Comments on Robert Rowe's Papaer 'Christianity And Higher Education'

Andrew Basden, 11 November 2004.

Overall a very thoughtful and thought-provoking paper that makes useful and also practical suggestions that we can discuss. I particularly like:

1. Importance of listening - asking questions - recognising our ability to misunderstand

2. That (higher) education is part of 'Father's house' - i.e. it is a valid part of God's scope for us

3. Recognition of overlap between Christian and secular, and that both can arrive at similar truth

4. Call for engagement between Christian and secular thinking (and that of other faiths), and mutual respect between them

5. Recognition that nevertheless Christ is distinctive

6. Concern that "We are deeply trapped in the secularist presuppositions of our society; The Christian mind has almost disappeared."

7. Discussion about an institution that seeks "a Christian mind in today's world".

BUT, there are certain leaps (gaps) in his argument, and there are certain presuppositions underlying his treatment - both of which need to be made visible and explored.

Re. 3. Overlap between Christian and Secular.

I agree that there is such an overlap. But:

a) On what grounds can we say that there is such an overlap? Scholastic

thought would imply that Christian supremacy over secular; Enlightenment thought says the opposite. USA presuppositionalist thought says there is no overlap. We need both philosophical and theological foundations that undergird the validity of such an overlap.

b) What form does this overlap take? Is the overlap merely that we can agree on certain ethics? Or that we can agree on certain bits of scientific 'truth' (such as existence of atoms and the working of P-N junctions)?

Robert Rowe's paper does not address these. My answer is that we overlap on the spheres of meaning of Creation (More below). But it needs serious consideration if overlap is not to be merely an abstract idea.

Re. 4. Engagement and Mutual Respect Between Christian and Others

I agree with, and practice, engagement with non-Christians and respect their positions. But, similar to above but in more detail:

a) On what grounds can we validly respect the stances of non-Christians, the research and thinking that non-Christians do, the results of that research, and so on? There is a real difficulty for those who take a faith stance that believes in an absolute Truth and that all other is error, if not outright evil.

b) What do we do to engage? For example, which of the following are valid: can we speak together, can we research together on a problem and merge what we come up with, can we eat together (where eating implies some form of fellowship), can we pray together, can we worship together, and so on. Which constitutes compromise and which are valid?

c) What type of contribution can a Christian make, with explicitly Christian thought, to the mainstream work of research in a field?

Again, the paper does not address, nor even recognise the need to address, these questions. But unless we can answer them, our engagement and respect will not occur in practice or will sink into compromise.

My own view is that we can respect and engage because (a) we both live in the same Creation (b) the analytical function and the religious function of life as God has created them are irreducibly distinct from each other. Neither may dominate the other. So someone with a different faith can undertake theoretical work that can lead to truth just as well as I can. Conversely, someone with the same faith might do bad theoretical work. This means that I can treat what non-Christian thinkers have come up with as genuine insights, and in no way inferior or 'dodgy' for coming from a non-Christian. (But the distinctiveness of Christ, below.)

But I have found that, to make a real contribution that mainstream would recognise as Christian and yet be minded to accept requires not just things like humility, but the establishment of a seriously Christian philosophy that is a true philosophy and not merely an analytical or systematic theology.

See below for how I try to contibute by supporting, validating and enriching non-Christian thought by 'transplanting' is into more 'fertile soil' of Christian philosophy.

Re. 5. Recognition that nevertheless Christ is distinctive

However, I also believe that Christ is distinctive. How do I bring this

in? This question also needs to be addressed.

I am still trying to work that out. But it is based on Christ as he in whom all the cosmos comes together, and whose inheritance it will one day be. I also believe in his salvation of the cosmos (though not universalism).

Re. 6. "The Christian mind has almost disappeared."

The paper says "if Christianity is to remain distinctive and true to itself and to its Lord, it also needs to counter some of the arguments of secularism and where appropriate the views of other faith communities."

