Christian Theology and the Secular University

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Paul A. Macdonald, Jr.
  • New York, NY: 
    , March
     232 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Whether or not Christian theology belongs in the secular university has been hotly contested in recent years. No longer the universally acknowledged “queen of the sciences” enthroned around her admiring and deferential handmaidens (philosophy serving as the chief courtier), theology has been relegated to the margins of secular universities, or unceremoniously driven out altogether. Can theology return from exile, or has its time in the sun passed? And where does it belong: in religious studies, philosophy, or on its own? Finally, what does it contribute to a liberal arts education? In Christian Theology and the Secular University, Paul A. Macdonald argues “that traditional Christian theology can and should occupy a definitive place within the twenty-first-century secular university” (1). He argues for a “theological inclusivism” that would allow theology to contribute to the pursuit of truth and knowledge, the hallmarks of liberal education (5). For Macdonald, theology serves many salutary functions in the university, including fostering “critical thinking,” “growth in intellectual virtue,” and, ultimately, “wisdom” (6), while also promoting “human flourishing” through its effort to arrive at the “common good” (7).

Macdonald carefully delineates his argument in five chapters. In chapter 1, he advocates for an “epistemologically inclusive and pluralist” university (11) or, more simply, an “inclusively secular university” (42). He distinguishes between the narrow definition of “secular” as anti-religious (28) and the broad definition of “secular” as non-sectarian and epistemologically pluralist (37). Opting for the latter, he then contrasts that version of secular with “secularism,” which rejects and expels religion from the public square. In chapter 2, he analyzes the debate around the appropriate academic context for the study of theology. In chapter 3, he defines the telos of the liberal arts as the pursuit of truth and knowledge through critical thinking (120), which has wisdom as its “ultimate epistemic and educative end” (124). In chapter 4, he posits that theology, as an academic discipline, is ideally suited to accomplish the goals of liberal education (175). In chapter 5, he argues that theology helps to promote the “common good” through its moral implications (215). Finally, in the conclusion, he offers four exhortations to guide the implementation of his vision for theology in the secular university (223-26).

Christian Theology and the Secular University clearly and competently outlines the major fault lines of the debate over the appropriate academic context for the study of theology. Not all will be convinced by Macdonald’s thesis, but his analysis helps to situate the discussion theologically, philosophically, and pedagogically. It gives argumentative resources for those who agree with him, and provides ammunition for those who disagree. Minor editorial issues aside (see page 168 in particular), my main critique of the book has to do with its style. I do not wish to be uncharitable, but it has a tedious quality, especially in its belaboring of its points and sub-points. On the one hand, it would be unfair to critique Macdonald for his rigor and detailed, systematic argumentation. On the other hand, the book would not inspire a reader to study theology, even if the reader were convinced by the argument of its legitimacy in the university. But, in defense of Macdonald, the purpose of the book was not to inspire but to instruct, and I have been instructed. Those in the battle to defend or dismiss theology’s place in the secular university will find the study to be an invaluable starting point for a debate that shows no signs of abatement.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Mark S. M. Scott is chair and assistant professor in the department of religious studies at Thorneloe University at Laurentian.

Date of Review: 
December 5, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Paul A. Macdonald, Jr. holds an endowed chair in the Department of Philosophy at the United States Air Force Academy.



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