My little series on God’s Harvard got me thinking about Christian colleges–I’ve given some thought to how we got them, what they’ve become, what they could be, what they should be, and all sorts of other things. I’ve also been reading a fair number of books about college teaching in general and Christian colleges in particular.
All this is to say that this next little series of posts will itself be a process of working out what’s on my mind, an exploration of how a Christian college should bear influence on the mind, what Christians might have to say on the mind and its life, and whatever else I can, if people don’t mind.
Before I begin I should note that my series is by necessity Utopian. Not only am I borrowing certain conventions from St. Thomas More and his literary descendants (Francis Bacon and Voltaire just to name a couple), but since I have neither the resources nor the inclination to start a college of my own (I’m working hard enough to get hired by one), the ideas that I present will necessarily happen in no-place, ou-topos. As Plato, the original ou-topian, notes, such is not necessarily a fatal flaw in a political discussion; its function, after all, is not to lay out policies for a standing state but to provide criteria by which one might evaluate standing states.
Since such generation of no-places must happen in the human imagination (imagination informed and made generous by Christ’s grace, I should hope), and since human imagination is contingent rather than necessary, this particular ou-topia is by definition a work in progress, one which I hope will draw strength from other human imaginations.
How I Will Proceed
I know. You’re only hoping that I proceed.
I imagine this series taking five parts to discuss. In what remains of this post I will talk about how each part relates to the others. In the next part I’ll talk about Christian vocation and how it informs life together in general and academic common life in particular. After that I’ll talk about what truth might look like embodied in a studying community, after which I’ll make a case for the classical liberal arts, recast in Christian categories. Finally I’ll propose a way for Christian liberal arts colleges to relate with research universities informed (I hope) by Christian charity as a philosophical category.
But I should lay out my own ground rules before I proceed to all that.
Christian Ethics Once Again
My methodology is not a set of rules so much as a set of aims, the chief of which is to make this thought experiment an exercise in Christian ethics. As I’ve said before on this blog, the primary datum that makes Christian ethics Christian is the world in the Johannine sense. That is to say that Christian ethics describe those practices that define people who live in the world but not of the world.
Such a starting point might seem innocuous, but the implications are at least this definite: the Christian college exists to serve a world that will not recognize its aims but nonetheless benefits by its existence. The Christian college’s presence in a local community, its graduates’ careers, and its faculty’s interactions within their larger disciplinary communities should, broadly speaking, bless the world without being the world. The shapes of those blessings are not determined prior to the practices of the college, but the ultimate telos of everything the college does should be blessing, whether by telling the truth where powers would lie, striving towards mercy where powers calculate only cost and benefit, or doing whatever else is within the purview of an educational institution. And where said college fails to bless, the community of students and teachers should recognize that as sin.
Why this Experiment? Why not Something Else?
I cannot at the moment articulate anything further than a sense that something is very wrong with the ways that big colleges go about business and further a sense that the small Christian colleges I know are already doing the hard work of bearing witness to a better way to educate. Like Plato looking toward Lacedaemon, I will borrow liberally from those liberal arts colleges I love on my way to a reasoned account of what higher education could be, and I can think of no better starting point than small colleges that imagine themselves as Christian colleges.
That’s the broad shape of my goal; now getting there will likely take some writing. I encourage you CRM readers to join with me as I think about these things. Tell me where I’m off target, and help me to reason through this. Next post will be a broad case for education as part of Christian vocation.