Christian Education and the Bounded Set

Wheaton MottoI have been privileged to earn degrees from two institutions of Christian higher education. From Wheaton College in Illinois I have a degree in Ancient Languages, and I have a Master’s of Divinity from Regent College in Vancouver, British Columbia. Both are institutions committed to a form of liberal arts education. In other words, neither place is a doctrinal or denominational school; instead, both schools are committed to education from a Christian perspective. It is not so much a “Christian” education as it is an education provided by Christians and from a Christian worldview.

Both schools were (and are) places of conviction and faith, and I have positive memories of my experiences. However, my encounters with fellow former students often leave me mystified. In the teeth of the clearly expressed Christian convictions of professors, administration, and the institution, other graduates emerge with barely Christian beliefs. Some employ the tools for clear thinking in which they have been trained in order to think quite poorly. In turn, I am shocked at the number of vocal alumni who hold positions directly opposed to traditional Christian faith, and am further grieved by those alumni who have walked away from their faith entirely. But what might be most startling of all is when these alumni have the temerity to be shocked when the institution itself does not agree with them, apparently projecting back on the institution their own poor thinking. It is as if they didn’t really know what kind of institution they were attending in the first place.

Larycia Hawkins

Whatever the issues with Dr. Hawkins, the responses from Alumni were in many ways far more shocking.

This process was exhibited most vividly in the past months at Wheaton, where the drama surrounding Larycia Hawkins provided abundant opportunity for alumni to voice their opinions of the college. The idea that Wheaton, an historically orthodox Christian college, would discipline a professor who claimed that Christians and Muslims worship the same God—which as a statement is logically, factually, and historically untenable—was met with rank, ugly, and outright hateful displeasure. Alumnus disavowed the school, condemned the college’s commitment to narrow interpretations of Christianity, accused the administration of fundamentalism, readily labeled the situation as racist and oppressive, suggested that college trustees were simply protecting their financial interests, and any number of other unpleasant volleys as well. And while the recent situation with Dr. Hawkins clearly lays out this difficult situation, it is by no means the only exhibit of this dissonance between alumni and the commitments of these colleges. Many alumni actively wish to reshape these schools into an evangelicalism which reflects their own questionable convictions.

What is it that contributes to creating a situation like this? How is it possible for colleges with such expressly Christian commitments produce alumni with such flimsy Christian convictions? The answer, curiously enough, is perhaps found embedded in the goal of Christian higher education, and further in the unique restrictions which make attainment of that goal possible.

Idea of a Christian College

Terrible cover. Interesting book.

To begin, the goal of Christian higher education is the formation of a Christian mind. A Christian mind is not necessarily a mind filled with doctrine, and the purpose of a curriculum in such an institution is not to complete a kind of doctrinal download. Educated Christians are not people who think “Christian” thoughts, but people who have the capacity to think any thoughts, in any situation, and to bring the Christian perspective to bear on that position and evaluate it accordingly. Ultimately—and I draw here from Arthur Holmes’s thoughts in “The Idea of a Christian College”—the goal of a Christian College is to cultivate students who are hungry for the truth, know and understand that the ultimate truth of all things is found in God, and furthermore can recognize the truth when they encounter it in any subject.

But to make this kind of training possible requires some unique constraints. First, and of extreme importance, the faculty must confess a common orthodoxy. Second, and equally important, the students must have permission to explore any question at all. Together, these two create the necessary conditions for achieving the goal of forming a Christian mind. But they also create the conditions for the troubles outlined above.

The faculty in this scenario provide the bounded set for student exploration. Their confessed convictions become the walls against which aspiring students will cut the teeth of their thinking. This reality can be viewed from several different angles. In the first place, there is the old preacher’s phrase that “A mist in the pulpit is a fog in the pews.” If the preacher is slightly unclear about something, you can guarantee that the congregation is lost in the fog. Clarity of conviction about the essentials of the Christian faith is an essential for faculty because their clarity must provide the beacons through which students can navigate in their own educational fog. In this, the faculty represent lighthouses—lighthouses that illuminate, yes, but also immovably mark dangers. To extinguish or to relocate a lighthouse is not a mark of intellectual honesty, but rather of imminent criminality. If the faculty can adjust Christian orthodoxy, they will likely shipwreck the faith of the students.


