How Can We Change the University?

A couple of years ago the maverick postmodernist, Stanley Fish, predicted that the Next Big Thing on American university campuses would be religion. That is, religion stood the best chance of replacing diversity and multiculturalism, as the topic on people’s minds. I have some doubts about that, and let me tell you why. In the first place, I don’t think administrators are at all eager to bring religions into the university’s discussions. And I would hate to see them try. They’ve given the subject no thought, their hearts wouldn’t be in it, and their prejudices on the matter would confine the project.

If religion is to move into the void that Fish recognized, it will have to be because the religious scholars and scientists in the academy seize the opportunities that now exist. Religious academics would have to engage with the questions universities are having trouble with. But how likely does that seem? Who would they be? Jewish scholars have felt that academic secularization actually benefits them as a minority. Some Muslim scholars seem willing to bring their views into the discussion, but they might have special difficulties with the university’s idioms. And who among Christians? Catholics have worked hardest to maintain a religious intellectualism, but they are overburdened in trying to figure out the future of their own colleges and universities. Mainline Protestants long ago found their liberal democratic agenda absorbed within the academy’s secular humanism. This leaves Evangelical Protestants. They try to offer a personal witness to their colleagues. But can they even imagine changing the university itself? Can they imagine affecting the course of university discussion? I certainly don’t minimize the difficulties, or the courage required. But what hope can there be?

In The Decline of the Secular University I tried to indicate that this is a moment when the university might be open to more diverse voices. Now it’s time to consider how we could take advantage of these new opportunities. So I’m not talking generally being a Christian in the university. That would be a more congenial topic. I’m not talking about teaching and writing with a view to honoring God. Honoring God in our calling contributes something valuable to the university. But I’m talking here of changing what is there.

First, we should be aware that it is not illegal to “mention God” in tax-supported schools and universities. And it’s not illegal to explain and discuss religious views as if they were live options. Of course, you couldn’t require your students to adopt particular religious views. The expectation will normally be that religious ideas are curiosities rather than viable options. Most will think they’re only of historical interest. But could religious viewpoints get the attention of our educational establishment? After all, religions are an increasing concern outside the university, in our society, our politics and our diplomacy. How might one begin an academic discussion of religion at such a time?

To show where we’re headed, we need to look at:

  1. What we mean by influencing the university. What should we be doing?
  2. What is our goal in doing so? What would constitute success?
  3. What do Christians have to offer that will make the most sense to the university? Are there topics that might get their attention?
  4. What might be the most effective approach? Is there a better method than flat-out declaration?
  5. What might be the most effective vocabulary? Are there words that might neutralize resistance?

Beyond these points,

  1. Who should be responsible for opening the university to religious voices? Is it a job for administrators or should it be left to interested parties?
  2. And finally, what about the danger of church/state entanglements here? What is the legal status of the issue?

Influencing the university

Beginning with the first point, what do Christians mean by influencing the university? Obviously, we could mean, teaching about Christianity. This is perfectly legal; it is done all the time in Religious Studies departments. But we realize that studying about religion relativizes the subject. Studying about religions relates religious activities and thinking to more general historical, social or psychological contexts. The point is to “explain” religions in other terms, essentially explaining them away. Studying about religion distances students from it, in order to offer some more basic account of it. Some naturalistic account, maybe psychological or sociological or neurological. This denies religions their transcendent claims, their truth claims, and their intellectual independence. Religion is treated as a dependent variable.

Religious believers would want to do the opposite, show religion as an independent variable. They would sometimes want to show how religious viewpoints explain other things, how they make sense of things that are not being explained in our naturalistic terms. Take the concept of “health,” for example. It appears that health is a religious concept. It’s not a naturalistic category. Diseases and death are just as much a part of “nature” as health is. If health were a purely natural concept, we would have to talk about the “health” of the AIDS virus for instance.

So our medical questions are not fundamentally naturalistic, when health turns out to be a value concept. All value questions relate to our ultimate – that is, religious – values. Ultimate or final values are by definition what we call religion. They can be discussed philosophically, but are chosen and acted upon religiously. It would be worthwhile to get the university to recognize that medicine ultimately involves a religious element. Our medical school at Florida has instituted an elective discussion group that tries to consider such matters, under the title of narrative medicine. It’s very small, but you can raise religious points in their discussions.

