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The Identity of a Christian University: An Interview with James K. A. Smith

May 30th, 2017

Read James K. A. Smith's ideas regarding Christian higher education


Recently, James K. A. Smith took some time to have a conversation with the executive editor of “Faith and the Academy,” Joshua Chatraw. Smith is Professor of philosophy at Calvin College, where he holds the Gary and Henrietta Byker Chair in Applied Reformed Theology and Worldview. An award-winning author and widely-traveled speaker, he has emerged as a thought leader with a unique gift of translation, building bridges between the academy, society, and the church. This interview also serves as a preview to Smith’s upcoming visit to Liberty University for the Center for Apologetics and Cultural Engagement’s Inaugural Conference on Theology and Culture, March 29-30, 2017.


 Chatraw: In Desiring the Kingdom you write that Christian universities have “unwittingly bought into a stunted picture of the human person and a somewhat domesticated construal of the Christian faith.” Can you explain what you mean by this?

Smith: A Christian university is a unique, hybrid sort of institution. On the one hand, it inhabits the ecosystem of the university and the world of higher education. On the other hand, it is an outpost of the body of Christ, intersecting with the ecosystem of the church. And surely its being Christian should make a difference.

What worries me is that too often a Christian university just sort of picks up off-the-shelf models of the university and status quo paradigms of education and then adds a kind of Christian adornment, like a spiritual decoration. In doing so, we can miss the fact that the university as we know it—the configuration of the university handed down to us from nineteenth-century Germany and the Enlightenment—is a contingent, and not very healthy, version of what higher education should look like. Today, that model of the university has been co-opted by an unmitigated pragmatism that turns universities into mere credentialing factories for “the market.” (That’s why, ironically, I think Christians should resonate with Nietzsche’s critique of University, Inc., in his lectures on Anti-Education!)

Christian universities should, in some way, reach back beyond the German Enlightenment model and look at the vision of higher education that nourished Paris and Oxford and Cambridge—a holistic vision of education not only as informative but formative. (For a history of this Christian foundation of the university, before Enlightenment reorientation, take a look at Jean LeClerq’s study, The Love of Learning and the Desire for God.) A Christian university should be shaping citizens of the city of God. That involves more than just content dissemination and career preparation.

 Chatraw: You received some criticism from those who think you are too dismissive of Christian worldview. What role does Christian worldview have in formation of our loves?

Smith: Most of the criticism stems from not reading the books! Because as I clearly point out, I’m not saying we need less than a Christian worldview; I just think we need more than a worldview. So I don’t “dismiss” worldview at all; I just point out the limits of such an approach. The fact is, you can parse all the nuances of a Christian worldview and still love the wrong things. And since our action and behavior is driven less by what we think and more by what we want, I argue that a holistic Christian education has to shape the “habits of the heart” (as sociologist Robert Bellah once put it). In other words, a holistic Christian university has to be a school of virtue, and that requires reaching beyond teaching students what to think.

But this builds on, rather than displaces, the worldview approach. The Christian worldview paradigm emphasizes that the Gospel has something to say to all of life and not just some “spiritual” sector. So we absolutely need to equip students to think about the world from a Christian perspective. My project assumes this as a baseline. I’m just arguing that once we’ve done that, we still have a lot of work to do.

Chatraw: How would you suggest going about changing a university’s focus from information to formation?

Smith: Well, I think it starts with asking ourselves, “What is a Christian university for?” In philosophy we would say this is a teleological question—a question of the telos, the goal or end, of the university. You could get at the same question by asking, “What sorts of students do we want to graduate? What do we want our alumni to look like?” As I’ve argued, I think that comes down to asking: What do we want our alumni to love?

Then we need to turn to the Scriptures to see the picture the Bible paints as the telos of creation. What are the features of flourishing society that we see in the “kingdom” passages of Scripture? It’s a world without poverty, without hunger, without racism, where there is joy and delight in the Good, the True, the Beautiful. These are the hints of the kind of world to which we should be laboring. Graduates of Christian universities should be people whose work—across the professions—is caught up in that vision.

Finally, I suggest that we “catch” this vision not merely in didactic, informative lectures but in communal, embodied practices—rhythms and rituals and routines that “carry” the biblical vision in such a way that seeps into our imagination. I’ve suggested that the best place to find that repertoire of imagination-shaping practices is the historic liturgy and spiritual disciplines of the church. So the future looks ancient.

Chatraw: Does this infringe on the local church’s turf? Or to put this question more positively, how might a Christian university work together with the church for Christian formation?

Smith: That’s a fair question. I don’t mean that the Christian university should replace the church. All I mean is that if a university is going to be Christian in terms of its ethos, then its rhythms and practices should be informed by the practices of the body of Christ and not just because the university is disseminating a disembodied “Christianity” that seems to float in an abstract, intellectual ether disconnected from lived congregations. Indeed, I think the Christian university will only be as healthy as the church. And as I regularly tell both students and faculty, you have to plug yourself into the life of a local congregation to truly nourish the teaching and learning you’re called to in the Christian university. Chapel isn’t church; the classroom isn’t church; the Spirit does something to us in the space of local, multigenerational, worshiping congregations that forms us to take up our work as students and professors.

But the Christian university should reverberate with echoes of the practices of the body of Christ. The life of the Christian university is a chance to extend the life-giving work of the Spirit in intentional, communal, formative practices every day of the week. In some ways, the Christian university is a chance to realize John Calvin’s dream for the city of Geneva—that it would be a magnum monasterium, a kind of macro-intentional community shaped by the repertoire of worship.

Chatraw: It seems that the university today spends a great deal of time and energy evaluating, surveying, and assessing. If you could wave a magic wand and be in charge for the day, would you change this and, if so, how? What tangible things would you point to in order to assess whether a Christian university is a success?

Smith: Oh, man; don’t get me started! I can’t even tell you what I’d do with that magic wand! I’d probably march straight to the Department of Education and go ballistic.

There are at least two problems with our “culture of assessment.” First, the assessment model assumes a reductionistic model of education (and human persons). So what they choose to measure is cut to the measure of a shameless utilitarianism. Second, the hegemony of assessment breeds a culture of mistrust. We have to do all this external, objectified assessment because we don’t trust professors as professionals. It drives me crazy.

If I had to assess but could change how we do it, I would tie assessment to alumni. I’m not interested in what 22 year olds exhibit. Formative Christian education is a long game. You can’t know what you’ve accomplished in four years. I often say: don’t judge my parenting by my 17-year-old. Wait til he’s 27, or better yet, 37! Then you’ll know whether our parenting has really been formative. Similarly for education in virtue: we need to measure what our alumni are doing—what they love, what they work toward. Good assessment takes patience. But of course, that’s precisely what’s missing in our short-term culture.

Chatraw: As a parent of a three and a seven year-old, I appreciate you giving me twenty or thirty years before my report card arrives! In closing, do you have any tips you’ve learned along the way that might help professors manage the constant pressures to respond to the tyranny of the urgent and operate faithfully in the modern university?

Smith: I’m afraid I don’t have any magic answers, though that might be a good thing, because I think what nourishes our work is pretty mundane. I think it starts with friendships. A faithful faculty has to be a kind of fellowship of the ring, which means doing things to make friendship grow, which is as simple as eating lunch together or gathering for fellowship around books we love. That doesn’t sound too earth-shattering, but the academic life of the modern university drives us into the seclusion of our offices and the pressure of scholarship can sequester us into privatized silos. So, in that sense, just to make time for lunch together or evening book groups or a morning prayer fellowship is a counter-cultural act. 



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