The Idea Of A University

A Community Engaged in the Leisure of Scholarship

By Liam Atchison

Copyright © 1997 Mars Hill Review 9 Fall 1997 · Issue 9: pgs 9-18.

It was once said of Camus that he "challenges in advance, with the greatest possible scorn, the judgment we might be tempted to bring against his revolt."{1} The same might be said of the university as the vanguard of the juggernaut of modernism. For most of this century, Christians have leveled criticism at the "secular" university and in particular its shrinking of the Christian worldview on behalf of pluralism. As a cultural institution, the university has scorned such criticism by hardly noticing.

This is to be expected, since the university is a rationalistic engine, unhalted in its "progress" while it provides a platform for many worldviews. In the past two decades, however, critique has been forthcoming from other sources with a stake in the university system. Most notable are censure for the tyranny of political correctness, the cavalier dewesternization of the general studies curriculum, and the myopia of the overspecialization of academic disciplines. It is still too early to know what the outcome will be for the university in all of these controversies, but I am sure it would be a mistake for evangelicals to wait for what emerges. I believe that proaction should precede reaction, and that it behooves Christians to ponder, as did John Henry Newman nearly a century and a half ago, what is the idea of a university. I suggest no utopian vision or reinvention of the scholarly wheel. I suggest, rather, that the Christian idea of a university is recovering something that was lost-an extension of the oft-forgotten command to subdue the earth. My idea of a university is a place where the lost ideals of scholarship as leisure, reduced preoccupation with business, interdisciplinary studies, and a community of readers are recovered.

Throughout much of Western history, the university has played an important role in the development of thought and culture. It is at least as old as the societies formed during the Middle Ages upon the model of craftsmen's guilds that furnished mutual protection for teachers and/or students. It has continued, not entirely uninterrupted, to its present highly developed and Americanized mien as big business and clearinghouse of ideas. Nevertheless, the university is unparalleled as an agent of innovative thought, creative dialogue, and sociological change. As a hen gathers its chicks, so the university has tolerantly gathered numerous philosophies of life, including Christianity from time to time, and with varying degrees of precision and success. Hence, I must confess that I join many people of faith who look longingly at the university with its potential as a natural recruiting and training ground for positive change. At the same time, I recognize, as does George Marsden, that the secular campus probably should not be reformed into a staging ground for the kingdom of God:

Despite the appreciation we should have for our pluralistic institutions, we should recognize that they have an inherent interest in suppressing the potentially divisive teachings of any religious faith...the valuable ideals of pluralistic culture are less than ultimate.{2}

Ironically, the university was born out of medieval Christianity, and evangelical Christians have exerted great influence throughout its glorious history as believing scholars banded together from time to time for the greater purposes of the gospel. A modern student might well observe that Christianity seems to have become little more than just another philosophy of life on the secular university campus-this, in spite of the heroic efforts of church and parachurch groups who marshal thousands of student volunteers, making them one of the more visible components of what is often termed the university's cocurriculum (or, literally, the real education that occurs outside the classroom). Marsden concludes his remarks on this topic by saying, in essence, that Christians should not hold their collective breaths waiting for more openness, but that we should continue to strengthen churches, Christian support groups (presumably church and parachurch groups of students), and other explicitly Christian institutions (italics mine). I believe it is in the latter category that we need revitalized thinking. What is the idea of a university that does not overthrow nor naively attempt to reconstitute existing universities, but seeks to reclaim a uniquely Christian ideal of a university, an explicitly Christian institution?

The Lost Ideal: Scholarship as Leisure

Any comprehensive treatment of a Christian consideration of the idea of a university must begin with a general understanding of the Christian worldview. I incline toward believing that it should be more than Christianly; it should proceed from the Bible. For now, I would rather assume that the reader understands, rather than seek to prove, what kinds of elements constitute an appropriate Christian worldview: that the Creator God rules his universe, and human beings are created in his image, charged with vice-regency and given the task to multiply and subdue the earth; that sin entered and a Redeemer came; that we are given a commission to make disciples, etc. For the present, my imagination about a Christian university goes beyond these basics of worldview, prominent as they are.

