Christian Higher Education a Two Edged Sword
Is higher education always beneficial for everyone? Here I want to focus my thoughts solely on Christian higher education—college, university, seminary. I have quite a bit of experience in this area, not only because I taught for almost forty years in three Christian universities but also because I served as chief editor of a scholarly journal supported by fifty Christian institutions of higher education and participated in many annual meetings of the board which included representatives of all supporting institutions. I have also known many young Christians who were not my students who attended Christian colleges, universities and sometimes seminaries. My comments here are based on my personal observations and experiences.
Personally, I am committed to Christian higher education and especially to Christian higher education that is committed to biblical, orthodox Christianity, to what I call the “Christian worldview” or “Christian philosophy.” (I have spelled that out in detail in my book “Essentials of Christian Thought: Seeing Reality through the Biblical Story.”)
For me, Christian higher education from college through seminary and from dedicated Christian professors at a secular university during my PhD studies was extremely beneficial, even if some of my fundamentalist relatives and friends did not think so. It broadened my horizons of thinking and gave me the ability to think critically as a Christian without discarding my faith.
When I was in high school and took a driving class to earn my driver’s license the teacher always said “Keep the big picture in mind.” In other words, when driving, don’t just stare at the road immediately ahead; look up and around. That’s what Christian higher education at its best can do for young Christians, teach them the “big picture” of reality including the history of Christianity and its relationships with non-Christian culture.
On the other hand, I have seen many young Christians lose their faith through Christian higher education and I know of two reasons why that happens.
First, many of them learn that the Bible is not a textbook of absolute truths that interprets itself and that there are many valid interpretations of it even among evangelical Christians. They are in a stage of mental development that struggles with ambiguity and often leaps over ambiguity into relativism.
Second, many professors in Christians institutions of higher education are not authentic Christians. Either they snuck in and onto the faculty by deceit or they lost their faith somewhere along the way. Often such dishonest professors delight in “robbing students of their naive faith.” Within the community of the Christian college or university they are subversives, often with tenure, who go out of their way to undermine students’ Christian beliefs. I have known them. I have taught with them. Some of them have more or less admitted their mission to me, trusting me not to use it against them.
My solution to these problems is twofold.
First, Christian institutions of higher education need to be more vigilant when hiring faculty. Often they are brought in at the behest of members of a department who want them regardless of the very real possibility that they may not really be biblical and orthodox Christians. I have seen how administrators often do not police hiring like that and are reluctant to turn down a highly qualified candidate to teach, say, physics, even though he or she has no history of being a committed Christian or is coached by future colleagues what to say in interviews.
Second, Christian institutions of higher education need to abolish tenure or at least qualify it in this way: If it should ever turn out that you do not believe in basic Christian doctrines or are undermining students’ basic Christian beliefs from a perspective of hostility to them, your tenure will be terminated. After all, there really is no such thing as “pure and absolute tenure” anywhere. Tenure always depends on the tenured faculty member fulfilling his or her contractual duties. And, of course, any tenured faculty member can be fired for things like credible accusations of sexual harassment or gender discrimination, etc.
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