Students praying at the pole - large.jpg"I lost my faith at an evangelical college." As a legislative aide in the nation's capitol, Tom is no stranger to ideological conflict. Yet he confronted the toughest challenge to his faith while studying at a respected Christian college.

In classes on sociology, philosophy, and biblical interpretation, Tom recalls, the teachers exposed students to secular criticisms of religion. But "they did little to present an orthodox biblical response to those criticisms." Tom even met privately with teachers, asking how they related their religious belief to their professional work. "Not one could give me an answer. It became clear that they had only a tenuous understanding of how to reconcile their faith with their academic disciplines."

Eventually, Tom says, "I came to believe that faith in God was without solid intellectual foundation. It was shattering." Over the years, he finally found his way back to Christianity after discovering books on apologetics and worldview ("I studied my way back to God"). Today, Tom is a strong Christian leader in political circles on Capitol Hill.

"I studied my way back to God."

In those same political circles, religious education is receiving new attention. The failure of public education is driving policy makers to ask why faith-based institutions typically do a better job. But stories like Tom's reveal how precarious that achievement could be. Christian schools often suffer from a "failure of nerve," says Boston University's Charles Glenn (2000, 255), a lack of confidence in their own distinctive vision. They fail to articulate a biblical worldview that relates their religious commitment to the academic disciplines taught in the classroom. As a result, says Luis Lugo, director of the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, many religious schools practice a "pre-emptive capitulation" (Glenn 2000, 246) to secularized ways of thinking, and thus they are in danger of losing their unique vision and mission.

Christian Brain Drain

What are the reasons for this self-censorship on the part of religious institutions? Let's consider two major causes—one internal and the other external. Within the Christian community itself, the main obstacle to teaching an integrated Christian worldview is the sacred-secular split, which separates a vibrant experience of faith from an intellectual understanding of the faith. To use a common phrase, Christianity is treated as a matter of the heart, not the head. 

A recent graduate from a Christian high school offers this description of her theology class: "My teacher drew a heart on one side of the blackboard and a brain on the other side." He "informed us that the two are as divided as the two sides of the blackboard—the heart is what we use for religion and the brain is what we use for science" (Passantino 2003). This radical dichotomy is all too common. Many schools consider themselves Christian because they hold regular chapel worship, maintain ties to a faith-based community, and have a friendly, caring ethos—not because they teach a distinctive intellectual paradigm in the classroom.

Religious schools may even convey an unspoken message that it is somehow inappropriate or illegitimate—not quite playing by the rules—to apply a faith-based perspective to academic study. I once heard a Christian journalist tell a classroom of students, "When you enter the newsroom, you have to leave your faith behind. You can't bring a Christian perspective into your reporting." In more formal language, a British philosopher says, "I have, myself, definite religious convictions: but I would consider it entirely wrong to make them intrude as tacit presuppositions in the actual process of analysis I undertake."1 Wrong? If Christianity is true, why would it be wrong to base our academic work on Christian presuppositions?

This kind of self-censorship produces schools that have no critical "grid" to defend their core religious commitments and to critique competing worldviews. As a result, teachers and administrators are likely to absorb secular ideas gradually without even realizing it.

How did Christian institutions come to have such an anti- intellectual bent? The sacred-secular divide goes back at least to the rise of Pietism in the seventeenth century. It was greatly reinforced in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries by the revivalism of the first and second Great Awakenings. Though the revivalists led many people to salvation, they also tended to redefine religion in terms of an intense, emotional conversion experience, while downplaying theology, doctrine, and the entire cognitive side of belief.2

But an emotion-based faith did not provide the tools needed to respond to the intellectual challenges confronting Christians in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries (especially Darwinism and Higher Criticism). So the fundamentalist movement responded by circling the wagons and turning its back on mainstream culture ("separatism"). If the world was on its way to perdition, fundamentalists said, then the job of the church was to save people out of the world, not to bring a transforming vision of truth into the world.

What marks the modern age is the shattering of the unity of truth.

This fortress mentality was not strongly challenged until the 1940s and 1950s. Modern evangelicals began to argue that we are called to engage culture, not escape from it. Yet mental patterns set by centuries are difficult to change. Christian educators have a lot of homework to do—and a lot of lost time to make up for—in crafting a biblical worldview to apply to the academic disciplines.

Moreover, when evangelicals do seek to integrate faith and learning, they encounter the second obstacle—an external one. The sacred-secular split in the religious world has a mirror image in mainstream culture called the fact-value split. This split is the assumption that the public sphere, including education, must be based on empirically verifiable facts, which are objective, scientific, and "value- free." Meanwhile, values are no longer considered objective truths, but instead they have been relegated to the realm of personal preference. Here's an example from a typical college textbook:

Facts are objective, that is, they can be measured, and their truth tested.... Value judgments, on the other hand, are subjective, being matters of personal preference ... based on personal likes and feelings, rather than on facts and reasons. (Luker, Martin, and Luker 1988, 5)

The upshot is that religion and morality are no longer regarded as making valid knowledge claims that belong in the academic curriculum.

