So far as I know, every United Methodist-affiliated college or university would either describe itself or agree with the description of “non-sectarian.” It means that we do not require anyone to go to chapel, take a particular religion course, or impose the Christian faith in any way on anyone. No litmus test or control conditions. This approach is motivated, in large part, by the desire to welcome and nurture people of all faiths or no particular faith.
But this institutional posture presents its own sets of challenges and one of the biggest is moral. If we regard ourselves as affiliated, but very little or perhaps nothing of the church’s identity and mission influence how the school is run, then is it honest to call ourselves church affiliated?
I can make this question go away a little bit by reference to institutional requirements. A school can point to its charter and founding by a Methodist conference or the fact that a certain number of trustees must be United Methodist. I think these formal criteria are very important. As indicators, they deserve more attention than they often get. But this description tells us next to nothing about the kind of school a school is. Very importantly, it does not tell us how the religious affiliation guides the actual experience of students. And if ever there was an “at the end of the day” comment worthy of the cliche, this is it. Surely, students at United Methodist related schools should be having an outstanding, exemplary educational experience. What is the quality of experience that students at United Methodist affiliated schools have? Is it any different than any other school?
What happens when we risk looking beyond institutional identity? To attempt an answer, I turn to Romans 12:1-3. One could start with any number of scripture references. This one I read this morning during my prayer time and it hit me hard:
I appeal to you, therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your reasonable service. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God–what is good and acceptable and perfect.
As students of the Bible know, Romans 12 marks the pivot point, moving from God’s mighty acts in history to how the Body of Christ ought to live in the world–that is, as history unfolds. It’s easy for us in the West to read these verses individualistically – if I offer myself as a living sacrifice, then I can know God’s will. Cool. I think that point is true, but Romans 12:1-3 aims at something else entirely and that something else demands our attention, including and especially those of us in church-related higher education.
Paul has just spent 11 chapters expounding on God’s works in history. The canvas on which Paul paints is huge: all the world, Jew and Gentile alike, is held under sin’s sway, with devastating and very public consequences. God has done something for the world in Christ Jesus that the world could not do for itself. This amazing good news is for Jew and Gentile alike; in other words, it’s for all nations. Then comes the heartbreak for Paul of the substance of Romans 9-11, how it came about that God’s people (and Paul’s) by and large refuse to accept Jesus as their long-awaited Messiah. Well, Paul says, God has temporarily set aside their blessing in order to graft the wild olive branches (the Gentiles) into the main olive branch – Israel, whose story and mission are epitomized and brought to fruition in Jesus.
My goodness, is there a lot going on here and we can’t even begin to unpack it. But take just one thought (and, for some of you, I recognize that I state the obvious). Paul is doing history with a theological lens. He has taken up large scale matters just like a good university historian might. What is Paul doing, then, but what many in higher education seek to do? Every college or university wants to contribute to knowledge and to help address large-scale challenges. We do so by research (mostly at the university level), but also by educating students who then will “make their mark” on the world.
Paul shows quite compellingly how the church ought to be involved in such matters. Considered in this way, the gifts of Romans 12 belong on a much larger scale than we normally see. Imagine those gifts as for the church, but also for the world. We discern the will of God in order to bring to bear all the blessings on the world that the Good News entails.
Isn’t this a description of what a good college education ought to do? And here surfaces the ethical dilemma for church related schools. If, at a religiously affiliated school we ape secular assumptions and consider “religion” a “private matter” only secondarily (or less) relevant to a college education, we actively if unwittingly misrepresent the Christian faith. This is a problem, don’t you think? We deny students the opportunity to see their career interests as participating in this glorious vision.
Waves and waves of implications come from this realization. I can’t put them in this post, but I”m trying to gather them into something publishable. Reading Romans 12 this morning brought to mind why every United Methodist college or university in the country should grapple anew with what it means to be affiliated. It’s time to go beyond institutional matters to core missional concerns. If not, why bother with denominational affiliation?