The Holy Spirit and Higher Education: Renewing the Christian University
By the power of the Holy Spirit, my maternal grandmother used to pick up rattlesnakes without harm. The church I have been a member of for decades now is affiliated with the Assemblies of God (though you might need a court order to find that out). This connects me to Amos Yong, an author of The Holy Spirit and Higher Education: Renewing the Christian University, as he is ordained in the Assemblies of God. Dale M. Coulter, his co-author, is ordained in my deeper Pentecostal root, the Church of God (Cleveland, Tennessee). A spiritual hero of mine is my late uncle, J. D. Golden, who served as state overseer (bishop) for New York and who was a crucial figure in expanding the racial and regional diversity of this originally white and southern denomination. I know a lot of academics who will admit to having a Pentecostal background, but Pentecostalism is as much my foreground as my background. I am a Pentecostal.
I am delighted to report that as an all-singing, all-dancing, hands-raising, robustly charismatic teenager who was also a history major and a Mark A. Noll student and disciple, I had the good sense to record an oral history with my now long-deceased grandmother. The word of her testimony spoke of so much—of visions and trances, of words of knowledge and supernatural answers to prayer, of prodigal sons and daughters returned, of divine healings and, yes, of the occasional Spirit-empowered reptile wrangling. She is also a spiritual hero of mine. Her illiterate, Spirit-filled mother is remembered reverently for a powerful blessing she used to pray faithfully—even before they were born—upon “her children, and her children’s children, and her children’s children’s children.” I am the beneficiary of that fervent and effective prayer of a righteous woman, and I hope to transmit this blessing to my children, and my children’s children, and my children’s children’s children. Yong and Coulter rightly observe that Pentecostalism is marked by “a notion of theology as biography” (137).
This all makes me peculiarly suited or ill-suited to review this book, as it is a cogent defense of a Pentecost (rather than merely Pentecostal) vision of higher education (which I rejoice over with Holy Roller leaping). Its primary foil, however, is that great and good man of God, Mark Noll (who I cannot help but feel defensive about). Specifically, The Holy Spirit and Higher Education is opposed to Noll’s The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind. Despite this book championing ecumenism, there is no encounter with the Noll who wrote, Is the Reformation Over?; despite its attentiveness to issues of race, there is no sighting of the Noll who wrote The Civil War as a Theological Crisis and God and Race in American Politics; and despite its commitment to Pentecostalism and World Christianity there are no references to Noll’s Clouds of Witnesses: Christian Voices from Africa and Asia or From Every Tribe and Nation: A Historian’s Discovery of the Global Christian Story.1
Noll is probably the academic who has most shaped my career. In fact, he continues to do so—we had lunch just a few weeks ago and he sends me an encouraging note in response to pretty much everything I write. The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind began as his inaugural lecture in the McManis Chair of Christian Thought, Wheaton College, a position that I now fill as his unworthy heir. Noll kindly sent me a typescript of that lecture. I remember experiencing it as a rather brave tweaking of our constituency. It even ended mischievously with a poker analogy.
When the book came out, though I thought it was a wonderful and important intervention, I too thought that Noll had been unfair to Pentecostalism. I pushed back the next time I saw him. I argued that it was wrong to smear Pentecostalism as a whole as anti-intellectual. In fact, I insisted, the movement is, if anything, producing a disproportionately large number of academics and intellectuals. Since then, I have learned that sociological research reveals that new religious movements often attract social and intellectual elites. Moreover, I think the ethos of charismatic forms of Christianity fuels this trajectory. To speak in purely natural terms, the conviction that with God all things are possible means that charismatic Christians are willing to attempt things that others think are beyond their reach—and therefore more of them get them.
