Thursday, April 11, 2013

Christian Education: Can it be Open to the Free Pursuit of Knowledge?

Christian education is primarily concerned with discipleship – raising up Christ-like Christians. However, many maintain that this endeavor is incompatible with the goals of higher education – free inquiry and the search for truth. After all, Christianity is convinced that it already has the truth.

One possible indication of this “incompatibility” is the fact that Christianity has been unable to retain the colleges that it has birthed. The vast majority of colleges founded in the USA were founded by Christians for Christian purposes:

  • Of our 119 first colleges and universities, 104 were founded to teach biblical values…Even public universities commonly had Christian roots. (Michael Hickerson,
These same schools have not only disowned any association with their Christian roots, they have turned virulently against the mother who birthed them.

Why has this happened? Secularists allege that the Christian faith is indeed incompatible with higher learning. The settled beliefs and commitment of the Christian faith set Christians against the free pursuit of knowledge. Historian James Burtchaell illustrates this attitude among the faculty at the formerly Christian college, Davidson, which had required its professors to be “prepared conscientiously to uphold and increase its [Davidson’s] effectiveness as an institution of Christian learning.” One way they were to do this was to become a member at a Christian church. However:

  • A strident voice from the Department of Bible and Religion denounced this contentless obligation as “a direct contradiction of our public espousal of an open and unlimited search for truth,” and insisted Davidson emerge from its “pious isolation” and fearlessly welcome adversaries. (The Dying of the Light, 830)
This “strident voice” suggested that, somehow, Davidson’s Christian commitments were in conflict with an “unlimited search for truth.” Consequently, Davidson caved in.

This raises an important question for Christian education:

  • Can the Christian school or professor be open to truth and its evidences and still be totally committed to Christ and His Word? If your mind is already made up, can you still be open to the facts and open inquiry? 
The way we answer this question will determine our theology of education, the way we teach, and ultimately the nature of the Christian school or college.

Many “Christian” academics have abandoned the idea of imparting the essentials of the Christian faith in favor of “free inquiry.” Burtchaell offers the example of Ursuline sister Alice Gallin, executive director of the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities:

  • My theological understanding of faith, and the obedience which is consequent upon it…is a gift from the Lord which enables us to say “I believe,”…I do not see how it can be the ground for the institution’s existence. I think, on the contrary, that the only legitimate goal for a college or university is an “educational” purpose, ie., to empower students to develop habits of mind such as analysis, criticism, synthesis, discipline thinking. (831-32)
Gallin assumes that faith and university education can’t mix and that the development of the “habits of the mind” cannot coexist with impartation of the Christian faith. In order to reconcile her faith with her career, Gallin privatized and retracted her faith from the world of learning. Consequently, it was relegated to no more than a blind leap that simply proclaims “I believe,” as if faith is entirely lacking of any evidential basis. As with many educated professionals, she had erected an impassable fence between her faith and her professional world, across which neither could intrude.

However, reality has little respect for our artificial fences; nor does the Lord. Our faith – our Christian commitment – is relevant to all areas of our lives. God is relevant to everything we do. His truths pertain to all areas of human endeavor – science, psychology, history, whatever! He is the sunlight that illuminates all truth. There is no area of our lives that our off-limits to our Savior. He saves us in our entirety and expects us to live entirely for Him. Paul therefore instructs us to bring all of our thoughts – even our actions – into alignment with the Gospel (2 Cor. 10:4-5).

