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Re-Thinking Christian Higher Education

Bob Jones UniversityI stole the picture to the left from Randall Balmer’s excellent piece yesterday about the rise of the Religious Right. It’s a shot of Bob Jones University taken three decades ago. I picked it because it has a distinctive institutional feel. There is something very fortress-like about the building shown.

The unique nature of the millennial generation has been a regular theme on this blog. I remain convinced that something substantive has shifted. Today’s Christian university students aren’t looking to enter fortress-like compounds that keep them isolated from the broader world. They see their Christian faith propelling them into that world to impact it for the God, even though they find the world a messy place that doesn’t align with their easy answers.

While I’ve decried fortress-like patterns at schools like Cedarville, Bryan, Bob Jones, Patrick Henry, Pensacola Christian, and many others, I’ve been trying to think deeply about what the alternative looks like. How does a Christian University begin where millennials are? Does their approach to diversity and social networks automatically suggest a relativism to be avoided? Or can we find ways that their questions revitalize a Christian faith that can engage today’s complex world as it is rather than how we imagine it might be?

I came across some interesting blog posts in the last couple of weeks that suggested a path that Christian Higher Education might pursue. In his Revangelical blog, Brandan  Robertson wrote a fascinating piece this morning titled “I’m Probably Wrong“. He describes how he’d get into deep theological conversations with others and then end his reflection with “I’m not sure I believe any of that.” He writes:

The very nature of faith is that it is a jump towards something that we can’t see clearly and can’t comprehend fully. And faith requires humility to admit that we may not be right. That other people may have a more solid perspective. And that maybe the answer isn’t found in “us” or “them”, but somewhere in between. Our faith should always be expanding, deepening, and changing as we seek to know and learn about our eternal God who transcends all things. We should be very nervous of people who claim to have it all figured out- simply because of what that means: they have figured out God. I recently interviewed a well known reformed pastor and asked him if his theology has changed since he had entered in to ministry nearly twenty years ago. His answer was simple: “No.” As I read his response, I was taken back. How can your “words about God” not have changed in twenty plus years?

As I often tell my students, the kind of intellectual humility Brandan is calling for is the essence of good scholarship. We explore possibilities that make us uncomfortable but are willing to retain Faith that God is at work.

Another post that caught my eye came from Jamie (The Very Worst Missionary) Wright a couple of weeks back. She wasn’t writing about education, but the far more important topic of how our children relate to faith. Her piece, titled “Not All Pastor’s Kids are Christian. Sorry.“, is a reflection on her own children. One sings worship songs. The other isn’t sure he believes in God. But rather than worry about “what people might think“, Jamie and her pastor husband have left them room to decide.  In fact, she very carefully speaks to the issue of expected religiosity:

So first we told them to be honest, to tell the truth about who they are and where they’re at with the whole God thing, always, even if it makes people uncomfortable. Even at youth group? Yup. Even on Easter? Yup. Even in front of church leaders? Yup. Even with creepy pastor groupies?…Especially then, son, especially then. This doesn’t mean they go around throwing out personal information at inappropriate times, just that they have permission to speak freely when it’s called for.
Then we told them to be open, to stay receptive to new ideas, and old ones, always, even if it makes them uncomfortable. This advice was not directed at any one child, but to all three, faithful or doubting, because it is too damn easy for us to settle on false ideas and call them Truth, even -and maybe especially – Biblical Truth. What’s that one saying? “Don’t believe everything you think.” …Yeah, that. We could probably all benefit by practicing a little bit more of that kind of cognitive humility (emphasis Jamie’s).

They also said that they should honor their parents, stay in conversation, and respect the choices others have made. This seems to be another good lesson for Christian Universities. We should allow our students to experience God at their own pace. Clearly we want them to be people of deep faith but not fake faith. My senior students regularly reflect on the sense of performance that is involved in attending a Christian institution. Maybe an approach of “cognitive humility” allows for the authenticity that is too often missing. But their questions should never be dismissive or snarky. They shouldn’t negate the faith commitments of others or the institution. But they also shouldn’t bury their important questions. It does us no good for our students to play at faith only to abandon it post-graduation.

