Jesus gave us two extraordinary commands: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength,” and “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Mark 12:29-31). Christian universities exist because we need help with this endeavor, particularly as life becomes more complicated. Even when we achieve excellence in a narrow field, we need help in learning to love more as God first loved us.
Consider the world’s greatest athletes. All of them still have coaches. No matter if you are the greatest player in the world in golf, tennis, baseball, basketball, or any other sport – you still need a coach. The same proves true with almost any other endeavor. Talent and practice on their own are not enough. Loving God and others proves the same. Like any practice or endeavor in life, you need God’s grace and human mentors to help you figure out how to do those things in particular contexts of life. Although the goals of loving God and others are quite simple to articulate, we also need to recognize that love often becomes complicated when put into practice.
Moreover, Christians need to figure out how to engage in this multifaceted love in a host of areas of our life. I once asked the father of the champion of the National Junior Track and Field decathlon how his son trained for so many events. The father described how he sought coaches out for each different event to teach the unique skills associated with each practice to his son. Like a decathlete, we need to learn how to love God in multiple contexts and ways and they need multiple mentors who can teach them how to do it. How can we love God as teachers, philosophers, engineers, historians, or accountants? How can we love God as citizens, spouses, sons or daughters, neighbors, brothers or sisters, men or women, stewards of creation, and more? How can they love God in these areas with all their heart, soul, mind, and strength? Going to a Christian university involves being around faculty, administrators, staff members, and other students who seek to guide them in this endeavor. Teaching at a Christian university involves a holistic commitment to mentor students in this manner.
Furthermore, this task becomes even more complicated as we move beyond our individual lives and form organizations and institutions to accomplish any number of tasks. How should the Church care for the poor? How should schools best educate a diverse population? How can family members better love one another? How should a Christian hospital care for its patients and staff? If we are to provide an education that addresses these issues, it becomes clear that, as Arthur Holmes said, Christian higher education has “a constructive task, far more than a defensive one.”1
Limited Christian Understandings of the University
This simple, yet complex conception of the purpose of a Christian university helps avoid a number of limited understandings about what higher education entails. One such conception involves the view that Christian higher education should focus primarily upon loving God with one’s mind. This approach can take a variety of forms. On one end, Christian higher education may be seen primarily as a place that equips students with apologetics to defend the faith. While talking to a well-established Christian doctor at a local teaching hospital, one of our graduate students mentioned that he attended a Christian university. The doctor mentioned, “I bet you learn a lot of Christian apologetics there.” While learning how to be “prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for that hope that you have” (I Peter 3:15) remains a responsibility of the Christian, the Church, and the university, it does not fully capture the breadth of what should happen at a Christian university.
More broad-minded writers claim the role of the Christian university is to help students acquire a Christian worldview. Although this understanding is more expansive than the last one and identifies the key role of enhancing cognitive abilities as the focus of Christian education, we need to recognize that it still narrows the focus of the Christian university. The end goal of the Christian university is not merely to educate students to think in theological terms, although that certainly is part of its job. In more complete terms, it involves teaching students how to love God with their whole being (their heart, soul, mind, and strength) and to do so in multiple contexts (as a student, neighbor, professional, citizen, possible parent, possible spouse, etc.). While helping students acquire a Christian worldview is an essential part of this larger goal, it focuses solely upon the cognitive part.
A second problematic understanding of a Christian university focuses primarily upon the moral dimension of life – it’s a form of loving God with one’s strength or one’s behavior. This approach can take many shapes. A campus may be preoccupied with asking students to follow rules in the name of holiness or it can focus upon encouraging Christian practices. It can even tout service-learning or a particular commitment to justice. While all of these efforts are necessary and important (yes, even the campus rules), an inordinate focus on moral behavior or action can fail to capture the other elements of what a Christian education involves. Christian education that inordinately focuses upon outward forms of moral behavior fails to cultivate one’s multifaceted love for God.
For example, let’s consider those campus rules. A Christian university that enforces basic rules about not cheating on tests or avoiding sexual immorality is merely enforcing the baseline standards for engaging in certain kinds of practices. Engagement in any meaningful practice requires such rules and enforcement. You cannot continue to double dribble in basketball, you cannot cheat if you seek to be an excellent scholar, and fidelity in one’s sexual life is a basic practice regarding a marital relationship. Yet, faculty, administrators, and/or institutions that focus inordinately on rules and rule enforcement may lead students to miss cultivating a larger vision for excellence involved in a particular practice of life. While in the game of life, rules are important (particularly if you are not following them), merely knowing and following the rules does not make one a good or flourishing human being. One does not become a good basketball player by simply obeying the rules; one does not become an excellent scholar by not cheating; and while fidelity in marriage is critical, it does not ensure a marriage will flourish.
To guarantee their institution does not place an inordinate emphasis upon enforcing behavioral standards or simply focus on developing a Christian worldview, some Christians elevate the importance of loving God with one’s heart. Numerous Biblical passages would attest to this claim. As the Psalmist declares, “You do not delight in sacrifice, or I would bring it; you do not take pleasure in burnt offerings. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise” (Psalm 51:16-17). Again, think about athletes who attained levels of excellence in their field. Without a passion for their particular practice, they could not train their mind and body.
Yet, we must also be careful about focusing only upon loving God with one’s heart or one’s affections to the exclusion of the other loves. Sometimes our behaviors shape our heart, as Jesus reminds us when he says, “For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also” (Matthew 6:21). Furthermore, numerous Christians throughout the ages have performed horrible deeds with the right heart because they lacked the intellectual insight or behavioral training to perform at levels of excellence. A good-hearted surgeon without rigorous mental education and the proper training of his or her hands can destroy patients’ lives. Good-hearted charity can destroy the dignity of the poor, reinforce dependency, or distract one from deeper needs.2 Furthermore, while we sometimes celebrate people with heart (e.g., underdog sports movies such as Rocky, Hoosiers, and Rudy to name only three), we need to recognize that having a heart for something does not necessarily mean one will achieve excellence in that particular field. Sometimes one needs certain gifts, natural or spiritual, and certainly one needs the necessary cognitive capacities and skills to achieve excellence. A Christian university must be committed to developing our love for God and God’s creation in ways that capture our whole being.
- Holmes, The Idea of a Christian College, 7.
- For a good example of this situation in an international student context, see Cynthia Toms Smedley, “Introduction,” in Transformations at the Edge of the World: Forming Global Christians through the Study Abroad Experience, eds. Ronald J. Morgan and Cynthia Toms Smedley (Abilene: ACU Press, 2010), 19-21.