A Christian University Student Confronts the Secular University  

The assumption that “religion” was a “private” matter was firmly entrenched, so much so that its privatisation as that had occurred in our own personal lives was rarely discussed. It is, I guess, a failure to be explained by various contextual factors, not least the intellectual elitism that was part of the positivist world-view that had superficially absorbed the “Protestant Ethic” thesis of Max Weber, and what was said to be his version  of “value free” scientific inquiry (see comment quoted by Hugh Stretton in a later post). In this way a taken-for-granted historical interpretation of the “privatisation” process was simply oriented to ignore any doubts that students might have raised about this “privatised” view of religion when they reflected upon their own experience of, say, the previous 5 years.

Such was the prevailing university ethos that all such doubts were considered to be “private” or “personal hangups”. Even so, for me the teaching of Jesus Christ about what it meant to be his disciple had become important in an everyday sense and so “being a Christian” became more and more a way of life, something to be lived out, something that could not avoid its public expression. It was not just a matter of what I said to people on the bus I took when travelling to the campus for classes. Even the bus ride made sense as part of the life Jesus Christ called me to live. So did the football field. But did that simply mean, courteously thanking the driver and talking quietly about my personal beliefs to the person who happened to sit next to me? Although I could not accept a “privatised” view of religion, I was not really prepared to consider what “being a Christian” meant for the sociology lecture, where we might be invited to ask questions, or the tutorial where we were required to give a brief paper. Was I ready and able to reflect upon what might be called the “everyday secularisation” that had already become part of my life? Was I ready and able to reflect upon the “everyday secularisation” in which I was immersed every day.

And so my point here is that “secularisation” was already very much alive in our pre-university experiences and should have been part of class-room discussion in university sociology when we were introduced to “secularisation theory”. The fact that I can now say that we were not encouraged to openly explore our own religious experience to that time as under-graduates should not be interpreted to mean that we were discouraged from doing so privately. In the same way the reigning “politeness” (and at times sheer mean-spirited arrogance that Stretton fingers) didn’t encourage us to critically explore the schooling we had experienced (or endured). To do so, on either count, would have violation the accepted views of “value neutrality” of the teaching that was being presented to us. The Vice Chancellor attempted to enter into debate with a statement that demonstrated his own positivist credentials:

It really is important that university scholarship should be neutral and objective. [It should not be forgotten that at this time the Dean of the Faculty of Economics and Politics publicly asserted that Karl Marx was not on the economics curriculum because he had not made any significant contribution to economic theory!]

At the very least there is a field here for further sociological and historical research to understand just what the previous presumption of the privatisation of values for scientific and scholarly research meant and how that coincided with the dogmatic acceptance of what Berger now refers to as “secularisation theory”.

To cut a long story short: the cultural context in which Christian faith then confronted modern life was one in which one faith was dominant – and it remains to this day even if it has suffered serious challenges from post-modern relativism, nihilism, resurgent nationalism and even Islamic Terrorism. But this dominant faith of our universities is pragmatism even as John Dewey had described it. Our political-economy is led by those who fervently believe that politics is a part of human culture given to us to solve our economic problems. This is not Christianity, but a rigid and dogmatic faith and trust in the human capacity for problem solving, and it leads the way even as it is not at all sure where it is headed. That was the perspective that prevailed in the social sciences, and particularly in sociology as well. And the problem that defies resolution, and seemingly cannot be avoided, is that Christianity in large part has accommodated pragmatism and Christians are living a life that assumes that their own faith needs to be harnessed to the problem-solving autonomy of pragmatism.

I ask this question now – almost 50 years later – and I can grandstand and say that I should have been invited to investigate this crisis by sociology lecturers and tutors who should have seen this as part of their professional task. But such a dogmatic ex post facto judgment on my part would simply hide the fact that just as I was became somewhat unsure as to why I was at university (in 1969-1971), so when I taught sociology in years that followed I didn’t adopt the kinds of pedagogic strategies I would now say should be simply part of the deal.

The more interesting sociological question, perhaps, is one about the state of the discipline as understood in the 1960s and early 1970s. It was dominated by that same secularised utilitarian outlook and I suspect lecturers and tutors who may have had a keen sense of their responsibility for nurturing a genuinely intellectual attitude did not necessarily find it easy to do so. Yes, some were of the “survival of the fittest” school who delighted in the brutality of their cruel comments: “you pass because you give well organised pseudo-attention to the theorists you go through the motions of considering … you give the game away by asserting propositions that indicate you were writing a religious tract rather than a serious intellectual exercise…” The fact this tutor overlooked at the time was that some religious tracts were indeed serious intellectual exercises and had changed the world, having had significant social and political consequences. And in my response to her I ignored this as well!

Leaving aside the blatantly uncaring, unloving attitude of those aspiring to assert an Oxbridge (or even LSE) elitism in Australia’s antipodean academies, let me list a few examples of how “everyday secularisation” were part of my experience and note how they were avoided when I was initially introduced to the sociological theory that “secularisation” meant an inevitable retreat from religious faith.

1. I can remember my mother teaching me and my brothers the “Lord’s Prayer”. This was before going to sleep at night when we were very small. As we grew older, “Grace” was only said sometime on Sunday before dinner (still then the classic “roast” that had cooked in the oven while Mum attended church as Dad stayed at home “nearer God’s heart in the garden than anywhere else on earth.”)
2. We three boys were encouraged to go to Sunday School. I remember one Sunday morning saying to Dad that I didn’t want to go. He said I had to go. It seemed to me that since he didn’t go to church, it was somewhat illogical for him to require me to go to Sunday School. Logic didn’t prevail, however; I went.
3. Most of the children in my primary school classes (1957-1962) still went to Sunday School. By third form of high school (1965), a smaller but smaller percentage of students in my year were still attending church and involved in church youth group weekly activities. By form six, I suspect, the numbers had fallen appreciably. At High School, I joined the InterSchool Christian Fellowship which in Form 4 – I had been confirmed at the local church in Form Three – and I became a leader in Forms 5&6. The group met weekly and was supported by a network of Protestant and Evangelical churches and associations.

