J. Randall O’Brien, 22nd President
October 30, 2009
The Future of the Past: Celebrating our Heritage and Hope
Distinguished platform guests, esteemed Board of Trustees, illustrious presidents and notable colleagues from sister institutions, treasured faculty, staff, students, and alumni, and beloved Family and Friends:
The Psalmist says it so well: “This is the day the LORD has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it!” (Ps. 118:24)
May I thank each of you for being here today? How absolutely gracious of you! I would love to call each of you by name, but that would take all of my allotted hour and forty-five minutes. However, I simply must thank the Presidential Search Committee and the Board of Trustees for extending the call to us to serve this incredible Carson-Newman family. To Search Committee Chair Ogle I would like to say a special thanks for your leadership and friendship in the process, and my dear friend, for your exceedingly gracious introduction today.
The Inauguration Committee, co-chaired by Deans Clark Measels and Kitty Coffey, worked long, hard, sacrificially, and well to make these days a success. I am grateful to each of you. Kay and I have been so warmly welcomed to East Tennessee. The faculty, staff, students, alumni, community, convention, pastors, and churches have all made us feel right at home. And we are! Senator Alexander, your untiring public service as President of the University of Tennessee, as Governor, as U.S. Department of Education Secretary, and now as our Senator has provided us a model of visionary leadership. You traveled a long way to deliver your inspiring words to us today, but your words will travel farther. You have spoken prophetically in the national conversation regarding higher education and we have listened. Moreover, we will act. Beginning in January we will offer 10 or more programs of study wherein students may receive a baccalaureate degree in 3 years. We have entered a new era in higher education.
Obsolescence is not limited to manual typewriters, 8-track tape cartridges, party-line telephones, and Edsel automobiles. Senescence is not limited to America’s roads, bridges, and downtowns. Everything ages, including higher education; much becomes obsolete, including academic programs, information delivery systems, and approaches to education.
“The Golden Age of American Colleges is past; the Age of Survival is upon us.” So say some of the experts in our field. If, in fact, this claim is true, institutions who fail to comprehend current dangers and adapt will not survive.
Accessibility and affordability are major issues, along with years of study required to complete a degree. There are others. Distinguishing between price and cost is critical. For it’s hard to control the price of a college education when the costs continue to soar, which include energy, insurance, maintenance of aging buildings, construction costs of new facilities, health care, technology, salary needs and other operational costs. Changes must come in innovative pricing, degree reform, green initiatives, budget decentralization and accountability, organizational and structural reform, alternative scheduling, distance learning, graduation rates, continuing education, and in globalization of higher education.
Senator Alexander, we appreciate your seasoned service and wisdom, your watchful eye, prophetic voice, and authoritative leadership in higher education. Thank you for your important words today.
My remarks which follow will move along a different track, one no less critical, no less urgent. We are in a crisis. But before we address the present crisis, much less the future, we must take note of the past.
The Future of the Past
Oh, what a glorious past we share, Carson-Newman College and our sister American colleges and universities! First, Carson-Newman: When the Baptist Education Society of East Tennessee called a meeting at the Dandridge Baptist Church in 1849 to consider founding “an institution of learning” twenty-one Trustees were elected to raise money and secure a charter. One of the leaders was James Carson, for whom the School would eventually be named. The host pastor was William Rogers, who would become the first president of the School.
Around that time in nearby Mossy Creek, later, in 1901, to become known as Jefferson City, five gentlemen known today as “The Oak Tree Five” met under an old oak tree after a hard day’s work in the fields and determined to create a place of education for their sons---and later their daughters, as well. These five men---the Reverend William Bowen, Professor Robert Reedy Bryan, and three farmer-builders named Newman: I.M., Samuel, and William---along with the aforementioned Trustees secured two acres of land on the banks of Mossy Creek just below our current baseball field, raised $2, 386.50 to start the School, named Mossy Creek Missionary Baptist Seminary, and began holding classes in the Mossy Creek Baptist Church.
Soon (in 1855) Mossy Creek Missionary Baptist Seminary changed its name to Mossy Creek Baptist College. The first graduate was a doctor, the second a lawyer, and the third, a minister.
