Marsden lecture

Strengthening Belmont’s musical reputation without weakening its Christian principles may be tough, but it’s important, and a nationally recognized author came to campus on April 30 to offer his advice.

Dr. George Marsden, a professor at Calvin College, spoke to faculty and students about his book, “The Outrageous Idea of Christian Scholarship.”

“Basically, I want to argue that Christian scholarship is not an outrageous idea,” Marsden said in an interview prior to his speech.  “There’s a lot of secular people out there that will say, ‘It’s not scientific to be a Christian.  You can’t start with a basis of faith,’ and I’m arguing that people like that are starting with a basis of faith in science or something else, and that starting with Christian faith is just as scholarly as starting with other perspectives.”

The universities which do base themselves on faith often struggle to stay relevant in the culture, he said.

“Colleges start out as church-related and then they move away from any meaningful relationship to Christianity.  Or on the other hand, there are fundamentalist colleges that are pretty much concerned with Christianity as a matter of protecting people from the secular world,” said Marsden.

“In between those two extremes is the idea that a Christian college should be a place where learning can have a spiritual dimension.”

Marsden is no stranger to finding that balance.  He faced the same situation as a professor at Notre Dame, a traditionally Catholic university.
“In the classroom, you’re always dealing with a diverse group and you have to take that into account,” he said.  “It can strengthen the discussion because then you have genuine issues to deal with relating to real people rather than issues in the abstract.”

Marsden strives to not just deal with those issues, but to tie them to their historical roots.

“A lot of people are growing up just not really thinking very directly about where their beliefs come from, why they hold the beliefs that they do, so I try to use history to get people to be thinking about, “What are the various options that have been out there?   Where did they come from, and how shall we think about them critically?” Marsden said.

But he said it’s not just the professor’s job to start thinking about these difficult problems.  Actually, it’s usually the students who get things rolling.

“Sometimes professors at religious colleges think that in order to be professional you need to put your religious ideas to the side and just talk about your discipline, but if students are saying, ‘Well, what’s the relationship of my faith to this, you know, sociology that I’m studying or whatever?’ that can help both them and the whole community just to talk about these issues,” said Marsden.

And Marsden knows how important it is to have these conversations.  As an undergraduate, he never did.

Marsden grew up in a strong religious community, so when he began attending Haverford College, a secular Pennsylvania school, he was on his own as he tried to “relate those two worlds to each other.  And that was a personal thing, as well as an intellectual thing,” he said.

Now he’s passionate about making that process a little easier for students at schools like Belmont.

“There’s a lot of hard questions out there,” Marsden said, “and the whole point of spending years in college is to wrestle with those questions.”

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