What is contingent across the arc of human cultural development? What is inevitable? Interesting, if difficult to answer, questions. Last year I posted No fear of Patrick Henry College – the Borg shall assimilate. My argument was simple: an explicitly Christian institution which attempts to take over “secular” culture will be assimilated. There are long, and tiresome, historical debates about whether this in fact happened to the Christian churches when the Roman state adopted them and turned them into the Universal Church. But more recently, and specifically in the context of universities, there has been a long track record in the United States of Christian institutions being founded to stem the tide, only themselves to be swallowed up by the rising waters.
Harvard was originally a training ground for Calvinist ministers. Over its first century it became progressively more heterodox. Princeton was founded explicitly to serve as a second Harvard, a bastion of Calvinist orthodoxy. It too was suborned. Wheaton college is in many ways the Harvard of contemporary evangelical America; and it reaffirmed its Protestant credentials when it fired a professor who converted to Catholicism. Nevertheless, the act itself was not without controversy on the campus, suggesting that the commitment toward ideological purity has wavered. Additionally, it seems clear to me that Wheaton’s loyalty to one American subculture has resulted in constraining its influence. Patrick Henry College reached out, its aim was to conquer the public space. But last spring while I was busy at something I like to call “life” a shakeup occurred at Patrick Henry, half a dozen faculty members left (there are fewer than two dozen told faculty members). Why? Ideological conformity and theological purity were being compromised. Patrick Henry aimed for the stars, recruited bright students and challenged the faculty. But such an environment naturally leads to intellectual hubris and the pushing of boundaries. Mental meekness and dullness often go together. Like an invasive species unleashed to control a pest any attempt to conquer the mainstream by mastering its toolkit may inevitably be self-defeating.
This is not just true of the evangelical Christian subculture. Books like Bobos in Paradise document the paradoxical stances of the bohemian bourgeois; 60s radicals turned “socially conscious” entrepreneurs & mercenary professionals. American culture is a massive and uncontrollable river. On occasion it changes course or jumps its bed, but it has its own will and logic and can process anything thrown into its maw. The extruded cultural material is often totally transformed, but the the human tendency to self-delude is great enough that those who have been reprogrammed by the river truly believe that they have won. There’s no point in standing athwart history if it will only drown you; ’tis far more productive to make use of the power of the current and outfit your ship appropriately so that your journey is as smooth and pleasant as possible.
Related: The New York Times has an interesting article about a new Christian college, New St. Andrews. I obviously don’t share their presuppositions, but I do respect their passion for learning. As long as books & faith are their focus they will persevere on their island surrounded by the river. If they challenge it then I suspect their fate is predestined.