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In the thirty-seventh episode of the “Saturdays at Seven” conversation series, Todd Ream talks with Karl E. Johnson, Executive Director of the Consortium of Christian Study Centers. Johnson begins by offering details concerning his experiences with outdoor education and the way those experiences serve as formative means to ends that include the cultivation of intellectual, moral, and theological virtues. Those details also include how Johnson’s disillusionment with the nature of the co-curricular offerings he encountered during his undergraduate years led him to outdoor education—experiences that then occurred in locales as close as the ropes course on campus and as far as peaks in Ecuador exceeding 20,000 feet. Ream and Johnson then discuss Johnson’s establishment of Chesterton House, the Christian study center at Cornell University, and offerings that include Bible study, community meals, lectures, discussions, sequences of reading, and a residential community. They explore where Chesterton House fits within the growing range of study centers established to serve students and scholars at various research universities. Ream and Johnson then close their discussion by discussing ways to foster the relationships that Christian study centers share with the Church as well as Church-related colleges and universities.

Todd Ream: Welcome to Saturdays at Seven, Christian Scholar’s Review’s conversation series with thought leaders about the academic vocation and the relationship that vocation shares with the Church. My name is Todd Ream. I have the privilege of serving as the publisher for Christian Scholar’s Review and as the host for Saturdays at Seven. I also have the privilege of serving on the faculty and the administration at Indiana Wesleyan University.

Our guest is Karl E. Johnson. The Executive Director of the Consortium of Christian Studies Centers. Thank you for joining us.

Karl Johnson: Thank you, Todd. It’s great to be with you today.

Todd Ream: To start, what does outdoor education have to do with Christian formation? 

Karl Johnson: Well for many people, the connections are not very obvious or explicit or maybe even existent. For me, I think they always have been. For starters, outdoor education to me, which was my first career, has been adventure education, sort of in the tradition of Outward Bound or the National Outdoor Leadership School, which are the well-known organizations in the field.

And for me, outdoor education has always been about empowerment, about helping individuals to grow beyond their perhaps self-imposed limitations. In the field, the language that’s often used is sort of growing into the fullness of your authentic self sort of therapeutic type language. But, if you think about it, it’s not altogether unlike language that we tend to use in more Church-related contexts. It’s about when we come to faith, we grow more fully into the persons that we were originally meant to be. So that’s certainly one dimension of it. 

But there’s another dimension of it, I think that’s also very interesting, which is that in outdoor education, you inevitably have to learn to live within certain constraints or limits. 

Okay, so just as an example, if you’re paddling down some whitewater you have to really study the river. You have to get to know the currents. You have to watch for the eddies. And as you navigate your way down, it’s like a little bit of a dance. You’re not just trying to work harder all the time. To the untrained observer, it might look that way, but really what you’re doing is you’re trying to take advantage of what’s already there and to work with it. So you’re placing your paddle in the still water of the eddy to get your, your kayak or your canoe to eddy in. And then you do the same thing when you eddy out. 

So the way I think about this as a Christian is that the universe has a kind of moral structure or architecture and that we’re called to be students of that. We have to study it, try to understand the way it is, get to know the grain of the universe, so to speak, or the grooves of the universe. And then, and then roll with it rather than fighting against it. 

And of course when it comes to morality and spirituality, this is a very counter cultural way of thinking. But it’s actually the way many people live with respect to other aspects of their life. And we certainly see this in, in outdoor education.

Todd Ream: What was the most physically demanding experience you personally encountered? 

Karl Johnson: Well, let’s see. I spent 21 days in Wyoming on a NOLS course. And by the time we redistributed the weight, my pack weighed 90 pounds. I weigh 180 pounds. I’m not a small guy, but even still carrying 50 percent of my body weight for three weeks, that was pretty challenging. 

And then another experience that comes to mind is doing some high altitude mountaineering in Ecuador above 20,000 feet where there’s not a lot of oxygen. And that is that it is tough being up that high. When I was around that age, I used to aspire to climb in the Himalaya climbing Everest is what every young mountaineer wants to do, but I’ll tell you, climbing over 20,000 feet completely cured me of the desire to ever go higher. That is not a place made for human habitation.

Todd Ream: Now, I have to ask, where in Wyoming was the trip, the backpacking trip that you took? 

Karl Johnson: It was in the Wind Rivers. 

