I recently took up an appointment at Samford University as Professor of Early American History after stepping down as Dean of Howard College of Arts and Sciences. I took great joy in serving in that role for seven years after coming to the university in July 2016 from my previous appointment as Associate Dean in the College of Humanities and Social and Behavioral Sciences at Central Michigan University. As much as I loved my years at CMU, the prospect of joining the leadership team of a Christ-centered university like Samford exerted an irresistible draw—indeed, a calling—both for the promise it held of uniting my pursuit of Christian faith with that of my academic and professional life and for its opportunity to support faculty and students who teach and learn in the college’s programs. Until mid-2016, my experience had only reinforced my sense that a spiritual vacuum rests at the center of American higher education; that colleagues in my previous institutions, by excluding God from the educational enterprise, had sacrificed any coherent, shared vision of the human person or human flourishing. By contrast, Samford’s president has declared that “as a Christ-centered university, the integration of faith and learning rests at the heart of everything we do.”1 It also requires the cultivation of the university as what Samford’s provost has termed “a community of Christian scholars.”2 That vision still excites me seven years later as I prepare to reenter the classroom here.
It did not take long after my arrival at Samford to recognize what a challenge it is to bring faith and learning together for most of us, especially at a place like Samford where intentional efforts to do so were just beginning. Indeed, this lofty ideal remains far from fully realized at most Christian universities, as recent work by Perry L. Glanzer and Nathan F. Alleman has shown.3 The effort cuts against the grain of post-Kantian Western thought, with its sharp division between unknowable matters of faith and empirically testable matters of practical reason. In Protestant circles, at the same time, the encouragement toward faith integration in the classroom and scholarship can arouse faculty concerns that their disciplinary teaching and research may become compromised by the uncritical importation of incompatible religious ideas. Yet for a Christian faculty member intent on loving God with heart, soul, mind, and strength, the task is unavoidable; indeed, it is not even a task so much as a lived reality. Faith in Jesus Christ does not exist in isolation from disciplinary knowledge any more than from any other field of human thought and endeavor. Faith and knowledge inform one another in myriad ways both implicitly and explicitly—at some times in harmony, at others in tension—to form scholars, teachers, and students more fully into the image of the Creator. They can do so most effectively only if the Christian scholar actively pursues the challenge to engage the points where faith and learning intersect, “taking every thought captive to obey Christ” (2 Cor. 10:5).
This inescapable, organic relationship between faith and learning has confronted and engaged me in various ways my entire life. I have lived it as a child whose curiosity often exceeded the boundaries my fundamentalist upbringing set for me, as a college student trying to find my own way in the world, as a graduate student wrestling with the deep challenges of postmodern theory, and as a college professor working to help students hold onto and thrive in their faith on the campus of a public university. Yet my own effort to navigate the relationship between faith and learning developed in fits and starts through an unconventional path to a career in higher education. It also took shape through a process of trial and error within whatever Christian resources and networks of scholars I could find along the way. Growing up in a conservative evangelical household during the 1960s—conservative enough, in fact, that my father described himself as a fundamentalist in my grade school years—I was keenly aware of many ways in which the faith of my parents seemed to conflict with what I was learning in my textbooks at school. That tension formed a small but not insignificant part of a larger conflict with my father that culminated in my senior year of high school with my decision to push my 1959 Chevy to the end of our long, southeast Kansas country drive, start it up, and leave home. I lived the prodigal’s life for a year before returning home jobless and without a high school diploma, but with practical education in what a working life would mean without that credential. I spent another year working enough different dead-end jobs to learn what I did not want to do the rest of my life, so I enrolled at what was then Kansas State College of Pittsburg (now Pittsburg State University) in August 1974.
My class in European History with Professor Judith Shaw that first semester opened the world to me. She filled her lectures with engaging stories of medieval peasants and conniving nobility, of Renaissance figures such as Da Vinci and Galileo, of liberal thinkers such as John Locke, ending the semester with the reign of the Sun King, Louis XIV—all illustrated with beautiful full-color slide images of stained-glass cathedrals, magnificent palaces, and beckoning European landscapes. My composition instructor that semester engaged us students in spirited debates of literature and contemporary issues. Even my college algebra class opened new perspectives as I began practicing a few of the methods of calculation that helped produce the blueprints my construction foreman had consulted as he took measurements, drove stakes for concrete forms and measured the slope inside the storm drain pipes we laid the previous summer. Near the semester’s end I went eagerly to the registrar’s office to register for my spring classes, only to learn that I could not continue without a diploma. The next week, I sat for high school equivalency exam and began the next semester’s classes with my GED in hand.
