Thanks to a daring vision generated by its faculty and administration, Baylor University (where I am a professor) is attempting to become a top-tier Christian school known for its research as well as its teaching. This innovative effort—popularly referred to as Baylor 2012, after a 10-year vision statement—has met with both vehement opposition and passionate vindication.
Much of the antagonism has been directed against President Robert Sloan, but his presidency and Baylor 2012 were last month resoundingly upheld by a 31-4 vote of the Baylor board of regents. The conflict, however, is not over. Such debate will continue until we address the theological problem still bedeviling us: We have over-privileged the Enlightenment as it pertains both to Christian faith and Christian education.
Even our categories are impoverished. Baptist conservatives and Baptist liberals both embrace strategies that, ironically, are legacies of the secularizing Enlightenment. Conservatives have sought to establish watertight proofs for Scriptural inerrancy that will serve as a bulwark against the miracle-denying rigidity of a cause-and-effect universe. Liberals, in turn, have subscribed to John Locke's ideal of tolerance—an ideal that stresses inclusivity and openness above all else, often to the neglect of real theological convictions.
The revolution occurring at Baylor fits none of these Enlightenment concerns. First-rate Christian scholars are coming to Baylor from the most outstanding universities in the world precisely because we are attempting at once to engage and to challenge the Enlightenment paradigm. Faculty hiring, for instance, has been opened to a new variety of scholars. Far from producing an ideological unanimity of either the left or the right, Baylor enjoys greater religious diversity than ever.
Recent faculty appointments have included Catholics and Episcopalians, Lutherans and Presbyterians, Methodists and members of the Churches of Christ, no less than Baptists, Pentecostals, Jews, and even Eastern Orthodox Christians. A Roman Catholic philosopher was recently chosen as the founding dean of the new Honors College neither to combat fundamentalism nor to promote tolerance, but rather to make use of his excellence as a Christian thinker, writer, and leader.
The Heresy of Solitary Faith
The visionary changes occurring at Baylor have been met with consternation because we have dined too long at the Enlightenment table, without setting richer food alongside its meager fare. Our failure to contest Enlightenment individualism, for instance, has landed us in ludicrous heresies. Luther's classic doctrine of the priesthood of all believers is a case in point. It has been corrupted into the heretical and essentially Gnostic idea of the priesthood of the solitary believer. Instead of serving as priests to each other in obedience to our one High Priest (and thus engage in the radically communal life of the church and its institutions), each individual is supposed to become his own priest.
A Baylor regent recently declared that no one can tell a Baptist what to believe about the Bible, since every Baptist interprets it according to the dictates of the individual's own heart. So sacred is this alleged Baptist doctrine that, according to this same regent, only Baptists can teach in Baylor's department of religion. Thus does an uncritical kind of Enlightenment individualism turn Christian faith into a largely a private affair. Such solitary piety may issue in benevolent deeds, but it denies the sacraments and doctrines that empower the Christian life. Insistence on orthodoxy of either belief or practice is said to block authentic Christian liberty—to make us a narrow and exclusive and oppressive people.
One leading adversary of the attempt to make Baylor a seriously Christian university, for example, boasts that he does not believe in the virgin birth, the miracles recorded in Scripture, or the Trinity. He remains a self-confessed Baptist because, he says, other traditions squash such freedom. He also remains a devoted Jesus-pietist who gives himself generously to good works in the local community. For him, therefore, religious matters should be left entirely to the faculty's and the students' private discretion. The church's only overt presence on the campus should be found in the caring and nurturing environment that Baylor provides for its students. Why such an environment could not be produced at a secular university remains unclear.
One of Baylor's former presidents holds a similar view concerning the place of religion on the campus. He has declared that, when professors do their best in the classroom, they have already discharged their Christian duty. "Faculty are not here to engage in religiosity," he stated. "They're here to teach algebra, political science, the best way they know how, which is to me the Christian way to do it." Certainly the doing of our intellectual best is the sine qua non of academic life. But why call it Christian? Like "care and nurture," must our teaching also remain devoid of specific Christian content and concern?
