JACKSON, Tenn. – Sept. 18, 2002 – In a gross anatomy class at Union University this year, James Huggins, chair of the biology department, walks his eight students through the complex systems and parts of the human body using donated cadavers. Today they’re talking about the hand.
“If you look at the layout of the tendons, the muscles and the nerves and how everything runs together in a specific order and direction, the intricacies of the hand are so beautiful – you can just see God’s signature all over,” says Huggins as together, the class learns the whats’ and whys’ of how the hand functions and works.
Across campus, an English literature class is deep in thoughtful discussion and debate.
“What does the phrase ‘Christian worldview’ mean?” asks their professor, Gavin Richardson, as they begin to determine which beliefs and practices remain constant in the expression of Christian faith through twenty centuries, using the text of C.S. Lewis as a guide.
“By examining the literary expression of other faiths we may better understand what makes Christianity distinctive, and by examining the expression of Christianity throughout history, we can approach our faith in a historically informed manner,” Richardson explains.
Challenging their students to consistently think about their faith and how their Christian worldview affects decisions in every area of their life is a mission and calling that the oldest university in the Southern Baptist Convention is pursuing with a passion – an enthusiasm that is felt not just by administration and faculty, but staff and students as well. The most recent demonstration of this is the book, Shaping a Christian Worldview: The Foundations of Christian Higher Education, published by Broadman and Holman.
“This lively volume displays the intellectual energy made possible when faith and reason work with, not against one another,” said Jean Bethke Elshtain, the Laura Spelman Rockefeller Professor of Social and Political Ethics at the University of Chicago. “The essays are written in a style that makes them accessible to laypersons and scholars alike and are a welcome addition to an ongoing cultural debate.”
Edited by Union University President David S. Dockery and Greg Thornbury, director of Union’s Carl F.H. Henry Center for Christian Leadership, the book offers a collection of essays written by Union faculty and administration that focus on the application of the Christian worldview in every discipline and vocation. It is a unique perspective that is being widely hailed by leaders in other institutions as a model for Christian higher education.
“By placing worldview formation at the center of its mission, Union University is equipping its students with the intellectual and spiritual resources that will enable them boldly to engage the secular culture,” said Robert George, McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence and director of the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions at Princeton University who is also a member of the President’s Council on Bioethics.
Following Dockery’s vision, faculty members are continually developing new ways of applying the Christian worldview in their classrooms, challenging their students to think and discover for themselves how their faith can be applied to everyday situations, and is well documented within the newly released book.
“Principled worldview formation is a characteristically Christian species of intellectual work, and no less now than at any other time in history it is work needful to be done,” said David Lyle Jeffrey, senior vice provost at Baylor University. “Dockery, Thornbury and their colleagues at Union have produced an engaging and useful arrangement for Christian worldview reflection across the disciplines and it should be welcomed by educators and their students alike.”
In his address at this year’s fall convocation, Dockery challenged the university body to grow in unity as well as spirit.
“With the Apostle Paul we would call for the Union University community to be agents of reconciliation both in a broken world and for a hurting church, evidencing a unity of mind, of spirit and of purpose,” said Dockery.
As a new member of the faculty who recently left a sister Baptist institution to serve as Union’s new chair of English, Gene Fant says he remains in awe of the spirit of unity he finds on the campus.
“It’s exciting to be a part of a place that is optimistic and that is driven by its commitment to remain focused on its mission,” said Fant. “It’s extremely rare in the higher education community.”
Fant, who is a frequent contributer to The Chronicle for Higher Education, added that higher education is typically marked by territory and narrowness.
“At most campuses, primary attention is paid to one’s own little piece of turf or specialization, with little time spent on what all is going on, campus-wide,” said Fant. “The thing that struck me about Union, particularly the recent convocation service, was the way that it underscores Union’s commitment to community, and that faculty, staff and students all know what page we’re on.”
Holding to a Christian worldview does not mean that everyone has to have the same opinion on all issues, said Dockery, yet it does mean that with tenacity we hold forth the essentials of the Christian faith. Regarding other areas, Dockery noted that “when honestly expressed and calmly debated, arguments about various issues can teach us all a great deal.”
The key is that all of this takes place under the umbrella of a united spirit.
Part of that unified spirit requires acknowledgement that all learning does not take place in the classroom.
“It is myopic to think of the faculty alone as the sole agents of education on this campus,” said Dockery. “If our education goals include not only the delivery of content, but also showing the overarching impact of a Christian world and life view and the importance of influencing character development as well, then the out of classroom activities on this campus are more than merely supplemental.”
Shaping a Christian Worldview, written with the freshman college student in mind, is intentional in content and focus. The university is hopeful that other universities and institutions will follow its lead.
“We are working, by God’s grace, to build a community of scholars and learners committed to Christ-centered excellence, built on the solid foundation of a Christian world and life view,” said Dockery. “From this we trust we will see a generation of students enter the world as change agents, bearing witness to Christ and exemplifying the salt and light of the gospel message.”
“In the latter part of the 20th century, while several schools founded on Christian principles distanced themselves from a Christian worldview, a remnant remained committed to academic excellence and biblical Christianity,” said Mark Brister, president of Oklahoma Baptist University. “Evangelicals appreciate Dr. Dockery’s passion for teaching with excellence from a Christian worldview. Such an approach is our greatest opportunity to equip committed Christian men and women. When they are placed in positions of intellectual leadership in the world, they are ready to make a difference by fulfilling the great commission in the spirit of the great commandment.”
Shaping a Christian Worldview is available at all Christian bookstores and Amazon.com. The university is hoping to create a supplementary study guide and offer the book as a discipleship training material for churches in addition to providing a resource to Christian school administrators and parents. For more information, visit http://www.uu.edu/books/shaping.
Sara B. Horn,