Building God-Centered Universities: A Call for Transdisciplinarity in Christian Higher Education

[Editor’s Note: This post originally appeared on May 13, 2013.]

Several weeks ago, I had the privilege of participating in a consultation on “Transdisciplinary Scholarship” sponsored by the Paideia Centre for Public Theology in Ontario, Canada. The meeting lasted for two days and was populated by thirteen scholars or public figures including Craig Bartholomew, R. R. Reno, Hunter Baker, Claudia Beversluis, C. Stephen Evans, Derek Halvorson, Michael Healy, Eric Johnson, Todd Ream, Robert Sloan, W. Jay Wood, Edward Zinke, and your scribe.

The notion of transdisciplinarity is fetching and, in my opinion, significant for the renewal of Christian higher education. Our discussion of transdisciplinarity began with a co-presentation by Bartholomew and Johnson, in which they assessed the state of affairs in Christian higher education. Their presentation was divided into three parts, which I shall try to distill in the next several paragraphs of this post.

First, Bartholomew and Johnson asked “Where are we?” In response, they noted that Christian scholars are still living in the shadow of the so-called death of Modernity, a complex ideological movement that handicaps Christian scholarship in myriad ways. This ideology “can be characterized by a reliance on autonomous reason and the scientific method for knowledge (often synonymous with positivism), skepticism regarding tradition and biblical revelation, the proliferation and growing specialization of knowledge, a commitment to individualism and human rights, and a strong belief in cultural progress.” Although many of the positive aspects of the modern agenda spring from the West’s Christian roots, the negative aspects arose because the Christian worldview was abandoned. Western scholars ultimately displaced a Christian framework for knowledge by embracing a naturalist metaphysic and epistemology, and a secular system of public and scientific discourse. As a result higher education came to have no center, and experienced disciplinary fragmentation.

Second, they asked “What is the next phase in Western thought and practice?” Although evangelicals have tried to overcome de-centered education and disciplinary fragmentation by embarking on a project of “integration,” this project often is tainted by late modern presuppositions and therefore often is unable to offer a truly Christian account of the academic disciplines. For this reason, we must go beyond “integration.” We must recognize the ways in which late modernity has reified and isolated the disciplines from one another, and replace the later modern paradigm with a truly Christian one. In order to do so we leverage the Christian Scriptures and worldview toward the end of promoting a Christian “transdisciplinarity.”

Third, they asked “What is transdisciplinary scholarship? Transdisciplinary scholarship is scholarship which promotes the synthesis of human understanding for a distinctively Christian viewpoint. Against the late modern academic model, which results in ever-increasing specialization and the fragmentation of the disciplines, Bartholomew and Johnson argue that transdisciplinarity’s goal is “the transposition of each discipline into a higher, ever-increasingly unified order of knowledge and love, based on a Christian metaphysic.” Transdisciplinary scholarship relies upon certain metadisciplines (biblical studies, theology, Christian philosophy) to guide it in building an integrated body of knowledge, understanding, and practice. Instead of merely learning within isolated disciplines, therefore, we are able to bring the disciplines into conversation with one another, with each discipline being enriched, and with new transdisciplines being created.

Bartholomew and Johnson’s presentation was followed by several others. Robert Sloan spoke on “The State of the Nation” in regard to higher education. Eric Johnson presented “Transdisciplinary Scholarship as an Alternative Model.” Craig Bartholomew presented “Spiritual Formation, Intellectual Community, and Transdisciplinarity.” C. Stephen Evans presented “Philosophy and Transdisciplinarity.” Finally, yours truly wrapped up the consultation with a presentation which sought to point the way forward in light of the previous presentations.

The consultation was refreshing, in part because it was a small collaborative discussion rather than a sprawling and disconnected “conference,” but also because the concept of transdisciplinarity is a useful one for bringing unity to the field of Christian higher education in upcoming years. I agree with several of the presenters that the academy is experiencing an ever-increasing fragmentation, that this fragmentation keeps us from building an increasingly unified and God-centered body of knowledge, that it further handicaps the specialized disciplines themselves, and that it impoverishes human existence by separating out what ought to be held together.

I am not arguing that the universities and seminaries should discourage specialized knowledge, but that specialized fields of knowledge should remain in conversation with one another, and they should together be informed by certain metadisciplines (such as biblical studies, theology, and Christian philosophy) which are vital to their ultimate fruition. In other words, the Christian university should seek truly to be a uni-versity, a unified endeavor. The Christian university should center itself on biblical studies, Christian theology, and Christian philosophy, allowing the various scholarly disciplines to flourish within this truly Christian framework.

The obstacles to building a transdisciplinary Christian university are many, but not insurmountable. Presidents and Provosts must re-prioritize by hiring faculty members who will invest in the project, providing forums in which professors from various disciplines (e.g. arts, sciences) remain in close conversation with one another, and in which they together converse with biblical scholars, theologians, and Christian philosophers. Professors must re-prioritize, by investing time and energy in reading more broadly (in the meta-disciplines and in other disciplines) and engaging in their research projects communally. To re-prioritize in this manner poses a challenge, in light of the fact that many scholars are already stretched thin because of their teaching, advising, writing, and committee-attendance. However, the challenge is not insurmountable, and those persons and universities will be rewarded who meet the challenge in order to forge a genuinely transdisciplinary environment.

One final note: I hope the reader does not come away from this post with the impression that I think “all is bad” in Christian higher education. On the contrary, there is much about which to be optimistic. There are many Christian universities who have a vision to build a truly Christian university and who are realizing the fruits of their efforts. Union University, California Baptist University, and Houston Baptist University immediately come to mind, as do others. However, although everything is not bad, neither is everything good. Christian institutions of higher education have been adversely affected by our late modern and postmodern context, and find themselves struggling to build a truly unified and God-centered framework for knowledge. Toward that end, the concept of transdisciplinary scholarship seems a helpful one, and worthy of extended discussion and reflection.

