Friday, January 21, 2011

Kenneth Elzinga on the Role of a Christian University

Baylor University
Illustration by Roger Beerworth
(Image from Baylor Magazine)

As a Baylor University alumnus, I receive for free the University's quarterly magazine. I've previously posted on the Baylor Magazine, and some readers might recall that I was interviewed a couple of years ago on my memories of its Honors Program, an article especially worth reading, of course, and proof that Baylor takes an interest in even the least of its alumni. I'm now hoping for an interview on my memories of the NoZe Brotherhood . . . but that might be expecting too much.

Seriously, though, the magazine has interesting articles, and the most recent issue reprised a thought-provoking speech by University of Virginia professor Kenneth Elzinga on the role of a Christian university. Titled "Different to Make a Difference" (Baylor Magazine, Winter 2010-2011), Professor Elzinga makes a rather provocative remark on a category of Christians in secular schools that he calls "evangelicals":
The professors, researchers and scholars in higher education I have labeled the "evangelicals" believe that the quest for truth begins and ends with Jesus. Their work involves teaching and research in their disciplines, but their calling entails extending the reign of Jesus into all realms. The evangelicals might resonate with the words of the Dutch reformer Abraham Kuyper: "There is not one square inch of the entire creation about which Jesus Christ does not cry out, 'This is mine. This belongs to me.'"
Let me first acknowledge that in its context in the article, this quote is not quite as extreme as it sounds here, abstracted from Professor Elzinga's other statements, but perhaps taking it out of context is useful for thinking about what it might mean. I'll merely note that he recognizes that such evangelicals don't wear their Christianity on their sleeves, so long as they're at secular universities, where "they operate under a constraint," unlike at a Christian school, and he gives an example of the difference:
[W]hen I teach the economic theory of income distribution at the University of Virginia, which I will start next week in the classroom, it is not fair game for me to ask, "What might the biblical principle of gleaning, leaving some extra grain in the fields for the poor, teach about income distribution in an industrialized society?"

You can have that kind of conversation in Christian higher education. It should not be considered out of bounds to think of biblical perspectives of this sort, even if Christians in higher education who are at secular schools cannot go there. This is called integration, integrating the Christian faith with one's discipline.
I often post here on my blog about the danger posed by Islamism due to its integralism, namely, its refusal to accept a distinction between religion and state, between the sacred and the secular, so in all honesty, I have to wonder where the line would be drawn by Professor Elzinga's "evangelicals" -- "those [Christians] . . . who subscribe warmly to the biblical and theological tenets of the Christian church, those cardinal beliefs and affirmations which have been reiterated in the confessions and creedal affirmations of Christian churches," a rather more inclusive use of the term "evangelical" than one ordinarily encounters.

Professor Elzinga notes the "constitutional doctrine of a separation between church and state," but he doesn't say much about it. I would like to hear him offer a speech that includes that issue, for his remarks leave me wondering about his views.

Baylor University itself is very interested in the issue, I might add, for its Institute of Church-State Studies edits a highly respected journal titled the Journal of Church & State, which is now in its 53rd year of publication and is published by Oxford University Press.

I might also add that Baptists have traditionally been strongly in favor of a strict separation between religion and the state . . . however difficult the line may be to draw.

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