The Professor’s Task in the Christian University

David P. Gushee

From: The Future of Christian Higher Education, David S. Dockery and David P. Gushee, editors (Broadman & Holman, 1999). Used by permission. All rights reserved.

In an age of relativity, the practice of truth…is the only way to cause the world to take seriously our protestations concerning truth. Francis Schaeffer [1]

Attract them by your way of life if you want them to receive. . .teaching from you. Augustine [2]


My topic is “The Professor’s Task in the Christian University.” Perhaps the initial thing to be done in reflecting on this theme is to acknowledge an anomaly: it is possible to get through an entire course of study in preparation for a professorial career without ever being required to reflect on the nature and task of the professor.

We would not think of sending elementary school teachers into their classrooms without years of quite specific instruction concerning the teaching process and its goals and methods. Nor would we be comfortable sitting in a dentist’s chair at the mercy of someone who never was taught precisely how to do whatever it is they do in there. Nor would we want to work on the 4th floor of an office building constructed by untrained workers. But I managed to get through four degrees in higher education from quite respectable schools without a single class or even part of a class devoted to the art, craft, methods, and goals of teaching”‘”‘even though I was always clear that teaching was my vocation, and the schools were clear (at least at the doctoral level) that they were preparing teachers. Instead, I was trained in an academic discipline”‘”‘Christian ethics”‘”‘and then thrown into the classroom with the assumption that because I know that discipline I am somehow ready to teach college students every day of my working life. I would be embarrassed to make this confession were it not for the fact that my situation on this score is not unique.

So the first observation that needs to be made is that reflection on the professor’s task in the Christian university definitely needs to occur, that professors need to do it, not just administrators”‘”‘and that they need to do it, if possible, before they are professors in the Christian university.



A. Wrong Answer #1: The Professor’s Task is to Do the Professor’s Tasks

That said, what is the professor’s task in the Christian university? I want to suggest briefly two wrong answers to this question. In naming these wrong answers I am not proposing that there would be many who would seriously argue that these answers provide a satisfactory vision of the professor’s mission and role. Yet I do want to argue that the vocation of the professor can and frequently does degenerate operationally into one or both of the answers I will name.

The first of these is to identify the professor’s task with the professor’s tasks. The professor has an abundance of daily tasks, and these can come to constitute the sum total of the professor’s vocation. What are these tasks? Recently I kept track of a fairly routine week and came up with the following list of this particular professor’s tasks:

  • teaching
  • writing tests and other assignments
  • grading tests and papers
  • entering grades in the grade book
  • visiting with drop”‘by students
  • answering e-mail
  • supervising student assistants
  • responding to administration requests for forms, information, and paperwork
  • engaging in hallway conversations
  • providing mass academic advising
  • going to faculty meetings, university wide meetings, and committee meetings
  • looking through the mail
  • answering phone calls, returning phone calls, playing phone tag
  • preparing or freshening lectures
  • counseling the distraught
  • talking with colleagues
  • performing departmental functions like ordering library books
  • playing basketball with students
  • going to chapel at every conceivable opportunity

The upshot of a list like this is that it is more than possible for the average faculty member to work 50″‘60 hours a week doing such professorial tasks without coming within hailing distance of the professor’s task, seriously considered. Especially in high”‘teaching”‘load Christian universities, we are always at risk of getting lost in the tasks and thus losing sight of the task”‘”‘at risk of losing any kind of broader animating vision of why we do what we do, if that vision was ever there in the first place. It is easy to do this because day by day it is the tasks that must be done; every day they impinge upon us, crowding out any deeper sense of purpose or any reflection on that purpose. As my colleague George Guthrie has put it, in academia we are constantly at risk of “drowning in shallowness.” Or, to shift images, we are constantly at risk of becoming mere plowhorses, lumbering through our daily tasks with our blinders on and our eyes pointed firmly toward the ground. So, the professor’s task is not the same as the professor’s tasks.