Another example of religion as an independent variable is science. Is science part of a larger enterprise, the study of our contingent or created reality? And isn’t it motivated by the same impulse that inspires theologians, to find our true place within this reality? Can we imagine a future in which “science” is valued precisely for being able to serve religious ends? Isn’t the whole point of scientific knowledge to reach transcendence of some sort? If not, what is the point? This is a point I raise in Religion in the National Agenda: What We Mean by Religious, Spiritual, Secular.

I don’t get the sense that most faculty have thought much about general philosophical questions, including the reality of religion. They’re busy with their sub-specialties, and probably assume that some secularist worldview takes care of the rest. And they trust that the university’s secular character spares them the need to deal with deep ethical issues in their work. Meanwhile, religious faculty may be ignorant of the critiques that bring naturalism and cultural relativism and critical theory into serious question. They might think that only creationism or directed evolution offer them arguments for the human difference and ethics. And they know what a “non-starter” that will be within the academy. Since their religion is ultimately spiritual and personal, for many, their religious witness means sharing a Gospel of personal redemption.

Of course, that is vital. If we have a heart for our colleagues, this is the ultimate message we have for them. But if we want to change the university, it is not the only thing we could try to do. There is no reason to move our evangelistic exchanges off campus. But they do not address the university as such. And there is much in Christianity that does address the university’s mission.

C.S. Lewis explained in The Abolition of Man, and again in That Hideous Strength, that universities would make no sense if they were just about knowledge being power. Why would those who had the knowledge want to share that power? They would just use the power over the rest of us. The essential characteristics of universities actually involve Christian values or virtues. For universities mean having truth as a goal, sharing the truth, and seeking the good that the truth can lead to. The university was invented by the medieval church, and Christians still have a stake in it.

It may sound odd to talk of “saving” the university, or saving the culture. It’s not like saving souls, which are eternal. But it is clear that some cultures and societies are more healthy, more encouraging of the good, than others. And I think it’s important to save the university. I’d like to propose that changing the university should mean opening the university to Christian assumptions and arguments, so that the whole Christian Gospel might be heard. I don’t think that is an impossible hope. Practically speaking, it might be done by just one person on a campus, who was widely respected and outspoken. We shouldn’t assume we can never get there.

Now, what would be the possible approaches to influencing the university?

The first approach we have already mentioned. It is to change the university one person at a time, by personal witness and evangelism. We hope to pursue this in the normal course of our lives. You could approach it strategically, by going after academic leaders or converting famous atheists, but that must be rare.

Second, there is the matter of countering anti-religious arguments within the university. Anti-religious arguments may appear almost anywhere – in the social sciences, human sciences, physical sciences, humanities or professional programs. They may be moral arguments, or historical, or philosophical, or scientific. They may be ignorant or rest on unexamined assumptions. Secular colleagues are often not aware of the religious arguments that might counter those objections, since it has long been assumed that no such arguments exist. In the 1960s and 70s the popular writings of Francis Schaeffer alerted Evangelicals to some arguments against certain secularist positions. Since then there has been much more written in this “apologetic” vein. You’re probably aware of some of that literature.

This “apologetic” effort is to deflect criticism. So it’s a defensive strategy. It wards off particular arguments, but may not challenge the more basic positions that are at the root of the anti-religious arguments. Some Christians may not realize that there could be a more aggressive strategy. They haven’t found ways to attack the basis of the anti-religious positions. Apologetics fends off attacks. But after we have countered some attacks on religion, what follows? We can’t expect Christianity to be everyone’s default position.

Countering attacks on religion is necessary, just for the sake of truth. Universities should not be indifferent to truth. But secular colleagues may simply register them, but still view such apologetic arguments as special pleading. They may not see that we are questioning the naturalism or skepticism that stands behind the attacks. Philosophy departments could help us point out some limits on philosophical naturalism, but philosophers don’t seem to count for much in really big secular universities.

Third, there is a further approach, beyond intellectual apologetics. That is to expose the deeper basis of secularist arguments. That involves explaining not just that certain anti-religious arguments fail, but the mistaken assumptions underlying them. So this third way offers a more offensive strategy. This is where talk of competing worldviews comes in. It points out the different assumptions one can make, and may put other viewpoints on the defensive.