Todd Ream: Wind Rivers? Yeah, I wondered if it might be in the Wind River area. Yeah. Which is, yeah, one of the most beautiful parts, if not, in my estimation, the most beautiful part of the state, regardless of where we decided to place National Parks and other things in Wyoming.

What was the most physically demanding experience that you led? 

Karl Johnson: So most of the experiences that I led as an educator were not actually designed to be terribly physically demanding. Most of them were in sort of more near environment, front country type exploration environments. And they were aimed more at skill development than high adventure as such. 

Now that said I do recall one time taking a group of teenagers out on a weekend camping trip in the Adirondacks as a winter camping trip. I love winter camping. It’s good fun. There’s lots to do. This particular weekend, it was 20 below zero. And we were just sleeping in lean-tos. I mean, we didn’t even have the insulation that a tent provides. 

And this is pretty dangerous stuff. I mean, the possibility not only of frostbite or hypothermia, but the possibility that somebody could get lost and separated from the group. That could go south fast. And so we had a buddy system. You weren’t even allowed to go to the bathroom alone. Like nobody’s allowed to be alone ever. Anyway, we brought them all back alive, but wow, that was memorable.

Todd Ream: What about the most spiritually formative experience that you participated in as an individual? 

Karl Johnson: So here, I think I’m going to change gears just a little bit, if I may. And I think during my sort of college years, when I was most active in some of these high adventure pursuits, what I think was probably the most spiritually formative experience for me, the most spiritually formative physical experience for me was actually being on the soccer team. 

And the reason that I say that is because it was so very performance oriented. And my personal performance was not measuring up to what I wanted it to be. And this was a kind of existential crisis of sorts for me. This thing that had been so important to me my entire life, which had become almost like a kind of basis of my identity was crumbling under me and it was essentially a matter of identity and of idolatry. And I had to come face to face with that. 

And it’s not like I couldn’t see it as it was unfolding. If some spiritual director had come alongside me and said, hey, I think what you’re struggling with here is idolatry, I would have been like, tell me something I don’t already know and yet it wasn’t easy. So it’s just a lot of prayer and a lot of struggle through that. But I was stripped of this thing that had been so important to me for so much of my life.

Todd Ream: In your estimation, then, perhaps the most spiritually formative experience that you’ve led for others? 

Karl Johnson: That’s not an easy question because of course something that’s spiritually formative for others has to do with what’s going on inside them. Right? And that’s not something you can really fabricate, but you can facilitate it. But I’ll give you just an example of sorts. 

There was a student who, who worked for me, teaching climbing, working at the ropes course facility that I managed. And he came to me one day, it was shortly after he graduated and he’d been dating a gal and he said, I’m thinking about getting married, but you know, probably not for a few more years or something like that. 

And I said, let’s talk about climbing. And I said you know how certain climbs have what we call commitment, right? Like you have this opportunity to go forward, but you can’t really try it out and experiment and there’s no backdoor. There’s no way to down climb, right? So, so certain climbs have what we call high commitment and, and people who do these climbs are regarded highly as in like, dude, look at the commitment on that climb, you know? 

And You know, this is the stuff of which mountain literature books are written, mountain literature, mountain films are made, right? You know, there’s the audacity, the boldness, the courage, the reckless abandonment. This is what we respect people for. 

And, and at the end of talking about this, I said, that’s kind of what marriage is like. It’s a high commitment move, right? Like you don’t really get to experiment and there’s not really much of a back door. I said, why do we respect commitment so highly in the world of climbing? And then, and then we don’t approach marriage the same way. And by the end of the conversation, he was gushing in sweat. And he just said, thank you. This is why I came to talk to you.

Todd Ream: That’s wonderful. 

Karl Johnson: I don’t think there was any common sort of faith commitment between him and me. It was just a way of talking about marriage vis-à-vis climbing.

Todd Ream: No, thank you. If there was one experience that you personally could repeat, which one would it be? 

Karl Johnson: Oh, that’s a delicious question because I have had the privilege of having so many wonderful experiences. I would probably go back in time either to the summer of ’84 or the summer of ’92. In the summer of ’84, I was 17 years old and I bicycled across the country. I put in 5,000 miles. And it was just carefree. Every day was something new. I’d never really traveled much. It was wonderful. 

Although I, being almost 60 now, I don’t really want to do that again at my age just sleeping on the ground every night and all that. And then in the summer of ’92, when my wife Julie and I got married, we went up to the Allagash Wilderness and paddled around. 

