William Underwood, president of Mercer University and a former law professor, recently wrote a column for the Associated Baptist Press in response to criticisms about publishing a lecture from President Jimmy Carter on how his faith informs his view of current events.
Underwood’s column pretty much fits the template for liberal Baptists striking back at conservative Baptists. In other words, he asserts that conservative Baptists can’t deal with science, don’t appreciate learning, etc. None of that is remarkable for a clash of this type. However, he does offer a few nuggets that resonate more deeply. Consider this:
Our faith-based mission empowers us to explore a broader range of issues than are examined at secular universities today — issues that are fundamental to leading an informed life and were once central to higher education but are now largely forgotten in our universities. Why am I here? How should I spend my life? What should I care about most?
Baptist schools are empowered to explore these questions and the ones that grow out of them, like: Where was God at Auschwitz? Or, how can a God of love allow millions to be trapped in almost-unimaginable poverty?
We can likewise be places where the great moral and ethical issues of our age can be considered in an intellectually rigorous fashion from various faith perspectives. What can we learn from ours and other faith traditions about torture, creation care, immigration, war and peace, human sexuality, abortion, assisted suicide and the death penalty? These and a host of other questions cry out for rigorous intellectual consideration from Christian and other faith perspectives — especially in a culture where debate on these questions seldom extends much deeper than battling bumper stickers.
Gene Fant, dean of arts and sciences at Union University, read Underwood’s essay and made some interesting observations, not so much about what Underwood said, but about what he did not say. Fant’s analysis raises important questions about the way Baptists (or for that matter Christians generally) look at higher education. While Fant’s response has circulated privately in higher education circles, it has not been formally posted in a public forum.
I think that Fant’s reflection is worth sharing with readers interested in the question of the Christian university, so I asked his permission to post his response. He agreed. Here it is:
Defining Baptist Higher Education for the 21st Century: A Response
Recently Mercer University President William Underwood outlined his vision for distinctively Baptist higher education. President Underwood’s passion for excellence and his reputation for leadership at his previous institution, Baylor University, are evident in this zealous appeal for higher education to change lives and influence society.
The essay’s concluding paragraphs propose a central role for ethics, culminating in service: “Perhaps more than anything else, cultivating this service ethic in our students will be at the heart of the finest 21st-century Baptist universities.”
I applaud Dr. Underwood’s championing of orthopraxy. James 2:17 declares that faith without works is dead. 1 John 3:23 and other passages likewise make clear that the best way to gauge our faith is through our love for one another. Too many parts of Christendom have mistaken simple orthodoxy as the sum total of our faith practice, eschewing service as a lesser, and often secular, practice. Churches and individual believers who withdraw from the world have doomed themselves to irrelevance by never fulfilling the clarion call of being the very hands and feet of Christ in our broken world.
I am grateful, then, in principle for Dr. Underwood’s vision; what he says, particularly in the second half of the essay, is an exemplary declaration of the true work of Christian higher education: pondering life’s great issues and serving our fellow creatures. What Dr. Underwood’s essay does not say, however, is deeply troubling.
As a trained lexicographer, I enjoy reading “defining” documents such as vision statements because we can learn much from them. Lexicography, though, values explicit, clear statements because they endure. Implicit, unstated elements are interesting as historical context for definitions, but they tend to be lost over time. Implicit elements, almost without exception, become forgotten elements.
After reading the essay, I pasted its text into a Word document and searched for the terms “Christ,” “Gospel,” “Scripture,” and “Church.” Each case produced the same result: “Word has finished searching the document. The search item was not found.” “Christ” appeared only as a part of “Christian,” whereas “Bible” only in the discussion of the relationship between Genesis and modern science.
The essay’s definition of “Christian” higher education, then, is explicitly “Christ”-less, “Gospel”-less, “Scripture”-less, and “Church”-less. As a lexicographer, I have difficulty imagining how we might define anything as “Christian” without those foundational elements. Indeed, the essay explicitly proposes that the “core values of our faith” involve the campus community maintaining “regular religious observances on campus, expectations of personal integrity and morality among students and staff and creating a campus culture where people genuinely care about one another.” These “core values,” though, are so nebulous that Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Shintoists, Baha’is, or even Raelians could all say that they embrace them. They are not distinctively Christian. In fact, if one were to replace the words “Baptist / Christian” and “God” with “Baha’i” and “Divine Principle” in the essay’s second half, its meaning is essentially unchanged. The essay, therefore, does not lay out a theology of Christian higher education but rather a sociology of it.
The essay claims faithfulness to the ideals of the founders of Baptist higher education. Even a cursory reading of the writings of Richard Furman, Basil Manly, Sr., Jesse Mercer, and Francis Wayland, however, makes it difficult to conceive that they would recognize a vision of Baptist higher education that somehow omits robust attention to Christology, soteriology, and ecclesiology as primary elements of the faith.
Without orthodoxy, we are prone to detach service from the Gospel; education thus, is “liberated” from the primacy of Christ, the authority of the Bible, and accountability to the Church. Such a process follows that identified by James Burchtaell in The Dying of the Light, which explores the mission loss of several formerly Christian universities. Underwood’s essay eerily echoes the paring of Harvard’s original motto “Veritas Christo et Ecclesiae” (“Truth for Christ and the Church”), deleting both “Ecclesiae” and “Christo” to create a rootless search for “Truth” that is detached from all authority and accountability.
Other models of educational mission retain deep connections to foundational Christian elements, particularly church-relatedness. Baylor University, Dr. Underwood’s previous institution, employs a motto of “Pro Ecclesia, Pro Texana” (“For the Church / For Texas”). My institution, Union University, employs a Christ-centered vision set out in Pres. David S. Dockery’s masterful “Renewing Minds: Serving Church and Society through Christian Higher Education,” which has greatly influenced other institutions in the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. Such models seek to harness orthodoxy and orthopraxy within a Gospel-centered educational context.
Service detached from the Gospel of Christ mollifies the symptoms of the Fall but cannot remedy it. Providing service to those in need but withholding the Gospel is like performing cancer surgery and providing anesthesia while withholding the scalpel. Temporary relief may occur, but no healing has taken place. Such a “Golden Rule” ethic begins to veer into what sociologist Christian Smith has called “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism,” which replaces the Great Commandment and the Great Commission with an ethic of reciprocity that relies solely on human efforts apart from Christ’s redemptive work. It is a kind of legalism that robs the Great Commandment of Mark 12:29-31 of its correct beginning: “Love the Lord your God.”
The Great Commandment calls believers to follow an explicit path: both vigorous orthodoxy and intensive orthopraxy. To leave either behind is to arrive at irrelevance in the face of eternity. In the context of Baptist higher education, we must fix our eyes on Christ, the ultimate source and incarnation of Truth, in order to see this world in the truest light. We must teach our students to see His redemptive, timeless vision for our fallen world, understood aright through the lens of Scripture and lived out in the context of a Church that serves humbly and compassionately.
Gene C. Fant, Jr., serves as dean of the College of Arts & Sciences at Baptist-affiliated Union University in Jackson, Tennessee, where he is Professor of English.