Then there are the articles about “trigger warnings“. Karen Swallow Prior had an excellent piece in The Atlantic (which has been on a real roll lately!). She contrasts political correctness of the past with “empathetic correctness” today.

While political correctness seeks to cultivate sensitivity outwardly on behalf of those historically marginalized and oppressed groups, empathetic correctness focuses inwardly toward the protection of individual sensitivities. Now, instead of challenging the status quo by demanding texts that question the comfort of the Western canon, students are demanding the status quo by refusing to read texts that challenge their own personal comfort (emphasis mine).

While I’m a bigger fan of E.J. Dionne than David Brooks (Karen goes the other way), there’s still significance in what she says. Another take on the trigger warning conversation is this piece from the Chronicle of Higher Ed. The author is a German professor and psychiatrist.

It would be much more useful for faculty members and students to be trained how to respond if they are concerned that a student or peer has suffered trauma. Giving members of the college community the tools to guide them to the help they need would be more valuable than trying to insulate them from triggers. Students with unusually intense responses to academic cues should be referred to student-health services, where they can be evaluated and receive evidence-based treatments so that they can participate fully in the life of the university (emphasis mine).

Discussions about difficult topics (Flannery O’Connor, the Holocaust, Same-sex marriage, Biblical scholarship) are part and parcel of higher education regardless of its Christian orientation. But Christian institutions have too long operated in fear of the parent,  pastor, trustee, or pundit who e-mails the president (or a random list of churches) asking “what kind of Christian institution has our students read ___________?)” demanding a stop to the instruction and potentially the removal of the faculty member.

Rather, we need to see that difficult topics are part of growth. The questions are important (and should be treated with intellectual humility). The student’s growth is to be respected (at whatever pace they are moving — or not). And we must be up front about what it means to be educational institutions who believe God is in control.

These are the ideas that have been kicking around in my brain for a long time. If we are to move the conversation away from the Cedarville, Bryan, and Bob Jones examples we will need to build a more robust case for how that educational form can work.

One of the advantages of living in the midwest is that I’m surrounded by Christian universities. A quick count suggests that there are about a dozen within three hours of where I am. I am asking my colleagues at institutions in Michigan, Indiana, and Ohio if they are willing to gather in some central location (like Fort Wayne) for a day to explore these questions. It may be easier to do this across institutions than in any specific institution. I’ll be contacting some of you directly and you can bring all of your questions as well.

 

 


4 Comments

  1. John Noble says:

    Thanks for the piece, John. Would love to be a part of a dialogue in Ft. Wayne.

  2. Really excited that you are organizing such an important conversation. I am deeply interested in it in part because I am a graduate of an institution of higher education associated with Christianity. I am also a graduate of a primary school with a similar affiliation. I have also worked at an institution of higher education rooted in the Free Methodist traditions of faith. I am a 31 year old father of 3 who is a professional out in the world feeling more alive in my faith than I ever have now that I am outside the bubble I was raised in, but also embracing and learning from perspectives and flavors of faith that essentially ostracize me from family, friends and former colleagues who fear for my soul in doing so. I would love to be a part of this conversation somehow just to learn more at least.

    • SHARON PETERS says:

      dave;
      i have heard your story and many others like it.
      especially hard hit, i feel, are the young professional men and women w/ children who have responsibilities to provide a sustainable living for all.
      how are you feeling more alive in your faith?
      a lot of ppl find the weather is too tuff outside the bubble they were raised in.
      i would really like to hear more stories about ppl’s encounters w/the kingdom w/in vs. leaving the comforts and traps of empire church.
      also what is it like to embrace and learn from perspectives and flavors of faith?
      did you know you would be encountering ostracism from your family and church? what were some of those encounters like?
      stories about how friends and former colleagues fear for your soul in doing so would be so helpful right now, i feel, b/c many are suffering in just these ways and feel alone and are depressed. you are pioneering in new and hostile territory. the empire isn’t gonna like it yogi!

  3. […] Higher Education need to come together to recast a future vision (see the last paragraph of this post for an invitation to Midwest area faculty and […]

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