- British higher education is increasingly secular in outlook. This paper identifies three aspects of that secularity: specialisation, instrumentalisation and globalisation.
- As Christians, we can respond by observing the intellectual, moral and theological inadequacy of the university life this generates. But we are also called to take practical beneficial steps to address its weaknesses as well. We can prevent slippage into hostile forms of secularism by promoting Christianity as an object and framework of study, as well as resisting petty forms of oppression. We can improve the quality of our common life by promoting intellectual virtue, scholarly community and the pursuit of public goods.
- This may not always sit comfortably with current criteria of scholarly ‘success’, but by promoting such qualities, we can hope to make even the modern secular academy serviceable to Christ.
- Several years ago I found myself in discussion with a colleague about our Examination Regulations. The question was whether there should be an express precept ensuring that observant Jewish students should not be compelled to sit on Saturdays, and that Muslim students should have sufficient time for Friday prayers. She rather indignantly objected, ‘I thought we were supposed to be a secular university!’ And an interesting conversation followed; granted that the university was in some sense ‘secular’, did that mean we should, or should not, accommodate students with a distinctive religious affiliation?
- That exchange reminds us of the malleability of the term, ‘secular’. The vast majority of institutions of British higher education are secular – in some sense of the word – but in what sense? And what are Christian scholars and students to make of those various senses? How should we serve as Christians in the secular university? My colleague was working from a conception of ‘the secular’ which was exclusive; she sought neutrality by bracketing off religious aspects of student identity. The rest of us were working from a conception of ‘the secular’ which was more inclusive; we sought neutrality by way of reasonable accommodation. And that exchange suggests that perhaps one of the contributions we can make as Christians is to ensure that our universities and colleges are secular in the right sort of way.
- The question is not only of direct relevance to Christian academics. Around 46 per cent of British young people – and one suspects the majority of young people known to readers of this paper – now take part in higher education. Many of these self-identify as Christian, and actively affirm their faith at university. What sort of intellectual and organisational environment are they reaching maturity in? How can they be supported and encouraged as they, too, seek to find their place in ‘secular’ institutions potentially hostile to their faith? British universities have a high standing and significant influence on higher education across the globe. And even beyond those directly involved, universities have an enormous long-term impact on wider public culture. If the universities of today are secular, what does that indicate about the society of tomorrow?
- Expressions of concern with the changing culture of the modern university are not uncommon. The problem with the secular university is that it suppresses our shared yearning for a more ecclesial vision of scholarly community. In his book, Religion and Community, Keith Ward suggests that the Church should be thought of as a community in four dimensions:
This fourfold frame is a helpful provocation as we reflect on our roles, even in secular institutions.
- a teaching community,
- a charismatic community,
- a sacramental community and
- a moral community.
- Teaching: how can I find ways of ensuring that students and staff alike feel that they are collaborators in a common search for truth, rather than purchasers of a marketable commodity one from the other?
- Charisma: how does my university enable and celebrate the diversity of talents and gifts, perhaps in extra-curricular and voluntary activities, rather than merely focusing on narrow academic success?
- Sacrament: what forms of embodiment should I make an effort to preserve: meeting a colleague for a coffee rather than sending an e-mail? Eating with my students? Graduation ceremonies?
- Moral: what virtues should I be displaying and promoting in my academic life? Self-discipline, humility, honesty, attentiveness to the other, public service?
- Christian scholars, both staff and students, work under ever-increasing pressures to succeed, in a context in which the criteria of ‘success’ are often highly individualistic and even materialistic1. Daniel’s example is an inspiration, because like him we experience a certain sort of exile: an exile of the mind. Our challenge is each day to ‘turn our face towards Jerusalem’ as we seek to bless our busy institutions with the richer communal expressions of truth and goodness we have experienced in the body of Christ. If we do this, we can hope to make even our secular universities serviceable to him.
Text Colour Conventions (see disclaimer)
- Blue: Text by me; © Theo Todman, 2021
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