Review: Are Questions as Important as Answers?

By Todd Ream

    Philip W. Eaton is arguably one of the most successful college presidents of a member institution of the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. In an age when the tenure of the average college president can be counted on one hand, Eaton has led Seattle Pacific University for approximately one and a half decades. During that time, Seattle Pacific has flourished—investing over $100 million into its physical plant, completing the largest fund raising campaign of its history, and launching new programs such as the John Perkins Center for Reconciliation. 

    Part of what apparently helped Eaton succeed is his ability to cultivate a common set of questions that would challenge the Seattle Pacific community. These questions are now available to a larger public through the publication of Engaging the Culture, Changing the World: The Christian University in a Post-Christian World (InterVarsity, 2011). While Eaton’s passion for Christian higher education is evident in what pours forth from these pages, his vision which follows from these questions unfortunately remains unclear. 

    Perhaps the central conviction driving Eaton’s book is that “world change begins in a place, a place intensely focused on shaping and influencing the younger generations in directions that are good and life-giving. We call that place a university” (p. 15).  The animating feature of this place for Eaton is the Christian narrative as embodied in “the story of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ” (p. 17).  That narrative not only breathes life into a Christian university but gives shape and direction to members of the community who call it home. In a world full of skepticism, the university Eaton describes is a place of hope, hospitality, and reconciliation.   

    In order to make his case, most of the eighteen chapters (roughly ten pages a piece and could rightfully be described as independent meditations) in Eaton’s book offer an astute assessment of the culture in which the Christian university finds itself followed by a question or a challenge. For example, in chapter eight, “A World Without Easter,” Eaton offers an assessment of the pervasive nature of the secular culture in which the Christian university operates. In an attempt to get at the reality in which faith and reason occupy separate spheres of our lives, Eaton asks, “How is it possible that we have come to this, that we must relegate all matters of faith to the private sphere to keep the public somehow untainted, as if that could ever be possible, or desirable?” (p. 83). 

    In order to help frame these meditations, Eaton draws heavily from a number of texts ranging from the disciplines of sociology to theology to poetry. Perhaps more than any other text, the work which inspires Eaton’s thinking is James Davison Hunter’s To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World. However, the work of Leslie Newbigin, David Brooks, Hannah Arendt, Alasdair MacIntyre, and Stanley Hauerwas also inform Eaton’s thinking. True to his discipline as a literature scholar, Eaton also draws upon the work of poets such as Matthew Arnold and Gerard Manley Hopkins and novelists such as Tom Wolfe. 

    A working knowledge of these authors is not essential in order to appreciate the questions Eaton poses as he does a significant job of not making too many assumptions about the nature of his audience. However, what is essential in terms of fully appreciating this book is not only a passion for Christian higher education but a passion for the difference that those institutions can make in this world. Eaton’s passion is thus one that would translate well to student affairs professionals at almost any level. Senior administrators would find this book to be a helpful way to reconnect with many of the reasons they committed their lives to the profession. Residence directors and other entry level professionals would find Eaton’s work to be a helpful introduction to the challenges and opportunities which lie before them.

    As previously mentioned, the undeniable strength of Eaton’s book (beyond his evident passion) is the cultural analysis he performs followed by the insightful questions he poses. As a result, Eaton’s book is probably best read in groups where the questions he poses can be discussed and potential answers can be processed. Without a doubt, the topics Eaton covers in his provocative text represent the bulk of concerns that need to be in front of almost anyone concerned with the fate of Christian higher education. However, some of these questions may provoke different responses from different people. One could thus imagine a group of residence directors getting together once a week to consider how the questions that Eaton poses relate to the students they serve. 

    While being consistently invested in the literature in our field is a critical habit for all of us to cultivate, Eaton’s questions will likely lead individuals who read his book to find answers elsewhere. The unfortunate weakness inherent in Eaton’s text is that these questions that he poses are followed by relatively lacking answers. For example, in chapter fifteen Eaton prompts his readers to think through what would it look like if Christian universities were “formed and shaped by our sacred, holy, transforming text” (p. 153). However, the only real concrete response he offers is that “We also need to do the hard work of placing the holy Scriptures at the center of who we are as Christian universities” (p. 156). We are left to wonder what difference such a placement of the holy Scriptures would make in the co-curricular realm, the curricular realm, and in common worship settings.

    Fortunately, there is no shortage of significant books, monographs, and journals to turn to as we seek to answer Eaton’s questions. High quality books on Christian higher education are now being produced by both Christian and secular publishing houses. Growth has now published its tenth issue and Michael Lastoria just edited the first monograph in ACSD’s Research Series.  In addition, journals sponsored by organizations such as ACPA, NASPA, and ASHE are also publishing articles that consider not only the role of faith in institutions of higher education as a whole and Christian colleges and universities in particular. These materials would all prove to be helpful companions to readers seeking to come to terms with the questions Eaton poses.

    In the end, Philip W. Eaton is to be commended for his contribution to the growing base of literature concerning Christian higher education. The questions he poses are worthy of the consideration of any person who cares about the future of these institutions. In order to be completely fair to Eaton, I must also commend a sitting college president for taking the time, like Wheaton College’s Duane Litfin did with Conceiving the Christian College (Eerdmans, 2004), to organize such critical thoughts. His schedule likely affords him little to no free time yet he has modeled through this book (and likely day after day to the Seattle Pacific community) what it means to practice life-long learning even under challenging circumstances. His work may lack answers that rise to the level of the questions he poses. However, that is where our collective efforts come in as his colleagues in this journey we call Christian higher education. We will all be better for reading Eaton’s book.         

     

    Todd C. Ream is the Senior Scholar for Faith and Scholarship and an Associate Professor of Humanities in the John Wesley Honors College at Indiana Wesleyan University. He is also a Research Fellow with Baylor University’s Institute for Studies of Religion.      

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