The 1876(-77) mission statement of Mossy Creek Baptist College noted, “This institution looks to the highest possible grade of intellectual and Christian culture of all its pupils.”
In 1880 the Trustees changed the name of our School to Carson College, in honor of James Carson, a founder and 30-year Trustee.
Five years later (in 1855) The Mossy Creek Female Academy was chartered and soon became known as Newman Female Seminary, then Newman College, in honor of the Newman family of founders.
The two colleges---Carson and Newman---became one---Carson-Newman College in 1889.
The 1919(-20) mission statement of Carson-Newman College emphasized, “It has always been the purpose of the College to offer its students instruction in the light of the teachings of Jesus Christ. . . . The College owes its allegiance to Christ and considers itself an agency for the spread of His righteousness among men.”
The 1993(-94) mission statement proclaimed, “We purpose to: . . . develop graduates who understand that the lordship of Christ touches all vocations and professions and involves the graduates in becoming leaders in church and state.”
What a glorious past!
Conceived in a church, along with echoes of Eden’s Tree and the Tree planted by streams of water in Psalm 1 reverberating numinously around the Oak Tree Five, with classes born in the church, this sacred academy, indeed, stands as a testament to Providence and prayer.
Yet, we are but a star within a breathtaking galaxy. The birth of nearly allcolleges in America before 1865 came forth from church organizations or devout Christians with intentional Christian ends in mind.
Harvard (1636) was established by Congregationalists.
William & Mary (1693) was established by Anglicans.
Yale (1701) was founded by Congregationalists.
Princeton (1747) was founded by Presbyterians.
Brown (1765) and the University of Chicago were founded by Baptists.
Other church colleges of distinction include Columbia (1754) and Dartmouth (1769).
Harvard’s motto in 1650 proclaimed Christi Glorium, (Glory to Christ). Her motto in 1692 became Christo et Ecclesiae, (Christ and Church). Harvard’s earliest set of “Rules and Precepts” decreed that each student was, “to be plainly instructed, and earnestly pressed to consider well, the main end of his life and studies is, to know God and Jesus Christ which is eternal life . . . and therefore to lay Christ in the bottom, as the only foundation of all sound knowledge and learning.”
Yale’s stated purpose from the beginning was “to teach and engage the children to know God in Jesus Christ and to love and serve him in all sobriety, godliness, and righteousness of life. . . .”
The first public announcement regarding the University of Chicago read, “The new University is to be a Christian institution. It is to be forever under the auspices of the Baptist denomination.” Her first president announced that the “President and two thirds of its Trustees will be Baptists. . . . In all and above all and under all, the University of Chicago, whatever else it may be, by the grace of God shall be Christian in tone, in influence, and in work. The provisions of this charter . . . are pledges to you that this shall always remain true.”
Dartmouth President, Asa Smith, charged in his inaugural address of 1863 that, “The College . . .should be distinctly and eminently Christian. . . .Let the studies which we call moral, have a Christian baptism. . . . Let Ethical Science . . . be bathed in the light of Calvary.”
President’s Smith charge of 1863 came as late as 100 years after Dartmouth’s founding.
By the early 1900s, however, the secularization of higher education had displaced the dominant Christian intellectual position in state universities and major private universities, and by the 1960s, in most church colleges, as well.
Aware of the dangers of the secular way, Yale President, Charles Seymour, in his inaugural address in 1937, called for a return to our Christian heritage and hope declaring,
Yale was dedicated to the upraising of spiritual leaders. We betray our trust if we fail to explore the various ways in which the youth who come to us may learn to appreciate spiritual values. . . . The simple and direct way is through the maintenance and upbuilding of the Christian religion as a vital part of university life. I call on all members of the faculty, as members of a thinking body, freely to recognize the tremendous validity and power of the teachings of Christ in our life-and-death struggle against the forces of selfish materialism. If we lose that struggle . . . scholarship as well as religion will disappear.
Oh, what an uproar William F. Buckley, Jr. created in 1951 with the publication of his book, God & Man at Yale! In critiquing his alma mater, Buckley alleged that Yale had lost its way, that she had become incoherent, suffering a loss of mission, that she had drifted so far from her founding ideals in failing to Christianize Yale that the average student attending Yale graduated with a shattered respect for Christianity.
