Higher education is facing, to paraphrase Dickens and Thomas Paine, the best and worst of times, the times that try institutions’ souls. These are the worst of times because of the great challenges facing higher education: escalating costs of tuition, facilities, books and resources, and personnel; increased competition and decreasing enrollment pools; aging adult populations; rising freshmen populations increasingly unprepared for the academic and intellectual demands of college; a near-decade long recession; mounting obstacles in secondary education – lack of funding, falling graduation rates, teacher shortages, growing achievement gaps; a shrinking middle class; and an increasingly polarized political environment. Globalization, immigration, religious pluralization, and technologization put strains on both public and private higher education unlike any ever known.

But for all those logistical and operational challenges, the gravest danger is ideological. These are the times that try the soul, mission, and integrity of institutions. A battle of ideas is being waged for the hearts and minds of our children; nowhere is that battle more pronounced than on university and college campuses, even Christian ones. We are on the frontlines of this cultural collision between truth and its counterfeit.  A collision in which the academy is no longer a place of the free exchange of ideas and critical thinking but is characterized by safe spaces, the “snowflake rebellion,” microaggressions, marriage and transgender equality, LGBTQ rights and their identity crises, the intolerance of the new age of tolerance, and, for Christian schools, the even more problematic reduction of Christian theology to one dimensional, self-referential proclamations of love and social justice.

The battle for the mind of the academy is not new. Mission drift has long been a threat to Christian schools. It is no accident that most of the oldest institutions in U.S. history were founded as religious schools whose mission was to ground society’s leaders in the knowledge and practice of God’s divine truth. In 1692, Harvard University’s original motto was Veritas Christo et Ecclesia, or Truth for Christ and the Church, a philosophy occasionally still found in the original seal on certain buildings around the campus. But by the 20th century the motto had been reduced simply to: Veritas, a quest for truth and meaning unanchored to any objective source.

Harvard represents a long list of many significant educational institutions whose beginnings were rooted in a biblical, Judeo-Christian worldview and mission. Yet virtually none of those institutions today bear any theological resemblance to their origins. Their unmooring and drift has often been imperceptible, like the proverbial boiling of the frog. Now, though, the forces against Christian truth, religious liberty, and genuine human freedom rooted in the imago dei are swift and powerful currents. Far too many Christian schools, including conservative evangelical ones and even those in the wider Wesleyan tradition are being swept away from their historical and theological anchors. Indeed, too many campuses have become centers for progressive propaganda and indoctrination.

All of this, in short, points to a pervasive loss of the Christian mind. Harry Blamires reminds us that the most vital task in “reconstituting the Christian mind will be to reestablish the status of objective truth as distinct from personal opinions.” If we ‘unhook’ our Christian worldview from the discussion of spirituality in the marketplace or the classroom, we help perpetuate the discouragement of free intellectual inquiry [1]. In effect, we become theistic existentialists who say that although (for us) truth is rooted in God, it’s validity to the non-Christian world is only determined by its personal value to the individual, not by its nature as divine reality. For a Christian thinker, student, scholar, or professor, this is intellectually dishonest.

As Christian, if we decide we are only going to talk about values and not religious belief, in order to “engage” with those from a non-Christian worldview, we prevent the conversation from moving to the very place we think we are taking it. Indeed, we can and must talk plainly, honestly, and winsomely about our Christian faith while at the same time cultivating an atmosphere of honest intellectual freedom and a respectful listening to others.

This has happened in history and is needed again. Eugene Peterson, pointing to the effect that the Monastic movement and the Protestant Reformation had on human history, said that “Christianity can and will have a considerable impact on culture when it involves thinking at the most fundamental levels…Those who hope to see Christianity affect culture in America and elsewhere must work toward the development of a strong public Christian mind (italics mine)”. [2]. We have no reason to be either afraid of talking “Christian” in the classroom or marketplace.

Too many Christian universities and faculty are increasingly reluctant to face the challenge of remaining truly Christian. The wide path involves either blending or hiding; blending in with the majority silencing the voices of the past, relegating them to the halls of archives and choosing generic spirituality masquerading as “relevance”; or cloistering and hiding away as we become increasingly indifferent and inconsequential, privately holding onto the truth but afraid to let that voice be heard or let its light shine for fear of public scorn, rebuke, attack, or, God forbid, closure.

The narrow, harder way is to be a lighthouse and a beacon to culture, proclaiming truth, offering liberty, and modeling transformation. As Dr. Everett Piper, our president here at Oklahoma Wesleyan, has time and again noted, only institutions that genuinely believe in divine objective truth can be places of truly higher education’s noble ideals of freedom, liberty, critical inquiry, and justice. Our culture is morally adrift and in desperate need of the freedom and power of the classical, Christian liberal arts anchored in a true north of the laws of nature and nature’s God.

No group of people are more significant in that endeavor than our faculty. The recovery effort of Christian higher education begins with the “mind” of the faculty. And it’s not just Blamers or Peterson that beckon us to the recovery of a Christian mind. The medieval Scholastics like Aquinas and Anselm were driven by this sense of “faith seeking understanding,” that God and his nature could be discovered and worshipped using the highest faculty of human reason and intellect.

As Christian professors, we do not live in the tension between faith and intellect. Rather, we can embody for our students a life of integrity in which our minds are in pursuit of divine truth which is revealed and lived out in wisdom and practice. We are called to love God not just with our heart and soul, but with our mind. We find in that, as as thousands of years of history before us, God’s truth is robust and strong enough to not only hold up to the scrutiny of human reason and inquiry, but is the only, ultimate ideal which can fully satisfy and make sense of reality.

So, dear faculty, engaging your students with the full measure of Christian truth as it permeates all disciplines and all subjects is and can be an act of worship and adoration to the God who created and revealed all truth.

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[1] Sirico, R. (2002). The Soul of Liberty. Grand Rapids, MI: The Acton Institute. p. 34.

[2] Peterson, M. (2001). With All Your Mind: A Christian Philosophy of Education. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame. p. 206.

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