Christian universities are necessary

A Trinity Western University professor responds to the charge that religious universities are incompatible with academic freedom.


The “long war” between reason and faith, to which Todd Pettigrew alludes in the debate over Trinity Western University’s status as a university, has generated more heat than light over the proper relation between a liberal and secular society on the one hand, and religious universities on the other. Since liberalism is the semi-official ideology of the university community, it is appropriate to reflect on what the liberal approach to education actually teaches.

Related: Academic freedom at Trinity Western? Also see: The end of the religious university? And: TWU in its own words: special no-straw edition

Seventy-five years ago, the philosopher George Santayana zeroed in on the often contradictory nature of liberalism in this vein when he distinguished between a liberal “method of government” and a liberal “principle of thought.” The first calls on all of its citizens to accept only liberalism while rejecting all other rivals to its hegemony; the second “throws the mind open to all alternatives.” Santayana implied that this was a classic case of wanting it both ways: if a liberal mode of government expects us all to be liberals, then how can we be allowed to consider all other alternatives to liberalism? “In this way,” Santayana wrote, “liberalism as a method of government may end by making liberalism difficult as a method of thought.”

Santayana’s diagnosis of liberalism’s incoherence lies at the heart of the flawed attempt to censor Trinity on the grounds that it insists that all employees sign a Statement of Faith as a condition of their employment. Is it liberal, however, to impose secular liberalism on Canadian universities? If that is the case, then any real attempt at censorship would have to monitor every single university in the nation for its adherence to completely unrestricted inquiry into all fields. Santayana himself doubted that any institution or society would ever tolerate totally unrestricted questioning, since this attitude “would smile on all types of society, as on the birds, reptiles, and carnivora at the zoo.”

I personally have never encountered any university anywhere that “smiles” on every point of view; few schools, after all, have hired open Holocaust deniers. Do the censors expect only Trinity Western University and its sister religious schools to live up to an ideal that no one else is truly expected to fulfill, namely the absolute suppression of any restrictions whatsoever on academic freedom?

Once upon a time there were liberals who welcomed, or at least did not object to, the existence of religious universities on the grounds that they too contributed to the marketplace of ideas. True liberty, as James Madison and other Enlightenment liberals understand the concept, required that a society tolerate ideas which may conflict with mainstream opinion. A pluralism that tolerates all ideas, even illiberal ones, widens the conversation over the life of the mind. To be sure, these liberals still demanded that these universities adhere to the highest standards of academic excellence. Nevertheless, they spied no contradiction between this excellence and the maintenance of a Christian tradition in these schools.

Pettigrew may well respond that secular universities do a better job of preserving the marketplace of ideas so beloved to liberals, past and present. I have grave doubts about the accuracy of this (hypothetical) claim. Trinity would not be necessary if Christian scholarship enjoyed an equal hearing on the Canadian university scene. I can point to a great deal of evidence that suggests that most academics typically go out of their way to demonize Christianity as a bigoted, irrational, and oppressive force.

One of the paradoxes of historically Christian nations like Canada or the United States is the length to which opinion-makers and academics single out this faith as the source of the gravest evils in the world today, a phenomenon which Paul Gottfried ably documents in his work Multiculturalism and the Politics of Guilt: Toward a Secular Theocracy (2002). It is ironically illiberal that nations with Christian roots so easily tolerate the vilification of a faith tradition that helped to found Western civilization.

If we truly lived in a liberal society, the current debate over Trinity Western University’s status as a university would not be necessary. Since we do not, it is all the more necessary to preserve the distinctive contribution that our school makes to the wider university community in Canada.

Grant Havers is chair and associate professor in the Department of Philosophy at Trinity Western University.