Gospel & Culture blog
by Ken Nehrbass
This is a series of blogs on the theology of culture, which really can be seen as a "theology of everything" if culture is everything we think, have and do as members of a society. n this post, I introduce ideas that are central to a theology of education. As with other aspects of the "theology of culture," I am looking at God's intended purpose, structure and authority for government
The purpose of education as a cultural system
The cultures of the world have competing ideas about the purpose of education: in the USA education is increasingly about career advancement rather than to make people well-rounded thinkers or to encourage personal enrichment. The seeing in emphasis from liberal arts to STEM is a result of the trend to align higher education with career, rather than knowledge. Other cultures emphasize that education is about socialization, guaranteeing social welfare (a populace needs to be literate to ensure the growth of GDP), or simply about making good citizens. All of these are legitimate purposes of education, as long as none becomes an idol. In early missionary work around the world, education was primarily about teaching people to read so they could know scripture and discern Christian worldview but also focused on increasing the economic lives of those in poorer parts of the world.
Like all cultural systems, the ultimate purpose of education is for humankind to glorify God and enjoy Him forever. Kuyper argued that education has been God’s plan along- building on the knowledge of previous ancestors. There was no way for one generation to fulfil the command to fill the earth and subdue it, so education is necessary for us to transmit the accumulation of knowledge as we make something great of the world God created.
Scripture balances the tendency to make education an idol, on the one hand, with ignorance or foolishness on the other:
•He who increases knowledge increases sorrow –Ecc1:18
•For the wisdom of this world is foolishness in God's sight. As it is written: "He catches the wise in their craftiness” (1 Cor3:19) quoting Job 5:13
The structure of education as a cultural system
Education is neither entirely the task of the parents, nor entirely the task of the state. Some may be reluctant to allow state involvement at all with the education of a Christian community. Yet an education that is wholly separate from the state will not be able to achieve all the purposes that God plans for education. A fully functioning educational system would lead to cures for cancer, mapping the human genome, designing better bridges, interpreting history in ways that dignify diverse peoples. Many of these advancements are possible because of state involvement.
Others might argue that the private enterprise should take on the task of education-- let the free market determine which majors are valuable enough to offer at the university. Let people pay for education what it is worth. But in reality, virtually no government wholly accepts this notion-- the state must get involved to ensure that those who do not have money can still become literate and even upwardly mobile.
The authority for education as a cultural system
The authority for education is firstly located within the family, as parents "train up their children" (Prov 22:6). But as I mentioned above, the authority for education must also be located within the state, which has resources for research-one institutions that can train up specialists like aerospace engineers and epidemiologists. Only the state - not the family- can ensure system-wide literacy and vocational training.
The role of Christian Universities
George Marsden’s (1997) impetus for writing The Outrageous idea of Christian scholarship was the criticism he received from professors for his earlier volume The Soul of the American University in which he made a case of faith-based scholarship. “Many contemporary academics confirm as dogma that the only respectable place for religion in the academy is as an object of study” (p. 13). But (critics failed to understand this) Marsden argues that Christian scholarship is not particularly the study of religion. It is the study of everything else (math, science, history) from a Christian background, rather than from a materialist ontology. The “cultural mandate” in Gen 1:28 (fill the earth and subdue it) has been understood since Thomistic days to refer to the Christian exploration of all facets of culture, not just religious truth. Col 1:15-20, a passage on the supremacy of Christ, indicates that the God of all creation, who holds “all things together” certainly permeates every aspect of scholarly inquiry.
Critics also worried about bias, should Christians be allowed to integrate their faith in the classroom. They may say, “It is inappropriate for anyone who practices a particular religion to teach about that religion” (p. 13). Marsden points out that it is impossible for any scholar to eliminate his own religious views; and scholars who pretend that they have eliminated their religious bias are being naïve or disingenuous. “The convention of insisting that all scholars pose as disinterested observers is more misleading than a general rule of frank identification of one’s own biases” (p. 54).
Much of this criticism of faith-based religion comes from, ironically, historically Protestant ideals of freedom. The university is supposed to be a place of academic freedom. Yet many in the academy are worried that Christianity would suppress that freedom. To deal with this, Marsden makes a distinction between two kinds of fundamentalists. In many religious systems, “fundamentalists” try to suppress the voices of dissenters; yet in American Protestant fundamentalism, Christians argued for the veracity of “fundamental beliefs,” but did not try to suppress the beliefs of others, nor did they try to suppress liberal politics.
Marsden also points out that since Christianity was taken for granted at the early Protestant universities (Princeton, Yale, Harvard, Pepperdine, University of Chicago), professors didn’t make special effort to see how their fields explicitly related to Christian thought. Here again the Christian heritage is actually working against a project of integrating faith and academic fields.
Probably the most lasting impact of Mardsen’s work was his distinction between methodological secularization and methodological atheism. We needn’t approach academic fields with atheism (which is a religious presupposition) but we can certainly approach many of our fields with a secular, or down to earth, methodology. Marsden gives the example of an airplane pilot: He may believe in God, but we are counting on him to look at his instruments, not just to trust the Holy Spirit.
Marsden isn’t arguing that professors should proselytize or defend the Christian worldview in the class. He is arguing that for perspectivalism. If we can interpret history from a gay perspective, or psychology from a feminist perspective, why can we not interpret anthropology from a Christian perspective (and Marsden informed his critics, who were unaware of the huge body of literature that does in fact contain this perspective from Christian authors, that such a body of work does exist). Christian professors should be allowed to play by the rules of academia, and have their students work out “what are the ramifications for my discipline, if the Christian worldview is true?”
Marsden’s ideas were cutting edge in 1997, we have made a great deal of progress, because now many of his ideas are mainstream in Christian scholarship: it is common at many university campuses for faculty to think not only about Christianity, but about how the Christian worldview serves as a background belief for studies of art, business, history, biology, etc.
© 2015 Kenneth Nehrbass. All Rights Reserved.
Kenneth Nehrbass, Ph.D.
Associate Professor at Biola University, Author, Pastor