All posts by Enoch H. Kuo

Enoch graduated from Princeton University in 2013 with a degree in Religion. He's an avid fan of N.T. Wright and gets uncannily excited by dead German dudes with names like Hegel and Schleiermacher, being interested in philosophy and strengthening Christian witness in the post-secular universities of the future. He is currently studying for an M.Div. at Princeton Theological Seminary and preparing to apply to Ph.D. programs in theology.

Re-Thinking Bible “Study”: William Rainey Harper’s “Biblical” University

This is the first post in a multi-post series reflecting on the practice of “Bible study” as it is commonly practiced in its diverging forms  among biblical scholars and students at universities.

In 1899, the Old Testament scholar and founding president of the University of Chicago – William Rainey Harper – invited the age’s most famous revivalist and lay evangelist – Dwight L. Moody – to speak on campus, citing that

I do not understand, of course, that you, as a matter of fact, represent any other position than that which is actually maintained here at the University. The differences between us are merely differences of detail. [1]

To those of us more familiar with the very differing directions that the University of Chicago and Moody Bible College have taken since, this is a  statement that requires some unpacking. But for all the differences between William Rainey Harper and Dwight L. Moody, one thing underlay both their visions: the centrality of the Bible.

This might be a bit unexpected for those of us used to hearing narratives of secularization in which the development of research universities went hand in hand with decreasing religiosity. It also certainly doesn’t help that Chicago is now famous for its history-of-religions approach towards the faith that both invented and defined the departments of “Religious Studies” whose historical-critical approaches to the Bible are often alternatively lamented and criticized by evangelical campus ministries. In retrospect, the differences of detail Harper pointed out might have been quite a bit larger than he had anticipated.

More people today, however, are familiar with Moody’s winsome, practical approach to Christianity than Harper’s academic version, but both have had an incalculable impact on our approach towards Scripture today. William Rainey Harper was one of the first Old Testament scholars in the Americas to adopt the historical-critical method and to promote the reading of the Scriptures in the original languages. Much of the contemporary seminary curriculum today was innovated by his reform of Chicago’s affiliated seminary (now the Divinity School) – requiring practical field education, the study of the Bible in its original languages and contexts, a class on the English Bible, and (unfortunately) expecting seminarians to pay their own way through as training in financial management.

Harper’s skill as an administrator and educator were unparalleled. During his days as an Old Testament professor at Yale (the first full time professor of “Semitic Languages and Literature”), he was  running a correspondence Hebrew course that managed to draw tens of thousands of subscribers and simultaneously serving as one of the primary organizers of the Chautauqua Literary and Scientific Society at Chautauqua Lake, New York which would give birth to the entire idea of “continuing education”. Harper’s experience at Chautauqua would lead him to innovate with the idea of transferrable credits, laying the foundation for the system of institutions we today know as the “community college”. At the University of Chicago, Harper made the individual researcher more respectable than ever before (and also attracted all the best talent) by setting a new standard for professorial salaries that elevated the status of faculty above that of the schoolteacher. Harper’s deep involvement in so many things meant that, at some point, his correspondence alone constituted half of all letters processed at the New Haven post office!

Institutional accomplishments aside, what was perhaps most important about Harper was his singular vision for the birth of Biblical universities that would serve as the linchpin of a new American society grounded on the worldview and world of the Bible. Historian James P. Winds recounts in his book on Harper’s life and accomplishments how Harper’s commitment to building the University of Chicago can be seen as a basic working out of his commitment to the historical-critical method [2]. George Marsden, in his Soul of the American University, characterizes the University of Chicago as essentially the working out of the ideals of a “low-church” university, a Baptist university in all but name [3].

We in the 21st century dwell in the aftermath of the fundamentalist-modernist controversies in which questions of biblical inerrancy have skewed our perspective on how religiously driven and conservative the original rise of Biblical criticism in America was. Early advocates such as Charles A. Briggs saw themselves as continuing the work of the Reformation in letting the tools of Biblical criticism help contemporary Christians recover the words of the Bible itself by clearing away the “dead wood, dry and brittle stubble, and noxious weeds” of “dead orthodoxy, every species of effete ecclesiasticism, all merely formal morality, all those dry and brittle fences that constitute denominationalism, and are the barriers of Church Unity” [4]. “It will ere long become clear to the Christian people,” Briggs would insist,

that the Higher Criticism has rendered an inestimable service to this generation and to the generations to come. What has been destroyed has been the fallacies and conceits of theologians; the obstructions that have barred the way of literary men from the Bible. Higher Criticism has forced its way into the Bible itself and brought us face to face with the holy contents, so that we may see and know whether they are divine or not. Higher Criticism has not contravened any decision of any Christian council, or any creed of any Church, or any statement of Scripture itself. It has rather brought the long-neglected statement of the Westminster Confession into prominence: “The authority of the Holy Scripture, for which it ought to be believed and obeyed, dependenth not upon the testimony of any man or church, but wholly upon God (who is truth itself), the author thereof; and therefore it is to be received, because it is the word of God.” [5]

Harper would combine this hope for a Biblical renewal of religion with optimism in the new research university ideal (before the advent of research universities, American colleges were more focused on developing “gentlemen”) to come up with a new Biblical vision for American democratic society built upon a new “biblical science.” In the words of James P. Wind, Harper transformed “the Holy Land of Palestine” into “God’s great laboratory, devoted to the solution of a single problem: how to live. In this reading, the Old Testament became a scientific notebook kept by a host of ‘laboratory assistants’ who labored in different periods of experimentation'” [6]. Harper would rejoice in

The elevation of the study of biblical history and literature to a level, scientifically considered, with that of other history and literature. We may frankly acknowledge that the methods employed almost universally twenty-five years ago in connection with the study of the Scriptures – methods still in vogue in many quarters – were unworthy, not only of the subject itself, but of any place in an institution of higher learning. [7]

Harper’s insistence on a “scientific” approach to the Scriptures was part and parcel of his vision for a “democratic” society built around the study of the Old Testament because the civilization of the Hebrews represented the most well-kept resources for understanding the laws of human progression and development:

In the course of their long-continued history they [the Hebrews] passed through nearly every form of life, from that of savages to that of highest civilization, and they lived under nearly every form of government, from the patriarchal, through the tribal, the monarchical, and the hierarchical. The history of no other nation furnishes parallels of so varied or so suggestive a character. [8]

This critical and scientific study of the history and literature of the Hebrew people would serve to improve the state of religious education, which, in lieu of such methods, was of a lesser quality. Harper lamented the bifurcation of minds that accompanied many well educated people of his day:

A teacher in the public schools, trained in all the modern methods of pedagogy, will do work of a most modern and scientific character through five days of the week. That same teacher in a Sunday school will give instruction which is of an infinitely lower grade, and will undertake the religious work with a lack of knowledge of her subject which she would regard as disgraceful in connection with her regular work throughout the week. [9]

Harper was deeply driven by an evolutionary progressive vision of the development of society in which the tools of scientific research and study would lay bare before humanity the laws of human life and civilization. In order for these to triumph, however, humans had a duty to transcend the traditions and superstitions that they continued to inherit and spread. Universities were supposed to serve as the “prophets of democracy” that would take the lead in spreading the forces of enlightenment and education across the land [10].

There was, in other words, an inherent elitism in Harper’s vision for a Biblical science. The importance of critical methods is that they are set over and against “uncritical” and traditional approaches characterized by the current state of religious education. For the ultimate rise and triumph of a scientific civilization, these “unscientific” ways of doing things would have to go.

This elitism manifests itself in a number of various ways, i.e. a reconstruction of the canon into various historical strata based on historical reconstruction of the Biblical texts into various “sources”. Instead of working with traditional demarcations such as the Pentateuch, one ends up with an exilic P source, a Josianic D source, a united monarchy J source, and a northern kingdom E source. Confusing sections in the text which would traditionally lead readers to search for intertextual syntheses are now explained as the product of differing theologies. The binding of Isaac (Gen 22), for instance, has seen interpretations that actually suggest that, at one strata in its history, the sacrifice actually went through and that the final form of the text is actually a composite mash-up of at least two disparate sources [11].

I do not mean to suggest that all critical scholarship is necessarily elitist – indeed, one can say that the emphasis on plurality in the Bible has done a good job pushing back against false syntheses that have been made – but insofar as the enterprise of Biblical scholarship in the U.S. has been heavily shaped by the visions of individuals like Harper, it is important for any attempt to grapple with the question of how Christians ought to study the Bible to be conscious of the ways in which a good number of scholars have indeed been socialized into a particular way of practicing their craft which reflects a particular vision for society (and its variations). Insofar as the University of Chicago has been one of the preeminent influences on departments of Religious Studies throughout the United States – and indeed, more than just that, based on how often the “Chicago Style” of citation is used – an awareness of this history goes a long way to explain current tensions between biblical scholars and Christian laypersons today [12].

