In November 2017, Lindsay Shepherd, a 22-year-old teaching assistant at Wilfrid Laurier University, was was called in for a 45-minute meeting with her supervisor, another professor and a representative of the school’s diversity and equity office.
Earlier, Shepherd had shown a class a short video clip of a TVO debate about gender-neutral pronouns that featured Jordan Peterson. Peterson is a University of Toronto psychology professor who has attracted attention because he refuses to be compelled by the government to use gender-neutral pronouns such as “zie” and “zher.” At the meeting, Shepherd was asked to address concerns that playing the clip had created an unsafe learning environment, violated federal anti-discrimination law and targeted transgender people.
The story was quickly picked up by the media, shining a spotlight on the struggle over free speech and gender identity politics currently raging across most secular university campuses in North America. Shepherd’s supporters, including Laurier professor David Haskell and several newspapers, praised her courage and called upon the university to affirm its commitment to free thought and free speech.
Her opponents decried the debate for, as one student put it, “invalidat[ing] the existence of trans and non-binary people.” A Laurier professor of cultural analysis and social theory told Maclean’s magazine, “We don’t live in a society where people should be free to speak hatred.” Public apologies by the university’s president and Shepherd’s supervisor were criticized by some as not doing enough to defend free speech and by others as not adequately recognizing the rights of transgender people. Repercussions of these events continue to unfold.
The Laurier incident is not only a clash over gender identity issues. It also illustrates the fact that universities — like all institutions — are not ideologically neutral. They have to decide what their purpose and values are.
Those who oppose Shepherd’s actions typically think the primary purpose of the university is the pursuit of social justice. Influenced by theories stemming from Marxism and especially neo-Marxism, they see society in terms of oppressor groups and oppressed groups divided by race, gender and sexuality. Their job is to teach students to see society that way too, and then to send them out into the world as social justice activists. For committed social justice warriors, these goals are not up for debate — there can be no place in a university for racism, sexism and transphobia. They believe that speakers who violate or appear to violate these principles should not be given a platform to speak at a university event, for example. Let’s call this the “social justice” view of the university.
On the other side of the Laurier debate is the “free inquiry” view of the university. Its adherents believe universities exist to pursue truth — and that the best way to find it is through free speech, open criticism and rational debate. Therefore, universities should be places where all ideas — even the most unpopular or unpalatable — can be proposed and investigated. Students need to be taught to think critically and to dispassionately debate a wide range of opinions.
There are other common ways of looking at the purpose of the university, too. Some people, for example, think universities’ main purpose is economic: to produce a highly skilled, job-ready workforce for the growing technology and knowledge industries, in order to contribute to national economic growth.
None of these views about the purpose of the university are neutral. They all reflect some system of values and even some idea about the ultimate purpose of human life. Each of them is derived from some tradition of thought, whether neo-Marxism, classical liberalism or neo-liberal economics. Because they depend on human ideas, however, they are vulnerable to the shifting currents of intellectual opinion. Forty years ago, the “free inquiry” view was dominant among faculty in Canadian universities. Since then, the social justice view has gained so much ground that it has the upper hand. And throughout this period many government officials and university administrators — not to mention parents and students — have been drawn to the economic view of the university.
Thankfully, Christian universities like Redeemer are not forced to accept wholesale any of the prevailing secular ideas about the purpose of higher education, nor do they have to be swept along by the intellectual fashions of the secular academy. Why not? Because we have a firm anchor that holds fast amid these shifting currents: the written Word of God. Unlike human ideologies that come and go, the Bible expresses the very thoughts of God through the words of human authors, and what it says does not change from decade to decade or from culture to culture. We can look to it both as a source of knowledge and as the inspired final authority on every subject it addresses.
This understanding of the Bible is woven into Redeemer’s founding mission and vision and is intended to characterize the fabric of Redeemer’s institutional life. Our Statement of Basis and Principles states that “our supreme standard is the Bible” and calls the Scriptures “the written and inspired Word of God, the infallible and authoritative rule of faith for the direction of the whole of life.” Other guiding documents reflect this same understanding, explaining that we seek to “foster patterns of faith and conduct that are in submission to the infallible Word of God (the Bible),” that “the Scriptures speak with the authority of God Himself” and that they are “completely trustworthy.” In fact, “we stake our institutional identity on their direction setting authority … including [for] the life of academic inquiry and teaching.” Redeemer’s identity as an institution, then, is anchored in full trust in the authority of the Bible.
“Unlike human ideologies that come and go, the Bible expresses the very thoughts of God through the words of human authors, and what it says does not change from decade to decade or from culture to culture.”
Now, this stance on the Bible is not some quirky obsession of Redeemer’s founders or an overreaction of modern Christians to secular critiques. Belief in the authority and trustworthiness of the Scriptures has been a core part of the church’s teaching in every era.
