Faith, hope and the academy

As UK universities with a Christian heritage seek to collaborate more closely, some academics are calling for more explicitly theologically inspired institutions. Hannah Fearn reports

March 26, 2009

The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge," so the Bible says in Proverbs i, 7, and for Christians in academe, faith in God is often at the root of their work. But in Britain's overwhelmingly secular higher education sector, some scholars are calling for the creation of a new type of institution.

Nigel Paterson, senior lecturer in English for academic purposes at the University of Winchester, last year argued for the establishment of a Christian university to counter what he called the focus on "wealth creation and utilitarianism" within the secular sector. In a paper for the Jubilee Centre, a Christian social reform group, he puts forward a provocative model for a new Christian seat of learning.

The university he described would prioritise theology and would offer space to explore disciplines that have been pushed out of the mainstream academy. Research would complement a Christian world view, and the Bible would be drawn upon within all courses. Moreover, if science was taught, it would embrace "the creation mandate".

Key members of staff, governors and leading academics at the institution should also be Christian, Paterson argues, concluding that "a Christian university can facilitate the development of an authentically Christian mind".

A small number of Christian universities already exist in the UK: institutions that take pride in their religious heritage, belong to the international Council of Church Colleges and Universities (CCCU), and put a premium on the spiritual and pastoral care of their religious students. Yet despite their origins, these universities are still largely secular in nature, and are happy to describe themselves as such.

So does the UK, as Paterson suggests, need a new type of Christian institution to offer a different perspective?

"Yes it does," says Gavin D'Costa, professor in Catholic theology at the University of Bristol. "It would plug a culture gap so that intellectuals wouldn't generally reproduce the dominant culture and alternatives might flourish."

Higher education is becoming too dogmatic in its secularism and is "in danger of stifling general plurality in the public square", he argues.

"The public square can be genuinely plural only when folks learn tradition-specific ways of approaching knowledge. Only once there are more Christian higher-education institutions of real intellectual calibre can there be a flourishing again of Christian culture, which can make a genuine contribution to the wider good."

The University of Warwick has never had a theology or religious studies department, yet academics have observed that many students are actively religious despite there being no outlet for those beliefs within their degree programmes.

This situation worries Steve Fuller, lecturer in sociology at the university, who would welcome a whole new type of institution.

"I think the prospect of a Christian university in this country - a politically liberal place lacking a legal separation of Church and State - is an exciting one that should be encouraged," he says.

"Nigel Paterson is right that they could teach things that secular universities currently do not. A new university that gave prominence to theology might prove attractive to people who want to study a subject explicitly devoted to integrating all knowledge under a common unified structure. Theology, arguably, still retains the old aspiration to provide intellectual unity."

The appeal of an explicitly Christian university is the possibility that it would offer training in subjects that a secular university would not. Fuller says that one obvious candidate for a new type of degree would be "critical geology", questioning the shortcomings of current methods of dating the ages of rocks. It would explore alternative methods, "probably with an eye to knocking several zeros off the estimated age of the Earth".

"Something similar could be done in 'critical biology' vis-a-vis Darwinism," Fuller adds. "The university could institutionalise creation or intelligent design-based science as subjects. It would be important that it is completely transparent in its curriculum, hiring people with PhDs from reputable places in the subjects as understood in secular universities, using in the main textbooks also recognised by such people and subject themselves to the usual forms of quality assurance."

Fuller admits that were such an institution to get off the ground, science subjects that embraced creationism would get a similar critical reaction to that already faced by complementary and alternative medicine degrees. This prospect does not deter him.

"It is not necessary for a Christian university to come up with enormous amounts of cutting-edge, peer-reviewed scientific research if it manages to correct people's understanding of what science is in the first place," he claims.

Nevertheless, for him this would be a small victory in itself.

"If a Christian university proved them wrong, even if only to raise creationism to the level of homoeopathy in this country, that would be an amazing step forward."

Many of those who embrace the idea of a new Christian type of university remain nervous about equating that with a commitment to Bible-led teaching and creationist scientific research.

"I think there is definitely a role for Christian institutions - most universities once were," says Paul Wooley, director of think-tank Theos, which promotes alternative perspectives in a secular society.

