The three themes in Christian ministry among the faculty that most concern me are: academic integration, spiritual disciplines, and kingdom theology applied to the university. Unfortunately, academic integration is overrated, spiritual disciplines are stupid, and recapturing the university for Christ is a fool’s errand. Because these are common themes of Christian Faculty Conferences, I don’t go. But the interesting blog is in why I would be so cynical, mean-spirited, and contrary to these contemporary currents in evangelical Christianity.
Let me mention, before I began to criticize in earnest, that J.P. Moreland, Dallas Willard, and William Lane Craig are my heroes. They are among the most prominent Christian faculty alive, and they have been very active in championing the Christian faith in the University. I probably will not amount to much as a Christian missionary to the campus compared to them. Still, I am about to argue that these great men of faith who have come before me are misguided on some tenets of their public minsitry. I am not trying to make ad hominem attacks, and it makes me very sad to part ways with certain aspects of their ministry philosophy, but here I go.
Academic Integration is Overrated
Everyone has to do academic integration to some degree, especially in philosophy. But very few people are going to be at the leading edge of integration (e.g., Philip Johnson, Behe). Most attempts at integration by Christian faculty would be “pretend minsitry” in my view. That is, it is simply not that important that Bob the biologist at your university focus his research career on integrating evolution and creation, or championing creation science.
It is not useful because what is more important is being a missionary to the campus. Other eminent scholars already tackled the integration issue in key fields, and in my opinion it would be better to be a missionary than to strive to resist modernism or postmodernism in my discpline (for me, health psychology). True, some integration is necessary at a personal level, and is helpful to be able to defend Christianity in a one-on-one exchange with students, but it is a diversion as a research career for most Christian faculty. A research career in academic integration would be most possible at a religious institution, and would be in the category of “not scholarship” at most public and private universities.
Furthermore, in my view “academic integration” lets faculty off the hook for “Christian service” that affects no one’s lives. It’s like singing in the choir at church—if that’s your great work of ministry you ain’t doing much. It’s what you like to do for fun anyway, and it does not win the lost. Try pouring your life out for others—that’s authentic minsitry. Dennis McCallum just said at the 2008 Xenos Summer Institute that the “worship theory of evangelism” is possibly the dominant strategy the church in America uses to win the lost, and that it has simply not worked. That is, non-Christians simply do not come to a worship service, see a rockin’ band, and start thinking “I should be a Christian.” It is a very sad tale, and the thousands of men and women giving their efforts for music ministry have been diverted from strategies that are proven to work. So show me the evidence that, on the whole, academic integration is an effective ministry tool. And the phrase “on the whole” is critical here because I am well aware that there are notable exceptions. In the field of philosophy, theism has made a dramatic comeback documented by J.P. Moreland and others. Some scientists have turned academic integration into wonderful opportunities (e.g., Behe). But I still believe that the typical Christian faculty member should spend their time in evangelism, discipleship, church planting, and other people-oriented ministry efforts.
Again, a caveat is in order for this objection. First, everyone has to do some academic integration on a personal level. Compartmentalizing one’s life into “secular” and “sacred” has terrible consequences. Furthermore, anti-intellectualism is a scourge of modern Christianity, and I am not advocating ignorance or a refusal to think through one’s area of scholarship. Rather, a concentrated focus on academic integration as a staple of ministry efforts is a distraction from more pressing matters.
So why do people do it? I think that this is an effect of reformed/covenant theology, which comes up below in my third major subheading.
Spiritual Disciplines are Stupid
I’v e blogged about this before in my review of J.P. Moreland’s “Kingdom Triangle,” the second side of which is spiritual disciplines. So here goes again.
Spiritual disciplines are groundless in the Bible and we are warned that they are useless. Yet they are a major focus of Christian faculty conferences and retreats. The argument that J.P. Moreland makes in their favor is from passages like Romans 12:1. He takes Romans 12:1, Romans 6:11-13, Colossians 3:5, and 1 Timothy 4:7-8 to be passages about our physical bodies and how we should use our physical bodies to engage in physical actions that bring about sanctification. “Flesh” in these passages is supposed to mean “the sinful tendencies or habits that reside in the body and whose nature is opposite to the Kingdom of God” (p. 151). So the sin nature is supposed to be in my physical body. For example, he asserts that anger is often in the stomach, gossip in the tongue, and lust in the eyes (why not in the penis?). According to Moreland, the solution is to engage in spiritual disciplines. A spiritual discipline is “a repetitive practice that targets one of these areas in order to replace bad habits with good ones” (p. 153). As a metaphore he uses tennis, in which bad tennis habits (your “tennis flesh”) are cured by submission to a tennis instructor and practice that strengthens better tennis habits and thus “tennis righteousness.” Moreland advocates the typical spiritual disciplines of engagement (e.g., study, worship, service) and abstinence (e.g., solitude, silence, fasting, and sacrifice).