Why do I list these as part of “everyday secularisation”?

1. Praying to God may have been important when I was young. But as I grew older it became less and less emphasized and apart from the occasional ‘Grace’, not something done as a family. I suspect the custom of praying before meals in previous generations had, with us, become guiltily reduced to now and again at Sunday dinner.
2. Sunday School was common for many school children in the 1950s. That was part of our post World War II “baby boomer” generation’s taken-for-granted experience. It suggests that for a while religion was deemed important in the aftermath of the war. It provided moral glue. It was rationalised by those requiring their children to attend Sunday School, even if they were not church members, as a necessary means for the moral instruction of the young.
3. By becoming involved in the Inter-School Christian Fellowship (ISCF), and then later at University in the Evangelical Union (EU) – a member of the nation-wide and international “Intervarsity Fellowship” (IVF), the possibility arose to reflect upon how it was that there had been such a decline in churches, Sunday Schools and Christian youth clubs. In that sense, such association membership, as with continued church attendance, was “against the tide”. Many within the EU saw the club as means of reviving the churches.

Within the expanding Melbourne suburbs, ISCF and EU were part of a loose confederation of Christian associations that renewed contacts at Belgrave Heights at Easter, supporting Overseas Missionary Fellowship (CIM), Wycliffe Bible Translators (Summer Institute of Linguistics), the Australian Institute of Archaeology, and Scripture Union. In 1970 there was a second “Billy Graham Crusade” – a first had been held in 1959 – and this may have presupposed such a network. But the widespread Christian and evangelical acquiescence in “secularisation theory” coincided with an increase in university trained graduates in these organisations.

University was said to be the place for professional training. The view was this: a scientific and modern outlook was developed at university and those undergoing scientific training were gaining a basis for professional expertise to face up to the facts that could be objectively verified. The prevailing view was that modern society had developed with “religion” assuming its place in the background, religious beliefs being a private matter. Since all this was taken for granted, the experience of advancing “secularisation” of which we may have already become aware, did not become part of any discussion in lectures or tutorials. It was simply assumed that religion, and with it religious experiences, were indicative of a way of life that was on the way out, a way of life that had been superseded.

It did not occur to us as we sat in sociology lectures and tutorials that these social experiences of “everyday secularisation” from our own twenty year Australian social experience should have been openly discussed and analysed in tutorial classes. Despite the implicit endorsement of auto-biography by Peter Berger (Invitation to Sociology Penguin 1963/ 1968 p.27) because it provided empirical “data” for sociology’s scientific advance, religious belief was merely accorded due respect as a matter of private conviction. And there it could stay, respected and undisclosed subjected to a disciplinary imposition of a necessarily secularised consciousness. By contrast with religion, science was said to be concerned with what was public and factual, with what, in other words, was objective and open to scientific verification. Religious belief may be accorded deep respect as an unavoidable and even mysterious dimension of human subjectivity, but we weren’t encouraged to concern ourselves with that – in ways strikingly similar to how the dodgy Queensland Premier of those years said in reply to difficult questions: “Don’t you go worrying about that!” Had not human social development increased as religious influence decreased? Was not western progress so advanced that we were on the verge of conquering all kinds of problems that previous generations had no known how to think about, let alone resolve because of dogmatic prejudices inculcated by dogmatic religion? And so the focus was very much upon other matters of large-scale social institutions and processes and functions, rather than exploring the possible sociological significance of Sunday Schools, Christian Clubs and church membership. If there was encouragement to study such vital aspects of our younger lives it was only ever indirect, and certainly not to help us understand how we had already participated in what was assumed to be the inexorable process of secularisation which emancipated adult maturity to think rationally and scientifically.

In these times when we hear about the ongoing cover-up of scandalous sexual abuse and exploitation in Christian churches, one can only surmise about what might have resulted subsequently, let alone then, had sociology tutorials, in those so-called radical times, been fired with a genuine concern to ensure just discussion and analysis of the “everyday secularisation” of the kind I have outlined above, let alone the profane and disgusting conduct that was perpetrated under the protection of self-defining sacred institutions.

To give another example: why was it, with all the “secularisation theory”, born of the enlightened reason dominating those radical years, missed the impact of this mis-use of religious institutional power implicit in the stolen generations and had to wait decades for recognition let alone for Government’s “Apology” on behalf of the nation and ongoing reconciliation? Doris Pilkington Garimara (Dolly Craig) (1937-2014) the author of Rabbit Proof Fence, published her book in 1996; the film came in 2002. The prevailing and pathetic advocacy of “secularisation theory” in sociology might want to say that it was sociology leading the way to reconciliation but that simply deepens the question as to why such injustices were not confronted decades earlier? Just as “secularisation theory” may have been set forth in the same breath as “civil rights progress”, just as easily it might be said to have hampered the understanding of what was at stake, particularly when it failed to form an open view of the social world that would initiate an inquiry into the “social construction of secularisation” and do so by placing student evidence of “everyday secularisation” on its sociological research agenda. But if its horizon was itself secularised, from its own beliefs, then it clearly missed what was self-evidently right there in front of it.

There is more, much more that I can and should say about this. This series of posts has gone on for long enough. In future posts I will discuss further how I came to understand the calling of the Christian student. In the meantime those who have read this far might find my 1989 reflection worthwhile reading.




Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s