Yong and Coulter are perfect illustrations of my point. Both of them are having awe-inspiring careers. Yong is one of the most prolific and important systematic theologians in America today. I know pretty well the teams that the leading mainline, Southern Baptist, non-denominational evangelical, and other seminaries and divinity schools have to offer, and he is fitting company for the best of them—field your team Harvard, Yale, Duke, Princeton, Vanderbilt, and so on, and Yong belongs in the same league. Dale M. Coulter was not as well known to me, but his accomplishments are staggering. He is a Doctor of Philosophy from Oxford. (I long to meet him and, among other topics, swap gossip about the City of Dreaming Spires.) Coulter is an expert on the medieval theologian Richard of St. Victor and the Victorine school. This would floor me beyond belief were it not for the fact that one of my undergraduate roommates was Boyd Taylor Coolman, a Hoosier Pentecostal and a star of the basketball team, who is now a Victorine scholar and professor of theology at Boston College. It is particularly delightful that Yong and Coulter chose to write this book together as Noll taught me that “Christian scholarship is collaborative scholarship.” Illustrating the point, Noll would credit that line to George Rawlyk, a historian who wrote a monograph about the Evangelical Revival with the splendidly pneumatological title, Ravished by the Spirit.2 It was a good, charismatic instinct for Yong and Coulter to decide to collaborate.
They set out to offer a “Pentecost,” rather than merely Pentecostal, vision for the Christian university: “a Pentecost-inspired philosophy and theology of Christian higher education” (155). This means that, rather than a denominationally focused perspective, they draw upon an emphasis upon the Spirit across the centuries and traditions of Christian history, and they offer their work as a gift to the whole church.
Part I is written by Coulter. It provides a wonderfully erudite and thought-provoking account of higher education from the ancient Greeks to the present. Coulter seems to be doing four things: 1) providing a neutral narrative to help us better understand how we have gotten where we are, 2) highlighting things in the past that are worth retrieving, 3) offering an apologetic for Holiness and Pentecostal forms of Christianity by explaining how they have been misunderstood, judged by the wrong standard, or have contributions to offer, and 4) conceding some of the limitations and weaknesses of the Holiness and Pentecostal movements. Often, however, I could not tell which of these things he is doing at any particular point, and that makes it harder to engage with the vision he is offering. I repeatedly wondered: Is Coulter defending this feature of higher education as valid or merely describing it as way of acknowledging that it is a problem? Moreover, at times I wondered if Yong and Coulter are not in full agreement on which of these tacks to take on a particular issue. (More on that anon.)
The “pneumatological ressourcement” aspect is delightful (11). It is helpful when thinking about what Spirit-infused education might look like to be reminded that “the relationship between piety, holiness, and the ascent to God found its greatest exponent in Augustine” (41). Or that Luther “declared that what makes a true theologian is rapture and ecstasy” (55). One interesting thread is about how a Romantic sensibility was reflected in the Holiness movement. What is sometimes misconstrued as anti-intellectualism was arguably actually a critique of rationalism also found “in writers like Ralph Waldo Emerson, William Blake, and William James” (88). The Holiness movement therefore participated in a wider coalition marked by a “progressive populism that wedded holiness, experiential religion, and social transformation” (90).
The basic vision that Yong and Coulter are commending is clear. They stand for higher education that is “Christ-patterned and Spirit-infused” (7). The Christian university should seek “to inculcate a habitus in students in which moral formation, encounters with transcendence, and investment in mission now orient them” (155). The authors commend a “heads-hearts-hands” structure in which all three elements are given their full due (9). In Part II, Yong elaborates this tripartite scheme with chapters on “Renewing the Mind,” “Reordering the Heart,” and “Revitalizing the Hands.” In an elegant pattern worthy of the Victorines, he coordinates scholarship with the mind, teaching with the heart, and service with the hands.