We had planned on climbing Katahdin and paddling all the way up through the Allagash into Canada, but I got mono just a few days before we got married. And so I was under fairly strict orders not to do those things. And I was utterly incapable of doing those things. So we just paddled around Chamberlain Lake and camped and enjoyed the scenery. That I actually could do again. So those are, those are two of my sort of highlight trips, I think. 

Todd Ream: If there was one experience you could lead again, which one would it be?

Karl Johnson: So that’s an easy question for me because the thing that I always loved most during my years as an outdoor educator was staff training and in particular, staff training on the ropes course facility that I designed and managed at Cornell for about 10 years or so. 

And the reason goes something like this. Students would show up and they’d say “I’ve gotten into rock climbing a little bit, really like rock climbing. I think I’d like to teach rock climbing.” And at that point, I would get to take them out for like a few weekends of training. And what I would try to instill in them is that rock climbing is never really just about the climbing. 

It’s about everything. It’s about preparation and training. It’s even about nutrition and exercise. It’s about planning and strategy. It’s about dealing with doubt and fear. It’s about courage. It’s about inspiration and sometimes it’s about accepting your limits, what you can and can’t do, or constraints that are externally imposed by the environment. 

In other words, we’re not just, we’re not just running people through activities. That experience that you’ve had, it’s not the rock climbing per se. The rock climbing was sort of like the occasion for this profound inner experience that you’ve had, and we need to approach this art and craft very carefully if you want to have any chance of replicating a similar sort of experience among the students that you’re taking out into the field.

Todd Ream: Thank you. Yeah. I want to transition now to asking you a couple of sort of biographical details. You earned a master’s and doctoral degrees from Cornell. And as we’ve discussed, you’ve got extensive experience with what is sort of philosophically and theologically at stake through recreational experiences.

What teachers, if any, left their greatest impact on you? And perhaps also, what readings left their greatest impact on you?

Karl Johnson: I had a number of really exceptional professors when I was a student. I’ll mention just a few. 

My senior year, I had an extraordinary opportunity to take a class with a visiting professor whose name I did not know at the time, but it was David McCullough who is now extremely well known as one of America’s most popular historians. He was marvelous. Not just sort of enjoyable to listen to, but he had these themes that would recur that he would pound home regarding things like the contingency of history. He would tell these stories and then he would always say, it didn’t have to happen that way. So he was really highlighting the role of human agency and decision making, oftentimes, courage as well in the course of the stories that he was telling. So that was certainly one of the most memorable moments. 

I also took two courses plus an independent study with Cornell’s historian, Larry Moore, R. Laurence Moore. And I learned so much from him as well. Just in terms of teaching and education, one of the things I learned from him is that to be a great teacher, you don’t have to have a big, flashy, charismatic personality. He had a very low-key presentation style. I’d be on the edge of my seat because the sheer content was so incredibly interesting. So I’m a really big believer that that content is sufficient that that can drive the experience of the student. It doesn’t all come down to personality. 

But also in terms of research you know, Larry was an atheist. I was a Christian, but I was just completely taken with his readings and interpretations of American history. And what I realized as interested as I am in sort of Christian worldview stuff, that good scholarship is not really a byproduct of your worldview. 

It’s really more a matter of following the method of your discipline, being, being honest, following the evidence where it leaves. You can have a point of view, whatever that is, and yet still be a fair minded scholar to your interlocutors across worldview differences. 

And then I also took a class with a philosophy professor named Dick Baer, Richard A. Baer, Jr.,  and he was extraordinary. He was a Christian and he was very open about his faith in the classroom. And he would do stuff that I’ve never seen certainly before, and I’m not even sure if I’ve seen it since, where he would, for example, have students read the book of Galatians in class, in a philosophy class. 

And then, the lecture following was about environmentalism, and he would say, our problems with the environment are really not primarily technological, they have to do with the disposition of the human person and our penchant to exercise control over the other, whether that’s other persons or the natural environment, and what we really need is a kind of existential liberation where we don’t feel the need to impose control on others. 

And he would unravel all of this in the context of a reading of the book of Galatians to a group of students who were overwhelmingly not Christian. And, and they heard him out and they listened and learned. And so what I took from him is that there is a way of speaking in a Christian voice to a broad public, diverse, pluralistic audience, and it can work. And that has really kind of inspired and informed my work in the Christian Study Center Movement for all the years since. 

