An Interview with Union University’s David Dockery – The Post Secular University

September 3, 2007 — Leave a comment

David Dockery on Christian Higher Ed’s Key Challenges
Plus: Fearing secularization and “fundamentalization” and whether “Christian economics” exist.
Hunter Baker | posted 8/30/2007 09:18AM

Book Report: David Dockery’s Renewing Minds
David Dockery is president of Union University in Jackson, Tennessee. Co-editor of two earlier books on Christian higher education (Shaping a Christian Worldview and The Future of Christian Higher Education), he has now written his own book on the subject. Renewing Minds: Serving Church and Society through Christian Higher Education, will be published by Holman Academic in October.
Related articles and links

CT: You’ve already edited two books on Christian higher education, and have written extensively on the subject. What motivated you to take it up again in a new volume, especially as there have been so many other books on Christian higher education in recent years?
Dockery: The world in which we live is characterized by change. At the heart of these paradigmatic changes we see that truth, morality, and interpretive frameworks are ignored if not rejected. The challenges posed for Christian higher education by these cultural shifts are formidable indeed. I believe those of us who are called to serve in Christian higher education at this time in history must step forward to address these issues. Renewing Minds is a call to reclaim the best of the Christian intellectual tradition. In this context we need more than just novel ideas and enhanced programs; we need distinctively Christian thinking. It seems to me that the integration of faith and learning involves, as T.S. Eliot said so appropriately, being able to think in Christian categories.
CT: One of the significant divides in terms of conceiving the Christian university is between the “two spheres” model which aims to provide an excellent secular education in a Christian environment, and the integrationist model, which aims at distinctively Christian education. You endorse the latter. Why?
Dockery: A two-sphere model recognizes the place of chapel, campus ministry, mission trip opportunities, and residence-life Bible studies. This model sees a place for faith on one side of the campus and learning on the other. This model can be achieved with parachurch ministries on secular campuses. I do not believe this model represents the best of Christ-centered higher education nor do I think it represents the best of the Christian intellectual tradition through the years.
The conjunction of faith and learning, the one-sphere or integrationist model, points to the essence of a Christian university. In recent years, among an increasingly large number of intellectuals, there has arisen a deep suspicion of today’s thoroughly secularized academy, so that there is indeed a renewed appreciation for and openness to what George Marsden calls “the outrageous idea of Christian scholarship.” As Mark Schwenn of Valparaiso University has suggested, it may be time to acknowledge that the thorough secularization of the academy is, at least, unfruitful. There is even a renewed interest in many places in the relationship of the church to higher education. Ex corde ecclesiae is the way our Catholic friends frame this idea, which calls for the church to be at the heart of the university and for the university to be at the heart of the church.
Being faithful will involve more than mere piety or spirituality, which by itself will not sustain the idea of a Christian university. We need a model of higher education that confesses the sovereignty of the triune God over the whole cosmos, in all spheres and kingdoms, visible and invisible.
CT: Why are Christian faculty sometimes�deeply divided over making the integration of faith and learning the touchstone of a Christian university experience? And why does it seem to provoke bigger fights between Baptists than Presbyterians or Catholics?
Dockery: I think one of the key challenges we face in trying to advance the cause of Christian higher education is locating and developing faculty who believe in the importance of the vision I have attempted to articulate in the first three questions. This understanding of faith (the faith that we believe) provides a unifying framework that helps avoid the error of a spiritualized Gnosticism on the one hand, or a purely materialistic metaphysic on the other. It is this confessional starting point that forms the foundation for our affirmation that all truth is God’s truth, whether revealed or discovered. Thus, on the one hand we respond with grateful wonder at what has been made known to us, and on the other, with exerted effort to discover what has not been clearly manifested.
As to your question about the differences between Baptists, Presbyterians, and Catholics, I am not sure I know the answer. I would guess, speaking as a Baptist, that Baptists have perhaps focused more on the heart than the head. Our Catholic friends have emphasized serious philosophical inquiry and Presbyterians have wrestled with the intricacies of theology, while Baptists have put their energies into missions and evangelism. Of course these are generalizations, but I do think there is a long-standing suspicion of education in certain aspects of our Baptist history, particularly the revivalistic wing of Baptist life.
But probably more than anything, Catholics and Presbyterians have had a greater appreciation for tradition, and particularly the best of the Christian intellectual tradition. Baptists probably need to go back and read the 1678 Orthodox Creed (a seventeenth-century confessional statement adopted by General Baptists), which affirmed the importance of confessing with all true Christians everywhere the importance of the Apostle’s Creed, the Nicene Creed, and the Athanasian Creed.
In that light, I would suggest that our choice is not between choosing to be faithful to our Christian heritage (or our Baptist, Evangelical, Presbyterian, or Catholic heritage) or being participants in the academy. It is not an unquestioning acceptance of the Christian tradition or open-ended inquiry. Jaroslav Pelikan was fond of claiming that if tradition is the living faith of the dead, then traditionalism is the dead faith of the living. Such traditionalism is often characterized by inflexible and at times anti-intellectual dogma at every point and in every discipline. This approach fails to engage our society or influence our culture.