At this point, Christians might get help from secular philosophers. Some of them understand the limits of some anti-religious attacks. Several of them have publically attacked Richard Dawkins’ anti-religious arguments. Postmodernists, you remember, questioned the dominance or hegemony of any of the ideologies that are loose in the university. But the postmodernists didn’t offer anything impressive in their place.

There are notable Christian philosophers who are attacking things at this basic level, like Alvin Plantinga and Nick Wolterstorff. Their books are not easy reading, but not entirely impossible. Too many of us are afraid to tackle anything we can’t skim. There are probably some Cliff Notes versions of their arguments, if you checked Wikipedia. Sometimes one can neutralize attacks simply by simply referring to these authors or their books, as a shorthand way of argument. After all, your colleagues are probably doing that too, dropping names rather than being able to follow their own arguments to the source.

Don’t read such books at random. When you face objections, figure out what your confusion really is, what your questions are, and find titles that promise some answers. Partner with other Christians in your academic discipline to do this. Then put the answers in your own words, so you are not parroting ideas you haven’t mastered.

There is still another, fourth kind of engagement with secularist arguments. This is the level at which Christians could actually change the culture of the university. It is when we go beyond questioning secularist assumptions, to offer alternative, religiously-informed assumptions. That is, we can not only show that there are other assumptions that one could make. We try to show that there are reasons to prefer other assumptions. Show that they are somehow intuitively more convincing. At a basic level, this is more a matter of intuition than logic, but don’t be confused by that.

At critical times in intellectual debate, logic may need to give way to other methods of discovery. In an important book called Personal Knowledge, Michael Polanyi, who was a chemist and a philosopher, showed how revolutionary discoveries are not logical in character. You can’t argue for anything that is truly revolutionary on the basis of a previous logic. Our logics are developed in relation to our previous view of things. Newtonian physics had its logic, so quantum physics had to be promoted to incredulous scientists by other means. Polanyi, and later the physicist Thomas Kuhn, said that learning to process the new viewpoint was like a “conversion.” You have to shift to a new basis, a new “paradigm,” and logic doesn’t help with that. Logic makes you show every step in your reasoning, so it doesn’t allow the leaps that are part of major scientific discoveries, or the gestalt shifts in other fields.

Sometimes religious thinking suggests a different paradigm in some field. As an example, say you want to talk of the reality of ethical values. You might argue that charity is a real element in the universe. We commonly think of “real” as meaning the physical stuff of the universe, particles and galaxies. But since humans do “exist” in the universe, and since the human value of charity cannot be reduced to some physiological or biochemical or evolutionary level, then charity is irreducible. Real means that you can’t reduce some concept to a lower level of reality. So these values are as much a part of the universe as gravity or space are, because humans are real, or irreducible. (Reducing us to our hydrocarbon makeup loses too many of the realities of human existence). It doesn’t matter how humans appeared or how long we will continue to exist. It doesn’t matter how our brains developed, to have meaningful, serious arguments about charity. Materialism, or what’s now called physicalism, can’t just chase these arguments out of the university.

Theologian John Milbank has made a very similar argument in a very difficult book, Theology and Social Theory. Milbank takes on modern philosophy in its most nihilistic, destructive, skeptical form, and shows how to undermine Nietzsche, the great underminer. It’s an argument about the basic reality of peace. Nietzsche and his recent followers like Foucault thought power is basic, and that we and all of creation are just, only, simply, basically, nothing but, expressions of power. So our basic condition is strife. But Milbank showed how to recognize that, in fact, peace and non-violence are prior, and more foundational than strife. The strife we do see is sin, and it is derivative and not basic. The strife that philosophical nihilism sees everywhere is a spoiling of something good, and not as basic as that good.

It’s a very difficult book. Milbank is terribly original. But it’s a nice touch that Milbank can point out that St. Augustine had a similar viewpoint, and all the Christian thinkers in his tradition. None of us are going to contribute any such intellectual revolution. But you’ll probably run across such revolutionary views, paradigm-changing ideas, in your fields, which Christianity has sponsored. This could give you confidence, and bring your faith out of the closet.

Lastly, I’m going to suggest one more way of influencing the university. This is suggested by Andy Crouch’s book, Culture Making. I thought the most important point he made was that you cannot change the culture by criticism. You can only change culture by alternative cultural creation. Just as Milbank created something within philosophy that could displace what he criticized.

