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In the summer of 2020 Falls City Press released a collection of essays by David S. Guthrie: Dreaming Dreams for Christian Higher Education (for a 20% discount enter “CSR”). Guthrie is Teaching Professor of Education in the Department of Education Policy Studies at Penn State University, where he has taught since 2014. He is also a CCCU veteran. Prior to teaching at Penn State Guthrie served as the Dean of Student Development at Calvin University for five years. In 1997 he joined Geneva College as Director of its M.A. in Higher Education program. He later became the Academic Dean and Dean of Faculty Development at Geneva.

In your book’s title you place “dreaming” front and center. Why?

 I continue to be motivated by Arthur Holmes’ conclusion in The Idea of a Christian College that Christian colleges “have not dreamed large enough dreams.” His sense then (45 years ago!) and my sense now is that Christian colleges, like Christian people, may be enchanted by many things, things that perhaps lull us too easily into imitating “business as usual.”

The leads me to a second angle on your question, which has to do with another author with whom I have been taken over the years, Old Testament theologian Walter Brueggemann. He shows up with some regularity in the book, too, in particular his work on Christian imagination (The Prophetic Imagination; The Hopeful Imagination). His Testimony to Otherwise–which highlights “the witness of Elijah and Elisha”—spurs me on to imagine—to dream about—Christian higher education “on earth as it is in heaven,” in full and humble recognition that I see through a glass darkly. That is why I also try to suggest that dreaming occurs best in convocation.

If dreaming occurs best in convocation, I suspect being lulled into dreamless sleep does, too—a sobering thought. Can you pinpoint any particular ways or moments over these last thirty years in which the convocation of Christian academics has tended to forsake Holmes’s “large dreams” and fall into a dreamless sleep?

Though the metaphor of dreaming breaks down at some point, I agree that dreamless sleep is an individual and corporate reality among Christians and Christian colleges. With a tip of the hat to this particular season, such a reality is exacerbated to the extent that dreamless sleep is deep as well (cf., O Little Town of Bethlehem). In contrast, and again borrowing from our liturgical moment, perhaps convocational dreaming is the work of followers who watch, wait, pray, and hope even as “the stars go by” in “the dark streets.”

As regards particular ways or moments of waywardness and weariness in Christian higher education, I think that the first three chapters of the book as well as the chapters on academic leadership and student affairs may point to some past (and present) examples. But let me simply mention that both challenges and successes have the potential to distract Christian higher education. Decreasing enrollments, increasing deferred maintenance, and static endowments are real challenges that may deter or derail dreams. Conversely, increasing enrollments, successful athletic teams, and notable gifts can as well. And, I will quickly add that “business as usual” is also an attractive option irrespective of challenges and successes.

Perhaps my most sincere desire for the book is that it will spur younger Christian educators to dream dreams that wisely account for and respond well to challenges and successes while simultaneously imagining and creatively implementing avenues that move Christian higher education towards a more robust institutional faithfulness. As I have said elsewhere, neither Christians nor Christian institutions are automatically, wholly holy. So, perhaps Christian educators do well to redouble their efforts to dream anew about what Wolterstorff describes as a Stage III for Christian colleges (see the Epilogue of my book).

What are some of the defining aspects of those “large dreams,” as you’ve dreamed them?

I must acknowledge at the outset that I have been “outta the game” of Christian higher education for almost seven years now. However, I continue to believe that if Christian colleges are largely identical to their nonsectarian counterparts with the exception of hiring criteria, compulsory chapel, biblical studies departments, board composition, and more rigorous behavioral requirements, then it seems to me that we are little further than Holmes’ 1975 call for a new “idea,” as Holmes put it, for Christian colleges.

Now, those who know me and/or those who have read the book will understand that I am not arguing for a rigid, dogmatic Christ-against-culture, education-is-pretty-much-evil approach. But dreaming dreams for me is coming to terms with the idea that the way Christian colleges currently do things has room for improvements that are rooted in and shaped by a vision of the Christ and the kingdom. These are no throw-away words for me. Rather, such commitments require caretaking, and that is what I hope the book will spawn.

The extent to which some of the specific dreams that I mention in the book are worth considering is, in a sense, beside the point. While I continue to believe that interdisciplinary teaching and learning, for example, make sense within a Christian worldview and that Christian colleges do well to consider it, I am more interested that younger Christian educators probe the lordship of Christ for higher education more robustly and creatively. Likewise, while I continue to believe that Christian-faith-shaped teaching and learning—in and out of the classroom—is the bread and butter of Christian higher education (though it may be as much denuded now of its meaning as when Holmes was first tackling it in the 1970s and 1980s), I am more concerned that those who aspire to educate students in Christian colleges and universities understand that such a task and joy may require a capacity both to deconstruct and reconstruct them.

Who spawned these dreams? How did this get started for you?

I hope that readers of the book will find some snippets of this in the last few chapters in particular, but certainly in the acknowledgements too. I included those chapters precisely because I believe that this is such an important question. And lest I neglect to remember it, let me mention this most important thought: Perhaps this, after all is said and done, is the purpose of Christian higher education: to get the dreams (of Christ and the life in the kingdom) started in earnest, and/or to fan those dreams further, adding further content, vividness, color, and regularity to them.

