The Countercultural Idea of a Christian University

American liberties depend, in part, on American pluralism.  But not just any pluralism will do.  We need a pluralism rooted in a culture committed to the idea of truth, a culture that recognizes authority higher than individual autonomy.  And, among the many liberties associated with the American story, we are here interested in a certain liberty of groups against the liberty of a democratized mass.  Or, to put it as Pierre Manent does in A World Beyond Politics?, if “the idea of liberty prevail(s) completely over the idea of truth” liberty will be “deprived of its conflicting relationship with truth” and liberty will “collapse.”

The American system of liberties has persisted against the modern and democratic tendency to resolve all tensions because its robust separations of powers and institutions produce loyalties and low-level conflicts that prevent both the unitary and comprehensive state (communism) and the individualistic masses (atomism under the protection of the administrative state).  Of particular importance for this essay, the longstanding American attachment to churches that claim to possess the truth and require of their members obedience to a transcendental authority has supplied a sharp but productive contrast with the ideals of democracy, which aim most of all at the autonomy of individuals.

This system can only work when the religious pluralism is of a grudging sort—the sort in which believers in Church A know that they have the true path to salvation but that they lack the power to coerce believers in Churches B, C, and D to comply.  This practical toleration allows churches to insist on a universal truth and with it an assertion of final authority beyond human choice without undermining the goals of individual liberty and personal autonomy at the heart of the democratic ideal.  But when biblical religion (religion that asserts a universal truth) is “absorbed” into democracy, a believer, Manent argues, views his religion as a matter of personal choice rather than a dedication to truth and obedience to authority.  At this point, the salutary separation and tension between religion and democracy is dissolved.  The believer now recognizes in his choice an expression of his autonomy and he demands not tolerance as described earlier but affirmation of his choice.  At that point, the institutional pluralism most responsible for checking the tendency toward mass society is effectively useless.  The new imperative requires public indifference to the truth claims of any religion and the new religious pluralism becomes an adjunct of the democratic moral imperative to individual autonomy—an imperative that, in due course, will require both the state and society to obey and enforce.

Manent rightly stresses the overriding moral claim of ownership over the self which comes with the collapse of cultural institutions that stress authority and obedience.  Both state and society must, therefore, be made supportive of each person’s autonomy.  The state does this through representation in which the laws and rules issue from one’s self—obedience is to self.  But it is with social power that the truly sinister consequences emerge.  The moral imperatives of the American regime found in Natural Rights are transmogrified into the very particular rights of each individual to affirmation of his beliefs, “affiliations and qualities, cultural identity, religion, sexual orientation, among others.”

Institutions dedicated to universal truth and a higher authority cannot subsist in this environment because their defining beliefs are an offense to the singular (no longer bound in a tensional relationship) ideal of individual autonomy.  American liberties depend (among many other necessary conditions), therefore, on healthy religious institutions that affirm universal truth and  transcendental authority.

Manent’s argument is important for understanding the nature and importance of universities and, in particular, Christian universities in the United States. A whole host of regulations and structures rooted in the Progressive drive to centralize power, enforce uniformity, and drive religion from the public square have chained the university to the state and to a modern ideology hostile to both its proper mission and to American liberty. In pursuit of funding and prestige, universities have given up their autonomy and their very reason for being as they have sunk into a culture of conformity and indoctrination.

Idea of a Christian University

The next great Christian university will, therefore, be countercultural. It will oppose the combination of modernism and cultural ideology now regnant in the academy, offering instead a compelling, ordered vision of the good life and the good society, and an education to form mature, well-ordered persons.

No educational program is neutral; each emerges from a vision of reality. Any university that is serious about its Christian mission must recognize that today it confronts an educational establishment that operates with a vision that is incompatible with the most basic philosophical commitments of a Christian institution. A Christian university must offer an alternative vision, or fail to be a Christian university.

By “vision” we mean a set of interlocking conceptions about reality and existence, truth and knowledge, authority and power, teleology and purpose, and finally of the goods that structure human action and the pursuit of knowledge. There is nothing neutral or “objective” about the competing Christian and modernist/ideological visions; each determines the nature of the education offered. Because these visions are incompatible—contemporary society provides no common standard by which we can judge them—this conflict of visions must be the starting place for thinking through the mission of a Christian university in our time.

The contemporary university has two central, defining characteristics: it is relentlessly analytical or “scientific,” and fiercely ideological. Modern universities are committed to careful, uncompromising analysis of the parts while neglecting urgent questions about the whole. This commitment produces an explosion of discrete knowledge and narrow expertise without truth or wisdom capable of integrating that knowledge. It results in knowledge of the inner life of stars but ignorance of the inner life of the person; knowledge of the biology of reproduction without wisdom to create lasting marriages and friendships; knowledge of traffic patterns, patterns of commerce, distributions of income and health, but no understanding of how to build community, neighborhoods, and polities.

