Letter from Australia

Christians in the House of Intellect

OVER THE LAST ten years Australia's tertiary education scene has experienced radical reshaping. Instigated by the previous Labor Government, the dogma of economic rationalism and new managerialism has continued to be the creed of the new conservative Liberal-National Coalition. In 1980s the Federal Government, in a move familiar to the British education community, ended the binary tertiary system and converted colleges of advanced education into universities. Australian universities grew from nineteen to thirty-seven with indecent haste.

Last century Australian politicians used the railways to porkbarrel. Now it's the promise of a university campus for every community.

In creating these new universities the previous Government failed to provide adequate infrastructure funding and the current Government in pursuit of its drive for a smaller public sector has engaged in a slash and burn exercise with tertiary figures.

And what role is there for the Church in this era of mass university education? How fares religion in the market-place of ideas?

It is generally accepted historically that the Church was the mother of the university. Unfortunately, the Church has never quite reconciled to the fact that the daughter has grown up and moved out for good. In fact, the Australian legacy of sectarianism was such that when universities were first established in Sydney and Melbourne, the teaching of Divinity was expressly prohibited in the founding legislation. A Church presence was limited to the running of halls of residence and the appointment of the odd prelate to university governing councils.

The modern state university is a secular institution and yet, because man has a spirit as well as a body and mind, it has been found necessary in the past twenty years to establish courses in the study of religion. This is a new type of study of religion divorced from clericalism and catechism, and covering a wide comparative system. It responds to genuine student demand as well as meeting the needs of innumerable feral nuns and ex-priests in search of Ph.D's and new careers.

There is a new urgency about University education. The era of elite education has come to an end. This is an obvious fact about the secular university as it races or totters into the future. But what about the Church?

The Diocese of Melbourne, with over 200 parishes, embraces a metropolitan area that boasts seven universities all with multiple campuses and a student population in excess of 100,000 and yet the Diocese does not employ a single full-time Anglican University Chaplain. In contrast the small rural Diocese of Ballarat with only 35 parishes has since 1995 found a diocesan stipend for a chaplain at the fledgling local university.

Is it any wonder that the Church is marginalised in the life and thinking of today's university community of students and staff. One consequence of this neglect is that the spiritual vacuum on campus is increasingly being filled by the American-influenced Pentecostal sects such as Students for Christ. In addition the lack of human investment by the Australian Church in the universities means that little nurture is given to the creation of a genuine and intellectual culture within its ranks. Consequently, the church leadership in Australia is easily taken-in by the latest fad in evangelism, missiology, ecclesiology or doctrine that emanates from overseas, often out of third-rate trans-Atlantic academic circles.

One of the reasons for the cleavage between the Church and the University is because we now stand at the end of an epoch of the Church's dominance of western culture. The Church still lives on the interest of accumulation it laid aside during the long Constantinian era, but the capital itself is shrinking, and the treasure may soon be gone.

Shorn of its political might by centuries of revolution; deprived of its cultural influence by the renaissance; finally, robbed of some of its psychological power by the casualness of urban man; the Church today must go back and start from scratch.

In the meantime, in some places, it limps along with a theology still not extracted from the metaphysical baggage to which it was firmly lashed during the 4th century or it embraces the new Gnosticism of the false liberation that flows from sinful preoccupation with individualistic self-fulfillment rather than conformity to the imitation of Christ.

The Church is not a building or an organisation but rather "the people of God in motion" and hence there is a three-fold vocation in the University.

First, it is simply to be there. To be seen as someone who depends upon God and worships Him. To be someone whom others depend upon and trust. Unfortunately, we too often blur our boundaries with the world, and expect our divine service to be entertaining but the more it entertains the less it saves. We put our energies into the world's causes, and it is so much easier to win gratitude, meaning and well-being from being a wonderful counsellor, a splendid Rotarian, a first-rate welfare worker, a whizz kid with unemployed.

We find the old ties of religion have been thrown away. No more signs of the cross, no more clerical collar, no more confessions, fewer communions, and good-bye to the regular prayer. All in service of the altar of relevance.

The second task of this vocation is to be a unifier between the segregated realms of university life. Those chasms between departments, between town and gown, between science and humanities, between students of different credal or ethnic groups. A christian in a university lives precisely at the points of tensions and disagreements, of suspicion and intolerance and indifference.

Here the mission is restrained reconciliation; a unifying catalyst in a situation where the forces of evil would want division and collapse.

The third task of this vocation is to be a constructive critic. Universities are over-reacting and downsizing simultaneously. Contemporary university education is being sliced, packaged and dished out by the unit for a student consumer market. The impact is disastrous upon the quality of learning and for the many staff members genuine in their desire to be partners in learning.

In this era of the New Appeasement as the mandarins of management take control of the faculties and the council chamber the Church may still have a residue of authority to speak-up and on behalf of those marginalised by this new creed.

The rebirth of responsible criticism is desperately needed amongst christians in the house of intellect today.

In relationships between University and Church, christians are challenged to do a great deal of new thinking, and in this it is not necessary to have the street map of the promised land before we leave Egypt. God has given us plenty of hints about routes through the desert.

The witness of the Church in the University is to serve the community where few will thank you, praise you or notice you. The witness, however, will be evident to those who have eyes to see and to God who sees all.

Martin Hislop is Anglican Chaplain at the University of Ballarat. Previously he taught history at Central Queensland University.

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