One of the biggest challenges confronting any attempt to reform higher education today comes out of addressing the deeply (heterodox) theological roots underlying today’s system of higher education. This history has tended to be obscured due to the kinds of stories that today’s secular universities like to tell about themselves (usually some variation of some slow evolutionary progression of the powers of reason and free inquiry over the forces of religion and dogmatism). And insofar as the project of the Reformation is tied up with the project of scholarship, Christians today who are serious about Bible study are going to need to be serious about the academy and the ways in which it has and continues to shape our understandings of what it means to study the Bible.

I have tried, in this post, to lay out some of the background behind why there might be a kind of “divide” between lay and academic approaches to Bible study in the U.S.: the academic approach to the study of the Scriptures has been heavily shaped by an elitist vision for a scientific society that is grounded in an evolutionary conception of history that sees itself as necessary sublating “tradition” and “superstitions” of the past as part and parcel of a true recovery of a Biblical society. In our next post, we will try to discuss a bit more the conception of study that makes this possible, the conception of scientific “methods” which permit for the isolation and examination of texts in abstraction from one’s one social context, the ideal of scholarly “critical detachment” or “objectivity”.

This allows us then to consider what is probably the most manifest irony in all of this – the ways in which lay bible studies spawned out of a reaction against the elitism of academic Bible studies often share very similar assumptions, but merely flip the values around. If Protestants are to be faithful to their commitment to the Scriptures as the final norm and authority of the church, we are going to have to find ways to transcend the limitations fostered upon us by the modern mindset. Without being able to substantiate my claims here, I want to suggest that the very idea of being “modern” (and thus at a divide from “the ancients”) plays an important role in alienating Christians from approaching the texts of Scripture as living texts, blinding us to the ways in which we continue to be surrounded by the great cloud of witnesses with whom we are still contemporaries.

[1] Quoted in James Gilbert, Perfect Cities: Chicago’s Utopias of 1893 (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1991), 202.

[2] See James P. Wind, The Bible and the University: The Messianic Vision of William Rainey Harper (Atlanta: Scholar’s Press, 1987).

[3] Indeed, the reason Rockefeller had wanted to endow a university was so that the Baptists could have a flagship university of their own comparable to the other mainline denominations of the time. See George Marsden, The Soul of the American University: From Protestant Establishment to Established Nonbelief (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994).

[4] Cf. the inaugural address of Charles A. Briggs, “The Authority of Holy Scripture,” upon in-statement as the Edward Robinson Professor of Biblical Theology at Union Theological Seminary in 1891. See Briggs, Charles A. The Authority of Holy Scripture: An Inaugural Address (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1981), 66-67.

[5] ibid., 33-34.

[6] Winds, The Bible and the University, 63-64.

[7] Harper, William Rainey. The Trend In Higher Education (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1905), 56.

[8] Ibid., 12.

[9] Ibid., 61-62.

[10] To expand upon this point would take us far afield, but here are a few quotations to whet one’s appetite. In short, Harper’s ecclesiology replaced the kingdom of God with the kingdom of man in the form of democracy, with the university in place of the church as its privileged torchbearer:

Democracy has been given a mission to the world, and it is of no uncertain character. I wish to show that the university is the prophet of this democracy and, as well, its priest and its philosopher; that, in other words, the university is the Messiah of the democracy, its to-be-expected deliverer. (p. 12)

Is democracy a religion? No. Has democracy a religion? Yes; a religion with its god, its altar, and its temple, with its code of ethics and its creed. Its god is mankind, humanity; its altar, home; its temple, country. The one doctrine of democracy’s creed is the brotherhood, and consequently the equality of man; its system of ethics in a single word, righteousness. …it was Jeremiah of olden time who first preached the idea of individualism, the idea that later became the fundamental thought in the teaching of Jesus Christ, the world’s greatest advocate of democracy; while the supplementary idea of solidarity, the corollary of individualism, was first preached by Ezekiel, and likewise later developed into Christianity. (p.21)

He [the priest] is the mediator between the individual and the ideal, whether abstract or concrete, which constitutes his God. For the god of each individual is that individual’s highest conception of man, his ideal man. The priest of democracy’s religion is therefore a mediator between man and man; for man is the constituent element in democracy, and humanity is the ideal of all its aspirations. (p.22)

Now, let the dream of democracy be likewise of that expected one [i.e. the Messiah]; this time an expected agency which, in union with all others, will usher in the dawn of the day when the universal brotherhood of man will be understood and accepted by all men. Meanwhile… the university spirit which, with every decade, dominates the world more fully, will be doing the work of the prophet, the priest, and the philosopher of democracy, and will continue to do that work until it shall be finished, until a purified and exalted democracy shall have become universal. (p.34)

All excerpts are taken from Harper’s essay “The University and Democracy” in The Trend in Higher Education.

[11] What is even more fascinating is the way in which these interpretations are not all unique to the modern era, many finding precedents in Rabbinic midrash and exegesis, suggesting that there may be a Jewish conception of the study of Scripture at play here. For an example of someone who reads the Abraham story as I have mentioned, read this article: “When Abraham Murdered Isaac”.

[12] This, of course, is not the only way in which Biblical scholarship has been practiced in the U.S. Conservative (and fundamentalist) reactions against the rise of higher criticism has promoted an alternative approach towards the study of the Bible that tends to see Bible study as attempting to discover eternal truths (understood in propositional terms) revealed to man by God’s direct inspiration. Interestingly enough, one can also see the influence of a form of scientism (though one that is more benign) on this conception of science, as the original progenitors of such a view (the Old Princeton school of theology) were trying to come up with a way in which they could conceive of theology as a “science” in a way akin to the various “sciences” of their age. Influenced more by Scottish Common Sense philosophy, which saw truths as mostly static and eternal, their dispute with the new Biblical scholars as much reflects the rise of more progressive and evolutionary approaches to the question of truth in the aftermath of Darwin as a matter of theological dispute.

The Birth of the American University

Probably one of the most significant shifts in the way we think about higher education today has resulted from the widespread questioning of the secularization thesis which had long held sway over the way we conceive of the history of higher education. The thesis, in the academic context, typically maintained an inverse relationship between the advance of science and continued adherence to religious beliefs. In other words, as science progressed and continued to shape and improve our lives, the need for religion in people’s lives would decrease and eventually disappear. In keeping with this narrative, histories of higher education in the United States have tended to focus on various episodes which would demonstrate the slow working-out of the secularization principle as institutions such as Princeton University (formerly The College of New Jersey) morphed from religious colleges deeply shaped by colonial piety to “secular universities” which trumpet the values of critical thinking, societal improvement, and progress.

Not only is this narrative completely wrong, but it has also seriously affected the way that Christians have tended to approach the task of scientific research by framing the question in terms of “faith” and “science”. Whereas those who touted the secularization thesis tended to see the former as disappearing as the latter gains ascendency, Christians engaging in the latter tend to take an apologetic stance which insists that the two are somehow “compatible”. This, however, tends to obscure the very real philosophical and theological issues at play in the social practice of science. Even if the practice itself – after the innovation of making physics without metaphysics possible with Boyle’s invention of experimental science [1] – may be metaphysically minimalist (i.e. one merely needs to commit to some form of “methodological naturalism”), the who, what, where, when, why and how of practitioners engaging in the practice is often quite theologically fraught [2]. In the words of Abraham Kuyper, “Does not everyone who practices science as a man and not as a measuring stick view things through a subjective lens and always fill in the unseen part of the circle according to subjective opinion?” [3]

This becomes increasingly clear once we actually go back to the history and take a look at how various important figures in the history of higher education conceived of their work. Take, for instance, the “Father of the American University”, Daniel Coit Gilman (1831-1908). Gilman played a crucial role in the founding of Yale’s Sheffield School of Science, was essentially the founding president of what is today known as UC Berkeley, the founding president of the Johns Hopkins University – the first genuine graduate school program in the US, meaning that a huge number of the first generation of Ph.D.s given in the U.S. stemmed from his school – as well as the founding president of the Carnegie Institute (which funded scientific research). Charles Eliot, the president of Harvard (yes, the Charles Eliot of the Harvard Classics fame), admitted that it was not really until Gilman’s Johns Hopkins came along that Harvard’s graduate program actually figured out what it was doing [4].