B. Wrong Answer #2: The Professor’s Task is to Service the Professor’s Constituencies

At first glance, a somewhat better way to organize our thinking about the professor’s task might be to reflect on the wants and needs of our constituencies. Each day we professors navigate a maze of relationships. Each of our partners in these relationships need and want things from us. Thus it is possible to argue that the professor’s task is to meet the needs and, where possible, the wants of his or her constituencies. Thus, we could divide up our work by constituency, to wit:

Students: Students need and want good and interesting teaching, for which we are well”‘prepared; grading that is fair and timely; some want mentoring and counseling. We cannot forget the ongoing needs of our alumni, who also keep in touch with us and need us in various ways.

Colleagues: Colleagues want warm, respectful, and collegial relationships; need us to share the administrative load with them, some want friendship, some seek intellectual companionship. Some want to be left alone altogether.

Administrators: Administrators want faculty who will advance the vision and serve the mission of the school; but more prosaically, they need paperwork done on time; forms filled out; grades turned in, class slots filled; committees organized and run; our presence and time at meetings, and so on.

Churches: Churches want faculty who are active and participating laypeople; from the religion department, they need preachers and interims and guest speakers; they want our attention to the students they send, responsiveness to their requests for time and information; trustworthy education.

Community: The local community wants the university to be a constructive player in community affairs; faculty who will offer their expertise regarding the issues facing the community; the newspaper wants comments and quotes; business and social agencies may want research and other forms of assistance; community service organizations want our involvement, as do civic clubs like Rotary. Here I do not even mention what the national community needs and wants: professor/scholars who can serve as the “mind,” and address the issues, of the nation.

Academia: The academy wants nothing from any one of us in particular, though our schools usually require more of us than nothing; but from us as a whole, the academy wants and needs reviews, articles, and books; service in professional organizations and taskforces; research, grantsmanship, and so on; and some of us, at least, want to offer all this.

A brief consideration of this list reveals its inadequacy as an overall vision of the professor’s task. For once again we sense the very real possibility, even probability, of drowning in shallowness once again. While we cannot ignore the demands our constituencies place upon us, we cannot simply respond to them either; if we do, we become mere plowhorses once again, this time with several masters. There are, of course, ways of narrowing these tasks. A wise administrator or department chair will seek to channel the professor to the areas in which he or she can make the most significant contribution, and will seek to build a faculty team with complementary strengths. Likewise, as Mark Schwehn and others have suggested, our relationship with students should be seen as the central one, with the demands of other constituencies falling into place around this first priority.[3] Even so, a relationship or constituency”‘based approach is insufficient. It risks becoming merely reactive, leading the professor to a stance of being driven by the agendas of others (even when those others are students) rather than directed by a coherent agenda of our own.



If the professor’s task in the Christian university cannot be equated with the professor’s tasks, or with the demands of the professor’s constituencies, is there another way to approach our work, and to come nearer the heart of its meaning? In particular, is there a way of thinking about our task that responds to the needs of the 21st century context in which we will soon be doing our work?

I think there is. My thesis is illustrated by an episode I had with a student last year. Jim, one of our finest students here at Union, joined our family for dinner one night last fall. Jim was going to accompany me to a church event that night, and we were in something of a hurry, so dinner only lasted about twenty minutes. After dinner, on the way to this program, Jim said to me, “Dr. Gushee, the twenty minutes I just spent with your family taught me more than anything you have ever said to me. ” Let me hasten to add that there was nothing remarkable about the evening; it was a typical dinnertime with Jeanie and our three kids. I asked each child to tell me something about their day; we all listened to each other. That’s about it. But for Jim, who comes from an intact but unloving and dysfunctional family, that conversation was a revelation. Twenty minutes with us had expanded for all time his moral imagination in the area of family life.

As a Christian ethicist, I spend a considerable amount of my professional time studying contemporary social trends. I am not unfamiliar with current evidence concerning family dysfunction and breakdown, skyrocketing divorce rates, serial monogamy, and other evidences of an unraveling social fabric in this nation. I read this literature all the time, and in fact have sometimes been critical of the gloomy tone one frequently finds in it. Last year, though, through the lives of my students, I saw for the first time just how pervasive the effects of this moral collapse already are.

