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Interview by John Wilson


The Idea of a Christian College, Reexamined

A conversation with Todd Ream and Perry Glanzer

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Third, we would note Christian colleges and universities are often susceptible to the peril by which sentimentality allows mediocrity to substitute for Christian faithfulness. Too often, our compulsion for niceness and cheap grace tears at our ability to honestly appraise our efforts. We want everyone to feel good so we shy away from demanding expectations and hard conversations. As a result, we squander our talents as administrators and faculty members—and the talents of our students. Striving for excellence without idolatry should be an impulse that collectively drives us to think anew each day about whether we are faithfully exercising our mission. Niceness fosters mediocrity. In contrast, God's grace and charity foster excellence. Too often we default to the former for no other reason than personal comfort.

That's a tough set of challenges. But you also see some distinctive strengths at evangelical colleges and universities.

The Christian university possesses a mission compelling it to be just that—a university. In 1963, Clark Kerr, the architect behind the University of California system, aptly described the modern university as a "multiversity." In essence, a multiversity lacks a unifying identity allowing people to talk across disciplinary lines ranging from anthropology to zoology, and broader organizational lines such as the curricular [academic affairs] and the co-curricular [student development]. In a multiversity, all knowledge becomes fragmented and thus students find it incoherent and disheartening. Amidst this culture, Kerr acknowledged the multiversity, by its very nature, is "partially at war with itself." When referencing the students it served, Kerr noted the strong survive but the number of casualties is considerable.

In contrast, the best Christian universities are shaped by the grand unifying narrative of creation, fall, redemption, and restoration. We would even go so far as to argue the university by its very nature is inherently Christian. (This is the subject of our current book project, The Lost Idea of a University.) The Christian narrative inspired our medieval predecessors to be so audacious as to establish institutions predicated on the belief that all forms of knowledge were simply iconic windows into God's very character. In this vision, regardless of what function a particular employee performs, he or she can find inspiration. For instance, we participate in practices such as anthropology, zoology, and everything in between, because they provide different yet equally compelling windows into God's wondrous created order.

Moreover, we realize every part of the university body plays an important role in living this story. In this vision, cross-disciplinary communication becomes vital for the university's flourishing. Fortunately, Christian scholars also share a common language in theology that frames these conversations. Within such a context, students learn how the various pieces of their lives form a coherent whole.

Evidence exists that Christian universities prove quite successful in this area. For example, Donna Freitas of Boston University has written about how evangelical college students were the only ones she found who integrated their views of sex with their spiritual lives. The same proves true in relation to ethics and moral reasoning. In this regard, the Christian university creates a unique and healthy counter-culture to the corrosive characteristics of the multiversity.

This counter-culture perhaps stems from the fact that the Christian university, again by its very nature, is inherently hopeful. Popular titles concerning the modern university are replete with apocalyptic overtures such as crisis, demise, collapse, and ruin. For the Christian university, we can continue our creative and redemptive practices in even the most distressing of circumstances because our hope does not rest solely on our own efforts. Thus, we can live with conviction in the meantime and serve as agents of grace and restoration.

John Wilson is the editor of Books & Culture.

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