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Is There a Blueprint for a Christian University?

03/10/2015 04:17 pm ET | Updated May 10, 2015

Might there be a blueprint for a Christian University? Yes, of course. Just as blueprints guide other construction projects, Christian universities benefit from design, as well. All buildings depend upon a solid foundation, strong infrastructure, and protective roof to avoid a tragic end. Likewise, Christian universities must be so built in order to endure.

May I commit metaphor and suggest that these three imperatives of any secure edifice --foundation, infrastructure, and completed project -- are represented in the building of a Christian university, respectively, by the Word of God, the Way of Jesus Christ, and the Wellness of Persons?

The Word of God.

As nations require a constitution to establish jurisdiction, so religions depend upon a canon to provide jurisprudence. A nation which nullifies its constitution will descend into chaos, as will a religion which annuls its authoritative verse. Foundations must hold.

Sadly, in some quarters today, an outright rejection of Scripture as a divinely inspired record of God's revelation is in vogue. Some prominent modern scholars insist: The Gospels are not literally true, but history metaphorized; the Bible is not divine, but a totally human product of two ancient communities; there was no virgin birth and no bodily resurrection. Jesus was a Jewish peasant, certainly not divine. The Bible is not the word of God. There is no God external to life. The Gospels contain embarrassing moral and intellectual concepts. So runs the hermeneutic of cynicism.

Many view the Bible along the lines of grandfather's clock: cherished and given a place of honor, but certainly not depended upon to perform the service it once provided. Thankfully, others hold the line. Richard B. Hays, Dean of Duke Divinity School, insists Scripture is norma normans, the norming norm for Christians, which means Scripture is authoritative for the church. Martin Luther, the Father of the Protestant Reformation cried, Sola Scriptura, Scripture Alone, as authority for Christian faith and practice.

In his book, The Strange Silence of the Bible in the Church, James D. Smart, warns: "When the book [Bible]is no longer read and understood by Christians, they have been cut off decisively from the roots of their distinctively Christian existence." In short, he writes, "No Scriptures, No church! No Scriptures, No revelation!"

Does Smart mean to say that all revelation is limited to the Bible? No, God reveals God's self on the stage of history and to us personally still.

Before departing earth Jesus revealed, "I have yet many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of Truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth;" (John 16: 13) Faith is a flowing river, not a stagnant pond. Admittedly, the river flows faster in some places than others, for some people than others. Surely, however, we will not turn our spiritually cracked lips and parched souls away from our life-giving stream in the desert.

Sadly, rejection of the authority of God's Word appears to be common to humankind, as the biblical story of Adam and Eve shows. Not surprisingly, the words, authority, and author, derive from the same Latin root, auctor, meaning, "writer, or progenitor." To rid ourselves of the authority of Scripture is to rid ourselves of its author. Hmmm, wonder who might that be?

Although the written and Living Word of God form the soul, or foundation, of the Christian university we dare not commit the sin of bibliolatry, worshiping the Bible rather than the One to whom the Book points. That would be akin to eating the menu rather than the cuisine to which the menu points.

The Bible is an antidote for all forms of idolatry. When Jesus becomes Lord there is regime change. Whoever, or whatever, has been king, queen, boss, most significant other, addiction, or god, is dethroned. Jesus is Lord and Caesar is not. Jesus is Lord and mammon is not. Jesus is Lord and _____(Fill-in-the-blank)____is not.

Just as no building can long survive without a sure foundation, neither can a Christian university. The foundation of the Christian university is the Word of God, the Bible, which introduces us to the Cornerstone, the Living Word of God, Jesus Christ.

The Way of Jesus Christ.

What does Jesus mean when He says, "I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life?"
Jesus taught his disciples that the secret to greatness was found in serving others. His calling to His disciples was holistic: mind, body, soul, devoted to God, service rendered to others, all wrapped in unselfish, unconditional love. "If anyone would come after me," he challenged, "let him deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me." Self-denial, self-sacrifice, self-surrender, He taught, is His Way and the Way of His followers.

All truth is God's truth. In the Christian university, all inquiry, thinking, speaking, behaving, serving, relating, discovery, teaching, learning, integration, application, creating, writing, counseling, playing, coaching, producing, designing, planning, performing, and working, serve Jesus, our Lord.

We are called to be Christ-centered, academically rigorous, and service-oriented, especially attuned to the needs of the poor, the marginalized, the needy. While we seek to glorify Christ by reaching our full potential as educated citizens and servant-leaders, our desire and calling is to serve others. Let us remember and celebrate that we are an academic institution, a learning community, a school. Dare any of us waste this God-given opportunity to love the Lord with our minds, to grow, to become? Heaven forbid! Rather, let us read, think, question, dialogue, listen, write, create art, music, and literature, exercise, play, pray, worship, do good work, and make friends in gratitude to God.

Our life is ordered by The Way of Jesus Christ. His teachings, such as the Sermon on the Mount, which features a radical call to enemy-love, forgiveness and purity of heart, his sayings, parables, and example become normative. The cross of Christ saves us mystically, but also practically. We live in light of the cross, ourselves given to God and others. But there is more than a selfless example in play. There is empowerment to live the Christ-life thanks to the gift of the Holy Spirit to believers. The Holy Spirit? Game changer!

Is there a place for God in the Christian university classroom? Should compartmentalization of our Christian faith be acceptable? Rather than confine Christ to chapel, or the religion classroom, or the office of the campus minister, might faith and learning and questioning be integrated into the curriculum? Or shall we choose to practice what George Marsden calls, "methodological atheism?"

