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Fall 1999 · Vol. 28 No. 2 · pp. 177–86 

Modernism, Postmodernism, and Confessional Education in Christian Colleges and Universities

Elmer J. Thiessen

Let me start with a story, a true story which I find deeply disturbing, and which illustrates the central concern about education in our schools and colleges which I want to discuss in this essay. Some time ago I heard of a young scholar just beginning to teach in the area of biblical studies at a Christian college in North America. In a conversation with the dean of this college, this new Christian professor was told that “we don’t teach the Bible confessionally here.”

A Mennonite college should initiate/socialize students systematically into a Mennonite inheritance. And we should not make any excuses for this confessional component of education.

The young college professor who was just beginning his teaching career admitted to being somewhat bewildered about the advice he had received from his dean. He had a clear sense that his students all came from a Christian background and had come to this college because of their background. And he found them most attentive and receptive, precisely when his teaching began to become personal, when he started to show them who he really was and what he himself really believed.

We have, in these self-reflective comments of this young professor, a good description of what it means to teach the Bible confessionally. It means sharing with students what a teacher’s own convictions are on what is being taught. It means teaching from a committed perspective. It also means teaching for commitment. {178}

Contemporary philosopher of education Paul Hirst helps us to understand the nature of confessional education by making a contrast. 1 He argues that Christian nurture or catechesis must be distinguished from liberal religious education in terms of its starting point and its aim. In religious education which is truly liberal, the educator seeks “from the stance of reason the development of reason in matters concerning religion,” whereas in Christian catechesis “the aim is from the stance of faith, the development of faith.” Such confessional teaching Hirst associates with indoctrination and with a ghetto mentality; it is opposed to rationality and autonomy, and hence must be viewed as “inadequate,” committed to goals that can only be described as “improper, even subhuman.”

Evidently, the dean of the Christian college referred to in the introduction agrees with Paul Hirst’s negative assessment of teaching the Bible confessionally.


I empathize with the young teacher/scholar who had to face the advice of this dean. I find the advice he was given quite astounding. Indeed, I think it is misguided, terribly misguided. But, unfortunately, this kind of advice is probably not that unusual for Christian colleges and universities. It grows out of a certain approach to liberal education that has come to be the norm in academia, an approach that has been carefully analyzed in Bruce Kimball’s study of the history of the idea of liberal education. 2

The foremost characteristc of the modern liberal-free ideal of liberal education, according to Kimball, is an emphasis on freedom, especially freedom from tradition and a priori strictures and standards. Hence the widespread use of language about “liberation,” “liberalism,” and “freeing” in connection with this more recent ideal of liberal education. There is also an emphasis on rationality, critical skepticism, individualism, and tolerance. There is further a concern for growth. Not truth, but the search for truth is viewed as most important.

This modern liberal-free ideal of liberal education has its roots in the Enlightenment of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Stephen Toulmin, in his study of the origins of modernity, puts Kimball’s analysis into an even broader historical context. 3 Toulmin highlights the seventeenth century philosophers’ desperate “quest for certainty” as a response to the political, social, and theological chaos of the times. Descartes’ methodology of doubt came to be seen as the way to achieve {179} certainty. It was thought to be important to subject inherited systems of belief to doubt, to try to start with a clean slate, and to search for truth apart from tradition and authority. The oral, the particular, the local, and the timely were all viewed with suspicion. And so, here again, confessional education came to be seen as opposed to the central values of modernity. And liberal education emerged as the ideal, bringing about a transition from the particular to the universal, from the local to the general, and from the timely to the timeless.

Contemporary educator Charles Bailey provides a useful illustration of my analysis thus far: “A general liberal education is characterized most centrally by its liberating aspect indicated by the word ‘liberal’ . . . . What it liberates the person from is the limitations of the present and the particular.” 4 We see here an expression of the widespread embarrassment about confessional education—it is the exact opposite of what is viewed as a genuine education which liberates students from that which is narrow and bound by time.