For me personally, the dream of an “all of life redeemed” Christianity was begun in college, in classrooms, with friends, and in ministry. Those flames were fanned further by the tutelage of the ongoing trainings, convocational comradeship, and enfleshed ministries provided via the Coalition for Christian Outreach. This total of approximately twelve years provided a foundation that lasts to this day, a passion for God’s reign, as Moltmann says, that sources and sustains the dreams for living, including trying to understand and enact higher education on earth as it is in heaven, yet fully cognizant of the world’s and my own waywardness and weariness.

My terrific work opportunities at Calvin University and Geneva College provided amazing contexts and relationships for dreaming Christianly about Christian higher education, as strange as that may sound. And my family has provided me with daily reminders of kingdom dreaming; blessings all mine with ten thousand beside.

In the aftermath of the Great Recession we in universities of all kinds have many radically diminished programs, mainly in the liberal arts. Given that the disciplinary sources of the vision you are describing—philosophy, history, theology, among others—are considerably less present on our campuses than, say, twenty years ago, what are dreamers to do? What are some steps we can take today, in our present circumstance, to move toward the hope of a truly Christian college?

This is an important question, both conceptually (including theologically) and practically. Let me offer three brief responses. First, an either/or approach of liberal arts or professional preparation, in my view, is misguided. That is, my take is that Christian colleges are “for” both contextualizing studies (i.e., liberal arts) and nurturing practical understanding and living across the vocations of life, including work. Further, because I think that a Christian view of life emphasizes both integrality and diversification (i.e., both whole and parts), a Christian college also does well to dream regarding the important and necessary relationship among the specific parts of its curriculum and co-curriculum, including the relationship between its contextualizing studies and its professional program (and its majors in general).

A second response perhaps is an extension of the “defining aspects of the dreams” question that you already asked. I fear that many Christian colleges have unwittingly adopted what might be called the “disciplinary culture” of the modern academy—they have very comfortably adopted the disciplinary and departmental arrangements of American higher education. In my dreaming, as evidenced perhaps most readily in the first three chapters of the book, I suggest that we revisit this approach. My sense is that organizing learning disciplinarily and departmentally has resulted in a balkanization of learning, including in traditional liberal arts fields, by the way. JH Newman’s (Christian) notion of the “circle of objects” (i.e., areas within which to know or understand) as “one and connected together” is long gone in the academy, and perhaps in Christian colleges as well. So too is his (Christian) view that “…all knowledge forms one whole, because its subject-matter is one” (namely, the Lord of the cosmos and all that is in it). In contrast, contemporary colleges and universities—seem to affirm that each discipline/field is its own subject-matter; and, disciplinary/departmental arrangements reflect that belief organizationally. And, frankly, the liberal arts are no different in this regard in my view. To wit, I dream of an effort to reconsider the epistemic claims of the Christian academy altogether that will, in turn, have an impact on how the knowledge, teaching, and learning project are organized.

Finally, I suggest that Christian colleges revisit their curricula. Regarding what is often called core curriculum, this is precisely the place that what I called contextualizing studies above must be central, though not necessarily in traditional disciplinary forms. For example, biblical/theological studies is critical for the Christian educational project, but surveys of the Old and New Testaments may be counterproductive to hoped-for outcomes. Likewise, helping students understand historical, literary, cultural, and scientific ideas is crucial for the Christian higher education that I have in mind, but why not consider new wineskins for doing so? Further, with respect to the structure of majors, why not dream about at least some interdisciplinary majors that retain liberal learning sentiments but without obeisance to traditional, inherited curricular patterns for majors, and with a commitment to their “practical” importance for “the good life” Coram Deo in the 21st century?

How has your move to Penn State affected your perspective on the world of Christian higher education? Are there things you see more clearly now—insights that might help us do better work?

My seven years at Penn State have felt like a personal professional development workshop, though I have had to explore the “thinking Christianly” of that largely in other quarters. More specifically, a conversation that is ubiquitous in public universities like Penn State is equity and diversity. That conversation has been invaluable to me, as I think about ways to translate it well to Christian colleges, believing wholeheartedly that more thoughtful work must occur in these regards. So, my conversations with master’s and doctoral students, and with colleagues at PSU, the ways in which I include equity and diversity in all of my courses, and the particular articles and books that I have been reading are providing me with new insights that I anticipate being able to parlay into future dialogues and actions at Christian institutions.

One other note on this question. My tenure at PSU has challenged me to consider ways to express what I believe about higher education aloud, but not in the specifically confessional ways that I was afforded in the context of working at Christian colleges for the twenty-plus years prior to coming here. Singing a song in a strange land, if you will, is not an easy task. But it is an important one to be sure, and I have limped along in my efforts, fueled by resources both human and otherwise, quite aware and now more appreciative that most Christians engage their work-a-day lives in much the same way.

Eric Miller

Geneva College
Eric Miller, Ph.D., is professor of History and the Humanities at Geneva College, where he directs the honors program. His most recent book is Brazilian Evangelicalism in the Twenty-First Century: An Inside and Outside Look (Palgrave, 2019, co-edited with Ronald J. Morgan).