Willson Lectures speaker encourages ardently Christian universities to stand strong

March 5, 2010

PLAINVIEW – In his first presentation for Wayland Baptist University’s Willson Lecture series, noted Christian ethicist Dr. David Gushee of Mercer University deliberated over the history of Christian universities in America and their great decline, while urging those ardent stalwarts to remain strong in their faith identity.

Gushee, who is Distinguished University Professor of Ethics at Mercer, noted that the “fading Christian soul of the university” began centuries ago when many of the major universities like Harvard and Yale started shedding the Christian heritage of their founding. He said many schools were founded under a Western culture where the authority and respect of the church and the Bible were prevalent, but as different schools of thought like rationalism and emperialism came about, that began to shift on many campuses.

“Sometimes it seems as though the tide of secularization is almost unbearable,” said Gushee at the opening banquet held Thursday as part of the two-day lecture series. “Often it seems the university is reflecting the community, but if the community becomes more secular, the university ends up going that way as well.”

Gushee said while many originally Christian universities nationwide have become increasingly secular – either cutting ties completely with their denominational heritage or maintaining a relationship in formality only – he finds hope in what he called a “resistant community” of schools who remain ardent about balancing their faith heritage and mission with the academic rigors required of the university.

“Schools attempting to retain a Christian identity are making a great contribution to the church and to society,” he said.

Gushee borrows from author Robert Benne in breaking colleges into four categories with regard to faith, taken from Benne’s book Quality with Soul. He said the “accidentally pluralist” schools are primarily secular but with the presence of a few Christian faculty or leaders bring some aspect of faith into the campus. Others are “intentionally pluralist,” not as thoroughly secular and ensuring that there is some Christian presence on the campus.

Where Gushee argues most ardently Christian schools fall is into the categories of either “critical mass” or “orthodox.” In both categories, he said, “faith is the explicit, organizing center of the campus” and the schools recruit their faculty and staff from various Christian faiths. In addition, there are Christian courses required of every student, such as the Old Testament and New Testament history courses at Wayland.

Where the orthodox schools begin to vary is that every course is designed to reflect the Christian thought integration, student life is monitored heavily for moral consideration, the chapel program is robust and the school remains tightly rooted to its sponsoring denomination.

Gushee said he believes Southern Baptist schools have a unique story, shaped in large part by the decades of controversy within the national convention. He said the tendency to fear secularization has meant some schools have tightened the reins. An equal fear of fundamentalism has meant some have taken measures that threaten academic discovery and freedom. In actuality, though, Gushee said the moves have caused the reverse to happen. The fear of secularization has led to fundamentalism, and vice versa, and “our very fears have done great damage to our universities.”

But the future is not without hope, Gushee said, as long as universities embrace their Christian identity and seek to nurture students that, “love God with all their heart, care about the kingdom, love people and care about justice in an unjust world.” These students, he said, “experience and exude the fruit of the Holy Spirit.”

He noted that Christian universities are to be the outposts of the mission of the church, where faith is not just theological doctrine but includes service and great love to people.

“To be truly Christian and truly Baptist, our colleges need direct attention to the spiritual and moral side of faith, to its living heartbeat, to the praxis of discipleship, to the integration of spiritual passion, Christian love and biblical ethics into every area of life,” he said in closing. “Students need models and mentors who demonstrate the viability of the Christian life and pass it on to the next generation.”