The university must be free of all control, not only by the church, but also by the corporation, government or even its wealthy patrons. Only then can the institution discover and embrace its true identity.
The same can be said of many Jewish and Muslim institutions, in America and around the world.
Leaders of all faith traditions intend for these institutions to (among other things) train ministers, promote morals and teach Truth. But too often the Truth they want taught is only the Truth as understood and embraced by the ministers.
For instance, one Christian university in Florida recently surprised its theological faculty by distributing a doctrinal summary. All professors are to sign this document each year confessing “without mental reservation” their agreement with its affirmations.
Professors there and elsewhere want what John Milton once called “the liberty to think, to utter, and to argue freely according to conscience, above all things.” Ministers who impose doctrinal orthodoxy on professors think such liberty violates “accountability,” a word that frequently refers to clergy control of education.
So somewhere down the line (and often in the midst of a theological controversy), leaders of such a school file divorce papers on behalf of their institution and declare themselves independent from their sponsoring religious organization or authority.
Many ministers take this change as tragedy.
Catholic scholar James Burtchaell called it “the dying of the light” just a few years after the evangelical George Marsden described how such episodes had over time stripped American higher education of its soul.
It is certainly true that many institutions once hospitable to religious thinking in general and to Christian theology in particular have now become thoroughly indifferent, if not downright hostile.
Many no longer have departments of theology, religion or even religious studies. More depressing, some that do are like the one represented by a professor to whom I asked this question: “How many of your 18 religion professors participate in a community of faith?”
“None,” she said.
Even so, such tacit disdain for the worship of God is hardly preferable to the opposite extreme: the use of religious dogma to control the process and product of learning.
Baptist theologian James McClendon understood this. Shortly before his death and in the final chapter of a three-volume work, he proposed an inventive alternative.
The university, he wrote, is religion’s gift to the culture. Its true purpose is to “stretch minds, challenge complacencies, open difficulties, explore utopias, and explode orthodoxies.” Long ago, Catholic intellectual John Henry Newman summarized the unique mission of the university: to make philosophers (but not necessarily believers!) of all students.
The ancient name for this task is liberal (or liberating) education.
To fulfill this mission, the university must be free of all control, not only by the church, but also by the corporation, government or even its wealthy patrons. Only then can the institution discover and embrace its true identity.
But likewise, the true vocation of the university requires the work of the theologian—that intellectual trained to “discover, understand, and transform the fundamental convictions of the university and their relationship to whatever else there is.”
If the college or university grows into its own liberated yet burdened role in the human community, theologians (including those who understand and even embrace the gospel of Christ) will be at the center of scholarly conversation.
It is a radical vision of education, especially for institutions birthed and nurtured by the churches. It is, however, a challenge to both ends of this ideological and institutional tug-of-war: clergy surrendering their control of education and scholars surrendering their resistance to theology.
It sounds so unlikely, doesn’t it? But who knows: It just might describe the arena for what another American intellectual (Jonathan Edwards) termed “the surprising work of God.”
Dwight Moody is dean of the chapel at Georgetown College in Georgetown, Ky.