You and I won’t be creating new philosophical positions. But within our discussions we may hit upon new symbols to use to suggest some truth or other. I’m not thinking of arguments so much as words, terms, metaphors, that stick in peoples’ minds like images. I mean buzzwords like death of God, political correctness, family values, multiculturalism, spirituality, censorship, life-style, dogmatic, rational, ethnocentric, judgmental. These can really change the course of discussions, for good or ill. The one I’m trying to promote is the symbol “human,” in hopes that it might encourage discussion.

These may sound like concepts, but they’re actually more generalized symbols. It is because of their ambiguity that they can often trump actual concepts. This may sound unworthy of academic discussion, but we’ll never get entirely beyond using such images. It’s often the level at which academics operate, and it’s usually the level at which the public operates. Eventually buzzwords go out of fashion, but for awhile they dominate our discussions and our media. It’s something we have to live with.

Somebody invented these symbols; they didn’t just appear from nowhere. Their creators are the people who are shaping our discussions. Even if you don’t coin any such symbols yourself, you can promote the ones that seem promising.

A few general points we will need to make again and again in our discussions.

First, we need to keep repeating that there are no self-validating principles at the basis of all thinking. (This is not to say that there are no self-evident principles of logic, a narrower claim.) Lots of our colleagues still assume that “reason” is bedrock, but philosophers have known better for some time, and the postmodernists popularized this. So we need to keep insisting that arguments ultimately proceed from assumptions. (Basic principles of logic represent a more limited case.)

Second, disagreements between assumptions, or comparing assumptions, doesn’t involve arguments. That’s because you can’t prove your assumptions. You can only prove things to people who share your assumptions. So assumptions aren’t based on arguments. Quite the reverse; arguments are based on assumptions. Even science starts with theoretical assumptions, and not with facts. So showing the superiority of one’s assumptions means showing that they make better sense of things than other ones. It’s sort of pragmatic, like Polanyi was showing, but it’s the best we can do.

Third, that very concept of “fact” is based on assumptions. We just said that science doesn’t start with facts. That’s because the concept of “fact” is already a value. To call it a value means that there are rules we must observe about what counts as a fact, or what it takes to isolate individual facts. When you talk of rules, then values and judgment are involved. Thus, nobody simply starts from experience. Observation itself is “theory-laden,” as Norwood Russell Hanson explained in Patterns of Discovery. (So much for the old fact/value dichotomy that you were taught. There is a chapter on that in my previous book.)

Fourth, where is faith in all this about arguments and assumptions? Faith is basic to thinking. It’s not just an absence of “logic.” It’s not “believing six impossible things before breakfast,” like the White Queen in Through the Looking Glass. All rationalities are based on the assumptions supporting them. So faith comes at the beginning of your thinking as much as at the end. Faith means one’s basic personal and intellectual orientation, the source of one’s values and hopes. Belief is your first step toward understanding, as St. Augustine said. Any successful search must have an idea of what it is looking for, and of its significance. We must begin somewhere, and then our rationality explores the implications of that faith. One can even speak of the faith of scientists.

So it is quite appropriate to ask what assumptions others are using. Talk about their “faith,” just to shake them up. This is more obvious than it was fifty years ago.

What are your assumptions going to turn out to be? Let me guess. That humans are actually important to the universe, and give it significance. That our values are real, irreducible to some materialistic basis. That charity – wanting the best for others – is supreme among values. That science is part of a larger project, to find the idea behind the universe. And that there is more than an idea. There is a mind and a creative will behind the idea.

Our goal of influencing the secular university

I don’t want to neglect the goal of getting individual colleagues to consider their personal spiritual commitments and faith. Among academics, this could be helped by showing that our faith has intellectual aspects as well as spiritual ones.

And along that same line, I’ve already said that the aim is to open the university to Christian assumptions and arguments, so that the whole Christian Gospel might be heard.

The goal probably varies by academic discipline

Then, in the humanities, Christianity is concerned with what humans can be. Traditionally, the humanities have looked to art, literature, scholarship, politics, ethics, philosophy, history, to learn what it is to be human. Sciences show our instinctive life and not our intentional life. A staggering amount of all that art and history was informed by Christian values. So we want to show how Christian cultures have expressed the meaning of being human. One reason that there is a turning away from Western history and culture is that so much of it was Christian in its intent. Lots of it was unsavory. Lots of it was amazing. The current fashion is to concentrate on the unattractive. But the accusation of hypocrisy among Christians is actually a compliment to Christianity itself. For one is admitting that the ideal was good. We want more of the ideal, and less of the pretense.

