A brief review of the earlier part of the book: Sue Halliday

By Dr Sue Vaux Halliday, Senior Lecturer, School of Management, University of Surrey, Guildford.

The idea of a Christian University - this is a volume of 17 independent essays by fine and focussed minds that requires a minimum of some 17 hours of reading - and that is the first reading only - and this is my excuse for narrowing the scope of the review to a few of the early chapters.


So can I pick out some key ideas? A new title for the content of the book might be

The Christian university:  Is it a hotel, a family or a retreat centre?

We might object to the idea of a retreat centre.  We might not see a university as an appropriate setting for family life.  We might be quite happy with the current UK model of hotel.  But at least this book makes us think outside the box of what we know and what we know we don't like.  I personally have been challenged in my practice as an academic by the hotel model - it has sharpened my understanding of what a Christian contribution might be beyond the immediately evangelistic and it is a challenge I hope to bring to the University of Surrey's Staff Christian Fellowship.

A Christian university.  A plausible or implausible idea?  Essentially most of us find this implausible. (I am re-reading a book that explains why we find it so implausible, by Craig Gay, IVP, 1999 The Way of the (Modern) World, or Why We Behave as if God Doesn't Exist.  I recommend this book covering post-Enlightenment history of ideas to you).

How then can considering the idea help those of us not keen to realise one in practice?  Is it in fact a waste of time to consider it?  Should we instead keep our minds going down the same tracks they went before we read the book?

I think this book is most useful in showing us where we might want to move our work, our setting and how we might move in fulfilling our vocations as academics in the secular 21st century university in the UK.

All of the three models - hotel, family and retreat centre are given in the chapters of this book.  A range of vantage points is thus provided in this volume of independent essays.  The subtitle - Essays in theology and higher education - and the project editors ( see below) indicates the bias of this book - because, as I am sure we will discover at the conference, even 17 chapters hardly covers the whole topic of the idea of a Christian university.  The editors are:

Ed Jeff Astley, North of England Institute for Christian Education

Leslie Francis, University of Wales, Bangor

John Sullivan, Liverpool Hope University

Andrew Walker, Kings College London

Even the names of the two sections shows us the sorts of things we might consider in our vocation as Christian academics, even where we do not wish to found a Christian University:

A Christian Calling?

A Christian Curriculum?

Background to this book

The preface tells us of the concerns behind this book: of the fragmentation of the theological education area around faith communities and academic departments.  In particular the academy has excluded confessional truth-claims and so is cut off from the interests of faith communities.  Out of concern at this in 2001 there grew a conversation  that became the National Seminar on Theological Education, meeting at KCL.  One outcome, thanks to a range of generous funding sources, is this ‘volume of original essays, bound together by a common commitment to a theologically-grounded understanding of Christian higher education' (p.xi).

Chapter one pp.3-13

The idea of a Christian university, Ian Markham, Hartford Seminary, USA

Ian admits that the idea of a Christian university is implausible to our ears. 

He aims to address questions of market, pluralism and content.

He wants to show how flawed is the idea of a secular university. ‘It is the hotel model of organisation, rather than the family model.  In a family there are expectations of shared values and cultures... in a hotel men and women are invited to behave in whatever ways they consider appropriate in the privacy of their own rooms, and the public spaces will be entirely neutral' (p.5).

The secular paradigm is lent support by the scientific narrative that displaces the religious one.  He quotes Davie when questioning the secularisation paradigm:

An alternative suggestion is increasingly gaining ground: the possibility that secularisation is not a universal process, but belongs instead to a relatively short and particular period of European history

The USA is advanced and not secular and the rest of world is increasingly scientific and technological but not secular.  What we have is perhaps, a decline in belonging, in which the church is outperforming scouts, guides, trades unions and the WI.

He then moves on to question whether the scientific and religious narratives are exclusive - and suggests, that rather, science requires a religious basis ‘If the universe is simply a massive accident emerging from chance then it is difficult to see how one can be confident that the universe is indeed intelligible' and Christianity, by distinguishing between the Creator and creation, permits scientific investigation of natural phenomena that are not god. 

This is of course picked up on elsewhere, most particularly by Sam Berry in his chapte on science and in his review of the book written for this conference.

He then develops the hotel motif - there there is a culture of service for money that is private and individualistic.  He contrasts this with a retreat centre - accommodation and catering, minus the adult movies and with opportunities provided for building up virtue and cultivating spiritual reflection.

He then appeals to postmodernism which is confident that there is no such thing as a value free approach.  So the secular university cannot be what it claims to be - value free.  Instead it actually promotes a whole range of values.  In fact it becomes a temptation to sin.  ‘the hotel in its lack of demands and indulgence of choice and individualism is potentially a place for the depraved satisfaction of immediate desires' (p.8).  The rest of the world sees the West as depraved (although they of course see the US as the worst!!)

This is a most important point, and on the CAN Leadership Team there is a variety of views about the value-free or value-laden understanding of reality open to us in our studies.  I would encourage you to ponder this point.

Markham continues with his 4 features of a Christian university:

1.         It embraces values and is constituted by a tradition (c.f. Macintyre) and stands against the false claim to objectivity of the secular institution;

2.         It will openly attempt to inculcate certain of these faith-based values and discusses morality within certain limitations; again it stands against the false offer of secularism to be open to all options - instead it goes for ‘totalitolerance' (to quote Nick Spencer of the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity); he offers a Christian tradition and is probably Catholic; but a sola Scriptura and semper reformanda approach could be the evangelical take on this;

3.         Metaphysics will feature in the curriculum.  This is from John Henry Newman and is a ‘science of sciences ... what is meant by philosophy, in the true sense of the word, and of a philosophical habit of mind ... ‘(cited p.10).  ‘The net result is that students in the sciences or economics or mathematics or whatever should be required to reflect on the assumptions that their discipline makes about the nature of the world' (p.11). 

