Christianity and the Soul of the University grew out of a conference held at Baylor University in 2004. The book explores how Christian faith can help create, nurture, and sustain intellectual community at church-affiliated colleges and universities. In different ways, each of the ten contributors to this volume argues that Christian colleges and universities ought to present imaginative and hopeful alternatives to the fragmentation, excessive specialization, and moral relativism that too often characterize institutions of higher learning today. Overall, the authors demonstrate that a genuinely Christian education must take place in intellectual communities whose participants, shaped by common practices and virtues, flourish together in their pursuit of the good, the true, and the beautiful, the fullness of which is found in God.
Part I of Christianity and the Soul of the University explores some of the issues at the heart of a Christian intellectual community. In the opening chapter, Richard B. Hays examines how the first epistle of John is, perhaps surprisingly, useful for providing an outline for a Christian intellectual community. He notes that for the Christians addressed in 1 John, the goal of hearing the Word was to create a community “of a deep bond of common interest and commitment.” Such a community, which can only be brought into existence through Christ, exists to seek the truth and put it into practice, particularly through justice. A Christian intellectual community should embrace an “epistemology of love” and “intellectual charity.”
Jean Bethke Elshtain’s essay might best be described as an “intellectual autobiography”. She lists who have been her most prominent “companions” on the journey of her scholarly vocation: Camus, Freud, Bonhoeffer, Augustine, Hannah Arendt, and John Paul II. With them as conversation partners, Elshtain realized she had to unlearn the “dogma that animates so much higher education—that faith and reason are incompatible, and that the life of the mind and the life of faith are mutually exclusive.” In “Christian Interdisciplinarity,” John Polkinghorne argues that a university, as the name suggests, should affirm the ultimate unity of all knowledge, and finds that unity in the Christian doctrine of the Trinity.
Joel Carpenter’s essay presents a different challenge for Christian colleges and universities. His chapter explores the demographic shift in Christianity from Europe and North America to Latin America, Africa, and Asia. If Christianity is now predominantly non-western, how should this affect the work of theologians at Christian universities in the United States? Carpenter answers that it calls them to reorient their scholarly agendas. Part I of the volume concludes with a provocative and insightful essay by David Lyle Jeffrey. Jeffrey notes that a Christian scholar is one for whom “the claims of Christ have a greater hold upon her reflective intelligence than any other claims, including those of her academic guild.” In a true Christian intellectual community, Jeffrey contends, the purpose of academic freedom is not to pursue self-interest, but to seek the common good.
The second half of Christianity and the Soul of the University identifies specific practices to sustain Christian intellectual communities. In a refreshingly thoughtful essay, Susan Felch writes that doubt, “a quality of mind highly valued in the academy,” ought to be replaced by the practice of delight. If doubt becomes the dominant intellectual posture, it too often degenerates into cynicism and leaves students with “a flattened moral landscape that does little to excite their imagination.” By contrast, a Christian intellectual community should be characterized by delight because Christians live in a world marked by plenitude and grace. Aurelie Hagstrom follows with a compelling argument for why there can be no Christian intellectual community without the practice of hospitality. She deftly distinguishes a Christian understanding of hospitality from the postmodern exultation of tolerance. In “Communal Conflict in the Postmodern Christian University,” Steven Harmon claims that Christian intellectual communities can exist only when they learn how to address conflicts and disagreements constructively. He contends that worship must be the primary context for learning this skill because it is in worship that we remember the proper goal of all intellectual endeavors is to praise God and to find the unity of our lives in God.
One distinctive mark of a Christian intellectual community should be an astute and compelling moral imagination. Daniel Russ and Mark Sargent suggest that too often in Christian colleges and universities moral ideology triumphs over moral imagination. A Christian moral imagination not only calls one to personal integrity, but also to “justice and redemptive action.” The volume concludes with Daniel H. Williams’s chronicle of how Protestant colleges and universities, in an attempt to abjure confessionalism and authoritarianism, lost any sense of Christian distinctiveness. “The reduction of religious particularities and uniqueness,” Williams states, “produced not a broader base of agreement, but a pious insipidity that is neither compelling for satisfying intellectual acumen nor for offering guidance to the believing community.”
Christianity and the Soul of the University is a timely and important work that should be required reading for administrators and faculty at Christian colleges and universities. Each of the essays is uncommonly strong. Well written, thoughtful, and compelling, this is a book that both inspires and gives hope.