Various writers have shown how this liberal-free ideal of liberal education has affected North American higher education. George Marsden has documented the gradual evolution of religious colleges and universities into secular institutions. 5 Gleason does the same for Catholic colleges and universities. 6 In a more recent book, James Burtchaell chronicles “the Disengagement of Colleges and Universities from their Christian Churches.” 7 At the heart of this process of secularization, as each of these writers show, is a growing embarrassment about commitment, teaching for commitment, and confessional education.


Let me return to my original story. Why do I find the suggestion of the dean of the Christian college referred to above so disturbing? Because I believe it is entirely appropriate for a religious school to teach the Bible confessionally. Indeed, there is no such a thing as non-confessional education, as was apparently assumed by this dean. This prompts the following question: If an evangelical Christian college does not treat biblical studies from an evangelical perspective, then what sort of confessional approach is being taken at this institution? Perhaps what this Dean had in mind was the sort of thing studied in religious studies departments at secular universities. But this approach too is confessional—in its own unique way. Neutrality is not possible. All education is by its very nature confessional.

There are further a host of practical and theoretical problems with the ideal of neutral teaching. 8 The stance of neutrality may be {180} professionally inappropriate, when countering prejudice, for example. Neutral teaching undermines the quality of teaching, making it dull. Further, neutrality on the part of the teacher is a betrayal of the teacher’s own personhood. Teachers too are situated within a present and a particular, and to deny this entails a level of hypocrisy. Finally, neutrality is impossible because the selection of material, manner of presentation, the handling of questions and discussion, all reflect a particular viewpoint.

The attempt at providing a nonconfessional education is further a betrayal of what we owe to our children. Contemporary liberal writer William Galston describes the problem in this way: “The greatest threat to children in modern liberal societies is not that they will believe in something too deeply, but that they will believe in nothing very deeply at all.” 9 This problem is not entirely new. The shepherd-prophet, Amos, describes a similar situation nearly three thousand years ago: men staggering here and there searching for the word of the Lord, and lovely young women and strong young men fainting because of thirst (Amos 8:12-13). And there is all too much evidence that our youth today (including youth in our MB churches) are fainting because of thirst, and perhaps for similar reasons.

But we need to explore more carefully another serious problem at the heart of the call for non-confessional education, a problem at which I have so far only hinted. It is now generally recognized that all education is value laden. Confessional education is in fact inescapable. This point already emerges in Kimball’s and Toulmin’s discussions about the origins of our suspicions about confessional education. They maintain that these suspicions emerged as part of the hidden agenda of modernity. It was the Enlightenment and the modern liberal-free ideal of liberal education that brought about a major shift in values, including suspicion about the present and the particular.

But, there have been times and places where the present and the particular were not viewed with suspicion, and where confessional education was seen as an essential component of a liberal education. Bruce Kimball, for example, points to an earlier oratorical conception of liberal education which became dominant in Roman times under the influence of such Roman orators as Cicero and Quintilian. The orators were critical of speculation and the endless pursuit of truth, and stressed instead the need to pass on traditions to the uninitiated, to express the truth for all to hear and judge. In other words, the oratorical ideal of liberal education was unashamedly confessional. This ideal was adapted to Christian aims during the Middle Ages and persisted in Renaissance humanism and the Reformation, according to Kimball. {181} 10

Indeed, there are many today who are objecting rather strongly to the values inherent in the liberal-free ideal of liberal education, and underlying “the hidden agenda of modernity,” to use the subtitle of Toulmin’s book. There are, for example, the communitarian critics of modernism/ liberalism. 11 It is increasingly being acknowledged that ideological commitment is in fact inescapable. There is “no innocent tradition,” including that of modernity. 12 All seeing and all thinking take place from a particular place and in a certain time. The notion of ideological neutrality is a gigantic piece of bad faith.

