Emerging From a University in Ruins | Jubilee Magazine

First Published in Jubilee / Spring 2011

UPON HEARING OF HIS WIFE’S suicide, Shakespeare’s Macbeth declared that “life’s but a walking shadow… a tale/ Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,/ Signifying nothing.”1 His remarks were born of despair. They bespoke the dark heart of a will to power, the same nihilistic philosophy of life that had led him and his wife to ignore conscience and defy the moral order of the universe. For a time it appeared to work. Macbeth succeeded the king he had murdered. He bore the sword of the earthly representative of Divine justice, and the country followed him. The rebellion against God that Macbeth’s murder of Duncan announced did not destroy him immediately. Yet the cancer of injustice soon not only corrupted the natural and civic order in the land, it consumed the new king and his wife, and the rot was only stopped with his death and a reassertion of the moral order with the return of Duncan’s son Malcolm.


The university is in crisis. That has been the considered opinion of scores of eminent academics since the late 1980s, so frequently expressed that books on the subject are almost forming an apocalyptic subgenre. But enthusiasm for tertiary education continues unabated, which demonstrates how much worse the state of affairs is than that in Shakespeare’s play. A coup d’état will not solve this problem. Despite soaring tuition rates, growing levels of debt, massive class sizes and what John Sommerville, author of The Decline of the Secular University, describes as the obvious “marginalization of our universities” politically, culturally, scientifically and socially,4 and former Dean of Harvard, Harry Lewis, describes in terms akin to an eclipse of biblical wisdom,5 university education seems more popular than ever. What can explain this willingness to incur exorbitant debts for something that is deemed largely irrelevant to life? It seems a commitment to a rite of passage is holding the university together even after the aim EMERGING from a University in Ruins and substance and character of education have been lost. D.A. Carson notes that it is not a recent development. The university has been under sustained assault throughout the whole modern era, and yet held itself together: What preserves the university as a university during the later stages of the so-called “modern” period is a nexus of presuppositions and commitments: strong belief in the autonomy and power of reason, massive assumptions about progress, widespread conviction that truth is objective and obtainable, and…. rising philosophical naturalism. In other words, what kept the university together was not the Christian worldview that prevailed several centuries earlier, but the common commitment to a common process. However, it now also seems to be withstanding a loss of almost all the presuppositions and commitments Carson describes to have held the university together in the “modern” period. In today’s postmodern university, there is clearly a decline in the belief in the autonomy and power of reason, a growing sense of social and scientific pessimism, and a widespread conviction that truth is perspectival.7 The only thing remaining from the modern period is its late-blooming philosophical naturalism, which ought to have been understood to be incomprehensible without the other presuppositions and commitments, and to have been implicated in their discredit. That has not happened though, or at least not exactly, which means that Carson is either off the mark, or else that something has changed about the contemporary university to appear to allow philosophical naturalism and cultural materialism to stand on its own. I think that the latter is the case. Three things have prevented the implosion of a secular university largely dedicated to philosophical naturalism thus far:

1) A hermeneutic of suspicion has gained widespread acceptance. Writers such as Marx, Nietzsche and Freud employed a ‘hermeneutic of suspicion’ to considerable effect throughout the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century, but in recent decades have been accorded a degree of profundity that has allowed variations on their ideas to filter into mainstream academia, despite their infamous legacies. According to their own metanarratives, all preceding metanarratives were rhetorical or tactical ploys used to gain or hold power by groups interested in maintaining the status quo. All three thinkers attacked the historic understanding of a rational, orderly universe, irrespective of whether it was presented by the Christian or the modernist, as a fiction designed to impede healthy criticism and change. They suggested that what had been called God or reason in the past was actually immanent in the human will, which made it a common will, which could be most fully expressed by the great man, the great artist, the State (or some combination of the above). But now the suspicion has fallen on the Enlightenment concept of humanity itself, which it is said has profound intellectual and historical baggage.