The great church father Augustine (354-430), for example, contended that the books that make up Scripture, unlike all other books, are “completely free from error.” Medieval theologians agreed. “I am sure,” Anselm (1033-1109) testified, “that if I say anything which is undoubtedly contradictory to Holy Scripture, it is wrong.” Likewise, Thomas Aquinas (1225-74), who was arguably the most important medieval theologian and who continues to be a major influence on Catholic theology, claimed “that nothing false can ever underlie the literal sense of Holy Scripture.”
These convictions have been carried forward by Reformed thinkers as well. At the beginnings of the Reformed tradition, John Calvin (1509-64) described the Bible as “unassailable truth” and warned that “Any spirit which bypasses the truth of God’s Word, and suggests any other doctrine, is rightly suspected of pride and deceit.” Scripture, Abraham Kuyper (1837-1920) stressed, is the bedrock of the Reformed faith. His attitude was that “when … I read the Holy Scripture, neither Moses nor John addresses me, but the Lord my God.” His contemporary, Reformed theologian Herman Bavinck (1854-1921), similarly believed that “The authority of Scripture extends to the whole person and over all humankind. It is above the intellect and the will, the heart and the conscience, and cannot be compared with any other authority. Its authority, being divine, is absolute. It is entitled to be believed and obeyed by everyone at all times.”
Given, then, that Redeemer’s identity rests upon and is defined by our belief in the authority of the Bible, and that we stand with the historic Christian church through the ages on this matter, how should the Bible guide our teaching and scholarship?
In keeping with the Reformed tradition, Redeemer’s approach emphasizes the role of the Bible in giving us the true story of the whole world, as The Cross & Our Calling puts it. At its most basic level, a biblical worldview recognizes the creation-fall-redemption narrative of Scripture as the storyline of the universe and everything in it. God created everything that exists, and he made it good. He created us to love and enjoy him, to have fellowship with one another and to cultivate the rest of his creation. Our first parents disobeyed him, however, breaking our relationship with him and others and introducing sin into God’s good creation. The effects of sin are pervasive, affecting every aspect of human life. But God has not left us in this lost condition — he sent his son Jesus to die on the cross and rise from the dead so we can be redeemed and reconciled to God. One day Jesus will return to finally defeat sin and death and restore his people and his creation to the way they should be. These biblical themes are highlighted in the Reformed confessions and the subsequent work of Reformed thinkers.
When we encounter ideas — including ideas about the purpose of the university — that are rooted in other worldviews, our task is to assess them in light of this biblical worldview and any specific biblical teachings or principles that bear on the topic at hand. What worthwhile insights does the idea provide that align with the biblical worldview or that can be reoriented to fit within it? Where does it go awry, and how can it be corrected?
Take the social justice view of the university, for example. At its best, as a Christian university, Redeemer aims to form students who will serve God in every area of their lives, and this includes recognizing and working to overcome a variety of problems that fall under the umbrella of social injustice. In applied social science courses, for example, students investigate systemic injustices that contribute to poverty, and what can be done about them. In psychology courses, they learn how the human brain’s marvellous ability of learning to distinguish between faces often doesn’t work as for sorting the faces of the elderly and of people from other ethnic backgrounds, creating possibilities for neglect and prejudice. In environmental science courses, students see how wasteful consumption and short-term thinking can hurt vulnerable people and creatures by poisoning our water and soil. In literature courses, they train their ears and hearts to listen to voices unlike their own, rather than dismissing them. In each case, students learn to distinguish between God’s good creation and the destructive effects of sin and to derive hope and the power to change from the redemption that comes through Jesus Christ.
At the same time, when we are consistent in working from a biblical worldview, our understanding of the role of social justice at Redeemer diverges at some points from the views of our secular friends and colleagues at other universities. In philosophy courses, students learn to derive their fundamental ideas about the nature of justice and ethics in human relations from the Bible rather than from social media slacktivism. In history courses, they probe from a Christian standpoint the troubled Marxist ideological sources of some contemporary social justice thinking and learn how this ideology carries totalitarian impulses that wrought enormous suffering in the blood-soaked Communist regimes of the 20th century. In ministry courses, students see how the pursuit of social justice is not an end in itself, but one facet of God’s mission to bring healing to this broken world and point people toward the coming ultimate shalom of the new heavens and the new earth. In business courses, they learn how markets can function not only as fallen playgrounds of greed and oppression, but also as a good aspect of God’s creational intention to provide for our material needs.
Redeemer, therefore, can present an alternative to universities that are captive to ideologies other than the biblical worldview. To be sure, we will seek biblical ways to affirm and contribute to social justice, to free inquiry and to the economic flourishing of our graduates and society as a whole. But for us, all of these goals will find an appropriate place within a larger framework oriented by the Bible. In the world of Canadian higher education, this means that we will stand out as something of an oddball. But it is not society’s approval we are looking for, it is God’s. And as the intellectual fashions of academia shift from decade to decade, our convictions will not — because our anchor, the Word of God, holds fast.