Reflections on THE IDEA OF A CHRISTIAN UNIVERSITY
When I was invited to contribute on ‘Science' to a planned book on "The Idea of a Christian University", I demurred because I was (and am) sceptical about the value of such an enterprise - for some of the reasons which I give below. However, I was also asked to say something about what should be included in the science syllabus in such an institution. I can only speak as a biologist but it seemed worth riding one of my hobby horses, that some of the anti-evolution propaganda emanating from Christian sources (including ones with an academic pedigree) are counterproductive and help the Devil in her mission to confuse us. My prejudices are not wholly uninformed: I have taught (briefly) in a Baptist University in the States; I have been the ‘key-note speaker' as a Conference of the Christian Colleges Coalition; I was for eleven years a Governor of a Christian school in the UK (albeit a long-established one - not one of the ‘new generation' Christian schools); and I have been maligned for my beliefs by some who profess and call themselves Christians. I do not claim that the chapter I eventually produced (pp. 218-233 in The Idea) is either positive or particularly helpful, but it expresses some of the things that I feel are worth saying.
The Case for a Christian University.
In his introductory chapter to the Idea, Ian Markham of Hartford Seminary identifies four features of a Christian University:
• It is ideologically honest in the sense that it challenges the myth that institutions can be value-free
• True education must include training in the ‘virtues' (or ‘faith-based values')
• The philosophy of every subject should be included in its teaching
• The search for truth should involve dialogue or ‘conversation' with those holding different viewpoints.
Without overtly disagreeing with any of these, I would want to qualify them from my perspective as a scientist:
Whilst it certainly true that the interpretation of scientific facts is dependent on preconceptions and prejudices, only to the most extreme post-modernist are the facts themselves value-dependent: at normal pressure, water always freezes at 0°C; there is such a thing as a virtually universal DNA code; nerve impulses can be measured electrically; dinosaurs are extinct (if one excepts the birds, which are effectively dinosaurs); and so on. These data are the same to Jew, Greek and infidel - as well as the Christian. Such ‘facts' may be mis-measured (until techniques advanced, the human chromosome complement was thought to be 48, but there is now universal agreement that it is 46; most house mice have 40 chromosomes but there are races with fewer), but they have an incontrovertible existence (or ontological value, if you like the language). This reality differentiates science from all other study, because it imposes a discipline which cannot be changed. As a Christian, I rejoice in this: I am studying God's work. Although the outcome of science is affected by its practitioners, the ‘raw material' of science is not, and in this sense can be truly regarded as value-free.
Whilst agreeing that a full education must involve the whole person and that a University should be dedicated towards a rounded maturity for all its members, I am unhappy about including the philosophy of science as an integral part of the teaching of science. Part of my unease is a doubt that there is such a thing as a true ‘philosophy of science' as distinct from interpretations of various philosophers (Popper, Kuhn, Feyerabend, etc). There is certainly a legitimate practice of science, but this is largely a robust honesty to discover the way that the world is. Howard Van Till has summarized the values of the scientific community as ‘matters of competence', ‘integrity' and ‘sound judgment'. These are certainly ‘virtues' but not specifically Christian ones. Philosophers of science have been helpful in clarifying arguments, but I am unconvinced that they have actually advanced the progress of science or that there is such a thing as ‘the scientific method'. John Polkinghorne identifies the practice of science as ‘critical realism'. This can be dignified as a philosophical position; I prefer to see science in terms of Peter Medawar's picture as a dialogue between daring imagination and tough testing. The best way to learn about this is through science history, not formal philosophy.
Markham is really making an appeal for multidisciplinarity in education. It is difficult to disagree with this. The problem is knowing how best this can be fostered. A number of Universities require science students to take some sort of course in the humanities (ethics is now mandatory in the UK medical curriculum). In every example I know, such courses are regarded as annoying ‘bolt-ons' which enthuse a minority but fail truly to educate the majority. The answer to me is that education in its full sense is a function of the community, not the curriculum. It could be argued that this is exactly where a Christian University comes into its own; it could equally be argued that a Christian University has a monochrome culture which may lead to the uncritical acceptance of a particular point of view (even if that point of view is a desired one from the Christian angle).
A Case Against a Christian University
The Bible does not envisage a homogeneous culture anywhere before the last few chapters of the Book of Revelation. Even in its description of a Chosen People in a Promised Land, we [they] are brought face to face with repeated sin and temptation. An essential part of education must be to prepare Christians to face the reality of a secular culture. ‘Protecting' the young from the power of the temptations and possibilities of the real world will almost certainly leave them unprepared for inevitable challenges and make it more difficult for them to carry out an effective mission for the gospel. The US Christian Colleges are full of extremely good scholars, but their very isolation makes it more difficult for them to function as salt and leaven in the non-Christian world - a calling laid upon all Christians. It has often been noted that the American Scientific Affiliation has only three or four members of the US Academy of Sciences in its membership, while Christians in Science has many more Fellows of the Royal Society able to witness in the highest councils of both science and government.
