Conceiving the Christian College

In Conceiving the Christian College, Wheaton College president Duane Litfin offers a readable and substantive apologia pro collegio suo, while helpfully illuminating broader issues facing religiously-affiliated institutions of higher education.

Litfin begins by distinguishing between two models for religiously-affiliated colleges. Those that operate according to an “umbrella” model accept a diversity of religious commitments under a “Christian canopy”; they attempt to maintain a “critical mass” of faculty and administrators who identify with the Christian tradition; and they put particular emphasis on the theology department and the campus ministries program to conserve and express the college’s religious identity. In contrast, colleges that adhere to a “systemic” model insist that all faculty be committed to the sponsoring faith tradition, and that the public mission, as well as each academic department, must reflect an intentional integration of faith and learning (13-20). While he acknowledges that both kinds of institutions have legitimacy within “Christian higher education,” he reserves the term “Christian college” for the latter, and devotes most of the book to exploring the problems and potentials of systemic Christian colleges.

Litfin holds that a systemic college needs to articulate a coherent theological vision of the relation of faith to learning, one that goes beyond generic theism to embrace a Christocentric core. Conceiving the Christian College Christcentered education is, for Litfin, “an education that rigorously and without apology insists upon looking through and beyond the created order to see the Christcenteredness of all things” (67). He employs C. S. Lewis’s analogy of standing in a dark shed looking at a beam of light and what it illumines in the shed, then looking along the beam to see the world beyond the shed and the source of the beam itself. These two epistemological moments correspond to his distinction between the two sources of human knowledge, discovery (a.k.a. reason) and revelation, which in his vision must ultimately cohere (94-95).

These convictions require Litfin to position himself between a “modernist” view of knowledge that would exclude revelation and exalt reason as the sole legitimate source, and a “postmodern” view that dethrones reason but replaces it with skeptical relativism. Christianity, in his view, authorizes a “balanced epistemological tension” (115) between these extremes, producing epistemic confidence in the adequacy of the human mind to know reality, without the presumptuous certainty that we can know that reality exhaustively on our own. And the coherence of the two sources excludes a dualistic view of knowledge, such as the “non-overlapping magisteria” of science and religion proposed by astrophysicist Stephen J. Gould (150 ff.).

The alternative to exclusion or dualism is the “integration of faith and learning,” and Litfin devotes the core of his book (Chapters 7-9) to exploring the meaning of this somewhat over-used phrase. He argues that integration must take place across the disciplines, that it must be overtly Christocentric, and that it must involve more than a pietistic nod in God’s direction on the syllabus. But it is much more difficult to specify what integration should look like in specific disciplines. Litfin bravely tackles two hard cases, chemistry (160; cf. 76 f.) and mathematics (166 ff.); but he fails to show that the substance of either discipline is affected by faith. “We see not so much different things, but the same things in a different light,” he says (161). While this may be true and significant, it falls short of his goal of a fully Christocentric integration of faith and learning in the content of the discipline.

According to Litfin, “to think Christianly means to think biblically,” by which he means (quoting C. Stephen Evans) “continually looking to Scripture to provide the basic or foundational narrative in terms of which we understand the world” (201). This privileging of Scripture is treated at a rather abstract level, however, so that it is not clear if or when revelation so understood might overrule discovery. The “methodological naturalism” of the sciences, for example, is accepted as long as it is clearly distinguished from a materialist worldview (209 ff.). But specific results of this naturalistic methodology have appeared problematic to some Christians, notably in the field of biology. For instance, does the priority of Scripture justify rejection of the neo-Darwinian basis of contemporary biology? Given the centrality of this issue, it is surprising that Litfin does not address it.

The last three chapters of the book address some of the practicalities of justifying the existence and preserving the identity of systemic Christian colleges.   He argues that integration must take place across the disciplines, that it must be overtly Christocentric, and that it must involve more than a pietistic nod in God’s direction on the syllabus. But it is much more difficult to specify what integration should look like in specific disciplines.  Litfin argues that required adherence to a statement of faith does not violate the academic freedom of a faculty member as long as the requirement is clearly stated in advance of the individual’s hiring. In good evangelical fashion, he refers to this as “the Voluntary Principle,” and appeals to it as the solution to all apparent conflicts of conscience. He notes that changes or clarifications of a faculty member’s beliefs may result in problems with the statement of faith, but insists that in such a case a faculty member of integrity would see the need for a separation from the institution.

Litfin considers an argument by Fritz Matchlup that the pressures surrounding the doctrines prescribed in a college’s statement of faith might lead to problems of credibility when those issues are addressed in the classroom (217 f.). In dismissing the argument, he appears to interpret it as an argument against professors revealing their commitments, that is, for a stance of neutrality. But Matchlup is not making that argument; rather, he wonders whether a professor can credibly discuss the strengths and weaknesses of a doctrine if the students know that the professor’s job depends on accepting the doctrine. Litfin’s response does not meet that objection.

Litfin’s general response to the question of academic freedom is to insist that professors at systemic colleges regularly report that they feel more free there than they do in more secular and pluralistic settings (see 218 f.). Such self-reports are significant and understandable. A Christian professor in a secular setting who wants to talk about her faith in relation to her discipline might feel constrained if such talk was regarded as unscientific or impolite or incendiary, and might therefore experience a systemic Christian college as a much more open environment for her concerns. But that doesn’t mean that such a college is more open for every faculty member and in every respect; and those who find it inhibiting are understandably less likely to be effusive about their feelings.

While he notes that systemic colleges can legitimately define themselves more or less broadly within the ecumenical Christian tradition, Litfin gives particular attention to a critique of Wheaton College by sociologist A lan Wolfe. A fter noting the high level of interest in Catholic thinkers at Wheaton, Wolfe wondered why there are no Catholics on the Wheaton faculty. Litfin insists that it is not because Wheaton is “anti-Catholic,” but rather because the tradition that Wheaton represents is evangelical Protestantism, and that tradition has always understood itself in contradistinction from Roman Catholicism. Wheaton’s statement of faith must be interpreted in terms of its history, Litfin argues, even if (as he acknowledges) that statement contains nothing that a Catholic would be required by his faith to reject (244). This raises the troubling possibility that a statement of faith may have unstated, implicit meanings that are known to the institution but not to the faculty who sign it–until a faculty member runs afoul of one of those meanings.

Ironically, such a situation did in fact occur at Wheaton in the same year (2004) that the book was published, when Joshua Hochschild, an assistant professor of philosophy, converted to Catholicism. While acknowledging that Wheaton had the right to an exclusive hiring policy, Hochschild pressed the issue of whether the statement of faith justified the exclusion of Catholics from the faculty simply in virtue of their affiliation. The school determined that it did, and dismissed Hochschild at the end of the 2004-05 school year. The case raises troubling issues, which are not entirely resolved by Litfin’s discussion.

There is much else in this book that is worthy of discussion–for example, Litfin’s insistence that true educational diversity requires a diversity of institutional types, as well as individual diversity within institutions; and his insightful comments on why it is easier for institutions to move in a more pluralistic direction than to reverse that movement. Litfin writes clearly and with a welcome generosity of spirit. If he does not say the final word on many subjects, he moves the discussion forward in productive ways.

David Timmer is professor of religion at Central College in Pella, Iowa.