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Recently, an academic administrator informed me that passing judgment on others’ sexual orientation or religious beliefs was grounds for exclusion from partnership with the university office she represents.

This was hardly a surprise. As Richard John Neuhaus pointed out in The Naked Public Square, in order to enter public life in America, one had to remove one’s religious garb, that is, to withhold religious ideas and assumptions about reality. In the naked public (and private) university, notwithstanding its commitment to open inquiry, the same restriction holds. But how did we get here? At one time, religion played a prominent, even central, role in the university. What changed?

At the end of the nineteenth century, academics began to shift control of higher knowledge away from clerics and to professionals like themselves. This broad secularization was accompanied by a kind of privatization where churches retreated from public space, abandoning knowledge claims in political and cultural affairs. According to Neuhaus, this withdrawal fit with broader tendencies in American life: American individualism, America’s constitutional stricture against the establishment of religious institutions, and our free market in religion where religious energies are devoted to growing religious institutions. Campus ministries became little more than auxiliaries to student affairs offices.

Needless to say, students suffer in the naked public university, as I found in my doctoral research. When I asked them about their religious experiences, Muslim and Christian international students invariably reported frustration that their professors will not or cannot discuss religious questions, issues, or concerns with them. Many students just keep quiet. Some who go to grad school maintain their religious principles only through sophisticated forms of cognitive dissonance, speaking and acting like naturalists or postmodernists in their work, activating their faith at home. Others fall into the academic mindset in which science or politics explains everything—and end up spiritually empty.

Their experience has opened a space for a wider inquiry into the very questions that lead many students to college in the first place. In the spiritual vacuum created by the naked public university, Christian study centers have started. Located alongside universities, they host speakers, organize student programs, and pursue scholarship whose roots lie deep within the rich sources of Christian faith—the Bible, St. Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, the recent popes John Paul II and Benedict, and so many others—while engaging secular colleagues respectfully and thoughtfully. The Consortium of Christian Study Centers website lists centers at institutions including Yale, Cornell, Duke, UVA, Minnesota, and many others. They seek to make universities a richer habitat for learning by providing a space friendly to moral language and religious meanings. Drawing upon the rich and varied resources of the Catholic, Orthodox, and the increasingly robust evangelical tradition, these centers cultivate communities of conviction, life, and love rooted in Triune faith.

Many university-based Christian study centers see themselves as a “faithful presence” (to use James Davison Hunter’s term) in the university. Thousands of students find their way every year into the Center for Christian Study at the University of Virginia, whether for stimulating lectures, group discussions, the wildly popular Move-In Day program, a film showing, or a place to study in the Center’s library. MacLaurinCSF, next to the University of Minnesota, recently launched Lumen, a program for entering first-year students who want to be faithful to God in their studies and all of life. “We don’t believe that students should have to sacrifice either strong Christian formation or the substantial benefits of studying at a major, public research university,” observes the executive director, Dr. Bryan Bademan.

Other study centers are products of academic exile. Rob and Sim Gregory recently shared on this website how the InterVarsity Christian Fellowship chapter at Bowdoin College was excluded from their campus. The college required that all organizations allow any student to run for leadership positions no matter his religious beliefs, a demand the Fellowship refused to obey. Bowdoin answered with expulsion. (See news story here). In response, the Gregorys have launched the Joseph and Alice McKeen Study Center at Bowdoin, providing a lively haven for believers and skeptics alike. “God has made provision for us in the midst of genuine academic persecution,” said Gregory recently. Tuesday night Bible studies focused on Creation theology and Thursday night informal meetings will soon be complemented by special lectures by Christian scholars and others. 

All great questions are theological at heart, but the theological is usually excluded from our universities. Some time ago I spoke to a Christian student group in our university’s business school. I asked why they had to leave their Christian faith outside the door in order to pursue knowledge about business and management. We noted together that universities specialize in small and medium-sized questions, and have largely removed the big questions from consideration, except in philosophy or perhaps classics. The logic of academic specialization means that we have our disciplinary logics, ground rules, and accepted theories that define what we count as proper. Academics have no higher allegiance than their academic disciplines, and thus choose not to, or cannot, explore questions outside of those disciplinary confines. Thus, universities are one of the few institutions where it is true that the whole is less than the sum of the parts.

So it is not surprising that Christian study centers are emerging from the epistemological rubble of our naked public universities. Students want them.

Robert Osburn is an adjunct lecturer in the College of Education and Human Development at the University of Minnesota, and leads the Wilberforce Academy where he trains college students to be redemptive change agents in their home societies and workplaces.

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