2) The university has changed into a multiversity. As a consequence of this suspicion about the Enlightenment conception of humanity, a unified ‘humanities’ perspective is regarded as symptomatic of the problem, not a source of a solution. In the multiversity of today, forms of philosophical naturalism have thus been fostered under the guise of research into the peculiar mental constructions of individuals or groups (normed according to their distinct race, gender or sexual ‘orientation’) without grounding in any other higher reality, such as God, the forms of the Platonic ideals, or truth (and human nature) apprehended according to the dictates of autonomous reason. In this assault on the Enlightenment’s secular humanism, a rational universe is still operatively assumed, but never in a consistent way. The humanities are being reframed as a sort of United Nations of ‘interest groups’. 3) The State and the university it sponsors agree on a ‘democratic’ politics of educational empowerment as a new vision for the humanities. In the multiversity of today, a great deal of energy is invested into advancing a politics of minority empowerment, i.e. of divergent ‘humanities’ as the educational good. It is effectively a ‘humanitarian’ redefinition of the humanities, which transpires at the expense of a common humanity. While diversity has its merits, the change largely serves a pluralistic agenda of moral and social relativism which actually regards a traditional university educational agenda, whether Christian or modernist, as its enemy. This takes place under the banner of academic freedom which emerged from a Christian worldview and persisted for a time in the modernist belief in the autonomy of reason. But the true believers in the politics of empowerment appeal to academic freedom only when and insofar as it serves their ends, and increasingly overturn it in the name of ‘tolerance’ when it does not. In this, the postmodern university is aided by its State sponsors, which increasingly tend to understand their own role in the terms of cultural materialism. Since in public discourse the public good is almost invariably couched in economic (materialist) terms and increasingly operates with a thoroughgoing moral relativism, there appears to be no end to the practical good thought to reside in further ‘education’, or in maximizing participation in it. Tellingly then, the most common goal of education today is not wisdom or knowledge of the true, the good, and the beautiful, but social advancement or empowerment. As a secondary aim or as a consequence of education, this is no bad thing. But as the primary motivation for education, the aim of power fits rather seamlessly into philosophical naturalism’s reductionist vision of life. Its consequences are not appealing. It has redefined life as survival. It is no longer just nature, but human nature, which is understood to be ‘red in tooth and claw with ravine’ – an utterly bleak, fatalistic, and, by its own lights, amoral worldview. It is hardly surprising that with such cynical criteria for understanding life, the best many in the university can imagine today is either to gain economic and social power themselves, to take it from others, or to say the same thing in the opposite fashion; that is, to be free (or free others) from all forms of economic, social and moral compulsion. This reduction of the aims of the secular university to an impoverished narrative of freedom and compulsion plays itself out in two observations Sommerville makes about them:

[T]he liberal arts core of the universities have been hollowed out in two ways: . . . The great majority of students are now in professional programs, learning how to make money and be useful. Second, the liberal arts themselves have changed. They’ve turned into technical specialties. They’re often addressing questions nobody is asking, and giving answers nobody can understand.8 He notes a similarly distorted pattern in the sciences. They have become increasingly technical studies which assert the truth of naturalistic philosophy but don’t really explore it in any depth. University science has largely become applied science. The ‘pragmatic’ aims of the multiversity have meant that this shift has been accepted almost without notice, let alone question. But it is in many ways a watershed moment: When the focus of the university was on the discovery of physical reality, the burden of proof was on religious thinkers to show how they were relevant. Now that our universities are devoted to professional education, our questions are about human needs and aspirations… optimal conditions for humans are at the centre of attention. And the burden of proof should shift to scientists to show how all human activity, values, dreams, interests and culture can be explained in terms of, for instance molecular biology or quantum physics. This is clearly preposterous. Religion has always provided us the language appropriate to these concerns… In short, science was never cut out to be the queen of all thought; rather it is meant to be a servant. It appears that the stage has been set to reexamine the wisdom of abolishing God from the university. For, with that, a clear, humane purpose for studying and for living has been lost. The time is ripe for a reassessment of the secularist agenda of the past centuries, and to consider the opportunities and challenges for a Christian university.


What then is a Christian to do in the light of the current state of affairs? Christian universities are an obvious alternative to the secular university, but they are not immune to its problems. The church does not operate in a culture-neutral environment. A Christian university can and should be superior to its secular counterparts, but there are issues that need to be addressed within the church and the academic community in order to make it genuinely viable. The following cursory suggestions at least need consideration:

