A Different University Experience

Posted on February 14, 2014


A few years ago I read a book by George Marsden, a historian at Notre Dame University, which caught my attention. At least the title did initially: The Outrageous Idea of Christian Scholarship. I thought, “man, I wish I’d thought of that title,” not that I could have written the book he did. But titles are important. Who doesn’t remember To Kill a Mockingbird or Cather in the Rye?

As I’ve grown accustomed to and spoiled by today’s world, I zipped over to amazon.com online and bought a used copy for a dirt cheap price (plus $3.99 for shipping and handling of course), and presto it was in my mailbox in a few days.

I remember reading it cover to cover with much interest. I recommend it, especially since it is an excellent representation of the “other” side of Notre Dame, a truly excellent institution of higher learning. And, of course, they also have a football team. The book, not incidentally, is about the historic and contemporary framework of higher education in this country. More of that below.

I was reminded of this book by a recent visit to Central, South Carolina where I sit on the Board of Visitors at a small Christian university, Southern Wesleyan University, or SWU.

Like Notre Dame, SWU is strongly affiliated with a denomination of Christianity, Catholic in the case of Notre Dame and Wesleyan Methodist in the case of SWU.

At SWU they make no bones about it. They are a Christ-centered university and their motto for this year is from 2 Timothy 1:7, “For God has not given us a spirit of fear and timidity, but of power, love, and self-discipline.”

SWU’s blurb is clear as a bell also: “Southern Wesleyan University is a Christ-centered, student-focused learning community devoted to transforming lives by challenging students to be dedicated scholars and servant-leaders who impact the world for Christ.”

For me, as a Christian and a writer, I am refreshed every time I step on the campus. I no longer have to guard my words or thoughts about being a Christian scholar. I can let it all hang out. I am a Christian and I see the world through a Christian perspective. At the same time, I am a scholar and writer in the truth business. I don’t make compromises when I teach and write history, although interpretations in my writing may be unwittingly biased since we are all captives of the culture or cultures we inhabit. In other words, we see things in the past—and the present and future for that matter—through the times we live in, and through the affiliations we make politically, religiously, socially, ideologically and so forth.

Don’t let anyone fool you into believing history is nothing but the facts, and “I got them right and that fellow over there is all wrong.” History is about interpreting the facts in accordance with what larger theme is driving you. By example, if you are a practicing Marxist or radical socialist, you are going to see American history as nothing but the raw division of society by capitalism into the very rich and the mass of poor. If you are a libertarian, you will see the State, the government, as basically the source of all evil afflicting mankind. Atheists, agnostics, believers, environmentalists, etc. they all have a place at the table we call history.

Getting back to Marsden, in his book he recalls for us with accuracy how higher education was founded by Christian scholars early in the history of this country. Then higher education was slowly secularized and stripped of its Christian culture in the nineteenth century and continuing through the twentieth century.

Harvard, Princeton, and all the others were founded to train Christian ministers, and everything else in University life flowed from that founding principle. To be a scholar, and to be a Christian, were inseparable. Education and higher learning were both about one’s Christian walk, and about physics or math.

The secularization of western culture began in the Age of Reason, or the Enlightenment, and undermined the authority of Christianity. No other book emphasized the growing division between faith and reason than Charles Darwin’s 1859 The Origin of the Species which popularized evolution, and, in doing so, questioned the Biblical origins of humankind. As colleges and universities became more scientific, more rational, or focused on man and his abilities, dependence upon the old sources—Scripture and the church—for understanding and coping with our universe were gradually junked.

By the end of the twentieth century, any scholar worth his salt who still claimed to be a Christian was considered—sometimes gently and sometimes viscerally within the academy (community of scholars)—beyond the pale of true creativity and scholarship, someone who subscribed to religious mysticism and folk tales and an irrational dependence upon a story—the Bible—largely considered mere superstition and quite probably a fabrication.

Along comes Marsden and others who said “we [Christians] too have a place at this table.” Heck, “we invented the table!” If one goes back far enough into the origins of higher education in the Western world, it begins with Oxford, Cambridge, Paris, Bologna, Salamanca, all built around the church.

“Why should we now be pushed aside if everyone else has a place?”

We live in a free society and everyone has the right (guaranteed by the Constitution right?) to speak their mind, especially in a University community devoted—at least in theory—to the free exchange of information and knowledge. Why then are Christian expressions of belief and scholarship pushed aside, declared “unconstitutional,” convicted of being at odds with “real” science, declared superstitious, and their symbols suppressed and voices silenced in the name of the principle, for example, of the separation of church and state?

As public universities grew less and less tolerant of a “Christian voice,” other colleges and universities, private for the most part, covered that void left by a society given more and more to celebrating itself, not its maker.

There are many arguments to be made here. Public funding–your tax dollars–are often denied to a Christian voice because of the separation of church and state principle, yet, according to a Pew Religious study, 91% of all Americans believe in God, and 39% attend religious services, of some kind, at least once a week. Shouldn’t their taxes guarantee that they have a voice also?

There is room in this country for all voices to be heard, if not in the same forum of debate, through different institutions. That’s where the great and small, the Notre Dames and Georgetowns, the Southern Wesleyans and Samfords have roles to play.

Ideally, we want to be inclusive, not exclusive in the way we teach and learn about our world, past, present, and future. Failing that, I am grateful for the SWUs in our world. UAB’s medical research may be at the cutting edge of science in some areas, and I am grateful for, and support that. But in the life of the spirit, I want some cutting edge knowledge and wisdom at work also. And if you don’t think science and religion intersect, I’ll introduce you in a future column to Dr. Eben Alexander, MD, Duke and Harvard (not bad pedigrees among academics) who had an experience that transcended those two worlds, the one of the spirit and the one of science, described in an unforgettable book.

Like Notre Dame, little SWU (www.swu.edu) also emphasizes athletic competition as well as Scripture. SWU just won its first national title in soccer in the NCCAA (National Christian College Athletic Association) and just this year was accepted into Division II of the NCAA.

But, first, thanks to George Marsden for his book, and I still wish I had thought of the title.

Published as Christianity Laid the Foundation for Education in my column The Port Rail in The Tuscaloosa News, Sunday Feb. 23, 2014.