One of the great misconceptions about Christian higher education is that Christian colleges are places where Christian young adults go to withdraw from “the world.” A closer look at some historical roots of Christian colleges prove otherwise.
For example, in the work of Abraham Kuyper (1837-1920), the Dutch pastor, theologian, politician, journalist, and statesman, we see that Christian colleges are not places of withdrawal but education centers of preparation for a life of living in a pluralistic world — a world with more similarities to Daniel’s Babylon than Europe’s 16th-century Christendom.
In the book, Wisdom and Wonder, Kuyper offers perspective to help Christians understand that a university education that presupposes and integrates the Triune God across the curriculum can solidly develop the Christian minds of young adults. Kuyper believes that if it is true that “the wisdom of this world is folly with God” (1 Cor 3:19), then divorcing higher education from the knowledge of God will produce knowledge that is likely to appear as foolishness to God.
Christians, then, in ways consistent with honoring God, need to create additional educational opportunities so that Christians do not abandon higher education and retreat to the asceticism of church life: Christians should be trained properly for participation in public life. This is one of the many reasons Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Protestant churches have invested so much institutional capital in maintaining colleges and universities.
God’s honor requires the human spirit to probe the entire complexity of what has been created, in order to discover God’s majesty and wisdom and to express those in human thoughts and language. Since the unbelieving world can do nothing but obscure God’s majesty and wisdom, Christian thinkers are called to put their shoulders to that grand task that they alone can perform even if it were to bear no benefit for their own lives.
Because universities have such great influence over those who end up in positions of decision-making in society and those who shape cultural narratives, Kuyper feared that if “university life and the influence it produces on the populace remain exclusively in the hands of unbelievers, then public opinion will ultimately be turned in that direction.”
Kuyper’s realism about pluralism led him to hold that it is “self-deception” to expect that believing Christians will be welcomed and accepted in institutions with an anti-theistic bias. He observed that unbelieving educators will not use critical argumentation to properly understand reality in relation to God; to keep thinking that they will is “nothing but pure illusion.”
What, then, was Kuyper’s solution to the tendency of divorcing all knowledge from the transcendent? He believed that the Christian religion needed an education structure built on a Christian foundation:
There is only one means of prevent this, one that requires Christian thinkers to establish a university-level movement, and . . . manifest a different mode of perceiving and thinking, reproducing it among people who pursue university studies. The eventual result would be a cadre of people who were intellectually developed to exercise influence among the populace, people who could enter the field of public discourse.
Kuyper is not promoting young adult withdrawal from culture at all. He seems to be promoting a realism that makes the case for why young adults may want to choose a Christian higher education among their alternatives. He believed deeply that there was a difference between receiving an education where all reality is divorced from the Creator and replaced with naturalism, versus an education where all reality is properly interpreted and understood in light of the truth about the Triune God and the ultimate destination of the creation.
In this sense, Christian education is not withdrawal from culture. It is preparing young adults for a lives of active involvement in society as creators of culture.