This article is a reflection on reading Professor Edwin Judge’s essay “The Undesirability of Christian Universities” in his collection Engaging Rome and Jerusalem edited by Associate Professor Stuart Piggin in 2015. Judge’s essay was written in 1994 in response to J. D. Dengerink’s The Necessity of Christian Universities., originally written in Amsterdam in 1965 and came to Australia as part of a push in certain Reformed circles to set up a version of the Free University of Amsterdam here. As Stuart Piggin points out in his introduction to Judge’s essay this was one of several attempts to set up a Christian university in Australia around this time.
I never thought I would end up working in a Christian college on the path to becoming a Christian university, let alone find myself writing something like this reflection. I’m pretty sceptical about proposals for a “Christian economics” on both academic and theological grounds, nor have I ever been keen on American Christian Colleges (though admire some colleagues there, and have had good experiences visiting Calvin College, Regent College and Fuller as part of university sabbaticals). I ended up at Alphacrucis through a strange series of events, connected initially through friendships. I have very much enjoyed my two years at Alphacrucis building a new Business Faculty and the research culture of the College, but am no doubt illustrating the psychologist’s principle of cognitive dissonance in my defence of the project of a Christian university for Australia.
Judge’s View on Christian Universities
Professor Judge’s argument begins with the historical observation that “Formal education was of no consequence to the New Testament writers … yet the churches overran the Roman world through a combination of intellectual drive and social action”. It is not that he disregards the value of education – he also points out that many of the early Christians were highly educated – what he is arguing is that a particular type of engagement with education is unnecessary, or perhaps even counterproductive.
His argument is reinforced by the deliciously ironic suggestion that the Emperor Julian introduced Christian education to keep Christianity out of the Greco-Roman academies, against the instincts of the Christians to take full advantage of what was on offer there. He counters the evident Christian domination of education from the middle ages with the suggestion that they had to take it up because nobody else was doing it, but in our time secular universities have taken up the task again from the Christians.
So now according to Professor Judge “Christian education risks putting churches back into a ghetto”. According to him the Roman Catholic universities have failed. The old Puritan colleges of the US have become secular – as they should. Of the many new Christian colleges have arisen in the US but “none can hope to be first-class as a university” because “research distinction requires non-confessional choice of staff” and “Pastoral commitments do not easily leave room for full-scale scholarly development”. Also if Christian institutions are state funded the public institutions will tend to withdraw from providing much needed religious education. The wider public needs such education because “compassion and caring, vocational commitment and obligation to others, integrity and personal consistency, many such now instinctive principles of human relations are derived from Scriptural revelation”. So the churches should not be involved in setting up universities in our time, and Christian scholars should seek to teach and undertake research in our secular universities.
A final caveat is that there may be a place for church in running residential colleges, and perhaps in sponsoring specialised institutes that are closely connected with secular universities.
Judge’s argument clearly reflects his own experience in secular universities in New Zealand, England and Australia, along with his association with church sponsored residential colleges such as Robert Menzies at Macquarie University, and with the short lived Macquarie Christian Studies Institute which began a few years after Judge’s essay was written.
Much of this I agree with. A lot of what passes for Christian education today is not great – illustrated by many US Christian colleges and universities, and some Australian examples. Starting a Christian university is a hugely costly long-term undertaking that diverts resources from other worthy projects. Aside from the issue of research and teaching standards there is the ever present danger of conflict between academic and denominational views of issues.
In my view Australia’s cultural situation on the second decade of the twentieth century mean Professor Judge’s historical observations do not lead as clearly away from the project of a Christian university as they did forty years ago, or even twenty years ago. I would like to make three points in regards to this:
- Christians working in secular universities and Christians setting up their own institutions are not mutually exclusive. Perhaps both have a place in the divine providential economy.
