“A Christian University: Defining the Difference” by Mark R. Schwehn(First Things, May 1999)

In Mark R. Schwehn's view, significant changes have occurred in the American intellectual culture since the 1960s which open up the established secular university to challenges of all kinds. Rather than reactively defending themselves from secular educational institutions, Christians should be pursuing their own agendas on their own terms. Schwehn draws on John Henry Newman's idea of a university to establish basic principles.

Schwehn, dean of Christ College in Valparaiso University in Indiana, writes: “Judging by the recent resurgence of interest in and care for church-related colleges and universities of all descriptions, the idea of a Christian university is very much alive. Even so, since the 1960s, most academics have regarded serious Christian universities … as medieval remnants at best and as oxymorons at worst.”

The Christian university must first “have a board of trustees composed of a substantial majority of Christian men and women, clergy and lay, whose primary task is to attend to the Christian character of the institution. They will do this primarily but not exclusively by appointing to the major leadership positions of the school persons who are actively committed to the ideal of a Christian university. These leaders will in turn see to it that all of the following things are present within the life of the institution: first, a department of theology that offers” required courses in the Bible and Christian intellectual history; “second, an active chapel ministry … third, a critical mass of faculty members who, in addition to being excellent teacher-scholars, carry in and among themselves the DNA of the school, [and] care for the perpetuation of its mission … and fourth, a curriculum that includes a large number of courses, required of all students, that are compellingly construed as parts of a larger whole and that taken together constitute a liberal education.”

Schwehn argues that “An informing principle like ‘unity’ really does make the Christian university countercultural in the modern world,” because modernity has fractured and fragmented our understanding of the world. A second “constitutive belief of a Christian university is that all human beings, everywhere and at all times, are made in the image of God and loved in the way that God loves, i.e., in a manner best exemplified in the life and death of Jesus the Christ. …

“My third informing principle, ‘integrity,’ involves the belief that there is an integral connection among the intellectual, moral, and spiritual dimensions of human life. … An arrogant teacher, for example, no matter how well he understands organic chemistry, is apt to be unresponsive to students and impatient with their errors and hesitations. Humility, therefore, is both a spiritual excellence and a pedagogical virtue. … My own practice as a historian has demonstrated to me the cognitive value of such virtues as justice and charity.”

Next is the principle of tradition. “Rival ideas of the university … often construe tradition of any kind as inimical to the kind of free inquiry that is the heart and soul of university life. … [But] an increasing number of students come to the university without any sense of any tradition whatsoever. … Tradition and critical inquiry frequently clash, but it is important to notice that they most often exist in a relationship of dialectical interdependence.” Criticism works upon something already established, while over time, tradition incorporates and reacts to criticism.

Finally, “it should be a primary teaching of a Christian university that work is a social station where human beings use their God-given talents and whatever knowledge they have acquired to serve neighbors in need. … A Christian university should … equip its students to perform well in all of their concurrent callings, and it should teach them to regard human life not primarily as a tragic set of impossible choices between excellence at home or at work or in civil society, but as a striving for the proper balance of exertion and achievement within all of these fields of endeavor.”

Ellen Wilson Fielding writes from Davidson, Maryland.