Teach Them to Your Children
Making sure a Christian education stays that way
Speaking to the 12 tribes before they were to cross into the Promised Land, Moses recounted all the great things that the Lord had done, and would do, for them. However, amid the covenantal promises of prosperity and peace came the admonition: “Only be careful and watch yourselves closely so that you don’t forget the things your eyes have seen or let them fade from your heart as long as you live. Teach them to your children and to their children after them” (Deut. 4:9).
The Lord had indeed done great things for them, and by teaching their children and grandchildren what those great things were, the parents would pass their faith on to future generations.
Of course, however vast the distance of time, culture, and environment that separates Christian parents today from Hebrew parents on the border of Canaan, a similar challenge remains: to pass on faith to their children. And though the training, ideally, starts at mother’s knee, at family worship, and in Sabbath School, often the last chance parents have to “teach them to your children” is Christian colleges and universities.
Unfortunately, many North American colleges, originally formed by churches to keep the faith alive for future generations, have instead become places where faith is stabbed in the heart, the corpse deemed not even worthy a Christian burial.
How well has the church resisted the secularization that has swallowed up so many Christian institutions before us?
What happened? And what lessons should we Seventh-day Adventists take away from these schools that could help protect ours from the same fate?
A Christian college had been founded with one purpose. Not wanting to leave “an illiterate ministry to the churches, when our present ministers shall lie in the dust,” the college was created in order to train young men for ministry. The school’s “Rules and Precepts” (1646) held that “the maine end of [a student’s] life and studies is, to know God and Jesus Christ which is eternal life . . . the only foundation of all sound knowledge and Learning.” This mission was also encoded in the school logo, which read Veritas pro Christo et Ecclesia, meaning Truth for Christ and Church.
The school was Harvard University, which today—despite its Christian roots and a few left-over accoutrements (including the text etched on Emerson Hall: “What is man that thou art mindful of him”?)—has moved a long way from Truth for Christ and Church. Are you kidding? Even though the motto was eventually changed to just Veritas (Truth), around much of the school today the very idea of” Truth” itself would be deemed suspect. Among the uber-intellectuals of the Ivy League elite (with the exception of the sciences), where post-modernism and relativism and a host of –isms have reigned, the concept of “Truth” is often viewed as a political or social construct created by the ruling class to oppress, subvert, and dominate everyone else. And Truth for Christ and Church? That idea would, for the most part, be laughed out of Harvard’s Divinity School even.
The story of Harvard’s transition from Puritan Protestantism to militant secularism, and then some, is really just one prominent example of what has happened all across North America, especially in the past century. Yale, Princeton, Dartmouth, Columbia—though all began as Christian are now, as one writer put it (with some, but not total, exaggeration)—“propaganda factories for every leftist, perverted, radical, tyrannical, failed ideology known to mankind—Marxism, Darwinism, Freudianism, Higher Criticism, communism, multiculturalism, relativism, naturalism, positivism, socialism, liberalism, egalitarianism, feminist studies, gay studies, transgender studies, transvestite studies, outcome-based education, radical environmentalism, etc.”
And though not quite with the hyperbole as the quote above, conservative icon William F. Buckley captured a similar sentiment about the direction of the school when he famously wrote: “I'd rather entrust the government of the United States to the first 400 people listed in the Boston telephone directory than to the faculty of Harvard University.”
Images of the Age
Of course it would be naïve to expect colleges and universities founded in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries to reflect those same ideals in the twenty-first. Who would want them to? As the nation changed, so did its colleges and universities, even those (as most were) founded upon Christian principles. And despite the common misperception that early Americans were an especially pious bunch (they weren’t), there is no question that Christian culture—as seen in everything from strict Sunday closing laws to state establishments of religion—was much more prevalent then than it is now, or has been for more than 70 or 80 years.
However, as the nation became more pluralistic, diverse, secular, educational institutions—inevitably–did the same. Schools, colleges, and universities, even Christian ones, do not exist as abstract entities. They are manifestations of human vision, longings, aspirations, and ignorance, and as such they change as the human beings who run them, fund them, and teach in them change as well.
And though change itself is not intrinsically bad, what’s bad, certainly from a Christians perspective, is if the change contradicts the truth as it is in Christ, exactly the kind that has plagued these schools.
William Ringenberg, in The Christian College: A History of Protestant Higher Education in America, wrote: “In his 1967 dedicatory address at the opening of Oral Roberts University, evangelist Billy Graham, sensing the university’s potential greatness, warned: ‘If ORU ever moves away from faith in the Bible and faith in God and putting God first, then let us this day pronounce a curse on it. This institution was built by the prayer and the dedication and the money of women and men who love God, who believe the Gospel, and who believe the Bible is the word of God.’ Graham’s concern came from his knowledge that the best-endowed colleges in America have tended to move from a Christian to a secular orientation. By the late twentieth century, even at most church-related colleges, secular modes of thought had come to dominate over the Christian worldview.”