Since the advent of the modern research university in the nineteenth century, universities have pursued knowledge in every discipline according to rigorous, professionally chosen methods. This scientifically-produced knowledge is judged by the power it offers humans, not by the truth it reveals. This knowledge has enabled society to acquire power to transform our environment (and hope of transforming ourselves), but it has failed in securing the most essential human knowledge of all: of who we are and why we are. Writers as varied as Newman, Eliot, Lewis, Arendt, Percy, and Solzhenitsyn have seen our problem clearly: we moderns can observe, measure, and critique the external world, but remain a sad mystery to ourselves. Sad, and dangerous: according to Alasdair MacIntyre, much of the disorder of the last 100 years can be attributed to well-educated people “acting decisively and deliberately without knowing what they were doing.”

Modern knowledge without truth or wisdom leaves a void in the soul of the university. Nowhere is this clearer than in the humanities. Until recently that part of the university that still recognized the importance of pursuing the humane life ordered around virtue, beauty, and the deepest truths about the person, the “humanities” today offer only the cold comfort of ideology, the modern substitute for religion. Ideologies promise comprehensive insight into the way society “really” works, outline a plan for action, and promise a bright future to be achieved through activist struggle. Their goal is power to remake the world and its people in the image of the ideology. All search for knowledge, every institution, and all human activity is subordinated and harnessed to the imperatives of ideological struggle. The current dominant ideology is multicultural leftism, in which the reductive and weaponized categories of gender, race, class, and sexual orientation are part of a leftist agenda of absolute equality, and in which the enforcement mechanism is political correctness and re-education. The soulless modern university has proven to be particularly susceptible to the false meaning and purpose of ideology. Modern scientism offers no moral or normative challenge to it. Students enter these institutions with precious few cultural and intellectual resources to challenge or meaningfully question the new orthodoxy, and so too often are spiritually and intellectually crushed by the oppressive weight of an unchallenged intellectual authority.  The promised liberal, tolerant, cosmopolitan understanding of the world dematerializes into mere shadows.

The scientific/analytical university has in the past been largely and publicly indifferent to religious faith. Leftist ideologies take this further; they are unambiguously hostile to any religious inquiry that fails to serve ideological ends. From places in which traditional religious faith were engaged or at least tolerated, universities are now “safe spaces,” free from what they consider the hateful (and therefore hurtful) beliefs of orthodox Christians.  Because Christian beliefs not only hurt those offended by them but subvert the approved ideological training that is central to the new moral imperatives of higher education, universities must defeat rather than tolerate Christian beliefs.

We can no longer afford to hope that people who have no idea (or false ideas) of where we come from or where we are going will serve or lead society well. Liberated, as it were, from the most important human knowledge of all, universities are undermining the formation of civilized, mature persons. Modern secular universities are, in short, bastions of a new barbarism, whose methods ignore the civilizing influence of a humane education, and actively, aggressively, arrogantly, utilize the humanities to coarsen society, undermine ideals of human excellence, and obscure from their students the most important truths about being human.

A Christian education, grounded in an ontological realism—a recognition that the universe is, that it has a structure and reality independent of our own thoughts about it—seeks an understanding of the whole and the proper place of humans in the reality we inhabit. Governed by the dictum of faith seeking understanding, Christian schools recognize a source of knowledge and truth – Christian revelation – which is excluded from secular education. Because of this we know that secular universities cannot lay claim to all knowledge. Moreover, the source of knowledge – the Creator of all truth, being, and goodness – makes us confident that truth exists, and that we can hope to draw near to it. We can only draw near in this life: no one academic discipline (let alone a reductionist ideology) can ever embrace the fullness of truth. Nevertheless, in the relationship of discipline to discipline, of past knowledge and wisdom to present intellectual inquiry, and of scholarly activity to personal experience, we can glimpse the unifying wisdom of God. However impossible it is for us to grasp the fullness of truth in this finite life, we know that such a view is possible, that we can grow toward it in community with others, that drawing closer to it both satisfies a deep need and improves our lives.

John Henry Newman, in The Idea of a University, called this practice of putting knowledge into conversation with knowledge, of seeking the whole and of restlessness in the face of partial knowledge claiming to be the whole, a ‘philosophical habit’, an ‘enlargement of mind’. He argued that growth in this intellectual habit is crucial to the formation of the soul, by imparting intellectual humility, freedom, and creativity to the persons who acquire it.