Gilman was a man possessed with great singular vision, a vision which would forever leave the landscape of higher education in the United States changed. Before Gilman, American higher education was dominated by various denominational colleges which saw their role as the formation of the next generation of societal elites by inculcating them with the knowledge of the classical tradition. The idea of the “liberal arts” – those studies taken by those who are “free” of the need to labor for their livings – was that of the mastery of a particular body of knowledge which would provide the leaders of society with the common sensibilities with which they would be able to govern and serve. As such, lectures would be supplemented with “recitations” in which students would be tested on how well they were retaining and understanding the material which they were being taught.

Gilman, on the other hand, possessed a quite dynamic vision for the great universities of the future. In the aftermath of the failure of the religious and intellectual elite to broker some kind of solution to the slavery problem, he proposed a move away from the formation of classes of college graduates towards a focus on excellent individuals – from whatever background [5] – who would give their lives to the advance of Science. Instead of merely passing on knowledge, universities now had the role of advancing it via research. Instead of the recitation, one would now build the university around the experimental methods of the laboratory. Thus, the Johns Hopkins University would begin, not as an undergraduate institution, but as a graduate school, with the undergraduate college only added later as a result of popular pressure from the citizens of Baltimore. From the beginning, the advance, conservation, refining, and dissemination of knowledge would be the aim of Gilman’s new university, which would stand at the center of an entire network of new scientific institutions made possible by the philanthropy of the nouveau riche – libraries, museums, academies, technical schools, and scientific societies. These would, in Gilman’s words, orbit around a strong university as “planets around the sun”. What, for Gilman, was the significance of these new universities?

It is a reaching out for a better state of society than now exists; it is a dim but an indelible impression of the value of knowledge; it is a craving for intellectual and moral growth; it is a longing to interpret the laws of creation; it means a wish for less misery among the poor, less ignorance in schools, less bigotry in religion, less suffering in the hospital, less fraud in business, less folly in politics; it means more study of nature, more love of art, more lessons from history, more security in property, more health in cities, more virtue in the country, more wisdom in legislation; it implies more intelligence, more happiness, more religion. [6]

Interpreting the laws of creation. Less bigotry in religion. More religion. Historians of higher education in the clutches of the secularization thesis have tended to interpret these and other similar statements made by Gilman and his fellow university builders in the late 19th century as mere rhetoric made for the sake of winning the support of the yet-pious populate while secretly pushing the science that would put an end to such superstitious nonsense. Gilman and his companions did indeed seek to combat dogmatic religion, but they did so by articulating an alternate theological vision. Indeed, as historian D.G. Hart argues, Gilman preached an “intellectual gospel” that did for the natural sciences what the “social gospel” would do for the social sciences – articulate a theological justification for them that would stand roughly in continuity with the religious background of American evangelicalism while adapting to developments in science such as that of evolutionary theory [7].

From Gilman’s perspective, he and his colleagues were standing at the dawn of another new era in theological development. Theology, once dominated by dogma, was given a shake-up in the Renaissance with the re-introduction of the study of the classics into the university curriculum. Now, the sciences were clambering for a hearing. And just as the dogmatic theologians persecuted those influenced by the classical learning at first (i.e. the Reformation), now the defenders of the classical education would persecute the sciences. He and his friends believed that they were in the midst of witnessing “the most striking evolution of morals and religion in the history of our race” in which the legends and myths of Dogmatic Theology were being swept away in favor of a purified form of Religion centered around scientific criticism and the “comparative method.” In the words of his Yale classmate Andrew Dickson White,

The races dominant in religion and morals have been lifted from the idea of a ‘chosen people’ stimulated and abetted by their tribal god in every sort of cruelty and injustice, to the conception of a vast community in which the fatherhood of God overarches all, and the brotherhood of man permeates all. [8]

The language of the “fatherhood of God” and the “brotherhood of man” should be familiar to anyone who has passing familiarity with what would eventually be known as “theological liberalism” at the dawn of the 20th century. While it would be unfair to label Gilman a “liberal”, he certainly shared the sympathies of the proto-liberal movement known as the “New Theology” at the end of the 19th century which drew inspiration from the revised Romanticism of Horace Bushnell, the evolutionary theory of Joseph LeConte, and the preaching of the popular pastor Lyman Abbott. At the core of Gilman’s convictions was not that science was compatible with theology, but rather, that the work of scientific research was theology.

The wisdom of God was not to be discovered by reflection on Jesus Christ – in other words, in Christology – but by the study of nature. Indeed, whereas Paul of Tarsus would sing a paean of praise to Christ, the wisdom and knowledge of God in whom, for whom, and to whom are all things, Gilman would sing his hymns to Science, mediator between God and man. Where Paul would declare that it was the cross of Christ which has broken down the “dividing walls of hostility” between men, Gilman would declare that the study of comparative linguistics

has broken down the middle wall of partition between kindred races and kindred studies; …it has taught us that the study of language is one study. As man is the same in all ages, the history of man is one in all ages. [9]

In a speech on the new word that had arisen to describe the new task of study, “research”, Gilman would offer his gloss on the Nicene Creed:

The study of nature has usurped the throne of human authority… so that many men of many minds find in an ancient Credo the best expression of their knowledge and their faith: ‘I believe in God the Father Almighty, maker of Heaven and Earth, and of all things visible and invisible.’

He does not go on to confess faith in Jesus in the next line. Nor the Holy Spirit. Though if one asked, there is no doubt that Gilman would readily affirm faith. The election of Christ and the fellowship of the church, however, did not play a huge role in Gilman’s theology. Indeed, having replaced Christology with the study of the world – nature and history – there is no need to wade into divisive sectarian controversies over theological details such as Christology when one can merely appeal to what everyone can see in common – the world around us. In making this move, Gilman was by no means innovating. Indeed, he was merely re-articulating the Enlightenment synthesis that had already dominated American colleges as early as the American Revolution in a new form. Instead of teaching theology, on which various Christians disagreed, America’s early evangelicals (this is a comprehensive term that includes both theological conservatives and liberals who inherit the tradition) emphasized moral philosophy and natural theology/apologetics instead.

Unhinged from Christology, Pneumatology (the study of the Holy Spirit) took a different turn as well. Instead of being centered about the church, all mankind (gender-specific language intended) was brought into a “brotherhood” for the advancement of “civilization”. Yet, in a way, this was merely a further development of the Halfway Covenant of the Puritan state-church synthesis which was, in its turn, a legacy of Constantinian Christianity. Instead of a distinction between the church and the world grounded in an already-but-not-yet eschatology, Gilman and his colleagues would operate from a post-millenial conception of the progressive organic “evolution” of the kingdom of God through the course of human history and culture. There is good reason that today’s academy is dominated by conversations about the legacy of colonialism vacillating between affirming the goods brought about by modern “civilization” and condemning the arrogance of Western imperialism. The very foundations of the American university are grounded in a vision for a universal church of mankind’s progress and civilization.

Science, politics, economics, and religion all fused together into Gilman’s vision of a better humanity. The truth of America’s first great “secular” universities is not that they were without theology, but that they were dominated by a particular one, one that blinded itself to its own background and presuppositions. Little wonder, then, that the university would experience “secularization” once the first generation of scholars, aware of their religious motivations, died off. There is, as such, no non-theological answer to the question of “faith and science”. Any Christian who wants to adequately get at the roots of the problem will need to deal with the reasons why the various positions eventually adopted were ultimately adopted. For the American church, this means, at the very least, grappling with the legacy of the Enlightenment, the question of the relationship between church and state, and slavery. In doing so, one finds oneself confronting theological issues that have gone unresolved as far back as the Reformation and, indeed, perhaps even as early as the formulation of the Nicene Creed.

There are no easy answers to these questions, but they must be asked. The solution to bad theology is not no theology, but good theology. If, at the heart of America’s research universities is a particular theological vision of Christian participation in science, only an alternative vision will suffice. Only thus will we move beyond the “faith and science” dispute and the benign attempts of various Christian apologists to resolve the issue without really hitting to the deep theological presuppositions at the heart of the question.


[1] Historians of science Steven Shapin and Simon Schaffer discuss the political/epistemological implications of the debate between Robert Boyle and Thomas Hobbes in the 17th century. The fact that we see the former as a scientist and the latter as a political theorist despite the fact that both were engaged in political and epistemological reflections goes to show how much our contemporary debate is shaped by the results of the kind of sphere differentiation that is made possible by the victory of Boyle’s paradigm, in which his “metaphysically neutral” experimental method triumphed over Hobbes’ “metaphysically laden” natural philosophical approach. See Leviathan and the Air-Pump: Hobbes, Boyle, and the Experimental Life (1985).

