The Christian University

Adapted from remarks given on September 23, 2011 at the installation of Myron Steeves as the new Dean of Trinity Law School.

As is evident by where and how we mark this event – in a church, accompanied by prayer and song – Trinity Law School, and the university of which it is a part, is Christian. “Christian” may seem a mere adjective that modifies “university” or “law school” in the same way that “regional” or “California” might.  This temptation arises from a belief – widely held, though rarely challenged, in contemporary culture – that a Christian school is just a secular school except with idiosyncratic accouterments, such as mandatory chapel, rules about personal moral conduct, and a commitment to a list of religious dogmas to which its faculty must subscribe. Although these differences are of no small consequence, they are not, or ought not to be, at the heart of an institution that considers itself seriously Christian.  

Let me offer for your consideration the following thesis: A Christian school regards theology as a legitimate academic discipline that informs and illuminates, and is organically connected to, all the other disciplines of the university in the same ways that those other disciplines are connected to each other.

My point is the same one offered by John Henry Cardinal Newman in his masterly Idea of a University (1852). Newman argued that if theology is knowledge, then a Christian university should treat theology no differently than it treats other disciplines, such as chemistry, physics, law, medicine, English Literature, or social work. To think of theology as merely personal and private – rising only slightly higher than matters of taste – excludes theology from the realm of “knowledge,” and thus renders it less serious than other academic disciplines.

A Christian school is not simply a secular school with activities and traditions gratuitous to the project of learning. Rather, the Christian school brings to bear the resources of its theological tradition in ways that a secular institution cannot do. For this reason, a secular university is not a neutral institution, but one that deliberately excludes from consideration the deliverances of theological reflection. It is driven by a different, though partly overlapping, cluster of assumptions about the universe, human beings, the life of virtue, and our highest good.

Consider, for example, the legal question that was faced by the 9th circuit of appeals in a 2002 case, Newdow v. Elk Grove Unified School District. The court ruled that the district’s requirement that each day students recite the Pledge of Allegiance violates the Establishment Clause because the pledge includes the phrase, “under God,” even though any student may opt out. The court’s inability to see the important philosophical questions that lurk behind this phrase is quite curious. Secularism constrained its vision.

 Trinity Law School

Congress added the phrase “under God” to the pledge in 1954 to distinguish the American view of rights from the Soviets’:

[T]he principles underlying our American Government and the American way of life are under attack by a system whose philosophy is at direct odds with our own. Our American Government is founded on the concept of the individuality and the dignity of the human being. Underlying this concept is the belief that the human person is important because he was created by God and endowed by Him with certain inalienable rights which no civil authority may usurp. The inclusion of God in our pledge therefore would further acknowledge the dependence of our people and our Government upon the moral directions of the Creator. At the same time it would serve to deny the atheistic and materialistic concepts of communism with its attendant subservience of the individual.

At a Christian law school, these points would not be dismissed as mere religious assertions by Congress for which the believer cannot offer reasonable arguments, which is how the Newdow court saw them. Rather, these points would be viewed as tethered to live questions that are both serious and intriguing, no different in kind to other jurisprudential questions that are addressed in both secular and Christian institutions. The Christian sees the notion that God is the ground of our rights as no less rationally defensible than substantive due process, Richard Posner’s economic theory of torts, or H. L. A. Hart’s legal positivism. 

Because a Christian school is part of an identifiable intellectual tradition that consists of settled, partially-settled as well as open questions, its understanding of academic freedom will have different contours than in the secular academy. In the latter, there is an initial appearance of unfettered liberty, until one examines the institution’s intellectual infrastructure – and how that places restraints on the community by informing its members as to what questions are settled, partially-settled, or open as well as the punitive consequences for transgressing these boundaries.

For example, in 2010 at the University of Illinois a religion professor was initially terminated on the grounds that he had the temerity to present to his students the Catholic understanding of human sexuality in a class that covers Catholic moral theology. In another case that same year, an accomplished astronomer was denied employment at the University of Kentucky because some at the university believed that he had publicly entertained doubts about certain aspects of neo-Darwinianism in lectures on the relationship between science and theology. This Evangelical Christian professor, who eventually agreed to an out-of-court settlement, was punished for engaging theology with academic seriousness, precisely the sort of activity that is welcomed and encouraged at a Christian institution committed to a different and, dare I say, richer and more expansive intellectual tradition. Thus, these sorts of disputes are not really about academic freedom. They are about what counts as an open question and what sorts of intellectual resources one may plumb in exploring such questions.

Francis J. Beckwith is Professor of Philosophy & Church-State Studies, Baylor University, and 2016-17 Visiting Professor of Conservative Thought and Policy at the University of Colorado, Boulder. Among his many books is Taking Rites Seriously: Law, Politics, and the Reasonableness of Faith (Cambridge University Press, 2015).