- Judge’s scholarly formation occurred before the decisive cultural shift of the late 1960s, when the Christian (or more accurately white male mainstream Protestant Christian) domination of British, American and Australian societies broke up. The academic world that formed him was one of “compassion and caring, vocational commitment and obligation to others, integrity and personal consistency… derived from Scriptural revelation”. I am not so sure that this is the case now. These values can still thankfully be found in the academy, among Christians as well as others, but are no longer the assumed foundation of the enterprise. What is even more rare is any attempt to make explicit the connection to Christianity. Young Australian Christian scholars who want to ask the important questions about human life, care about the formation of students, and avoid frankly corrupt research and teaching practises in our universities are being increasingly drawn to this option. Other excellent young Christian scholars are pushed towards this option by antipathy towards Christians who are open about their faith (revealed either in their research topics or personal interactions) in certain parts of our university system. It must be said that other parts of our system remain secular in the best sense, so that Christian scholars encounter no difficulties. We must beware of accusations of persecution where in fact the problem is lack of ability or dedication on the part of the Christian scholar.
- Now that the Christian domination of society has collapsed, and Christian assumptions underpinning the universities have weakened, our political culture is one where a plurality of perspectives is thought desirable. Perspectives other than one’s own are less frequently sought, than thought desirable to seek in our universities. Nevertheless, government funding and regulation increasingly reflect this thought, exemplified by funding of religious schools from the late 1960s, the foundation and funding of Australian Catholic University and University of Notre Dame in the 1980s, and now it seems the extension of government funding to students in any accredited higher education institution, (including Christian theological colleges and a new Buddhist higher education institution). There are dangers for the integrity of Christian faith when large monetary incentives from governments are on offer (for instance political accommodation, downgrading our claim that the gospel is true to the claim that is one perspective among many valid perspectives), but these dangers should not rule out all attempts to take advantage of the opportunity.
While starting a Christian University may not be the only response to this changed situation, it is an increasingly plausible response according to Judge’s own criteria. Well qualified Christian scholars are now in excess supply, so that starting a Christian university does not reduce the number of Christian scholars working in secular universities, so they are no longer mutually exclusive. Starting a Christian university could not now be seriously considered to undermine the argument for teaching about religion in secular universities, which has declined for other reasons. The changed funding situation and acceptance of private higher education reduces the force of another of Professor Judge’s arguments.
If the project of A Christian University is on, then let’s at least
make it the best Christian University for Australia that we can – in
every sense. It must be a University that is fully engaged with
Australian culture (something Pentecostals have done well in areas of
culture besides education). Let’s be part of the sometimes noisy,
sometimes strangely quiet Australian debate about what is true and good.
And a Pentecostal University in the 2010s seems much more fun than a
Reformed University in 1980s would have been, as well as more achievable
given the strength of the Pentecostal movement in this country.
Dengerink, J. D. (1994). The Necessity of Christian Universities.2nd edition Melbourne, Association for Christian Higher Education in Australia
Judge, E. A. (2015). Engaging Rome and Jerusalem Edited by Stuart Piggin. Sydney, Australian Scholarly Publishing.
Oslington, P. (2008). “The Kuyperian Dream: A Critique of the Project of Reconstructing Economics on Christian Foundations.” Paper Presented at American Academy of Religion Annual Meeting, San Diego.
Oslington, P. (2014). “Religion and Australian Universities: Tales of Horror and Hope.” The Conversation February. https://theconversation.com/australian-universities-and-religion-tales-of-horror-and-hope-23245
 Professor Edwin Judge is an eminent historian, and former head of the Department of Ancient History at Macquarie University.
 Associate Professor Stuart Piggin is the Director of the Centre for History of Christian Thought and Experience, Macquarie University.
 Put simply, cognitive dissonance refers to the phenomenon where, when faced with two opposing cognitions (thus creating dissonance) people come up with a justification to find consonance or harmony. E.g. “I’m on a diet” and “I’m eating cake” are dissonant cognitions, but one could say “but I deserve a treat once in a while” as a justification, thus finding consonance.