I think that Moreland is wrong. I think he takes Romans 12:1 out of context. He asserts that “presenting our bodies to Christ” means exercising parts of the body to become less sinful and more Christlike. Rather, the passage starts with ‘therefore’ which refers back to Romans 1-11, and the context makes clear that Paul is writing to believers to remind them that the entire world is condemned (Jew and Greek) but that we have now received the astonishing gift of grace through faith in Jesus Christ, and can be justified before God and declared righteous. What is our response? The metaphore in Romans 12:1 is the thank offering, which is a burnt offering in the Old Testament. In the New Testament, we are the offering our entire selves, given freely to God in thanks for what he has done for us. That’s our reasonable act of worship. This is not at all the same as exercising to become sanctified.
Second, the sin nature (i.e., flesh) is an aspect of our human nature that we inherited from Adam as part of being human beings. The “flesh” is only one word the bible uses to describe the sin nature, and others include “the sin which indwells me” (Romans 7:7-25), “heart” (Jeremiah 17:9), and “outer man” (2 Cor. 4:7-18). The Greek word “sarx” is translated flesh, and although it can refer to the physical body (Galatians 2:20), it is also used in ways that do not refer to the physical body. For example “flesh” is used to refer to human accomplishments in Philippians 3:4.
Thus, the sin nature is all-encompassing, and a false dualism suggesting that the sin nature resides solely in the physical body and not in the rest of a person is mistaken. In fact, this view sounds like weird mysticism, and is strangely similar to a view typical of gnostics. The gnostic heresy that John addressed in 1 John included the idea that the body is bad and the spirit is good, so anything the body does is irrelevant (e.g., orgies). Moreland says the badness is in the body, so the body has to get reformed. But, the flesh described in the bible doesn’t map onto parts of the body as Moreland suggests when he says that the flesh is “the sinful tendencies or habits that reside in the body and whose nature is opposite to the Kingdom of God” (p. 151).
Another problem with Moreland’s argument is the fact that rightousness does not replace the sin nature by getting into the body through exercising these parts of the body. There is not enough time here to discuss the theology of sanctification (it is complicated), but self effort does not work, and in fact is offensive. Galatians 3:2-3 says “The only thing I want to learn from you is this: Did you receive the Spirit by doing the works of the law or by believing what you heard? Are you so foolish? Although you began with the Spirit, are you now trying to finish by human effort?” That is, sancitification is by grace through faith, just like salvation. Good works, even when repeated and prolonged, do not sanctify.
In fact, targeting the physical body to produce righteousness is a wrong-headed idea. If targeting the physical body were a good approach to sanctification, then the Buddhists and other religions that use body-focused techniques would have a great strategy. Physical exercise should also do wonders for unrighteousness. Obviously, none of this produces sanctification or lasting character change of a Christian nature. On the other side of this argument, why are so many spiritual disciplines unrelated to parts of the body? What part of the body does frugality strengthen, fortify, or relax? What about submission? Fellowship? Study? If a spiritual discipline is “a repetitive practice that targets one of these areas in order to replace bad habits with good ones,” then the commonly practiced spiritual disciplines should involve using specific parts of the body.
Of course, the most important objection is that spiritual disciplines are not commanded by the bible. Bob DeWaay of Critical Issues Commentary tackles this point in earnest (http://cicministry.org/commentary/issue91.htm). He pionts out that Dallas Willard’s primary text supporting the practice of spiritual disciplines, which is Matthew 11:29-30, does not actually teach that spiritual disciplines should be practiced (from Willard’s The Spirit of the Disciplines). He also notes that even Willard agrees that spiritual disciplines are not found elsewhere in scripture. Furthermore, DeWaay reminds us that “they had ascetics in Paul’s day and he rebuked them” (Colossians 2:20-23). This passage is worth quoting here in its entirety:
“If you have died with Christ to the elemental spirits of the world, why do you submit to them as though you lived in the world? ‘Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!’ These are all destined to perish with use, founded as they are on human commands and teachings. Even though they have the appearance of wisdom with their self-imposed worship and false humility achieved by an unsparing treatment of the body – a wisdom with no true value – they in reality result in fleshly indulgence.” (Colossians 2:20-23).
So, accoring to scripture, activities that would be indistinguishable from today’s spiritual disciplines look like they would be a good idea, bu they actually are without value and are merely human inventions. In fact, they are worse than benign meaningless activities, and rather have the potential to cause real harm (“result in fleshly indulgence”).
Problems associated with spiritual disciplines are numerous. In my view, they are:
· Legalistic, amounting to a Christian self-help program when the Bible is clear that we cannot help ourselves.
· Unbalanced, elevating self-indulgent practices (e.g., solitude, silence) to equal prominence with critical teachings of the bible (e.g., committment to the body of Christ, sacrificial service).
· Distracting, letting Christians off the hook when they’re doing self-focused navel gazing even though they neglect the clear mandates of Jesus Christ (e.g., make disciples). People can feel that they are making real progress by having spiritual retreats despite doing little actual service for the Lord.
· Non-relational (e.g., silence, solitude) when the Bible clearly emphasizes love relationships in the Body of Christ.