"There is a tendency to think that education can be neutral in terms of the values underpinning it. Education, like politics, can never be neutral. There is always a set of assumptions that go with an educational theory. If you are setting up a Christian university, you are being honest about that."

But any suggestion that such a university would automatically teach creationism is rejected. Wooley describes pure creationism as a "pseudo-science".

"I don't see any incompatibility between faith in God and evolution, and neither did Darwin," he says.

Not surprisingly, objection to a Christian university - thanks to the implication that creationist teaching would necessarily be involved - is widespread.

"To treat creationism as science, or indeed intelligent-design creationism as science, would mean overturning the way in which science operates," worries James Williams, lecturer in education at the University of Sussex.

"Faith and belief are often irrational and without evidence. Taking real-world scientific evidence and then distorting that to fit a biblical world view goes against a good education. I think that the threat is one of a distortion of knowledge in a bid to make it fit a particular world view."

Williams cites the views of Australian creationist Ken Ham, whose theories alarm secular scientific thinkers and would certainly find no place in existing UK universities. Ham skirts the problem of why dinosaurs appear to go unmentioned in the Bible by claiming that they were part of the animal kingdom taken on board Noah's ark and that only the young of the species were taken on board.

"An acceptance of biblical literalism means an acceptance of ideas such as these," Williams says. "If faith and belief is integral to the quest for knowledge and understanding, for me it would get in the way and could prejudice my understanding."

But the debate over creationism is only one component, albeit a bitterly contested one, to objections to the concept of a religious higher-education institution. UK universities are melting pots - places of learning where, theoretically, all members of society come together regardless of their race or faith or social background.

This mix of students helps young undergraduates learn more about others' world views. "In a situation where the Christian world view dominates, would students be able to gain an understanding and tolerance of other world views?" asks Williams.

Creating such an institution would probably mean that Islamic, Sikh and Judaic equivalents would also have to be established. And Williams believes that universities already provide religious believers with the support they need through university.

"Our current secular system does not preclude the setting up of societies where like-minded people of a particular faith can meet and share their views," he says.

Mona Siddiqui, professor of Islamic studies and public understanding at the University of Glasgow, and a Muslim herself, agrees.

"It's one thing to say that religious voices need to be heard with some kind of clarity and with some kind of sympathy, but that's very different from saying that we should have institutions that have only one perspective. I think that's very dangerous," she says.

Despite her own faith, Siddiqui worries about creating institutions where there is "one truth".

"It's good for people of all different perspectives to be together. I would say quite happily that my faith and beliefs don't interfere with how I'm teaching students. I wouldn't expect them to feel the same way about things that I do."

But like Williams, Siddiqui is also confident that the UK's existing universities are up to the job of fulfilling the needs of Christians in higher education. In fact, strong voices in academe can become voices for their faith.

All that is needed, she believes, is a more relaxed approach towards faith within secular universities.

"People of faith have been struggling for a few years now to try to get faith a bigger say in what goes on in politics and society, but it can work only if faith is given the same profile and same space alongside other ways of thinking. Secular universities should be able to accommodate that," Siddiqui says.

"The problem is that academic objectivity has stretched things so far that most people who are of faith struggle to find a space for their faith in their teaching."

There is agreement with this view even among those universities in the UK with a Christian heritage and ethos.

"I think the secular university system is potentially a hospitable and creative environment for the study of Christian theology and related topics," says Tina Beattie, professor of theology and religious studies at Roehampton University, an institution made up of three Christian colleges and one humanist college.

"The problem with the present system, however, is that there is still a powerful secular ideology at work in higher education that is highly resistant to any engagement with theological or religious ideas."

Beattie observes "an aggressive narrow-mindedness on the part of secular scholars who fail to examine the partiality of their own perspectives".

Her concerns are shared by fellow members of the CCCU across the current Christian higher education sector.

"I do worry about the aggression of some secular speakers. I think there is more fundamentalism starting to infiltrate the secular academic world. I think it's deeply unhelpful," says Diane Willcocks, vice-chancellor of York St John University.