The Freedom to be Formed and Transformed
Much of contemporary evangelism has also been premised (unconsciously of course) on false Enlightenment assumptions. The notion that we each must make a single untrammeled individual decision to accept Jesus as Savior and then follow him as Lord ignores the traditional Christian conception of freedom. Virtually the whole Christian tradition has iterated, with relentless consistency, that to be free is not to make autonomous choices akin to purchasing an automobile or joining a civic club. To be free is to conform our lives to the will and way of God. And while this freedom may begin with a sudden conversion, it cannot be sustained apart from a lifelong participation in the communal life of the people of God. To do evil, by contrast, is the really solitary and autonomous act. It is not to exercise freedom, but to abandon the life of the self-giving love of God for our own idolatrous purposes.
The choices that matter most, it follows, are not blithely unfettered but blessedly encumbered. Decisions that form our character are laden with aims and attachments that we have not chosen for ourselves; they have been graciously given to us. We are called to respond gladly to the gifts we have so generously received, from our parents and communities, from our friends and neighbors, from our schools and nation—but supremely from the self-giving God of Israel, Jesus Christ, and the church.
The Enlightenment idea of the independent, all-sovereign self therefore contravenes the fundamental Christian conviction that we are covenantal rather than contractual creatures. The triune God has revealed himself to be a community of persons who has pledged to bring us into his own life through the communal life of his people. There is thus no such thing as a solitary Christian having a purely private relation to Jesus Christ, but then joining with other Christians only for the sake of worship, missions, and other common purposes. To be "in Christ," as Paul endlessly emphasizes, is to be permanently transformed by our life in the Body of Christ called the church.
This individualist conception of Christian existence has devastated our academic life, stanching all attempts to unify the disciplines within a common discourse. The call for such dialogical unity is dismissed as authoritarian, while teaching and learning are conceived in descriptive and supposedly neutral terms. Professors "objectively" disseminate information from their various disciplines, students personally collect and perhaps even assimilate it, and then they make up their own minds about its possible bearing on their personal lives. Our unwitting aim becomes the making of our students into good consumers. Gone almost entirely is the communal idea of education—shared by Greeks and Romans, by Jews and Christians alike—as a moral and religious exercise in the formation of character.
While the Christian university is not a church—Baylor does not require its students to be Christians, much less that they subscribe to a creed or belong to a church—it should be a place where students and faculty are both formed and transformed. Baptist and other Protestant churches undertake this task by preaching the Gospel and converting the unbelieving, by healing the sick and ministering to the poor, by celebrating the sacraments of baptism and the Lord's Supper. The Christian university fulfills its mission by integrating our faith with our learning.
This mission means that we are called both to think and to live in accord with the various virtues—intellectual and moral and religious—that make for a flourishing academic life. It also means that we will cease to reap the Enlightenment whirlwind sown by our individualist ancestors only when we celebrate a tradition- and community-centered understanding of both Christian faith and Christian education. And this is what—in fits and starts and mistakes—we are attempting here at Baylor.
Ralph C. Wood is University Professor of Theology and Literature at Baylor University in Waco, Texas.
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Christianity Today's earlier coverage of The Battle for Baylor includes:
2012: A School Odyssey | Baylor strives to go where no Christian university has gone before—in ten years (Nov. 22, 2002)
Christian History Corner: Breaking Down the Faith/Learning Wall | How the history of Christians in higher education has stacked the deck against Robert Sloan's "new Baylor" (Sept. 19, 2003)
Weblog: Baylor Regents Overwhelmingly Support President | After a very bad week at Baylor, good news for Sloan's vision of Christian higher education (Sept. 12, 2003)
Weblog: Showdown at Baylor, Continued | Baylor U.'s sports troubles leak into school's religion debate (Aug. 1, 2003)
Weblog: Showdown at Baylor | Baylor's president faces off against critics this week amid multiple controversies (July 18, 2003)
Design Interference | William Dembski fired from Baylor's Intelligent Design center (Nov. 28, 2000)
Unintelligent Designs | Baylor's dismissal of Polyani Center director Dembski was not a smart move (Oct. 23, 2000)
Books & Culture Corner: Defending Faith and Learning | Baylor University's Polanyi Center comes under fire from the university's faculty (Apr. 24, 2000)