Pious Colleges

by Tom Tredway

For many Pietisten readers of a certain vintage (birth dates pre-Eisenhower presidency) the programmatic statement about the relationship between human civilization and the Christian Gospel was H. Richard Niebuhr’s Christ and Culture (1956). In his work Niebuhr delineated a range of possible Christian attitudes about that relationship, stretching from complete identification with human culture to total rejection of it. Most of us who have been associated with Christian or church-related colleges, either as students or staff, probably found ourselves somewhere between these extremes. We were neither Tertullianist nor Thomist. In the third century of the Christian era Tertullian asked, “What hath Athens to do with Jerusalem?” And his answer was, “Nothing!” Christians had no need of the contrivances of human society. And neither had they any obligation to society. One millennium later Thomas Aquinas attempted a great synthesis of all human culture and knowledge under the control of the Christian Gospel and Church. Thomas’ Summa Theologica embedded a Christian worldview in the metaphysics of (pre-Christian) Aristotelianism. The forms and content of Greek philosophy became the vessel that carried, not just human learning, but the Christian message, which was its pinnacle. Thomas’ thought is, of course, still the official theology of the Roman Catholic Church, which has not given up on the possibility of creating a truly Christian civilization, even though western culture since the Renaissance has tended in quite the other direction—toward secularism.

To work in a liberal arts college controlled by or related to a Christian denomination, especially Protestant or Evangelical, is certainly to find oneself somewhere between these two poles. Even the most conservative school must offer American history or human physiology courses if its graduates are to become teachers or physicians. It need not endorse the ideas of Marx or Darwin, but it ignores them at some risk if it wants wider respect in an academic community that includes the great universities where college faculty are trained. But at the same time, faculty and students at the church colleges know that many of the values and habits that prevail in the “secular” world of higher education, as in the culture at large, are not those of the New Testament, even if such values and habits must be taken seriously. At times administrators get nervous because the clergy of the supporting church are critical of their school for teaching subjects that threaten faith. Faculty at these colleges seem to know, however, that a good education demands the presentation of the full range of facts and ideas, those that seem in harmony with the Gospel and those that seem to contradict it. They live in the tension between Christ and culture which Niebuhr lined out in his seminal study.

The effort to understand and resolve this Athens-Jerusalem tension, (at least existentially if not theoretically), mostly has tended in one direction. That has been to identify the deepest values and highest standards of an institution with its Christian roots. The liberal arts commitment has been understood to demand some openness to other views—say Freud’s or Shakespeare’s—which do not seem to support these Christian values. Jerusalem becomes the symbol of a college’s commitment and Athens of its openness. Based on this understanding of the Christ-culture issue, colleges and their churches have sometimes gone separate ways. The landscape is dotted with schools which still carry religious names—Wesleyan or Westminster—but which have separated from their founding churches. At some time in these schools’ histories, their leaders concluded that they could not be true to their academic mission when tied to churches. These church connections, they felt, restricted their freedom to explore all the facets and areas of human learning, even evolutionary geology or socialist economics. And other schools, perhaps at the other end of spectrum, have declined to permit the teaching of certain subjects because these seem to stand in opposition to their Christian standards.

What I want to suggest is that there is another way to understand the Christ-culture question as it relates to higher education in America. This is especially important in regard to the relationship between liberal arts colleges and the churches that founded many of them and continue to sustain them with students, faculty, money, and prayers. To suggest this alternative is not to deny the reality or even perhaps the validity of the decisions that some schools and churches have made to go their different ways. And it does not, on the other hand, mean that colleges which exclude some subjects or ideas from their curricula because of conflicts with their Christian foundations are intellectually dishonest. It is simply to raise the possibility that an alternative understanding may provoke a different and equally important insight into the respective roles that our roots in Greco-Roman culture on the one hand and in the biblical tradition on the other might offer. This alternative understanding has developed for me as I have taught Western Civilization courses and in the same years been an administrator at a liberal arts college that was trying to maintain and strengthen its ties to a Christian church body.

One who studies ancient Greek history, even on the freshman level, is quickly struck by the fact that none of the Hellenic city-states, not even Athens, was entirely open to all ideas and people. In his funeral oration during the war with Sparta Pericles boasted of Athens’ openness, but the fact is that Athenian citizenship was quite restrictive, often in ways that trouble the city’s modern admirers. Women could not speak in the Assembly. The economy of the city was built on slave labor. Athens’ great rival, Sparta, was of course even more restrictive. It was controlled by a highly regimented military caste system. Most of the great cities of classical antiquity were in this sense elitist, limiting citizenship to a small fraction of their denizens, and what is just as significant, adhering strictly to their own ideas of arete, excellence. Plato’s Republic, one of the great political textbooks of our civilization, is hardly a plea for an open democratic society. Rather it suggests that government is best placed in the hand of those few whose learning and wisdom earn them the right to control the lives of others. A city ruled by a philosopher-king will be far more stable and effective than one governed by hoi polloi, the mob. In their athletic competition, as in their intellectual and social lives, the Greeks stressed and recognized superiority, excellence, and what they were certain were the highest standards.

