Christians hold a wide range of views about what kinds of Christian organisation should be created. At one extreme, the Church is seen as the primary or even the only Christian organisation, its ordained leaders merely lending their authority to a limited range of other Christian initiatives – which thus have a denominational character (at least if you’re Protestant) and fall under clerical control. Perhaps a next step is to allow for independent initiatives like Christian unions, workplace fellowships and theological colleges directed by laypeople. But it’s quite a lot further along the spectrum that we find autonomous Christian schools, colleges and universities, in which a broad curriculum is available for study. Both Protestant and Catholic traditions have these – yet in the U.K. they are surprisingly rare and, in some circles, controversial.
I’m part of a working group looking at the idea of a Christian research institute for the U.K. – as part of the broader vision of a Christian university for the U.K. This is an idea close to the heart of Faith-in-Scholarship’s parent organisation, Thinking Faith Network – which was founded in 1986 as the West Yorkshire School of Christian Studies. So we’re going to have a number of posts looking at the idea of a Christian university – starting with this one.
What’s the idea of a Christian university? My boldest answer would be that it’s simply the ideal of the university. “University” comes from Latin universitas magistrorum et scholarium, which meant a community of teachers and scholars: the “universitas” bit seems to refer to the unity of a group devoted to a common aim – implicitly that of building and sharing knowledge and understanding. And the term was initially used in European cultures pervaded by Christian worldviews where the object and guarantee of all knowledge was the order of God’s creation itself, elucidated by the Christian Scriptures. Indeed a quick survey of university mottos suggests that in the British Isles, most of the earliest universities had biblical mottos (“Dominus illuminatio mea“, “Via, Veritas, Vita“, “Initium sapientiae timor domini“, etc). If we also endorse more modern mottos such as “all truth is God’s truth” and “He shines in all that’s fair” and the notion of the common good, we might hold that a Christian university is ideally everything a university should be. And perhaps some of today’s universities that don’t label themselves Christian are not so far from that ideal. Indeed, there are a number in the U.K. that retain reference to Christian foundations: some members of the so-called Cathedrals Group of universities do so somewhere in a “mission and values” page deep within their website, while Liverpool Hope University more boldly claims to be “Europe’s only ecumenical university” (referring to its joint Catholic and Anglican elements).
So why seek to establish anything else? Let me intimate an answer – together with a critique of our university sector as I currently see it – by suggesting three ways in which a Christian university would ideally not turn out. First, on the sphere-sovereignty principle, it would not be run as a business. While it should seek financial sustainability, a mission of seeking and inculcating wisdom beginning from the fear of Yahweh would be the guiding consideration. Second, it would not be a collection of academic departments unified principally by their adminstration. Interdisciplinarity would be promoted via a focus on a Christian philosophy articulating the coherence of all academic disciplines and through an emphasis on cross-disciplinary communication. (Joint honours degrees would not come from the widespread pick-and-mix approach: integrative modules would be required.) Third, it would not give special status to theologians, nor burden chaplains or clergy with the requirement to uphold its Christian character. While theological study would be encouraged for all faculty and students and a good chaplaincy would no doubt be an asset, all faculty would be expected to give some account of their work within a Christian worldview framework. A corollary to all this is that faculty would be appointed on the strength of their ability to relate their academic work to a Christian framework and philosophy, broadly defined.
A final point needs to be made: that no such selection criteria would be applied to students. One of the most striking things about my visit to a L’Abri centre was how there was no questioning of the faith or morals of students like myself who turned up to study there. We had already selected ourselves, and the community we joined was permeated by Christian orthodoxy and liturgy to such a degree that the experience was transformational.
There is lots more to say, of course, and for me personally to work out. That’s why this is just a first post on the topic – and why the Christian university project must be born out of a deep fellowship.