A Tired Stroll Down Memory Lane

When most of us turn 60, or thereabouts, memory fires up at thoughts of college days: romantic walks about campus, inspiring professors and books that opened our eyes, big games against rivals and stirring calls to “come help change the world!”  A recent symposium at the University of Minnesota sparked the same urge to reminisce, but this time the thoughts were entirely different.  It was a sad, weary, frustrating stroll down a memory lane made for old radicals.

In Memoriam: William Monsma (1942-2015)

I have only fuzzy, hazy memories of our first meeting on the University of Minnesota East Bank campus in front of Coffman Union almost 30 years ago.  I had just departed a part-time pastorate among farmers in the wheat fields of Western Kansas for a campus ministry amongst international students in the marketplace of ideas (or so I thought).  At any rate, bearded, lanky, and warmly engaging, William Monsma’s reference that day to Francis Schaeffer was all I needed to know that I had found a campus minister cut out of the same cloth.  I needed to get to know him and, perhaps, see what I could learn from him.

What's Missing in the University of Minnesota's Strategic Plan?

You would think that a strategic planning document with this emphasis on big challenges would identify issues like “Finding solutions to religious-based terrorism” (anyone watched the news lately?).  Unfortunately, the reader will search the 85-page strategic plan without ever reading a single reference to religion.

Cracks in the Ivory Tower


© 2014 Robert Osburn

Updated 4-11-2019.

For at least a century, American colleges and universities have been identified with a monolithic secularism that vigorously pits academia against the church, and vice versa.  Why this is the case is brilliantly narrated by George Marsden in his 1994 classic The Soul of the American University.

One of the many implications of academic secularism has been a faculty often resolutely at odds with orthodox Christian faith.  Study after study has confirmed that faculty, especially those who are the elite within the natural and social sciences, hold very diffident (at best) and sometimes hostile (at worst) attitudes toward Christianity.  African American sociologist George Yancey has shown in his 2011 study Compromising Scholarship that self-identified evangelical Christians are sometimes the victims of anti-evangelical bias when it comes to faculty hiring.

The secular ivory tower holds firm, or so it seems.  However, there are indications that cracks are beginning to appear in the tower’s forbidding secular walls.  For three reasons (outlined below), the prospects for evangelical and other conservative Christian faculty are just now beginning to brighten. 

The first, and most important, factor is that postmodern Perspectivalism has opened the door to Christian scholarship.  Admittedly, postmodernism---the view that, instead of seeking truth, the only thing we humans care about is getting power---has had tragic effects on society and the church.

However, one of its ancillary claims (which happens to be very true) has given religious believers a “foot in the door.”  One of the many implications of postmodern thought is that humans inevitably interpret reality through a worldview, or perspective that colors how they understand the data of reality.  Take human beings in all our complexity: Scientific naturalists see complex biological machines, whereas, without denying the complex biology, Christians see evidence of God who designed us in His image.  

Prior to postmodernity (which began its rise in the 60s), the scientific naturalist simply proclaimed, “Here is the data, which speaks for itself,” as if they were perfectly innocent of any interpretation of that data.   Postmodernism calls them on the carpet: You interpret the data just like everybody else, precisely because you have a perspective, a worldview.  The net effect is that academics, especially younger academics, are increasingly schooled to see the importance of perspective (worldview) in how we make sense of reality.  They are also much more comfortable with the idea that different professors have different worldviews. Thus, as Marsden showed in his 1997 book The Outrageous Idea of Christian Scholarship, scholarship interpreted through a Christian perspective is a viable option for academia. (He expands on this idea at the end of his 2014 book The Twilight of the American Enlightenment.)

The second reason for the crack in the secular ivory tower has to do with the effects of family fragmentation.  Mountains of evidence clearly point to one conclusion about family fragmentation: Children raised in fragmented families have poorer academic prospects than those raised in stable, two-opposite sex parent homes.  Not surprisingly, since Christian faith has the overall effect of stabilizing families, children raised in such homes have a higher probability of making it all the way to their PhDs and, thus careers in academia.  That means that a higher percentage of academic hires, notwithstanding anti-evangelical bias on campuses, are starting to involve young, fresh-out-of-graduate school faculty who are active Christians.  Anecdotally, there is evidence this is already happening, and so one can predict that in years to come the faculty Christian fellowships on our secular campuses will grow much larger. 

Finally, the third reason for this particular crack in academia---greater openness to and greater hiring of active orthodox Christians to faculties---is the rise of Christian study centers next to major universities.  Though not well documented, over the past decade the numbers of these study centers where Christ is honored and serious scholarship is celebrated has grown significantly.  The website for the Consortium of Christian Study Centers (full disclosure: I am a founding board member of that organization, and for 12 years directed one of the study centers in the consortium) lists 27 active Christian study centers next to major universities such as Yale, Kansas, Florida, Texas, Minnesota, and Cornell.  (Only 15 were in operation when this article was initially written.) As these centers expand and multiply across the USA, they will further legitimize the case for Christian scholarship while also providing a nurturing ground for future Christian academics.  My successor at MacLaurin Institute (now Anselm House) has launched a stipended annual fellowship program (Colin MacLaurin Fellows Program) for Christian students that engages them in the very best of Christian scholarship, the intellectual foundations of Christian faith, and provides a social context that reinforces serious Christen engagement with academic life.  This will translate into a future wave of Christian academics.

Higher education’s very secular ivory tower is covered in crises, pathologies, and injustices (such as the growing aversion to letting Christian student groups restrict their leadership to self-identified and practicing believers).  However, there is at least one crack in that secular ivory tower: The numbers of self-identified Christians who, at least in some cases openly pursue Christian scholarship, is starting to grow.  

Some cracks are bad.  This one looks to be very redemptive.

Commencement Speakers and the Death of Rationality

© 2014 Robert Osburn 

The 20 year-old film Reality Bites opens with a scene where the character played by Minnesota-born Winona Ryder is offering the conclusion to her college valedictory speech: “And the answer to it all is….”

Her eyes grow wide.  Deafening silence.  Her professors sit glumly while the audience is tense and uncertain. And then, as if all the tension in the Universe were suddenly being released, she declares: “I don’t know!”  And the crowd cheers, not just because the long ceremony is finally over, but also because postmodernism, which is what the film is all about, has nailed tight the coffin.  In a world where matter is all there is, reason and rationality are dead.

And because rationality is dead, we don’t hire commencement speakers to exhibit the glories of what students should have learned in classrooms.  Many don’t know how to use reason to engage in deep discussion and the pursuit of knowledge; no, we hire commencement speakers to ratify our deepest prejudices or glorify our wildest dreams.   And so when students protest certain commencement speakers they are simply betraying what we should have long ago known: Having long ago thrown God out with the stale pizza and the beer cans that litter fraternity lawns, reason has consumed reason in the name of pure matter.  Reason has been buried.

This theme---the death of rationality at the hands of the rationalist Enlightenment---was one of the burdens of Francis Schaeffer’s work in the 60s and 70s, especially in his books Escape from Reason (1967) and The God Who Is There (1968).  Schaeffer was trying to tell us that when matter is all there is---an assumption that we generate by use of human reason---we have simply cut off the limb upon which we stand.  Put another way, how do rocks generate great thoughts?  Schaeffer insisted that if we are going to adopt a worldview that absolutely removes God, then we’re going to have to follow the logic.  And that logic is very compelling: Pure matter does not generate thoughts, ideas, inventions, conversations; pure matter merely is an unfeeling, uncompelling, lifeless, thoughtless rock incapable of reason.

Much of Nietzsche’s 19th century work was all about facing honestly the absolute void that exists when God is declared dead.  When God is dead, reason dies because there is no entity that embodies it, and all we are left with is the relentless quest for power (Superman).  Postmodernism, and its obsession with power, not ideas, is an updated version of what Nietzsche was writing about

But, let’s be honest: Most of us have been trying to escape the cold, relentless logic of Nietzsche. Neo-pragmatists, for example, shrug off a column like this and call it “retrogressive,” a throwback to earlier forms of philosophical foundationalism.  Truth, in the words of the late Richard Rorty, is “what your friends let you get away with.”  This cynicism towards ideas undercuts efforts to make the argument I am making, but, more so, it has severely damaged the older notion that our universities are “marketplaces of ideas.”   Rarely is that phrase heard anymore, and thus the annual Spring ritual, growing ever-more deafening and insistent, of organized groups forcing college commencement speakers to cancel their plans to speak.  As Stephen Carter opined in a recent column, those who oppose or shout down commencement speakers are confident that they “have absolutely nothing to learn from people whose opinions (they) dislike.”

The problem, at its root, is that with the reign of philosophical materialism in the academy, rationality has been and is being slowly and systematically destroyed.  It has utterly no place in pure matter, and all that can replace it is raw power.

The late philosopher Dallas Willard, in an address that I heard him give in 2005 at the University of Chicago, said very simply, but profoundly that reason must be redeemed.  And the only way to redeem reason is to deeply and seriously engage the reality that there is a God who has revealed Himself as the Word. If we take Him seriously, then reasonable, language-filled assertions capable of being discussed, debated, and clarified by reason-filled people made in the image of a Triune God is possible.

Until reason is redeemed, woe is the lot of commencement speakers who really believe that they must discuss ideas in their speeches.  They will either be shut down or shouted down.


Happy or Human?

© 2014 Robert Osburn

Since the turn of the century about 14 years ago, it’s become commonplace for campus ministers in the USA to describe a radically new phenomenon that no one would have predicted a century earlier: Anglo (white) students are joining and taking over Buddhist groups, while Asian students (both those who are American and those here as international students) are taking over Christian groups.

No, this is not a story about power.  This is a story about culture, marketing, and the appeal of the Christian Gospel.

Before dealing with the explanation for this remarkable shift in the campus religious landscape, a word about evidence for the phenomenon.  To my knowledge, there are no empirical studies with which to measure this.  What we have, instead, are anecdotes from campus ministers like me.  For example, at the University of Minnesota, Asian Americans lead one of the most dynamic, remarkable, and fast-growing evangelical Christian campus ministry groups on campus. While Asians dominate, the group has Anglo and African-American students who are active in it.  

It’s possible that the anecdotal evidence is a mirage, but I doubt it.  Having given you the benefit of my 29 years in campus ministry, I will be the first to acknowledge that even if the phenomenon is real, there is no doubt that Anglo students still greatly outweigh Asian students in our campus ministries.  And there is no doubt that, taken as a whole, Asians are still the least religious segment of the American population. All that said, we need empirical studies to clarify this purported phenomenon: growing percentages of Asian Christian college students on the one hand, and growing percentages of Anglo Buddhist college students on the other.  Any graduate students looking for a great research topic?

Now, to the “Why?” question: Why are Asian students flocking to become followers of Jesus Christ, while apparently significant numbers of Anglo students are embracing some form of Buddhism?   The central explanation revolves around a fundamental question: Is the purpose of life, and the education that comes with it, to become happy or human? 

For many decades, the evangelical Gospel message carried around our campuses has been distilled to a simple question that reflects marketing genius: “How does one find a happy and meaningful life?”  The vapors of post-World War II existentialism saturated American campuses, and so Christianity seemed to have the perfect answer: Following Jesus will give your life meaning.  And for an educational system that quickly embraced, in the early to mid 20th century, the pragmatism of John Dewey, finding happiness and life satisfaction (rather than the timeless and ancient pursuit of truth) was a major quest for educated Americans.  The Gospel had the answer: Follow Jesus, and you will experience genuine happiness and satisfaction.

Bill Bright, founder of what today we call “Cru”, was right.  He marketed the Gospel well, and millions of Anglo college students responded and found that, yes, Jesus does give meaning and happiness.

However, while Bright and friends asked the right question in light of the American cultural context, framing the Gospel in light of the search for happiness missed the mark in terms of the biblical narrative.  In reality, the biblical narrative is more concerned with the question “How does one become a human being?”   That latter question, as it turns out, is the question that Confucian-based educational systems are ostensibly designed to answer.  (I owe this insight to a visiting professor of education from China.)  Thus, Asians, with their residual Confucianism, are finding that the Gospel of Christ better answers that question than Confucianism. 

What I am saying is that Asians, thanks to their Confucian cultural background, are asking (often at a subconscious level) the question that the Bible asks and answers, while Americans, influenced as they are by 20th century pragmatism and existentialism, are asking a different question.  And as Asians encounter the Gospel (and Gospel-shaped campus and church communities), they find that the Bible contains a brilliantly plausible answer to the question that their Confucian ancestors have drilled into them about the purpose of education: “How do we become human?”  Buddhism, with its understanding of humans being caught in an illusion created by desire, offers a far less satisfying answer than Christ.

By contrast, Anglo students, sullied about the pursuit of truth because of postmodern suspicion of metanarratives, and made increasingly cynical by the well-publicized failures of Christian leaders, have been seeking out Buddhism because it, of all the world religions, offers the least rigorous way to answer the question: “How do I find happiness and meaning in life?”  Meditative practices, emphases on centering and stress reduction, and a vague spirituality comport with the felt needs of many Anglo college students.  The discipline of following Christ seems a bit too much for what Professor Jean Twenge calls  “Generation Me.”

A truly biblical understanding of reality will not value happiness over humanness, or vice versa.  But, it will remember the proper relationship: Becoming human through faith in Christ is the prerequisite to happiness, and not the other way around.  Rethinking how we present the Gospel message (as a call to discover our humanity) may make Anglo students rethink their abandonment of Christianity in favor of Buddhism.  And, meanwhile, celebrate the flood of Asians flocking into the community of Christ.




Christianity, Nihilism & Islam

© 2014 Bob Osburn
A friend in Indonesia reported that, morally and spiritually, the nation is rotting.  I responded by saying that Western modernization/globalization, which is really a material bastardization of Christianity, has spread like gangrene into much of the world including Indonesia.  It offers economic development, which is surely worth celebrating, but cannot offer meaning. The result, which is all too prevalent in the West, is nihilism, for which the only true answer is Christ, but for which the deceptive alternative is radical Islam.  The latter appeals to nihilists who expect meaning in the final, bloody exit of terror. 

As you can see, I believe that modernization/globalization is, one way or the other, a significant breeding ground for both nihilism and jihadism.  We have to work on the main institution that serves the breeding ground---the modern university.  Thus, I advocate a strong and consistent effort to see that people like you successfully get PhDs and return to the institution as professors who dare to advocate an alternative worldview and are willing to engage other worldviews in the pluralistic university (which, in turn, must replace what we have now, the secular university).  Christian academics must know their job is to advocate the humanization of an institution which has lost its humanity because it has become naturalistic and thus secular.