Day after day, it seemed, young men and young women found their way into my office to talk and weep with me about various aspects of their lives. Perhaps I had been insulated during my seminary years, to a certain extent, and by the stability of my own family background and personal life. Of course, I thought I knew what was going on in our society. But I was stunned to hear some of their stories”‘”‘physical abuse, verbal abuse, drug and alcohol abuse, crime, neglect, family violence, abandonment, and multiple divorce and remarriage (I think the current record number of parental remarriages suffered by any student of my acquaintance is fifteen). Then there were the varied responses of the students to these experiences. Some were remarkably whole, some were still deeply troubled but in the healing process, and some seemed like recovery was many years away if ever. One day I remarked to a colleague that I needed a broom in my office to sweep up each day’s broken pieces. It was unbelievable to me that at a relatively insulated Christian university like this one that so much brokenness would exist. Surely it can only be worse in the secular university. The students of this generation bear in their bodies and in their souls the scars of our society’s disastrous moral collapse.

This is a volume directed to the future. The students who now come our way are the best harbingers of what the future will bring, and what therefore the Christian university will need to offer. On the basis of these experiences with students, who give personal evidence of the social trends we all know about, it is clear to me that what Alasdair Maclntyre once called “the new dark ages” are indeed already upon us.[4] In a social context such as this, the fundamental task of the Christian professor is nothing other than to incarnate an authentically Christian way of life. We will do this before all the constituencies we have named”‘”‘but in particular before our primary constituency, our students. The primary contribution we can make to their lives is simply to invest in students, to live healthy, authentic Christian lives in their presence, and perhaps by God’s grace thus to begin the moral reconstruction of their lives where this is needed. Perhaps we would like to have a more ambitious agenda than this, as many have proposed in the literature of Christian higher education, including this volume. There are many worthy goals for us to seek. But the kairos moment in which we find ourselves, I believe, demands a focus on character formation and re”‘formation in the midst of social collapse.

Of course, a focus on character formation as central to higher education is not at all original, and not distinctively Christian. It was certainly the animating vision of the Greek philosophers and the schools they established. It appears consistently in historic Christian reflection on education; my title and opening quotation are drawn from one of St. Augustine’s letters. It is a vision that lay at the heart of what even public university education was understood to be about little more than a century ago. But in the days since that time the vision of education as character formation, and of teachers as mentor/models, has been displaced in American public life. Some observers are convinced that it has been in part displaced in Christian higher education as well, as our universities have sought faculty on the basis of other”‘than”‘characterological criteria and in general are much more reluctant than they used to be to examine their faculty’s way of life very closely.

I think that this would be a mistake for Christian universities under any circumstances, but that such a trend, if it exists, is particularly disastrous in our time. Students need to be shown how to live, and students of this generation need such demonstration more than ever before. More than once a student has said to me, “I just don’t know how to do that.” To do what? To love, or receive love; to give or receive loving correction; to form or sustain intimate relationships; to relate constructively to an authority figure; even to engage in an intelligent conversation; and so on. These students remind us of the ancient insight that the virtues that sustain life are learned in community, in particular in that primary and first community, the family. We now witness the results of a grand and disastrous social experiment, which amounts to an attempt to discover whether those life skills and virtues can be learned in the midst of family chaos, disorder, misery, and instability. The results are coming in, and they are what we might expect.



Exactly which virtues should the Christian university professor seek to incarnate? By virtues I mean in this context normative habits of heart, mind, and life for the people of God, as these are revealed in Scripture and affirmed by the best of Christian tradition. The Christian faith contains a rich body of virtues that are to be sought by all who follow Christ; here I want to focus on those virtues most relevant to the role of the Christian university professor in our time. I propose a five”‘pronged model, in which a central virtue (and in good Aristotelian style, one or two corresponding vices) is identified in the areas of spirituality, relationships, intellectual life, social engagement, and personal lifestyle. By no means are these the only virtues that could be named in these areas of life; nor, for that matter, are they the only areas of life that could be named. But this model does offer us a place to start.


A. Spiritual Virtue: Authentic Piety

The place to begin is with the area of spiritual life. Surely there can be little question that in a Christian university setting the way in which professors incarnate the Christian faith itself is the single most significant virtue issue we face. I propose that authentic piety is the name we should give to the virtue we should seek in this arena.