Todd Ream: Thank you. Wonderful examples. You now live in Chattanooga, Tennessee but you spent over 30 years living in Ithaca, New York. In addition to your efforts in terms of outdoor education, you also, in Ithaca, established the Chesterton House. Would you please share with us what led to its establishment and highlight some of the representative programs, perhaps, that you sought to offer the Cornell community?

Karl Johnson: Yeah. So the Chesterton House originally was kind of born out of a frustration, maybe even a lover’s quarrel of sorts with the university environment. Academically, I experienced the university community to have a secularism that was not merely a kind of differentiation of spheres of authority, what we might call a soft secularism, but it was a hard secularism. It was a militant secularism that entailed the marginalization of religious voices and not only religious voices, but really of religious questions of the big picture questions about humanity and flourishing and meaning and purpose. 

And, and there’s a longing. There was a longing on my part and a longing on the part of other students, I think for these deeper kinds of conversations that went largely unaddressed. But I was equally frustrated, to be honest with the anti-intellectualism of the Church. Or at times maybe, maybe it was the pietism of the Church, which is simply to say an unwillingness or a lack of preparedness to lean into the hard questions that students have. 

And so I kind of saw this landscape that was situated halfway in between the Church and the academy. And I wanted to mix it up a little bit, and start having some conversations and bring in some speakers that could address this, this vacant lot of sorts. 

I’ll also say that I was very frustrated with my social life in college. I think my freshman year, I went to one or two fraternity parties and I pretty quickly just sized up the scene. And I thought this is just stupid. Like, surely God made us for something better than this. And my short-term solution was getting involved in outdoor education and spending my weekends going camping and climbing and then the long-term solution was to actually create Chesterton House, which provided a kind of alternative social life of sorts.

Todd Ream: Thank you. 

It eventually expanded to include an intentional Christian residential community for students. What conversations then led to that development and what needs do you think it met on behalf of students?

Karl Johnson: Yeah. So one of the things that probably a lot of people look at Chesterton House, they see that it has this fairly robust residential community. We eventually acquired two acres with two large old Greek houses that have 20 men in one house, 20 women in another house. And there’s all kinds of daily, weekly liturgical rhythms in the community.

One thing a lot of people don’t know is that there, I, what I think is it has Mennonite roots, which is to say that in the years prior or going all the way back to right around the time I was finishing school I became good friends with a fellow from a Mennonite background who, who started talking to me about this thing he called intentional Christian community. I didn’t know what that was. 

But he created this little community and I lived with him in a house, just five guys for two years, and it was very profound. I mean, I learned a tremendous amount, and it wasn’t just like head knowledge type learning, but it was wrestling through real issues with each other. You know? Just being an intentionally reconciling community and being intentional about forgiveness and honest conversations. 

And I thought, wow, you know? If we can replicate that for some larger number of students, that would be a tremendous service to the Christian community, and it would, how can I say, diversify the living options that students on this campus have. 

I think it’s fair to say that at a place like Cornell, there’s nothing else quite like it. There’s all kinds of places where Christians live together, but we try to be very intentional about living together as Christians. And there’s a bit of a difference there. Some of the students have described it as, as a cross between a fraternity and a monastery. And I do think that captures something. 

And even a lot of students who come as visitors and guests who don’t share the faith of the residents they’re fairly taken with this. They’re like, wow, this is a pretty interesting, different kind of a place. There’s one Jewish student who wrote an article about the community in the Cornell student newspaper.

Todd Ream: Well, you’ve echoed at this and hinted at this, but more overtly, what need, if any, do you think it met on behalf of the Cornell community as a whole? So beyond perhaps the Christian students and the Christian community that it was directly serving, what needs do you think it met for the university and the broader university community?

Karl Johnson: Yeah. So I think one of the challenges that administrators and faculty encounter is that the world of ideas, which they’re largely interested in, is dealt with sort of geographically on central campus and temporally, during daytime hours. 

And then come 4:30 PM or whatever it is, the students walk back to their residences and they enter into a kind of intellectual-free zone. They might do homework, but the residence halls, the apartments off campus, the Greek houses, these are not places where the dinner conversations tend to be a continuity with the conversations about metaphysics and epistemology and physics and poetry and all the stuff going on in the classroom. 

The college ideal is in some ways a living learning community, right? Where these conversations do continue. And a lot of universities have made pretty good strides at trying to invest in new forms of architecture with faculty and residents that will facilitate this sort of a thing. 

