Jun 09 2008

The Left at Christian Universities part 2

Category: Uncategorizedharmonicminer @ 7:08 pm

In The Left at Christian Universities part 1, I briefly introduced the observation that many Christian colleges and Universities seem to be moving gradually left. This seems especially true of those that:

1) experienced recent, fairly rapid growth
2) are trying to move up in rankings/ratings, such as in the US NEWS and WORLD REPORT
3) changed from a college to a university in the last 25 years or so (often a sign of the outworking of growth and ambition to be well-thought-of, and the reflection of that in marketing initiatives).

I suppose the first question is:

Why does it matter?

It matters because of what we’ve learned about the typical developmental trajectory of church-related colleges over the last 100-150 years.

Simply, colleges founded by churches rarely (if ever) become secular by moving to the right. (Perhaps you know of one that I don’t. If so, do you know of two? Three? There are a lot of examples the other way.) These institutions become secular by moving to the left (the Christian left) and then it seems to take a generation or so to gradually shed the Christian identity in all but name. One may conjecture about the reasons for this, and about just how the mechanisms work.

It seems critical that we examine the historical sources of the ideas that are represented in and by the Christian left and right. If an idea or perspective can be shown on historical grounds to have arisen from sources which are anti-Christian (something more than merely non-Christian), we are correct to look with great suspicion on its current manifestations, regardless of how much God-talk we surround it with. For example, rules of logic developed from the writings of Greek philosophers are merely non-Christian, not anti-Christian. On the other hand, we should be deeply suspicious of a teaching about the value of human persons that flows in a logical way from the assumption that we are mere meat machines, an anti-Christian perspective that cannot possible lead to sound moral judgments.

This is not a violation of the “all truth is God’s truth” principle. We are not talking about denying the validity of science, or the rules of logic, or the fundamental principles of economics (if we can agree on what they are), i.e., theologically neutral propositions flowing from “the general revelation”. We are talking about the danger in trying to harmonize the perspectives of people who were specifically anti-Christian with Biblical teaching; drawing their viewpoints, flowing from anti-Christian stands, into the church’s teaching, perhaps because these viewpoints sound caring, or objectively rational, or appeal to us emotionally in some way; and then wrapping the entire affair in judiciously selected Bible verses so we can assure ourselves of our continued piety, while experiencing a chilly frisson of self-congratulation at our open-mindedness.

How concerned should a Christian be when he finds himself agreeing on policy matters and social issues with well-known atheists? The answer, of course, is it depends. It depends on whether or not the particular matter of agreement flows from a commonly held perspective or understanding that is itself more or less theologically neutral. On the other hand, it should evoke great concern when a specific anti-Christian perspective, flowing in a consistent way from an anti-Christian worldview, becomes something we adopt as our own, having decorated it with hermeneutic distortion of Biblical texts.

The Christian left seems more likely to ally itself with initiatives and perspectives whose origin is outside the church. These include abortion “rights” (flowing from Margaret Sanger’s eugenics views, among other places), certain views of science’s role in life and faith (especially sympathy with the neo-Darwinian synthesis), diversity, multiculturalism, sympathy with socialistic approaches to social problems, anti-military perspectives (natural for Christians from the Anabaptist tradition, but not so much for others), modern environmentalism as a near religion in its own right, suspicion of the profit motive, class warfare, preoccupation with “social justice” (not the simple Biblical concern for the local poor), “borderless nations”, disdain for the USA (expressing itself in inappropriate moral equivalence arguments relating the USA, and sometimes our allies, to other nations), encouragement for gay marriage (more than civil unions with associated “couple” oriented privileges, which seems acceptable to many on the right), etc. The list could be longer, but the flavor is here.

This is not to say that all of the Christian left agrees with all of these things. And it seems possible for perhaps one of these perspectives to find root in an otherwise Christian right perspective, though it is uncommon. However, where half or more of these perspectives are present in an institution or person, it seems reasonable to affirm identification with the Christian left.

With one exception, what all of these have in common is their origins not merely in non-Christian thought, but frequently in explicitly anti-Christian thought. The exception is the specifically pacifistic Anabaptist tradition, which can encourage a thorough-going withdrawal from all civil participation that has any aspect of violence implied in its function, though this is not always completely practiced by current descendants of the Anabaptist tradition. A simple test for the “theological authenticity” of a pacifist is how willing they are for the political state to tax and redistribute to cure social problems. The threatened violence behind the power to tax is anathema to many true Anabaptists, but not to many members of the Christian left, whose concern is not primarily refraining from doing evil with violence, but with effecting specific “cures” for society’s ills, which they are only too happy to do with taxes paid by other people.

