Why not a Christian sociology? A Call for a Christian Student Vocation (1)

I am provoked to edit this piece, initially published 3rd March, and rewrite it in the light of the public debate about the attempt by the Student Union of the University of Sydney to deregister the Evangelical Union.  There are serious distortions to student life that have been brought about not only by the university itself, in its supposed splendid autonomy as an “ivory tower”, but more significantly by successive Governments that have turned this vital institution for training in science into a business enterprise that seeks to make its profit, and enhance its status in our midst, by churning out graduates.

What is missing in the discussion about the attempt to ban the Evangelical Union (SUEU) from full participation in the life of the Sydney University Student Union (SUSU)? Yes, it is a completely unfair and unprincipled effort, by an ideologically driven executive to enforce their view of student-to-student relationships upon all members of the Student Union and their activities. But as such, the historical context needs to be kept in mind. Maybe this policy that attempts to exclude “exclusiveness” is implicit in the SUSU constitution. With the reforms of the 1980s University student associations were transformed into self-styled “unions” representing student “workers”. This coincided with academic staff associations, and federated national bodies, being dismantled and replaced by the NTEU. This was all under the “economic rationalism” implicit in the Dawkins’ reforms. So what is missing in the debate concerning Sydney University’s Evangelical Union’s affiliation with the SUSU is the historical “trickle-down” impact of another piece of legislation that presupposed those structural and industrial reforms of the university. This was the 1999 Voluntary Student Unionism (VSU) legislation.

There is nothing whatever in the SUSU’s attempt to ban clubs (which define and restrict membership to those who share common beliefs), that challenges the further structural distortion of student life that resulted from the 1999 VSU legislation. That being said the response of the SUEU and those defending their affiliation do not seem to have mentioned this historical background either. It should also be taken into account that the 1999 VSU legislation was brought to the Federal Parliament by Messrs Costello and Abetz, Liberal Party politicians who are happy to be known as “evangelical Christians”.

That VSU legislation was simply a further extension of the economic rationalist reforms rung in by the Labor Government in the 1980s. And we are therefore justified in asking what criticism these Christian parliamentarians, and other defenders of Evangelical Union freedom within Student Unions, have mounted in relation to such Government intervention in the academic market-place? Presumably the notion that there should be free and  unfettered commercial competition applies just as much to universities and tertiary education as it does to other sectors of the national economy. It seems to be assumed on all sides (left and right) that Government must ensure that public universities are not only managed in ways that adjust to economic pressures but that they should be run on lines that give commercial and “market disciplines” priority. And with what results?

The Government led and enforced commercialisation of “higher education” has other consequences; it promotes a generation-to-generation set of common assumptions about the true nature of science and scholarship, about the character of the university itself. We have been engineered into a way of thinking in which Australia’s universities can maintain a traditional dogmatic sidestepping of a basic scholarly and scientific issue that needs to be put to the test. I am referring to the view that the university is a “secular” and therefore “religiously neutral” institution.

Do we, as a nation of credentialed and professionally trained citizens, have any sense that we may now inherit a profound historical failure when it comes to “higher education”? When academic courses fail to encourage students to explore how their religious faith, their taken-for-granted way of life, relates to their studies then it is not just that something vital is missing; education itself is undermined. Do we have, are we going to have, universities that encourage bona fide scholarly investigation of this vital element as an integral part of scientific training and professional formation in all disciplines, in all facets of the university life? What does the absence of such a vital and self-critical dimension of post-secondary education tell us? I am not just focusing upon what it tells us about our view of the university, but of the society in which the university’s graduates are expected to serve, about the meaning and purpose of our life and our training?

Are these institutions that now market themselves as  committed to the advance of scientific knowledge and training the “religiously neutral” institutions they assume themselves to be? Such a question simply does not arise on our national horizon as long as we greet the deformed and commercialised character of these vital institutions with a resigned fatalism.

The inability of SUSU to properly respect the legitimacy of a university student club indicates an intensification of attempts to impose a secularist view upon everyday life. This is a recent update of the tradition liberal-humanistic view that the university is a “religiously neutral” institution. In its latest redaction it needs to be critically examined; and in fact the natural place for that examination is the university itself. Those who would want this dogma to be critically examined are not proposing to exclude believers in this mythology from university life. If universities are to remain genuine places of exploratory, critical and self-critical science and scholarship, they need to make room in their courses for critical examination of this and other views of the university qua institution to proceed unhindered. Otherwise it is simply engaging in a polite form of intolerance.

When this self-critical dimensions is included within the ambit of a university’s scientific training, students will not only be encouraged to become more explicit about their own way of life or the way of life they would prefer for themselves and their families. And they will therefore also confront those of different persuasions. They are then more adequately prepared for the professional responsibilities their qualifications bring without the artificial barriers placed by an unthinking, unexamined dogmatic secularism.

Despite the protestations of its “chief executive officers” and the gate-keepers of certified knowledge, the university is not “religiously neutral”. It should be able to reflect upon the taken-for-granted ways of life found within its own domain, those ways that have become dominant by tradition and weight of numbers, and those ways that are “minorities” or less dominant. Universities should have nothing to do with coercing “religious” views to the margins of scholarly consideration. Any claim that that the university is “neutral” – however that is understood and whenever it is affirmed, whether it be religiously, politically, culturally – is a claim that needs to be put the test of open and honest debate. And that testing may be intense. It will require philosophical debate between the members of the university community; it will also inspire renewed philosophical debate.

There is another view of the university that requires ongoing critical examination is the view that we have inherited from the reforms of the 1980s and 1990s. It is implicit in the 1999 VSU legislation. These reforms sought to reduce the complexity of the university by proposing a “business model” with a core business managed by “managers” with the task of ensuring efficient use of (human) resources in order to maximise outputs (world-class academic credentials and front-line research). And so Government legislation from that point on sought to expose universities to the market forces, the only discipline capable of ensuring the university and those it served could reach its full potential. This kind of thinking is nothing but a good example of what a biblically-oriented economic theory considers to be a policy driven mythic endorsement of the mammon that Jesus says cannot be followed by those following Him (Matt.6:24).

Do not university students often confront intellectual rigor mortis in the prevailing dominant attitude of their academies, a deadly mentality that has been aided and abetted by a dogmatic adherence to a curriculum vetted by local disciplinary “gatekeepers”. If there is an “exclusionary” attitude alive and well within the contemporary “enterprise university” it is not to be found first and foremost within student unions and student clubs. But genuine students will often find alternative scholarly perspectives excluded in advance and they are then expected to accede to this “exclusion” without a wimper. Student clubs have often been the place from which such “exclusion” has been challenged. University life has been renewed when students of the same outlook have banded together to study and to assist each other in developing that outlook. The critical way is the way of discovered how such a dissenting n outlook can be appropriately and respectfully communicated in coursework, tutorials and essays.

 If there is to be a significant refreshment in the Christian way of life in this country over the next generation it may well have to come from a renewal in the student vocation among those who seek to respond in faith to the love of God in Jesus Christ. And that may well mean the development of a nation-wide Christian student movement.  In my opinion it would be long overdue. This is not to suggest yet another “gospel gossiping” initiative but a renewal among Christian students concerning the very nature and purpose of their life – and that should also include their lives as students.

In what follows, I want to explain my own confrontation with sociology and explain how I developed a vision for how Christian student clubs, even at “secular” universities, can provide a genuine refreshing contribution to the academy and wider afield, too.


26 April 2016


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