My next two semesters at KSCP were marked by selective engagement with courses that interested me—mostly in the humanities—and neglect of those that didn’t, a neglect abetted by frequent partying that left its mark on my GPA. They were also marked by a deep spiritual restlessness that my studies only exacerbated through constant challenge of what I had been taught to believe about God and the Bible. My college experience to that point reinforced both explicitly and through habit what Charles Taylor has termed the “immanent frame,” the scientific, social, and technological order that seems explainable on its own terms with no reference to God or revelation. Faculty in my classes did not encourage Christian inquiry and reflection as a legitimate university pursuit. It existed outside the boundaries of academic life, and students who desired it found themselves on their own. So, when I started my first read through the Bible at the beginning of my sophomore year, everything in my academic life had taught me not to expect the encounter with the living God that actually happened by the time I finished reading Deuteronomy, or to meet Jesus as my savior when I reached the Gospels.
The life of the mind continued to call to me through my coursework at KSCP, but my professors’ habitual indifference and occasional hostility to Christianity communicated clearly that the pursuit of genuine learning required, if not outright rejection of faith, its abandonment to the realm of the unknowable. Outside the classroom, however, I found stimulating, thoughtful resources such as C.S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity and John Stott’s Your Mind Matters. Lewis’s writings whetted my curiosity to learn more about God, the Bible, and Christian faith,and this interest soon led me to transfer at the end of my sophomore year to Grace College of the Bible in Omaha. I graduated from Grace three years later, supported my new wife Sheree during her last year of undergraduate study, then enrolled at Dallas Theological Seminary.
My Bible college and seminary years presented their own intellectual challenges, but they provided a hiatus from the atmosphere of sharp tension between faith and learning that pervaded my public college experience. Both accomplished their missions well: they established my faith firmly in the Triune God—whom I could know through Scripture—and began the lifelong transformation of my mind. Both provided thorough exposure to contemporary critical biblical and theological scholarship along with reasonable orthodox responses to those challenges. I gained deep preparation to serve the church in ministry. Indeed, the overriding message of the curriculum at institutions rooted so deeply in dispensational theology was that gospel ministry alone truly mattered. Yet midway through my seminary career, while serving a missionary internship in Ghana, I realized my calling lay in higher education and shifted my trajectory to graduate school. Seminary was less suited for preparing a novice historian to enter a field then being challenged and transformed by various strains of postmodern theory. I carried far more theological resources into the field than most Christian graduate students could tap, but I had bypassed much of the engagement with the fields of study, methods of inquiry, and habits of thought and criticism typically formed through a liberal education.
As a result, graduate school tested and stretched my faith and my intellect in ways I had not before experienced as I plunged into seminars for which most of my fellow graduate students were far better prepared than I. I well remember my first encounter with Michel Foucault’s The Archaeology of Knowledge in my Intellectual History proseminar at the University of Chicago, where the question of the day centered on whether history could remain viable after Foucault. Unsettling as that thought might be to an aspiring historian, the greater question by far for me came when the professor laid his hand on his copy of Foucault’s book and quoted John 1:1, “In the beginning was the Word.” Was divine revelation and faith itself possible in the harsh light of poststructuralism’s radical critique? The questions were organically linked: faith and knowledge were inseparable, they stood or fell together. This confrontation with the troubling implications of the hermeneutics of suspicion thrust me into a period of deep reexamination of my Christian faith. I reflect upon my exploration of answers to that question in my second post tomorrow.
- Beck Taylor, opening remarks to the Samford University Council at the initial University Strategic Planning meeting, Lakeshore Foundation, Homewood, Alabama, February 2, 2022.
- J. Michael Hardin, “By All Means Possible,” Address delivered at the Faculty Institute, Samford University, Homewood Alabama, August 20, 2018.
- Perry L. Glanzer and Nathan F. Alleman, The Outrageous Idea of Christian Teaching (New York: Oxford University Press, 2019).