Obviously, the humanities need to have a firm belief in the human difference. Christians would not need to start from analyzing our physical nature, as with creationism, but could start from the evidence of our cultural activity. Start from the irreducibility of human values. If you thought that science disproves the human difference, remember that the very existence of the scientific enterprise proves the human difference. It proves that humans transcend what they study. Science is founded on uniquely human values, like honesty, concern, truth. Sociobiologists never reduced these to the material categories of evolutionary psychology. Survival value for your DNA would probably favor things like dishonesty, untruth, and lack of concern.

In professional education, the goal of Christians would be to show the relevance of Christian values in applying our knowledge. Show how they would govern our practice. Applying our knowledge always means applying it for human benefit. This will involve recognizing Christian understandings of concern, charity, justice, health, wealth, truth, responsibility and so on. Our colleagues assume all these values. But they probably don’t know where they came from originally. They may think they are the only values there are. But the values of other cultures might look very different. There are some other values that have lost out in the West, like honor, courage, pride, which predated Christianity. They proved to be problematic.

The other important thing about values is having an agreed scale of values. Secular cultures have inherited Christian values. But they may reject the idea of a hierarchy of values, and end up isolating and absolutizing individual values. When you concentrate on only one value at a time you can’t relate it to the others. Our current academic moralizing seems to inflate pity for the oppressed to the first principle of all morality. That creates conflicts. What Christianity could help with is prioritizing our values. How do health, life, charity, justice, relate to each other, without getting in each others’ way? Seeing how they fit together in a Christian framework could be instructive and helpful.

In discussing the human good, Christian values are going to sound very obvious. People will think they’re just common sense, until you compare them with any other ethic. So it could be very enlightening to know something about other value systems, including some that certain bioethicists have tried to promote recently.

In highly technical fields, the goal might be to show why we want to know certain things. We could show there were other reasons than economic profitability. Science itself doesn’t include directions on what to study next or why. That must come from elsewhere. Also, Christians might have a greater thrill at discovering the Mind behind creation, which leading scientists often acknowledge. For it seems to extend science into spiritual wonder, such as Einstein often expressed.

You might think that some academic fields would not have any interface with religion at all. But I can’t think of any of the university’s offerings that don’t relate to some ideal of human flourishing. Why would we study it if it didn’t? The phrase “human flourishing” or “fullness” is being increasingly used by such Christian philosophers as Charles Taylor.

One goal Christian faculty should probably not have is to prove Christian doctrines. That is because of what “proof” means. Proof is an exercise of power, forcing others to accept your conclusions. First, you appeal to assumptions that your “opponent” shares. That is because you can’t prove anything to someone who doesn’t share your basic assumptions. Then you show that some agreed knowledge, plus an agreed logic, forces the other to accept your conclusions, in line with the shared assumptions. This is not how religion operates.

Religious appeals are to bring people to the point of faith, not just agreement. We urge people to the point of decision, but we don’t wrestle them over the edge. Anyway, since universities are so largely about professional education nowadays, they aren’t about proving things so much any more. They’re more about the choices we make in using our knowledge. Our choices always show our assumptions or faiths. So we want to see what faiths our colleagues are following. Proof is for lesser matters like facts.

Maybe there is an easier way to say what our goal is. We’ve been indicating that Christians won’t be teaching the university a lot of things they don’t already know. Rather, we’ll be explaining where our common sense came from. The common sense of other, non-Christian civilizations looks very different. Americans need to be reminded of where our values came from, how they fit together, and why naturalism can’t replace them. We can not only show that our common sense reveals our religious heritage, but that the common sense of the West is being adopted much more widely today.

To repeat, Christianity informed Western cultures at such a deep level that many don’t even know there are other value systems. Education has been trying to ignore this for quite a while now, for fear of giving offense to other traditions. But people need to know that their assumptions and values don’t make sense outside a Christian framework.

Now let us consider what Christianity has to say that would get the university’s attention.

