The Reason for Christian Higher Education (and Pressures to Abandon It)

The Reason for Christian Higher Education (and Pressures to Abandon It) June 20, 2017

The Reason for Christian Higher Education (and Pressures to Abandon It)


One purpose of this blog is to support what I call the “biblical-Christian plausibility structure.” I believe it is the primary reason for being of Christian higher education. (Yes, one could say it is the reason for being of all Christian education, but for my purposes it suffices to designate “higher” education.)

I have been deeply embedded in Christian higher education in America for more than forty years with one four year exception during which I earned my Ph.D. in Religious Studies at a secular university. Even during that four years, however, I was paying close attention to Christian higher education as it was my goal, I believed my calling, to teach in that context somewhere. I ended up teaching at three institutions that explicitly identified themselves as institutions of Christian higher education: one university, one liberal arts college (with an attached seminary), and another university (with an embedded seminary). I also edited a scholarly journal devoted to the “integration of Christian faith and learning” and eventually wrote and spoke publicly about that project. My recent book Essentials of Christian Thought: Seeing Reality through the Biblical Story (Zondervan) is my manifesto of the “faith” side of “integration of faith and learning” and includes an essay (Appendix) specifically about what that integration means and does not mean.

*Sidebar: The opinions expressed here are my own (or those of the guest writer); I do not speak for any other person, group or organization; nor do I imply that the opinions expressed here reflect those of any other person, group or organization unless I say so specifically. Before commenting read the entire post and the “Note to commenters” at its end.*

Although “Christian higher education” predates most modern Christian institutions of higher learning in America, it is my considered opinion that, with the rise of intellectual pluralism one major reason for the existence of Christian institutions of higher education in America is to preserve within an environment of critical thinking the basic biblical-Christian plausibility structure. In my opinion, once an institution of higher education loses that purpose it loses its Christian identity even if it touts it and holds on to its relationship with a Christian denomination. In other words, there are many “church-related institutions of higher education” that I do not personally consider “Christian” because they have lost or discarded or seriously diluted their Christian identity as institutions that value and promote and think critically about the biblical-Christian plausibility structure.

So, by now, probably, some readers are wondering what a “plausibility structure” is. My advice is to “Google it” but look for serious sociological-philosophical sources that define and describe it. When I say “plausibility structure” I mean a world and life perspective about what is ultimately and penultimately real and what counts as evidence and does not—especially in the arts and sciences that are not amenable to physical proof. However (important footnote), even in the arts and sciences where some people claim “physical proof” is possible a plausibility structure is at work. Think of a plausibility structure as a paradigm of thought, a “blik” (R. M. Hare) about reality, a metaphysical source of a language game (Wittgenstein), a Weltanschauung (worldview) (Wilhelm Dilthey). There is no one plausibility structure that is provable because a plausibility structure determines what, for a given tradition-community (Alasdair MacIntyre, Lesslie Newbigin) counts as evidence.

Intellectual pluralism is the obvious fact that, in some places and at some times, there are absolutely incommensurate plausibility structures operating side-by-side.

The whole idea of Christian higher education is, in my considered opinion, to protect, explore, promote, think critically about and integrate the biblical-Christian plausibility structure with every discipline and profession taught. Once a university, for example, adopts intellectual pluralism in the sense I defined it above it has lost its Christian identity even as it remains, perhaps, “church-related.”

Early in the 20th century (perhaps even earlier) many Christian educators in America discerned that intellectual pluralism was invading many church-related institutions of higher education and that they were thereby losing their Christian identity and therefore their very reason for being. Of course, that does not mean they didn’t/don’t adopt a different reason for being. Two things resulted from this discernment (which is ongoing, by the way).