1) Note the sign of the times – The entire trajectory of the postmodern university, as noted at the outset, has been denounced as intellectually and spiritually bankrupt by some of the most eminent academics of our day. The silence of the counterargument is deafening. So too have the masters of the ‘hermeneutic of suspicion’, the men who continue to provide the underlying intellectual metanarrative to the multiversity: Nietzsche has ever been associated with the fascism and social Darwinism of the twentieth century; Marx has been utterly discredited by the terrors and ineptitudes of Communism; Freud and his disciple Carl Jung have been exposed to have falsified and even invented their observations,10 and Darwin’s model of evolution, the basis of a great deal of scientific pedagogy and research, has faced sustained and serious criticism from the school of ‘intelligent design’. This does not mean they have gone away. Yet, with the exception of Darwin, the names are rarely invoked. In some ways, that has simply rendered them more pernicious. Variations on their exploded theories persist in a variety of forms attached to the various strains of contemporary academic pluralism. This should not surprise us: the hermeneutics of suspicion, which has now turned upon all forms of unity, including the unity of consciousness itself, is the natural corollary of Cartesian doubt, the premise behind the empiricism of modern science. As has ever been the case, the academy and its vested interests are resistant to change for good and for ill, and while it is too early to determine the outcome of these challenges in the public universities, the signs are ominous. What is apparent is that there is more than science at stake; there is a moral and spiritual tenor to the discussions surrounding the university (and indeed education as a whole) and its purpose at the same time that an activist judiciary is implementing a recalibration of human life and its structures based on present scientific ‘certainties’, and an unprecedented understanding of the law being implemented that is threatening the very stability of Western civilization.

All the same, there are signs of hope in the desert. In 2005, Stanley Fish, often called the Dean of the postmodernists in the United States, was asked what the ‘next big thing’ would be in academia after the study of race, class and gender. Without hesitation, he announced that it would be the study of ‘religion’, and not from the ‘neutral’ perspective of the secularist, but from the inside, because the truisms of Enlightenment liberalism had quite suddenly appeared obsolete: To the extent that liberalism’s structures have been undermined or at least shaken…the perspicuousness and usefulness of distinctions long assumed -- reason as opposed to faith, evidence as opposed to revelation, inquiry as opposed to obedience, truth as opposed to belief -- have been called into question. Since Fish admits that liberalism’s neutrality is a myth and its claim that a Christian worldview lacks integrity is highly questionable, it is clear that there ought to be more room for Christians to think as Christians in the public university. There are few signs of that happening. The obvious place for that to happen is a Christian university. As said, this isn’t without its challenges.