But that’s precisely what we have essentially pulled off by creating this small, intimate community, with dinner conversations and faculty and residents. So in that sense, it’s a little bit of a microcosm of what I think university administrators and faculty more generally are really hoping for as an experience that their students might have during their college years.

Todd Ream: Thank you. You presently serve as the Executive Director of the Consortium of Christian Study Centers, of which Chesterton House is a key member. In what ways, if any, is Chesterton House representative of other study centers that have emerged across the country?

Karl Johnson: I think there’s a lot of similarities. Chesterton House was modeled largely after the Center for Christian Study at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. Um, and both of them, along with many other study centers, have this emphasis on faith-learning integration, on connecting the life of the mind with life in Christ. 

Toward that end, we sponsor public lectures that are open to the community. We host a wide variety of small group discussions that might be organized around a film or a book or maybe a guest that we’re interviewing. So in that sense, there’s a lot of similarity across the large majority of Christian study centers.

Chesterton House has a large residential component. That’s the thing that it’s, that’s, that it’s most known for. And it is true that different study centers have different sort of emphases. My successor at Chesterton House, for example Vivek Mathew, has kind of leaned into this current cultural moment by emphasizing viewpoint diversity and providing a community with open, candid conversation. 

That’s an alternative to the self-censoring that students feel like they have to exercise on campus. And so ironically, I think a lot of students actually feel more free to come as they are and say whatever they want in the context of this confessional Christian community than they do in the context of this university that’s arguably embraced pluralism.

Todd Ream: Thank you. Christian study centers primarily exist in so-called secular university communities that also educate large numbers of graduate students, Cornell, Virginia, just as we’ve mentioned here, for example. In what ways, if any, do Christian study centers provide opportunities for graduate students to reflect about their calling to the Christian academic vocation, perhaps doctoral students or even master’s students who are thinking that serving in academia may be their future and what they’re called to do?

Karl Johnson: Helping mentor graduate students, especially PhD students who might be on an academic track is definitely something that’s central to the work of Christian study centers generally. And it was always very central to my work at Chesterton House. 

The questions that come up for these students tend to be fairly disciplinary specific, which means that a graduate fellowship of students across disciplines, that provides friendship and fellowship for them but it doesn’t necessarily help them academically with the faith-learning integration project. And so, we try to convene students by discipline. And that can be difficult on a particular campus if there’s not enough students within a discipline. 

So sometimes it means connecting them with professional associations and conferences where they can gather with faculty members and graduate students and raising money to provide them with stipends for travel to try to help make that easier. And then there are also times when we introduce them to scholars in their field. 

We had a student at Cornell, who’s doing a PhD in sociology. And he was interested in sociology of religion and there weren’t really many, if any, faculty members there, interested in that at the time. And he was starting to talk about transferring to another institution because it just didn’t seem like it was a good fit. I said, let me introduce you to a friend of mine who’s a sociologist of religion at another institution. 

They spoke. She ended up actually joining his doctoral committee remotely, which helped him enough that he felt like he could stay at Cornell and didn’t have to pick up and move to another institution. She later helped him out with a postdoc and now he’s a professor and, and, and doing well. So trying to make those kinds of professional connections is also something that study centers do 

Todd Ream: In what ways can Church-related colleges and universities then be of support to Christian study centers, perhaps in their respective regions or across the country?

Karl Johnson: One of my pet peeves is when people say, that’s a great question. But I do have to say right now, that is a great question. This is a really, really, really important question. And I say that because we sometimes speak of Christian study centers as a new form of Christian higher education. Not just a new form of campus ministry, but really a new form of Christian higher education. 

And we don’t say that because Christian colleges need sort of yet another competitor or challenge or obstacle to face. Not at all. It’s sort of the opposite of that actually. I think Christian study centers need Christian colleges for a variety of reasons, partly because they need Christian scholarship and its Christian colleges, but have shown the way that Christian scholarship is actually a possible project.

And so we sponsor speakers from Christian colleges on our campuses. We have books written by professors at Christian colleges in our libraries. We also need graduates from CCCU schools to help us staff these study centers. I used to hire students sometimes from Geneva College and I’d bring them to Cornell. And at first they were a little bit intimidated because Cornell is this big so-called elite institution, a little bit intimidating to them. 