[2] One of the more fascinating attempts to understand modernity can be found in Bruno Latour’s We Have Never Been Modern (1991), in which he suggests that modernity attempted to build society based on a nature-culture distinction that would differentiate between various spheres in society in which various principles would hold sway, but that this differentiation remained blind to the way in which various “hybrids” continued to cross-contaminate spheres such that they never completely operated according to their supposedly purifying principle. In other words, while we often think of politics, science, economics, religion, etc. as demarcating different sectors of society in which differing principles reign (i.e. economic principles in the market, scientific principles in science, political principles in politics, etc.), this has never been the case. Science has always been economic, political, and religious. And the other spheres as well, despite the fact that we try our hardest to police the boundaries between them. (Note: This blog roughly divides into categories which have stemmed from such a modern synthesis).

The problem with most attempts to reconcile faith and science (indeed, the very metaphor of “reconciliation” itself ought to be suspect) is that they have essentially bought into this “modern” division of labor and see their task as trying to demarcate exactly where the boundaries between two different realms lies. These strategies fail insofar as they continue to share the same assumptions as the view(s) they wish to contest. Any genuine attempt to do justice to the issue will need to bring many of the categories with which we use to interpret our history into question and try to more faithfully trace out the various neglected dimensions of our contemporary existence.

[3] cf. Kuyper’s essay “Common Grace in Science”.

[4] His words in a speech given in honor of Gilman’s accomplishments. “[T]he graduate school of Harvard University, [which] started feebly in 1870 and 1871, did not thrive until the example of Johns Hopkins forced our faculty to put their strength into the development of our instruction for graduates. And what was true of Harvard was true of every other university in the land which aspired to create an advanced school of arts and sciences.”

[5] The democratizing impulse present in Gilman would become even more pronounced in his friend, Andrew Dickson White, who would become the founding president of Cornell and a key player in orchestrating the passage of the Morrill Land Grant Act that would establish most of the land grant universities that make up today’s State universities.

[6] See Gilman’s inaugural address as president of Johns Hopkins.

[7] See Hart, D.G. “Faith and Learning in the Age of the University: The Academic Ministry of Daniel Coit Gilman” in The Secularization of the Academy ed. George Marsden and Bradley J. Longfield (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992), 107-145.

[8] White, Andrew Dickson. A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom, reprint edition (Gloucester, MA: Peter Smith, 1978), 394-395. I have benefited from Mark Noll’s short essay on the figure: Noll, Mark. “Science, Religion, and A.D. White: Seeking Peace in the ‘Warfare Between Science and Theology’” The Biologos Foundation, accessed Dec. 16th, 2014,

[9] cf. Gilman’s inaugural address as president of the University of California.

The University Beyond Schooling

Many students, especially those who are poor, intuitively know what the schools do for them. They school them to confuse process and substance. Once these become blurred, a new logic is assumed: the more treatment there is, the better are the results; or, escalation leads to success. The pupil is thereby “schooled” to confuse teaching with learning, grade advancement with education, a diploma with competence, and fluency with the ability to say something new. His imagination is “schooled” to accept service in place of value. Medical treatment is mistaken for health care, social work for the improvement of community life, police protection for safety, military poise for national security, the rat race for productive work. Health, learning, dignity, independence, and creative endeavor are defined as little more than the performance of the institutions which claim to serve these ends, and their improvement is made to depend on allocating more resources to the management of hospitals, schools, and other agencies in question.

-Ivan Illich, Deschooling Society (1971)

I’ve spent quite a bit of time this past year thinking and reading about the history and meaning of the university, and one of the things that has increasingly struck me is the radical shift in the way universities have been conceptualized in the past couple of centuries. Although I’m still in the process of formulating my thoughts on this shift – and probably will be for quite a while yet – one particularly fruitful way of characterizing the change is to see institutions of higher learning as being caught up in a general movement to create a “scientific society”. This is, I would note, not the same thing as creating a “technological society” (for those already reaching for their Heidegger). Rather, it has a lot to do with the new normative social role that university practices were increasingly expected to play in shaping modern society – especially those associated with the new instrumental science that had reached new institutional heights with the incorporation of the “laboratory” into the university vocabulary. We have the German Idealists to thank for that.

We still live in the aftermath of that shift today, a shift that makes us take the things that a few isolated scientists making measurements through various instruments do and see as more determinative of what we consider to be reality than our common sense intuitions themselves. This table I’m sitting at? It certainly appears solid, but we know that it’s actually mostly empty space, populated by a neat lattice of protons, neutrons, and electrons arranged in such a way so as to produce the electrostatic repulsion that keeps my computer from falling through. How do we know? Science.

This is important for a number of reasons. Firstly, it crowds out the place that worship had at the center of the Christian conception of reality. What is most real about markets is not so much what various economists coming up with “scientific” theories of value say about the nature of distribution in the midst of scarcity, but the economy of gift and exchange that celebrated every Sunday in the liturgy as the church offers their sacrifice of thanksgiving in response to God’s gracious giving of his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. What’s most real about humans and social relations is not the current dominant sociological theory (evolutionary, functionalist, structural, etc.), but the communion of the Holy Spirit which derives its life from Jesus Christ Himself. What’s at the center of reality is not quarks, gluons, photons, and Higgs bosons smashing into one another, but a Trinitarian god who has swept humanity up into the eternal perichoretic dance of self-giving love. This is not to say that there is no place for various academic theories about the nature of reality, but rather that they only truly find their place within the larger context of the liturgy. That is how the academic vocation can be understood as an aspect of a sinner’s response to the free grace of God.

Much more can be written on this topic, but I want to consider the second major implication of the scientific society as it has often been worked out – the displacement of the church from the center of society (indeed, the idea that society, or culture, or religion, or politics somehow has more reality than Christ or the Church is a product of this shift). Ostensibly, this puts the university at the center of society, but as any historian of the university would all-too-readily admit, the ideal of “academic freedom” has long remained illusive for all but the most fortunate of institutions. In the place of the church, the university has often been subordinated to the interests of state and, increasingly in our society, economics. It is in this context that one can understand the quote with which I opened this post.

Ivan Illich was a 20th century Catholic philosopher and priest who spent a good chunk of his time leveling a devastating critique of the ways in which the Vatican and Western nation-states were engaged in and complicit with modern theories of “development” and dealing with “global poverty”. In doing so, he heavily critiqued the ways in which the rhetoric of “equal opportunity” ended up becoming a new way of assigning social ranking by educational attainment in abstraction from one’s personal life history, constructing new definitions of “poverty” in its wake. “Equal educational opportunity,” he writes,

is, indeed, both a desirable and a feasible goal, but to equate this with obligatory schooling is to confuse salvation with the Church. School has become the world religion of a modernized proletariat, and makes futile promises of salvation to the poor of the technological age. The nation-state has adopted it, drafting all citizens into a graded curriculum leading to sequential diplomas not unlike the initiation rituals and hieratic promotions of former times.

In the place of mandatory schooling, Illich articulated the beginnings of what he termed “network education”, an approach that focused less on making sure that schools had enough money for “custodial care, indoctrination, and the selection of social roles” (i.e. “physical plants, curricula, teachers, and administrators”) and more on trying to use technology to connect people with skills with people who wanted to learn skills, one of the basic drives behind the MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) movement today.

A fuller evaluation of Illich’s project will have to wait for another day, but for now, it is enough for me to note the ways in which his diagnosis of the situation, though coming from a very different place, dovetails with my own interpretation. High-flying rhetoric aside, one finds in Illich the concern that “basic needs have been translated by society into scientifically produced commodities [so that] poverty is defined by standards which the technocrats can change at will.” Poverty, instead of being defined in terms of our universal condition towards God (with our social and economic needs a reflection and expression of that), is now defined by the new “priests” of society, the Ph.D. toting political scientist. What is most real is no longer the confession of the penitent and cry of the oppressed before God, but the “objective” evaluation of the academic. (Note: post-colonial theory has taken note of much of these critiques, but often falls to the trap of either uncritically affirming local traditions or failing to articulate coherent alternatives that escape the dialectic).

There are no easy solutions to the problems that I have tried to highlight. There are legitimate Christian reasons for wanting a scientific society. Indeed, a glance at the history of the development of a research ideal in the United States is intricately tied up with the history of Protestantism in the nation. There are also legitimate Christian reasons for seeking the (relative) freedom of the academy from the entanglements of church, state, and the business world.

I think it is safe to say, however, that the “science and religion at war” narrative is woefully insufficient for our needs. Ivan Illich, for one, gives a trenchant analysis of the kind of society that has resulted from positivist optimism about science. If the institutions of church and academy are to be distinct in our society, the relation between the two should not be that of replacement. But what should the relationship between the two of them be? And what might that mean for how universities engage the task of education?

Those of you who have followed thus far might already have sensed the spirit of Abraham Kuyper hovering over my words. In Kuyper, one finds a different path than the one that American society has trod – a separation of church and state that nevertheless has a role for the church to play in the rest of society without also having to dominate it, and a vision for scholarship in society that nevertheless finds its ultimate foundation in the divine decree.