The Scriptures, Old and New Testaments, clearly do raise standards, values and ideals; and many of us feel that these are the highest in the long history of our civilization. But they also teach that all these standards, values and ideals, even the noblest, are subject to the radical criticism and judgment of the God whose ways are not always ours and whose thoughts are ultimately past our understanding. The struggle of the apostolic church to free itself from captivity to first century Judaism was about opening its doors to all people, those who observed Jewish law and those who did not, slave and free, male and female. The elevation of gentleness, compassion, humility to the highest virtues was greeted by many of Christianity’s early critics with scorn; the Church taught a “slave morality” (Celsus). As the influence of the Church grew along with its numbers, this scorn morphed into fear that the Gospel would destroy Romanitas, the Roman way of life (Julian). The egalitarian openness of Christianity and the human qualities it enjoined were in important ways the very opposite of the exclusivity and elitism of classical culture.

So it may be that we should consider flipping the usual understanding of the respective roles that classical learning and the Gospel play in the life of a Christian liberal arts school. Our roots in the great tradition of Western Civilization (and the other great civilizations of history as well) may suggest that we should hold the highest standards for intellectual and academic life, even at the risk of being accused of elitism. A school that strives to excel in all that it does, as Karl Olsson’s North Park or Conrad Bergendoff’s Augustana did, is living up to its claim to descent from Athens. But it is in loyalty to our heritage from Jerusalem that our institutions are called to openness, to self-criticism, and to the sense that however noble and elevated human intellectual and even moral achievement may be, it is not to be equated with the will of God, who has purposes and designs, the Scriptures say, which are past human understanding and contriving. His will is sometimes worked in the teeth of our best efforts and ideals.

We verge on blasphemy when we unilaterally equate our institutions—social, economic, political, cultural and academic—with the purposes of God. For, as both Job and the Apostles learned, He can be unpredictable. Only the gift of faith, not the work of human wisdom, perceives, and only through a dark glass, the divine will. That point is nicely made with reference to American political life by Arthur Schlesinger Junior’s recent essay in the New York Times book review section (September 18, 2005). Wondering how we have managed to forget “the supreme American theologian of the 20th century,” Reinhold Niebuhr, (brother of H. Richard), Schlesinger recalls that this Niebuhr understood, as many of us currently do not, that an essential thrust of Christianity is to inculcate in us a sense, not of infallibility, but of humility. Human understanding of truth is “fitful, shadowy and imperfect.” Reinhold Niebuhr maintained that all human perspectives are relative and that to claim divine sanction for one’s opinions is sinful. Such an understanding of the meaning and function of Christianity in human events might well inform the life, not only of a great nation, but of educational institutions that claim relationship with the Christian Church. (Garrison Keillor, whose fondness for church colleges is well known, noted in a recent weekly column that he always thought that Christianity began with confession and repentance, not with a prayer of gratitude to God for making me such a terrific fellow.)

Does that mean that to work in a school seeking to be loyal at the same time to its classical and to its biblical roots condemns one to spiritual and intellectual schizophrenia? Must faculty hold ideas and loyalties that are inevitably and finally in direct contradiction to each other? Do we adhere at the same time to the high ideals of classical humanism and to the self-criticism and openness of the Scriptures, unaware of what may be irreconcilable differences? To some this may seem to be the case. But to speak of split-mindedness is to suggest a pathological disintegration of life and self. And a liberal arts college that tries to live in a vital relationship with the Gospel and the Church does not have to come apart over this issue any more than an individual person must.

Martin Luther’s idea of simul justus et peccator, of the person who is at once justified by God and still a sinner, is instructive here. So is his concept of the two kingdoms, one of God and the other of the world, both deriving from divine will. Luther’s teaching on these matters suggests that the individual believer always find himself in dual realities: the world plagued by sin and ruled by law, and the realm of God, governed by grace, in which obedience to the law is freely rendered by each Christian out of gratitude for divine mercy. One seventeenth century English intellectual, Sir Thomas Browne, said of his own life that a Christian must be an “amphibian,” functioning in the religious faith he had learned, believed and practiced and at the same time working in the emerging world of secular learning, scientific and humanistic, in the English Renaissance. Browne and Luther before him, standing at the beginning of modern times, realized that the Christian individual inevitably lived in two worlds and that the struggle to reconcile them in one’s life was a worthy one, even if it did not always result in splendid over-arching intellectual unity.

It is not unreasonable to recognize that institutions, like individuals, can live at once in two realities, with commitments that point in different directions. At one moment a college’s loyalties may all be in harmony. At another time schools and those who work in them will experience conflict between the claims of academic excellence and Christian openness. Imagine the satisfaction of a professor of chemistry who discovers that one of her best students wants to pursue a graduate degree so that he may teach and mentor would-be scientists just as he has been taught and mentored by her. And imagine the difficulty experienced by a dean of students who struggles over whether to dismiss a student with addiction problems or allow him to continue in school, hoping to get his life back on track. The highest academic and personal standards and the critique of them by the Gospel exist together in the life of every Christian intellectual. So it is reasonable to suppose they might in the life of an institution as well. It may be instructive to consider that it is our classical heritage that is the main source of our intellectual and academic standards and ideals and that it is our scriptural roots which require us to subject even these high values to the judgment of God, remaining open to the new things He has yet to show us, in our institutional as well as in our personal lives.

Tom Tredway is a teacher of history and president emeritus of Augustana College in Rock Island, Ill. He is the author of “Conrad Bergendoff’s Faith and Work: A Swedish-American Lutheran, 1895-1997.”

See all articles by Tom Tredway