Can Evangelical Christian Colleges Learn Anything from John Henry Newman?

Newman

Some evangelicals at Christian Colleges do not believe that John Henry Newman is useful today because his famous book The Idea of a University is addressed to Christian “gentlemen.”  I understand this critique. I also think it is short-sighted.  Indeed, Newman wrote the lectures that became Idea in 1854–a time when the most prestigious British universities were only open to men.  But his lectures on the university also offer a lot of interesting insights for anyone who works, teachers, or leads a Christian college.

In a plenary address at “The State of the Evangelical Mind” conference this past week, Tim Larsen, the McManis Chair of Christian Thought at Wheaton College, applied Newman’s work to the task of cultivating the evangelical mind on Christian college campuses.

Drawing from Newman, Larsen offered several characteristics of a Christian liberal arts college:

  1. Christian liberal arts colleges must pursue “substantial knowledge.”  Students should study those things that distinguish us from other animals.  Larsen argued that money should be used to pursue this kind of “substantial knowledge” and not the other way around.
  2. Christian liberal arts colleges are about “formation,” not careerism or the pursuit of monetary comfort.
  3. Liberal arts colleges must promote “the entire circle of knowledge.”  They should embrace and celebrate the fact that psychologists, biologists, historians, sociologists, economists, and theologians, among others, all offer useful ways of understanding the world.
  4. Students at Christian liberal arts colleges should not be sheltered from “unsettling realities.”  When students are sheltered from certain ideas they are only “delaying their education” and, in essence, turning their education over to the world.
  5.  Theology must be a core discipline at a Christian liberal arts college and it must inform all the other disciplines.

The Q&A was lively.  I was interested in how Larsen’s model might work at a college without a denominational or Christian confessional core or specific doctrinal statement beyond the basic historic Christian creeds. At the college where I teach there is no particular theological system that can serve as a starting point for how theology might inform the work we do in our fields.  Jay Green followed up on my question by asking Larsen how to balance disciplinary-specific ways of thinking with the integrated model Larsen proposed in his lecture.

I liked Larsen’s lecture and have always been attracted to the kind of Christian liberal arts institutions that he described (with a lot of help from Newman).  I do wonder whether such a vision would only work at a handful of Christian colleges.  At most Christian colleges the humanities (the study of the things that separate us from other animals) are in decline, professional programs prevail, and students decide what to study based on economic considerations. Some Christian colleges even prevent students from engaging with certain texts and ideas that are considered dangerous by the administrators in charge.

One thought on “Can Evangelical Christian Colleges Learn Anything from John Henry Newman?

  1. I was sorry to miss this conference & enjoying John’s reports… Tim’s comments are noble and worthwhile. But John is right: this line of thinking (and much of the pre-existing scholarship on faith, learning etc.) does not seem to account for the reality of what most Christian colleges are — and probably always have been — both in terms of the type of student, the aspirations of the parents paying for the education, and the sheer cold economic realities of staying open. Perhaps the conference hit upon it, but we need a renewed vision for the Christian university/college that accounts for these realities (which I think means talking less about the Evangelical “mind”) and finds ways to “redeem” them in ways faithful to both the humanities and the evangel.

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