At the same time, my thinking is not so specialized as to form the very specific elements of a particular institution. Generic and program competencies, institutional mission, and purpose statements have their place in an all-inclusive finished portrait I am envisioning; yet there is an intermediate step that captures my imagination for the moment as something of paramount importance that has not been adequately addressed in popular Christian culture, and perhaps has been scorned in some circles but is, it seems to me, crucial to the idea of the university: that is, scholarship as leisure.

One of the most humbling yet personally profitable experiences of my life has been the pursuit of my doctoral studies in England. It has been a wonderful privilege to study in some of the great university libraries of Britain and to enjoy the wisdom and direction of my supervisor. As an American I immediately noticed respect for the doctoral candidate as specialist (expert) and the flexibility that afforded: I was given great freedom in my residency, and I did not have to prove myself by attending classes and seminars in the typical American fashion, just as I had since I was five years old. I at once enjoyed this liberty, but processed it as an opportunity in a typical American way: I am good at writing and research, so I will get this degree quickly. I wanted to jump through a hoop that would provide job security and obtain a voice in the academic community.

But reality dawned quickly when I received feedback on my introductory chapter. My work was broad and shallow, not specific and deep. I despaired until my supervisor gave me sage advice: "Liam, you need to be unhurried and learn the discipline of the leisure of scholarship." My curiosity was piqued. He went on to tell me basically that research which is near to the heart of the university is never performed in isolation, but is a function of a community. Among other things, scholarly depth meant paying attention to the fruits of the work of others who had worked on issues related to my interests. Research was listening to their voices, and this kind of attentiveness takes time. This kind of listening is a presence with colleagues and mentors, mostly through the printed page, that should be enjoyed.

I began to see that neither the Ph.D. degree nor the successful resolution of the issue raised in the doctoral thesis are the ends of my doctoral studies. They were intended to be much more than a qualification that appears on a resume. The end is the scholarly process that often leads one to btain degrees or to share information through publication from time to time. It was now incumbent upon me to share this way of life with my students-not only to perpetuate the leisure as fulfilling the command to subdue the earth, but as a Christian scholar to obey the Lord's commission to make disciples. This was very different from what is often portrayed in higher education, and particularly Christian higher education. Even in Christian circles, the earned qualification is often the end. Most students at Christian institutions look for the shortest distance between two points: from matriculation to graduation. Escalating tuition costs often make this pragmatic approach the only reasonable option. Gone are the halcyon days when students used their university tenures to become educated people-if such days ever really existed. If indeed they existed, why not now in these days of supposed prosperity?

The basic idea of a university then is quite simple: It is the place where the leisure of scholarship is elevated for godly purposes. By leisure then I mean comfort, freedom, and retreat. By comfort, I mean that a university is a place of spiritual well-being and rest. Members of the community, such as teachers, students, and graduates, have a safe place where great issues may be explored without fear of censure and with a sense of belonging where one's hunger to learn and become prepared to bring the gospel to life and culture is valued. The spiritual dimension of the Christian university is apparent under this heading as well. It should be a place of prayer, and it is no accident that comfort is both a ministry and title of the Holy Spirit.

There is also freedom in the university community. The history of the university shows the power of freedom in that we move away from rationalistic prescription toward experimentation. I am in no way suggesting a breeding ground for heresy. Without absolutes the Christian university will inevitably melt into the secular. The faculty are undershepherds who should provide accurate but loving discipline, but the world of real scholarship is not devoid of tension. Because of the presence of tension, the reality of life in a fallen world, the university is no utopian ivory tower, as it has often been negatively characterized. There is indeed discipline, but the leisure I am speaking of is the leisure to fail and try new things. Finally, when I say that the university is retreat, I mean that it is a place set apart. It is set apart for a deeper exploration of meaning at many levels.

The Lost Innocence: Scholarship as Business

Sadly, Christian institutions of higher education have been more reactionary than proactive in promoting leisure in scholarship. In the twentieth century Christian institutions were founded as a response to being locked out of the university enterprise due to the specialization-of-disciplines movement in the nineteenth century. Belief in unified field of knowledge overseen by an omniscient God who invited creatures to be involved in his creative process had been eroding throughout the Enlightenment period, and was finally excluded as a viable possibility.

