The Value of Complex Questions

This morning NPR had this piece titled “More Young People Are Moving Away from Religion, but Why?”. It’s a 7 minute clip from what David Greene reports was a two-hour discussion with six young adults in New York. Three men and three women participated,  ranging in age from 23 to 33. They come from a variety of faith positions: Catholic, Muslim, Jewish, Adventist, and undisclosed “Christian”. In listening to their comments several times, I was struck with how their struggles relate to questions at Christian universities.

All of these folks are older than my students and we weren’t told anything about where they went to college themselves. There are all kinds of questions I’d ask about sampling and representativeness. But still, there are interesting patterns in their answers. And those patterns align nicely with the kinds of things the Barna group found on evangelical young people. When you listen carefully to their comments, they aren’t rejecting religion per se. They are rejecting an overly structured apologetic. It’s not religion that failed them — it was the structure of argument that the were substituting for religion.

For example, one young woman speaks of her Catholic schooling and how she had questions about what she was taught about premarital sex and homosexuality. But she says that she moved from her faith because she couldn’t support such “core beliefs”. The young man with a cross tattoo rejects “religious doctrines” (Greene’s phrase) of a literal hell and homosexuality as sin. The Adventist young man has issues with theodicy — he can prayer be effective when bad stuff was happening in his family and his prayers didn’t stop it. And if the failure of efficacy was him failing some test, wasn’t that as cruel as “burning ants with a magnifying glass?” The Muslim man struggles with a literal understanding of Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice Isaac. Why would God expect such a thing? And isn’t someone who claimed that God wanted that somewhat unhinged?

These are all good questions. They are questions that Christian universities should be engaging better than anyone. We have the ability to separate “core doctrines” from the various social, behavioral, and scientific factors that present challenges. We are able to handle the ambiguity of scriptural texts, recognizing their difficult implications, without abandoning scriptural commitments altogether.

But if our approach to challenging issues is to offer up pat answers, we put our students at risk. Because if a few years, they will be confronted with others who don’t share the easy responses we offer. And when that happens, they run the risk of being in some NPR interview sometime in the future.

The key factors that arose in David Kinnaman’s work in You Lost Me (about disaffected young evangelicals) were judgmentalism, inability to deal with doubt, and lack of complexity (particular on issues related to science). Christian Universities should deal with the grayness of the complex questions. It leads to a deeper faith walk (relates to James Fowler’s stage 5 and above) that isn’t shaken when life challenges the pat answers we had folks memorize.

The Central Task of the Christian University

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the ways in which Christian Higher Education has unique characteristics compared to other segments of the higher ed universe. As someone who did all of my education at a land-grant institution (Boiler Up), I came to teach in Christian universities with some of the analytical detachment that comes with being a sociologist.

This morning my analytical antennae perked up when I saw this piece from Frederick Buechner on his stint as a visiting professor at Wheaton College in 1985. The first paragraph of his reflection (which comes from his book Telling Secrets) speaks of the rules he was expected to live by during his time on campus. The second paragraph speaks to the critical thinking and open-mindedness of the faculty who taught there. I realized that in this short contrast, Buechner captured some of the inherent tensions present in the Christian university. On the one hand, there are sectarian-like rules (some of these vary by institution in type and justification). They are designed to foster good Christian living and a harmonious community atmosphere. Sometimes they simply provide a way for students to avoid the perceived temptations of the large secular university. On the other hand, Christian Universities are populated by faculty members who want students to think for themselves, confront challenging ideas, and deepen their character in the process (this too varies by institutional form — some are more open and others are far more restrained).

What this suggests is that the Christian University, more so than other venues in higher education, stands between a protective view of the world and an exploratory view of the world. Like most organizational forms, these are matters of social construction: one knows you’ve pushed too hard or gotten too lax because problems arise. Short of that, you live in the ambiguity and accept the tension you’re living within. (Advice to young faculty: don’t use that contrast as a teaching point as it’s not always appreciated! Trust me.)

Two things stand out to me from this ambiguity. First, faculty members (and others) model to students how to navigate those tensions. It’s why autobiography is so important in teaching (and any good communicating). The relationship between faculty member and student is a key part of seeing the navigation happen — not simply in the delivery of content but in the greater sense of modeling (I read a lot of Parker Palmer). The second thing that stands out is the changing nature of our students. They, and their parents, have made decisions on various life issues long before attending the college. They made decisions about the social acceptance of wine. They have made decisions about acceptable sexual limits and necessary precautions. Increasing numbers of students will see “the rules” as hindrances and not as helps.

Managing this balance between structure and openness is at the educational heart of the Christian university. It’s why we hire Christian faculty, have classes that are smaller, invest funds in student life programs, and develop robust residential programs. This makes the education more expensive than your average state school (even though Christian universities are less expensive than non-religious private schools).

Many Christian institutions like the ones I’ve served have diversified their programs to include adult education, online programs, and graduate degrees. These are useful. But the key activity remains the set of relationships the students maintain with faculty, staff, and other students. In the midst of those commitments they learn who they are, how to ask questions even when they don’t have answers, and impact the larger world.

This is why so little of the national dialogues about higher education challenges and reforms speak to the Christian university. I’m a regular reader of Jeff Selingo’s blog in the Chronicle of Higher Ed. He explores the suggested innovations that will deal with rising costs, student debt, job placement, completion, and access. But few of these innovations speak to Christian higher ed. MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) work well when you’ve got huge lecture halls and can explore issues of scale but not when I’m talking to the registrar about bumping my class of 24 to 30 and justifying how it won’t interfere with the personal contact the course demands. Online programs work well for people who don’t have access to traditional university schedule, but my most recent evaluations report that the students prefer to learn face to face. Increased focus on vocational connection may work to enhance enrollment at community colleges but won’t speak to the broader mission of a liberal arts institution. We want students to be employed but we want them to be of impact in thoughtful and creative ways.

The significant challenge for the Christian University is to find new and better ways of talking about our uniqueness. We’re not unique because we dont’ allow drinking for those underage. We’re not unique because we deliver lectures in cost-effective means to thousands of students. We are unique because we embrace the kind of open stance to faithful learning that models how to deal with a complex and changing world.

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.