Where do religious perspectives best fit in the larger scheme of university interests? By now you can guess that I’ll say it is in questions of the human good. Any discussion of goods leads on toward some ultimate good, which gets into religion, like it or not. As I stressed in my book, the very idea of the human is becoming a problem for the secular research university. There are, right now, several attacks being made against it.

In science, naturalism will not be satisfied until it can rub out the line between the human and the merely animal. Naturalism tries to define Homo sapiens in terms of behaviors, and not in terms of purpose and other personal attributes. Scientists have a duty to see how far they can go with that. The problem is when they tell us that no other understandings would make sense. So they are going beyond a methodological naturalism to a metaphysical naturalism. So that’s like a religion they’re trying to impose on their students. A religion without an ethic.

In the social sciences, the idea of the human is seen as entirely relative to social realities. As they would say, concepts of the human are “socially constructed.” That means that our ideas about values and so forth are just the product of our social and economic relations. So there’s no objectively right or wrong behaviors, only what we’re used to. Yet if you pressed them, they would admit that there were societies they would like to change. What is the basis for that judgment?

In the humanities we have “critical theories” that may dismiss the concept of the human or the humane as “essentialism.” Essentialism means giving mere words a false reality, treating mental concepts as actual things. So they think our intuitions of the human difference are just mental, not substantial. It follows that we shouldn’t try to make our cultural standards universal. This postmodernist campaign is losing its popularity now, because it hasn’t worked. It’s not keeping them from passing judgments on others, and trying to make us change our hegemonic behavior.

Here’s the best evidence that none of these arguments work. Faculty and students who share these doubts about the human would love to become famous for some contribution to these anti-humanist theories. But that, in itself, would prove they were all-too-human. Actually, human concerns are pretty much all we think about. How can we pretend to be indifferent?

So there are all these challenges to the idea of the human difference. But Christians have a rationale for what everyone actually believes. We all act on the belief that we are sort of the point of the universe. After all, nothing else is aware of the universe. So in that way, we are sort of like God. We’re the image of God, as it were. So you almost have to call the human a religious concept.

Belief in the human difference, in human personality or soul, is a matter of faith. We all have intuitions of human distinctiveness, and assumptions about our significance. The trouble with intuitions is that you can’t argue from them. Someone can just object that he doesn’t believe we have free will, or that values are “real,” or that we have ultimate value. But even without arguments, you can ask people, “do you really believe that you’re a robot?” Why do you want to argue with me if there are no truths about any of this? Why argue about the justice of this or that? Why do you favor peace over war, or want to save the environment? People may object that emphasizing the Christian origins of our values is chauvinist. But it will be up to them to offer a more coherent framework. We don’t maintain these points just to boast, but to show that there is a coherent view of the subject. Can they argue that a different view makes as good sense? Religious viewpoints help us define critical terms like equality, sanity, waste, justice, welfare, health, guilt, responsibility, wealth, value, truth, beauty, peace. What is the entirely secular view of all these things?

Effective approaches

We realize that quoting Scripture will probably not be the way to start. It might be startlingly effective at the end of a discussion to quote a Scripture that fit the case exactly. But it isn’t where we start. So how could we get started? There is an approach we can begin to use immediately.

In Chapter 10 of Decline of the Secular University I offered examples of beginning with questions. This is not just to ambush people. Partly, it’s to see if they don’t actually agree with us. So we can begin with questions, rather than proofs, arguments, or doctrines. This will level the field dramatically. You will find yourself in a discussion instead of an argument. You can help others develop more truthful positions, and you might learn something yourself.

We can call this “Questioning Apologetics.” (Like Randy Newman’s “Questioning Evangelism.”) In any practical discussion we can ask, what does that position imply about the human good? That will quickly get into religious considerations. Or we can ask, what is your concept of the good society? Any answer is going to include things that originally came out of Christianity. Does your conversation partner think she’s getting them from somewhere else?

We have an advantage in these exchanges, because when you catch people off guard they fall back on their assumptions. And their assumptions echo a heritage of Christian values that are ingrained in our culture. They may not know there are other value systems. So again, it’s important to have thought about how our values relate to each other. How does individual conscience relate to truth, or concern to tolerance, or justice to mercy? Announcing your values is easy; talking about the relations of values is where you need a larger perspective. Your understanding of Christianity will grow as you prepare yourself for this.