Whatever the precipitating cause for the founding of each evangelical institution, in some way each instance involved preserving a Christian voice in scholarship. There was nobility in the motives for establishing Bible colleges, Christian liberal arts colleges, and seminaries, but there have been some well-known problems as well. Poorly funded programs, underpaid faculties and staffs, and a curious inferiority complex has plagued Christian institutions of higher education. As one who has taught and administered for a number of years in these institutions, I have always been fascinated by this last element. I believe that feelings of inferiority have guided Christian institutions away from leisure in scholarship.

Christian institutions have long had a love-hate relationship with the idea of joining the accreditation "club." There is almost an evolutionary continuum that parallels a Christian institution's flirting with accreditation. In the beginning the visionary founders may assert either that they don't want accreditation for their school, or that they do want it but are wary that joining a fraternity for academic recognition may be like sailing into dangerous waters fraught with reefs of compromise. The next stage is to begin the accreditation process, but to assure the constituency that the mission of the institution will not be compromised. The benefit, it is argued, will be enormous: We will attract students who hesitate to come because they think we are fly-by-night. We will grow in enrollment and wield more influence in society. Our students will be able to transfer to other accredited institutions without losing credits! All such reasons give reality to feelings of inferiority. Now there are more sophisticated arguments, such as, we want to be recognized for the quality our programs already have. Even if this last statement were true, institutions often lose their virginity after accreditation is received, and much of the travail is unnecessary.

First, institutions do compromise something fundamental by seeking accreditation or becoming accredited: they lose autonomy over their programs. Some of the lost autonomy is real, as when colleges abide by strictly secular academic freedom statements; but most of it is imagined. Now that we have accreditation, we have grown into it. We have more students, we depend on government financial aid to get and keep those students, and if we lose accredited stature we lose our jobs. The accreditation association now becomes not a consumer protection agency that guarantees your institution does what it claims to do, but has become a body of stern bureaucrats looking for an opportunity to sink the institution if they don't follow procedures correctly. Thus, the club the college wanted to join becomes the adversary, which must either be explicitly and implicitly placated or hoodwinked. The accreditation self study visit, which barely raises a stir at the state university, causes quiet panic at the Christian liberal arts institution. After all, people's livelihoods are at stake!{3}

My purpose in following this track is not to suggest that accreditation should not pursued in the idea of a university, but to suggest that this perhaps necessary process has given rise to several phenomena which have reduced the efficacy of the Christian university experiment. One of the byproducts of the looming self study is a mythology of accreditation association stipulations that serve to paralyze institutions more effectively than well-aimed poison darts stun tribal opponents. These myths range from what percentage of doctorates on faculty are required, to the most mundane office procedures for which no one remembers the justifying rationale. I have often threatened to catalog the most notorious accreditation myths I have encountered and make my list of non sequiturs required reading in a logic course.

The Lost Interdisciplinary Approach: Scholarship as Possession

More devastating than accreditation mythology is hyperspecialization in Christian higher education. Hyperspecialization is the practice of following secular institutions in limiting faculty members of soft science disciplines to teaching only in areas in which they have done research for the terminal degree. Hyperspecialization has resulted in a policy of label and dismiss in institutions: to despise other disciplines as less important than one's own.

Somehow in the nineteenth century the university became a place where many separate disciplines were offered without connection to the others. There was no longer any unified field of knowledge. I am purposely using the word unified, not "unity." There is, after all, a distinction between chemistry and economics. But chemistry and economics have a relationship to each other and a connectedness to other disciplines. So chemistry is not a simple unity, but is understood by its relationship to other disciplines. (Specialization is more advanced in British universities, where sixteen-year-olds pursue three or at most four subjects into which they are immersed for two years, and at the end are offered a place at university in one of those areas. There are no general studies, but not because there is no need for remediation. (A well-educated engineer may not normally speak with any conviction on novels unless he pursues, say, Defoe's works as some kind of hobby.) The result of hyperspecialization is not just agnosticism and isolationism, but an arrogance that will remove irrelevant disciplines that formed the past foundations of knowledge like jenga blocks. Each discipline removed threatens the sudden collapse of the whole structure.

