Harvard’s Slippery Slope?

In my previous entry, I asserted that many Christian universities approach this changing generation by “holding the line“. This conservative stance is not something I mean to make fun of — it’s part of the DNA of much of Christian higher education. I want to explore that stance from a sociological perspective to see if we can find avenues for changing the educational culture of Christian universities without abandoning their core commitments.

First, many Christian universities had their origins either in reaction to perceived problems in traditional higher education or as means to prepare ministers within a particular denominational tradition. The former creates a condition where the outside world is looked upon with some degree of suspicion. The latter privileges the stance of the sponsoring denomination (trustees and donors for nondenominational schools) and thereby brackets critical thinking, opening a critique of such schools as places of indoctrination. The combination of these twin tendencies creates an insulation — those on the “inside” are pleased not to be like those on the “outside”. If you map the member schools of the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities, it’s not surprising to find many in small towns removed from major urban areas (and their institutions of higher learning). It is this tendency that moved Peter Enns to recently ask if evangelical colleges can truly be academic institutions.

Second, many Christian universities place a high premium on clergy trustees. This is seen as important to protecting the core Christian identity of the university. Those schools that have diversified their boards have drawn trustees more heavily from conservative arenas — successful business people who remember fondly their days at their alma mater. In a denominational school, any movement toward the culture was seen as capitulation to “worldliness”. One step outside the line brings an outcry from sponsoring churches and/or bad press in the local paper: neither fits well on a board agenda. (I remember that one of my institutions created an uproar in the churches by having a late-night “air guitar” concert!)

Third, there’s Harvard. I’ve heard this story since I first started working in Christian higher education. Harvard was founded as a Christian school but today the capital-V “Veritas” is replaced by a small-v “veritas”. No longer committed to absolute truth, there is a stereotype that anything goes and that personal convictions are outmoded. I heard this story told this fall at a gathering celebrating the unique spiritual role of the Christian college as the only defense against the inexorable decline. David McKenna, former president of Spring Arbor, Seattle Pacific, and Asbury Seminary recently wrote a book on the modern history of Christian higher education. He points out that many of the changes at Harvard were not the result of some slippery slope but the result of conscious decisions about positioning the university in a key role within the higher education universe. He offers several correctives that can allow the Christian university to hold its mission over time.

James Davison Hunter’s book To Change the World identifies three stances the church (and, by extension, its universities) have taken in response to the broader culture. He defines these as “defensive against”, “relevance to”, and “purity from”. The first sees the broader culture as hostile. I fear that too much of the “Christian Worldview” rhetoric arises out of this perspective (faith and science issues provide one of the best examples). The second adopts the issues of contemporary culture but attempts to “Christianize” them. The third focuses inward on the behaviors or values that set folks apart from the broader culture. This may reflect a focus on chapel services or purity standards (I once had a church official tell me how great it was that a survey showed that Christian institutions showed a significantly lower level of sexual behavior than what he imagined at secular schools even though the figure seemed shockingly high to me).

Hunter pleads for something he calls “Faithful Presence Within”. I take this to mean that there is a unique voice for the Christian university within the cacophony of voices in the culture. But that requires the university’s voice to be affirmatively stated, willing to engage those who are different, and above all, fearless.

Which brings me back to this generation of students. It’s these students who are driving conversations about human trafficking. It is these students who are asking questions about intentional community. It is these students who are trying the force the dialogue on LGBTQ issues on Christian university campuses.

If Christian universities can be the places I believe they can be, they will play a role of faithful presence. They will speak to important issues of contemporary society without defensiveness, because they recognize that they owe it to their students to engage the questions.

Make no mistake — the students will engage these questions. If they don’t find ways of engaging at the Christian university, they’ll do it outside of the faithful presence we should be providing. We may think we’re glad that we prevented those hard conversations from happening on our campuses to have them happen elsewhere. But that elsewhere may be in a bar after graduation or in a Wall Street boardroom or in divorce court. Where then will our faithful presence be?

Sometimes I think that we act like we’re protecting the church and maybe even God Himself from these harder conversations. This has always struck me as sociologically and theologically naive — the Church has been plenty resilient over the last two millennia. The idea that God can’t handle big questions and so we must protect him is nothing short of idolatry.

We’re in no danger of following Harvard off the slippery slope. We’re in danger of being so safe that we can’t adequately explain why we exist.

Today’s Christian University Students

I’m launching this blog as a means of exploring issues within the realm of higher education and the popular culture that directly impact how we think and act as Christian educators. Over the course of my more than 30 years in Christian Colleges and Universities, I have seen a marked shift in my students. This has been true since roughly the beginning of the 21st Century.

In my experience, Christian Universities have been slow to respond to these shifts. Many have gone out of their way to reinforce messages from 40 years ago and take pride in “holding the line“. In the process, they run the risk of making Christian Higher Ed increasingly irrelevant to larger and larger numbers of young people.

I began focusing on this question more academically over the course of the last two years. Jeffery Jensen Arnett‘s work on Emerging Adults is particularly interesting in terms of what is happening with the current generation of 18-30 year olds. I’m currently working on a book for freshmen entering a Christian University that builds upon some of his work.

In September, I made a presentation at Spring Arbor University (where I now teach) summarizing the challenge this postmodern generation brings to Christian Higher Ed. Some of it relates specifically to life at Spring Arbor (the reference to the Concept and the Clock Tower) but most of it can be generalized to other Christian Universities. Here’s the link to the video. If the PowerPoint goes too fast, here’s another version.Community of Learners 9-21-12.

This fall, I had the joy of listening to the audiobook of Rachel Held Evans’s wonderful book, Evolving In Monkey Town. Rachel is a popular blogger in young evangelical circles (including some readers like me who are no longer young!). She grew up around Christian apologetics, Christian high schools, and Christian Colleges. But in her early twenties, she began asking herself hard cultural and intellectual questions that her safe Christian mental models really couldn’t reconcile. She’s not new in that regard — the same has happened to bright, reflective evangelical students over the years.

Many Christian students who face deep questions take one of two tracks: either they compartmentalize their reality so that they just hold to their prior position (“God’s ways are not our ways“) or they junk the Christian presuppositions altogether. Rachel describes interactions with friends in both camps.

What makes her book so important is that she models what it means to embrace the tension. It makes life much more complicated but also more authentic. My presentation to the Spring Arbor Community summarized some research findings from the Barna group on the disaffection of young adults in the evangelical church. There are several themes David Kinnaman and his colleagues uncovered, but central to them is the idea that the evangelical church doesn’t deal with complexity.

As I interact with today’s Christian College students, I find some who compartmentalize and some who abandon. But there seem to be significant numbers of  students attempting to follow Rachel’s more demanding path.

This bodes well for the Christian University. If we can be the places where students begin to work through their challenges, we can provide models and supportive environments where questions are welcomed because we have nothing to fear.

On the other hand, if we insist that our Christian universities can only be places for people who hold the party line we will miss larger and larger sectors of the young adult population. This is not only bad for the universities, it’s damaging to the greater culture.