Clearly, this quotation does not represent the way religious educators use the term value when they talk about teaching Christian values. Where did the new definition of the term come from? Until the early twentieth century, says Harvard historian Julie Reuben, American education was based on what was called "the unity of Truth" (1996). The assumption was that there are many forms of knowledge—scientific knowledge, moral knowledge, theological knowledge, and others. All the branches of truth were thought to form a single, coherent system. Science supported religion, religion was the source of morality, and so on, so that all would ultimately agree.

What marks the modern age is the shattering of the unity of truth. In a nutshell, the curriculum was taken over by materialism, or naturalism—the idea that human knowledge is limited to a closed system of natural cause and effect. Under that rule, any reference to the supernatural does not qualify as genuine knowledge. Religious accounts of miracles or divine providence were dismissed as cultural tradition or emotional need or wish fulfillment. They did not count as knowledge in the sense of telling us about the objective world.

Darwin's theory of evolution gave the final blow to the unity of truth. As his former teacher Adam Sedgwick put it, Darwin broke the "link" between the material and the moral order. Until Darwin, "the fundamental unity of knowledge was assumed by virtually all serious writers in America," summarizes one philosophy textbook. "What the controversy over evolution did was to shatter this unity of knowledge," ultimately reducing religion and morality to "noncognitive subjects" (Flower and Murphey 1977, 553).

And if they were noncognitive, then to be blunt, they were nothing but personal bias, posing a threat to scientific objectivity. Scholars began to fear that any reference to religion or morality would contaminate research "by confusing subjective values with objective facts" (Reuben 1996, 188). They argued that the academic disciplines must be autonomous, and by autonomous they meant they wanted the liberty to propose theories without any concern for whether the theories accorded with religious and moral views. In Value-Free Science? Robert Proctor says that scientists wanted to render their research "immune to religious or moral criticism" (1991, 80).

By the 1930s, they had succeeded. American universities gave up the unity of truth and accepted an unbridgeable gap between facts and values. Eventually, the trend filtered down to elementary and secondary schools. We can visualize the fact-value dichotomy using the imagery of two stories in a building, placing facts in the "lower story" and values separated off in the "upper story":

Subjective, Relativistic

Objective, Binding on Everyone

Even the model of the teacher was altered. Instead of being a moral exemplar to students, the teacher became merely a technical expert on the subject matter.

Of course, schools and universities did not want to give up entirely on the moral formation of students, and ultimately the solution was to transfer moral and personal development to extracurricular activities. Schools "settled upon a dual-track educational program," says education historian Marvin Lazerson. One track involved the formal organization of knowledge (the curriculum), and the second track (the extracurriculum) was supposed to help students become "whole persons" (1997, 23ff.). In this way, the institutional structure came to reflect the intellectual division between fact and value.

The Lesson of Elijah

What about faith-based schools? Most came to reflect the same dual-track approach. In Quality with Soul, Lutheran scholar Robert Benne describes a survey finding that most Christian schools today adopt an "add-on" approach.3 By that he means that the subject matter is essentially the same as that taught in secular schools, but the religious perspective is "added on" through extracurricular activities such as chapel and prayer meetings (Benne 2001; Hamilton and Mathisen 1997, 270, 277; Hughes 1997, 407).

To teach a full-orbed Christian worldview across all the disciplines, then, it is crucial for schools to overcome this pervasive dualism. And the first step is simply to become aware of it. The fact-value split is so endemic that most people do not realize they hold it. "The leaders in the university do not understand what has happened," says Dallas Willard, a Christian who teaches philosophy at USC. "They are unaware of the split that has developed between the content that faculty present as knowledge, and notions of morality, character, and values" (2005).

How can educators become aware of the two-story division of truth? I suggest two diagnostic tests that teachers can use to discern whether materials they are using—or they themselves—unconsciously assume a divided concept of truth:

1. In the first test, teachers ask two questions: What is the truth status (epistemological status) of religion and morality? Do they belong in the category of ideas that can be true or false?

In the two-level view of truth, the upper story is based on emotional need or personal preference. It is not something that can even be evaluated as true or false, any more than a preference for vanilla over chocolate.

We must present Christianity not as a cultural tradition or a source of emotional comfort but as a genuine candidate for truth.

Another analogy is a game such as baseball. Three strikes, you're out. Is that true or false? Neither, of course. It's just one of the rules we've chosen for the game—a cultural convention. In the same way, religion is not regarded as a matter of true or false, but only a cultural convention. Thus to present a Christian perspective as a valid knowledge claim, with epistemological standing to be included in the curriculum, we must find ways to overcome the split view of truth. We must present Christianity not as a cultural tradition or a source of emotional comfort but as a genuine candidate for truth.

