God’s Universe Deserves a University

By Eric L. Johnson

One of the most celebrated astronomers of the early scientific revolution was Johannes Kepler. Born into a Lutheran family in 1571, he became enamored by the night sky at the age of 6 when his mother pointed out to him a comet.

Though gifted in mathematics, his first academic pursuit was theology. During his university studies, he studied theology and philosophy, as well as mathematics and astronomy. Learning about the Copernican theory of the solar system, he quickly embraced it. Though graduating with a Master’s in theology, his mathematical gifts were obvious, so he was recommended for a professorship in mathematics at a Protestant school in Austria, and began to devote himself to the study of astronomy.

Making careful observations and with the help of geometry, he discovered that the planets moved in elliptical orbits around the sun at different speeds, at different times, depending on their distance from the sun, and he put into mathematical formulas the three laws of planetary motion that are still accepted today. His work contributed significantly to Newton’s theories of gravity discovered a century later; and he also laid the foundations of modern optics, an area on the border of psychology.

His work in support of a heliocentric view of the solar system earned him the criticism of Christian leaders in his day familiar with his work, who felt it opposed biblical teaching that they believed supported a geocentric account, and such criticism continued throughout his life. However, along with Galileo and Tycho Brahe, he helped to establish the validity of Copernicus’ theory that everyone believes today (Westman, 1986).

Kepler is an outstanding example of a Christian scholar, and therefore can serve as a role model for what we are seeking to do at Houston Baptist University, for many reasons. To begin with, his life’s work was based on a single worldview (WV),[i] in which theology and astronomy are considered closely interrelated disciplines that, though focused on different aspects of reality, are both part of a unified system of being that is established by and subservient to God. Second, he saw his work in astronomy as thoroughly compatible with his earlier theological labors. Not long after graduating from university, and news of his scientific work spread, he wrote to one of his favorite professors, “I had the intention of becoming a theologian. For a long time I was restless: but now see how God is, by my endeavors, also glorified in astronomy.” (Kepler, 1951, p. 31)  A few years later he wrote, “Those laws [of matter] are within the grasp of the human mind; God wanted us to recognize them by creating us after his own image so that we could share in his own thoughts” (p. 50). As a result, his name is commonly linked with the saying: “in science we are thinking God’s thoughts after him.” Perhaps, most notably, Kepler (2002) included theological and astronomical observations and conclusions in his scientific writings, a common practice in the early stages of the Scientific Revolution, a sign of the fundamental unity of the view of reality of Christians in that epoch.

Within a Christian WV, all things are related to God. As the Designer and Sustainer of the universe, upholding “the universe by the word of his power” (Heb 1:3 English Standard Version). God is also the source or ground of all knowledge, and it all belongs to him, whatever aspect of the universe we consider. This means that all education, therefore, is related to God as well.

What does this mean for a Christian university? First, since everything in the universe is absolutely dependent upon God, including the knowledge of everything, God is the Center of it all, who unites everything within it, because it is all related to him. Second, this realization also gives the university a Center that provides a transcendent, ultimate unity to all of its educational activities, leading us all ideally to worship. Third, theology is the discipline devoted to the study of God and God’s works (Webster, 2016). This means that theology is, in a deep sense, relevant to all the things that God has done and is doing, and therefore to all the other disciplines, as well. Jonathan Edwards (1980) captures this in his observation that “All arts and sciences, the more they are perfected, the more they issue in divinity, and coincide with it, and appear to be parts of it.” (p. 397). In addition, philosophy must also have a special role to play in the Christian university, because it is the discipline that studies the nature of all things and their relations.

If the foregoing is true, this would mean that all the disciplines depend in some measure on Christian theology and philosophy to help them grasp their underlying, interrelated unity and how the unique focus of each discipline is related to God. In that sense, theology and philosophy are not just distinct disciplines, having their own object of focus, but they are “metadisciplines,” having subject matter that is intrinsic to all disciplines, including each other. In a Christian university, then, every discipline has the task of considering how Christian theological and philosophical principles pertain to its own disciplinary discourse, insofar as they help us to understand the object of the discipline as it really is, as God knows it to be, within its broadest context.

A Secular Revolution in the University

Of course, a lot has changed since the times of Kepler. As Christian Smith (2003) has well documented, during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, an enormous intellectual revolution occurred in the West (or perhaps we could call it a conversion), when the WV of secular materialism replaced the Judeo-Christian WV during the 20th century as the set of usually implicit, interpretive assumptions shared by the majority of intellectuals in the West and much of the East. As a result, claims such as were made above are seen as outrageous and scandalous in the secular Academy (Marsden, 1997). I know because I was educated there. I got my Ph.D. in educational psychology from Michigan State University, and while I’m deeply grateful for that education (as well as the football and basketball squads!), I was also taught there, indirectly to be sure, that God has nothing to do with the content or practice of any of the disciplines of the modern Academy.