By authentic piety I mean several things. First, the term implies genuine devotion to God and a living relationship with God. The professor characterized by authentic piety experiences an ongoing relationship with Jesus Christ, a relationship that is at the center of his or her existence. The term “piety” connotes not just an inclination of the heart or mind but also a corresponding set of faith”‘practices and disciplines, such as regular prayer, study of the Scripture, significant participation in the life of a faith community, and service both in the church and in the world. Piety is authentic when such practices are performed not under compulsion or merely by contract but as a genuine expression of devotion to God Likewise, authentic piety is characterized by honesty in relationship with God; it includes questions as well as answers, doubts as well as certitudes, sorrow as well as joy. Authentic piety is a life pilgrimage rather than a one”‘time”‘only transaction. It penetrates to the core of one’s being and pervades the whole of one’s life, and is not compartmentalized or privatized into the “religious” sector of life, so”‘called.

Authentic piety is a most elusive virtue. It is a gift of God, which must be emphasized, yet it requires continual cultivation. It absolutely cannot be coerced; yet its absence does grievous harm to any Christian institution. It lasts a lifetime, yet it also ebbs and flows, with high points and low. It cannot be fully articulated; yet it can be observed in and through a human life. Authentic piety is at the heart of any Christian university that retains its identity and “feel” as a genuinely Christian place; yet many unhealthy substitutes for it exist.

This leads us to our vice list. On the one hand, Christian universities and their students suffer profoundly when Christian commitment erodes. Other authors in this volume address this issue. It is certainly the most common threat to the integrity, vitality, and identity of Christian universities, which frequently do all too little to combat it.[5] The university’s leaders cease to be practitioners of authentic piety themselves; they cease to look for it in their staff, administrators, and faculty; hiring and institutional vision casting cease to consider this once critical dimension of life. What remains is either an “on”‘the”‘book” obligation to some form of official Christianity, or not even that. It is interesting to watch and listen for how the Christian faith is described when authentic piety fades and is replaced by quasi-Christian mush. Here I quote a Christian educator who writes approvingly of a religious studies department in which he once served:

[T]he operational definition of faith in this pluralistic context, as the largely unspecified axis of shared sincerity and exploratory spirit around which the other dimensions of human existence revolve, strikes me as the most valid for the college experience. This more open-textured posture is Christian not because it adheres to a specific set of beliefs and/or mores, but because it seeks to foster the educational enterprise within the mediating framework of Christian values.[6]

 “Shared sincerity,” “exploratory spirit,” no “specific beliefs or mores” (read: moral norms)”‘”‘in my view this is the language of Christian”‘becoming”‘post”‘Christian higher education. It will not do; it will not serve our students well. It should not be our goal.

On the other hand one finds the vice of repressive Christian conventionalism. In a helpful 1988 article, Dennis Dirks of Biola University discussed the disappointing performance of students at evangelical schools on moral development tests and instruments. Dirks argues that evangelical universities are prone to the creation of a climate in which what I am calling authentic piety is stifled by a faith environment that is unthinking, merely conventional, safe, sheltered, and homogeneous”‘”‘at their worst, such institutions terrorize anyone who might raise a question that does not fit neatly inside the little faith box in existence there.[7] Professors in such contexts are negatively sanctioned and positively rewarded for incarnating this merely safe and conventional kind of faith themselves. This too is poison to authentic piety.

The 21st century student may well come from a home in which Christian faith is altogether absent. Many of my students do. Or, she may come from a home in which conventional faith is present and doing its best to kill any seedlings of authenticity or fresh thought. This is also quite common. Thus our challenge is to incarnate over the course of a lifetime authentic piety, and in so doing open up new horizons of Christian faith for both kinds of students.


B. Relational Virtue: Covenant Fidelity

I want to propose the category of relational virtue, and the norm of covenant fidelity as the central virtue for the Christian professor within that category.

