The modern man says, ‘Neither in religion nor morality, my friend, lie the hopes of the race, but in education,’” wrote G. K. Chesterton. “This, clearly expressed, means, ‘We cannot decide what is good, but let us give it to our children.’” Replace “education” with any of the buzzwords secular schools use today to describe their graduates and the result is the same: “empathetic,” “critical-thinking,” “authentic,” “service-oriented,” “purposeful.” These all dodge answering that age-old question Plato put in the mouth of Socrates: “What is the Good?”
Into this moral void progressives have surreptitiously poured all the noxious assumptions of woke ideology. For over half a century, American youth have been forced to choke down a substantive vision of the Good under the guise of mere “education.” In The Abolition of Man, C. S. Lewis described this bait-and-switch in modern education as a moral “subterfuge.”
Expressly Christian colleges have generally fared no better as stewards of Christian education. Campbell University boasts a “transformational learning experience” that equips students “to make a difference in the lives of others,” instilling within them “social sensitivity and ethical responsibility.” Carson-Newman University vaguely describes its ideal graduate as a “worldwide servant leader.” Similarly, Southwest Baptist University claims to produce “servant leaders in a global society.” Descriptions like these, aimed to please everyone and offend no one, mean almost nothing.
Many Christian institutions have become prone to mission-drift and to conflating voguish pieties with gospel mandates because they have come to embrace an identity of “mere Christianity” over confessional particularity. As a distillation of the essential features of orthodox faith, C. S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity is a valuable tool for apologetics and for reinforcing unity in the body of Christ. But it is too soft a foundation for building and sustaining institutions.
During the era that Aaron Renn has called the “positive world”—the time, prior to 1994, when being a Christian was still a net social benefit—merely Christian institutions provided adequate moral formation, as the ambient American culture was densely Christian. This began to change in earnest in the early nineties. But now that we are deep into what Renn refers to as the “negative world”—the era, beginning in roughly 2014, in which one’s Christian faith has become a net social liability—this minimalist approach is an insufficient foundation for institutions tasked with forming future citizens and civic leaders who will safeguard Christian orthodoxy in the public square.
In fact, the phrase “mere Christianity” has itself become just another dodge. Grove City College (GCC) provides an instructive example. According to its website, what makes GCC stand apart is that “faithfulness” is a “lived experience” at the college. What kind of faithfulness? A merely Christian one in which “Students . . . are challenged to think broadly and respect differing theological perspectives.” Such a merely “Christian perspective” “serves as a framework” in which students can chart their own “path and purpose and evaluate all ideas in light of that central presupposition.” It is unsurprising that GCC has recently come under scrutiny for giving credence to critical race theory. (Though it must be acknowledged that the pushback from faculty, students, and alumni has been admirable.)
The example of Grove City College suggests that a college with a merely Christian identity—even one that famously takes no government money—too easily leaves doors open to the zeitgeist. Clearly expressed, such a mere Christian ethos means “we cannot decide what vision of the good life our theology points to, but let us give it to our children.”
It is time for a course-correction, especially in Protestant schools of higher education. Roman Catholics have led the way in recent decades by founding new colleges with robustly Roman Catholic identities, such as Wyoming Catholic College (2005) and Ave Maria University (2007). But America’s Protestant colleges have rarely retained denominationally distinctive characters. For example, Palm Beach Atlantic University, where I got my undergraduate degree, and Hillsdale College, where I received my MA and PhD, were founded originally as Baptist schools, but rather quickly shed their Baptist identity.
The ecumenical experiment in “merely Christian” institutions is no longer viable. The pressures for Christian institutions to conform to the broader American culture are too strong for most to withstand, especially given their dependence on high enrollment numbers—and, for at least some of these schools, the federal dollars those numbers represent.
Furthermore, those who attempt to create institutional “mere Christian” identities naively misrepresent Lewis's work. The primary metaphor of Mere Christianity, set forth in the book's preface, is that of a large house with a hallway leading to many rooms. The hallway represents the most basic of Christian beliefs, and the rooms stand for distinct denominations with doctrinal expositions of those beliefs and various ways of living in accordance with them in ecclesial communities.
Lewis is explicit that the hallway is only “a place to wait in . . . not a place to live in” (or build colleges in, we might add). He explains, “it is in the rooms, not the hall, that there are fires and chairs and meals.” Even “the worst of the rooms is . . . preferable [to the hallway].” Lewis knew that the low barrier to entry into the hallway was insufficient for keeping out the wolves from which only the rooms—distinct traditions—could provide necessary security in the long run.
Of course, having a denominationally distinctive identity is no silver bullet against mission drift. The vital element is an intentional ethos informed by a definitive interpretation of Scripture that can be embodied in normative and formative practices.
What would this proposal actually look like? For my own tradition, Anglicanism, it is easy to imagine a community of learners formed by the rhythms of the Daily Office and liturgical calendar, the melodies of Anglican hymns and our distinct chants, and classes in specifically Anglican theology.
Admittedly, this proposal seems overambitious, given where things currently stand. But if we really are in the uncharted waters of the negative world, then the need for reform will only become more evident. In some cases, it is already too late. The collapse of many existing Christian colleges is imminent, and others will be tempted to delay the inevitable by lowering their standards, either by accommodating the left or by abandoning academic rigor. Thus we may need to found new colleges on unambiguous visions of the good life informed by robust historical Christian traditions. A daunting prospect, for sure, but in many instances it will prove easier than restoring existing institutions.
John Adams, in a 1781 letter to John Quincy, encouraged his young son in his study of various Latin poets, historians, and orators, but then ended the letter with this brief admonition: “You will ever remember that all the End of study is to make you a good Man and a useful Citizen.—This will ever be the Sum total of the Advice of your affectionate Father.” In Adams’s day, that adjective “good” had a more or less established Christian meaning in society’s formative public institutions. Not so in ours.
We must rebuild, and we must start with robustly Christian colleges.
Clifford Humphrey is director of religious coalitions at the Edmund Burke Foundation.
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