The Dying of the Light
Ringenberg hasn’t been the only one to lament this shift in the academy. In 1998, James Tunstead Burtchaell published his famous The Dying of the Light: The Disengagement of Colleges and Universities from their Christian Churches. Some have considered it an extension of George Marsden’s The Soul of the American University: From Protestant Establishment to Established Disbelief (1994). Then there has been Philip Gleason’s Contending with Modernity: Catholic Higher Education in the Twentieth Century (1995), and Douglas Sloan’s Faith and Knowledge: Mainline Protestantism and American Higher Education (1994).
While Burtchaell and Marsden’s titles alone express the concerns, each book—whatever differences in their approaches—recount the same story about the slow but certain secularization of schools that had once been tied to a distinctive Christian faith. Marsden told about how some of America’s premier universities (Harvard, Yale, Princeton) had morphed from a Protestant evangelical framework to a more liberal Protestant world-view, to finally an overtly sectarian ethos—all in the name of pluralism and supposed universal moral values, a process that kept going decade after decade until every trace of their Protestant past had been eradicated. In most cases, the Christian background had become nothing but quaint relics from the distant and “unenlightened” heritage.
Burtchaell, meanwhile, examined 17 prominent institutions of higher learning in the United States, each one having its roots in Christianity: Congregational, Presbyterian, Lutheran, Baptist, Evangelical, Methodist, Catholic, and others. And though each story was different as each college or university was different (some starting out much more “religious” than others; some changing much more quickly than others), the trajectory in every case was similar: the steady erosion from being sectarian, to being broadly Christian, to being merely religious, and, finally, to being secular.
“Countless colleges and universities in the history of the United States were founded under some sort of Christian patronage,” wrote Burtchaell, “but many which still survive do not claim any relationship with a church or a denomination. Even on most of the campuses which are still listed by churches as their affiliates, there is usually some concern expressed today about how authentic or enduring that tie really is; and often wistful concern is all that remains. This book is an attempt to narrate and understand the dynamics of these church-campus relations, the ways they have tended to wither, and the whys?”
Why, then, did so many of these religious institutions shed their religious foundations? How could Yale University, for instance, whose charter (written in 1701) said that the school was founded “wherein Youth may be instructed in the Arts and Sciences (and) through the blessing of Almighty God may be fitted for Publick employment both in Church and Civil State” become a place where one now can study, among other things, “Queer Theology”?
Again, each school has its own past, its own personality, its own unique set of circumstances that gave each one a different specific story within the larger common story: the secularization of the academy. Nevertheless, a number of factors, some involving the American society at large, help explain the great changes in these formerly Christian institutions.
For most of recorded history, humanity (whether or not it had a specific term for it) lived with a “supernaturalist” worldview. Though exceptions existed even in early America, most leading thinkers believed in God and that, even if not directly intervening in human affairs (though many thought He did), He certainly had created natural laws that governed reality. Over time, including influences from the French Enlightenment, more and more secular ideas began permeating colleges, exiling God, and certainly a personal God, into the intellectual hinterlands.
One powerful and deadly manifestation of this change came from Higher Criticism. Far from being viewed as the Word of God (if there even were a God!), Scripture came to been as much a human creation more than anything else. Most, if not all, miracles were viewed as myths, tales, stories told by ancients who were recounting their primitive understanding of God, as opposed to being true accounts of divine intervention in human life and existence. Before long, a six-day creation, a universal flood, a miraculous Exodus, and other seminal biblical stories, interpreted through modernist and secularist filters, were pushed into the trash heap of history.
Even Jesus hasn’t escaped their narrow-minded clutches, with scholars arguing that Jesus really didn’t say or do many of the things the Gospels recorded that He said and did, especially the miracles. This rabid ontological narrowness is exemplified by the famous words of higher critic Rudolf Bultmann: “We cannot use electric lights and radios and, in the event of illness, avail ourselves of modern medical and clinical means and at the same time believe in the spirit and wonder world of the New Testament.”
Next, few intellectual trends have done more damage to Christian faith as a whole, and in the college environment in particular, than has Darwinism.
“Although evolution suffered many defeats, “wrote William Ringenberg, “it gradually gained acceptance in most institutions, including many of those that for years had bitterly resisted it. This happened in large part because year after year increasing numbers of science instructors in more and more colleges had received their training in graduate schools where the predominant professors and textbooks expressed sympathy for the evolutionary hypothesis.”