Though I sort of agree, that rings alarm bells for me.

a) I don't think we should focus on 'countering'. We should support, validate and enrich rather than counter. The types of contribution I am seeking to make are to take non-Christian ideas, transplant them from their apparent philosophical base (in positivist, interpretivist or criticalist philosophical stances) into a Christian philosophical stance, and I find that doing so enables me, first, to account for the validity of most of what they say (b) enrich it and take it further. It is as though a plant is transplanted from poor soil into fertile soil. I have done or am doing this with

Checkland's Soft Systems Methodology,
Latour's Actor-Network Theory,
Habermas' notion of emancipation,
Habermas' notion of lifeworld, and
the ontology of Bunge.

Papers coming out in key academic journals of my field. The Christian philosophy I employ is that of Dooyeweerd. As I read Habermas, I find every increasing respect for that wonderful thinker.

b) Even when we counter, I don't think we should focus on countering arguments. We should counter something deeper - the orientation of the heart of society, the world view, the deep religious presuppositions about the nature of things. Many Christians unwittingly hold worldly presuppositions or world views.

c) Whether we counter or not, we need to address the issue: what do we mean by a 'Christian mind'. Do we mean someone who believes in a 6-day creation or who believes gays should be stoned? Do we mean, at the other extreme, the liberal humanist way of thinking that claims a Christian label just because it tries to be tolerant? Probably neither of these. But do we mean someone who is in academic life and happens to be a Christian, and tries to make a contribution in their own 'small corner' (which seemed to be Alister McGrath's view)? As I raised 3 years ago, AM's view implies that Christians can never be radical thinkers.

My own view is that a Christian mind is a way of thinking based on presupposition of Createdness, Fallenness, and the hope of Redemption. One example of implications for this in appendix below.

d) What do we mean by a non-Christian mind? The paper seems to suggest it means secularist. But I wonder, because I think some non-Christians, especially in the Green movement, have more of a biblical mindset than many Christians do. So, we should gain a clear view on what constitutes a non-Christian mind.

e) Similarly, by what means and processes is it valid to fashion a Christian mind? For example, some believe that all that is needed is to be born again and filled with the Holy Spirit, and then one automatically has 'the mind of Christ'. What, exactly, is wrong with that view?

Re. 7. Institution that seeks "a Christian mind in today's world".

I think this is a useful and practical idea. But my reaction on starting to read this section was ...

Whoops! Where did this suddenly come from? The paper suddenly made a huge leap, from the need for a Christian mind to an institution. While the latter is certainly useful, I think there are quite a number of things that were leapt over, including:

# what do we mean by a Christian mind (see above)

# what can we expect from having an institution in general? (e.g.activity amplified by organisation)
# is it valid to have an institution specifically geared tofashioning a Christian mind? (I doubt it, on the grounds that salt should be out in the world, not in a salt cellar; but my views on this are not strong)
# what should we do about the non-Christian mainstream mind? How do we engage?

(I once applied for a chair at Redeemer College, a Christian University in Canada. I am glad now that I did not get the job.) Such questions should really be sorted out before trying to raise up an institution - otherwise, we will just create a white elephant.

The paper mentions a number of areas of activity such as medical ethics, science and God, etc. These sound to me like hoary chestnuts. Even though they are still in need of our attention, I do not think this is where the main action should be. Somehow I think that we need a Christian mind on information technology, not just in terms of the use of Internet for pornography, but in terms, for example, of the diversity of types of IT. See appendix.

APPENDIX - An Example of Philosophical Implications of Creation

We experience diversity and coherence. The question is: how can we account for both? Suppose that, after careful reflection, we believe that the diversity is exhibited in N irreducibly distinct aspects. The question is: how likely is it that all the N aspects will work together in coherence, rather than some working against others? (An example: "If you want to be ethical in business you must make do with lower economic prosperity" betrays a presupposition that the ethical and the economic aspects work against each other.)

Now, if we presuppose that the cosmos is created, then this allows us to believe in the possibility that the N diverse aspects might cohere. But if presuppose the cosmos just 'is' or 'happens', then the chance that the N diverse aspects will cohere is very small, e.g. 1 in 2 to power N. This forces thought based on such a presupposition to minimize N, usually either to 1 (monism) or 2 (dualism). But, if we presuppose creation, then we can allow for genuine diversity with coherence.

This impacts on our philosophical stances.