Outrageous Idea 6: Building Academic Communities

Students and Faculty at 2008 Faculty Ministry Symposium

Students and Faculty at 2008 Faculty Ministry Symposium

The final chapter in George Marsden’s The Outrageous Idea of Academic Communities Christian Scholarship [Oops! – Ed.] proposes that even the most impressive work of individual Christian scholars is not enough; Christian scholarship needs “a strong institutional base.”

Scholars, like everyone else, depend on communities. If like-minded academics do not form their own sub-communities, then they will be dependent entirely on the communities that already exist. These, of course, have little place for inquiry concerning faith and learning. If such inquiry is to grow as a recognized part of contemporary academia, it must depend on institutions and networks which can sustain that enterprise. (101)

Before getting to Marsden’s ideas, let me throw out a few discussion question: Have you experienced or witnessed successful communities of Christian scholars? What have been the outcomes? On the hand, have you seen failed or stunted attempts to build communities among Christian scholars? What went wrong?

Recognizing that, for a variety of reasons, evangelical Christians have failed to create research universities that can compete with the best secular universities, and that, to put it mildly, “the obstacles are formidable” to creating such a university, Marsden suggests some other ideas for institutional support. Some of these are already established, while others are just beginning. Marsden’s ideas are after the jump.

In all these, Marsden focuses on the role of communities in supporting scholarship. He also observes that faculty communities can play an important role in helping faculty develop spiritual virtues, particularly in an academic culture that frequently runs counter to Christian virtues.

Marsden concludes with addressing the question, “Isn’t secularization inevitable?” Isn’t it simply a matter of time before Notre Dame, Calvin, and Baylor follow the same path as Harvard, Chicago, and Duke, losing all trace of Christian distinctiveness? To this, Marsden answers, “Maybe,” but our hope lies in our “postenlightenment” moment. The Enlightenment assumption that cultural progress is possible through secular rationality has been discredited, thus

…for academic communities there should no longer be the assumption that the move to embrace the more enlightened and more secular standards of the culture of the resarch university is a course to improvement. (110)

I hope that’s the case, but I’m not so sure. The collapse of the Enlightenment project is most evident in the humanities, yet that is the discipline that remains most hostile to Christian scholarship.

Because we agree Marsden’s ideas, InterVarsity offers several resources for building academic communities:

I’ll close with one new question and a repeated of my questions from above.

Are there other resources that you’d recommend for Christian scholars looking for communities?

Have you experienced or witnessed successful communities of Christian scholars? What have been the outcomes? On the hand, have you seen failed or stunted attempts to build communities among Christian scholars? What went wrong?

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Micheal Hickerson

The former Associate Director for the Emerging Scholars Network, Micheal lives in Cincinnati with his wife and three children and works as a web manager for a national storage and organization company. He writes about work, vocation, and finding meaning in what you do at No Small Actors.

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  • nliao@ivpress.com'
    Nick Liao commented on April 12, 2010 Reply

    You may be heartened by Jason Byassee’s recent piece on Berea College and UVA: http://www.faithandleadership.duke.edu/content/campuses-the-kingdom

  • jws61@lycos.com'
    RedWell commented on April 3, 2011 Reply

    Apparently, I’m about a year-and-a-half late, but here are two basic problems with Christian/Evangelical academic networks: 1) they are professionally irrelevant (or even harmful) unless you are at a Christian institution, and 2) they often turn into Christians researching how “religion” intersects with a scholar’s field. In political science, for instance, Christian organizations like Christians in Political Science or the Religion and Politics section of the professional organization are really just about fellowshipping with other believers (of personal and communal value, yes) and researching … religion and politics. On the other hand, I don’t know much about math or physics as fields, but it’s hard to see what role a Christian organization would play beyond personal edification.

    One other thing: very few (though some) top scholars publically invest in Christian academic organizations. In a merit-based environment, that doesn’t help, either.

    My point is that despite intense awareness of their professional situation, Christians (even many Catholics, with their long scholarly traditions) only know what questions to ask, not what answers to seek.

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