But I was always just so impressed with the students. I mean, the way they were shaped, informed. The literature that had been instilled in them, I was like, you have so much to offer these students. And even now I’m running an intern program. We hire half a dozen recent graduates every year. Right now, I just hired a couple of students, one from Wheaton, one from Hope. We’re all part of the same project in the same ecosystem here. 

In a similar sort of a way we have the opportunity and the privilege of working with graduate students, as we just discussed. And we’re trying to help them not just get the narrow training that their doctoral programs are providing, but also to think a little bit more broadly about how their faith might inform their scholarship and even about how their scholarship might inform their faith.

Now, CCCU schools are looking to hire Christian professors, most of whom are getting their training at secular universities, and they’re hoping to find young scholars who have some know-how when it comes to integrating faith and learning. And so hopefully Christian study centers can actually be part of the solution to that challenge as well for Christian colleges and universities. 

We’re all part of the same ecosystem. In the future, as Christian study centers grow— and some are getting quite large now with 15 or so full-time staff— if we imagine a future 10, 20 years from now where study centers might have dozens and dozens of staff members, many with PhDs I think that would be good for everybody. It just makes the possibility of, say, being a Christian sociologist or a Christian physicist or a Christian historian more plausible, right? We don’t want that pipeline to dry up.

Todd Ream: No, go back to what you were talking about just a few minutes ago. I’ve often thought that Christian study centers, in terms of what they can help provide Church-related colleges and universities is a sort of point of connection for recruiting the next generation of scholars into the faculty ranks.

Sometimes those students cluster around certain graduate advisors and certain programs, but oftentimes they’re very difficult to find in terms of students who have that kind of faith commitment and are interested and called to that kind of career. And the Christian study centers can be a place where we can help make those connections. And these are students who’ve already had some of that mentoring at a significant level and, and, and come ready to just take it to the next step. 

How would you define then the Christian academic vocation as you’ve experienced it at Cornell and through Christian study centers? 

Karl Johnson: I don’t have a tidy definition. And I also, honestly, I don’t really feel the need to have a tidy definition. I prefer this to remain a somewhat open ended conversation that can be explored at-length. This is a good question for articles and books, partly because I think the answer is going to vary by discipline.

But in a general sort of way, I’m fond of the late John Polkinghorne, the theoretical physicist who used to say that he approaches his studies with what he called the binocular vision. He studied both the Word and the world, right? His approach to study was spiritually open rather than closed. And in that sense his academic inquiries were aided, not hindered, by faith. 

I also like to make the distinction that I think can be very helpful that faith, although it can be approached as an object of study, and there’s nothing wrong with that, it can also function as a lens of study. C. S. Lewis has that great quote about how he believes in Christianity as he believes in , the rising of the sun, not only because he sees it, but because by it, he sees everything else. Now that doesn’t mean that there’s a Christian way of doing economics or soil science. I don’t actually think that there is, and I’m actually somewhat skeptical of this concept of so-called methodological naturalism.

But at the same time, I don’t think that the Christian academic vocation is reducible to something like evangelism or ethics. There are, in fact, assumptions regarding human nature that are often baked into certain disciplines or at least certain paradigms within disciplines. So, for example, a Christian in economics might actually wonder, are we really just utility maximizing rational agents or is there something more complicated going on here?

I do think that there are certain research questions that can and should occur to Christian scholars. A questioning of shibboleths in certain fields, right? So for example Lamin Sanneh, the late historian at Yale, heard all the time about how missionaries in Africa were part of the colonizing project and in bed with corporate interests. And it didn’t ring true to him.

And so he did some study on the topic and wrote books on the topic basically debunking that idea, saying how Christian missionaries actually preserved local cultures through getting languages written down and so forth. And the last time that I saw him I asked him whether or not his academic work had met any serious challenges from his colleagues. And he said, no, that it really hadn’t. 

In a similar sort of a way Nick Wolterstorff, the philosopher also at Yale for many years, he got skeptical about this idea that individual rights is somehow a byproduct of the Enlightenment, because the Enlightenment metaphysics is highly individualistic. How do you get this relational concern out of this highly individualist, individualistic metaphysic, right? 

And so he starts digging down and he finds out that actually the concept of human rights has its roots in the Christian milieu of the late Middle Ages. This is kind of not really talked about much at all but I do think Christian scholars, they’re going to have certain questions that they’re particularly sensitive to or attentive to. And that’s part of what I think is the project of Christian scholarship. 