Since students surely read their teachers, even if they don't read the textbooks, and since some things are better caught than taught how important is the hiring of Christian professors in a Christian university? What about coaches and staff? Important questions, these, aren't they? How do you build a Christian university? One hire at a time. How do you lose a Christian university? One hire at a time.

Might not subjects be viewed through a Christian lens in each discipline? After all, all other lens ---Marxist, feminist, gay-lesbian, capitalist, humanist, African-American, Native-American, socialist, green, and others, as well -- afford important angles of vision for contemplation and conversation. Why not a Christian lens? What difference would that make? To be sure, to offer but one concession, Hydrochloric Acid (HCI) will singe the just and the unjust alike, but should Christ be exiled from the Christian university classroom as He is in the secular university? If not, is our call in the Christian university to indoctrination, interrogation, or integration of our faith, or some measure of all of the above?

Why would we not share, winsomely, the great doctrines of our faith and saving grace available in Jesus Christ when appropriate to do so? Some might call that indoctrination. What about integration and interrogation of our faith? Are these not equally important, even vital to Christian critical thinking, learning, and living, as well? Jesus questioned much in His day, especially entrenched religious belief and behavior. Should we not question all things, also? And why not? How else do we separate wheat and chaff among truth-claims? Surely truth will stand up to questioning. Falsehood should not and will not stand. Why not ask, "What is good? What is true? What is the common good? What does God desire?" "What difference does it make being a follower of Jesus Christ?" "What would Jesus think, say, do?" "Are those in authority right?" "What is right?" One devout scholar noted, "The faith that is afraid to think, is not faith at all, but unbelief hiding behind a mask of piety."

To journey from a non-questioning stage of faith, to a questioning stage, to a place of commitment is to grow in maturation. We are not children. We are adults. Ideally, Christians are thinkers, questioners, disciples, evangelists, revolutionaries courageously confronting falsehood, hypocrisy, ignorance, bigotry, oppression, and evil. The daring Christian calling is not one lightly accepted. Jesus sternly warned the curious, "Count the cost." Once he probed, "Can you drink from this cup?" Frankly, not everyone can, or will. Some of us might fall in that number. Yet, Christ calls each of us, and all of us, personally and communally, to come follow Him, learn from Him, to die to self, be changed, then, in His power and love, boldly go and change the world.

The Wellness of Persons

Harry R. Lewis, Harvard professor of more than 30 years, and former Dean of Harvard College, writes in his book, Excellence without a Soul, "I have almost never heard discussion among professors about making students better people." "College, at its best," he adds, "is where students start to understand themselves and to find ideals and objectives for their lives." But, he laments, "Universities have lost the sense that their educational mission is to transform teenagers. . . ." "The role of moral education has withered."

Carl Jung, the renowned psychoanalyst, observed, "Among all my patients in the second half of life -- that is to say, over 35 -- there has not been one whose problem in the last resort was not that of finding a religious outlook on life. It is safe to say that every one of them fell ill because he had lost what the living religions of every age have given their followers, and none of them has been really healed who did not regain his religious outlook."

Did Jung say the healing religious outlook must be Christian? He did not. He would agree, however, that Christianity provides a religious outlook which is essential for healing. Therefore, we might conclude that a Christian university which rests on the solid foundation of the Word of God, and features the Way of Jesus Christ in its systemic infrastructure, would yield, for those who wholeheartedly buy-in, a completed work of wellness of persons. This wellness, of which I speak, is a wellness of soul, spirit, mind, purpose, and service. Truly Christ-like persons, despite life's trials, tribulations and sufferings, are well persons.

One would expect students, faculty, staff, alumni, trustees, friends, local-state-national-international citizens, to be better persons, church members, citizens, family members, friends, workers, ministers, and volunteers as People of the Way of Jesus, than otherwise they would be apart from their transformational relationship with Christ, and their faith community experience.

Few people I know would argue with the critique of our world today as "messed up," a place where things have gone terribly wrong. Crime, war, terrorism, disease, hunger, poverty, greed, addictions, discrimination, human trafficking, promiscuity, torture, homelessness, child abuse, domestic abuse, rape, and countless other unspeakable expressions of evil spread like aggressive cancer throughout humankind. I am not naïve enough to believe that any one of us in the Carson-Newman University family, nor the entire university team together will somehow transform earth into a planetary Garden of Eden, where we all live happily ever-after in Paradise Regained.

But what if we fulfilled our calling as a Christian university perfectly? Sorry. Not possible. Why not? Because there is no such thing as a perfect Christian university, nor anything else for that matter -- marriage, family, church, school, government, you-name-it. And why not? Because all these are made up of persons. And there is no such thing as a perfect person, persons, or system. All systems are fallen, flawed. But, if we cannot serve God and neighbor perfectly, we can certainly serve them imperfectly.

I do believe a Christian university and her community of followers of Christ can make a huge difference in this world, as Christ has made in ours. Don't you? Can we make well the hurting and the hurters everywhere? How I wish! So we can't change the whole world? We can change the world for one person, can't we? Then another. And another. And another. A child? A woman? A family? A victim? A child of God?

IS there a blueprint for a Christian university? Yes, there is, one that calls for a foundation built upon the Word of God, an infrastructure made strong by The Way of Jesus Christ, culminating in the beautiful outcome: the Wellness of Persons.

The Christian university is a home, however imperfect, for pilgrims of the Way, the Truth, and the Life, a sacred place to come to, to become a transformed, educated child of God, as well as Holy Ground to go from, to touch and transform other lives in the loving Spirit of Christ Jesus, our Lord and hope.

May it be so. Amen.