Where would Jesus go to College?

 I know, it’s a presumptuous title. But I mentioned this in an earlier post. Spring Arbor’s Concept says that we are “committed to Jesus Christ as the perpective for learning“. I’ve been trying to find concrete ways on unpacking that phrase as a means of finding the affirmative vision for Christian Higher Ed that will speak to today’s postmodern generation.

Last weekend, the New York Times ran this story about Cedarville University in Ohio. The headline reads, “A Christian College Struggles to Further Define Itself“. The story documents the departure of the president and the vice-president for student life. It describes how diversity presented a challenge on issues of politics (faculty members wrote a piece in the student paper on why they couldn’t support Romney) and sexuality (there are concerns that the student life vp was too hospitable on same-sex issues).

I want to be careful here. It’s easy at any institution to do some interviews over coffee and come up with negative responses to university decisions, especially if one isn’t an insider. But the Cedarville issues, like the ones at Shorter and others, speak to the tensions inherent in engaging an ambiguous future a changing society.

Sociologically, what we’re seeing is the leading edge of pluralism running into the traditional authority of religious institutions. These are points of extreme uncertainty and tension (to mix metaphors, imagine them as tectonic plates). But the tension can be creative as well as destructive. To put it simply, what is the stance of an exclusive institution in a world that doesn’t recognize the preferred, privileged position of religious conservatives. How do we figure out how to engage the world from a place of identity and value without pulling the wagons into a circle?

What is Jesus’ perspective on learning? How did he relate to those who were “different”? He ate with sinners, angered the religious leaders of the day, and was willing to sacrifice himself. The point was to demonstrate love, not power. He was reflecting the Father and drawing people to himself. He said that if we attempt to save our lives (institutions) we would lose them but if we attempted to lose our lives (institutions) we would save them. He called on us to deny ourselves daily — that’s not just individually but institutionally as well.

We can fight the changing society and wished we lived in some imagined simpler time (which didn’t exist back then). Or we can bear witness as Jesus did. I know I’ve drawn a lot from Peter Enns lately but he keeps writing good stuff. Yesterday, he reminded us that “the most frightening verse in the Bible” is in 1 John 4:8: “Whoever does not love does not know God..

It’s a tall order. But it’s the only way forward for Christian Higher Education over the long run. And it’s where Jesus would want to go to school.

12 thoughts on “Where would Jesus go to College?

  1. I like Jim’s response. But, given your desire to identify a Christian college, the best I can do is speak in general terms –
    – a Christian college that no only tolerates differences of opinion, but actively encourages the same.

    Sadly, all too many people seem to think that when they read in Colossians that Jesus is Lord and author of all, this means that Jesus has a single answer for every issue and academic discipline.

    However, just as there is no single “answer” to all the political issues before us, still more there is no single way for Christians to do physics, chemistry, nursing, English literature, et al.

    I am reminded of the passage in The Spirit of the Disciplines, where Dallas Willard writes that “God does not make robots” !!

    In sum, the Christian college which does not make robots, but creative creatures, made in the Image of God, and redeemed by the death, resurretion, and ascension of Jesus, and the gifts of the Holy Spirit.

    1. Thanks, John. You’ve captured where I’m headed. The piece I’m still trying to articulate is this: how is the learning and teaching at a Christian college different? How do we embody a position of faith while trusting the process of questioning?

  2. hi john. good stuff. thanks. for the past 2 years i’ve been writing about a christian faith and theology that is postmodern and emergent. i think you will find a lot in common. feel free to borrow anything that helps. i try to vary the material so the best way is to peruse the sidebars per your interest. i’ve built it as a contemporary refernce site per topics and issues, partly tutorial, partly inspirational, partly personal. – russ

  3. Excellent insights, John. One thing that all Christian institutions – including universities – should avoid at all cost is becoming obsessed with ‘rights’ language and adopting a persecution complex. I feel quite certain that Jesus would never go crying to the public courts, saying, ‘it’s not fair that I’m being singled out, therefore I will ask my followers to build a legal powerhouse… After all, this is my country, too!’ The fact that some Christians are hyper-vigilant to ensure that the ‘godless’ never get special rights, suggests that either the Kingdom of God is misunderstood, or rejected. Christian witness would be strengthened if we actually were ‘second – class’ citizens. But since we’re not, perhaps we need to more fully attend to and attempt to identify with those who actually are. And if we can’t see the person because his/her belief system doesn’t match ours, then we should concerned that we have indeed become the Pharisees of our day.

    1. Jonas. I agree. But as I read the Cedarville story I found myself pondering the motivations of the trustees who were so concerned about controlling the dynamics of the institution. What was their motivation? I realize it was in large measure to protect what they had come to treasure as the expression of God’s intent. In that way, they may be precisely Pharisaical — not rigid and judgmental but grasping at an inadequate perception of the Kingdom in their midst. If we are to point to a new direction that involves being willing to lose our institutions for the sake of the gospel, I’m thinking that I have to learn to avoid divisive language. Boy, is that hard!

  4. Here is another angle on this question –
    What about the historic creeds – the Nicene and Apostles Creeds? These creeds were developed to identify the core of the Christian faith, what C.S. Lewis called “mere Christianity”.

    Put simply, is it possible that we have problems because of all the “stuff” we have added to the creeds, “stuff” that is not the Jesus’ Good News of the Kingdom?

    1. John: Excellent point. The creeds name the essential elements without all the cultural baggage. At least I think so. I really don’t know the extent to which the Nicene creed reflected cultural dynamics of the church at the time.

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