2) Develop a holistic Christian worldview – Among other things, this entails: i) A Critique of Reason: Accept some of the substance of the postmodern critique of autonomous human rationality, but also develop a clearer vision of how the worldview of the Enlightenment fundamentally differs from a Christian worldview. This means establishing an understanding of rationality and ethical conduct on the basis of the revealed word of God, as opposed to dispensing with reason altogether. The creative action of the divine Logos has rendered the created order logical. Our knowledge of the world is not exhaustive, but it is adequate and it is real, as is our knowledge of God himself because he has revealed himself to us. The historic understanding of a rational, orderly universe created by God has been attacked by our contemporaries in part out of sheer historical ignorance. It has been uncritically assumed that there is an absolute continuity between a Christian and a modernist worldview. This needs to be rebutted, because there is a great deal with which a Christian would agree not only in a critique of the presuppositions and commitments of modernism, but of its consequences in the aggrandizement of the West over and against the ‘unenlightened’ world. Reason is not an invention of modern science, and needn’t be dispensed with in our concerns about the abuse of power. In fact, a full-orbed understanding of reason (and justice) is necessary to identify and rectify it. But reason and justice must be defined by scriptural categories and terms of reference, not just their contemporary homonyms, which are the product of the world’s self-understanding. Among other things, the Christian community needs to become more aware of how biblical words like justice have acquired non-biblical meanings in its own vocabulary. ii) A Critique of Doubt: Understand that the Enlightenment’s method of doubt, specifically in the authority of the theological and metaphysical underpinning of the university, has led to a wider contagion, which in our time has engulfed the concept of authority in every sphere of life. So long as Western society adhered to a belief in an absolute and transcendent God behind and beyond it, its laws retained their validity and Western society retained its vitality. Without that basic credo, everything else was rendered ‘relative’ and contingent. For example, the Romantic emphasis on ‘nature’ and ‘feeling’, which has led to our moralistic and therapeutic culture which emphasizes the goal of self-discovery and self-love,13 cannot be understood to offer a genuine antidote to the Enlightenment’s autonomous rationality. It is actually an attempt to continue its project by making reason immanent in the world, thus ‘spiritualizing’ nature, while still leaving God’s existence to be a rather doubtful matter. This has a further implication. When natural law and reason were regarded as the immanent principles of God in the medieval university, the freedom of a collective of scholars, made in God’s image, were implicitly claimed against the authority of the State. It is a part of the history of the foundation of the university, and of academic freedom, that it defined itself so. But because justice is a metaphysical concept, just as law is, the rejection of the metaphysical validity of law has resulted in a growing social anarchy. Once the Divine will was collapsed into the human will and made immanent in it,14 as it has been since the onset of Romanticism, Divine immanence has been translated from the realm of law and reason to the will of the people, and by implication to the State. Human freedom thereafter has merely become a formality contingent on the State’s definition. iii) A Critique of Rights: The same is true of human rights. It has been remarked by nonWestern governments that ‘universal’ declarations of human rights are in fact Western conceptions of rights rooted in their understanding of human nature. This is partly true. They are not of an absolute, non-historical character. But that does not mean they are relative or untrue. They owe their universality to the degree to which they conform to the theological conception of the Person in whose image all people are made, not to their geographical or historical origins per se. The work of the person of the Holy Spirit in the midst of the nations of the West remains a part of its legacy, however much those of our generation are seeking to eradicate it. It is also true that these human rights have become rights guaranteed by the State, and have been advanced by states. Yet we can observe how quickly this leads to difficulties without an awareness of their theological origins. As soon as human rights are understood not to have been recognized but rather defined by the State, they are no longer ‘inalienable’ as once advertised. For what the State giveth, it mayeth also take away. Our contemporary human rights tribunals are making this more and more apparent. The incursions against the human community and the decline in human freedom has been particularly accelerated by legal positivism, which has destroyed the metaphysical concept of justice, and made law and justice to be the product and will of whoever is strongest, or who has been ‘empowered’ to speak against injustice. The Christian university needs to dispense with the antinomianism which has increasingly marked Protestantism, and become aware of the resources within God’s law (and within the Christian tradition of jurisprudence based upon it) to address the multiplicity of political and social issues that face academia and society at large in our day. At present, it has adopted a quasi-Marcionite reading of Scripture which has led it largely to assent to entirely speculative social and legal measures that often contradict natural law, let alone biblical law. This has never been the case when the Christian university has flourished. iv) A Critique of Culture: The malicious and entirely superficial connection of colonialism and exploitation with Christianity needs to be rejected. This does not mean absolving Christians (or Christendom) from all culpability or responsibility, but it does mean observing how Christians have acted as the city of God within the city of man. It also means dispensing with the fashionable and ultimately disingenuous act of national repentance for the sins of others. It is, as C.S. Lewis once observed, an act of repenting for our neighbour’s sins, which we are not called to do, usually while also neglecting the ones we commit. The Western tradition, seen with a critical eye, needs to be recovered as a norm for the Christian university in order to foster cultural understanding and humility. Among other things, there is no possible way in which true cultural understanding can develop without an understanding of how Western conceptions of beauty, truth, goodness, human nature, freedom, the moral character of God, etc. can engage with those of other cultures, such as the growing phenomenon of Islam, without first understanding what the Christian conceptions are, and what modernity did to them. The assumption of modernity that we develop a clearer worldview by removing our cultural lenses ignores the importance of the incarnation. It assumes that we are naturally perspicacious rather than myopic, which everything including the witness of history speaks unequivocally against.

3) Recognize the idols of our age – It has been noted how universities tend to emulate the norms of their culture, even in adverse circumstances. It happened in recent times to the church in Nazi Germany and in South Africa. The tendency to capitulate to the powers that be is all the stronger when these institutions do not root themselves in the words and the logic of Scripture. Such nationalistic dangers seem to be remote from us at present. In our age, one of the surprising dangers is the opposite phenomenon of ‘global Christianity’, which seems tellingly different than the church Catholic. It encourages the historical anomaly of ‘global Christians.’ It is a fact that God revealed himself to humanity through the language and culture of the Jews, Greeks and the Romans. We don’t need to be first-century Jews to follow Christ, and one of the great beauties of the Christian faith is the way in which Christian truth has set its roots in so many languages and cultures throughout the world. But Carson describes the danger well: …it is a denial of this cultural wealth, and finally a denial of the incarnation itself, to love people everywhere and no one in particular, to be sensitive to cultures everywhere while never being rooted in any of them – in short, to be “midearth” people. It was not Jesus’ way; it was not Paul’s way.16 Being a ‘global citizen’ of the church, for all its apparent appeal, is actually a charter for irresponsibility because there is no global nation or church to which to be accountable. All too often it means Christians involving themselves as ineffective contributors in programs that have nothing to do with biblical religion. All too often, they serve an agenda of radical relativism in which human solidarity and ecumenism have become the paramount virtues.

