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What (Public) Good Is a Christian University? Answer #1: Research

Let us begin with the research function of the university, and in my next post, I’ll turn to teaching.

The Christian university contributes to the broader society of which it is a part through research that is of value beyond the Christian community itself. It is likely that some of the research generated within a Christian university will be of interest only to Christians, and perhaps only to those Christians of the same stripe as those sponsoring a particular Christian university. Questions discussed in theology come to mind immediately as an example of such valuable “in-house” research. Most of the research conducted in a Christian university, however, will normally be of interest to a broader audience, and so a Christian university is justified in the eyes of society on the same terms as any other university.

That fact, of course, is also a problem. Why would society want to encourage a Christian university for doing the same thing that a secular university (already) does? To answer this question properly, we will need to convince contemporary society that there are at least two contexts in which good research can flourish.

The first is the secular university, in which research is conducted in the bracing atmosphere of multiple perspectives, multiple agendas, and multiple discourses. I have enjoyed studying, teaching, and researching in this context.

This context is widely seen, alas, as the only context in which legitimate scholarship can be pursued. Any other model is condemned automatically as insular, even self-referential, and thus of no intellectual merit.

The second context in which scholarship can be worthily pursued, however, is the Christian university—and, we can note, other universities of a single general outlook. In this latter kind of university, research is born in the synergistic dialogue of scholars who share that basic worldview. And if our societies are serious about fostering pluralism and receiving the diverse gifts of pluralism, then supporting universities of particular outlooks ought to encourage a plurality of perspectives and deliverances in scholarly discourse – to the enrichment of all.

Two examples come to mind. The first example is that of the renaissance of the philosophy of religion in the English-speaking world in the last generation that was largely incubated at Christian universities, particularly Calvin College, Wheaton College, and the University of Notre Dame—all in the American Mid-West. This conversation has featured distinguished participants from mainstream universities, to be sure, whether Richard Swinburne (Oxford), William Alston (Syracuse), George Mavrodes (Michigan), and the like. But leading the way were Alvin Plantinga, Nicholas Wolterstorff, Thomas Flint, Philip Quinn, and others whose work was nurtured precisely by the stimulus and, I daresay, the protection of Christian schools that cultivated these marginal voices and enabled them at last to speak up—to the eventual good of the whole discipline.

The second example is not a Christian or even a religious one. The so-called Chicago School of economics has flourished for more than half a century at the University of Chicago. Say what you will of the economic philosophies that have dominated discourse in that place (and I am not a proponent of any of them!), a long string of John Bates Clark medals and Nobel Prizes attest to the public good of such a hothouse cultivating its distinctive scholarship and then submitting it to the larger world for appreciation and appropriation.

To be sure, not just any outlook deserves public support in the form of its own university: flat-earthers, racists, and so on cannot find any brief here for their perpectives. But any outlook that is willing to submit its work to public scrutiny (e.g., peer-reviewed publication) and is thereby judged to be doing worthy work by public authorities (e.g., sponsoring governments, academic accrediting agencies, scholarly societies) is an outlook that ought to be publicly encouraged. And that is the Christian university at its best.


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