To be fair, part of the reason for this secular state of affairs is a function of the increasing intellectual specialization that has occurred in the modern era, and Christians can appreciate that this outcome is an intrinsic intellectual and practical good, for one thing, because it magnifies the Creator. However, without a transcendent Center at the heart of the scholarly enterprise, the interrelated coherence that characterized the disciplines of the medieval university was lost, and  specialization turned into fragmentation. Academic disciplines now are isolated from one another, educational “silos” shaped by competing disciplinary allegiances and methods, resulting in intellectually and spiritually debilitating autonomy, aptly leading some to call higher education institutions “multiversities.” Analysis, the breaking down of things into their component parts—the primary intellectual task of the modern era—requires a corollary activity, if we are to attain a fuller, richer understanding of the universe and a wiser form of life, that of synthesis, the intellectual task of grasping how the parts are intrinsically interrelated in the things they compose, and things are intrinsically related to one another, and ultimately all things are intrinsically related to God, their continual Author and Meaning-Giver. Restoring the balance between these two intellectual tasks is one of the greatest needs and challenges facing humanity in the 21st century, and Christianity is well-equipped to help.

Unfortunately, perhaps the greatest peril the Christian Academy has had to face during this time is that its academics had to be educated within a secular WV context, in order to become disciplinary specialists, a process of socialization that usually led them to agree with their mentors and peers that the current secular form of their discipline, including its rules of discourse and practice, is fundamentally valid. What is needed in our day is a Christian counter-cultural revolution inspired by a Christian imagination grounded in a retrieval of and reinvestment in the Christian intellectual traditions that will enable it to critique and contest the current versions of the disciplines and imagine an alternative version, based on Christian assumptions, rather than the assumptions of materialism.

What has been vastly underappreciated by the Christian academic over the past 70 years is the extent to which materialism and Christianity are intellectual, existential, and cultural rivals. In retrospect, we were just incredibly naïve about the corrosive effects that materialistic WV assumptions would have on Christian colleges and universities, imported by often sincere, well-meaning faculty members who were just teaching their “discipline.” Because materialism is a reductionist paradigm, its greatest distortions will lie in what is left out of its discourse, from a Christian standpoint—God, redemption, Christian ethical norms—rather than assertions that are factually in error, though that will also occur to some degree. In addition, Christians must keep in mind that because the natural sciences are largely focused on the material world, they will be comparatively less distorted than the human sciences and humanities, which include features of human beings that transcend the material world, narrowly interpreted, like values, freedom, ethics, and salvation. The fewest distortions will occur in the formal sciences (mathematics and computer science), because of their high degree of WV universality.

The Fundamental Division in the Academy

In contrast to the analytic intellectual framework of modernity, which fragmented human knowledge into sharply distinct disciplines, a more fundamental kind of distinction was suggested by Augustine (1958) in City of God, and further developed much later by Abraham Kuyper (1898) in the Encyclopedia of Sacred Theology. Drawing from Scripture, Augustine saw that humanity itself was fundamentally divided between the community of those who loved themselves supremely and marginalized the true God—the original condition of all fallen humans—so it was labeled the “City of Humanity;” and the community composed of those who had been given new life by God through faith in Christ, so that they loved God supremely and ordered their lives accordingly, which he called the “City of God.” Moreover, Augustine understood the Bible to teach that these two groups are embroiled in an ethicospiritual conflict with each other since the human race became sinful, climaxing ironically in the sending of God’s Son to die for sinful humanity, in order to bring as many as will into the City of God.

Building on Augustine’s understanding of a divided humanity, Kuyper (1898) contended that the new life or regeneration of Christians so transformed their understanding of reality that it would lead necessarily to the development of alternative Christian models of the sciences, especially the human sciences, and their practices, that were fundamentally different from those based on the WV of materialism.[ii] He wrote that the “two kinds of people devote their time and their strength to the erection of two different structures, each of which purposes to be a complete building of science” (p. 156). Though Kuyper believed that science and knowledge are in fact unified in reality, the present epistemological conflict was due to the distortion of human knowing that resulted from sin, common to all humans, and divine regeneration given by grace to the followers of Christ. This regeneration brought about a “twofold science” (p. 161), which had distinct “points of departure” (p. 167), resulting in “two streams of science” that run in “separate river-beds” (p. 156). Their differences arise from “the deepest impulse of the life-consciousness of each;” so that “they are constitutionally different” (p. 168). For one thing, according to Kuyper, practitioners of naturalistic science consider the fallen world normal. (p. 177), whereas Christians consider it to be abnormal, that is, contrary in certain key respects to God’s original design plan. Consequently, there is a fundamental “antithesis between the science which lives by [regeneration] and that which denies it” (p. 162), a bifurcation that extends “as far as the influence of those subjective factors which [regeneration] causes to be different in one than in the other” (p. 168).