The thought that the way in which we handle our relationships with others is a matter of great moral significance is certainly not new, either in Christian or secular moral thought. However, rarely is relational virtue lifted up for focused attention in the literature of Christian higher education. Attention is frequently given to how those who serve in Christian universities relate to their students. But I am arguing here that the entire pattern of our way of relating to other human beings is what is most significant, and that the central norm in this arena should be the biblical concept of covenant fidelity.

Those whose lives are characterized by covenant fidelity are people who take seriously the moral obligations created by their relationships with, and commitments to, other people. They seek to relate responsibly, consistently, and with integrity to all people. Yet they are capable of drawing distinctions between the various kinds of relational commitments they have made and the nature of the obligations these relationships involve.

Let me be more concrete. The Christian university professor or administrator will be characterized by covenant fidelity in family life. If married, they will work hard to place marriage and family first, after relationship with God, in their lives. They will exhibit consistent emotional and sexual fidelity to their spouses, and will guard the boundaries of that fidelity with great care. They will strive for a growing and flourishing marriage, and will work doggedly to remove obstacles that may stand in the way. The Christian university should not be characterized by the high divorce rate found in secular universities and in the broader society. This does not mean that divorce is categorically incompatible with service as a Christian university professor, but it does mean that it can never be accepted casually here as it is elsewhere. The divorced or divorcing professor, for that matter, has opportunity in the midst of great pain to demonstrate covenant fidelity to his or her children, and can model patience, humility, and charity in relation to his or her former spouse.

The mention of children and how they are treated reminds us of this dimension of covenant fidelity. Christian professors need to allow their students to get close enough to them to see into their relationships with their children, and to benefit from what they see. Many of our students now come from dysfunctional or disastrous family environments, with the treatment they received in childhood leaving considerable emotional damage. The Christian university professor who invests heavily in his or her children, loves them dearly, treats them fairly, participates fully in their upbringing, and so on, will leave a mark on such students. In the 21st century, the incarnating of covenant fidelity in marriage and family life may be the single most significant contribution the Christian university professor can make to his or her students.

Yet these are not the only relationships our students witness. Covenantal fidelity is at play in the way we relate to our peers and co”‘workers in university life. Students will notice the manner in which we speak of and speak with our colleagues. When we refrain from gossip, backbiting, and competitive backstabbing we exhibit covenant fidelity within the context of these important relationships.

Other relationships could be named. But we have probably said enough to make the point. We are called to the relational virtue of covenant fidelity. We must seek with all our energy to avoid infidelity to our relational covenants at any level of life. Perhaps in a secular university it is possible to bracket off the personal and relational dimensions of the faculty’s lives, and to say that as long as teaching and other professional obligations are met, that is all that can be expected of anyone. However, that private/public, personal/professional dualism cannot and should not be permitted in the Christian university. We teach with our lives as well as with our lectures, and can reasonably be expected to do so.


C. Intellectual Virtue: Critical Curiosity

Unlike the discussion of relational virtue, as we move to intellectual virtue we find ourselves in well”‘traveled terrain. Nearly everyone who writes about the Christian university attends to the life of the mind as it is, and as it ought to be, in Christian higher education. Thus I do not pretend to originality here as I propose the central intellectual virtue of critical curiosity.

Let us consider first the matter of intellectual curiosity. Many observers of the American cultural scene have noted the relative mental laziness that besets us. With so many toys, games, amusements, and diversions at our disposal, we are not a people characterized by reading, thinking, and reflecting. I remember once talking with a home”‘builder, a contractor, who told me that fewer and fewer of his customers are interested in having bookshelves in their home, while just about everyone requests state”‘of”‘the”‘art entertainment centers”‘”‘a telling “sign of the times. ” Thus we can expect that many of the students who come to us will not hail from homes in which books, serious magazines, and newspapers are read. They will not be accustomed to scintillating dinnertime conversations about the world, culture, and important ideas. (More than likely the TV will be on.) They will not have come from schools that managed to instill that love of learning that was absent at home. If students are to develop intellectual curiosity, they will have to learn it while they are in our hallowed halls.