"They indiscriminately attack different groups. I find it astonishing. I think they are causing more damage by disturbing people in their belief systems and starting to create a lack of security in people and a sense of fear about the dangers of faith. I find that very worrying."

There is both a case to answer and no obvious solution. It seems unlikely that Paterson's ideal of a purely Christian institution will become a reality within the coming years. Finding public funding for such a project would be a controversial task. In the interim, existing Christian universities in the UK are well placed to step in and begin addressing some of these difficult issues.

At Theos, Wooley believes that universities such as Liverpool Hope are doing a good job - "it has a Christian foundation that's not simply notional", he says. Willcocks is clear that her own institution is making inroads, too: "What I do want to see is a recognition that the wholesale rejection of theological traditions and ways of knowing has a detrimental impact on scholarship," she explains.

But it is soon clear that, in their current state, the existing Christian universities can do only so much. They, too, are in many ways committed to secularism in education.

"We would never use the phrase 'Christian university'," Willcocks says. "I'm a card-carrying Christian and it's part of my identity. From our Victorian heritage we take a contemporary view about the place of faith on campus - and that involves mixed faiths. We don't teach belief systems. We don't teach Christianity."

But despite the challenges they face, Christian universities believe they are gaining momentum.

The CCCU is attempting to bring its member institutions closer together, and by reflecting on its aims and its brand it hopes to become a stronger force in the global debate over issues of social justice.

Joy Carter, vice-chancellor of the University of Winchester, says that by working together, the group will become more effective. "Previously we operated very much in isolation. Individually we often have research centres linked to our original Christian foundations. There has been very little that we have done together, but if we joined forces in these research centres we could be very effective going forward.

"I think as a group we're doing a huge amount on this whole issue of ethics and spirituality," Carter says. "We have tremendous diversity in the education system. One of our key values as an institution is diversity. We enjoy the diversity of our staff; it's not a barrier, it's a pleasure."

And if the CCCU and its members are successful in promoting both spirituality and diversity in higher education, perhaps they will also successfully dissolve the debate by plugging the gaps that Nigel Paterson has identified.

HIGHER CALLING: WHAT ATTRACTS ACADEMICS TO INSTITUTIONS THAT HAVE A CHRISTIAN ETHOS?

Two academics working at Christian universities in the US explain why they choose to work within a religious institution

- Jeff Gundy, professor of English at Bluffton University, Ohio

"I share Mennonite values and beliefs, which is significant, but I have also found here the freedom to think, read and explore widely, in both my research and my teaching. Religious institutions include a wide range, of course. At mine, perhaps the most central feature is the beginning assumption that talking about ultimate questions of faith, life and the nature of the world is part of our business, and is entwined with all the other essential disciplinary work we do.

"I think that religious institutions make society better by sending graduates into the world who have examined and internalised their faiths and values and, in many cases, are ready to contribute to the creation of a more just and peaceful world rather than simply attempting to win the rat race. Secular institutions may have similar goals and sometimes similar results, of course, but religious schools are especially well suited to raise the crucial questions and create an atmosphere of real investigation and discovery."

- Paul Griffiths, Warren chair of Catholic theology, Duke Divinity School, North Carolina

"Whether an institution is religious depends on which variables you're interested in: financial; liturgical; power over curriculum and appointments; admissions policies. I chose to teach where I teach because I teach theology, which I take to be a properly ecclesial intellectual discipline, and thus best done in a context where most are themselves active members of some church.

"Christian universities offer a different perspective. Sometimes it's teaching of topics and traditions not taught by the secular system, for example medieval Christian scholasticism. Sometimes it's the adoption of methods shunned by the secular system. Sometimes it's showing the secular disciplines that their working assumptions are themselves usually theological, even though this is occluded.

"Religious institutions improve higher education by providing an intellectual voice not subject to the ideologies of democracy and late capitalism.

"The university as we now have it is a creature of the German institutions of the late 19th century, with Max Weber as their chief ideologue.

"This is not a neutral institution, and its pedagogical and research practices are not disinterested. Christian or Jewish or Islamic universities can show this to be so; in their absence, the secular university seems natural and inevitable, when in fact it is neither."

You've reached your article limit.

Register to continue

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments
Register

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments