Higher Education for a Higher Purpose
By Mark Foley, Ph.D.
President, University of Mobile
What does it mean to be a distinctively Christian university in modern society?
I recently asked the University of Mobile Board of Trustees to consider key actions related to more clearly defining the university's Christian identity. Specifically, the board adopted a statement of Christian affirmation and directed that the notion of a Christian worldview be incorporated at all levels of our institutional culture. I have appointed a faculty/staff committee to explore new ways to integrate faith and learning.
These actions represent a significant step beyond the common traditions of Christian higher education.
The Proper Model
Typically, two models are represented among Christian colleges and universities in the United States. The first and most common is the "environment" model. Through the latter half of the twentieth century, generally, if a college employed a minister as its president, required chapel, and did not condone drinking, dancing, or sex outside marriage...thus the environment...it was considered a Christian college. Not much was said about the philosophical position from which curricular instruction was conducted.
I am not satisfied with Christian definition by environment...in my life or in our university. That kind of definition provides no sense of depth or fidelity. It must go deeper.
The second and less common model – the model we are embracing at the University of Mobile -- may be termed the "core concept" model. Core concept implies a foundational theological position which guides a foundational philosophical position. Thus, the institutional operations flow from and are guided by those foundations. That kind of foundation is what I mean by Christian worldview.
A Christian Worldview
A "worldview" is essentially a paradigm of intellectual, moral, and ethical presuppositions through which one processes and interprets the experiences of life and by which one reaches conclusions and forms opinions. Each of us has a worldview. Some are formally and thoughtfully constructed systems of thought, but, for most of us, our worldview tends to be an accumulation of influences we have gathered along the way.
A Christian worldview is a systematic and intentional way of thinking...about everything...from the perspective that all understanding and values are defined in terms of the relationship of human beings to Christ as He is revealed in Holy Scripture. The University of Mobile Board of Trustees action created the framework for that systematic and intentional way of thinking by the adoption of a theologically based statement which affirms the nature, ethic, mission, and revelation of Christ, and then directed the incorporation of such thinking into all aspects of the university system.
Why is this important? In my opinion, the mission and responsibility of an intentionally, distinctively Christian higher education goes beyond traditional education to include intentional influence upon the lives of men and women who study at the university. Do I mean to overtly exert influence related to the Christian faith? You bet I do.
Why? Because the culture of our fine nation is rapidly abandoning the foundations of Christian faith in favor of moral indifference. We regularly witness the mockery of Judeo-Christian values and the labeling of those who promote such values as intolerant or bigots. Yes, the term "Christian" is still used frequently, but it is increasingly used without any clear relationship to a scriptural definition.
I intend that the University of Mobile place graduates into the marketplace who are recognized as Christian men and women of high moral and ethical character who demonstrate high proficiency in their discipline or work, who know how to think, who know what they believe and why they believe it, who have the courage and discipline to live according to their belief, and who have the ability and skill to use their influence in appropriate and effective ways to change the world around them.
In order to produce that kind of graduate, the university itself must continually engage with the notion of "being Christian." When I use the word "Christian" to describe the university, I have immediately entered theological territory. It is a dangerous and common error in our culture to use the term socially or culturally without theological underpinning.
Making It Real
There is just no way around it…the term “Christian” requires association with and definition by Jesus Christ, his nature, his ethic, his mission, and the Scripture which reveals him. These are theological concepts, but each with clear implications on philosophical and social application. So, Christian faith and life is first a matter of core theological beliefs accepted by faith. Action flows from and is directed by those core concepts of faith and belief. So it is with a university which seeks to be Christian.
We now require enrollment of all students in a semester-length course in Christian worldview that includes a thesis applying Christian worldview to their field of study. Additionally, all entering freshmen are required to complete four semesters of chapel during their college career at UMobile.
But this notion of Christian worldview cannot be limited to one special course or several semesters of chapel. It must extend into and guide the exploration of truth in each discipline of study, never to limit the exploration but to guide its conclusions. Thus, business, health care, education, arts, literature, natural science, history, math, social and behavioral science, ministry and athletics all start and end with the premise that God is truth; that he is the beginning and end of all things, that he created all that is; and that we are caretakers of his property. So, the education and research process becomes a discipline-specific discovery of truth…the truth of God’s work.
At the end of the day, the mission and opportunity of a Christian university is simply about being Christian. It is about a foundational philosophy, a specific definition, and a distinction which has as its end the production of highly qualified college graduates who are as able to articulate what they believe as they are what they think and who have the willingness to live and think according to their belief.
(Mark Foley is president of the University of Mobile, a private Baptist-affiliated university with more than 1,600 students. He is an ordained minister, a former professional counselor, and a graduate-level professor. You may contact Dr. Foley at firstname.lastname@example.org)