The challenge to exercising the Christian mind in all of life and learning

maccullough_picture.jpgSeveral years ago I read a fascinating article in the November/December issue of the journal, Skeptical Inquirer. The authors reported the results of a study designed to investigate why some intelligent people believe in creation and events such as the flood of Noah’s day, while other apparently intelligent young people believe in UFOs and parapsychology. Both belief sets were in conflict with the naturalistic worldview of the researchers.

For the study, 338 students from the University of Texas at Arlington completed a 75-item questionnaire with a variety of questions related to science: travel back in time, UFOs, Noah’s ark, Adam and Eve, and the biblical account of creation. You will be pleased to know that the researchers titled their article, Why Creationists Don’t Go to Psychic Fairs. They found that the two groups had unrelated ways of determining the truth.

The researchers divided respondents’ worldviews into three broad groups:

  1. Cultural Traditionalists included those who believed in biblical truth and creation, and whose rules for judging truth included the acceptance of revelation, tradition, or authority as the major way of knowing;
  2. Postmodernists, who deny both traditional religion and science as the major way of knowing, instead believe that adequate answers to life’s biggest questions require other forms of spirituality such as those offered by pagan religions from previous times; and
  3. Cultural Modernists (the researchers’ own framework), for which the only way to determine truth is through science.

The findings included a simple recognition that the answers to life’s biggest questions are largely influenced by the epistemological rules (such as, revelation, authority, tradition, intuition and feeling, or scientific method) that a person uses for determining truth: We believe we have begun to be able to show that there exists a certain logic about the ‘rules’ one uses to decide on the ‘truth’ of a thing (p. 24).

In addition to their findings, the researchers proposed some questions for further study, including the following:

Is it possible that these young people use one set of rules while operating in their religious community or while at home and switch to another set unknowingly when they arrive on the university campus or while studying in science class or history class? (p. 28)

This question hits at the heart of dualistic thinking. It relates directly to the compartmentalization of sacred and secular (as it is often called) or private vs. public knowledge. It seemed to me that the researchers hoped that young people who have religious beliefs might use these ceremonially (e.g., for weddings, funerals, and participation in the religious community) while ignoring them when it comes to real knowledge such as the study of science, math, and history. This kind of cultural and intellectual dualism, which has permeated the culture since at least the mid 1900s and still persists today, must be challenged through the strategic design of the school or university curriculum if we hope to prepare young minds for integrative living.

Fortunately, the evidence suggests that dualism is being challenged on many fronts. In the political arena last year, for example, it became popular to speak openly of one’s faith. Some, of course, challenged that practice, and various political cartoons focused on the issue, mocking those who publicly acknowledged their faith. However, since the 2004 presidential elections, the losing party has been exploring strategies to court those who favored the integration of faith and life issues.

Today, modernists (who endorse naturalism/materialism) and postmodernists (who deny there is universal truth), are back on the attack, trying to counter the integration of public and private values by again promoting the public-private dichotomy so prevalent from the 1960’s until recently. During the past several months, a public school teacher was banned from using the historical documents of our founding fathers (Declaration of Independence, for one) because the documents contain references to our Creator. In Pennsylvania, a school district wishing to add Intelligent Design as a theory to explain life came under major attack. Christmas songs with religious overtones, a float in a Denver parade with a Merry Christmas banner, and other overt public declarations of Christianity have been challenged and banned from the public sphere. What will be our response? Will we retreat to the dualistic thinking of the past or will we resolve to be integrated, intellectually coherent people in a time of immense challenge to our faith? Our spiritual and intellectual lives are at stake as well as our impact as salt and light in this world!

The private-public dichotomy and the disastrous intellectual results in the academic world have been documented by many thinkers over the last several decades. In 1983, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who was exiled to the United States to escape persecution in the former Soviet Union, was honored for his pioneer work to restore religion to atheist nations. George Cornell, AP religion writer who wrote an article celebrating the Russian’s achievement, quoted Solzhenitsyn’s harsh words to the West delivered in a speech given at Harvard in 1978. Solzhenitsyn said, “The West has finally achieved individual human rights, and even to excess, but man’s sense of responsibility to God and society has grown dimmer and dimmer.” He identified the problem as “the proclaimed and practiced autonomy of man divorced from any higher force above him . . . an eroded humanism cut off from religious roots.” (Bucks County Courier Times, March 4, 1983).

In 1985 Robert Bellah and a team of other sociologists studied American culture to discover whether or not the warnings and predictions of another outsider, Alexis de Toqueville, had come true. About 150 years before Bellah’s study, Toqueville, a French social philosopher, came to America to see what made the American version of democracy work. Among other things, Toqueville praised the mores that he found in the American people. These values, biblical and republican, as he called them, seemed to permeate all of American life. But he saw a corrosive trend on the horizon, the beginning of a kind of dualistic thinking that would relegate religion to the private sphere. He predicted a future of excessively individualistic, self-centered Americans who would fail at integration (Bellah p. 285).