Some writers go so far as to suggest that the intellectual scaffolding of modernity is systematically being dismantled. Others maintain that liberalism is crumbling and in disarray, and that we are living in a post-modern and post-liberal era. 13 Indeed, it would seem that postmodernism has dealt a death-blow to Enlightenment modernism and its values. And, although educators would seem to be rather slow in seeing the implications of postmodernism for education, educational theory and practice is gradually being transformed so as to be in accordance with the values of postmodernism.


But here it is necessary to raise a caution. Sadly, academia is not immune to faddishness, and I am afraid that all too often Christian academics themselves succumb to the current fad of postmodernism. But, postmodernism is not without its own problems. While I agree with the postmodernists that we cannot help but start thinking from within a present and particular perspective, that all thinking arises from within the context of a particular community, I disagree that this is all that can and should be said about our search for truth. Indeed, postmodernism all too often goes so far as to suggest that reality is a purely human construct. Thus, any “truth” we claim for our cherished positions becomes problematic and is radically relativized. 14

Walter Anderson illustrates the different views of truth by telling the joke of three umpires having a beer after a baseball game. One says, “There’s balls and there’s strikes and I call ’em the way they are” (the Enlightenment view of truth which assumes there is a real world out there). Another responds, “There’s balls and there’s strikes and I call ’em the way I see ’em” (the subjective view of truth). The third says, “There’s balls and there’s strikes, and they ain’t nothin’ until I call ’em” (the postmodernist denial of truth and reality). 15

The problem with postmodernism is that without the notion of truth, or the ideal of searching for truth, we have undermined the very heart of {182} education. Indeed, what postmodernists fail to realize is that without the notion of truth, they have in fact undermined their own critique of Enlightenment and modernist accounts of education. Why listen to the radicals if they are merely one voice among many other relative voices? Postmodernists further invariably contradict themselves! They seem unable to avoid talking about their postmodern viewpoint as if it were better than that of old-fashioned modernism. But better in terms of what? It seems difficult not to enlist the notion of objective and universal truth in some sense. 16

It is here that I find myself in agreement with some of the basic ideas of the Enlightenment. Surely there must, in some sense, be objective and universal truth. And surely there must be a common approach to searching for this Truth with a capital “T.” While I have been stressing the limitations inherent in our search for truth and our need to be honest about these limitations, I in no way want to do away with the notion that human beings must, and invariably do, attempt to transcend these limitations in their search for universal truth. Without balancing the emphasis on limitations with an equal emphasis on the need to try to transcend these limitations, we end up with epistemological relativism and the radical politicization of the academy which we see on our campuses today.

Thomas Nagel expresses my caution as follows. 17 Although we cannot get a view from nowhere, according to Nagel, there is within each of us an impulse to transcend our particular personal point of view, and this is due to the fact that we recognize that it is merely a point of view, a perspective, and not simply an account of the way things really are. “The recognition that this is so,” he writes, “creates pressure on the imagination to recast our picture of the world so that it is no longer the view from here.” In other words, each of us is aware of the possibility that our particular perspective might be wrong, and so we aspire to “the view from nowhere,” to a view uncontaminated by any perspectival factors.

This aspiration which drove the Enlightenment is admirable, but what we cannot do is transcend our particularity in any absolute manner, and it is here where we need to listen to what the postmodernists have to say. For Nagel, this quest for self-transcendence is bound up with a realist account of human knowledge, that is, an account in which “the universe and most of what goes on in it are completely independent of our thoughts.” Without this approach of “critical realism” (i.e., a critical search for truth about objective reality), we remain stuck in the quagmire of relativism or skepticism. Indeed, the search for truth is replaced with a battle for survival. Such a conflict model of truth is, frankly, frightening, and I would suggest that we have yet to reap the full consequences of {183} this model being increasingly accepted in our colleges and universities.