Keep asking about other value systems – naturalistic, utilitarian, Buddhist, or whatever. How far can one push them before they lose us? If you can show the Christian understanding of common ideas, and can do it graciously, people may start anticipating expecting your input, and thereby become more Christian in their thinking.

The idea of “common grace” suggests that people already know the truth. We don’t have to lecture them. They may not always like the truth, because truth brings judgment with it. But we have an ally in people’s consciences. Jesus knew this. When he asked questions it was because he knew people were avoiding a truth they already knew.

What all this means is that arguing from first principles may not be the best approach. That may just raise their defenses. Ask them questions. Pull the truth out of them, instead of pushing it in. Questions like:

  • Doesn’t this whole discussion turn on your view of the human good?
  • Shouldn’t a definition of the human be in terms of our differences from other life forms, and not just our similarities?
  • Where did all our human differences come from, that are not shared by the great apes? Scientists have found 210 of them, so far (Varki and Altheide, Genome Research (2005), 15: 1746-58).
  • Doesn’t the existence of science itself prove that humans transcend the stuff they study?
  • Isn’t it interesting that there has been a return to ideas of a cosmic beginning, which science had not found room for before?
  • What would your ultimate, final value be?

Of course, people will start bouncing your questions back to you, asking how you would answer them. You’ll need to have thought a little about that beforehand. But you don’t need a crushing answer that will flatten theirs. It would be okay to be a little tentative in your response. You’ll get credit for being a thoughtful person, whose religion is not simple-minded. And it will keep the discussion going. You’re not in a battle, but in a mutual exploration. Your goal will not be to embarrass your partner but to open him up.

So this questioning apologetic means arguing toward religion rather than from religion. We don’t have to begin by announcing our first principles. We want to reach those principles eventually, when they seem obvious and inevitable. But we can start from anywhere, asking quite natural questions. You want others to join in an effort at discovery, rather than battling toward victory. This questioning is something that even students could engage in. It would keep their TAs and their instructors on their toes without openly challenging them. People won’t think you’re dumb for not knowing the answers, when they realize that they don’t either.

And, at some point in the discussion, they will ask you what you believe.

The other easy thing one can do, besides asking others to justify their secular positions, is to drop names. When you’re not entirely sure of your arguments, mention some titles or authors who you think make your case. It’s actually the humble thing to do. You’re admitting that others have said things much better than you could, and that you’re not alone. This is how your colleagues operate too, of course. They will then offer their own authorities.

People who see the university from the outside may imagine it to be a scarier place than it is. They may imagine that all faculty have well-thought-out worldviews, and are very secure in their knowledge. This may discourage campus ministers. My experience is that faculty are often insecure. They know that their subspecialty is very narrow. They would probably be all at sea if you asked them to lay out their “worldview.” Many would never have heard the word.
Unfortunately, it is precisely this insecurity that makes some of them abusive toward religion. They think that shows their superiority. You probably hear this bluster more from faculty at middling institutions. They are the most vulnerable, which explains that bluster. In my experience, the real academic stars, who hang out at elite universities, are often the ones who understand religious claims the best.

The language of our witness

The words we use in church are often opaque or misunderstood. To some people they seem ridiculous or even hateful. Looking for new terms could enrich our own understanding. Anyway, we need to think what our words will communicate.

Sometimes, terms become so old-fashioned they seem new and interesting again, when they’re used in unexpected ways. I have seen faith, prayer, soul, blessed used recently, in arresting ways. There may be the hint of quotes around them. But the context will show that you’re not just being ironic. You may have favorite Christian authors who are newly-minting some of the good old terms. And some of our Bible translations are trying to make things strange and interesting.

“Faith” is a word we must use, and not just to mean believing what we can’t understand. Postmodernism popularized the view we operate from different assumptions, perspectives. So colleagues should understand if you said that one’s faith amounts to one’s basic personal and intellectual orientation, the source of your values and hopes.

“Sin” is another word we might be able to use again, for the most radical evil we hear about. “Soul” is being used by some authors in the counseling area. For, as we have said, therapies always have moral and religious aspects. “Blessed” is a word people don’t resist, and might be used to discuss the human good. “Prayer” is a familiar term since the New Age began, to mean communicating with the source of our being. “Saved” and “lost” may be meaningful, in an age where movies are filled with apocalyptic scenarios.

