Last night, I went to a talk given by Karl Johnson, founder of Chesterton House, which is a Christian study center at Cornell University. In his talk, Karl briefly traced the historical transformation of the university, as follows:
from the 1630s – in which universities were places of spiritual and moral formation as well as of professional training, and in which human limitation acknowledged divine revelation as a source of knowledge
through the 19th and early 20th centuries – in which Enlightenment thought with its optimism and sense of progress shaped the modern research university, and the earlier acknowledgement of the limitations of human reason alone gave way to a sense that we could figure out all that we needed to know
to World War I through the late 20th/early 21st century – in which optimism concerning empiricism as the source of truth gave way to a pessimism that saw the inability for humanity to achieve truth and peace through reason, that rebelled against the division of head and heart, facts and values, and placed emphasis primarily on subjective truth (all of which is commonly referred to as postmodernism)
In this context, he discussed the increased secularization of the university, and the fact that religion and faith issues have been increasingly shunted aside as private, value-laden, unknowable, and undiscussed in the academy except in the context of religion centers (and increasingly, departments). The university, especially in its larger forms, has also mostly relinquished any attempt at creating “good citizens,” as it has realized that an emphasis on rationality alone does little to shape the morals and ethics of individual students. Such issues are dealt with in Student Affairs, not in class. The “big questions” remain unasked – students chuckle at the absurdity of those “religious conservatives” as portrayed in the media, nod in agreement as a pharmacology professor explains that the beautiful intricacy of a cellular mechanism proves how absurd it is that an omniscient being could have had any hand in creating life…
In addition, Karl briefly discussed the anti-intellectualism that grew out of the fundamentalist reaction against Higher Criticism and the elevation of reason and empiricism, the effects of which are still noticeably evident among parts of the evangelical circle today. Instead of engaging in dialogue with those who denounce faith, conservative Christians have often either been outraged or silent on the subject. As a result, the interaction between the academy and the church is often impoverished. So, what are we to do?
Karl mentioned the rise of campus ministry groups, such as InterVarsity, Navigators, Campus Crusade, etc., whose function is to provide connections for Christians on campus in the form of Bible Study, worship times, etc. As good as these are in many respects, they indirectly perpetuate the academic claim that religion and faith are outside of the purview of other academic disciplines. Karl encouraged us to pursue the integration of faith with academic study in other disciplines, which is the mission of Chesterton House. The study center is a resource that provides a venue for questioning and debate, that brings in well-qualified speakers on topics that address metaphysical and other meaningful questions, that connects students across a wide variety of disciplines in their search for truth, that ultimately encourages students to avoid compartmentalizing faith in favor of integrating it with their studies.
As an academic and a Christian, this appeals. I am always trying to understand how my basic beliefs about the world and about God shape and should shape my studies of music and philosophy. I also have deep questions, some of which I have beginnings of answers for, others of which remain mysterious in many ways – and these questions are not often addressed in class or even in the social life around classes. Of course, the church ought to be addressing such questions, but not fearfully – and it often does so. But my academic life is not a different life from the one in which my questions about life and learning and music occur.
Notably, Karl did not advocate a return to the spiritual and moral basis of the academy. There is a place – a significant place – for Christian schools (I went to one for undergrad!), but the academy being what is today, Christian study centers may be one way in which young Christian academics may be encouraged to not only pursue vocations in many disciplines, but to pursue them in a Christ-centered, intellectually honest way, such that our lives are holistically integrated, with faith in and service to God permeating every intellectual (and other) activity.