What I am proposing therefore is a reconciliation of the insights of modernism and postmodernism concerning epistemology, human nature, and education, avoiding the extremes in either position. 18 The fundamental problem with modernism is that it bears all the marks of an overreaction. Postmodernism has arisen, I would suggest, as a corrective to an overemphasis on the universal and the nonparticular inherent in modernism. But postmodernism too is in danger of overreacting, and hence the relativism and radicalism that pervades academia today. What is needed is a middle way, a reconciliation between the legitimate insights in both modernism and postmodernism.

This same reconciliatory approach must be applied to education. What is needed is a new paradigm of liberal education. Liberal education necessarily begins with confessional education. Oakeshott has given us a classic statement of this confessional dimension. Liberal education involves “the deliberate initiation of the newcomer into a human inheritance of sentiments, beliefs, imaginings, understandings and activities.” 19 Such initiation involves confessional education and this component of a liberal education never entirely disappears. Indeed, even mature adults require reinforcement of the beliefs that they hold.

But there is also a liberating phase to a genuine liberal education. While a liberal education must begin from a commitment to a present and a particular, it must also include a liberation from the present and the particular. There needs to be some opening up of horizons. Here we must be careful, though, not to think that open-mindedness is the same as empty-mindedness. There further needs to be criticism of the traditions into which one has been initiated. But again, we must keep in mind that one first has to be given something to be critical about before one can learn to be critical. I would further suggest that we need to be more positive about criticism. The object of criticism is not criticism for the sake of criticism, but “critical affirmation,” to use a term that Brenda Watson introduces to correct the negative overtones of critical openness inherent in the old paradigm of liberal education. 20


This new paradigm of liberal education acknowledges that there is necessarily a confessional component to liberal education, and it is an error to label this indoctrinatory as has been so commonly done in the past. Confessional education, teaching from a committed perspective, {184} and teaching for commitment, are not in themselves indoctrinatory. I believe confessional education can become too narrow, and teaching for commitment can be taken to extremes, in which case the charge of indoctrination is in fact legitimate. But as long as the confessional component of education is balanced by a liberating component of education, the charge of indoctrination is unjustified. While admitting that much more could be done to define this balance, let me illustrate by applying all this to a Mennonite college. 21

A Mennonite college has a unique understanding of what the human inheritance of beliefs and understandings is or should be. A Mennonite college should therefore initiate/socialize students systematically into a Mennonite inheritance. And we should not make any excuses for this confessional component of education. But of course, we should at the same time broaden the intellectual horizons of our students so they come to understand and appreciate other ways of looking at the world. We also need to free our students to reject the inheritance that they are being initiated into. And we should give them the tools and the necessary background to be able to disagree with what they are taught, or to move constructively beyond what they are taught.

But we should never say, “we don’t teach the Bible confessionally here.” Thankfully, there are deans who give sounder advice. As another college professor reported to me recently, “My dean told me early on that to be a ‘professor’ was to have something to ‘profess,’ and that I should do so appropriately.”