The Bible gives a clear indication that God wrote Two Books - a Book of Words (the Bible) and a Book of Works (Creation) (e.g. Ps 19). Both Books have the same author, but they are written in very different languages. We have an obligation to read both of them if we are to get a balanced notion of God's revelation to us. The tragedy is that most Christians concentrate almost entirely on the Book of Words (which is easier to read, because it is written in a language familiar to us) and neglect the Book of Works. Peter Harrison (The Bible, Protestantism and the Rise of Natural Science. CUP, 1998) is helpful in showing how the Reformers (re)introduced literalism into biblical scholarship from the patristic and mediaeval traditions of symbolism and thus made possible modern science. Sadly this discipline of literalism has descended into the hyper-literalism of some modern interpreters, who fail to recognize the different forms of literature (poetry, history, parable, etc) in scripture. This is truly a deficiency of education, but one unlikely to be resolved by the spread of Christian educational institutions.
Linked to problems of biblical interpretation is the modern fashion for denouncing ‘naturalism' in science, on the grounds that this excludes any divine activity or oversight of the natural world. This is a much more serious attack than the persisting claim that the universe is still young (tens of thousands of years old as opposed to the conventional dating of thousands of millions of years), although both beliefs are ‘creationist'. While it is commonly described as ‘naturalism', a better way of describing this criticism is ‘reductionism', which allows us to make a clear distinction between pragmatic or experimental reductionism which is a necessary part of scientific practice (and everyday life: I do not naturally invoke God when I am doing the ironing or sending an e-mail); and doctrinaire or obligate reductionism, which assumes that a particular causative explanation of an event is all that there is. Donald MacKay castigated the latter as ‘nothing-buttery'. I wish those who decry ‘naturalism' in science would read MacKay (say, his Gifford Lectures, Behind the Eye. Blackwell, 1991). The distinction between different sorts of reductionism is not new. It was spelt out decades ago by Francisco Ayala in his ‘Introduction' in Studies in the Philosophy of Biology (Macmillan, 1974) and repeated by Arthur Peacocke in various writings, but it is effectively the same point as made in the Fourth Century BC by Aristotle in his Physics. I suspect that much of the disdain of humanists for science is due to their failure to recognize the major difference between the two sorts of reductionism. Once this distinction is taken on board, it is possible to have a sensible discussion about the role of God in control/causation. It is an enquiry which has been explored repeatedly by theistic scientists over the years. Various models have been proposed; for my money, the best one is ‘complementarity'.
It is difficult to overstress the confusion done to Christian scholarship (and time wasted) by misplaced attacks on ‘scientific naturalism' - by which is meant ‘nothing-buttery'. In his 2004 Annual Report the Director of UCCF (who is a fine and sane Christian) wrote under the heading "Gospel Hatred": "Have you noticed how our secular society increasingly seems to reward men and women for their antagonism towards the Christian worldview, where previously atheism had been looked upon with suspicion in our universities which largely owe their origin to Christianity? The Royal Society (of which Dawkins is a member) used to be dominated by bible-believing scientists but was effectively hijacked by secularists in the eighteenth century. The impact of this has been fast, furious and hostile to the gospel and corrosive to society." Leaving aside the question as to the nature of the beliefs of the early fellows of the Royal Society (which need a historian to comment upon) and the lack of Christians in the present membership (which is incorrect), are the Royal Society and its activities (which are increasingly concerned with ethical issues - as, for example, their statement over the problems of Africa at the time of the G8 Summit) really corrosive to Society? Some of its members may be (and it is worth drawing attention in this context to Alister McGrath's Dawkins' God. Blackwell, 2005, which I assume is required reading for all members of CAN), but I doubt this is a new situation. The attacks of Phillip Johnson and the ilk on naturalism merely serve to fragment Christian witness (which seems to be the positive aim of their ‘wedge strategy' - see Barbara Forrest and Paul Gross's Creationism's Trojan Horse. OUP, 2004) and are based on neither scripture nor science.
The question is whether the mistakes and misrepresentations of Johnson and Co would be better dealt within a Christian University or in a wider forum. All I can say is that my (limited) experience of Christian institutions is that they are less tolerant of dissent that secular organizations (despite the need for dialogue identified by Markham).
In his classical papers on "The Christian doctrine of Creation and the rise of modern natural science" (Mind, 43: 446-468, 1934; 45: 1-27, 1936), Michael Foster makes the interesting observation that Kant was the first "to perceive quite clearly that the whole of the ontological doctrines of modern Rationalism were covertly dependent on the authority of revelation." To me this means that we need to take the metaphor of the Two Books ever more urgently or we will be building on an ever more shaky house of cards. Christians need to recognize and work on this. My guess is that the endeavour would be hindered if we were all in Christian universities. William Temple famously said that the Church is the only society on earth that exists for the benefit of non-members. Do we serve the ‘non-members' best by creating more Christian ‘in-groups' and therefore erecting potential barriers to hearing the Gospel. Or should we, like Christ, mix with sinners and drunkards?
More narrowly, is the cause of scholarship better served by sequestrating?ering a group of Christians in community or by individual Christians (hopefully in partnership and with the encouragement of other Christians) venturing out in mission as salt and light? I know my answer.
15 August 2005