Once I attended a remarkable lecture by the Holocaust survivor, author, and Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel. In a Q&A time after his lecture, he was asked to discuss how he managed to survive the horrors he had experienced, not physically but emotionally and psychologically. His surprising, one”‘word answer was this: “study.” He attributed that commitment to study to his childhood upbringing, in which study of the Torah, Talmud, Kabbalah, and other Jewish holy books”‘”‘and study in general”‘”‘was viewed as a holy and joyous obligation. For Wiesel, the fact that there is always another book or article to read is a form of psychological salvation. It keeps him going. He has a relentless intellectual curiosity.

How desperately we need to develop and nurture such intellectual curiosity in our own students! Imagine a situation in which students in our Christian universities read more than is assigned, can’t sleep until they track down an answer to a dangling question, are current on national and world events, have a solid grasp of the intellectual heritage of our culture, as well as a cutting”‘edge sense of where that culture is now heading, read in places like the New York Times Book Review and the Atlantic Monthly, as well as Christianity Today and other Christian media, would rather go to a bookstore than J.C. Penney’s. We will not produce students like that if we ourselves are not like that. Only if learning our way of life will our students develop that same lifestyle. Such curiosity is the precondition for scholarship, both for ourselves and our students”‘and such scholarship continues to be all too rare in evangelical university life.

Intellectual curiosity must be critically”‘minded. In my experience, students frequently have a difficult time understanding what we mean when we ask them to be “critical thinkers.” No one has ever challenged them with such a goal prior to their arrival on our campuses. Their churches more likely encourage an attitude of unquestioning submission to the Truth as defined by Scripture and refracted through the lens of pastor and local tradition. The possibility that any particular Christian take on truth, including the one they grew up with, is not the same as “capital T” Truth is at times a shocking concept. Alternatively, sometimes students respond to the request for critical thinking by trashing everything they read in class, which is equally uncritical when that concept is rightly understood. Critical thinking is the ability to interact with ideas, rather than merely react, to sift them for their truthfulness and value, rather than accept or reject them out of hand. It is a stance characterized by a healthy mixture of stable and confident intellectual commitments, on the one hand, and an open, flexible, humble, reflective teachableness on the other. Using the language of worldview, Brian J. Walsh has put it this way:

Insofar as a worldview is truly open to reality and requires experiential validation if it is to be viable, it is, by nature, in process”‘”‘open to reform, correction, redirection and refocusing…a canonized worldview results in a stifling conservatism, scholasticism, and separatism”‘”‘none of which is conducive to the atmosphere of a “liberal” arts college. Being rooted in Jesus Christ gives one the courage to say that we don’t have all the answers, nor do we need them.[8]

It has proven remarkably difficult for the modern university, Christian or otherwise, to create an environment characterized by critical thinking. Christian universities, as Dennis Dirks, Michael Cosby, and many other observers have noted, tend to fall prey to the vice of uncritical, parochial, and conventional indoctrination, whereas secular universities either succumb to a parallel secularist indoctrination or a standardless, normless, and truthless relativism. Professors at Christian universities are uniquely positioned to model consecrated critical”‘mindedness and consecrated intellectual curiosity in order to produce students characterized by the right kind of Christian critical curiosity.[9]


D. Social Virtue: Transformative Engagement

Gordon College sociologist Ivy George has written, “The ultimate aim of Christian higher education is to pursue the world order Christ seeks. This involves a deliberate turning away from familiar models of excellence and leadership and a turning toward doing good and pursuing a different world order.”[10] Her words offer an excellent introduction to a fourth arena of concern, social virtue, and reflect the trait I propose for that arena: transformative engagement.

This character quality is linked to all that are previously listed. Authentic piety nurtures in us a heart “after God’s own heart,” a sensitivity to the brokenness and suffering to be found in God our Creator’s world. Those characterized by relational fidelity are aware of the immense costs of its absence. The critically curious are sufficiently attentive to the world as it truly is that they know of its many arenas of suffering, misery, and oppression. From these various streams of insight comes a commitment to transformational engagement in a broken, suffering, and unjust world.

