On teaching at a Christian university
After a few years of teaching in public universities, I arrived in 2005 at Canadian Mennonite University (CMU) to teach English. People often ask me what the difference is, perhaps expecting me to complain about the limitations now imposed upon me. My answer is instead that I can do everything I did in the secular academy, and more. One of the most prominent feelings about my new life at CMU is liberation.
Although my time in the secular university was positive in many ways, I felt hampered. The ideal of free and open discussion within the academy is often far from being reality, and that is because, I think, the scholar in the public university is not encouraged to be fully human. Our materialistic age devalues the emotional and derides the spiritual, and the contemporary university is, unfortunately, increasingly in line with this materialist worldview.
Theologian Stanley Hauerwas once said that the “modern university is built on the assumption that what is needed is the training of experts rather than people of wisdom.” The Christian university can and should serve as an alternative. It should be, and often is, a place that stands both within and outside culture. The Christian scholar can be one who teaches with love and daring.
Let me provide an example. In “Aubade,” poet Philip Larkin, who is agnostic, writes of death as
… total emptiness forever,
The sure extinction that we travel to
And shall be lost in always. Not to be here,
Not to be anywhere,
And soon; nothing more terrible, nothing more true.
This moving poem fills me with sorrow; although Larkin is dead, I am prompted to reach out to him with compassion. The Christian university allows me to teach this poem with sorrow. In the average literature classroom, poems have become just texts. A poem like “Aubade” can only be half taught in a university suspicious of spiritual or emotional response.
There is much that is unsettling and unlovable in the literature and other media of our era (and, indeed, past eras). This is all the more reason for us to be intelligently engaged with it.
The American scholar Alan Jacobs advocates the concept of charitable reading, wishing the “best” for a book, its author, and its characters – and, I would add, for its readers and the culture that helped to create it. This charitable reading is difficult, but I have determined to use this disruptive, loving approach.
Scholarship can be an act of worship. All that the Christian scholar does should be in the service of God, although we will constantly fail to get it right. That service and that worship ought to be liberating. In 1852, in The Idea of a University, Cardinal John Henry Newman stated his belief that the university ought to create individuals who devote themselves to “removing the obstacles which hinder the free and unembarrassed action of those around him.”
Those of us working within the Christian academy have the means to remove those obstacles. We are gifted with love, and that love insists we turn, freely, to bestow it again.