This vision of truth is capable of ordering human life. It is desperately needed by us, by our students, and by our culture. By its nature it is invisible to the modern mind: it exists but cannot be encompassed by any formula or analytical frame. It is beyond the boundaries of any one discipline or ideological program. We do not create this vision to use it; instead, we enter into it and invite others. We approach its environs in earnest, respectful conversation by finding the limits of each discipline and relating each to each, by our growth in humility about what partial knowledge and power can accomplish. This vision is within the grasp of a Christian university.

The Counterculture in Action

The idea of a Christian university outlined here is incompatible with the dominant, ideological vision of the educational establishment. In light of this conflict of visions, any Christian university that wants to offer a truly Christian education must 1. Challenge and encourage its own faculty, whose own narrow and specialized education may make it difficult to see past the ideological obligations of their disciplines; 2. Begin an ongoing conversation with its many constituencies (faculty, students, alumni, and supporters) on the true nature of a Christian education; 3. Question the need for layers of university administration that exist to serve the social justice imperatives of the academic establishment; 4. Confront and perhaps reject a potentially hostile accrediting system; and 5. Be prepared to fight continuous and public legal battles with hostile governments (usually state governments) that will not tolerate certain Christian beliefs.

An essential first step in this process may seem radical and even self-destructive, namely, rejection of all governmental support, including through various federal grants and student loan programs. For decades, now, the federal government in particular has used subsidies to universities as a means of empowering bureaucratic elites to control their personnel and policy. In the name of fairness and efficiency, Education Department bureaucrats have used “action letters” and other “advice” to bully (all-too-willing) universities into adding indoctrination sessions on race, sex, and sexual orientation, and helped spawn entire departments aimed at combating “hostile environments” for radicals who find Christianity and Western civilization intrinsically evil. The administrative bloat crippling universities is in significant measure rationalized as necessary to keep federal, state, and accreditation bureaucrats happy. And only unquestioned, uniform adherence to today’s radicalized, secular “diversity” will keep them happy. The expense of foregoing governmental support seems daunting but has not stopped a number of universities from successfully making the move to complete self-funding. The added freedom and decreased expense, not to mention the clear statement that this university will stand on its principles, bowing to no human institution in its pursuit of truth and virtue, has the potential to bring great rewards internally and significant support from the wider Christian community.

The challenges are great, but so are the opportunities. While many small liberal arts colleges offer real and valuable alternatives to the spiritually deadening orthodoxy of academia, among top universities few Christian alternatives exist. As a result, a bold stance by a major university immediately creates a market. The more countercultural, the greater the opportunity. The very challenges we’ve enumerated above can become assets — evidence that a particular university fully recognizes the incompatibility of visions and is unwilling to compromise, since compromise under these conditions is surrender.

The hope of a Christian university is found in recognizing the fact of this incompatibility and the rejection of the embarrassing tendency among Christian schools to emulate secular institutions, especially through constant appeals to “best practices”. The hope of a Christian university is found in its unwavering commitment to its mission—its vision. To make my point, we end with a quick look at our own university’s “Affirmation Statement”.

“Pepperdine University affirms:

That God is.

That He is uniquely revealed in Christ.

That the educational process may not, with impunity, be divorced from the divine process.

That the student, as a person of infinite dignity, is the heart of the educational enterprise.

That the quality of student life is a valid concern of the University.

That truth, having nothing to fear from investigation, must be pursued relentlessly in every discipline.

That spiritual commitment, tolerating no excuse for mediocrity, demands the highest standards of academic excellence.

That freedom, whether spiritual, intellectual, or economic, is indivisible.

That knowledge calls, ultimately, for a life of service.”

Fidelity to this statement requires commitment to a certain realist ontology, but also a recognition of authority, standards, and teleology that govern human life and purpose. Embedded in the statement is a claim about the role of education in forming humans with respect to divine purposes and relative to the highest parts of their own nature. It commits the university to a view of human good and flourishing that is not of our choosing but of our discovery. Rather than power to transform, this statement is devoted to wisdom and the deepest human truths that are acquisitions of a well-formed soul.

In short, fidelity to this statement requires the university to reject modernist and ideological visions of reality, the person, and society. Pepperdine (or any major Christian university) will be countercultural when it decides to be faithful to its mission. Until then, all such institutions will be captive to a hostile ideology, however much they attempt to baptize modernist and ideological visions of justice and good. No truly great (meaning excellent, not well-esteemed) Christian university can emerge until it recognizes that a Christian education is incompatible with the regnant vision of the educational establishment.