Having just launched our spring academic modules on ethics, culture, and society, I’m reminded of how college students are typically more interested in social entrepreneurship than older generations. Although encouraging on several levels, every year I find myself patting them on the back for their desire to pair their innovative sensibilities with their hearts for service while I simultaneously defend the free market. Why? First, because 18-20 year olds grew up in the post-Enron, post real-estate bust market. Add to that the fact that a few wildly popular books written in the last few years by influential evangelicals make the case for believers to abandon the American dream so that they can be set free to live out their faith with authenticity and enthusiasm. These books, targeted at college students and twenty-somethings, may provide a needed challenge to believers who are overly enamored of creature comforts, but they don’t do a great job of distinguishing capitalism as an economic system from the moral agents—and sometime corrupt ones—that operate inside of that system. The unsurprising result of these recent and publicly observable business failures combined with the sentiments represented in these books result in an attitude among millennials that says “down with capitalism.” Every time I hear that claim or anything akin to it, one of the first things I do is refer the student to The Acton Institute website.
I’ve engaged millennials’ concerns over free markets the past few years, and I think their fundamental worries actually have little to do with wealth itself. Instead, university students in the post-Enron age hear capitalist vernacular as a sort of impoverished discourse about individual rights. In her book Rights Talk: The Impoverishment of Political Discourse, Professor Mary Ann Glendon argues “Our stark, simple rights dialect puts a damper on the processes of public justification, communication, and deliberation upon which the continuing vitality of a democratic regime depends. It contributes to the erosion of the habits, practices, and attitudes of respect for others that are the ultimate and surest guarantors of human rights. It impedes creative long-range thinking about our most pressing social problems. Our rights-laden public discourse easily accommodates the economic, the immediate, and the personal dimensions of a problem, while it regularly neglects the moral, the long-term, and the social implications.”
To be sure, current statistics in the Chronicle of Higher Education and other sources show that a high percentage of college students place a significant value on using their education to achieve a high standard of living. But many more than in the past want to know that their lives have counted for a cause bigger than themselves, and one that takes into account the moral and social implications of our ongoing dialogue. I know next-generation leaders out there who understand the inextricable connection between free markets and social entrepreneurship. I realize that none of what I’ve said here gets at the deeper biblical underpinnings of free markets as the most likely economic environment to encourage human beings as bearers of the imago dei to implement the creation mandate (Gen 1:28) through culture-making business ventures.
In closing, I was recently encouraged by a colleague from a sister institution who said this:
I think many of the students…want to get rid of every possession and go do something “radical.” And my only concern is…that something radical doesn’t always mean abandoning the capitalist world we live in. Some of the most influential (for the gospel, I mean) people I know are sharing Christ with the arts world – with filmmakers and artists and musicians, and there a need to earn a voice among whichever audience God leads you toward…which requires an understanding of their context, knowledge of the field, and at least in this case, enough money to be among them.
I found the most helpful paragraph of Justin Taylor's recent interview with David Dockery to the be the following:
"One of the reasons that Southern Baptists now need to ask the hard
questions about a regenerate church membership–a historic and
foundational Baptist tenet–is that people have confused the Christian
faith for substitutes. The Christian faith is not mere moralism; it is
not faith in faith, some subjective amorphous feeling, nor is it some
kind of a self-help theory. The Christian faith is the manifestation of
God's truth revealed in His Son and made known to us today in His Word."
It resonates deeply with me as a Reformed Presbyterian not so much because of an awareness of scores or hundreds of church members in the pews who are unregenerate so much as a dynamic that IS plainly obvious on many denominationally-affiliated colleges, namely the fact that too many faculty members hold a reductionistic perspective of the historical Christian faith. For too many faculty and staff, faith in Christ is vernacular that "isn't comfortable," "it's too exclusive and narrow." So "faith in faith," even though they don't say it this way, is really a popular solution to that doctrinal narrowness that just doesn't fit the current and widely held campus doctrine of academic freedom. This allows for "faith-talk" on campus in ways that don't offend, but that still might be attractive to students and parents whose faith is actually in Christ and who assume that their denomination's college will help them (or son or daughter) to understand the world better because of the faith-learning integration that most assuredly will take place.
Compared to Big State U, faith-talk of even a vanilla sort often brings a sigh of relief to those campus visitors who want a Christian college education, but who don't yet have the intellectual categories for faith & learning to know the right questions to ask admissions folks and faculty while taking their campus tour or when sitting in that appointment with the history professor. What stands out as something of an oddity (although not an historical oddity, as James Burtchaell has ably shown) is that the Protestant colleges that tend to have the most difficulty with mission and identity integrity and delivery are the denominationally-affiliated ones. The interdenominational institutions appear to have their act together better on this. To be fair, a number of denominationally owned or affiliated institutions HAVE gotten this right, and gotten it right in a major way. But many still languish. And to those who wonder "how big a deal is this really?"–just ask the students themselves.