First, after many attempts to rescue these Christian institutions of higher learning from intellectual pluralism many traditionalist Christians left them and founded their own, new and separate institutions of Christian higher education more strictly and openly devoted to the biblical-Christian plausibility structure. Unfortunately, many of these were founded as and remained “Bible colleges” which banned all meaningful critical thinking. Some of these Bible colleges, however, evolved over time into Christian liberal arts colleges or universities attempting to integrate the biblical-Christian plausibility structure with critical thinking.

Second, some Christian educators, with help from denominational leaders and rich supporters, managed to rescue some Christian institutions of higher learning from the brink of losing their Christian identity. This was almost impossible, however, to the extent that these institutions had adopted intellectual pluralism and abandoned the governing power of the biblical-Christian plausibility structure in any meaningful way.

Now, of course, a very serious challenge for Christian higher education is to define the “biblical-Christian plausibility structure.” Some leaders of Christian institutions of higher education import into that a detailed systematic theology (for example) that crushes all serious hope of critical thinking and real integration of Christian faith with new ideas that are really compatible with the basic biblical-Christian plausibility structure. Other leaders of Christian institutions of higher education define that so broadly that it becomes so shallow as to be meaningless. The former become indoctrination mills and the latter become covers for intellectual pluralism hidden under the public guise (and sometime even within) of a Christian spirituality in which everyone “loves Jesus” but hold radically different ideas about who and what Jesus was.

Throughout the 20th century in America many, many Christian philosophers and theologians have “stepped forward” to suggest the true nature of the biblical-Christian plausibility structure (using many different terms for it). One of the earliest and best was James Orr (1844-1913) who wrote The Christian View of God and the World in 1893. It was clearly his attempt, as a Christian intellectual, to articulate and defend the intellectual integrity of the biblical-Christian plausibility structure within a cultural context of increasing intellectual pluralism. Numerous later European and American Christian intellectuals joined Orr in this project with updated descriptions and defenses of the biblical-Christian plausibility structure. The most popular and influential ones when I was emerging out of my fundamentalist cocoon and into the wider world of scholarly Christianity were: C. S. Lewis, Harry Blamires (still alive at 100!), Francis Schaeffer, James Sire, Bernard Ramm, Arthur Holmes and many others.

A new problem facing American institutions of Christian higher learning in the second decade of the 21st century is pressure from government and accreditation societies and associations to adopt intellectual pluralism under the guise of “diversity.” Such pressure used to come under the guise of “academic freedom,” but, generally speaking, religious institutions of higher education were allowed to hire and grant tenure based on scholars’ adherence to a set of beliefs. Now, however, increasingly, the issue within and behind the pressure is being described as “justice.” In other words, requiring new faculty and tenure-track faculty to adhere to the classical biblical-Christian worldview, including ethical beliefs and practices (or not), is being looked at suspiciously by some authorities as evidence of injustice.

There is nothing new about pressures toward intellectual pluralism arising from within and from without institutions of Christian higher education, but those exerting the pressure to adopt intellectual pluralism (which is often not really pluralistic!) are now making it a matter of justice. Radical inclusivism, including intellectual pluralism, is becoming a new standard of justice in America’s academia and those with power to wield over institutions of higher education are beginning to exert it by punishing Christian institutions of higher education that dare to hold firmly to their biblical-Christian plausibility structure including what they believe are its implications for doctrine and ethics.

*Note to commenters: This blog is not a discussion board; please respond with a question or comment only to me. If you do not share my evangelical Christian perspective (very broadly defined), feel free to ask a question for clarification, but know that this is not a space for debating incommensurate perspectives/worldviews. In any case, know that there is no guarantee that your question or comment will be posted by the moderator or answered by the writer. If you hope for your question or comment to appear here and be answered or responded to, make sure it is civil, respectful, and “on topic.” Do not comment if you have not read the entire post and do not misrepresent what it says. Keep any comment (including questions) to minimal length; do not post essays, sermons or testimonies here. Do not post links to internet sites here. This is a space for expressions of the blogger’s (or guest writers’) opinions and constructive dialogue among evangelical Christians (very broadly defined).

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