However, “free inquiry” might not be so free. Although the university has thoroughly broken free from its church-shackles, it has accepted a new set of shackles – secular ones:

  • The church has compliantly withdrawn to an impotent distance, while civil authorities at every level now make no apology for imposing their laws and regulations on zoning, gender and ethnic imperatives for enrollment, occupational safety, hiring and faculty appointments…But the greatest outside authority to which all these colleges…now defer is that of the academy itself. When the Western Association of States and Colleges told Saint Mary’s it could not prefer Catholics in faculty hiring, the college felt forced to acquiesce. (834)
However, there are many other more subtle influences – language, culture, cultural biases, money, peer pressure - that call into question to university’s claim to:

  • Intellectual freedom, patient research, evidence based judgment, and rational argument. The implicit image is of free agents engaged in free inquiry and free conclusions…Rational discourse in the contemporary academy believes – or says – that it can abide no prior convictions, commitments, or loyalties. (850)
Although these are noble ideals – ideals that even the consistent Christian can endorse – there is a failure to take into account the sovereignty of our heart, desires and interests. Our thinking and even our participation in research and other scholarly endeavors are largely under the dominion of our heart and pragmatic concerns - our sometimes unseen “prior convictions [presuppositions], commitments, or loyalties.”

We all have our worldview commitments. For instance, the laboratory is now under the sway of naturalism, even though there is not one stitch of evidence in its favor. (Although we all acknowledge that our laws of physics work predictably and formulaicly, there is nothing to suggest that they work naturally and unintelligently.) Consequently – and it has been well documented – those who deny naturalism are denied jobs and tenure and are subject to intense ridicule. Although the university claims that it values diversity – and it might be diverse in terms of gender, race and ethnicity – it is not diverse in the very area that is so vital to the health of the university. There is little diversity of viewpoint.

Recently, Jonathan Haidt, a moral psychologist, University of Virginia,

  • Polled his audience at the San Antonio Convention Center, starting by asking how many considered themselves politically liberal. A sea of hands appeared, and Dr. Haidt estimated that liberals made up 80 percent of the 1,000 psychologists in the ballroom. When he asked for centrists and libertarians, he spotted fewer than three dozen hands. And then, when he asked for conservatives, he counted a grand total of three.
Diversity has given way to a stifling group-think, the perfect cauldron for indoctrination. Columnist Chris Hedges comments about the fact that our “elite institutions” have departed from their stated goal of free inquiry:

  • The elite institutions disdain honest intellectual inquiry, which is by its nature distrustful of authority, fiercely independent, and often subversive…[and] keeps the uninitiated from asking unpleasant questions. (from Be the People, Carol M. Swain, 11)
The fruits of “free inquiry” are also questionable, according to Professor of Law and Political Science at Vanderbilt. Carol Swain:

  • Increasingly, people have come to doubt the objectivity of “scientific” findings both inside and outside colleges and universities. Scholars have begun to question certain aspects of the peer-review process. They know that each journal represents an ideological stance and typically accepts only articles that support that stance. (62)
However, the problem might be far worse. Daniel James Devine reported:

  • The British Medical Journal [BMJ] reported that 13 percent of UK scientists say they’ve seen colleagues “inappropriately adjusting, excluding, altering or fabricating data,” indicating widespread research fraud. “The BMJ has been told of junior academics being advised to keep concerns to themselves to protect their careers, being bullied into not publishing their findings, or having their contracts terminated when they spoke out,” said BMJ editor. (World, Feb 11, 2012, 64)
And this might only represent the tip of the iceberg. Consequently, we need to be hesitant before extolling the university as the guardian of free inquiry. This brings us back to our original question:

  • Can Christian schools and educators be committed both to Scripture and the free pursuit of knowledge?
First of all, it should be obvious that we all have our worldviews and philosophical commitments – the lenses through which we observe the world. If this is so, then we need to ask which lens obscures or blurs reality, and which lens brings it into sharp focus!

When I had approached reality with a secular lens – and through this lens I understood that the problems of humanity were external and not embedded within each human – I sought out the perfect community, where I could find peace, love and happiness. I also sought out the perfect woman. This assumption led to many avoidable disappointments.

However, once I donned a Christian lens, I began to shed my this-worldly utopian ideals. Instead, I began to see that our problems are internal – sin. I also began to see that, even though I might meet someone who appeared “normal” or “healthy,” they too had their issues and every society had its failings. This paradigm or lens allowed me to navigate more smoothly.