A few days ago Hunter Baker asked
why the Bishop couldn’t just force Notre Dame president Father Jenkins to
rescind the invitation. I thought it was
a great question. He could…but he
didn’t. In this case, it appears as though president Jenkins and
the Board held up the values of precedent (inviting U.S.
freedom instead of acting out of their well-trained, Catholic-informed worldview
instincts which says that caring for others human persons is a sacred trust from cradle to
grave, and that that conviction must be modeled in all aspects of a university education, including commencement ceremonies. Yes, I understand that Father
Jenkins has said repeatedly that he disagrees with President Obama’s stance on
abortion. Still, you can’t take people
in slices, especially with the conferral of a doctorate from an institution
like Notre Dame. The conferral of that
award is upon the WHOLE person…not just the parts of the person with which we
happen to agree. The young Notre Dame
alums understand this well, which is why we heard the echoes of their outcry
for ecclesiastical and institutional mission consistency. They knew that the Board and administration
were, at their core, being utterly inconsistent with the university’s
ecclesiastical authority on a mission-critical principle.
Many evangelical colleges and
universities suffer from this kind of confusion even more, I think, because
unlike Catholics whose church teachings and traditions remain unified worldwide,
the various evangelical Protestant traditions are all over the map with respect
to what constitutes a properly formed worldview. As a Presbyterian who has worked alongside
Catholics, I get it that just because you’re Catholic it doesn’t follow that
you adhere to all the Church’s doctrine’s or that you agree with all that is
contained in the encyclicals. A few of
my co-presbyters take exception to a few of the points in the Westminster
Confession of Faith, so I understand that disagreement is part of what it means
to live in the body together. My point is that at least there are undisputed universal Church standards in
the Catholic tradition, unlike the splintering of doctrines and values we find
across Protestantism and evangelicalism.
E.g., Notre Dame’s president
Jenkins at least had a papal document to which he could refer, Ex Corde Ecclesia (1990), which asserts
that presidents of Catholic universities "should take an oath of fidelity
to the Catholic Church and that teachers should be faithful to and respect
Catholic doctrine and morals in their research and teaching." One would
expect that the Church’s clarity on this point would translate to a heavy
emphasis placed on faculty and administrators embodying those values to
students. And, indeed, many do just
President Obama knows how to talk to millennials. This generation wants what’s “real,” or at
least they say they do. He didn’t try to
hide from the tension in the crowd that day—he addressed it head-on. Even though I wish Fr. Jenkins had rescinded
the invitation (or had never issued it in the first place), this aspect of
President Obama’s address was somewhat refreshing to me. He acknowledged the deep divide instead of
trying to hide from it or pretend it wasn’t there. Colleges and universities who have long been
on a slippery slope to some kind of Christian-but-we-don’t-to-offend-anyone
type ethos would do well to take notes on this part of Obama’s playbook. The millennials want straight talk, so give
it to them.
Back to the main point. If Christian colleges and universities are
serious about educating Christianly for the sake of God’s redemption over all
of creation, we must model the right values for these millennial students. Let’s get real—institutional renewal is
needed in far too many colleges that dare claim the name “Christian.” But what is institutional renewal
anyway? Wake Forest
of the State University of New York and United
States Commissioner of Education, once said that there is no such thing as
institutional renewal; there is only people renewal. I suspect President Obama would agree with me
on that. But then we would have to have
a lengthy discussion about the ends towards which renewal is actually
aimed. How many students at evangelical
colleges feel the same way about how their institutions’ missions are being carried
out? To be sure, I am personally aware
of evangelical colleges and universities who are doing a stellar job of doing what they say
they will do with respect to modeling character, teaching the Christian
intellectual tradition, casting a compelling faith, learning, & living-type vision for the future, etc. In fact I am honored to work under the
auspices of a degree-granting institution of that sort. But I am also
certain that there are far too few who are serious about it.
Yesterday one of our students asked me a question that I
thought ranked fairly high on the profundity scale, especially given that she
is only 18 years old. “What are the
things we do on this earth that we will take with us into eternity?” As she clarified her question, I discovered that
it had been prompted by the previous evening’s outside-the-classroom learning
experience: a half-hour stroll through a graveyard. Her reflections on that experience revealed
that she was seeking desperately to understand what is truly permanent in our
very souls when we go to Heaven. The answer, should she find it, would then inform her choice of a major
The point of the graveyard exercise was to remind these
young leaders that, in one sense we’re all destined to become part of the earth
once again and that our days in this life are just a few handbreadths (Ps.