  1. Paul Hirst, Moral Education in a Secular Society (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1974). See also his “Education, Catechesis and the Church School,” British Journal of Religious Education 3:3 (1981): 85-93, and “Education and Diversity of Belief,” in Religious Education in a Pluralistic Society, ed. M. C. Felderhof (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1985), 5-17.
  2. Bruce Kimball, Orators and Philosophers: A History of the Idea of Liberal Education (New York: Teachers College, 1986), see esp. ch. {185} 5, 119-23.
  3. Stephen Toulmin, Cosmopolis: The Hidden Agenda of Modernity (New York: The Free Press, 1990).
  4. Charles Bailey, Beyond the Present and the Particular: A Theory of Liberal Education (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1984), 20.
  5. George M. Marsden, The Soul of the American University: From Protestant Establishment to Established Nonbelief (New York and Oxford: Oxford University, 1994).
  6. Philip Gleason, Contending with Modernity: Catholic Higher Education in Twentieth Century America (New York: Oxford University, 1995).
  7. James Tunstead Burtchaell, The Dying of the Light: The Disengagement of Colleges and Universities from Their Christian Churches (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1998).
  8. See Brenda Watson, Education and Belief (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1987), 38-39.
  9. William A. Galston, Liberal Purposes: Goods, Virtues and Diversity in the Liberal State (New York: Cambridge University, 1991), 255.
  10. Kimball, Orators and Philosophers, ch. 2, esp. 37-38.
  11. Stanley Hauerwas, The Peaceable Kingdom: A Primer in Christian Ethics (Notre Dame, IL: University of Notre Dame, 1983); Alastair MacIntyre, After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame, 1984); M. Sandel, Liberalism and the Limits of Justice (New York: Cambridge University, 1982).
  12. David Tracy, Dialogue with the Other (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1990), 5-6. Alastair MacIntyre has aptly raised the questions, Whose Justice? Which Rationality? (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame, 1988). Or, in Richard Rorty’s words, it is simply futile “to step outside our skins and compare ourselves with something absolute . . . to escape from the finitude of one’s time and place, the ‘merely conventional’ and contingent aspects of one’s life” (Consequences of Pragmatism [Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota, 1982], 6).
  13. Toulmin, Cosmopolis, ch. 4; C. A. Bowers, Elements of a Post-Liberal Theory of Education (New York and London: Teachers College, 1987), ch. 1.
  14. Hence the title of a recent book on postmodernism by J. Richard Middleton and Brian J. Walsh, Truth Is Stranger Than It Used to Be: Biblical Faith in a Postmodern World (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1995).
  15. Quoted in Middleton and Walsh, 31. {186}
  16. For a defense of objective knowledge, see Paul Helm, Objective Knowledge: A Christian Perspective (Leicester: Inter-Varsity, 1987). Similar emphases can be found in MacIntyre who has mistakenly been thought to succumb to relativism. MacIntyre, for example, after reaffirming his central emphasis that all reasoning takes place within the context of some traditional mode of thought, goes on to talk about “transcending through criticism and invention the limitations of what had hitherto been reasoned in that tradition” (MacIntyre, After Virtue, 222).
  17. I am indebted to Trevor Hart, Faith Thinking: The Dynamics of Christian Theology (London: SPCK, 1995), for this account of Nagel’s work. See Thomas Nagel, The View from Nowhere (New York: Oxford University, 1986), esp. 70, 92.
  18. See Toulmin, Cosmopolis, 175. I also share Amy Gutmann’s major criticism of communitarian critics of liberalism when she maintains that they fall prey to “the tyranny of dualism” (“Communitarian Critics of Liberalism,” Philosophy and Public Affairs 14:3 [1985]: 316-18). One does not have to choose between adopting either liberal or communitarian values because liberal values can be reconstructed so as to accommodate the important insights of the communitarian critics. My reconciliatory approach is also similar to Bowers’ Elements of a Post-Liberal Theory of Education. Bowers very deliberately uses the term post-liberal to show that his theory has some connection with the past (vii).
  19. Michael Oakeshott, “Education: The Engagement and Its Frustration,” in Education and the Development of Reason, ed. R. F. Dearden, P. H. Hirst, and R. S. Peters (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1972), 23.
  20. Watson, Education and Belief, 54-55.
  21. See my Teaching for Commitment: Liberal Education, Indoctrination and Christian Nurture (McGill-Queen’s University, 1993), for an attempt to define this balance more carefully.
Elmer J. Thiessen, Instructor in Philosophy at Medicine Hat College, Alberta, has just completed a manuscript entitled, Religious Schools and Colleges in Pluralistic Liberal Democracies, which is being considered for publication by McGill-Queen’s University Press.
This essay draws on an earlier paper, “Liberal Education, Public Schools and the Embarrassment of Teaching for Commitment,” in Philosophy of Education 1995, ed. Alven Neiman, 473-81 (Urbana, IL: Philosophy of Education Society, 1996).

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