Seminaries especially should not continue to pursue the university model of specialization. We must blur the distinctions between disciplines to call attention back to the God who holds all knowledge. For example, counseling is theology. All the energy expended on integration of psychology and theology assumes the rationalistic presupposition of sharp distinctions between disciplines without relationship to other disciplines. Specialization, or narrowing especially doctoral research to a specific field, is unavoidable in today's academic world, but some Christian institutions have carried specialization to the extent that there is little thinking on the interrelatedness of disciplines. Can economics inform psychology, or modern languages apprise sociology? Such scholarly interactions require a few moments' reflection. It doesn't seem difficult at all from a Christian perspective to imagine that psychology or sociology can be informed by theology. Yet some Christian institutions won't allow New Testament professors or pastoral-ministries teachers to assist in teaching systematic theology courses, thus perhaps making seminaries the breeding grounds for the absurd logical extent of hyperspecialization.

The Lost Community: Scholarship as Reading

Leisure in scholarship means that the academic community is engaged in constructive dialogue that breaks down barriers erected by hyperspecialization. Every discipline taught on campus is a community affair with many courses handled by interdisciplinary teams of faculty members. Degreed faculty are valued, but good teachers are prized especially. The best teachers are those with the ability to think outside of the disciplinary box for the benefit of a community of teachers, administrators, alumni, students, and the church. In fact, the best teachers are the best readers. The best Christian teachers are able readers of the scriptures, the human soul, and culture.

In the past, theological education, under the heavy influence of western rationalism and modernism, sought to train scholars by teaching a methodology derived from the hard sciences in order to explain both the Bible and the human soul. This approach often has left students with a greater facility for analysis than with an ability to listen to, dialogue with, and be changed by both the biblical text and human interactions. Furthermore, the student of the Bible has typically come from a segment of Christian subculture that is highly suspicious and critical of the culture at large. Christians often see the arts, including music, film, and literature, as merely propaganda of the flesh, rather than as a genuine expression of the human heart, which both hungers for God and also seeks to banish him from from life. Sadly, Christians have often lost the presence of God both in the Bible and culture. The resulting crisis is that the church struggles to speak to the culture in a relevant manner. Christianity, in the dim light of postmodernism, is becoming simply one more philosophy of life that offers a few good truths. This is a far cry from every Christian's desire that the church be seen as highly relevant to everyday life in conformity with Jesus' call to be salt and light.

For centuries, American Christians have shared a common ground of basic beliefs with the culture, such as belief in God, hope in the afterlife, respect for human life, and truth residing in higher authority. As Christians, we can no longer naively assume this common ground. In a Christianity Today article, Chuck Colson asks a pertinent question about how a Christian in a postmodern era presents the good news of life in Christ:

In our post-Christian American culture, where, according to Gallup, only 32 percent believe the Bible literally, where 70 percent reject moral absolutes, where the overwhelming majority are unfamiliar with biblical doctrine, Christian language, or ideas, how in the world does one go about engaging his neighbor with the hope of the gospel?{4}

In considering the idea of a university, we should begin to view the impending crisis of skepticism and secularism as a grand opportunity to interact with and speak into our culture. "Where there is great danger there is great redemption," stated the great German poet Holderlin. In Acts 17, the apostle Paul communicated the gospel to an audience of highly cultured and skeptical pagans. Paul knew that the line of reasoning he had used with the Jews in the synagogue would not work, for the Greeks had no God-breathed Bible. Instead, in order to better connect with his listeners, he decided to deliver the message in their language while standing next to an altar dedicated to an unknown god. And later, to communicate the passion of Jesus and the story of his resurrection, Paul quoted a well-known Greek poet. By relating the gospel to his audience's experience and literature, Paul found common ground to then begin discussion about spiritual matters. Today, we find ourselves drawn to certain movies, good literature, passionate music, and other artistic expressions offered by the secular world. Often we are reminded of God by these things, and compelled to think more deeply about him, sometimes with wonder and awe. But many Christians think that the integration of the secular and the sacred is somehow a violation of their hearts for God.