4) Cease and desist with the impractical pragmatism – Christian families need to stop propping up the secular universities uncritically. Many are only living on their reputations, and the public endorsement of them irrespective of their quality is only hastening their decline. While the writing is on the wall for the agenda of both liberalism and post-liberalism, academia is slow to change, and lacks an alternative. The pattern of many centuries will not change overnight. For all the prophetic calls, academic freedom for the Christian to think as a Christian is increasingly difficult in the secular university.

5) Make the study of theology primary in the church – Universities, even Christian universities, cannot be trusted to be the first place in which a robust presentation of theology is encountered. There is a detachment in academic study which is dangerous for a faith not grounded in an intimacy with the Lord encountered weekly from the pulpit, and nurtured by a people of faith. Furthermore, while professors have a comparable aim and teaching responsibility to that of the pastor, it is not wholly congruent. Among other things, they assign grades on their students’ achievement. A Christian university cannot flourish, let alone survive, without a thriving community of churches to support it.

6) Make the study of theology secondary in the university – This is not to make theology to be of anything other than primary significance in the university, it is to suggest an order of study. The seven liberal arts formed the foundation for the study of theology, the Queen of the sciences, throughout the period of church history in which Christian education flourished, as did its pulpits and its congregations. The liberal arts themselves need to have a thoroughly theological character, and in an age of great intellectual and spiritual confusion, they need to educate not just in the areas that are currently fashionable, but to take into account the riches of Christian history. Too often the ramparts of Christian truth are left undefended against ancient heresies. It is actually an odd symptom of success. It is not because the saints of old could not answer their opponents and accusers; in fact, it is because the answers they gave were eventually regarded as so evidently true that their opponents no longer opposed them, and they and their slanders temporarily vanished beneath the waves of time, until subsequent generations of Christians forgot the magnitude of the battle. This explains the recurrence of ancient heresies throughout Christian history, as well as the perception that the heresies are new and incontrovertible.

7) Serve God and the church – Recognize and submit to the authority of Scripture and the rule of faith; accept the local church’s legitimate concern and involvement – albeit at arm’s length – in university affairs. There is certainly a danger in adopting the secular university’s model of the professor as one of the intellectual elite, making a Christian professor one of what Carson wittily calls ‘the elite of the elect’;17 but in our present age and circumstances there is an equal (but far more likely) danger, particularly in ‘private’ Christian universities which must generate their own funds, to reduce Christian education to Christian ‘market values’. Usually this entails that they have precisely the same goals as parachurch or missionary organizations (which even the world can often support) in order to gain sympathy and support from their churches and donors. In a culture in which the arm of the church has grown short because of a circumscribed gospel, and Christians have grown accustomed to adopting a defensive posture in the public sphere, revival can only come when greater latitude is given than meeting such perceived needs. To combat this, churches as a whole need to rediscover the distinctiveness of a Christian worldview and its necessity for their congregations’ health. This worldview must be carefully cultivated in an unapologetically academic atmosphere which will not suspend the pursuit of what is best for what seems good at the time. It is precisely this sort of compromise to temporary expediency and loss of integrity which has resulted in the implosion of the worldwide financial system on ethical grounds. In other words, a Christian university cannot genuinely serve God or a church which does not expect of it the highest standards characteristic of it; nor can its students be served if these same standards are not demanded of them.

8) Regard character development as central – A cynical world which interprets all actions and statements according to a narrative of power and self-interest desperately needs the integrity of Christian conviction, a recovery of the truth about Christian conduct in world history, and the humility and other-centredness of those who bear witness to Jesus, God incarnate, crucified as man for man, and raised to the seat of majesty on high to show the power of the meekness of his majesty. Education in the early church was distinct from its rivals more than anything because of the moral character it cultivated in its students, which is needed today as much as ever. Eventually, the Christian school wholly superseded the alternatives. Allan Bloom, in his influential book The Closing of the American Mind, lamented the fact that the sole virtue remaining for those schooled in the university today was their openness of mind.18 As G.K. Chesterton noted, “The object of opening the mind, as of opening the mouth, is to shut it again on something solid.”19 A Christian university not only stands on something solid, it gives real food, for the mind and heart and soul.