39:5). Given that fact, how do we hope
our epitaphs will read? What legacy
will we leave? There was another point
to the activity, however, namely to crystallize in their souls a hope-informed
understanding of human existence that flows out of God’s plan to redeem the
created order itself and make all things new and to remind them that the degree
to which they live with an eternal perspective in this short life is the degree
to which they will be participating as God’s vice-regents in restoring all
aspects of his original design—of living in this world coram deo, before the face of God through a deep awareness of
creation, fall, redemption and finally, yes, consummation.
This coed really knew more than what she realized. As we discussed her question in greater
depth, she began to see how all the worldview studies and related ethical
issues we have covered this year inside the formal classroom as well as service
to others outside the classroom has eternal value. The nature of learning itself for creatures
made in God’s image is such that studies and practice in the various
disciplines, whether the humanities, music, art, business, or the helping
professions, will change us, literally forever. Our formal college studies as
image-bearers ought to so shape us that we gain new depth of insight about how
we should treat each other at the beginning of life, how we do or don’t love
God and neighbor inside the covenant of marriage or in the workplace, how we
care for the elderly in their frailty. How
we think and act in these spheres of life will necessarily change us in such a
way that will affect how we live out the rest of our days on earth as well as
affecting our souls’ capacities to glorify Him fully in the new heaven and earth.
The redeemed human disposition to learn and serve others as a response to what we learn isn’t something
that passes away because our physical bodies experience mortality. What we learn in this world and how we live
that out as a response to his grace to us in this brief life will have implications for both the scope and depth
with which we glorify God when we are resurrected in the next.
The inquisitive coed student would agree with N.T. Wright
that the Christian “mission must urgently recover from its long-term
schizophrenia. The split between saving souls and doing good in the world is
not a product of the Bible or the gospel, but of the cultural captivity of
both.” Seems to me that unlike
evangelical boomers and x’ers who have demonstrated more susceptibility to the
residual effects of the fundamentalist-modernist controversy, millennials are
less willing than their predecessors to settle for Dwight Moody’s “sinking
ship” understanding of the culture and the rather thin view of hope that
corresponds to it (“God has given me a lifeboat and has said ‘Moody, save all
you can’”). They are far more likely,
once made aware of it, to embrace C.S. Lewis’s paradigm: “Hope…means…a continual looking forward to
the eternal world….It does not mean that we are to leave the present world as
it is. If you read history you will find
that the Christians who did most for the present world were just those who
thought most of the next.” So may it be
for those of us who are called to teach and mentor this millennial generation
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The December issue of Touchstone has just gone to the printer. Here is a preview of what is in the issue. If you subscribe today you will get this issue.
“Unadulterated Words,” by David Mills, on the wickedness of “linguistic supersizing” and the charity of restraint.
COLUMNS & VIEWS
“Untenured Radical: Ivan Illich’s Deschooling Society,” by Graeme Hunter [Book Returns].
“Creation and Christ,” by Patrick Reardon [As it is written . . .], on understanding Christ as mediator, cosmologically and epistemologically.
“Yes, Aquinas, there is a Santa Claus,” by Nathan Schlueter, making an argument in scholastic form for telling children about Santa Claus.
“A Mighty Child,” by Anthony Esolen, on what Jesus shows us about being a child.
“Interrogatory Prayer,” by Bill Gnade, on the need to ask God the questions we never think to ask him.
“Real Hard Cash,” by Russell Moore, on Johnny Cash’s authentically hip witness.
“Just as He Was,” by Mark Linville, on why Johnny Cash sang from his mother’s hymnbook.
“A Catholic Grief Observed,” by David Paul Deavel, on the insights the death of a loved one can bring.
“Pilgrim Johnson,” by Ian Hunter, on the great Christian moralist Samuel Johnson, on the 250th anniversary of the publication of his Dictionary.
“The Gay Invention,” by R. V. Johnson, on the ideological claim made in the word “homosexuality”
“Moloch’s Clerics,” a review of Tom Davis’ Sacred Work: Planned Parenthood and Its Clergy Alliances by Anne Gardiner
“Courtly Culture War,” a review of James R. Gaines’ Evening in the Palace of Reason by Timothy A. Smith
“Irenic Encounters,” a review of James Stamoolis (ed), “Three Views on Eastern Orthodoxy and Evangelicialism by Warren Farha
“Social Gospel Apostle,” a review of Christopher H. Evans’ The Kingdom is Always But Coming: A Life of Walter Rauschenbusch by Eric Miller
“Dicey Theodicy,” a review of D. Z. Phillips’ The Problem of Evil and the Problem of God by Graeme Hunter.
“A Crucial Unity,” a report on the recent conference on “In One Body Through the Cross: The Princeton Proposal for Christian Unity” by Raymond Keating
“Dogma Bites Man,” a report on (i.e., criticism of) Gregory Paul’s study of Christianity and social disfunction, by George H. Gallup, Jr.
And several sidebars running with the feature articles, the usual short items in Quodlibet, news, Book Notices, and letters to the editor.
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