Organizing a Christian Mind: A Theology of Higher Education

By Denise Lardner Carmody
Valley Forge, PA : Trinity Press International (1996). x + 229 Pages.

Reviewed by
10.2 (Fall 1999) : 283-285

Ever since the church father Tertullian threw down the gauntlet and posed the question, “What indeed has Athens to do with Jerusalem? What concord is there between the Academy and Church?” (Tertullian, “On Prescriptions Against Heretics” 7.22), Christian higher educators have attempted to define the relationship between college and church, between learning and faith, between reason and revelation. Christian colleges and universities have identified with the tension that exists between the intellectual traditions represented symbolically in the ancient worlds of Athens and Jerusalem.

Denise Lardner Carmody’s Organizing a Christian Mind: A Theology of Higher Education is an addition to the corpus of literature that explores the dynamic between educator and theologian. Carmody is presently Bernard J. Hanley Professor and Chair of the Religious Studies Department at Santa Clara University in California. A prolific writer, Carmody’s recent works include Christian Feminist Theology: A Constructive Interpretation (Blackwell, 1995); In the Path of the Masters: Understanding the Spirituality of Buddha, Confucius, Jesus and Muhammad (co-authored with John Carmody; M.E. Sharpe, 1996); and Serene Compassion: A Christian Appreciation for Buddhist Holiness (co-authored with John Carmody; Oxford University Press, 1996).

Organizing a Christian Mind purports to be a theological essay focusing primarily on the relationship between faith and learning. The original impetus for the text was John Paul II’s views of education espoused in Ex Corde Ecclesiae. As such, the text addresses principally to a Catholic audience, yet Carmody clearly states that other “mainline Protestant, Evangelical, and Orthodox Churches” (ix) can adapt the structural framework to their academic communities.

Following a brief introduction and rationale that explores foundational issues related to both higher education (teaching, research, and publication) and theology (existence of God and the Christian faith), Carmody discusses four major themes that impact higher education, particularly on a curricular level: human nature, physical nature, politics, and divinity. Each section concludes with both practical and theoretical implications to higher education. Finally, education is “revisited” and conclusions are drawn.

Unsatisfied with the theological vision implied by a survey of the literature on the subject, Organizing a Christian Mind is a response to a perceived gap in the theological-educational discussion. By the author’s own admission, her theological training is limited (ix). The work is primarily a personal essay that reflects scholarly musings and reflections rather than a rigorous theological or philosophical treatment. Therefore, methodological considerations are minimal. Biblical interaction and exegetical discussions are notably absent. The volume reflects a blend of Catholic Thomist theology (15-16), feminist ideals (“We can imitate God who makes her sun to shine, her rain to fall . . .” [17, emphasis added]), and an integrative appreciation of multicultural values, particularly the theological usages of Eastern religious thought (129), the last two being evidenced in the author’s recent publications.

Several observations are noteworthy for the potential reader. Carmody’s assessment of many of the tensions that plague college professors and administrators are laudable, particularly those described in the opening sections on education. This reviewer has felt many of the same tensions in balancing the demands of scholarship and education within a perceived pastoral context. Furthermore, Carmody’s concluding sectional discussions of practical and theoretical implications for higher education are appreciated. Asking the “So What?” question is critical to the dialogue as much related literature is devoid of any application and borders on the irrelevant. Readers expecting a biblical or formal theological treatment will be disappointed. Carmody’s inclusive approach to theology results in a largely generic look at theological themes. The text generally avoids formal theological definition, and as a result, a fuller rationale, methodology, or apologetic for the maintained argument. The text proper lacks documentation or bibliographic citation. In-text references assume a working familiarity with the quote, individual, or citation under consideration. The text does have a good index to assist in cross-referencing and quick identification of selected areas of interest.

Carmody’s Organizing a Christian Mind offers the potential reader personal reflections and scholarly musings on broad religious and generic theological themes related to higher education. Those interested in the faith-learning dialogue from a non-evangelical perspective might consider this work. Readers interested in a more formal, evangelical treatment of the subject might consider two works that pre-date Organizing a Christian Mind and bear interesting titular similarities: David W. Gill’s The Opening of the Christian Mind: Taking Every Thought Captive to Christ (InterVarsity, 1989) and W . David Beck’s [ed.] The Opening of the American Mind: The Integration of Biblical Truth in the Curriculum of the University (Baker, 1991).