The use of the secular for the sake of the sacred requires careful thought and a deep openness to understand how the Bible uses secular culture to make known eternal truth. My idea of a "university" is a place where scholars are trained to be competent in the study of the Scriptures, the culture, and the human soul who are deepening their commitment to relationships and addressing the needs of a rapidly changing culture. The task is to participate in building a lifelong community of people who have a common passion for biblical relationships, who are becoming skilled in the art of reading life and the biblical text, and who love Christ's church and yet understand its realities. The university, then, becomes a place where modeling takes place: the modeling of a mandate to love God and others to learners who would grasp the possibility for personal change born of biblical principles. This experiment is carried out by a community of scholars who worship and learn together.

The prominent feature of this university is the faculty: a community of colleague-scholars with experience and training in specialized fields with the ability and sensitivity to speak across the often artificial boundaries of the disciplines. These men and women subscribe to the institutional mission and are committed to being examples of Christ-centered, passionate, maturing lives that cause a drawing, loving disruption of individuals and a culture in flight from God. Their lives would hopefully be lived out in such a way that those in flight would consider the radical claims of the gospel. They would be responsible to create and maintain academic standards drawn from the various callings for which students come to train. And yet it is not the resident faculty alone who alone works with students in the process. The community extends to varied professionals working in their areas of specialization who are resource people drawn from the Christian community at large.

Conclusion: Paris, Oxford, and the Promise of Change

One of the great influences on my life, as upon the life of many Christian academics, was Francis Schaeffer. Ever since I read the book L'Abri in the 1970s, my picture of the ideal academic setting has been the "sheltered" place set apart in the Swiss alps which Francis and Edith Schaeffer established there for a community of work, study, and the disciplines. L'Abri is a living illustration of the premodern university. In the middle ages students traveled across the continent to study with a particular teacher with a reputation for excellence. The most famous urban settings for the university were Paris and Bologna, but students followed the teacher rather than the institution. When conditions became unfavorable in Paris, students followed their professors across the English Channel to a village as obscure in that time as Swiss hamlets are in the twentieth century, and Oxford University was born. And so we see that though we speak of the university as a place, it is in fact people. Hopefully, it is a community of people who understand the leisure of scholarship. Though the premodern universities cannot be credited for the sweeping technological achievements of modern universities, and they were certainly elitist institutions, they were indeed places set apart for study and the worship of God. The universities prepared leaders who were able to lead Europe into the rebirth of the Renaissance and Reformation in the fullness of time, as well as the proponents who demonstrated stubborn opposition to change.

Universities still have the potential to train leaders for positive change. Christian institutions of higher education can prepare people from all walks of life to serve Christ effectively. In the next century these institutions must be communities of learners who appreciate how God is at work in their culture as expressed in philosophy, literature, and the arts. The university must increasingly become a place where some lost ideals are recovered: scholarship as leisure, the secondary nature of the business of education, interdisciplinary curricula, and a community of effective readers.

The apostle Paul led the way in this regard even long before medieval times. In Acts 17:16-31, Paul shows his clear grasp of the word of God and a skilled understanding of the hearts and minds of people. The university must be a community made up of people who will continually seek this threefold Mars Hill ideal that centers on the importance of becoming effective "readers" of the word of God, the human soul, and culture.

{1} Gabriel Marcel, Homo Viator, 206.

{2} George Marsden, "The Naked Public Classroom," Books and Culture, September-October 1996, 30.

{3} I always thought this reason was hilarious. In essence we want our students to be able to quit our school to attend somewhere else. The reason is mythological, anyway; no institution has to accept credits from any other.

{4} The self-study visit occurs every few years. There is a shorter time between visits for less stable institutions. The school prepares a document which is essentially a critical self-assessment, which is read by a team of peers drawn from other accredited institutions. These peers then make an announced visit to the site of the self-study and through meetings and interviews with faculty, administrators, and even students, determine whether the institution lives up to its claims. The team of peers then makes a recommendation to the association for continued accreditation and note especially weaknesses that need improvement.