Indeed, Bellah’s research confirmed what Toqueville had predicted Americans no longer have core values that are biblical in nature and integrated with life. Alas, Bellah found the opposite to be true that throughout the United States, excessive meism seemed to have resulted from the separation of life and learning from any biblical value core that championed the love of God and others.

In his 1993 book, Culture of Disbelief, Yale professor, Stephen Carter, addressed the dualistic thinking in our culture, particularly in the areas of law and politics. We often ask our citizens to split their public and private selves, telling them in effect, that it is fine to be religious in private, but there is something askew when those private beliefs become the basis for public action. He was prophetic. Some of the comments made and polls taken during the impeachment trial of President Clinton magnified the divide between public service and private life.

By the late 1980's and early 1990's, educators and sociologists had begun to study the results of a fragmented/dualistic approach to knowledge and its effects on human personality and on education. Alan Bloom, in his controversial 1987 book, the Closing of the American Mind, submitted a thesis that touched on this issue. He decried the total relativism with which he had to contend in his university classrooms. Bloom declared that college students had been led to believe everything and anything and therefore believed nothing. They had no basis upon which to grow and develop intellectual coherency, and no integrating core of beliefs by which to judge, evaluate, and use new knowledge. Thus, they were rendered closed minded.

A pair of social scientists, addressing the problems in American schools, released a book in 1990 that spawned the charter school movement. John Chubb and Terry Moe, authors of Politics, Markets, and Americas Schools, concluded that private schools were doing a better job than public schools in educating America’s youth. Among the reasons they offered, appeared the following concerning private schools: Their goals are also more likely to have true intellectual coherence for they are not ad hoc collections of value-impositions, but packages that are consciously designed to constitute an integrated whole. The market allows and encourages its schools to have distinctive, well-defined mission (p. 55).

The way coherency and integration occur, according to Chubb and Moe, is through the strategic design of the curriculum planned to fulfill the school mission, the value core of the institution. It is planned!

By 1995, the Association of Supervision and Curriculum Development had commissioned a group of educators to address coherency and integration in school curricula. The title of the 1995 Yearbook was Toward a More Coherent Curriculum. The book is a fascinating indictment of the fragmented curriculum and the lack of intellectual coherence that our youth face daily in the classrooms of America. The writers called for new approaches to integration and to determining the glue that holds learning and life together. However, it was admitted that, because the integrating core is value-laden, it is probably not possible to have true curricular coherency in public schools. What a sad conclusion. But not so for the Christian school! For a Christian university such as PBU, the integrating core is clearly biblical answers to life’s major questions.

How are the challenges of today different from 30 years ago? The worldview that challenges biblical Christian theism and competes for the minds of today’s students is more likely to be postmodernism rather than the secular or scientific humanism of the first half of the 20th century (not that this view has gone away). I believe that the challenge today is not so much for the concept of wholeness and the integration of knowledge as it was in the 1960's. Rather, it is a battle for the content of the integrating core and the rules one uses to judge truth. It is a battle for the minds of our Christian youth who may marginalize biblical truth while integrating the prevailing postmodern worldview. Academic subjects, relationships, community, politics, the arts, career choices, and personal choices may be thought of in postmodern categories while the Bible, honored as an important book, is viewed as separate from much of real life and learning.

Challenging dualistic thinking of any kind takes as much work for college faculty as the most important lesson or unit taught to bring about important learning outcomes. It takes preparation and planning, study, and commitment. But it is worthwhile. May God help us in the task of challenging dualistic thinking and encouraging our young people toward integrative living. May we accept the challenge and the hard work of planning and delivering a curriculum that will lead to a reflective and integrated Christian mind. May the result be seen in the lives of young people who will be forever wholistic in their thinking and acting out of a Christian mind in all areas of life and learning. Only this will fulfill the scriptural mandates to be salt and light and to love the Lord with all our hearts, our souls, and our minds.

Martha MacCullough, Ed.D., is Dean of PBU's School of Education. She may be reached at: mmaccullough@pbu.edu

Sources

Beane, James A., editor. (1995). Toward a Coherent Curriculum, the 1995 Yearbook of the Association of Supervision and Curriculum Development. Alexandria, Virginia: ASCD Press.

Bellah, Robert, et al. (1985). Habits of the Heart. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Bloom, Alan. (1987). The Closing of the American Mind. New York: Simon and Schuster.

Carter, Stephen L. (1993). The Culture of Disbelief. New York: Basic Books, Harper Collins.

Chubb, John. E., and Moe, Terry. (1990). Politics, Markets, and Americas Schools. Washington, D.C.: The Brookings Institute.

Taylor, John; Eve, Raymond; Harrold, Francis. (November/December 1995). "Why Creationists Don't Go to Psychic Fairs: Differential Sources of Pseudoscientific Beliefs," Skeptical Inquirer.


By permission from PBU Today, Spring 2005.

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