Our cognitive pre-commitments, presuppositions or paradigms can aid in understanding and the search for truth, or they can impede it. So here is the question we must ask: “Do Christian presuppositions aid in the quest for truth?” Biographer Jana Tull Steele reports of Duke Ellington:

  • He used to say that he had three educations: one from school, one at the pool hall, and one from the Bible. Without the latter, he said, you can’t understand what you learned from the other two places. (Duke Ellington)
According to Ellington, the Bible provided the necessary software to make the data intelligible. Similarly, C.S. Lewis wrote:

  • "I believe in Christianity as I believe in the sun—not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else." (Os Guinness, The Journey, 27)
A lens may either invite or restrict the light. According to Lewis, Christianity optimized the reception of light and illumination. Therefore, we cannot simply say that “Christianity’s theological pre-commitments hinder free inquiry.” Rather, these pre-commitments might actually facilitate learning.

History bears witness to the fact that Christianity provided the worldview which made scientific development possible. According to the late British scientist Robert Clark:

  • “However we may interpret the fact, scientific development has only occurred in Christian culture. The ancients had brains as good as ours. In all civilizations—Babylonia, Egypt, Greece, India, Rome, Persia, China and so on—science developed to a certain point and then stopped. It is easy to argue speculatively that, perhaps, science might have been able to develop in the absence of Christianity, but in fact, it never did. And no wonder. For the non-Christian world believed that there was something ethically wrong about science. In Greece, this conviction was enshrined in the legend of Prometheus, the fire-bearer and prototype scientist who stole fire from heaven, thus incurring the wrath of the gods.” ("Christian Belief and Science," quoted by Henry F. Schaefer, 14)
The Biblical faith had provided just the right lens or presuppositions for scientific discovery. Here are several of its key presuppositions:

  1. God wants to be known and understood. (This gave a green light for investigation.)
  1. God values order and operates by discoverable laws or principles. (Phenomena aren’t random but are governed by Divine laws which we can discover.)
  1. God doesn’t change and therefore His laws have a basis for changelessness. (This is a pre-condition for discoverable truths.)
  1. God created a world that is not illusory, but one that is “very good” and worth understanding rather than transcending. (Science is possible and worth our efforts.)
  1. God directed us to care for the world. (This requires us to understand it.)
Although secularism (naturalism) unconsciously partakes of these Christian presuppositions, its worldview cannot affirm them. Secularism can only affirm the electro-chemical reactions of the brain (as a product of unguided natural selection). It therefore has no rational foundation to believe in truth and wisdom.

Without any appreciation for the existence of transcendent principles of truth, the principal of pragmatism – whatever gives the wanted results – must fill the vacuum. If “truth” is only a matter of what brings certain desired results, then “truth” is expendable in favor of the results. Secularism wants results that will make people happy, at least, those closest to us. However, lies will also make people happy and bring desired results. It is only the Christian commitment to truth that keeps secularism honest, at least for the time being. In fact, the history of radical secular experiments shows that “truth” is no more than a commodity to achieve certain ends – propaganda and the manipulation.

Perhaps, then Christianity is the foremost guardian of truth and free inquiry. If so, the Christian college would do well to hire only staff having an unswerving commitment to the truth and the light (with also an eye to competence) – the light that reveals all else .

This doesn’t mean that we shelter our prepared students from antagonistic viewpoints. However, we do so in responsible ways. We don’t present our first graders with sexual training. Instead, we respect the needs and readiness of our students. We deal honestly and confidently with these viewpoints, knowing that we are walking in the light, which will expose the darkness. Consequently, we have nothing to fear but acknowledge our weighty responsibility.

However, we also recognize that great contempt for the light hidden beneath a façade of “free inquiry”:

  • “This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but men loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that his deeds will be exposed. But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what he has done has been done through God." (John 3:19-21)

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