College models: Two approaches to religion and education

Guest commentary by Robert L. Montgomery

Christians and churches founded many educational institutions over the years. These schools have responded in various ways to the secularization that has enveloped the world.

To stimulate thought and discussion, particularly among Presbyterians involved in higher education, I offer two contrasting  approaches  that have been taken by schools founded by Christians. My descriptions are biased. I attended a church-related college (now Rhodes College) and Presbyterian seminaries, but much of my thinking has been affected by my doctorate work in social scientific studies of religion at Emory University. It was in this last experience and what has followed that I began my struggle with the influence of the secular in modern life. The social sciences, of course, are secular disciplines dedicated to the study of human life, including religions, from a human point of view, not a theological viewpoint. Nevertheless, I found that secular methodologies, not ideologies, could provide important insights and corrections to human thinking, including religious thinking.

Church-related schools
The first type of Christian-founded schools remained “church related” (my preferred term), but recognized that secular methodologies used in a wide variety of fields are highly useful for developing new knowledge. These schools were founded to give knowledge as a service to all people, not just Christians. The fact that all knowledge (except knowledge based on faith) can be taught from a secular perspective is a major reason for their secularization. Furthermore, these schools gained financial support from outside of the founding religious group. The goal to serve all people and the inclusion of all fields of knowledge reduced specific references to a Christian purpose. At the same time, these schools (or the related churches) founded theological schools to teach knowledge that comes through faith. In short, the schools founded by Christians came to emphasize an excellent education for all people as a worthy purpose, not “Christian education” as such. In a sense, this was parallel to the founding of hospitals to serve all people.

Nevertheless, most of these church-related or Christian-founded schools recognize that education should help students deal with the meaning and purpose of life in an atmosphere where they can freely express their questions and doubts with due respect for others. At this point, the issue of education becomes complicated. Secular methodologies are handicapped in dealing with the meaning and purpose of life by their lack of divine reference. However, as demonstrated in different fields, secular approaches can yield important insights in morality. In fact, a moral sensibility has been found to be innate in human beings. Most notably, secular approaches to morality can yield important criticisms of Christianity. Nevertheless, because of the importance of gaining meaning and purpose in life, church-related schools seek to give opportunities for faith groups to meet, share and celebrate their faith, and serve needs in the world. Specific courses are provided for students to learn the various views of religions, but especially the Christian view of God’s revelation in the Bible and in Jesus Christ. In the end, “Christian education” is taken up by theological schools, churches and families – not by the church-founded schools that necessarily teach wider fields of knowledge. Ideally (though many need improvement), the church-related schools seek to maintain an atmosphere encouraging Christian faith and life through courses, chaplaincies, informal fellowship groups and various service opportunities.

Christ-centered schools
The “two-party system” of American Protestantism means that some more conservative Christians have reacted to the secularization movement differently than many in the mainline church traditions that founded “church-related” schools. The second type of Christian-founded schools are more conscious that many academics have fallen for the temptation to make the secular into an ideology in which God is regarded as irrelevant to life. The approach taken by these Christians to higher education has been to state explicitly the Christian purpose and nature of the educational institution, not simply its Christian founding or church relationship. These schools claim to be “Christian” – or specifically “Christ centered.” A statement of faith is made that trustees and faculty are expected to affirm. This clear statement is appealing to many who want a college for their children that would clearly present (some might say impose, but this would be disputed) the meaning and purpose for life.

In effect, the schools claiming to be “Christian” or “Christ centered” in effect become churches or para-church bodies with a full statement of faith crafted and affirmed by trustees and faculty. The authority of the Bible is affirmed, but this authority is usually associated with more conservative social views (such as understandings of marriage and the origins of human life). An emphasis on obedience is also notable. The Bible is often regarded as a major source for historical and scientific knowledge, which can hinder a search for new knowledge of nature and the world. Critical methods of Bible study are usually not taught. In short, such schools may be handicapped by barriers that limit the freedom of how students are taught about current and developing knowledge of the world and human life. My observation is that schools of higher education (not necessarily primary and secondary schools) that claim to be “Christian” or “Christ-centered” tend not to be highly rated academically, with a few exceptions. This is because so much growing knowledge is gained through secular methodologies and could be said to be basically secular fields of knowledge.

The role of educational institutions
There are other possible types of Christian-founded schools, but I believe the specific responsibility of Christian education falls directly on the church and on Christian families, not on educational institutions. Educational institutions are undertaken by Christians to benefit all by conveying useful knowledge, but Christian-founded schools should give opportunities to students to find the meaning of life in Jesus Christ in an atmosphere of freedom of choice without any sense of imposition. A major challenge to all schools is also to introduce students to secular methodologies that can be used to gain most kinds of skills and knowledge. Included is the important fact that such methodologies – for example, especially science and government – can also be used and have been used to correct mistaken ideas and behaviors, including those of Christians.

Excellence in education remains the overall goal of church-related schools, while at the same time they hope to provide a context and specific encouragements for students to go forward in the path of faith in Jesus Christ. The proper balance between these two goals is difficult to maintain. The schools that declare themselves specifically “Christian” or “Christ centered” often forget that freedom provides the best context for faith to grow, but they also challenge church-related schools to live up to the ideal to provide the right “community” for faith to grow with learning. I hope that the thoughts expressed here will stimulate thought and discussion among those related to both types of schools.

ROBERT L. (BOB) MONTGOMERY was born in China of missionary parents. He served as mission worker in Taiwan for 16 years and is now a member of Western North Carolina Presbytery.