The Common Good
January 2007

Reference Points

by Stephen Petrie | January 2007

In “A Red Letter Campus” (by David Black, September-October 2006), Black asks, “What does it mean for a college to be called Christian?” He then answers his ...

In “A Red Letter Campus” (by David Black, September-October 2006), Black asks, “What does it mean for a college to be called Christian?” He then answers his question by suggesting that both the college’s epistemology and its ethos must reflect the mind and ways of Christ. The suggestion misses the mark.

An epistemology based on the seven qualities of knowledge and wisdom found in Proverbs can, at a minimum, be the epistemology of a Jewish college. Christianity does not have an exclusive on the qualities fear of the Lord, learnedness, insight, prudence, righteousness, justice, and equity. Even a secular institution can espouse the last six qualities. Many of the beliefs, attitudes, habits, and commitments suggested in the article do not “distinguish” a college as Christian. What is the distinct epistemological point of reference for Christians?

The central claim of Christianity is that the crucifixion of Jesus and the understanding of it by his followers frees us from the sin of the world and is the turning point in human history. This distinguishing claim is what Black tells us he was unable to reconcile as a young man and now as a parent accepts as unable to explain. His response has been to focus on the “red stuff.” Paul, the earliest writer in the New Testament, virtually never mentions teachings, events, or biographical details of Jesus. Paul’s epistemology was Christ crucified. Paul warns us in his first letter to the Corinthians that wisdom of language and wise words could make the cross of Christ pointless. A modern example of what Paul is referring to is the scholarly fascination to find the pre-Easter Jesus. If we believe that the crucified Christ is the human face of God, then there is no pre- and post-Easter Jesus, only a pre- and post-Easter epistemology. The “red stuff” shows us how to live after the revelation of the cross.

The ability to explain this “great act of passion” and the importance of it as our epistemological reference point has been enhanced through the insights of René Girard. Girard and others have shown us the interpretive power of the cross in our sacred scriptures, literature, the social sciences, and even our current events. I respectfully suggest that anyone concerned with what it means for a “college to be called Christian” become familiar with Girard and others who have written on the epistemological priority of the crucifixion.

Stephen Petrie
Scottsdale, Arizona

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