· Formalistic, when the scriptures condemn religious formalism. For example, Jesus taught against formalism on many occaisions, including the famous “Lord’s prayer” passage which has somehow been converted into religious formalism by many religious people. In fact, prayer is not a “spiritual discipline” at all, but rather communication with a real person.
Back to the point of this soap box—spiritual disciplines are a major theme of Christian faculty retreats, as well as the ministry strategy of Campus Crusade and Intervarsity for faculty. I find this unhelpful to campus ministry (and a generally problematic thread in contemporary Christianity).
Recapturing the University for Christ is a Fool’s Errand
My final point of contention with Christian Faculty ministries is the idea that we should try to recapture the university for Christ. This idea seems to come from the belief that the church should be placing Christians in places of prominence in culture in order to redeem culture, combined with the alarming secularization of the university that has rapidly taken place. Therefore, we should retake lost ground to stem the tide of spiritual decline threatening the church. The logic seems inescapable, and the crisis is so greivous that the proposed solution feels compelling.
The University has Gone Secular
There is no doubt that the university has become secular. There are a number of very scholarly and convincing treatments of this topic, such as George Marsden’s “The Soul of the American University.” This book explains how the American University went from “Christian” to completely secular in about one generation. I completed a postdoctoral fellowship at Duke University, which is a good example. Originally a Methodist university, a plaque by a statue near the glorious chapel reads “The aims of Duke University are to assert a faith in the eternal union of knowledge and religion set forth in the teachings and character of Jesus Christ, the son of God.” Since Duke started in 1924, there has been a complete abandonment of any religious faith by the institution of Duke University, and it is now completely secular. The revised statement issued by the administration in the 80’s makes this clear; “Duke cherishes its historic ties with the United Methodist Church and the religious faith of its founders, while remaining nonsectarian.”
This is only one example, but I believe that any examination of the evidence whould reveal a nearly total revolution in universities in this country from centers of Christian education to secular institutions committed to atheism or agnosticism. To quote George Veith “The university was a Christian invention” and “Universities once devoted to the pursuit of truth are, ironically, the very institutions that are denying there is any such thing.” (Veith, 1999, Can We Recapture the Ivory Tower? World Magazine).
But the University is the Center of Culture!
I also understand that universities are absolutely central to culture. Universities create culture. Universities define what is true, what constitutes knowledge, and what is good. Every leader in society is university educated. Every young person of sufficient means and aptitude leaves home for the university. The university is where individual’s worldviews coalesce as they individuate from their parents and become independently functioning adults. The influence of the university in America cannot be understated. Therefore, the university is an extremely strategic context for Christian ministry. Nevertheless, I do not believe that recapturing the center of culture is an appropriate strategy for Christian faculty.*
Covenant Theology applied to the University
I am not a theologian, and I don’t fully understand coventant theology vs. dispensationalism. However, I am becoming more aware how dominant covenant theology is in major seminaries and churches in America. For more background, see http://neozine.org/inside/the-reformed-restless-reformed/ and http://neozine.org/inside/the-dawn-of-covenant-theology/.
Applied to the university, covenant theology would imply that the institution of the university should be reclaimed for Christ. To be succint and blunt, I believe that this is possible because the devil still has authority over the kosmos. For example, history demonstrates that every time the church has become the government, atrocities result (e.g., crusades). The devil’s sphere of influence is man-made institutions and systems that the bible refers to as “the world” (i.e., kosmos). The university was a man-made institution that was originally intended to serve the church, but it has been co-opted by the devil and turned into yet another structure in the world system that promotes the values of the kosmos. We cannot win back the structures of the world system, but we can help to rescue the captives of the kosmos and bring them into the church. The body of Christ is organic, based in loving-relationships and empowered by the Holy Spirit. It is as far from institutional as you can get. The difference between the implication of covenant theology and dispensationalism, when applied to the university, is like the difference between trying to repair the titanic after it struck the iceberg and working to convince people to board the life rafts as it goes down.
To be fair, I know I’m not supporting my assertions on this last point very well. There’s just no space or time to argue covenant theology vs. dispensationalism. All I have done was to point out the major implication of these very different theologies when they are applied to the university. I think that winning the institution of the university for Christ goes hand in hand with academic integration, and together these strategies are not focused on winning the lost people in the university.
This blog was far too long. All this to say, I do not attend Christian faculty conferences.
*As an interesting aside, as education becomes more expensive and prima facia irrelevant to the consuming public, there is a chance that Universities will lose their grip on society (see C. John Sommerville, The Decline of the Secular University). For example, my friend took classes called “Comics into movies” (about the conversion of graphic novels to full-length motion pictures) and “I want my MTV,” only to find that his education did not provide any credentials necessary to get a job. The public is noticing that the university is plagued by high cost, lack of accountability, uneven quality, and the proliferation of fluffy curricula…a backlash may be coming! In Ohio there is a clear “business-ification” of education underway. The state legislature is enacting reforms that will attempt to make the state universities contribute to the state economy. So much for idealistic values like “truth” and “knowledge!”