On the other hand, free inquiry untethered to faith and tradition often results in unbelieving skepticism, advancing the directionless state that characterizes so much of higher education today. Such an approach cannot sustain the Christian tradition and its truth claims.
Neither of these approaches represents the best of Christian higher education.
Our unique calling is not to be forced into inappropriate “either/or” choices, but to be appropriately “both/and” as represented in a motto like religio et eruditio. We reject those who call for us to create false dichotomies or join together unrelated ideas in an irrational, pluralistic fashion. Instead we call for a commitment to faith and learning grounded in Jesus Christ, who is both fully God and fully human, and who is both life and light.
CT: In addition to ideological or theological disagreements about faith and learning, we operate in an environment where many have come to conceive the college as nothing more than a place to learn marketable skills. What would you say to the student who comes into college thinking the liberal arts are a waste of time and that career skills are everything?
Dockery: I believe that Christian higher education leaders must think clearly and comprehensively about our purpose and mission. We are called to educate students so that they will be prepared for whatever vocation God has called them, enabled and equipped to think Christianly and to perform skillfully in the world, prepared to be servant leaders who can impact the world as change-agents based on a full-orbed Christian world and life view.
Our calling is not to fall into the trap of only preparing students with skills for the market place. We need to build colleges and universities founded on the liberal arts tradition, established on the values of a commitment to the coherence of knowledge and God-revealed truth, flowing from our submission to the Lordship of Christ.
We need to recognize that the world of higher education continues to change. The growth of professional programs will continue on our campuses, but we must work hard to ensure that these programs remain liberal arts-based programs, whether in the fields of business, education, healthcare, engineering, social work, or elsewhere. Christian colleges and universities have something different to offer in this regard. Our calling is for faculty and students in these programs to learn to think Christianly about business, healthcare, education, social structures, public policy, recreation, and yes, about homes and churches as well. For to love God with our minds means that we think differently about the way we live and love, the way we worship and serve, the way we learn and teach, and the way we work to earn our livelihood.
We must therefore work together to build Christian liberal arts-based colleges and universities where men and women can be introduced to an understanding and appreciation of God, his creation and grace, and humanity’s place of privilege and responsibility in God’s world. We need God’s grace to guide us in these efforts as we work together to advance Christian higher education in years to come.
From the Lectern: David Gushee
David Gushee, formerly of Union University and now with Mercer University in Atlanta, recently delivered the Hester Lectures before the International Association of Baptist Colleges and Universities. In his lecture, Gushee made an arresting point about battles over how the Christian faith manifests itself in a university environment and why controversies arise. As a consequence of fallen human nature, he notes, “We are often primarily motivated by the effort to avoid what we most fear.” The things different Christian academics tend to fear are either secularization or what Gushee refers to as fundamentalization. The result can be paralysis and the approval of “vague platitudes that everyone can endorse because they mean nothing.” (Have you been on that committee, readers?) Recognizing the charged emotions, Gushee concludes, “If pressed to the wall, as one who has personally experienced both kinds of realities in painful ways, I would have to say that given the overall trajectory of Western intellectual and cultural history, it is my view that the fear of secularization rather than the fear of fundamentalization is the more realistic fear moving forward into the 21st century.”
Christian Economics?
The story of Colorado Christian University firing a professor because of tension between his presentation and the school’s strong identification with free market economics raised questions among many over whether there is a Christian view of economics. I checked in with Jordan Ballor, associate editor of the Acton Institute’s Journal of Markets & Morality to get his opinion. According to Ballor, while “there is no single evangelical economic worldview, it does not follow that every economic option is equally valid.” Some systems, such as materialist Marxism or a completely unregulated anarcho-capitalism are “incompatible with biblical Christianity.”
Economic materialism ends up attempting to “account for the entirety of human existence and experience” while ruling out any notion of the divine. A better approach is to recognize that “The Bible tells us very clearly that human beings are created in the image of God” and that we are responsible for our stewardship of material goods. While there may be some appeal to aspects of a Marxist ethic, the Roman Catholic experience demonstrates that the inconsistencies generated by a materialist worldview tend to crowd out orthodox doctrine.
Anarcho-capitalism mirrors Marxism in the sense that it contains some truth. The Marxist is an advocate for the common man. The anarcho-capitalist sensibly claims human government should have limits. The problem comes in when that nugget expands into an anarchistic worldview, which is clearly also in conflict with Scripture “regarding the nature and function of political authority (e.g. Romans 13:1-7, Exodus 12:12).”
The unsurprising bottom line is that Christians should never set up any system or philosophy above Christ.

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