As I have already hinted above, worship might play an important role in rethinking higher education such that it is not merely dominated by standards, curriculum, and degrees. For Christians, the communal pursuit of truth and sanctification that takes place at the university finds its ultimate grounding in the eucharistic worship of the church on the first day of the week. Communal. That brings up another key aspect that is often lost in the schooling-mindset that tends to dominate discussions of education today. Friendship plays a key role in the life of learning that tends to be ignored theoretically if not in practice.

Living faithfully in a scientific society, however, is not a task to be sneezed at. Shifts in our conception of history have affected the way we conceive of Scriptural authority. Theology, having been formally separated from philosophy, struggles to find its voice in-between the academy and church. Emphasis on objects and the pursuit of “objectivity” has left us trying to explain the organic in the terms of the inorganic. Statistics and probability have made the pursuit of “normalcy” normative. All these and more have radically changed the way that Christians approach living out the life of faith. Yet the reality at the center of it all remains the same: the love of God for his people, unchanging, unvarying, without limits, and without end.

Scholarship as a Spiritual Discipline

Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will. -Romans 12:2

I recently finished reading Mike Higton’s A Theology of Higher Education, in which he takes upon himself the ambitious project of giving a theological account of the modern secular university as a community of virtue with the ends of forming saints for the kingdom of God. I say “ambitious” because of the many prominent critiques of contemporary universities coming from such luminary figures as Alasdair MacIntyre and Stanley Hauerwas suggesting that today’s universities, devoid of their historical commitment to the Church and her tradition, are for the most part incoherent and fail to inculcate the virtues proper to Christianity. This is leaving out even the many secular voices (consider, for instance, William Deresiewicz’s recent article on why elite universities are failing their goals).

Among the many myths Higton has to deconstruct in the course of making his argument is the conception that one’s ability to reason necessarily occurs in inverse proportion to one’s reliance on authoritative sources of the past. In doing so, he gives an account of the formation of the first university – at Paris – in a way that tries to draw out its continuities with the monastic disciplines of reading and meditation. The most important advance that sets the Parisian academics apart from monastic thinkers such as Anselm of Canterbury, Higton suggests, is that they externalize and socialize the process of internal deliberation and clarification of thoughts that Anselm conducts within himself.

Put another way, the Parisians took the practices of reading, meditation, and disputation that monks like Anselm would practice alone and turned it into a social activity in which individuals reading, meditation, and disputing together would create communities of mutual accountability in which each would aspire to clearer articulations of the commitments they understood themselves to have inherited from the fathers of the church and – ultimately – Jesus Christ himself.

To recap the rest of Higton’s argument would go beyond my intentions for this post, but suffice to say, his account continues with the intriguing suggestion that the German invention of the “research university” in the founding of the University of Berlin was not so much a radical departure from this basic Parisian ideal, but an attempted repair conducted from within the Christian tradition. What struck me the most, however, was his quite simple suggestion that the act of reading, of preparing to write, and of writing was a spiritual discipline of sorts that requires growth in character and has as its end the forming of saints.

It strikes me because it resonates very strongly with my own thesis-writing experience, in which I came to realize that very relational issues – inability to trust others – had very concrete effects on my ability to do research and to write. Midway through my thesis, I came to the realization that I was massively insecure about what I was saying and tended to hide behind my sources rather than engage them in the kind of conversation which, as we were taught in freshmen writing sem, exemplified academic writing. I would be afraid of stating a claim unless I had found that someone else (with more authority) had said something similar, confirming my analysis. I was constantly looking for more sources, for more support for my position, as if my own thoughts and convictions were not enough on their own. This ultimately meant that my thesis ended up having incredible vocational significance for me – not only in terms of the subject I was writing about (faith and reason) – but in the very reading, research, and writing process itself.

In order to write my thesis well, I was forced to better understand how Christ’s love for me overcame the emotional baggage I was carrying. I also found further confirmation for the vocational decisions I had made for my life after-thesis: delaying graduate school for at least a year so that I could return to rebuild relationships and deal with my childhood past. I had come to realize that my being a scholar was not simply a matter of sitting down and reading and writing books. It had everything to do with who I was as a person. If I was to become a good scholar, I would need to become more Christ-like. And, oddly enough, I could venture that the inverse was true as well: If I was to become more Christ-like, I would need to engage in more scholarship.

We inherit a lot of conceptions, habits, and commitments from those who have come before us. Part of the work of the scholar, I came to learn, is to better understand the sources that have formed you, to come to a greater understanding of oneself – what makes you tick, what makes you laugh, what makes you cry, and what you think is worth living for. A great many of these commitments may have a nebulous relationship in our minds before we sit down to reflect on them, and the process of reflection is a kind of sifting, a refining through fire that strives for the better, more precise expression of what it really means for me to be me. For me to be a Christian. An American. A Princetonian. “Rational”. Committed to the Church. And so on and so on. In our world we are constantly bombarded by a cacophony of voices and ideas, and just as the monastics of old would withdraw to the desert for prayer and meditation to try to discern the still small voice in the midst of a crowded world, so we scholars withdraw to our studies, not to escape the world, but to learn to inhabit it more fully and to listen more carefully.

Saint Anselm wrote his Monologion as an attempt to make sense of what he was reading in Saint Augustine’s De Trinitate, to show how all the things that were said could actually be re articulated in a way that would fit together coherently. The more I think back on my senior thesis, the more I realize how much my own efforts were a kind of meditation on the life and work of the Christian philosopher Nicholas Wolterstorff, and an attempt to make sense of how his writings on epistemology and politics – at first blush, seemingly unrelated topics – fit together. And I could only find a way to do so by drawing from the writings of another Christian thinker, the 19th c. German theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher, who gave me a way of seeing how any a Christian ethics of belief (usually discussed under the heading of “rationality”) might be inextricably tied to the unity and holiness of the Church of God.

I had begun with a vague sense of the importance of ideas such as “faith”, “rationality”, “Christian”, “church”, and “liberal democracy”, and come out with a synthesis of these terms that allowed me to make better sense of each of them, their interrelations with one another, and some concrete material implications – both for my own life and, perhaps, for those beyond myself as well. I understand many of these implications not as a matter of idle speculation, but attempts to understand what it might mean to be faithful to Jesus Christ in our own day and age.

For those of you who might not know, I have since returned to Princeton to pursue a Masters of Divinity at Princeton Theological Seminary. As I delve once again in the world of academia, I am increasingly aware of the great blessing and privilege it is to seek spiritual maturity and growth through the classes I will take, the lectures I will sit through, the papers I will write, and the conversations I will have. Study is a formative practice, much like prayer and worship are formative practices. Though I may not have gone through Princeton explicitly aware of such a way of approaching academic life, I am thankful to have the opportunity for (at least) three more years to grow in Christ as a student and aspiring scholar.

Researching for Shalom

I had the hardest time coming up with paper topics during my undergrad years. The more freedom I had, the harder it was to choose. As a result, I ended up writing a number of lackluster essays for classes simply because I had to. Ironically enough, many of these classes were doing a lot to shape my thinking about the shape of my life and what I wanted to spend my days doing, but little of this bled into my academic writing. In retrospect, the fundamental problem was obvious: I lacked a way to understand and articulate how the work of academic writing and research fit into a world in which the kingdom of God was near.

There are a variety of different research projects which drive academic research today. From the transhumanist vision of technological utopia to the dream of liberation promoted by advocates of critical theory, differing conceptions of how the work of research connect with the broader fabric of human society inform the academic enterprise. Increasingly, the demand for “qualified” workers turns the academy into a factory of sorts producing technically trained workers who are able to “think critically” for the workforce. For Christians, however, the drive to academic work and research ought to be driven by the Biblical imperatives of image-bearing and witness-bearing: humankind’s creational calling as well as the Messiah-people’s redemptive calling.

Earlier this month, I spent two weeks with the amazing folks at Yale’s Rivendell Institute (yes, that Rivendell) where, among other things, we talked about how one might think about the Christian motivations for the academic life. What Manna has accomplished using the language of Creation-Fall-Redemption-Glory, Rivendell does with the dual-tasks of image-bearing and witness-bearing. Simply put, for Christians, there are two categories under which to subsume all of their activity, one associated with creation (and its fall) and one associated with creation (and its renewal): the cultural mandate and the Great commission.


For the uninitiated, Genesis 1:28-30 has often been referred to by Christians as the “cultural mandate”:

And God blessed them. And God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.” And God said, “Behold, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is on the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit. You shall have them for food. And to every beast of the earth and to every bird of the heavens and to everything that creeps on the earth, everything that has the breath of life, I have given every green plant for food.” And it was so.