Professor McGeorge Bundy, who would later serve the Kennedy and Johnson administrations as National Security Advisor, published in the Atlantic Monthly a scathing response to Buckley, essentially presenting the University’s official statement of denial of Buckley’s allegations. The battle was joined.
So, where are we today? At a critical crossroads. It is difficult to imagine any of our nation’s major private universities, or state universities, being anything but bored with the conversation regarding Christianity’s mission on campus. Christianity, along with Elvis, has left the building.
Will Christian faith forever be vanquished from higher education? Or will it be allowed to return from exile? What does Athens have to do with Jerusalem? Tertullian asked. “Much,” Duns replied! “Much,” sing a chorus of contemporary voices across America! “Everything,” say hundreds of history’s brightest lights, as well as today’s leading intellectuals! Paul, Clement, Anselm, Augustine, Acquinas, Erasmus, Calvin, Luther, Orr, Kuyper, Newman, Trueblood, Holmes, Marsden, Noll, Burtchaell, Dockery, Ringenberg, Lewis, Schwehn, Neuhaus, Jacobsen, Beaty, Benne, Plantiga, Wolterstorff, McGrath, Hughes, Evans, and countless other luminaries testify of the inseparable nature of truth and theology. Anselm and Augustine wrote passionately of “faith seeking understanding.”
On the contrary, Richard Dawkins, a leading spokesman for atheism today, claims, “Faith is the great cop-out, the great excuse to evade the need to think and evaluate evidence.”
Hear what John Polkinghorne, past Chairman of the Nuclear Physics Board of the Science Research Council in Great Britain, has to say of the matter:. . . we live in a cosmos, not a chaos, so that the world makes total sense. In other words, there is indeed a Theory of Everything . . . . the name of that Theory is Theology, . . . the world makes total sense because it is a creation, the unified expression of the Mind and Will of its Creator.
Polkinghorne, now fellow of Queen’s College, Cambridge, continues: I believe that theology is of continuing significance in a scientific age and that its pursuit is an indispensable part of the activity of a complete university.
Francis Collins, one of the world’s leading geneticists and the longtime head of the Human Genome Project, the decade-long work to decode the DNA of our species, writes: “. . . the principles of faith are, in fact, complementary with the principles of science. . . . In my view, there is no conflict in being a rigorous scientist and a person who believes in a God who takes a personal interest in each one of us.”
All of this is well and good, but is there anyone here who believes that Ivy League U., or State U., will rush to become citadels for the integration of faith and learning? Do we really believe our public and major private universities may choose to become bastions of Christian orthodoxy? What then is the future of the past? Where then might academies of science, humanities, fine arts, education, professional schools, and faith be found? I’m glad you asked.
Comes the prophet!
In 1975 Arthur Holmes, influenced heavily by Abraham Kuyper, John Henry Newman, and Elton Trueblood, published, The Idea of a Christian College. Holmes argued that only an active integration of faith and learning truly distinguishes the secular and Christian university. Floodgates opened, and out poured volumes of sympathetic works from the ranks of the intelligentsia. The leit motif of each of their works calls for Christian colleges and universities to reverse their retreat, reclaim their heritage, and to do so by marching boldly into the Promised Land of Christian higher education holding high the banner, “All Truth is God’s Truth.”
Comes the surprise!
“Distant cousins” are “preaching” a “not-so-distant” message from the halls of secular universities. As William Ringenberg notes, At least since the appearance of Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind: How Higher Education Has Failed Democracy and Impoverished the Soul of Today’s Students (1987) and Paige Smith’s Killing the Spirit: Higher Education in America (1900) . . . the general modern critique of secular higher education has bemoaned the tendency to replace the character and values education dimension of learning with an intellectualist conformity and anti-religion bias. Ringenberg continues, Even the traditionally elite institutions themselves are becoming aware of their growing barrenness as noted by Columbia Universityprofessor Andrew Delbanco: ‘There is a nervousness that may account for the use of compensatory institutions within the institution such as the Center for Human Values at Princeton . . . or the Institute for Ethics at Duke. But what can it mean that thinking about ethics has become mostly an extracurricular activity?’ And to this critique the work of Harry Lewis, former Dean of Harvard College, entitled Excellence Without a Soul: How a Great University Forgot Education, in which he acknowledges that “moral education has withered” in our universities and the testimony of crisis mounts.