I can add that the International Baccalaureate requires that all sixth form students do this - something that provided my son with a wonderful opportunity to work through the Christian understanding of knowledge.  Yet this is so rarely required of undergraduates.  Can we as Christian academics take something of value for our practice, for our vocation from this?  Can CAN provide a structure for this?  Another point to ponder at the conference and beyond.

4.         A celebration of rationality and conversation in the quest for truth.
This involves a welcoming of diversity, complexity and a reluctance to have all the answers. ‘The Christian university is a place in which a range of vantage points are encouraged to engage in conversation and learn in humility from the process' (p.11).

He then turns to the question of a market for this.  He says that many want positive values affirmed and that those of other faiths are advocates of Cof E schools. ‘Advocates of a Christian university need to be much more aggressive in pointing out how impoverished the alternative is'(p.12).  This university will engage with difference, rather than privatise it and so exclude debate from the public sphere.

As a marketing academic, I do indeed weight the problem of a lack of a market for a Christian university as a key stumbling block to ever realising the project.

Chapter Two University,  pp.14-34 Christian faith and the church

John Sullivan, Liverpool Hope University

This chapter seeks to explore the idea of a Christian university from within the UK context; this is part of the outreach of the church.  Sullivan has four aims.  He overtly links intellectual life and the life of Christian faith and recommends Friedrich von Hügel  (1852-1925). He then discusses the salience of faith , and what model of church best fits; Sullivan espouses the sacramental view of church, which is an apologia pro Roman Catholicism.  Finally he discusses mediating faith in a plural context.

For Sullivan von Hügel  shows ‘how the intellectual dimension can and should relate to the other aspects of our lives' (p.16).  He argued for a breadth of discipline in being educated as a whole person and stressed the need for interdisciplinary enquiry. He did not draw a line between the sacred and the secular; instead he saw God at work. ‘Faith should not be left to operate as an extra-curricular activity' (p.17).  Christians are standing on firm ground and therefore need not fear, nor cultivate defensiveness in students, as they engage with other viewpoints.  The university should be a balance of authority, rationality and personal experience. 

To those who work in a current UK university the third element is the more problematic or challenging: ‘Teachers have to develop pedagogical approaches that establish links between academic disciplines and the real lives of students' (p.19).  I would like to hear Sullivan apply this - I have a friend who works at Liverpool Hope and with huge numbers in the business school it sounds like the hotel model par excellence to me.  As academics we need to be disciplined to be practical in our thinking of our vocation so as not to discourage by unrealistic idealism.  That way lies cynicism and we are to be people of hope.

Sullivan argues for faith to be proclaimed in the Christian university. ‘The Christian voice at university can be as misleadingly silent or absent as it can be inappropriately loud or intrusive' (p.21).  He discusses Nord (2002) in citing economics as a discipline whose foundational assumptions of people as utility-maximisers, of values as personal preferences, as matters of cost-benefit analysis, are not acceptable to any religious tradition.  He wants this university to link the life of spirituality and scholarship.  There are books on Christianity and economics and again, in practice there is a great deal of disagreement - but let us not fail to discuss because we might disagree.

He then discusses five models of church: as institution, as mystical body, as herald/prophet, as servant and as sacrament.  He follows O'Brien in this categorisation and in the conclusion that the sacramental model is least inimical with the practice of a Christian university.  But what is here for evangelicals who feel that the sola scriptura approach denies the existence of sacraments, I wonder?

Faith mediation is part of building on the MacIntyre insight about a living tradition being constituted in the life of those adhering to the tradition.  He terms the approach ‘engaged pluralism' from Bernstein.  This engagement is from a position of core commitments to the tradition.  Sullivan advocates opportunities for staff and students to pray together, carry out works of service together, as well as study together.  The faith being mediated is to have three theological aspects: nurture, service and prophecy.

As a somewhat crass marketing lecturer, I again wonder where the market is for this kind of institution.

Chapter 4 pp.56-74 A Christian university imagined: recovering paideia in a broken world, Andrew Walker and Andrew Wright, KCL

They note that there are plenty of Christian universities in the US and mainland Europe, but that the UK does not have one.  Those that have a denominational history (e.g. University of Gloucestershire) ‘do not display a critical Christian engagement with the secular world which we would see as an essential hallmark of a Christian university' (p.56).  In fact, I worked there over  the last five years that saw a marked decline in the role of the Christian Foundation and an overt move away from the evangelical stance some took in the 19th century there.  A recent advertisement for a chaplain emphasised social outreach not evangelistic outreach.  So the absence of any critical engagement with the secular world is resulting in a capitulation to the secular world.

The two Andrews imagine something different from the sectarian universities and colleges in the States.  For these are seen to ‘contribute by their very isolationism to the fragmentation of late modernity.  It is precisely this fragmentation ... that we wish to resist though our imagined Christian university' (p.57) The aim of these authors is the ‘reclamation of Christian tradition -  partially buried as it is under the rubble of dislodged and disordered discourses caused by the implosion of the so-called Enlightenment Project' (p.57).   ‘Such a university will be the ground on which we can take a stand - for a distinctive Weltanschauung, for a particular God.  Yet this enterprise is really about more than that: it will also be a commitment to a particular way of conceiving and doing education.  This education, this training ground, calls for nothing less than a Chrstian paideia' (p.58).

Once again, this chapter has challenged my thinking and made me understand that there is more to the Christian calling than intellectual work - we are whole people and want our students to develop as whole people.  Again, it would be good to have these writers in front of a group of academics to see what can actually be done to reform practice and to move towards an idea of a Christian university that is not the American institution so many of us fear.