The trajectory

Christian institutions of higher education have a way of starting as small bible colleges that will fail in a decade or two if they don’t mind their onions and focus on their main mission. Then they get a little bigger, and start trying to do other things… which is fine, as long as they keep their eye on the ball. But at some point, they find that they really want to be thought well of in the eyes of the world (the marketing/message/branding thing… must get that USNEWS and World Report rating) and begin trying to arrange adequate resources and public image such that even if they failed to carry out their primary mission for 20-30 years (or CHANGED the mission, gradually and subtly), they’d still survive, and maybe even thrive. Here is how you know you’re there: when the university creates a separate PROGRAM dedicated to carrying out its current understanding of the original mission, and then advertises that it’s doing this. (Imagine Ford engaging in an advertising program to tell the world that it was now trying to make good cars….) On the surface, this looks good… but it’s in fact an acknowledgment of serious “mission creep”… and unfortunately, the fix, mandated to create objectively observable and measurable results (of something that was never meant to be so measured… “Exactly how attractive is the curve on that fender?”), is often just another kind of “mission creep”.

Upcoming posts

I’ll try to pursue each of the “Christian left” perspectives above, and review the historical roots of each. Keep in mind that I’m not an historian, I’m just a musician who reads a lot. I’ve been in Christian academia for a long time, and have had the privilege of talking, in depth, with fine educators of both the Christian left and Christian right perspective, though of course I identify more with the latter. I expect the theologians, philosophers, biologists, physicists, historians and social scientists to point out all the ways I’ve misused their disciplines. So be it. Some of them are “hoist on their own petard”, in that they have talked about interdisciplinary, integrative work so much that I have taken them seriously and am trying to do it.

The principles I’ll try to follow are simple. I’ll trace the antecedents of particular ideas that I have identified as being distinctively part of the Christian left. I’ll be trying to make the case that most of them are secular, that is, flowing not out of the gradual development of the historical Christian traditions, but rather appearing discontinuously from secular, frequently explicitly anti-Christian sources.

I’ll discuss the Biblical references that are made by the Christian left to support these perspectives, but I will do so in the context of the Bible overall, what is known historically about the context of the times (and sometimes what is different about the times in which we live), the teachings/behavior of the early church fathers, and the continuing tradition.

I’m not sure how long this will take…. I’ve done a lot of the reading I need to do, but there is, of course, no end to it. So hang with me as we go. Suggest a book if you wish.

The first one will be on the topic of diversity and multi-culturalism. Look for it soon, I hope.

UPDATE: Part 3 of this series here.

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6 Responses to “The Left at Christian Universities part 2”

  1. Enharmonic says:

    I’m excited at the prospect of reading more of your posts. We seem to share a similar mindset and thus I sign myself as ‘Enharmonic’: “A term used for notes, intervals, and chords that are written differently but that, on a keyboard instrument, are played (and sound) as if they were the same.” – source: Harper’s dictionary of music.

  2. Christopher The says:

    My initial question is one of epistemology. Perhaps you can provide a rather short excursus on how you define “of Christian origin.” You’ve dealt with non- and anti-Christian well enough, but I’m wondering what the hermeneutic would be for calling something Christian-in-its-origin. Is it resonance with Scriptural tradition, and if so to which tradition of biblical interpretation is the appeal being made? Maybe it’s something else?

    I do believe that God’s Word does in fact speak to us (and I assume that this informs the appropriateness of the “Christian” label)—I’m just a bit suspicious about whether or not we hear God correctly. If there are concepts/systems/ideas that are (objectively) “Christian,” how do we go about (subjectively) aligning ourselves with those things?

    This MusicalGod—are we attune with his melodies and harmonies and rhythms? If I’m allowed to stretch the metaphor… How jazz is God, when we expect him to be baroque?

    There seems to be a fine line between epistemic humility and false epistemic humility. (Often enough, I wonder—which one am I? Which one is the Church?)

  3. HarmonicMiner says:

    Generally, I’ll stick with something like the Wesleyan quadrilateral, which reflects the addition of experience to the scripture/tradition/reason triad of Anglican thought, and which is broadly echoed, if not always explicitly described in that way, in many other traditions. That is, I think they all view scripture and tradition as primary, and would say so, but whether they specifically say so or not, all admit to the use of reason in working with both scripture and tradition. How else?

    Another way of saying this: I give much less credence to traditions that do not have a reasonable scriptural basis, but that doesn’t necessarily mean I give them none.

    When a perspective can be seen to exist in some form in scripture, and when it has “moved through the tradition” to us in some form, I assume reason and experience are involved in this, and would consider that perspective to have a “Christian origin”. Now, I have no problem accepting that there may be competing perspectives both of which are of Christian origin, so saying something is of “Christian origin” is not code for “we should swallow it without inspection”. Indeed, one of the, uh, meta-perspectives of the tradition is that we should *not* do this.

    On the other hand, when a perspective can be shown historically to have sprung from anti-Christian soil, even if we can find verses that seem to support it, we should consider it with some circumspection. It is not by definition wrong because this is the case… but we need to look very hard.

  4. harmonicminer » The Left at Christian Universities part 1 says:

    […] UPDATE:  Part 2 of this series here. […]

  5. harmonicminer » The Left at Christian Univs, part 3: Diversity says:

    […] I discussed in The Left at Christian Universities, part 2, a trend for Christian universities and colleges seems to be to move left by adopting essentially […]

  6. harmonicminer » The Left At Christian Universities, Part 16: Psychological psychos? says:

    […] an earlier post in this series, I said that, “If an idea or perspective can be shown on historical grounds to have arisen […]

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