For those of you who don’t know me, I’m Enoch. I recently graduated (class of 2013) with a degree in Religion, and am currently working as a ministry intern at a small community church in Cleveland, Ohio while applying for M.Div programs on the east coast. I’m really interested in the intersection of science and religion (read: philosophy and theology) and the future of higher education in the United States. I hope to eventually spend some time studying German philosophy (read: Ph.D. studies) and participate in building the post-secular universities of the future.
Yes. You heard that right. Post-secular universities.
Let me get right to the point: we are at a momentous moment in the history of higher education. For the past century or so, post-secondary instruction has been dominated by a particular model of relating faith and learning: the “secular university”. Forged in the era of denominational religion, today’s flagship universities participated in a non-sectarian compromise in the name of Christian unity and human progress, agreeing to set aside their theological differences to focus on what everyone could supposedly agree we had in common – the natural world before us. In place of teaching doctrine, colleges introduced moral philosophy; instead of dogmatic tradition – so was thought – we would appeal to reason.
The problem, however, was that blinding oneself to one’s own tradition and background doesn’t solve the problems which came along with it. In hopes of solving the problems of history by eschewing history, liberal (theological, not political) optimism imagined that appealing to universal reason and morality would bring enlightenment and prosperity to the world. And surprise, surprise, it hasn’t. Turns out things like one’s underlying worldview has a larger role to play than people ever thought, and instead of achieving a genuine “neutral” and “secular” space wherein differing worldviews can battle it out, today’s secular universities have merely replaced one sectarian orthodoxy with another.
Where ought we to go from here? Well, for one, the advent of post-modernity has seriously called into question the coherence of the modern liberal project, but without articulating a clear alternative in its place. In the midst of the intellectual vacuum, economic – rather than intellectual – concerns have been playing an increasingly larger role in shaping today’s universities. Tribalism, in the form of sports, takes the place of mission statements in unifying the campus.
On the bright side, however, the collapse of liberal modernity has brought about a “religious turn” in the Academy, opening the door for Christians and other religious scholars to approach their scholarship with their faith commitments in hand. Religion, once a subject to be sneered at in intellectual circles (a relic of past societies), is being reexamined with earnest. Christian colleges, rediscovering the importance of the life of the mind, are experiencing a new renaissance.
But what of Christians in the rest of the country’s universities? Is the best we can do to huddle in the face of the rising secular order? If the increasing number of religious liberty cases arising from all quarters means anything, it’s going to be a long, hard fight for Christians in the public square from now on. Is our best course of action to resign ourselves to the very real possibility that Christians will, for the first time since the conversion of Constantine, not be in the halls of power? Should our strategy be, in the words of sociologist James Davidson Hunter, to cultivate a “faithful presence” in our society?
There are many who are calling for such a strategy. In the face of rising worldliness in the Roman Empire, many faithful Christians fled to the monasteries in the pursuit of holiness. Many argue for a similar approach today. Consider, for instance, the prominent Catholic philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre, who calls for the faithful to pursue the “Benedict option” in the face of modernity’s fragmentation. Or listen to Methodist theologian Stanley Hauerwas, who, drawing from Anabaptist thought, advances the thesis that Christians should consider the church an “alternate politics”.
It is my contention that this does not need to be our answer, that the situation of the church today is quite different than any previous moment in its history. The modern project may have faltered, but it is not altogether without its strengths. It is in a renewed modernity that our future – and the future of our universities – lies.
That this is an ambitious project would be an understatement, yet I hope that some of my reflections here might bring more of you on board. It is a pluralistic world we live in, and any way forwards must take into account that reality. Future posts will attempt to address the philosophical, theological, and historical questions which any attempt to build the post-secular universities of the future must consider. My thought is far from fully developed, and my hope is that many of you will walk with me as I try to work out this vision.