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FIRST PERSON: Christian higher education

JACKSON, Tenn. (BP)–As we enter this new century there are inescapable choices to be made and these choices have great implication for all aspects of life, particularly for higher education. Those who teach and study in Christ-centered institutions should take to heart the words of the Apostle Paul: “And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds” (Romans 12:2).

What is called for in this time in which we live is intellectually challenging. It is not the easiest option, but it is the one faithful to the calling upon Christ-followers. What is needed is an understanding and articulation of the biblical and theological foundations of a Christian worldview.

Certainly there is no room for anti-intellectualism in Christian higher education. We are to have the mind of Christ, and this certainly requires us to think and wrestle with the challenging ideas of history and the issues of our day. For to do otherwise will result in another generation of God’s people ill-equipped for faithful thinking and service in this new century. A Christian worldview is needed to confront an ever-changing culture. Instead of allowing our thoughts to be captive to culture, we must take every thought captive to Jesus Christ.

This call for serious Christian thinking affirms our love for God and our love for study, the place of devotion and the place of research, the priority of affirming and passing on the great Christian traditions and the significance of honest exploration, reflection and intellectual wrestling. These matters are in tension, but not in contradiction; they are framed by a faith-informed commitment.

A Christian worldview is not just piety added to secular thinking, nor is it merely research that takes place in a Christian environment. Thus being a faithful Christian scholar involves much more than mere piety. As Chuck Colson says, “True Christianity goes beyond John 3:16 — beyond private faith and personal salvation.”

History shows that a commitment to piety alone will not sustain the ideal of a Christian university. The Christian intellectual tradition calls for rigorous thinking, careful research and thoughtful publication. Christian scholarship is far broader than biblical and theological studies, though they help provide the framework for serious intellectual wrestling with literary, philosophical, scientific, historical, technological and social issues.

Such a Christian worldview provides the framework for Christian scholarship in any and every field of Christian higher education. This worldview, which grows out of the exhortation to take every thought captive to Christ, begins with the affirmation of God as Creator and Redeemer, for the dominating principle of Christian scholarship is not merely soteriological but cosmological as well. We thus recognize the sovereignty of the triune God over the whole cosmos, in all spheres and kingdoms, visible and invisible.

Such an initial reference point avoids the error of a spiritualized Gnosticism on the one hand and a pure materialistic metaphysic on the other. This premise forms the foundation for our affirmation that all truth has its source in God — truth that is both revealed and discovered.

Thus we respond on the one hand 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. In such exploration we dare not misconstrue our previously stated premise so as to wrongly deduce that all scholarship or all research even if carried out by Christians is necessarily God’s truth. No! We want to affirm the Christian intellectual tradition that recognizes that all scholarship, all invention, all discovery, all exploration which is truth — is God’s truth.

In the large majority of Christian higher education institutions it is teaching that is rightly prized and prioritized, but we also need a complementary place for Christian scholarship. Rightly understood, Christian scholarship is not contrary to either faithful teaching or Christian piety. Christian scholarship provides a foundation for new discovery and creative teaching, as well as the framework for passing on the unified truth essential to the advancement of Christianity.

Can we then summarize this serious thinking that is essential for Christ-centered higher education? I believe we can and I would like to note several overarching characteristics:

— It is derived from the unifying principle that God is Creator and Redeemer.

— It seeks answers through curious exploration and serious wrestling with the fundamental questions of human existence.

— It aspires to be internally consistent and flows from a comprehensive worldview.

— It recognizes the need to be aware of contemporary cultural, social, and religious trends.

Serious Christian thinking lives in tension, by reflecting an outlook (worldview) while simultaneously having a particular discipline, or specific focus, which means it will at times reflect an engagement mindset and while at other times it needs to take on an antithetical perspective from the avenues of thought pursued by others in the academy.

This approach will not entirely please those who see truth as a battle in which it is perfectly clear who stands with the forces of light or darkness. Sometimes the issues with which we wrestle are filled with ambiguities. For at this time, even with the help of Scripture and Christian tradition, we are finite humans who still see as through a glass darkly.

Ultimately, Christian thinking grows out of a commitment to “sphere-sovereignty,” whether in the arts, science, humanities, education, business, healthcare or social areas.

Thus Christian thinking must surely subordinate all other endeavors to the improvement of the mind in pursuit of truth, taking every thought captive to Jesus Christ (2 Corinthians 10:5).

Today, amid the many challenges and opposing worldviews in today’s academy, we, like Paul and Bernard of Clairveaux several centuries after him, must combine the intellectual with the moral and spiritual expounded in Bernard’s famous statement in order to faithfully advance the cause of Christian higher education:

Some seek knowledge for

The sake of knowledge:

That is curiosity;

Others seek knowledge so that

They themselves may be known:

That is vanity;

But there are still others

Who seek knowledge in

Order to serve and edify others;

And that is charity.

And that is the essence of serious Christian worldview thinking — bringing every thought captive to the Lordship of Jesus Christ in order to serve and edify others. That is a high calling indeed as we move forward and faithfully into the 21st century. Such, indeed, is the high calling for Christian higher education for times such as these.
David S. Dockery is president of Union University, the nation’s oldest Southern Baptist university, founded in 1823, in Jackson, Tenn.