This is, as it were, humanity’s mission statement: to be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and exercise dominion over it. Lest the word “dominion” sound too much like “domination”, it would do well to remember that the kind of rule to be exercised was best exemplified by God himself in Jesus – he who wishes to be great must be the slave of all.

What does this dominion look like? The second chapter of Genesis gives a closer look: it looks like taking care of a garden. One episode stands out for special attention: God brings the animals one by one to Adam and has him name them. Naming. The cultural task par excellance. One discovers a particular pattern of organization in the world that God creates – i.e. the awe-inspiring coordination of carbon, oxygen, hydrogen, nitrogen into proteins and cells and organs that we know as animals – and we give it a designation, a place and a role in human society.

This is, I suggest, is the primary task in which academic research is involved. Researchers look at the world looking for patterns of activity – natural and social – which they attempt to name, describe, and embody [1]. It is by no means a benign act, for naming is fraught with social-political implications. Whether one calls a particular phenomenon the act of a freedom fighter or a terrorist makes a world of a difference. Even the seemingly apolitical work of research in math or physics has potentially groundshaking social consequences in the technological implications it makes possible.

For a long time, we have operated with a view of “science” drawn from the Enlightenment and positivist philosophy. Under this scheme, things having to do with “subjective” human opinions and decisions such as politics, economics, and religion were excluded from the halls of science because they failed to exemplify the kind of “objective” inquiry that was supposed to characterize scientific endeavors. (Note: This did not stop various humanities and social “sciences” from trying to claim the status of “science” by means of trying to increase the amount of quantitative analysis used in the field.) This, combined with the crisis of Western civilization post-World Wars, led to a kind of technological optimism that strongly emphasized the benefits of “scientific” inquiry while yet remaining ignorant of its social costs. Before that, intellectual activity tended to be characterized by the classical ideal in its various forms – whether disengaged contemplation of Truth/God as the ideal human activity or Stoic meditation of one’s place in the larger scheme of things – which also tended to minimize its world-formative dimensions.

It is these world-formative dimensions, however, that allow us to see and understand the ways in which our acts of “naming” might be concretely implicated in the effects of the fall. Instead of being true to the imago dei implanted within each of us, humans have turned from glorying God to glorying self. Romans 1 puts it this way:

For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things.

Shrewd commentators have noted how the curses of the Fall correspond exactly to the blessings of the Creation. The call to subdue the land and multiply one’s seed is met with a curse of the land and a curse in childbearing. And interestingly enough, when God turns to Abraham to jumpstart his redemptive plan, the very things that man was created for and had lost – the land and the seed – are the very things that he promises. Whereas at Babel, humanity tried to make a name for itself and was scattered, now God was going to make a name for himself.


One of most fascinating themes in the Bible is the theme of creation and new creation. If in Adam, humans were bound in slavery to sin; in Christ, we are bound in slavery to righteousness. If humans were supposed to “be fruitful and multiply” in the Old Testament, it is the gospel which “bears fruit and multiplies” in the New. Where in one sense, Christ comes to restore humanity to its rightful place in creation, in another sense, his followers have picked up an additional task above and beyond their call to engage culture: the call to make disciples of all nations.

This certainly has implications for intellectual life. Whereas in Genesis 2, the cultural mandate had Adam naming animals in the garden, in Acts 17, we see Paul naming on behalf of the Athenians the “unknown God” to whom they offered worship. In his speech on the Areopagus, Paul skillfully engages with the Stoic and Epicurean philosophies of his age to show how elements within each of them ultimately point to faith in Jesus. Not only are Christian thinkers tasked with naming aspects of God’s creation, they are to do so rightly, in a way that nudges our different cultural concepts – tinged by sin – closer towards the kingdom of God. This is both a “pre-evangelistic” and an evangelistic task, both clearing the way to challenge dominant cultural conceptions in light of the truth of the gospel and translating the gospel into differing cultures.

The connection between our institutions of higher education and mission is historically suggestive: it is at Princeton, at Yale, at Cambridge that our modern missionary movement gets a lot of its impetus. In the medieval ages, it is at the universities that jumpstart a good deal of today’s monastic orders – the Dominicans, the Jesuits – that served as missionaries to China, to Japan, and to the native Americans. If one is disappointed with attempts to evangelize today, much of it is due to the intellectual currents which have gained ascendance in our universities over the past century. If the Lordship of Jesus is to be proclaimed throughout the world, the work of making the gospel plausible and understandable to all will remain one in which Christian academics necessarily play a role.

In a way, one can roughly distinguish between the image- and witness-bearing task of Christians using the age-old distinction between activities of the church ad intra and activities ad extra. At the center of the former lay the sacraments of baptism and eucharist, the task of passing forth the teaching of the apostles and the celebration and maintaining of the unity and holiness of the church.  In the latter is the proclamation of the gospel throughout every land, the missional dimension to spread the light of the knowledge of Christ far as the curse is found. In all, Christian academics ought to be seeking comprehensive human flourishing in all that they do, in accordance with the Biblical vision of shalom.

These goals ought to present Christians in the academy with a barrage of potential research projects based on which to direct their inquiry. How ought Christians to respond to the increasing disparity between rich and poor in the United States? In what ways are Christians letting race, socioeconomic status, ethnicity, gender, or some other factor other than their shared new identity in Christ define their communion? What are the beliefs and practices that make faith in Christ difficult to communicate or sustain in our culture today? All these and more are questions deeply in need of Christian responses. Insofar as the academic disciplines may facilitate or hinder such research, it ought to be the Christian academic’s duty to allow his or her commitment to Christ to come first and foremost, seeking to find a way to be faithful in the place where he or she is placed.


[1] Consider, for instance, Esther Lightcap Meek’s view of knowledge as “subsidiary-focal integration” – knowing as integrating from relied-on clues to a coherent focal pattern to which we attend and embrace (see Loving to Know: Covenant Epistemology) or Sam Rocha’s A Primer for Philosophy and Education, in which philosophy is characterized as a “general theory of description”.

Reflections on “Gospel Worldview”

I want to take this chance to share a few reflections on the idea of “gospel worldview” as we Manna-ites (and many who have benefited from such works as Al Wolter’s Creation Regained) often conceive of it, in terms of a story consisting primarily of four major plot-points: Creation. Fall. Redemption. Glory.

As a pushback against the a-historical existential approaches we may have been used to before college, it is certainly an advance to realize that the gospel is not simply a time-less message calling people to a moment of existential decision (although it certainly includes that), but an on-going story of God’s work in the world in which we may find ourselves playing a part. Over the past year, however, I have come to realize that there are also significant lacunae in such an approach that desperately need to be addressed if the “narrative gospel” we hear in gospel worldview is actually going to move beyond the realm of “theoretical framework” to something that actually gives people a story to live in and for. These thoughts are actually still quite scattered in my mind, but I hope that trying to articulate some of theme here might spark some fruitful discussion on the issue.

Please note that I am in no way criticizing the idea of a “gospel worldview”. My hope is to draw out implications of the idea that might not have been considered enough among the evangelical communities in which such a notion is now taking root. I’m trying to ask the “What Now?” questions that hope to point us beyond the “anti-dualism”, “pro-cultural-engagement” rhetoric that tends to characterize much of the conversation to address the kind of questions that practically confront us once we’re trying to live our lives.

Thesis 1: Beyond Epistemology

Evangelical discussions of “story” have been quite popular, but often without specifying which story we ought to be living in. Creation-fall-redemption-glory certainly does a good job of abstracting out of the historical narrative of the Scriptures, but it also does not substitute for the almost-2000-years of church history that have happened ever since and which constitutes the continuing story of God’s work in history. It is one thing to make the epistemological point that one ought to be thinking more in the categories of “story” and “narrative” instead of “systematic theology” and “existential decision” and a different thing to actually get to the story or theology itself.

In other words, in “gospel worldview”, we are given the lineaments of a story, but we are actually lacking the story itself. Hopefully, this point will become clearer as we continue.

Thesis 2: Beyond Evangelicalism

Part of the reason evangelicalism is having a problem getting “beyond epistemology” is that, in a large part, its fundamental story is one that repudiates the value of stories. As such, even when it has shifted to trying to think of things in a “storied” format, it will nevertheless remain in the world of epistemology rather than take seriously what its own epistemology implies: taking tradition seriously. A large part of this has to deal with the fact that American evangelicalism was birthed as a part of a particular tradition – that of political liberalism – for which the rejection of tradition is part and parcel of its own “tradition”. Writers like Andy Crouch and Jim Skillen can push the the “good of politics”, but not to the extent that they get down to the real questions of political philosophy: how ought we to live?