This framework leads to a very different task for the Christian academic than “integration.” Assuming the validity of modern disciplinary fragmentation and autonomy, “integration,” at its best, sought to bring the Christian faith (or theology or the Bible) back into the other disciplines. However, typically, too little integration was done too late. By the time we obtain a doctorate in a modern version of a discipline, we have so deeply internalized its secular rules of discourse, we lack the capacity to reimagine what the discipline might look like if God were its Author. As a result, after 50 years, “integration” has done little to alter the overall form of the disciplines and their interrelations, because “integration” itself has been dictated by what our secular colleagues consider legitimate scholarship.

By contrast, when Christian scholars are ever mindful of the ethicospiritual division between the City of God and the City of Humanity, their scholarly work is seen to consist primarily in interpretation, based on a recognition of the different interpretive dynamics of the two communities, including their inevitable antagonism. Ideally, this interpretive task requires the development of a distinctly Christian understanding of each discipline, as much as possible, before one starts to interpret and eventually appropriate the mostly legitimate knowledge of the modern versions of the disciplines that currently exist, shorn of their materialistic WV distortions. But this temporal sequence is practically impossible, given our current educational system and the dominance of materialism in our culture. That is why a vigorous Christian scholarly imagination has never been more important. Nevertheless, the positing of such an ideal has many practical outcomes, for it leads to the assumption of a different set of intellectual and life priorities than those established by the secular guilds that effectively control the current form of their functionally autonomous disciplines.

What this means practically is that Christian academics have to do their disciplinary work mindful of two different WV communities, the Christian and the materialistic, with the goal of working consciously as a Christian in both of them, while wisely observing and respecting their very different audiences and their respective rules of discourse and practice. Some are called to work more in a Christian context, where they can be more explicitly Christian (like Kepler when he included theological and astronomical passages in the same scientific texts), whereas others are called to work more in a materialistic or public context, and this will affect the form of their texts, though they can still work with what we might call an eschatological and more implicit apologetic agenda (Wax, 2018). Without such conscious intentionality, Christian academics will do their work unwittingly as a materialist, just as they were taught in their doctoral programs, observing and respecting only the secular rules of discourse and practice regardless of what WV community they work in, allowing the secular disciplinary guilds to establish the parameters of good scholarship, tragically, even within Christian colleges and universities.

How Might Such a Reimagining Alter Christian Higher Education?

Such a reorientation would lead to a reprioritization of the formative role of the Christian canon, the Bible, and Christian classics relevant to the respective disciplines. Moreover, this will require of the Christian Academy a lengthy educational and formational process of retrieval and reinvestment in resources that has the potential to reconstitute the Christian academic and higher education projects. Ideally, such a deepening internalization of Christian worldview thought and practice would be an ongoing process for every Christian academic and for all Christian disciplinary communities.

Secondly, this would lead to disciplinary education in Christian colleges and universities that makes salient the existence of two WV communities, emphasizing the Christian’s greater allegiance to the kingdom and people of God, while appreciating and learning from the remarkable accomplishments of the materialistic WV community over the past 120 years. Such a Two-City educational framework will train students to be thoughtful about which WV community is their audience, when speaking, writing, doing research, and practicing. In addition, we need to prepare our most promising Christian students to contemplate prayerfully the main WV community to which they might be called by God to work in; and then we need to help them practice consciously as Christians, so that during their doctoral training they will look for and steer clear of most of the interpretive distortions that mar the secular versions of the disciplines, particularly what is being left out; while they learn all they can from their secular, disciplinary mentors about the part of God’s creation they are studying.

Finally, students need to be trained in the ethics of strategic Christian practice. How much should one simply conform to the rules of discourse and practices of materialism in order to be able to participate in the secular versions of the disciplines today. While this has to do with one’s calling, it certainly requires prudence, but there is greater openness to minority WV positions in segments of the contemporary Academy than there has been for 100 years (consider, e.g., the Heterodox Academy, https://heterodoxacademy.org/). As a result, it seems likely that Christian academics will increasingly be permitted to participate in mainstream academia as Christians, that is, using (and explaining) their own rules of discourse and practice.