All of this is nice, but we in Christian colleges and universities are not simply talking about values and ethics. It is certainly true that we, among others, concur with the need for a renewed focus upon morals. But the cry is for more than that.
If America’s colleges displaced historic orthodox Christianity with generic religion and social good, or at best confined Christianity to the office of the campus minister, or a chapel service, or a specially created department of religion, leaving no place for Christian faith in the nerve center of the university, the curriculum; if science became the new orthodoxy in the halls of academe; if our campuses severed the rose from its roots by finding a place for morals in the fields of study but none for Christianity; if our colleges came in time to find morals passe’, while manners, whatever that means, became the mark of an educated person, are we really surprised to discover that we are living in communities stuffed with information but starved for values? And if we have fallen over the precipice is the appropriate corrective step to climb part of the way up the slippery cliff during the cultural monsoon and hope we won’t be washed away again? Or should we consider ascending to the top of the rock and rest on the solid footing of historic orthodox Christianity? Why then the call for a focus on morals? Without an authoritative foundation do not morals erode? Isn’t that precisely why we have arrived at our point of need?
Perhaps in our secular age secular colleges and universities will not desire to integrate faith and learning, choosing to go their own way instead. But I would like to join the caravan of sages through the ages, including the company of evangelical confessing scholars today, who hold to the unity of truth, and to the belief that faith and learning, not faith OR learning, is the best way to attain true erudition.
In our search for knowledge, our quest for truth, why should our learning communities and faith communities remain separate? Let us embrace an open search for truth wherein freedom to think includes permission to ask any question and to analyze every perspective. Open intellectual inquiry may not, after all by self-definition, exclude thinking Christianly across the curriculum. Any search for truth which excludes, a priori, consideration of evidence, or particular views, is at best misguided elitism, mishandled epistemology, or mistaken scientific method, but at worse, missionary secularism intent upon installing the new atheism as the fundamentalist religion of college campuses. Enough of this idolatrous sacrifice of our children!
Let us no longer accept the patronizing heresy of compartmentalizing our Christian faith into non-threatening conclaves safely away from the classroom. Rather let us champion both free academic inquiry and committed theological loyalty. We in the academy make much of academic freedom. Then let us in our Christian colleges dare to let truth and error compete for residence in our minds. Let us read widely, listen deeply, reflect critically, observe studiously, present effectively, debate delightfully, write masterfully, analyze keenly, question honestly, dissent respectfully, think Christianly, and live gratefully in the presence of our Creator-Redeemer-Sustainer God.
The universe is our campus; the cosmos is our campus. All truth is God’s truth. Vocatus atque non-vocatus Deus aderit, the eminent psychologist, Carl Jung, had carved above the door of his home (Bidden, or not bidden, God is present).
So, what is the future of the past?
In a story titled, “Christian Colleges are Booming,” Time magazine reported a U.S. Department of Education survey which revealed an enrollment increase of 67.3% for the decade of 1992-2002 for schools listed in the Council of Christian Colleges and Universities. The increase for all other colleges and universities during the same 10-year period was 2.1%, a 65% differential!
Apparently the longing is for a place where the life of the mind and the shepherding of the spirit might find a welcome home. If so, Carson-Newman’s ethos of open intellectual inquiry and a deeper spiritual life---a beautiful tapestry of faith, learning, and caring community---positions us providentially to meet the deepest needs of our neighbor and realize the highest dreams we dare to dream.
I dream of a college where our graduates have learned how to think; they have learned what the best and brightest minds throughout the ages have thought and currently are thinking; but they have also learned to think for themselves, and to think Christianly, at that.
The college of my dreams features the Christian intellectual tradition as a centerpiece, the integration of faith and learning as the cornerstone, and classroom excellence, cutting-edge scholarship and love of students, all within a caring community.
The college of my dreams stands firmly under the lordship of Jesus Christ where we faithfully accept our Lord’s invitation to love Him with all of our hearts, all of our souls, and with all of our minds.”
As Victor Hugo shared, “There is nothing like a dream to shape the future.”
J. Randall O’Brien, Presidential inauguration Address,
Carson-Newman College, October 30, 2009