Consider, for instance, Calvin College philosopher James K.A. Smith’s reviews of Crouch’s Playing God and Skillen’s The Good of Politics, two recent books on politics and power that have recently been published. In the former, he notes how Crouch’s attempt to push back against the dominant Nietzschean “myth” of power as primal conflict fails to mention that it is precisely this “myth” that also underlies the Hobbesian, Lockean, and Rousseau-ian ideas of “social contract” that lie at the foundation of the American political experiment. In the latter, he notes that, appeals to “creational norms” and the “common good” end up underwriting what looks like “a pretty standard liberal democratic game”.

But does “engaging in politics Christianly” equate to “politics as usual” in a liberal democracy? (This is, by the way, why Eric Gregory’s class on Christian Ethics spends most of the second half addressing the question of “Christianity and Liberalism”. It is among THE questions of our day and age.) The answer is not clear. The problem with contemporary “gospel worldview” approaches to the question, however, is that they are often blind to the fact that this is even a question, owing to the own foundational narratives we tell ourselves without thinking. We need to be aware of the structural conditions in which we live, that we may be aware of the perennial temptations that may come as a result of them and what that might mean for our witness as Christians today. For that, we’re going to need more specific stories. In other words, we need to take history and tradition a lot more seriously than we have before.

Thesis 3: Beyond Swimming the Tiber

Some of the most cogent contemporary critiques of liberalism, unsurprisingly, come from Roman Catholics who trumpet the importance of “tradition” over and against the mere procedural rationality that tends to characterize approaches dominant within the context of liberal democracy. Those who trumpet this view have a particular narrative of church history which informs contemporary thought and behavior, one expressed quite powerfully by thinkers and writers such as Alasdair MacIntyre (After Virtue) or Brad Gregory (The Unintended Reformation). Simply put, these narratives seem to paint church history in a way that puts the “fall” at the Reformation rejection of Catholic tradition in favor of “sola Scriptura” and the cultural malaise in which we find ourselves today as an unfortunate working-out of the implications of those intellectual decisions which found their roots in the intellectual debates of late Medieval Scholastic philosophy. (There are also Calvinist/Reformed versions of this, with Arminians typically getting the short end of the stick. This is not to mention various Anabaptist approaches – read: Hauerwas/Yoder – which will locate the “Fall” as far back as the onset of Constantinian Christianity.)

While the distinct advantage that many self-consciously confessional approaches hold over your generic evangelical one is the fact that they are self-consciously aware of the particular historical narrative they are living in (although how true this is in the context of American society is up for contestation. At the very least, they are in theory committed in a way that many evangelicals are in theory not.), these – with Catholic narratives like MacIntyre’s and Gregory’s included – often fail to adequately grapple with the reasons that liberalism came to be attractive in the first place: the problem of being unable to adjudicate between the various meta-narratives being offered by differing confessional traditions.

In short, merely adopting the standpoint of one or another confessional tradition is an insufficient antidote to the problem of putting flesh on the bare bones of the gospel-worldview framework that confronts us today. This is, interestingly enough, the approach that characterizes another Catholic philosopher, Charles Taylor, whose 2007 book A Secular Age challenges the ways in which scholars have traditionally approached the questions of secularism and religious pluralism that are part and parcel of this conversation about liberalism and story.

Thesis 4: The Importance of (Trinitarian) Theology

Without spending too much time bringing up various -ology’s which might confuse more than contribute, I want to make the hypothesis that any real solution to the current malaises that confront us today are going to require innovative re-articulations of the perennial truths that have grounded the Christian faith from the very beginning. Indeed, part of the reason that “narrative” approaches to the faith work in the first place is that in Jesus Christ God’s future has telescoped forwards into the present so that through the Spirit, we can know that the workings-out of history will have the contours we affirm it has. It is Trinitarian theology that underlies a narrative approach to the faith that takes seriously the reality of Jesus’ incarnation, presence (in the Eucharist), and second coming in our past, present, and coming future.

In other words, if we want the concrete historical story we tell to be faithful to the God whose image we claim to reflect, we are going to have to do some serious reflections on what that God is like in order to understand who we are and where we stand in history. In particular, I might add, we are going to need ecumenical theological reflection that transcends the countless divisions among theological traditions and finds a way of articulating a coherent meta-narrative for all Christians to identify with and live out. This will not be easy. The Enlightenment attempt to do this by doing away with tradition is the intellectual forefather of much of contemporary evangelical (and liberal!) theology today. How to affirm their goals while avoiding their mistakes will be a challenge for our generation to face.

Thesis 5: A Woe-fully Inadequate Attempt

I do not want to end this post on “story” without at least attempting to offer a bare outline of a kind of stories we might be able to tell about about ourselves and where we stand in church history.At the same time, however, I want to emphasize how inadequate my feeble attempts to do so are.

Christians in the West are, after a long period of cultural hegemony, finally confronting the reality that the values of Christianity and those of the broader society at large have less and less in common. Indeed, we are at the same time realizing that much of what we thought we had in common might not have actually been compatible after all. The privatization of faith, the divide between the “religious” and the “secular”, “faith” and “reason”, the social organization of churches into “denominations” and their role in public life – these and more are legacies with which we Christians today have to grapple, asking again and again the question of whether walking in these ways is compatible with the truth of the gospel. The task before us is not so much the task of coming up with “distinctively Christian” ways to engage in previously taken-for-granted tasks, but to push back against the individualizing forces of modern society so as to recover the reality of a historical community testifying to the world of the presence and love of the One God who dwells in and among us. We do what we do as members of the ekklesia (“called out ones”/”church”) of God, whose gifts are not for ourselves, but for one another and for the world as sign, foretaste, and instrument of the kingdom that is already-but-not-yet. Who we are must be grounded in who we will be; and what we do must be grounded in the holistic vision of human flourishing of the new heavens and new earth.

Democratic liberalism was an attempt to curb the violences of the past in which competing visions of human flourishing clashed to the extent of shedding blood in search of their realization. Our danger is the opposite: instead of fighting and dying for various ideologies that might lack the universality of the Kingdom of God, it is all-too-easy for us to lapse into the complacency of living lives which do not quite appreciate what it is that is worth living: to experience the particular ennui we know as “boredom”, to partake of the activities we call “entertainment” in search of – not responsibility nor self-transcendence, but “fun”. The message of the cross and “dying to self” are translated into terms of suffering under various societal obligations instead of the existential risks of positing what it means to be human; to chase the ladder of success because one knows not what else to do instead of sharing the deep self-knowledge that allows one to truly empty oneself and take on the form of a servant.

As I have said, this is abut a woefully inadequate attempt to start a conversation that I think needs to happen. We who care about “gospel worldview” need to get past the “lens” part to realize that we are born into an ongoing story of how God is working in the world, and how merely having the right “lens” doesn’t actually help you navigate where you are in that story. Indeed, recovering that story is actually quite difficult in a world which emphasizes how everything that is worth having in life can merely be bought or sold, a world that tries to convince us that the dominant narrative we ought to be concerned about is the narrative of ourselves and what “experiences” we’ve had or “successes” we’ve attained. That we are not the primarily determinants of our selves and future might be the first truth we need to hammer into ourselves. We were born with histories and backgrounds, and these histories and backgrounds hold claims over us that we cannot so easily deny, even if they also find their transformations in Christ. This great cloud of witnesses hovers over us as we run, walk, or stumble through our own race. Will we persevere?

The Idea of an American College

One of the most difficult things about trying to think about higher education today is that it’s not immediately clear what it is even all about anymore. I’ve just finished reading Andrew Delbanco’s College: What It Was, Is, and Should Be and he himself confronts the fact that a lot of confusion about college today comes from the fact that we tend to use the word “college” to designate institutions ranging from community colleges, commuter schools, and research universities even though the differences between them are far from trivial.

These differences are something that I am experiencing first-hand as I spend this year dealing with people who come from all sorts of backgrounds, even if many of them are “college-educated” or “college students”. I’ve run into people who have essentially not made any new friends at school because all they basically do there is take classes, study, and then return home to hang out with church or high-school friends. If they’ve been displaced from their home community, some of them have problems finding a new one because pretty much no one sticks around on campus after classes are over.  This is possible because what they are studying is purely technical, a matter of professional training aimed towards accreditation. This is not even to mention the many who now study online or via distance learning programs.

Delbanco, however, himself has one particular ideal in mind when he uses the word “college”: the vision of a community of learning dedicated to the pursuit of contemplation for its own sake. It is the liberal arts education that Delbanco is concerned with, as well as the uniquely American development of the tradition; whereas the liberal arts has traditionally been the province of the societal elite, it was in the U.S. that the ideal was democratized.  Based on this definition, however, the number of students who are actually getting a “college” education is a lot lower than one would think: maybe fewer than one out of fourteen “college” students would actually be attending “college” as the word originally meant to the Puritan founders of America’s first colleges. This discounts the even larger numbers who don’t attend attain to any form of higher education at all. This, so it seems, serves the role of the call-to-action in Delbanco’s narrative.

