith of the dead, then traditionalism is the dead faith of the living. Such traditionalism is often characterized by inflexible and at times anti-intellectual dogma at every point and in every discipline. This approach fails to engage our society or influence our culture.

On the other hand, free inquiry, untethered to faith and tradition, often results in unbelieving skepticism, advancing the directionless state that characterizes so much of higher education today. Such an approach cannot sustain the Christian tradition and its truth claims. Neither of these approaches represents the best of Christian higher education.

Our unique calling is not to be forced into inappropriate “either/or” choices, but to be appropriately “both/and” as proclaimed in the motto: “religio et eruditio.” We reject those who call for us to create false dichotomies or join together unrelated ideas in an irrational, pluralistic fashion. Instead, we call for a commitment to the “divine and” grounded in Jesus Christ, who is both fully God and fully human and who is for us both light and life. May God’s grace guide us in the pursuit of these vital truths as we work together to advance Baptist higher education in the years to come.
David S. Dockery is president of Union University in Jackson, Tenn., which is affiliated with the Tennessee Baptist Convention.

    About the Author

  • David S. Dockery