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“In Him All Things Hold Together”: A Theological Meditation for Aspiring Christian Universities

A theological meditation shared with the faculty of Providence University College at the opening faculty meeting of the current academic year.

 By Robert J. Dean

Our family returned to Manitoba this past Sunday night after spending a few weeks visiting friends and family in Southern Ontario. Since my wife tends to get carsick when she is a passenger on long drives, she prefers to do the majority of the driving. The result is that in between doling out snacks and attempting to arbitrate ongoing territorial disputes in the back seat, I had a lot of time to read over the course of our forty plus hours in the car. Arthur Holmes’s book, The Idea of a Christian College, was the unofficial fifth member of our family as we travelled through Minnesota and Wisconsin a few weeks ago on our way to Ontario. Holmes taught philosophy for many years at Wheaton College and was an influential contributor to many conversations surrounding Christian higher education.

Near the beginning of the book, Holmes lays out his understanding of the challenge facing Christian educators. He writes:  “We face a generation of students for whom morality has lost its moorings, for whom education has lost its attraction. Add to this the economic crunch on small colleges and it becomes overwhelmingly obvious that we need to get down to basics, to the underlying and central reason for existing at all. Otherwise the student and the college may both lapse in ‘bad faith’ into faceless anonymity of people and places without distinctive meaning and become mere statistics in the educational almanac” (4).

Holmes then goes on to sketch out some of the traps that Christian universities get caught in as they attempt to distinguish themselves from other institutions. They may draw attention to their smaller class sizes, to the personal care that professors exhibit for students, to the social and extracurricular benefits of attending the institution. These are certainly all good things in and of themselves that add value to the student experience, but they are not what sets apart a Christian university. Rather, Holmes argues, the distinction of the Christian university “should be an education that cultivates the creative and active integration of faith and learning, of faith and culture” (6).

Throughout history, Christians have debated how to integrate faith and learning. The textbooks often present two figures from the second century as representatives of the opposing poles of the debate. The first is Justin Martyr, a philosopher who was converted to the Christian faith. His writing represents one of the earliest attempts to place Christianity on an equal footing with the Greek philosophy of antiquity that characterized the educated elite in the Hellenistic world. Justin is known as the father of the apologists and his outlook is perhaps best encapsulated by his saying, “whatever things were rightly said among all men are property of us Christians” (Second Apology, 13.4). Justin leaned into the truth of Colossians 1:15-17:  “Jesus is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers – all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together.”

If Justin represents the conviction that the Christian faith and the best of pagan learning are allies, the figure who is often depicted as standing across the aisle from him is the lawyer turned theologian, Tertullian of Carthage. Tertullian was concerned that the integration of Greek philosophy into Christian learning opened the door to all sorts of heretical misconstruals of the Christian faith. In a celebrated rhetorical barb, he once asked, “What does Athens have to do with Jerusalem? What does the Academy have to do with the Church?” (Prescription Against Heretics, 1.7). If Justin was a Colossians 1 kind of fellow, then perhaps we could say that Tertullian found his hermeneutical home in Colossians 2:8: “See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the universe, and not according to Christ.” Christopher Seitz paraphrases the danger that Paul is warning about with the following terse formulation: “In sum, it is intellectual idolatry.”

It is these two figures, Justin and Tertullian, who are often called upon to represent these two opposing positions on the question of the integration of faith and learning. However, as is often the case, the reality of the situation is much more complicated and nuanced than what is presented in the textbooks. While Tertullian could pose the question, “What does Athens have to do with Jerusalem?,” he did not just go around quoting Bible verses. Rather, he drew on his training in rhetoric, philosophy, and law to coin close to one thousand brand new theological terms. Some of which, like Trinity, remain with us to this day. On the other hand, Justin was no mere cultural conformist. After all, he was not born with the surname “Martyr”! Justin was beheaded for refusing to sacrifice to the gods in obedience to the Emperor. He clearly knew that there was a limit to what could be appropriated from the culture for the sake of Christ.

For that matter, neither was the author of Colossians intellectually divided. Chapter 1, verses 15-17 and chapter 2, verse 8, are, after all, part of the same letter. In between them, we find these verses at the beginning of chapter 2: “For I want you to know how much I am struggling for you, and for those in Laodicea, and for all who have not seen me face to face. I want their hearts to be encouraged and united in love, so that they may have all the riches of assured understanding and have the knowledge of God’s mystery, that is, Christ himself, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.”

I think this is an important passage for us, because, on the one hand it reaffirms the assertion of the first chapter of Colossians that everything hangs together in Christ. It was this conception of the coherence of all truth in the person of Christ that led to the founding of the first universities in the Middle Ages. And it is this conviction that stands in stark relief to the fragmentation that has come to characterize the modern, secular university, where departments and disciplines wage intramural skirmishes for dollars and acolytes, but there is no shared conception of how everything fits together. Clark Kerr, a former president of the University of California, coined the term “multiversity” to describe the state of these contemporary institutions of higher education.

Without any unifying conception of how the disciplines fit together or what purpose they serve, the modern secular university has become driven by pragmatic concerns and fallen captive to the agendas of the demanding taskmasters of the nation state and the globalized economy, with a pinch of the virtue-signaling of identity politics thrown in for good measure.

So Colossians then presents us with a vision of the unity of reality in the person of Christ. But the truth of the cosmos is not given to us in Christ in the form of an encyclopedia that can be immediately downloaded from the school network. Christ truly is the key that unlocks the mystery of creation, but, we are told, all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge are “hidden” in him. In other words, figuring out how reality coheres in the image of the invisible God requires the ongoing work of intellectual discovery and communal discernment. It is the work of a community because no one person, or for that matter no one discipline, holds a monopoly on the truth. Rather it is Christ who holds a monopoly on the disciplines. The work of discernment to which we are called necessitates interdisciplinary conversation, requiring humility, patience, stepping out of our comfort zones, and perhaps even transgressing the imaginaries imposed by disciplines that have been forged apart from the knowledge of Christ.

The call to realize our identity as a Christian university is a great challenge, but it is also liberating, because it means that we don’t need to compete with the publicly-funded, provincial universities. This is good news, because we simply do not have the economic, infrastructural, and even personal resources to do the public research university thing better than they do it. But – and here’s where I’ve saved my most audacious claim for last – in the person of Christ and in the powerful presence of the Spirit who leads God’s people into all truth, we do have the potential to become something that public, secular universities cannot be:  a university in the true sense of the word, united in the uni veritas, the one or whole truth that holds together in the living Christ.

There’s no doubt this is quite the adventure. The ascent is challenging and the air gets thinner the further you go. But if we can make it to the summit, think of the view!

May God bless you in the coming academic year.

Robert J. Dean (Th.D., Wycliffe College & University of Toronto) is Associate Professor of Theology and Ethics at Providence Theological Seminary in Otterburne, Manitoba.  He is an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church in Canada. Robert is the author of several books, the most recent being a collaboration with Stanley Hauerwas entitled
Minding the Web.


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