Todd Ream: Thank you. What relationship, if any, then, do you believe Christian study centers should share with the Church? 

Karl Johnson: I think I would say on this that the mission of Christian study centers is, of course, very complimentary to that of the Church.But pastors are not equipped to do everything, right? They equip others. And sometimes we expect too much of our pastors, right? We’ve sort of professionalized Christian work.

And when I was starting Chesterton House, I actually, the first thing I did was I pulled together a group of pastors and professors. And I said, here’s my, my back of the envelope diagnosis of our current moment. I think professors are very highly specialized right now and feel inadequately trained or equipped when students come to them with crises of various sorts. 

And pastors, on the other hand, are so busy dealing with crises in their congregations, along with weddings and funerals and whatever, that they really, no matter how interested they might be in the life of the mind, they just don’t have the leisure. They don’t have the time to continue reading and studying the way that they once did, perhaps when they were in school themselves. 

And that’s why there’s this vacant space between the Church and the academy and where I think we need to create something new that comes alongside the Church, comes alongside Christian professors and occupies this space.

Now, in the early years, when our study center was very small, I used to turn to churches for support, and I would say, can you help us out here somehow financially or otherwise? And then over time, as the thing grew, it actually became larger than most of the churches in town. And that dynamic kind of changed a little bit and we were now in a position of serving churches.

We had deep relationships with a large number of students and we couldn’t disciple all of them, but we could go to churches and say, okay, we need help now. We need 12 or 20 men and women who are interested in willing to disciple some students because we’ve got the built-in relationships with the students, so there’s at best a real synergy there, I think, between the mission of the Church generally and what study centers can do to help advance the mission of the Church.

Todd Ream: Thank you. As unfortunately our time gets short, want to at least make sure I talk about the culture in which we live and the culture in which Christian study centers find themselves serving students and serving faculty members on their respective campuses. 

Some scholars have referred to the culture in which we live as being in the process of transition from one that is secular to what may now be identified as post-secular. If that’s correct, what do you think are the most critical questions Christian study centers need to be asking themselves? 

Karl Johnson: The cultural ground under our feet is shifting. Now, to be fair, it’s always shifting and it always has been shifting. And yet, at the same time, I do think that it may be shifting faster all the time. And in that sense, it can be a little bit disorienting issues arise and you can kind of study up on them. And by the time you’re ready to say something the moment has passed. There’s a whole new set of issues. 

So the students arriving on campus, they have different concerns and objections than they did 5 or 10 years ago. So a lot of the older forms of apologetics and approaches to ministry are simply they’re designed for the 80s or the 90s, and they’re not as effective now as they used to be.

So yes, secularism is not what it used to be. In fact, Peter Berger wrote his book, the great sociologist of religion, wrote his book on desecularization in 1999. So that was 25 years ago now. Now that was very sort of prescient and foresighted. But I would say part of what we’re observing now is not an anti-religious maneuver, so much as it is a kind of new religion, right?

So, the move toward enacting social justice projects, or even the stronger forms of DEI work you know, with statements that need to be performed, affirmed. You know, these could be interpreted and understood as a kind of new form of religion. And we need to understand it as such, in order to respond properly.

I guess the single most important thing I can say about this is: when I first got into this work 25 years ago, I did not really think about what we were doing in light of a crisis of liberal democracy. I thought about it much more narrowly in terms of the discipleship of Christian students, and yet here we are. I think it’s fair to say that liberal democracy is not having its greatest moment right now. 

There are illiberal movements on both the left and on the right. And so the question arises how do we, how can we cultivate virtues that sustain liberal democracy if we’re in the business of developing character and virtue at all? Surely, this is one of the very important things. 

And I do think that Christian study centers can be and, in actual fact, are already part of the solution to this. I’m not trying to overstate the case that civilization is going to be saved by Christian study centers. That said, many study centers have what we call fellows programs, which are essentially cohorts of students who commit to meeting with each other regularly to go through a curriculum of books that includes the classical Christian tradition, as well as, critics of the works of the classical Christian tradition. 

They’re considering points of view that they may not agree with. They’re listening carefully and it’s really amazing how many students show up for these things. On some campuses, it’s like 70 or 100 students just freshmen meeting with each other. And then they sign up again to go through a 2nd set of books their sophomore year, their junior year, their senior year. They’re essentially getting something like a liberal arts education layered on top of whatever else it is that they’re majoring in.

