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Christian higher education in the negative world

Christian colleges must be prepared to be countercultural and marginalized

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Christian higher education in the negative world
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I was eager to read Aaron Renn’s highly anticipated new book, Life in the Negative World: Confronting Challenges in an Anti-Christian Culture. The book is an expansion of his much-discussed 2022 essay for First Things titled “The Three Worlds of Evangelicalism.” Renn’s argues that American culture has been secularizing at an increasing rate since the 1960s. He breaks down this secularization into three stages.

Prior to 1994, American culture had a mostly positive view of Christianity. The public square had long been influenced by Christian (especially Protestant) moral values and it was generally admirable for a person to be a Christian. Renn calls this the Positive World. From 1994 to 2014, as America became increasingly pluralistic, Christianity lost some of its cultural cache and was considered one valid option amid a diversity of worldviews. Renn calls this the Neutral World. Since 2014, American society has held an increasingly negative view of Christianity. It is no longer considered morally good, or even neutral, to be a Christian who affirms orthodox theology or ethics. Renn calls this the Negative World.

Renn’s burden is reflected in his book’s title: He wants to equip committed Christians to navigate public life in the Negative World. Orthodox believers are now a moral minority. Our calling is not to be culturally relevant or even to transform the culture, but rather to be countercultural for the sake of proclaiming faithfully the gospel and its implications.

Though Renn discusses education in the Negative World, he gives more attention to public K-12 education and its alternatives than to higher education. However, his book offers much food for thought for those of us who are engaged in the kingdom work of Christian higher education.

Renn argues for the value of institutional integrity, by which he means both moral excellence and structural soundness. Such integrity involves godly motivations, ethical actions, and reasonably transparent operations. It also requires a missional focus that is deeply rooted enough in the faith that the institution is willing to be out-of-step with disordered cultural values. Those institutions that compromise on integrity experience mission drift. And in God’s economy, drift only occurs in one direction: away from faithfulness.

Scholarships will become even more important if Christian schools lose access to federal funds because of our commitment to a Biblical view of gender, sexuality, and marriage.

For evangelical colleges and universities, institutional integrity means a full-throated commitment to Christian orthodoxy. Schools should adopt statements of faith or similar guiding documents that promote doctrinal and ethical accountability among the institution’s stakeholders. Such accountability is especially needed for faculty members, who are tempted by the desire for academic respectability within their respective guilds, and for administrators, who are tempted to be overly focused on the bottom line or overly risk-averse when it comes to taking a stand on moral issues that have become controversial in the Negative World.

Renn also commends the value of community resilience among believers who are committed to a faithful public witness to the Negative World. He recommends that evangelicals adopt a minority mindset, focusing on nurturing the flourishing of our own subculture as we seek to offer gospel hope in the midst of an often-hostile wider culture. It is in this context where Renn advocates for Christian educational alternatives to government-funded K-12 schools and argues for the value of “counter-catechesis” against worldly thinking.

If Christian colleges and universities are to cultivate community resilience, we must adopt an educational vision that is rooted in intellectual discipleship. Christian higher education should be animated by a Biblical worldview, the integration of faith and learning, and faithful engagement with the best of the Christian tradition. Such a vision for higher education is deeply formative. Evangelical schools must also cultivate close ties with their sponsoring ecclesial traditions and build strategic partnerships with like-minded institutions committed to orthodox theology and ethics.

Finally, Renn advocates an ownership mentality that can help promote an institutional anti-fragility capable of withstanding pressure from anti-Christian cultural forces. He focuses his discussion on social, cultural, and physical ownership in the business world. But Christian higher education would benefit from a strategic ownership mentality that is calibrated to thriving in the Negative World.

Christian schools should focus their fundraising on increasing endowed scholarships to keep the cost of education within reach for as many students as possible. Scholarships will become even more important if Christian schools lose access to federal funds because of our commitment to a Biblical view of gender, sexuality, and marriage. This is also why it is a bad idea to tax private university endowments.

In the Negative World, Christ-centered higher education will be even more important for kingdom advance. We must be prepared to be marginalized by cultural elites and perhaps even persecuted by those whose malformed worldview leads them to believe the Negative World is a positive good. But if we remain faithful to our mission and nimble in our strategies, we can offer a countercultural education that glorifies God and prepares graduates to flourish across a wide variety of vocations.

Nathan A. Finn

Nathan is a professor of faith and culture and directs the Institute for Transformational Leadership at North Greenville University in Tigerville, S.C. He is a research fellow for the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission and is senior editor for Integration: A Journal of Faith and Learning. He also serves as teaching pastor at the First Baptist Church of Taylors, S.C.

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