Another angle to consider this limitation is from the perspective of the student, whose free questioning must nevertheless be limited by the firm reality of Christian belief. Without those boundaries, student freedom is actually limited. This was illustrated in a number of psychological studies which set up two scenarios. In the first, children were given a task (for example, to find carrots) in a bounded environment. In the second, children were given the same task in an unbounded environment. The children with boundaries outperformed those without boundaries, and the implicit lesson is this: where there are boundaries for study, students are given permission to press against the reaches of those boundaries. Where there are no boundaries, the student flounders.

That these two conditions serve the goal of Christian education should be now be clear. The Christian mind is a mind formed within a kind of bounded set. We are sent out to explore the reaches of the world, yet while holding to our core convictions and measuring our data against those immovable anchor points of the faith. We are even granted permission to re-explore those anchor points, to query and examine them, precisely because we are convinced that their truth will hold. We are unafraid of questions because we believe the truth of our central witness. This process in turn reflects back onto the nature of faith itself. Each individual is free to accept or reject the Christian witness—we force no one into belief, preserving the central freedom that God has gifted each person in His image. Even the action of evangelism, then, is illuminated by this bounded set—I bring my firm and confessed convictions to any person, equipped to walk alongside them through any question that person might have, unafraid of the queries to my faith. Conviction held in the context of questions is precisely the attitude of the mature Christian mind, the formative goal of Christian higher education.

But if the faculty are bound in belief to a set of convictions, what does this mean for academic freedom? Arthur Holmes once again offers some illumination when he states that “Academic freedom is valuable only when there is a prior commitment to the truth.” In other words, we are free to the degree that our freedom is being utilized to explore, examine, and plumb the depths of the truth. He continues, suggesting that “Academic freedom may be defined, then, as freedom to explore the truth in a responsible fashion, to think, even to make mistakes and correct them” (The Idea of a Christian College, 69). Freedom, thus, cannot be separated from responsibility—responsibility to the pursuit of the Truth, to Christian conviction, to constituency, to the institution that provides the opportunity for these explorations, and also to the parents who have entrusted their children to you for instruction.Responsibility via Wikihow

But these commitments also produce two dangers that I will mention here. The first is that the college administration must enforce its doctrinal convictions without falling into dogmatic traps, that is to say, it must uphold both conditions above. In the complex world of intellectual exploration, and in the reverent world of our ideas of God, there are no truths that cannot be explored with more complexity, depth, and understanding. An administration must allow for this reverent study without stifling exploration. However, it must also be on guard, and here a confessional commitment ought to provide a bulwark against the allure of novelty, the popularity of conflict, and the “publish or perish” attitude that can drive a well-meaning academic into intellectual ignominy.

But the other danger is that the same freedom that makes intellectual inquiry valuable and profitable grants permission for graduates to think what they will. An education which provides the student not with thoughts, but with the opportunity to learn to think, also provides the opportunity for the student to misapply that thinking. Both are expressions of freedom—to think well expresses freedom in one way, to think poorly expresses it equally in another. And this, at last, brings me back to the beginning, where I lamented the attitudes of many of my fellow alumni. They return in their memories to these institutions and map back onto the school their own preferences, projecting their own heterodoxy onto the institution. But what they have neglected in this is the realization that their very ability to critique the college is predicated on the college’s provision of freedom to inquire within boundaries. To take one lesson—the freedom to ask questions—and apply it as a weapon against the other—the need for boundaries—is foundationally self-defeating. If they had their way they would not reform the college, but destroy it completely. God forbid that should happen.