And a lot of these students are in STEM, just as most students are generally. And so I think that as we witness the demise of the humanities on campus, which has many, many causes, and I’ve been one to lament that demise in the past, I think there’s a tremendous opportunity here to lean into the open space that that’s been created by the decline of the humanities. And study centers are already doing that. And that’s part of what’s needed right now in this current moment. 

Now, that said, I’ll just say that 5 or 10 years from now, we don’t know what the issues are going to be. I mean, I didn’t see this coming five or 10 years ago. And, and so there’s the really difficult question is, how do we prepare for we know not what? 

And I think part of the answer to that is we don’t want to get too attached to particular forms. Right? Particular programs, particular ways of doing things. We need to continue to be very attentive to our time and place. And we need to listen to students and, and be responsive to the cares and concerns that they bring with them when they arrive on campus. 

Todd Ream: Thank you. Our last question then today, what are the most critical questions that supporters of Christian study centers need to be asking themselves? 

Karl Johnson: So most supporters of Christian study centers tend to be a generation or two older than the students. And they may remember the issues on campus back in their day. You know, whether it was relativism or the new atheism or whatever it is. And a lot of these folks have not really had the opportunity or the privilege to, to remain involved in academic life because they’re busy making a living and they’re living somewhere that’s not an academic town. And it’s easy for them to think that there’s a lot of continuity between their time on campus 20, 30, 40 years ago and what’s going on today and that the issues are somehow similar. 

There is a lot of change. You know, relativism is not what it used to be on campus. It’s just completely morphed. Most students on campus these days are not relativists of any sort. They’re really absolutists of a sort, right? And so this requires a lot of sort of creativity and pivoting on the part of folks who are in campus ministry work. 

And sometimes it’s hard for those of us who are on the ground and in the trenches to communicate the current issues to folks who are a generation or two older. Sometimes people come along and say, I’d like to sponsor a speaker and here’s the speaker I’d like to sponsor. And my response sometimes is, well I mean, fine scholar, good books, but they’re answering questions that students don’t have. 

And you know, the folks who are boots on the ground have their ear to the students, have had their pulse on what’s going on. And I just think there could be some improvement in terms of the communication between the folks who are boots on the ground and the supporters who are somewhat detached geographically or demographically from the students. 

I mean, even as somebody who’s been on campus all these years, just by nature of the fact that my age and my own children are mostly out of college, it gets hard to keep in touch with exactly what’s going on with the students. It’s work, it’s real work. It takes time. 

Todd Ream: Thank you. Thank you very much. Our guest has been Karl E. Johnson, Executive Director of the Consortium of Christian Study Centers. Thank you for sharing your insights and your wisdom with us.

Thank you for joining us for Saturdays at Seven, Christian Scholar’s Review’s conversation series with thought leaders about the academic vocation and the relationship that vocation shares with the Church. We invite you to join us again next week for Saturdays at Seven.

Todd C. Ream

Indiana Wesleyan University
Todd C. Ream is Honors Professor of Humanities and Executive Director of Faculty Research and Scholarship at Indiana Wesleyan University, Senior Fellow for Public Engagement for the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities, Senior Fellow for Programming for the Lumen Research Institute, and Publisher for Christian Scholar’s Review.  He is the author and editor of numerous books including (with Jerry Pattengale) The Anxious Middle: Planning for the Future of the Christian College (Baylor University Press, September 15, 2023).

One Comment

  • Quite a diversion from the other interviews with one exception, his brilliance. Like the other 36 guests, his recall and synthesis is inviting. Certainly it’s the deepest recap of outdoor / experiential learning. His reflection on his Cornell years is captivating, especially on “Galatians.” It struck me that his engaging depth what we expect and appreciate from alumnus of elite schools (esp during his discussion on Chesterton House). There is “a difference between Christians living together and living together as Christians.” The lingering thought after an invigorating discussion is the very need of Christian study centers at some elite schools that were founded two centuries ago to do this very thing. Though Cornell was founded in the more secular vein (amazingly during the last months of the Civil War), others weren’t. However, listening to Karl Johnson, it’s clear had he entered Cornell in its first years, he would have frequented Ezra and Cornell’s Free Library, finding strong Christian perspectives (e.g., his discussion of the sessions on the classical Christian traditions). I would love to see him chart the apologetic approaches from the 1980s to the present, or Berger’s book to present, and what he suggests to fill “the empty space” or “we know not what.”