For the first post of the New Year on the Christ Animating Learning Blog, I think it is important to assess how far we have come with regard to Christianity and higher learning. We should certainly rejoice in the fact that, by God’s grace, Christians have created hundreds of Christian educational institutions around the world. All told, I have catalogued a total of 914 Christian colleges and universities around the globe (using a fairly strict definition that does not include Bible colleges, seminaries, or secularized church-related institutions). In Africa, over the past three decades alone, Christians have created 89 colleges and universities! We should celebrate this marvelous creativity. In the beginning, God created, and as image bearers of God (Gen. 1:26-27), one of the most important things we do to bear God’s image is create.
Yet, despite all this Christian creativity, some hard questions remain unanswered. What exactly are we creating these educational institutions to do? At present, the vast majority of the Christian institutions around the world are primarily teaching institutions that transmit knowledge. So, who then is creating and/or discovering the knowledge that is transmitted? What Mark Noll wrote decades ago is still true today—contemporary Christian, especially evangelical Protestant, scholars have not necessarily been the foremost theory and knowledge creators. Or, if they have, they have gone about doing so in indistinguishable ways (as George Marsden noted).
Thus, in the midst of all of our institution creativity, we still do not hear talk about Christian scholarship or theory in the same way that we hear talk about feminist thought or theory, Marxist thought or theory, or the much-discussed critical theory. A search for the words “Christian theory” within Academic Search Complete yielded 10 articles spread over the last four decades. The teaching-focus of our institutions is surely one reason, but I believe there are two other issues worth considering as well.
First, I think Christians have adhered too much to Robert Coles’s call for “more stories, less theory.”1 Yes, most of the Bible is written in narrative form and stories are better at helping us understand God, people, virtue, and reality in general, but we still must recognize the importance of theory in the academy. The helpful, but at-times deforming, influence of critical theory (for a couple helpful popular Christian critiques see here and here), should remind us that we actually need both more stories and better theory. The two need not be mutually exclusive. If Christians are going to contribute to the academy, we need to be serious about the creation of theory.
Second, I think another reason for our lack of “Christian Theory” is that Christian scholars working at Christian institutions have become too inward looking. I see quite a few scholars at Christian institutions do what I sometimes find my Christian graduate students from Christian colleges doing. They are more apt to focus on what is wrong with the church, evangelical culture, or evangelicalism in general instead of focusing on how to create within, and thereby engage with, the larger world. These inward critiques are certainly necessary at times. In fact, in The Outrageous Idea of Christian Scholarship, George Marsden wrote,
A more mature version of ideologically oriented scholarship will include criticism of its own tradition, rather than a simple celebration of everyone and everything that is on one’s side. Christian scholarship ought especially to be marked by such traits. Christians, after all, are taught to be critical about their own saints, as the Bible abundantly illustrates.2
Yet, I think we have perhaps taken this point too far out of our embarrassment with the evangelical world or perhaps the wounds we suffered from our own experiences in the Church. These critiques also take less work than developing new theories, and they get substantial attention and “love” from secularists or nominal Christians. The plethora of inward critiques circling about today are often a waste of talent and time.
I do not mean to suggest that there are no exemplars of Christian scholarship. When I look back on my scholarly pilgrimage, I encountered a number of Christian creators and—unlike a fleeting critique—what they created continues to help my scholarship today. When I studied at Rice University, a completely secular institution, I majored in history, political science, and religion. As a struggled to make sense of the philosophy of history, political theory, and higher criticism from a Christian perspective, I had the good fortune of discovering Christian scholars from Christian colleges and universities that helped me along the way. For instance, in my philosophical ethics class, I actually heard respectful reference from my secular Jewish professor about Divine Command theory. These contributions of Christian creativity spurred my own spiritual and intellectual growth.
When I attended Baylor University to obtain a master’s degree in Church-State Studies, I thought this Christian institution would further help my journey. Although I did find inspiration from Michael Beaty in philosophy who exposed me to the renaissance occurring in Christian philosophy, I found most professors in church-state studies and political science simply focused on critiquing the Religious Right. Understandably, they were embarrassed by the lack of intellectual sophistication of the movement, but they had little to offer as a creative replacement beyond a simplistic two spheres model. I was left to discover Christian scholars on my own and outside of class. I discovered other options such as the Reformed scholars, James Skillen and Stephen Monsma, who set forth creative alternatives in the form of principled pluralism. They also led me to explore creative policy avenues that I used later in my public policy work.
During the time I studied Social Ethics at the secular University of Southern California, I continued to find treasures of Christian scholarship to guide me along my way through the works of scholars at Christian institutions such as George Marsden, Mark Noll, Alvin Plantinga, Stanley Hauerwas and John Howard Yoder (all interestingly taught at one time at the University of Notre Dame). These were all Christian creators and not merely critics of Christian culture (although they did do that at times).
Today the Christian scholars to whom I am drawn and whom I cite most often come from Catholic institutions or are teaching in secular institutions. There are, of course, occasional exceptions from Protestant Christian colleges and universities (e.g., David I Smith), but I found myself asking, why is that the exception rather than the norm? Are Protestants doing the hard work of creating new intellectual approaches or movements? What creative theories of substance are we offering? Are Christian scholars at Christian colleges and universities who engage in scholarship settling for cheap and simple critiques of a wayward evangelical culture easily corrupted by the latest cultural fashions?
I would like to challenge Christian scholars to think about their scholarly agenda this year. Let us consider whether we are largely critiquing the church and evangelical culture rather than offering something truly creative to the world. Perhaps eventually, we will hear talk about Christian-informed theory. Right now, we have a long way to go.
This is a much-needed challenge, and I hope many will take it up. To see Christian scholars becoming known for what they offer the academic community as food for thought would be a welcome and wonderful development. Just a thought, though: to what extent could the introspective move you describe actually be a symptom of the integration of Christian scholars with the current scholarly climate? It would seem that we live in a moment in which a critical stance towards our own tradition (Christian or secular) is taken to be the first step towards scholarly credibility. If this is the case, perhaps what is needed is not firstly new theory, but a deep recovery of confidence in our Christian heritage and its potential contribution to scholarship today.