One of the best contemporary examples of this is Alvin Plantinga, a world-renowned philosopher who specialized in philosophy of religion and epistemology. After writing two widely-respected works on epistemology that largely avoided WV issues—a survey of contemporary epistemology (1993) and an argument for an externalist model (1994) of how humans in general are warranted in holding beliefs, he (2000) came out with Warranted Christian Belief, a distinctly Christian version of warrant that appeals to the role of Scripture and the Holy Spirit in the formation of Christian beliefs.

What do we need to do in Christian colleges and universities to promote this kind of radical Christian scholarship and education in the 21st century? It begins with greater collaboration within the university. The subfield of social epistemology has emerged in recent years, deeply compatible with advances in social developmental psychology and education that recognize the role that others have in the formation of beliefs and systems of beliefs. Practicing synthesis along with analysis, Christian academics in all the disciplines will have to spend more time reading and dialoguing with Christian theologians and philosophers, and vice versa, if we are to become intellectual communities able to re-vision the universe as one creation under God, united in relation to its Maker, Sustainer, Redeemer, and End. Such collaboration will lead again to a university.

This project, of course, will be enormously difficult. We are finite creatures, who have already been socialized into a secular version of our discipline, with limited time, energy, and resources, as well as intellectual pride and defensiveness, some of which was inculcated in our graduate programs. As a result, we need the Holy Spirit to give us more of the intellectual virtues of humility, openness, and the fear and love of the Lord. We also need administrators to reward faculty members for activity of this kind at the individual, departmental, and communal levels. And we need each other. A university is a body of Christian academics, like a church, and the foot, and the ear, and eye function best when they collaborate (1Co 12:12-31). It is impossible to become a more holistic Christian university when we work autonomously, in our disciplinary silos, especially in the modern era. We need to learn from, listen to, and speak with one another about our disciplines, in order to become the Christian scholars and educators, and yes the Christian university, which God is calling us to be. May we figure out how to follow the example of Johannes Kepler in the 21st century, who contributed remarkably to his discipline, while working within a Christian WV framework that warranted disciplinary discourse that was a synthesis of empirical, mathematical, philosophical, and theological knowledge.


Eric L. Johnson, PhD, Professor of Christian Psychology at Houston Baptist University. Dr. Johnson serves as Director of the Gideon Institute of Christian Psychology and Counseling. In addition to founding the Society for Christian Psychology, he has written over 50 journal or magazine articles and two books Foundations for Soul Care: A Christian Psychology Proposal and God and Soul Care: The Therapeutic Resources of the Christian Faith.


References

Augustine. (1958). City of God (G. G. Walsh, D. B. Zema, G. Monahan, D. J. Honan, trans).        New York: Image.

Edwards, J. (1980). The works of Jonathan Edwards: Vol. 6. Scientific and philosophical writings (W.E. Anderson, Ed.). New Haven, CN: Yale University Press.

Kepler, J. (1951). Johannes Kepler: Life and letters (C. Baumgardt & J. Callan, Eds.). New York: Philosophical Library.

Kepler, J. (2002). Harmonies of the world. Book Five. Philadelphia & London: Running Press.

Kuyper, A. (1898). Encyclopedia of sacred theology. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons.

Marsden, G. M. (1997). The outrageous idea of Christian scholarship. New York: Oxford University Press.

Naugle, D.K. (2002). Worldview: The history of a concept. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.

Plantinga, A. (1993). Warrant and the current debate. New York: Oxford University Press.

Plantinga, A. (1994). Warrant and proper function. New York: Oxford University Press.

Plantinga, A. (2000). Warranted Christian belief. New York: Oxford University Press.

Smith, C. (2003). The secular revolution: Power, interests, and conflict in the secularization of American public life. Berkeley,  CA: University of California Press.

Wax, T. K. (2018). Eschatological discipleship: Leading Christians to understand their    historical and cultural context. Nashville: B & H Academic.

Webster, J. (2016). God without measure: Working papers in Christian theology. Vol. 1: God      and the works of God. London & New York: T & T Clark.

Westman, R. S. (1986). The Copernicans and the churches. In D. C. Lindberg & R. L. Numbers   (Eds.), God and nature: Historical essays on the encounter between Christianity and    science (pp. 76-113). Berkeley & Los Angeles: University of California Press.

Endnotes

[i] By worldview I mean the subset of one’s beliefs consisting of fundamental assumptions that people have about the universe, human beings, and the ultimate nature of reality.

[ii] Kuyper also referred to another competing WV, pantheism, but it was already clear in Kuyper’s day that naturalism had greater influence, to the point that today naturalism utterly dominates academic discourse. Whereas pantheism is scarcely ever discussed as a viable alternative. We realize today that this grossly oversimplifies the diversity of WVs there are. In fact it is very difficult to get widespread agreement about what constitutes a WV, and so how many there are (Naugle, 2002).

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