So great has been the intellectual victory of this idea that even in many colleges (but not all) that have kept their religious affiliation, Darwinism is taught, but in the context of trying to harmonize it with Scripture—a project that, inevitably, leaves Scripture weakened, bowdlerized, or mythologized almost to the point of uselessness. As Darwinian acolyte Daniel Dennett correctly said, Darwinism is a “universal acid” that eats through everything it touches, including Scripture. He’s right, which is why in many other schools the “universal acid” of Darwinism had eroded whatever weak links to a Christian past that hadn’t yet been dissolved.
Plus, the scientific world-view, which became more and more dominated by the philosophical assumptions of naturalism, helped weaken Christian faith, often through the notion known as the “God of the gaps.” Though understood in variegated and nuanced ways, the idea is that when scientists confront a phenomenon they cannot explain, God’s mysterious working must be the answer. Of course, once science comes up with an explanation, God (the thinking goes) is by default pushed out until He’s all but—thanks to microscopes, telescopes, atom-smashers, and the like—been relegated into the attic, unneeded and unheeded because science can (the thinking goes) explain everything once attributed to a Creator. However fallacious the argument that as science advances faith retreats, it has taken its toll on college campuses.
Meanwhile, relativism, post-modernism, Marxism, and host of other -isms have entered the noosphere, often taking firmest root and being disseminated from institutions of higher learning (it has been said that the only Marxists left in America are English professors in Ivy League Colleges), while many, if not most of these –isms, are overtly hostile to any Christian worldview.
Also, Douglas Sloan, mentioned above, argued that many Christian academics eventually bought into the notion that faith is a private, personal, subjective matter, while knowledge is public, universally accessible, and to some degree discoverable through rational modes of inquiry. And because the task of higher education was to discover and transmit knowledge, it was better to keep the realm of knowledge separate from the realm of faith. Sloan argued that Protestant leaders in early decades of the last century allowed this false bifurcation of faith from knowledge to remain intact, with the result, said one commentator, that religion and religious perspectives had been “left homeless in the modern university.”
To some degree this change was inevitable, even in conservative Christian schools, which—whether they like it or not—reflect the greater culture around them. Meanwhile, their teachers often get degrees from institutions outside their faith community, or outside any faith community at all, then come teach in church affiliated colleges. Multiply this process decade after decade, and how naïve not to expect change. When teachers not of the founding church’s faith are hired, or when teachers (whatever their faith profession) are not committed to the church’s world-view, what does one expect? The surprise should not be the secularization of Christian schools, but only that some have held out for as long as they have.
Seventh-Day Adventist Institutions of Higher Learning
What about Seventh-day Adventists, with 13 accredited institutions of higher learning in the United States? How well has the church resisted the secularization that has swallowed up so many Christian institutions before us?
First, we need to acknowledge that our schools have already been impacted by the same kind of forces that turned a college founded “to train young men for the ministry” into an uber-secular institution such as Harvard.
Second, church leaders must be proactive in ensuring that students in Seventh-day Adventist colleges get an education that openly and unashamedly teaches the doctrines, beliefs, and values of this church. Leaders must employ whatever mechanism it needs to hold our colleges accountable for whom they hire and what they teach our children. Academic standards are crucial, but if our colleges create finely trained young professionals heading to “lake of fire” (Rev. 20:15), what good are they? Better to use the money to lead souls to Jesus rather than to sustain institutions that turn them away from Him.
What about “academic freedom”? What about it? Yes, “academic freedom” is a fine phrase, and it has its role, but much like the liberté, égalité, fraternité of the French Revolution, a fine phrase can cover a host of malfeasance. However broadly one wants to define “academic freedom,” no school should allow teachers who subtly undermine our faith to hide under the cry “Academic Freedom!” To do so is a modern equivalent of the “abominations” decried all through the Old Testament.
No question, we have many fine schools staffed with faithful and dedicated teachers and administrators. But we would be negligent and naïve to think that these secularizing influence have not been creeping in, to one degree or another.
The question is: What will we do about it?
Parents, teachers, church and school administrators have a sacred obligation to make sure that our institutions of higher learning do not lose their way, as so many others have in the past. Like ancient Israel on the borders of Canaan, Seventh-day Adventists have been the recipients of divinely revealed truths. Like the Israelites, we have been called to “teach them to your children and to their children after them.” Catching, perfectly, the principle at issue here, Jesus warned: “Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters” (Matt. 12:30).
Clifford Goldstein is editor of the Adult Sabbath School Bible Study Guide. His next book is tentatively titled, Baptizing the Devil: Evolution and the Seduction of Christianity.