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Casting a Vision for Distinctively Christian Education

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Many different proposals have been made about how to build schools and universities that are distinctively Christian. The best of those proposals are the ones that recognize that the Christian worldview not only motivates us to teach and learn, but also shapes the way we teach and learn. A truly Christian education is one which is holistic; in other words, it shapes, in one way or another, every academic discipline, every professor and every student in a university.

The Bible’s basic storyline provides a framework for understanding reality. In a Christian university, that framework influences the way each discipline is taught. Because God created the world, we know that there is a design and order inherent to it, so that it can be studied; based on this, we also know that in each discipline there is a way things ought to be. Because humans are fallen, we know that every academic discipline can be corrupted and misdirected and therefore should be redemptively redirected toward its proper end.

Most important, because God is creator of the whole world about which we teach and study, the whole world possesses a certain unity. All things were created by God and are held together by God. The implication for Christian universities is that the curricula and courses should be taught in such a way that the student can comprehend the unity of truth. Each academic subject and each course should be placed in the context of the broader body of knowledge that finds its unity in Christ.

Universities in the United States and Europe have tended to sideline religious belief.

The Sinful Misdirection of God’s Creation

One of the reasons we find it so difficult to build truly Christian universities is that universities in the United States and Europe have tended to sideline religious belief. For several hundred years now, our state universities and most of our private universities have encouraged professors to keep their religious beliefs private. In other words, university education has been marked by the dis-integration of religion and education, rather than the integration of them.

The disintegration caused a Christian historian named George Marsden to write a book, The Outrageous Idea of Christian Scholarship, in which he argues that truly Christian scholarship is rare because Christian scholars have been trained to keep their religious beliefs private. He quotes a political scientist named John Green, who said:

If a professor talks about studying something from a Marxist point of view, others might disagree but not dismiss the notion. But if a professor proposed to study something from a Catholic or Protestant point of view, it would be treated like proposing something from a Martian point of view.[1]

Marsden argues that American universities tend to force their professors to be quiet about their faith if they want to be accepted at the university.[2]

This sort of disintegration warps and stunts the process of teaching and learning. Historically, the earliest medieval universities and many of the modern universities were truly uni-versities because they understood knowledge to be unified — that is, they saw God as the creator of everything that they studied and taught. However, once modern universities began to sideline religious belief, universities slowly became dis-universities, because God could no longer serve as the center that allowed the disciplines to be unified.

This sort of disintegration has fostered negative developments in education, such as relativism and scientism. Once the universities no longer had a centering point (God) around which knowledge could be unified, it was easy for that disunity to turn into relativism. In the faculty lounge and classrooms of many universities today, an atmosphere of intellectual and moral relativism reigns.

Alternately, the decentering of God caused a tendency towards scientism. If God has been sidelined, then his revealed word has been sidelined, as well. And if this religious perspective is sidelined, then it is easy to think that the scientific perspective on reality is the only perspective. So instead of viewing science and theology as mutually beneficial dialogue partners, and instead of recognizing the spiritual dimension of human life, the modern world tends to view science as the supreme (or only) form of knowledge and as the ultimate cultural authority.

Christians need to bring their Christian worldview to bear upon their teaching and learning.

Reintegrating Faith and Learning

In response to disintegration, relativism, scientism and other ills, Christian universities, professors and students need to bring their Christian worldview to bear upon their teaching and learning. We don’t want to merely tack onto the lectures some Bible verses or a prayer, but to do the hard work of figuring out how God’s revealed word applies to the subject we are teaching or learning. We cannot be simplistic about Christian education. The way in which Christianity applies will differ according to the subject being studied, and often it will be hard to discern.

In the instance of moral philosophy or ethics, we can fairly readily understand the way that biblical teaching speaks to the subject matter at hand. The Bible contains a significant amount of straightforward teaching on ethics and morality. Similarly, it might be easy to see the way biblical teaching informs a literature course. When an English class studies a novel, for example, students can fairly readily see how the story-world created by the author is a world that makes judgments about life’s meaning and purpose, or about truth, goodness or beauty.

However, there are other subjects in which the Christian application might not be so easy to discern. Take, for example, a course in veterinary studies. And take, for further example, the fairly superficial subject of “how to properly wash a cat” — which can serve as a scenario we might find very difficult to relate to the Christian worldview. How in the world would a Christian worldview shape the way a person teaches about feline hygiene? We can begin by noting that

  1. The doctrine of creation reveals that the animal world is part of God’s good creation, and therefore animals are not inherently evil. For this reason, an ethical treatment of animals leads us to avoid cruelty toward them.
  1. In addition, the doctrine of creation makes clear that animals, including cats, are not created in the image and likeness of God; only humans are. For this reason, one should not wash one’s cat with more care than one washes, say, one’s baby. Humor aside, society should not value animal life more than it values human life. It should not craft policies against animal cruelty while at the same time allowing human babies to be exterminated before birth.
  1. From the doctrine of the kingdom, we know that God will one day restore and renew his good cosmos (Romans 8:18-22; Revelation 21-22), including animals. Therefore, our care for animals is in some way a preview of God’s coming kingdom, in which the Bible tells us, lambs and wolves will lie down together (Isaiah 11:6; 65:25).
  1. Therefore, we conclude that we should behave responsibly toward cats (Christian worldview) and refrain from worshiping them (as do certain ancient and Eastern worldviews) or being cruel to them (classic middle-school-boy worldview).

Building truly Christian learning environments will be difficult because we must operate simultaneously within two traditions (Western and Christian). We certainly can learn from the Western tradition, but we also will always be at odds with it, because it sidelines religious belief and therefore warps and distorts knowledge. Craig Bartholomew and Michael Goheen put it well when they write,

On the one hand, since God is faithful to his creation, much true insight into God’s world will come to us from the non-Christian academic community; on the other hand, the idolatry that underlies Western scholarship will be at work to distort that insight.[3]

We must find a way to fulfill our calling faithfully and with excellence, doing so simultaneously with the Western and Christian traditions.

This article is a modified excerpt from Dr. Ashford’s book, Every Square Thing. Learn more>>

[1] George Marsden, The Outrageous Idea of Christian Scholarship (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997), 7. Marsden cites John Green’s quote in Peter Steinfels, “Universities Biased against Religion, Scholar Says,” New York Times, November 26, 1993, A22.

[2] Marsden, Outrageous Idea, 7.

[3] Michael W. Goheen and Craig G. Bartholomew, Living at the Crossroads: An Introduction to Christian Woldview (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2008), 163.

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  • culture
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Bruce Ashford

Bruce Riley Ashford is a Professor of Theology & Culture at Southeastern Seminary. He is the author or co-author of six books, including The Gospel of Our King (Baker, 2019), Letters to an American Christian (B&H, 2018), One Nation Under God: A Christian Hope for American Politics (B&H, 2015), and Every Square Inch: An Introduction to Cultural Engagement for Christians (Lexham, 2015).

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