Walking with God, Playing in Traffic
Last August, I spent a week with a sizable group of faculty members in a monastery near Dallas. The company was surprisingly heavenly, the climate as near to hell as one can get without dying. What brought this distinguished group of souls together was a common conviction that Christians need to have a more prominent and thoughtful presence in public discourse. I say conviction because they came to Dallas with the idea of doing something about their belief. In fact, the ‘price’ to get out of ‘purgatory’ was to write a short article for a local newspaper or another popular publication such as a magazine. This is what I wrote:
Christ Didn’t Leave the Academy
Dean R. Bork
The new school year is rapidly approaching, and I just spent a week with a group of interdenominational orthodox Christians who are concerned about the future of our country and its universities. As we introduced ourselves and explained why we were there, several of them expressed a desire to ‘put Christ back into the university’. My purpose in writing is not to attack these folks, they were very loving and encouraging to me. However, I must admit to being unsure of exactly what they meant by that phrase. Given the belief that Jesus is God, and God is omnipresent, it would seem unlikely to me that he could go anywhere. So, I don’t think the geo-positioning of the second person of the trinity is what they had in mind.
What seems more likely is that they wanted to put Christianity, in some form or fashion, back into our colleges and universities. Several things might influence one’s thinking about whether that is a good idea. First, one may or may not believe in something like classical liberal education. If you do, then you might say any system of belief that is open to verification should be available for discussion and critique in our university classrooms. To the contrary, you may think that all philosophies and religions are mechanisms for suppressing others. In that case, you really wouldn’t want any philosophies or religions in the classroom – unless it happened to be your own.
For the sake of pursuing a line of thought, let’s assume the former has more to do with the idea of a university than the later. Then, our second concern might be whether Christianity, if admitted into our classrooms would take them over. Would it become the only set of basic beliefs that ‘these people’ would allow to be discussed? If our liberal democracy is a good thing and valuable to us, we would want Christianity there with all the other sets of basic beliefs. Christianity would have to stand on its own two legs and fend for itself among the host of other possible sets of basic beliefs available to us. Again, that would be more-or- less consistent with the idea of classical liberal education.
There is a third - and even more important - reason to ask whether Christianity should be allowed back into the academy. What could it contribute? Would there be scholars in the academy who could really represent it well and be able to explain its relevance to the disciplines and professions that are present in the realm of higher education? There does seem to be a paucity of disciplinary theories originating from a Judeo-Christian frame of reference – doesn’t there?
In his award-winning historiography, The Soul of the American University, George Marsden argues that secularists did not wrestle the academy away from the America’s Protestant Christian establishment at the close of the nineteenth century. Instead, both conservative and liberal Protestants, for differing reasons, vacated the academy. If that is true, it is unlikely that putting Christ back into the academy is a good idea unless and until there are Christian scholars who can represent his relevance effectively.
I think there are some of these people around. In fact, I spent time with some of them this week. But I would say to orthodox Christians as a community, “Maybe in addition to thinking so narrowly, and in such a reactionary way, about putting Christ back into the academy you should consider putting scholarship back into your churches.”