Ivy George is perfectly correct in arguing that “the development of the gentleman or the citizen or even the good Christian leader” cannot be the ultimate goal of Christian higher education.[11] We need a bigger vision for what we are to be and what we are to be about in Christian higher education. What is so frequently lacking is a Kingdom vision: that this is God’s world, over which he is rightfully sovereign, that it is a world marred profoundly by human sin, that this sin causes innumerable forms of human suffering, that God sent Jesus his Son to inaugurate the reclaiming of all Creation, that the church exists to advance the reign of God into even the darkest and most desperate corners of the human heart and human society–until Christ returns to bring this grand and terrible drama to its climax, once and for all, and to establish the shalom God always intended.

Professors who serve in Christian universities need to be animated by this kind of Kingdom vision. These are people who wake up in the morning with a desire to spend the day advancing God’s reign in every possible way. They are ever on the alert for areas of human need, injustice, and oppression and want to be used by God to bind up the wounds of the broken and to set the captives free. They know that one way that God can use them is through their communication of this passion to their students, who by the hundreds will be sent out into the world as Kingdom”‘builders in various areas of human need. As Nicholas Wolterstorff has put it, they want to “teach for justice.”[12]

Note that I do not believe this vision for social transformation in accordance with God’s will can be confined to the Christian studies people, the ethics people, or the sociology department. It is a scriptural mandate for all God’s people, and is thus a vision that should move the whole people of God, including Christian educators and their students. Note as well that this social virtue is not confined to cognition but extends to the arena of action. We ought to be characterized not only by the right beliefs about human suffering and God’s redemptive intent but also by concrete forms of transformational engagement, which our students can then observe and in which they can participate with us. As Wolterstorff argues, “There is no better way for teachers to cultivate a passion for justice in their students than by themselves exhibiting that very passion.[13]

The vice in apposition with this virtue is clear, and all too pervasive. The Christian university campus is frequently characterized by a profound truncation of moral vision. God’s broad Kingdom purposes are understood far too narrowly if they are a matter of concern at all. Students are not challenged to leave their hermetically sealed Christian bubbles and to engage the wider world with transformational moral activity. The Christian life is about “my soul,” “my happiness,” “my relationships,” “my walk with God,” not about God’s world, broken people made in God’s image, social justice that is God’s will, starving children over whom God weeps, genocide and war that destroy God’s children, and God’s intent to respond to all of this through the committed, wise, and sacrificial efforts of his redeemed people. How desperately we need a broader and more holistic understanding of the Christian faith, and thus of the purpose of the Christian college, and thus of the normative character and tasks of the faculty in this regard. Again, Nicholas Wolterstorff: “The…Christian college must open itself up to humanity’s wounds.[14]


E. Personal Virtue: Purposeful Self”‘Discipline

By way of closing, I ask you to consider with me what I am calling the personal virtue of purposeful self”‘discipline.

Our students come to us during a developmental stage in which they are wrestling with the purpose of (that is, God’s call upon) their lives. Some come from homes in which parent or parents had a job but not a purpose in life. These have witnessed adult lives lived as a bored drift from day to day, the boredom punctuated only by the latest gadget or video or CD. All of them know friends who have no clue what they are to do with their lives and no particular answer to the question Steven Garber asks in The Fabric of Faithfulness: “Why do you wake up in the morning?”[15] They may be asking that question themselves.

There are few gifts more valuable we can offer our students than the evidence of a purposeful life. If they can look at us and see men and women who know exactly why they get up in the morning, and are eager to do so, they will more than likely learn to do the same. They may come to share our particular purpose in life, or it may take a different form; but purpose will be there in either case. Of course, we cannot avoid the issue of which particular purposes in life are actually worthy of pursuit, from a Christian perspective. Hitler woke up every morning with a clear sense of purpose”‘”‘to destroy his racial enemies. Academicians all over the world wake up in the morning with a desire to publish rather than perish, to get promoted, and so on. Not every purpose, not every telos, is morally worthy. Yet if our purpose is genuinely to use our lives to advance God’s Kingdom and other purposes are clearly constrained by this one, we are on the right track.

