Maybe you know Kafka’s story in which a man picks his solitary way past rubble and scorched earth until he encounters a huge deserted apartment building. He enters a door, hesitates, then climbs a cement staircase high up into the building. And up there somewhere he stumbles upon a long corridor down which he begins to poke his way wonderingly. A chance premonition makes him turn off into a room, a little bathroom. And there, lo and behold! a fellow sitting on the sink, hunched over a pole, fishing in the bathtub filled with water. The visitor looks the situation over carefully and finally dares to say, “You’re not going to catch any fish in there.” And the other fellow says back, “I know it”—and continues his fishing.

Kafka’s story of the defiant bathtub fisherman is a keen analysis, it seems to me, of contemporary education without Jesus Christ. A difference between Kafka’s postwar European university and the secular twentieth-century American college may well be that the Americans are still expecting to catch fish, but the story holds.

Facing The Real Issues

And now a question. What is a Christian to do about it? Shake one’s head, smile, and wander off out to where there is some fundamentally fresh air and flowers? Or, like a liberal hail-fellow-well-met, pull out one’s fishing tackle and sit down beside the man, letting one’s own line dangle dialectically in his tub, too? What is a Christian college? A separate, specially built bathtub stocked beforehand with approved edible fishes—so that Christian education becomes one big sanctified fish fry?

We Christians, I think, would be much less timid about what we are doing educationally if we had a clearly developed understanding of what a Christian college is, what spirit must drive it on, and exactly what is going on in academic America today.

On Church-Relatedness

A church-related college is not necessarily a Christian college. Many private American colleges today are church-related simply because some devoted clergymen started them in the nineteenth century, and the historical relation has been maintained because the church, like a distant rich uncle, puts up the desperately needed money in the spring of the year—providing that the Bible department hasn’t gotten too far out of line and any student immorality has been kept out of the headlines. Moreover, if a church has betrayed its centuries-old Christian confessions, the fact that the college is “church-related” means little.

Article continues below

If “church-related” means that the college is church-dominated, and the church be orthodoxly sound, then you may have the machinery for a Christian college. But is it the church’s business to run a college? The church may give birth to centers of advanced scientific study and prop those young institutions up like saplings during their infancy; it has done so, thank God. Because a college is not a church, however, some of us contend that it is a mistake to subject one to the other, that is, to let one kind of social structure dominate the internal workings of another kind of institution. Whenever that happens, both become denatured. That is why some Christian “colleges” actively dominated by a church are not so much colleges as lay seminaries, restricting themselves predominantly to the church-like business of mission—ministry—youth-work training with nary a major in sociology, French, or mathematics; and denominations running a full-fledged college today soon, if they lack the worldliwise Romanist restraint of watchdog control, find themselves with a million-dollar building program on their hands for dormitories, science buildings, and gymnasia—a rather devilish distraction from the Church’s first love, the pastoral care of its many members and preaching the Gospel.

Sincere subscription by the faculty to certain theological dicta, and a measure of honest piety and prescribed morality among the student body—if you will not misunderstand me—even these pearls of great price do not yet make a college biblically Christian in its workings. I have no patience with existentialistic quibblers unwilling to pin themselves down to confessional standards; and the anomaly of “required chapel” and proscribed liquor is no laughing matter, because those regulations are at least hard-headed attempts to meet terribly basic problems. But we evangelicals must resist the temptation to rest our case for Christian college education on the Christian environment we maintain, for it is full of holes. My church has long had an unwritten rule against attending the movie theatre, and then television came in the back door—fait accompli; prohibition of the modern social dance on campus—rightly so—has not stopped students from petting indiscriminately in the dark.

Yet it is especially for our Bible-believing creeds and signal virtues that unbelievers know us and defer. We are law-abiding citizens, a credit to any community, minding our own religious business; thank you for letting us shine “this little light of mine” on our 25–50–200 acres. Why, we wouldn’t hurt a fly. But maybe biblical Christians should be hurting flies, should be training to stand up ever to dragons without apology but with the flaming sword of the spirit—demythologized dragons like the Russian bear, and if need be, to a new kind of American centaur with elephantine hide and donkey’s head. The most impeccable “Christian” college will always be something of a tatterdemalion. What shall it profit us if the secular world comes to esteem us for our inoffensive, genteel behavior? For the sake of our suffering Lord, we should perhaps cultivate less pacific qualities, those with more biblical grit and Wesleyan vigor.

Article continues below

The Learning Process

So, you say, if church-relatedness and moral perfection do not make a college distinctively Christian, what does? The living presence of the Holy Spirit in the very matter that makes a college a college—what goes on between a teacher and student.

Strip away all the fringe benefits of a contemporary American liberal arts college—not coeds necessarily, but choirs, clubs, and college publications, if they are not made academic disciplines—the core of a college is still its wissenschaftlich educating action. That is its reason for being. A college is not a Robert Shaw Chorale, Rotary Club, newspaper business, or convalescent home. A college is that intimate association of a professionally competent, practicing investigator in a certain field with a young inquiring follower, who together, really communally together, leading and questioning, searching and finding, take some aspect of God’s world, however small—atom, irregular verb, or the nuance of “idle as a painted ship/Upon a painted ocean”—and examine it until its meaning is discovered. Education, I dare say, is basically learning to make distinctions, uncovering and interrelating the meanings of different things. If education takes place it will involve a communal examination of created reality in which some new understanding of its nature and workings is born.

God Or An Idol

And this is the Christian insight on education: that such examination and its results take place inescapably within the framework of a dynamic religious perspective. By “religion” I do not mean the Christian faith, Sabbath consecration, or moral acts in general. By religion I mean that inescapable, structural God-relatedness of man, that deep-down unconscious bent of being dependent upon some Absolute that every man has, that sensus deitatis, the directedness of one’s self toward the true God or toward whatever one takes to be divine, final. By “perspective” I mean focus, the simply lived-out, expressed, or carefully articulated hanging-togetherness of a sane man’s thought, word, and deed. So I assert as a biblical position that whether a man eat or drink or abstain or study, whatever he does issues either from a heart committed to the true and jealous God Almighty revealed in Jesus Christ through the Scriptures or from a heart attached to some temporal idol, whether bacchanalian or as sophisticated as Reason. As Deuteronomy 30 puts it: human action is on the road of life and blessing or on the road to death and a curse—choose whom you will serve!

Article continues below

To realize that the delicate, triggering process of education is the working out of one’s religion, that learning is full-fledged worship of God or denial of him, that the fine sifting and fallibly deciding that “this theory is so, and that problem is false, and the other clue is worth pursuing” is all couched in and simultaneously giving body to one’s stand toward God or against him—to realize all this is altogether sobering—and exhilarating! Because: where two, teacher and student, are gathered together in Christ’s name, there His Spirit is. So the teacher’s fear and trembling at what rests so trustingly in his hands need not be a Kierkegaardian agony: it can be an overflowing rush of hope that despite the blind mistakes and shortcomings, out of this work something glorious may come—their growing in the fear of the Lord, because the Spirit is nearby, blessing. Only that—a teacher and student in the very activity of learning growing in the fear of the Lord—only that makes a college Christian. All else is vanity.

It takes more than devout Christians to make a Christian college. The free gift of God’s grace and the play of the Holy Spirit inside wissenschaftlich investigation are needed to establish it.

Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.

Our digital archives are a work in progress. Let us know if corrections need to be made.