Read, Pray, Sing: The Psalms as an Entryway to the Scriptures

Read, Pray, Sing: The Psalms as an Entryway to the Scriptures - April 12-13, 2013We wanted to alert you to an upcoming conference hosted by our friends at the Ryan Center for Biblical Studies at Union University. The conference, which will be held on April 12-13, is on the topic Read, Pray, Sing: The Psalms as an Entryway to the Scriptures. Several faculty members from Union will be speaking at the event, including Ryan Center director Ray Van Neste. We like Dr. Van Neste around here, so we asked him to serve on the editorial board of our scholarly journal, Southeastern Theological Review.

The plenary speakers for the conference are two of Southeastern’s own. Heath Thomas serves as Associate Professor of Old Testament and Hebrew and Director of our Ph.D. program. Andy Davis serves as the Senior Pastor of First Baptist Church of Durham and is an Adjunct Professor of Historical Theology at SEBTS. Both of these brothers have a passion for the Word of God and a desire to see Baptist and other evangelical churches saturated with the Scriptures through preaching, prayer, and worship. The Psalms ought to play a crucial role in this needed scriptural saturation.

We would urge you to attend Read, Pray, Sing: The Psalms as an Entryway to the Scriptures. It promises to be an edifying meeting that will encourage and perhaps challenge students, pastors, and worship mobile game

Briefly Noted: On the Future of Higher Education (and Other Things)

If you’ve not yet subscribed to Union University’s new journal, Renewing Minds, you’ll want to. This morning, I spent a few minutes reading through the second issue (Fall 2012), which bears the theme, “The Future of…”.[1] The issue features articles on the future of theological education (by the inimitable Greg Thornbury), primary-secondary education (Thomas R. Rosebrough), food (Norman Wirzba), sex (Ben Mitchell), Islam (Peter Ridell), and several other essays. It then concludes with an article on the future of the future (Peter Leithart).

My interest was piqued especially by the first essay on the future of higher education (Hunter Baker).[2] Here is a peek at Baker’s train of thought. He begins the article by arguing that one thing is for certain: higher education is in for some massive changes which are underlain by the predominance of individual autonomy, personal choice, and personalization.

First, higher education will be supported less by the public sector and more by private money more than it has been in the past. The cost of higher education will continue to rise, and “buyers” will seek a better “return” on their investment, which will include more options, flexibility, etc.

Second, it will be marked by continuing technological innovation.  Because of this innovation, we will see a revolution in distributing educational content via online courses, massive open-enrollment, online courses, and so forth. There will be less need for the “giant auditorium” for 101 courses.

Third, we might see a trend in which institution increasingly purchase courses from educational content providers. Baker illustrates with James Q. Wilson’s American Government text which really is a “course in a box.” It is a fairly complete class complete with Powerpoint slides, pre-written exams, instructor outlines, etc. Baker warns, “Though this road is attractive in many respects, it contains the seeds of woe for universities. An academic publisher such as Cengage or Pearson will eventually find a way to cut the middleman out of the equation, entirely. Why couldn’t the publisher find a way to get its comprehensive courses accredited and made available to students anywhere who wanted to take them and apply them as credit to a transcript?” Baker avers that traditional modes of education are not likely to disappear, but traditional modes will have to fight for their place within a crowded educational marketplace.

Fourth, Baker writes that we will see more of a “caste system” in higher education. In addition to traditional tenure-track ranks such as assistant professor, associate professor, and professor, we will see a proliferation of adjunct faculty and grad assistants. The move to utilize adjuncts and grad students will save money because these sorts of instructors will not receive a salary package. The professorate will be made up of highly gifted researchers and creators of educational content.

Fifth, traditional colleges will fight to defend their place in the market. They will have to define clearly how their graduates are uniquely and distinctively shaped by the traditional education. “If many of the evangelical schools,” writes Baker, “want to persist in the premium, traditional market, there will need to be substance behind the idea of a Union or a Wheaton man or woman. That substance will refer back to Christian orthodoxy, spiritual seriousness, sanctification, and fluency in Christian thinking.” Further, they will need to justify their decision to emphasize the liberal arts in their core curriculum.

Sixth, the online sector will be the most vulnerable. Textbook publishers will make entire online courses of study available, and will seek accreditation for those courses of study. If this happens, there will be a move from accrediting institutions to accrediting educational content.

Seventh, Baker offers several reasons that traditional colleges and universities can maintain their presence. They can offer the “college experience;” they have distinctive character and customs; they offer a tangible community; and they have made “infrastructure investments that are not easily replicated.”

Baker concludes with a summary and then writes, “One thing is certain, though. Higher education is directly in the path of creative destruction. The smart players will figure out the right market for them to serve and how to offer the best value for the lowest price to their customers. Everyone in the game needs to be figuring out where they sit on the board and what the right path forward is for them.”

I’ll not offer much of a response, except to say that Baker’s prognostications are reasonable and are based upon the best evidence we’ve got at the moment. As he notes, “predicting the future is notoriously difficulty.” But one thing is for sure: change is afoot, and evangelical colleges and universities need well-developed and clearly-articulated rationales for their chosen models of education, models which have emerged from a reflecting consciously and carefully about the changing landscape of 21st century higher education.

[1] Renewing Minds: A Journal of Christian Thought 2 (Fall 2012).

[2] Hunter Baker, “The Future of Higher Education,” in Renewing Minds: A Journal of Christian Thought 2 (Fall 2012), 7-16.

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