Dialogical Pluralism for Secular Universities

Blog Intro Post #2

Global Scholars has historically focused on sending professors to publicly-funded universities rather than Christian colleges and seminaries. This was not because there were other agencies already pursuing the worldwide establishment and resourcing specifically Christian institutions. There were. But it was a vision for a Christian academic voice within the national research institutions of every country—regardless of their ideological commitments, whether secular, communist, Muslim, or whatever. Why?

The rationale given 30 years ago when Global Scholars started may be slightly different, but here are a few good reasons I can imagine today.

  1. Listening and Learning: in order for the church to be the church, it needs to hear the voice of its neighbours. This posture is necessary to learn the national lingua franca, attend to local concerns and cries, and to participate as a responsible citizen for the common good. It also makes the church properly vulnerable to those who may point out the sins of the church, allowing opportunity for repentance and reconciliation.

  2. Teaching and Witness: the church is called to be an obedient witness to Jesus Christ and his teaching, his gospel, and his kingdom. This is its mandate from Christ himself, and it’s a matter of religious freedom, which the church defends for all religious groups. Witness in the New Testament, however, is not about establishing political advantage but about sharing good news of God’s reign in Christ at political cost. The Greek word used is martyr, suggesting the diminishing of ego, vulnerability, and even the endurance of hostility.

  3. Prophetic Voice to the Nation: institutions of higher learning can be a prophetic voice that speaks truth to power and gives voice to the voiceless. The church needs to encourage such speech and add its voice, in its own gospel tones, to the prophetic chorus. Nationalism can be one of the most threatening creeds to human flourishing.

  4. Prophetic Voice to the Academy: institutions of higher learning cultivate worldviews with ideological commitments that can stifle human flourishing. Ideologies are rigid models of human society that elevate one aspect of the creation above others, sacrificing other aspects of creation. The church needs to be in the university to warn against such idolatry and bear witness to the reign of God, which relativizes all other powers and authorities. This is especially in an age where universities look to the private sector as its model and source of revenue, and students become customers to be credentialed rather than persons seeking character and vocation for service.

  5. Priest to the Worn and Weary: higher education can be a very competitive culture, and the “publish or perish” politics can be a tireless treadmill that fractures healthy relationships at work and home. Status anxiety, personal and family troubles, and increasingly, mental illness are issues that need pastoral address in the academy.

There is no doubt more to say on this subject, but there’s a few good reasons for Christians to pursue engagement with their local public academies.

Beautiful library in the Rijk’s Museum, Amsterdam, summer 2017.

Christian scholars can be an example of how a pluralistic model of university life might operate in a post-Christian—and post-secular—academy. Philosopher Nicholas Wolterstorff once suggested “dialogical pluralism” as a heuristic for the publicly-funded university. He writes:

“Instead of assuming one can, and insisting that one should, strip off all one’s particularities of perspective and engage in academic learning as a generic human being, moving from rational consensus in basis to rational consensus in results, I propose that we acknowledge that we have no option but to enter as who we are, human beings with shared faculties but ineradicably particularist perspectives. We enter as feminists, as Christians, as Jews, as African-Americans, as gays, as agnostics, as atheists, or whatever. And we then engage each other as much as possible with the goal of arriving at consensus on the truth of the matter under consideration, recognizing, what is in any case obvious, that whereas sometimes we succeed in achieving consensus, often we fail.” (from “Let the Voices Be Heard” Anastasis, Winter, 2003).

I will review this book soon.

Universities should be a place where all ideas can be voiced and engaged, and Christian scholars can have something to offer the dialogue that can bring life and hope. Christian professors also need to listen in order to be faithful to their calling, and it’s both a challenging and privileged place to be found. This is not an attempted recovery of hegemony, but a “making room” for all who seek wisdom and community in the halls of higher learning institutions. [Note that Wolterstoff just released a book entitled Religion in the University (Yale, 2019). I reviewed here.]


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