Whether you describe it as a decadent society or a decaying culture or a democracy dying in darkness, 2020 has given us a taste for what Cormac McCarthy once described as “the frailty of everything revealed at last.” We have been frail for a very long time, but what we could deny before has been made glaringly manifest through a pandemic, racial injustice, social unrest, mass unemployment, and a highly contentious presidential election that earnest folks on both sides have described in existential terms. The foundations of our society are not quite destroyed, but they are cracking, and those cracks raise the psalmist’s question, “What can the righteous do?” (Ps. 11:3).
Part of the answer, I believe, is to support and rely upon Christian colleges and universities to serve as institutional anchors—spaces of transformation and education, discipleship and scholarship, cultural edification, and exhortation.
This is why I am particularly troubled by the significant challenges facing Christian higher education. At precisely the time the church in America needs cultural institutions that preserve what is good, transform lives, and prophetically challenge secular ways of being in the world, our schools are experiencing declining enrollment and layoffs. Sixty-five percent of our schools have seen a decline in enrollment between 2014-2018 and in the last decade, 944 faculty and staff positions have been eliminated. We are under pressure to reduce our education to efficiently targeted career training and certification rather than the cultivation of wisdom (a goal with a much harder to measure return on investment).
I do not believe that Christian higher education can save us. It can’t. But having spent 13 years teaching, the majority of which took place within Christian universities, I have personally witnessed the tremendous power of these institutions to transform the lives of students, to produce scholarly and popular work that builds up the church, and to be spaces of cultural renewal and preservation. Our schools, properly funded and supported, can be beacons of light for the church during a time of crisis. Or they too can crumble into highly efficient, baptized career and bureaucracy training centers.
Even if you never went to a Christian college or university, you are currently benefiting from the work of these institutions. Your pastor benefits from the theological work produced by scholars at Christian schools. Your church benefits from the cultural criticism done at these schools. Christian businesses and professionals benefit from learning how to integrate faith into their professions. Christian artists and musicians benefit from apprenticeship. Our politicians and community leaders benefit from theories of government and justice handed down and built upon in Christian schools.
When Christian colleges and universities are well supported, they can afford to give scholars time to mentor students and produce works that edify the church. And those scholars need the support of schools because even when they manage to write a popular book, it rarely pays enough to make up for the time it took to research and write the book.Our schools, properly funded and supported, can be beacons of light for the church during a time of crisis.
Of course, we could just demand that our pastors offer commentary, advice, and analysis on every aspect of culture. But to do this is unfair to our pastors. It places an unreasonable burden upon them and distracts from their calling to a local congregation.
We should want Christian colleges and universities to be successful so that they can do critical work assisting local churches and communities in strengthening our foundations and providing lasting, meaningful relief from some of the crises that plague our time.
And as technological advances continue to complicate, invade, and restructure our lives and habits, we need institutions of Christian higher learning that can cultivate more humane habits in students and produce cultural criticism that equips the church for discernment. I don’t think we are remotely ready for the ethical and spiritual challenges our current technology has created, let alone the technology just around the corner.
Perhaps closest to my own heart, Christian liberal arts schools like my own resist many of the worst pressures of the contemporary age through careful, charitable, humble study of great works of literature, art, music, history, science. By learning to attend to and delight in what is beautiful, good, and true, we deny the primacy of novelty. We reject what C. S. Lewis called the “chronological snobbery” that sees everything new as superior to the old. We grow respect for the wisdom of those who have come before us. And we are rightfully humbled.
I’m not going to say that every Christian college and university is doing this kind of work. They aren’t. And even the ones that are can do better. But they can’t do anything without support. And this year, while billions of dollars will be spent on an election, with a non-trivial amount coming from evangelicals, some Christian schools may close.
So, even if a Christian college isn’t your alma mater, it is your school; they are our schools. At their best, they serve the church. And the sooner we can accept our shared responsibility, the sooner we can do the necessary work of shoring up the ruins.
The crises that face us cannot be overcome by politicians (although they can be made much worse by them) or by culture-war skirmishes. They can be addressed only by grounding ourselves in the truth. That work will be done primarily in the local church, but our Christian colleges and universities have a tremendous role to play by providing resources, mentorship, and scholarship.