“Creation” is a word that makes more sense in a big bang cosmology than when scientists believed that the universe was eternal. It is interesting that E. O. Wilson, who has been attacking religion for such a long time, has finally produced a work called The Creation: An Appeal to Save Life on Earth. There is nothing within science itself that says that life or the earth should be “saved.” He learned that from elsewhere – from religion to be exact.

Maybe our biggest challenge will be to think when the term “God” becomes appropriate. It might be more effective at the end of a discussion, when it had become inevitable. Using the word “God” at the beginning of an academic discussion is apt to create a static that will drown out anything you have to say.

Who should be responsible for opening the university to religious ideas?

We can start with the fact that it is not the job of the administrators of tax-supported research universities to reintroduce religion into the curriculum or the life of their institutions. They might have little feel for the subject and begrudge the effort. They only need to see to it that religious voices are not censored in advance, but have a chance to see how far their arguments worked. And they need to make sure that hiring, tenure, and promotion are not biased against religious positions. So they will need to be persuaded somehow that religion makes sense, even in academic discussions.

It is religious voices that need to find ways to reintroduce religious concepts and arguments into academic discussions. It is we who must find the language and make the case for religious viewpoints. Introducing required courses in religion is not what we’re talking about. That would stick religion in a closet. Religious concepts and arguments should be popping up all over campus, in various contexts.

Finally, we can ask about the danger of violating First Amendment church-state separation.

If administrators tried to oversee the integration of religion into the curriculum or the life of the university, you could run into problems of religious establishment within tax-supported agencies. It would be their ideas of religion that would guide the effort, their religious ideas that were being “established.” But short of that, there should be no question of an illegal establishment.

Warren Nord’s Religion and American Education (161-8, 249-59) has recently surveyed this problem of legal entanglement. He says the courts have ruled that legal secularization does not mean that education must be anti-religious, but neutral. And this does not just mean neutrality between religions, but neutrality between religion and non-religion as well. So tax-supported schools should not enforce secularist conclusions. Nord thinks that education is not complete when it leaves out such a vital part of our society’s life as religion. Therefore he thinks that neutrality actually requires religious instruction in government schools. Only then will they overcome the “viewpoint discrimination” that courts condemn.

I would add something to that. I think neutrality between religion and non-religion should require studying about secularism too. Studying about religion means creating some distance from it, putting it in a wider context in order to make sense of it. So studying about secularism could do the same. Kids already learn secularism; they need to learn about secularism, as an ideology whose truth claims we need to look into. I’m afraid the proposals to require religion courses might make religion just a thing to think about, instead of a way of thinking. “Religion” is still required in European school curricula, and it has helped reduce the presence of Christianity there.


We cannot make tax-supported universities Christian by arguments. But we can hope they will be “secular” only in the sense of being neutral. We’re not asking that religion rule university discussion, but only that it not be ruled out. Ruling religion out is not secularization but secularism. Universities are supposed to be where we can consider all ideas that can win a hearing. Our academic gate-keepers, whoever they are, will have to acquire a sense of what ideas are likely to be helpful in facing our society’s unresolved questions.

Christians have a stake in our secular universities. As our knowledge grows, it becomes a challenge to make sure it doesn’t do more harm than good. Christians need to be part of the discussion of our most important topics. This discussion needs to go on in universities as well as in journalism and politics. God may use what we say providentially, to fulfill the good purposes with which universities began.


C. John Sommerville is the author of a number of books including The Decline of the Secular University (Oxford University Press, 2006), Religion in the National Agenda (Baylor University Press, 2009), and Religious Ideas for Secular Universities (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishers, 2009).

He is Professor Emeritus of English History at the University of Florida, but his interests have also included the history of the media (How the News Makes Us Dumb. InterVarsity Press, 1999) and of attitudes toward children (The Rise and Fall of Childhood. Vintage, 1990). His writing covers a wide variety of topics. After doing graduate work at the University of Iowa, Sommerville began his teaching in the Western Civilization program at Stanford University, before moving to a permanent position at the University of Florida. A Member of the Institute of Advanced Study at Princeton and Senior Fellow at Harvard’s Center for the Study of World Religions, he also recently contributed to the Pew Younger Scholars’ Mentoring Program.

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