I am the director of Wheaton College’s faculty development Faith and Learning program, and I am no less aware than Yong and Coutler of how much Reformed thinking has historically been the default way to have these conversations. I have made a concerted effort to try to break that monopoly. My goal as director is not to change anyone’s theological tradition, but rather to encourage them to become a more faithful, informed, nuanced, generous, and reflective inhabitant of it. I am delighted if a Lutheran or a Mennonite, a Baptist or a Methodist, writes a faith and learning paper that fully and profoundly reflects their ecclesial identity and the riches of its life, worship, theology, charism, and resources. Henceforth I will also want to point everyone to The Holy Spirit and Higher Education as a valuable resource for contemplating the project of Christian higher education. I am also overjoyed, however, to be able specifically to point charismatic faculty members to this wise and learned resource as way to enable them to meditate more deeply on how their life as an academic might relate to their faith. Arthur Holmes taught Wheaton to proclaim, “All truth is God’s truth,” but after reading Yong and Coulter I hope we will also learn to declare: All education is the Spirit’s domain. Come, Holy Spirit!
Despite the strengths of the book, my most substantial criticisms concern the concrete clarity and practical application of their own vision. Those criticisms can best be explained by beginning with their critique of Noll. How is Noll criticized? Yong and Coulter literally count the ways Noll is wrong, but the gist is that he stands for a Reformed worldview way of thinking that is too focused on cognition, rationality, and propositional truth, and that he wrongly disparages populism and “privileges an intellectual and cultural elite (highbrow culture)” (118). In contrast, among other things, Yong and Coulter stand for an approach that is “fully embodied” (198).
Nevertheless, I somehow continually found the vision being offered in The Holy Spirit and Higher Education frustratingly disembodied. Throughout the book, Yong and Coulter speak of “the Christian university” (it’s even in the subtitle) yet, for this reader, that university was never made flesh. A lot of issues are set aside or ambiguously adjudicated. I thought that Coulter was making a case for utilitarian and vocational forms of higher education as being equally valid as any model coming out of Oxford, Harvard, or Berlin. He evokes the exchange between W. E. B. Du Bois and Booker T. Washington, and I read this to mean that Washington was on to something in his desire for a practical education for ordinary folk and that that model should be accepted as no less legitimate: Pentecostal colleges are doing that kind of education and that is just fine. Yet Yong decries the “professionalism” that is driven by “market and mammon” and “an extremely instrumentalist and utilitarian culture” (249), and I was thus left unsure as to what we are meant to strive for. What is Yong worried about, and is Coulter worried about it too? If there is a utilitarian problem, which institutions are doing a better job of guarding against it and how and why? Moreover, Yong offers an enthusiastic defense of online education, but he sets aside the question of to what degree a common core needs to revolve around “the liberal arts tradition” (213). These are not necessarily illegitimate moves, but again, it made it hard for me to imagine the Christian university being recommended: its shape-shifting qualities make it difficult to visualize.
Noll is treated as if he was setting out a systematic, tabula rasa account, and is chided because it is not sufficiently balanced. Noll, however, was looking around at the actual landscape and trying to offer a corrective. By their fruits ye shall know them. All of us need to strive to do better, but I think even the Wheaton of the past did a pretty decent job of bearing the fruit that the vision explicated in The Holy Spirit and Higher Education seems to hope for. The very year after The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind was published Wheaton had one of its periodic revivals, a breaking in of transcendence. One of the things Wheaton has always been known for is its commitment to Christian service. Indeed, in an apt articulation of the tripartite vision set out in this book, Wheaton’s official hymn speaks of serving God with “heart and hand and brain.” We can all agree that we do not want a form of education that remains “only at the level of heads” while it “ignores the hands and the heart” (195), but are there Christian colleges that are producing this bad fruit? If so, how can we identify them? Certainly not by assuming that using the word “worldview” is a poker tell.