So the thought of a drifting, purposeless Christian college professor ought rightly to offend us. And the thought of a no”‘holds”‘barred, do anything to climb over your back on my way to the top Christian college professor, offends us as well. But a steady and committed pursuit of God’s Kingdom through the ministry of Christian higher education is altogether fitting.

Such a pursuit requires the virtue of self”‘discipline. Purpose and self”‘discipline go together, the latter serving the former. The development of self”‘discipline, like the discovery of life purpose, is a critical developmental task of the college student. Learning to work hard and steadily, to treat one’s body in a way that will enable it to flourish, to establish constructive personal habits in the area of diet, exercise, rest, scheduling, and so on”‘”‘these are among the most important components of the task. We can be certain that our students will notice the extent to which we ourselves are self”‘disciplined in personal lifestyle”‘”‘that is, if we allow them to get close enough to us to see.



My task in this paper has been to explore the nature of the professor’s task in the Christian university. I have argued that this task cannot be reduced to the myriad daily tasks of the professor, and that this is an ever”‘present danger. I have also claimed that our task should not be viewed merely in terms of servicing our various constituencies. Instead, I have suggested that incarnating an authentically Christian way of life with and before our students lies at the heart of our vocation. While this suggestion is not a new one, I have claimed that in the context of the moral and family disintegration of late 20th century North America, the task of character formation in Christian higher education takes on a new urgency. I have proposed five interdependent arenas of character”‘”‘spiritual, relational, intellectual, social, and personal”‘”‘and one central virtue in each area”‘”‘authentic piety, covenant fidelity, critical curiosity, transformative engagement, and purposeful self”‘discipline. I am not saying that the professor must be perfect, because this is impossible, but I refuse to concede that such a vision of faculty character is an unattainable fantasy. Perhaps most importantly, I hope that I have communicated along the way what a joyous and wonderful calling it is to serve in Christian higher education, and to have opportunity to “attract by our lives” the precious human beings who are our students.



[1]. Francis Schaeffer, The God Who is There, quoted in Steven Garber, The Fabric of Faithfulness (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1977), 108.

[2]. Quoted in John Leinenweber, The Letters of Augustine (Liguori, MO: Triumph Books, 1992), 99.

[3]. Mark Schwehn, Exiles from Eden (Oxford: Oxford University Press), 58″‘59.

[4]. Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue, 2nd ed. (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1984), 263.

[5]. Robert T. Sandin, “To Those Who Teach at Christian Colleges,” New Direction for Higher Education 79 (Fall 1992), 46.

[6]. Jerry H. Gill, “Faith in Dialogue: Toward a Definition of Christian Higher Education,” Encounter 56, no. 4 (Autumn 1995), 345.

[7]. See Dennis H. Dirks, Moral Development in Christian Higher Education, Journal of Psychology and Theology 16, no. 4 (1988).

[8]. Brian J. Walsh, Worldviews, Modernity and the Task of Christian College Education, Faculty Dialogue 18 (Fall 1992), 31.

[9]. Cf. Kenneth W. Shipps, Church-Related Colleges and Academics, New Directions for Higher Education 79 (Fall 1992), 30.

[10]. Ivy George, “In a New Educational Order: Teaching and Curriculum,” Christian Scholar’s Review 21 (Spring 1992), 304-311.

[11]. Ibid.

[12]. Nicholas Wolterstoff, “Teaching for Justice,” in Joel Carpenter and Kenneth W. Shipps, eds., Making Higher Education Christian (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1987), 201″‘216.

[13]. Ibid., 213.

[14]. Ibid., 209.

[15]. Cf. Garber, Fabric of Faithfulness

This address was delivered at the Conference on the Future of Christian Higher Education at Union University and originally published in The Future of Christian Higher Education, David S. Dockery and David P. Gushee, editors (Broadman & Holman, 1999). Used by permission. All rights reserved.

David Gushee, PhD, is a well-known Christian ethicist who serves as distinguished university professor of Christian ethics and director of the Center for Theology and Public Life at Mercer University. His published works include the award-winning Kingdom Ethics and Righteous Gentiles of the Holocaust. He is a regular contributor to the editorial page of USA Today and a contributing editor for Christianity Today.

For more information about Professor Gushee, please visit his website.