The Importance of Conversation: Faculty Colleagues and the CCCU

This past week, Chris Gehrz asked, “What do you love about Christian Colleges?” So far the response has been less than overwhelming. But his question got me thinking.

It is true that I love working alongside undergraduates eager to make sense of the world around them. And there are no other settings where I would get paid to pontificate about sociology.

But one thing stood out as I pondered Chris’ question: my faculty colleagues.

We come from a variety of different places and experiences. We come with different disciplinary lenses. We have different frameworks in terms of our understanding of institutional mission. We adopt different political philosophies. And yet those differences don’t seem to define us (at least for the most part — more below).

When I first started the writing project that became my book, I was focused on the importance of what I called Christian Academic Community. This concept was how I distinguished the Christian College from other institutional contexts. It’s why the Christian College isn’t the same as the state university — we take Christian identity seriously. It’s why the Christian College isn’t an extension of the denomination — it is Academic in character and process. It’s why the faculty aren’t focused primarily on making a name in the disciplinary guilds — we are a Community.

Outside of my classes and university meetings, I spend significant time in interaction with my faculty colleagues. We don’t sit around in spaces quite as nice as those in Augustana’s picture above. Our conversations happen in offices, in stairwells, at lunch, over coffee.

Those conversations are the places where we wrestle with the world’s big issues (as well as institutional politics). I have had many conversations with colleagues about the legalization of same-sex marriage in many states (these were prior to the June’s Obergefell Decision). We have talked about economic inequality. We have talked about the role of the church in a post-Christian era. We have talked about the value of liberal arts in a STEM environment.

We are not of one mind on any of these issues. There are legitimate differences between us. Some wind up being negotiated over months and years of conversation. Others get so far and then we identify the one barrier that separates us and decide to live with that tension.

As I write this, I’m thinking of a particular colleague whose high view of scripture calls him to land in a particular place on same-sex marriage. I respect his position. It’s part of who he is and where his years of study have led him. We agree on a great deal within the broader conversation but we will never completely see things the same way.

And that’s wonderful. I need him. I hope he needs me. Together we are part of Christian Academic Community, listening for the Spirit’s leading as we reflect on our own positions.

This is what has been so troubling to me about the CCCU crisis relating to Goshen and Eastern Mennonite’s policy change on hiring and the response of other Christian Universities like Union University. I struggle to affirm the demand for strident action because my first inclination is to wonder how the faculty and administration at GC and EMU reached their conclusion. I wish I could sit down over lunch and hear their rationale.

This is how faculty members operate. We put our prior assumptions on the table (eventually) and discuss them as brothers and sisters in a community who are invested in each other’s lives. In so doing, we work first toward understanding and then toward the common good.

The CCCU news has been largely about pronouncements of what the CCCU membership criteria should mean. By defining the criteria in certain ways, it has been easy for critics to claim that Goshen and Eastern Mennonite aren’t really Christian Universities at all.

By the way, a group called Christian Universities Online yesterday released this year’s list of The 50 Best Christian Colleges and Universities. Goshen came in at #4 and EMU at #22 (Union was #6 and SAU was #19). I’m not clear on the criteria used, but the timing was interesting to say the least.

Messiah’s Jenell Paris had an interesting post this week (thanks for the heads up, Chris!) on the limits of separation as a religious strategy. She speaks of the values inherent in The Karate Kid that she missed because her church growing up didn’t go to movies. She speaks of “a visceral fear of engaging differences“. She concludes:

There is much I appreciate about my fundamentalist heritage, including a love for the Bible and careful attention to individual moral duty. But the doctrine of separation? I’ve let it go, and have found nothing of the Gospel diminished. In fact, it seems bracingly alive in conversation, life, and conflict with people with whom I disagree, both within my religious group and beyond.

I agree with Jenell. As a faculty member, I have seen that honest engagement enhances the depth of understanding, reveals the Spirit in our midst, and leads us into all truth.

I have known some faculty colleagues over the years who still embrace a separatist ideology. They have seen it as their responsibility to look for litmus test issues among other faculty. It saddens me, because such folks seem cut off from the very Christian Academic Community which is the lifeblood of what we do in our institutions.

Differing views are a given, whether seen within a Christian college faculty or in a loose association of similar Colleges into an umbrella organization. The key is what we do with those differing views.

My experience tell me that engagement is the only sure way forward. In that engagement, we come to discover the reality of Christian Community.

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