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‘Restoring the Soul of the University’ Authors discuss new book on role and purpose of Christian higher education

March 28, 2017

Much of American higher education “has no unifying soul or mission,” write the authors of a new book that seeks to promote faith and theology as central to colleges and universities. The authors urge Christian colleges and universities to reject “post-Christian culture” as it plays out in American higher education.

Restoring soulRestoring the Soul of the University: Unifying Christian Higher Education in a Fragmented Age (InterVarsity Press) is by Perry L. Glanzer, a professor of educational foundations at Baylor University; Nathan F. Alleman, associate professor of higher education studies at Baylor; and Todd C. Ream, a professor of higher education at Taylor University and a research fellow at Baylor’s Institute for Studies of Religion. They responded via email to questions about the book.

Q: Your book argues that theology must be central to the role of great universities, and that this is not generally the case in higher education, even at institutions with religious roots and ties. How do you envision Christian universities changing to make theology central?

A: We think it starts with faculty members and administrators learning and being unafraid to speak and reason theologically. Most faculty members and administrators are comfortable speaking the language of their discipline and perhaps even the language of higher education. Thus, some are adept at talking about retention, developing capacities and perhaps even leadership and critical thinking. Yet they likely feel awkward and/or uncomfortable talking about the theological claim, for example, that the academic vocation involves restoring the created image of God found in all students and that such efforts involve helping students acquire the virtues of God, such as wisdom, love and humility. In order to further theological speaking and reasoning throughout the university, we make a few practical suggestions that would allow theologians to help serve the whole Christian university.

For instance, we think Christian universities should allow theologians to choose the degree to which they may be judged by their academic publications within the profession or by their interdisciplinary scholarship and service with other academic departments. Professors who choose the latter track could work in partnership with one of four general areas — sciences, social sciences, humanities and professional — to help faculty and students create a dialogue between theology and the discipline. These university theologians would seek to free theology from its professional confines and weave it throughout the whole university.

Q: Are there equivalent changes you would recommend for secular universities?

A: Previous generations may have tried to remove theological and metaphysical questions from the public square, but we cannot escape them. These issues influence, to some degree, any number of questions all universities ask students to contemplate. As a result, both religious and secular institutions must address these matters.

That said, we would never expect a secular university to make theology a significant part of the university. We do expect secular universities, as part of their attempt to offer a liberal education, to teach students what it means to think theologically and to do so from the perspective of a variety of major religious traditions.

Indeed, the failure of most secular universities to teach students what it means to think theologically demonstrates a significant failure of liberal education. Whether they profess faith in a particular religious tradition or not, students need to understand how a significant portion of the world makes sense of life on any number of levels.

As a result, following Warren Nord’s advice in Does God Make a Difference? Taking Religion Seriously in Our Schools and Universities would be a helpful first step for secular universities in their attempts to offer a liberal education.

Q: You write a lot about “multiversities” with “fragmented souls.” How do you define those terms?

A: We take the terms from Clark Kerr’s The Uses of the University and define them in a somewhat similar fashion, but we also add some important elements.

Kerr understood the term “soul” as a university’s central animating principle. We believe the soul of the research university is not merely a central principle or purpose. It also includes its central identity and the story that connects that identity to a transcendent story of the universe. This identity and its story provide the source for the university’s ultimate moral ideals and various purposes, such as moral ideals about what it means to be a flourishing human being.

Q: Your book touches on the athletics scandal at Baylor University, where two of the authors teach and where the third is a research fellow. Recently we have seen some Baylor fans claiming that nothing unusual happened there. Do these developments make you concerned for the values you espouse at Baylor? Is big-time athletics consistent with the values you promote?

A: We think the response of some Baylor fans that you mention perhaps shows the failure of a Christian university’s theological education. We should note, however, a number of students and alumni may simply reject that education when it occurs. While we would not wish that to be the case, a liberal education rightfully affords them the opportunity to do so.

At its best, a Christian university offers a robust moral vision for intellectual consideration. It would be naïve to think that all of our students (or fans) embrace it. Ideally, Christians should be unafraid to talk about the comforting of victims and the pursuit of justice and reconciliation. Of course, Christians believe sin can happen at both the individual and institutional level and thus do whatever they can to preclude sin’s occurrence.

When domestic and sexual violence take place, the Christian faith calls its adherents to comfort the victims [and] seek justice and, as possible and appropriate, reconciliation. Trying to normalize what took place at Baylor by indicating that such behavior also happens elsewhere is thus simply unacceptable.

When sexual [and] domestic violence occurs, individuals and the institution need to appropriately confess it and seek justice and reconciliation — not merely for the public relations benefit but with the aim of reconciliation with God and one’s neighbor. Christian universities that live with those principles in mind then also live with the highest of bars public opinion can muster.

Regarding “big-time athletics,” we think the Christian understanding of worship proves vitally important to recognizing possible abuses. As we write in our book, we think that any practice in the university, including even major academic practices, can be corrupted by external goods, such as power, prestige, money, etc. This temptation is why we think Christian universities must practice what we call the pursuit of excellence without idolatry or faithful excellence. Once you start worshipping the internal or external good a practice produces instead of God, the practice may very well become corrupt. As a result, “big-time athletics” is not inherently incompatible (at least not yet — we’d like to reserve the right to revise our answer, as the state of “big-time athletics” is a very fluid one at the present moment) with the vision of the university we envision. The question is what end or purpose such a program or set of practices serve.

Q: Many Christian colleges and universities in the United States find themselves criticized by some in secular higher education (and by some of their own students and alumni) over issues such as gay and transgender rights, the teaching of evolution, and other issues that are much debated in society. How do these discussions affect the soul you seek to promote — and the relationships between Christian higher education and secular higher education?

A: We think the Christian college and university should always be a place where a liberal arts education occurs within the context of the Christian identity and metanarrative. Consequently, they need to be places where academic and other contemporary issues are engaged in ways that take both theological interpretation and the controversial issues, whatever they are, seriously. Those kinds of discussions not only reflect the ideals of such a university but enhance the health of its soul.

Q: Are you optimistic or concerned about the future of Christian higher education?

A: We think Christians should be romantic realists. Our love for God and faith and hope in God should lead us to be optimistic about the creative and redemptive work in which we are involved.

In our own research, we continually find inspiring examples taking hold around the world. For example, African Christians have created more institutions of higher education in the past two decades than the rest of the world combined. Not surprisingly, this growth happened when various African nation-states dropped their monopolies on higher education. Christian higher education tends to prosper when freedom for civil society flourishes as well.

Yet, since we recognize the sinful tendency in humanity to repress and reduce educational freedom, we also want to be realists. Throughout history, powerful political forces have sought to deform and destroy Christian higher education. Whether it involved the leaders of the French Revolution and Napoleonic wars who helped terminate one-third of Europe’s universities, the leaders of nation-states who appropriated and nationalized Jesuit universities in the 19th century, or the communists who took over whole university systems in the 20th century, politicians seeking domination have often destroyed diverse university systems (and with it, religious universities) to promote their ideological agenda. We thus pray for wisdom and strength for individuals and institutions that currently face those pressures, which could one day include those in North America.