Yong sets out a capacious vision of a Christian university that addresses sexism, racism, and intersectionality; one that is committed to ecumenism and interfaith dialogue; one that is marked by interdisciplinarity. I suspect Calvin University embodies this ideal as much or more than any other institution. Maybe that bastion of Reformed thought is the most Pentecost university that currently exists. The authors acknowledge that “many who work in CCCU circles may recognize what is being suggested as already in place in their institutions” (11), but I am not looking for a pass to be given to Wheaton or Calvin or any other institution, let alone for flattery to be doled out to certain schools. I am hoping for a concrete-enough description of the Christ-shaped and Spirit-infused university so that institutions cannot fool themselves into thinking they are doing well because they have “head, heart, and hands” as a running banner on their website when all the while their fruit is rather unwholesome.
Yong and Coulter both regularly write in the future tense—setting out a vision for what a Christian university “might” be like. One would hope that Pentecostal colleges also embody the vision contained in this book, but the authors shy away from addressing what Pentecostal colleges are actually like. To do this review, I quickly looked up three colleges that occurred to me because they were founded by prominent charismatic ministers admired by people with whom I worship. All three have for their president a child or grandchild of their founder without the level of formal education one might expect for such a role. (In one case, a president using the title “Doctor” who has never earned so much as a bachelor’s degree.) Maybe, you say, when evaluating fruits you should not go after the low-hanging ones. Fair enough. I think good work is being done at universities such as Lee, Evangel, Vanguard, Oral Roberts, and Regent, and I am certainly rooting for them. What, however, will it take for those universities to continue to develop and strengthen? Yong and Coulter claim that Pentecostalism is “a spiritual tradition that seeks to renew existing structures” (137). Alas, it is also a tradition that delights in condemning existing structures and asserting that a new wineskin is yet again needed. Do we throw out Regent and the rest and declare that God is doing a new thing? Is that not a Pentecostal thing to do? If not, how can those universities be maintained and strengthened? Yong and Coulter tend to speak of Pentecostalism when they can claim something positive for the tradition—that it shaped jazz and blues music, for instance—but, when they get near the movement’s weaknesses, blind spots, and pathologies, rather than confront them in any sustained way, they instead tend to look away and refocus their gaze on the Pentecost paradigm.
Noll wrote as a wounded lover, but it was hard for me and other Pentecostals to receive what he had to say to our movement because he had never been in love with Pentecostalism. Yong and Coulter could become the prophetic voice from within that we need. I wish they had been more willing not just to expound upon how Pentecostalism has been misjudged, and on what gifts it has to offer, but also upon how the movement needs to change to be what the Spirit wants it to be.
The Holy Spirit and Higher Education is dedicated to Coulter’s children and Yong’s grandchildren “to whom the future of higher education belongs.” But, when their time comes, how will Yong and Coulter help them to discern a worthy Christian college to attend? I can see unaccredited “The Pastor Hank College and School of Ministry” seemingly ticking all the boxes expounded in The Holy Spirit and Higher Education. In my view, this possibility reveals that this book does not provide a sufficiently embodied vision for discerning on the ground what is actually a worthy Christian university—and how a shaky one can be strengthened.
The Holy Spirit and Higher Education is, however, a formidable and welcome resource for faculty members who want to think more fully and faithfully about their vocation. In their educational choices—and in all aspects of their lives— may the Holy Spirit guide and bless Coulter and Yong’s children, and their children’s children, and their children’s children’s children.
- Mark A. Noll, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind with a new preface and afterword (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2022); Mark A. Noll and Carolyn Nystrom, Is the Reformation Over?: An Evangelical Assessment of Contemporary Roman Catholicism (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2005); Mark A. Noll, The Civil War as a Theological Crisis (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2006); Mark A. Noll, God and Race in American Politics: A Short History (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2008); Mark A. Noll and Carolyn Nystrom, Clouds of Witnesses: Christian Voices from Africa and Asia (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2011); Mark A. Noll, From Every Tribe and Nation: A Historian’s Discovery of the Global Christian Story (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2014).
- A. Rawlyk, Ravished by the Spirit: Religious Revivals, Baptists, and Henry Alline (Montreal, QC: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1984).