But how the heck did we get here in the first place? Delbanco offers a different glance at the situation compared to the jeremiads of religious authors like Alasdair MacIntyre (Catholic) and George Marsden (Reformed), who mourn the fragmentation that has characterized our institutions of higher learning ever since their unifying religious visions were abandoned. The story that Delbanco tells is one of expansion and reaction. Whereas Marsden characterizes the McCosh-Eliot (Princeton v. Harvard) debates over curriculum in the late 19th century as a clash between a losing attempt by McCosh to reserve for religion a special role in education and Eliot’s promotion of the non-sectarian ideal that was to be the “religion of the future”, Delbanco sees both men as trying to deal differently with the new reality confronting every institution at the time: more students than ever before.

For those of you who might be unfamiliar with the McCosh-Eliot debates, it was a heated discussion at the turn of the century (1885) over whether or not students should be allowed to “elect” their courses or be forced to take classes that make up a certain “core curriculum”. In other words, it was the moment in which “electives” were born. George Marsden, in The Soul of the American University, suggests that the core issue was whether or not colleges had a right to demand that there were certain things that all young men ought to learn – a question of religious authority. McCosh was the defender of Calvinism, which held to certain revealed tenets about the world and human nature; Eliot was a child of Emersonian Transcendentalism, a product of a Unitarianism which celebrated individual self-reliance and creativity as the means through which the divine unveiled itself. For Marsden, the debate was as much theological as it was practical, the difference a question of whether the Calvinist conception of freedom – submission to God’s order – or a modernist conception – individual self-legislation – would win.

For Delbanco, on the other hand, the question of curriculum was not so much a question of theology as it was of immediate practical concerns. Both could recognize the problems immediately confronting them – growing enrollment numbers – and both formulated strategies to confront it. The disagreement between McCosh and Eliot was not a matter of educational philosophy so much as an anthropological evaluation: Eliot simply believed that Harvard’s admissions process would only admit those self-thinking individuals capable of choosing the course of study best for themselves; McCosh, on the other hand, was a bit more skeptical about the capabilities of young men emerging from their teenage years. For all the rhetoric about freedom in choosing one’s classes, Delbanco merely points to the fact that an elective system makes economic sense when confronted with an increasingly specializing and professionalizing caste of teachers and enlarged enrollment. Increasing class size – exploding upon the push for co-education in the 20th century and search for international students in the 21st – makes it more difficult to maintain a compulsory curriculum as it means having to find more teachers who must both be prepared to teach it as well as willing to take time away from their research to work on it together with other faculty. For Delbanco, it is the democratizing impulse of American higher education, pushing to expand higher education to the masses, not the theological tension between two differing interpretations of the role of tradition in faith, that led to the loss of the core curriculum.

Though Delbanco himself teaches at a university which supports a core-curriculum (Columbia), it is not the actual content of that curriculum that interests him, but the role it serves in preserving what he calls “lateral learning”, the ideal of communal learning which insists that learning is not simply a vertical transfer of information between teacher and student but also a horizontal experience of engagement with one’s peers. For the wealthy colleges that could afford it – Harvard, Yale, and Princeton – the construction of residential colleges that could bring students together into community would preserve the communal ideal central to Delbanco’s conception of college. For those that couldn’t – Chicago and Columbia – core curricula serve a similar function.

Delbanco’s concern for the success of the democratization of higher education causes him to highlight the many ways in which our colleges serve more to perpetuate social hierarchy rather than promote mobility today. He is especially concerned that the rise of “meritocracy” (which, Delbanco wryly notes, was first coined in a dystopian novel of the order of Brave New World) has only served to hide the underlying inequities behind the admissions processes and quash the sense of social responsibility among those who are admitted.  Interestingly enough, he appeals to a recovery of religious concepts of “grace” – the conception that God does not discriminate between persons when bestowing his gifts – as a resource for pushing back against meritocracy.

Delbanco’s book is impressive in its breadth and brevity: it covers a wide vista of important moments in the history of the American college while nevertheless remaining around 200 pages (by comparison, Marsden’s The Soul of the American University is a whopping 480 pages). For those of us planning to participate in the continuing experiment that is American higher education, Delbanco’s emphasis on the importance of lateral learning  having a peer community – and the social responsibility that comes with democracy is one that resonates with religious emphases on the importance of friendship and justice. I suspect that the connection is no accident. The Emersonian tradition from which Delbanco hails is essentially a secularized Christianity which replaces church with the American nation and God with the American people. The realization of “democracy” and the kingdom of God are one and the same. The theological virtues of faith, hope, and love are replaced by secular versions which call for faith, hope, and love in “the system” and “the American people”.

Insofar as the absolute transcendence of God is effaced, Emerson’s Transcendentalism is idolatry. But insofar as it nevertheless affirms some of what is good and right and true, we have found allies in our own attempts to grapple with the meaning and significance of American higher education. He brings attention to various aspects of the religious past that, on his own admission, many of his secular colleagues would be embarrassed by.  He, on the other hand, tries to appropriate these ideas and virtues for his own purposes. There is much to be applauded in Delbanco’s book, but his reading of the McCosh-Eliot debates reveals his commitments: for him, Eliot embraced the pluralistic democratic future ahead of him while McCosh resisted it. We who follow in McCosh’s footsteps in affirming the importance of faith and education might discern a valid concern in McCosh whereas Delbanco sees only stubbornness.

And in the end, what is perhaps most disappointing about Delbanco’s book is the scant attention paid to what ought to be done. For a book with “What It Should Be” in its title, little is said about the historical sources and course content that really ought to be taught in such schools, the canonical texts and decisions which have shaped the tradition of liberal democracy as it has taken shape in America today. As Peter Berkowitz said in his recent article on improving higher education:

“Liberal education is not neutral. When true to itself, it encourages gratitude toward free societies for offering the opportunity to study fundamental ideas and seminal events, and for maintaining—by means of customs, laws, and political institutions—a framework that allows individuals and their communities a wide sphere in which to organize their lives as they think best.”

This is the core curriculum which McCosh defended, though, of course, McCosh might be a bit broader in his choice of texts so as to include that contemporary pariah we call Christian Theology – indeed one of the required classes at McCosh’s Princeton was a class in Christian apologetics. In this sense, Delbanco’s Emersonian celebration of self-discovery and creativity may have blinded itself to the fact that its individualism is not universal but a very particular brand of individualism, one with a history and tradition that by its very nature it tends to ignore, an irony that Princeton professor Jeffrey Stout chronicles in his book Democracy and Tradition. This canon of saints might include figures such as Locke and Rousseau, Emerson and Thoreau, Whitman and Dewey.

But we, too, have a great cloud of witnesses that we would do well to remember, and – even more – insist that others do as well. But Paul and John and Moses and Isaiah have long been relegated to classes which are not so much interested in their continued viability so much as their historical contingency. The study of Augustine and Aquinas, of Calvin and Barth and Luther has been shoved into those cute pre-professional schools we know as “seminaries”. What things might these who have gone before have to say to us today? How might they call us out of ourselves into the responsibilities that God has set before us? These, and other similar questions, are among the casualties of the triumph of Eliot’s ideal.

Andrew Delbanco opens his final chapter with a reflection on what genre of literature his book might best be archived as:

I have tried in this book to tell a story of ideas and institutions while keeping people – students, teachers, academic leaders – at the forefront of the tale. I did not want to stick to any one of the genres to which such a story usually conforms – jeremiad (invoking the past to shame the present), elegy (gone are the greats of yesteryear), call to arms (do this or that and we will be saved) – so the result, no doubt, is a messy mixture of them all. In fact, if there is one form to which most recent writing about college belongs, it is none of the above, but, rather, the funeral dirge.

But we hope in a God who gives life to the dead and calls the things not being into being. Have mercy on us, we pray.

Note: I have majorly over-simplified this book in this presentation. Also, there are other issues that I have not discussed for brevity’s sake. Consider, for instance, that the liberal arts ideal comes from a Greek anthropology that sees detached contemplation as the true end of man. This is a conception that Christians, for whom both work and rest are proper to humanity, might want to push back against. Nicholas Wolterstorff has perhaps the best reflections on this in his essay collection Educating for Shalom, in which he tries to articulate a vision which finds some middle ground between the liberal arts and the technical college.

Also, for some more reflections on why the elective system might not be so bad, I’ve written another blog post elsewhere.