In doing so, we must also take the risk of finding Christianity false. Ask yourself, If Christianity were convincingly shown to be false, would I stop believing it? The idea that Christianity could potentially be falsified may seem contrary to the ordinary definition of faith. But I would suggest that it is the stance found in Scripture itself. It was the attitude of Elijah on Mt. Carmel as he subjected God's existence to a highly public empirical test. It was the attitude of Paul when he told his audiences to consult the 500 people who were eyewitnesses of Jesus' resurrection. Paul was using a legal term, which means he was referring to ordinary methods of determining whether an event had happened. Spiritual truths have historical and empirical consequences that can be tested. Hands reading Bible.jpg

2. A second way to identify the two-realm view of truth is to ask whether science has the final say or whether theology likewise contributes to our knowledge of the world. Does the traffic go one way only?

For the modernist, religion must always accommodate the findings of science, never the other way around. If you were to suggest that science might have to take into account the truths of religion—well, you would be perceived as having violated the canons of scholarship! This attitude is a clear signal that theology has been relegated to the upper story of noncognitive values. There it is allowed to put a spiritual spin on the story told by naturalistic science, but it is not allowed to change the story itself. This rule must be taken as a given.

Thus the second question to ask is whether theology is treated as a genuine source of knowledge. Is theology required to merely adapt to the prevailing worldview, or is there mutual interaction between them? Is there two-way traffic between theology and science (or history, psychology, philosophy)?

A Dose of Piety

Religious schools operate from the conviction that all truth is God's truth. Their goal is often stated as "the integration of faith and learning." Yet as we have seen, the contemporary definition of truth would make the task of Christian education impossible. In the fact-value split, values do not qualify as knowledge, so they cannot be integrated into the formal organization of knowledge that constitutes the curriculum.4

The main intellectual challenge facing Christian schools today is to find ways to overcome the fact-value split and then articulate an integrated biblical worldview as a genuine truth claim. "Too often," writes Glenn, religious educators "accept the norms prevalent in their professions with an added dose of personal piety that does little to sustain a truly alternative approach" (2000, 294). For faith-based schools to keep the faith, they must do more than add a sprinkling of piety over a secular curriculum. They must recover a robust concept of the unity of truth within the framework of God's revelation.


1 These examples are from the study guide edition of the book Total Truth (Pearcey 2005).

2 I discuss this history in greater detail in chapters 9 through 12 of Total Truth (Pearcey 2005).

3 This is termed the "value added" model by Michael S. Hamilton and James A. Mathisen (1997).

4 Duane Litfin (2004), president of Wheaton College, discusses the fact-value split and the way it "repudiates the very possibility of integration" in Conceiving the Christian College, especially chapter 8.


Benne, Robert. 2001. Quality with soul: How six premier colleges and universities keep faith with their religious traditions. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans.

Flower, Elizabeth, and Murray G. Murphey. 1977. A history of philosophy in America. Vol. 2. New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons.

Glenn, Charles L. 2000. The ambiguous embrace: Government and faith-based schools and social agencies. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Hamilton, Michael S., and James A. Mathisen. 1997. Faith and learning at Wheaton College. In Models for Christian higher education: Strategies for success in the twenty-first century, ed. Richard T. Hughes and William B. Adrian, 261-83. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans.

Hughes, Richard T. 1997. What can the Church of Christ tradition contribute to Christian higher education? In Models for Christian higher education: Strategies for success in the twenty-first century, ed. Richard T. Hughes and William B. Adrian, 402-11. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans.

Lazerson, Marvin. 1997. Discontent in the field of dreams: American higher education, 1945-1990. National Center for Postsecondary Improvement, Stanford University.

Litfin, Duane. 2004. Conceiving the Christian college. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans.

Luker, William A., David A. Martin, and Geneva Jo Wimberley Luker. 1988. Economics for decision making. Lexington, MA: D.C. Heath.

Passantino, Mary E. 2003. The little engine that can. Christian Research Journal 25, no. 3 (April): 62-63.

Pearcey, Nancy. 2005. Total truth: Liberating Christianity from its cultural captivity. Study guide ed. Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books.

Proctor, Robert. 1991. Value-free science? Purity and power in modern knowledge. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Reuben, Julie A. 1996. The making of the modern university: Intellectual transformation and the marginalization of morality. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Willard, Dallas. 2005. Interview by To the Source. May 17. 18 2005.htm.

Nancy Pearcey, MA, is the author of Total Truth: Liberating Christianity from Its Cultural Captivity, which won the 2005 ECPA Gold Medallion Award for best book of the year in the Christianity and society category. It is now available in a study guide edition. She is also the Francis A. Schaeffer Scholar at the World Journalism Institute and the editor at large of The Pearcey Report

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