Getting Practical: What would a Robustly Christian Vision for UM Schools Involve?

In response to my previous post about UM leaders not giving up on church related colleges and universities, a friend challenged me with some probing questions.  He couldn’t see, for example, how my claim that we can develop a robustly Christian approach without establishing certain controls like compulsory chapel would actually work.  It’s time for me to get practical.

Some good news: the place of religious faith and of religious ideas has found renewed sympathetic reception in higher education.  The book (I think I’ve mentioned this one previously) by Douglas and Rhonda Hustedt Jacobsen, No Longer Invisible: Religion in University Education, (Oxford University Press, 2012), describes this new-found interest and openness.  It is increasingly common to find buildings and programs set aside for interfaith dialogue or the exploration of faith in some measure.

That said, the dominant assumption in higher education is still a secularist one.  The fresh dialogue about the positive role of religion mostly still takes place separate from discussions of core academic mission.  This is especially true of research universities whose mission is to contribute to fields of knowledge.  The assumption remains that “faith” has nothing to do with knowledge.  Thus, though religion is making something of a comeback on campus,  Warren Nord’s, Does God Make a Difference? Taking Religion Seriously in Our Schools and Universities (Oxford University Press, 2010) shows how far we have to go.  One of the strengths of this book is that it pays attention to how students are already shaped in public schools before arriving at college.  That formation (pedagogy) is unwaveringly secular:

“Currently, public schools and universities [emphasis added] unrelentingly encourage students to think about the world and the subjects of curriculum in exclusively secular ways, even though many of them are deeply controversial.” (p. 166)

This point presents an ethical dilemma to religiously affiliated schools.  If the gold standard is still essentially secular, how does the religious identity of a church related college or university engage the school’s academic mission?  How does the church’s mission enter into dialogue with the school’s mission?  I’d like to try to answer this question with some practical suggestions.

1.  The school’s mission statement should be based on a clear expression of the belief that all humans are created in the imago Dei.  Every student (not just the bright ones adorning our marketing brochures or the troubled ones filling our counseling and conduct offices) needs and should expect the kind of serious, loving commitment to their development and flourishing that our mission statements say we give.

2.  We should also take seriously the problem of human sinfulness, including how a school’s very ethos contributes to the distortion of the image of God.  One practical way this could be implemented is by reviewing residence hall policies, especially those regarding how students resolve disagreements.  All schools have procedural rules, but it is surprising how often students feel frustrated by the lack of resolution in these conflict resolution practices.  I believe one of the reasons for the ineffectiveness has to do with a naive and inconsistent view of human nature.  On one hand, we treat students as if they were fully formed adults able to handle the matters.  On the other hand, we treat them like children and overprotect.

3.  The school’s mission statement should reflect awareness of and affinity with Christian eschatology – that the goal of human life is wrapped in a vision of God’s eternal reign/Kingdom.  The vision for social justice often surfaces on college campuses.  A church related school should intentionally provide means for students to explore justice from a Christian perspective, especially since we know they will encounter ideas about justice from other particular points of view.

A couple of qualifications. First, humans have agency and desire freedom.  We don’t push people around in order to get them to think the way that we do.  We don’t hide competing claims in order to make sure they get the truth.  We can have a robust theological vision as an institutional anchor point and accord freedom to every participant in the school community (e.g. academic freedom to professors).  But we also don’t pretend that the future is limitlessly open for humans to fashion as they see fit.  God has something to say about the matter and, in fact, God has spoken.

Remember, some vision of human nature and the telos (aim, purpose) of a good college education will predominate.  If that vision is not rooted in a Christian understanding, then why is the college/university related to the church?

4.  Consonant with the value of academic freedom and what a truly liberative education requires, this vision does not requires that faculty, students or staff adhere to the Christian faith.  However, it does establish the expectation that all members of the community (including and especially trustees) understand and accept the school’s church relationship and its various attempts to contribute to the church’s mission.  No one associated with the school should be surprised or offended when a church related school does some things that look “churchy.”

I have heard a number of times of faculty at UM-related schools actually protesting that someone offered a prayer before a school function.  This attitude reveals either (a) that we have done a poor job helping people understand the church related identity, which, I believe, is often the case, or (b) that protesters illegitimately ignore the fact that they work at a church related school.

This post represents a start on some practical ways a church related college or university could distinguish itself with specifically Christian theological references points without establishing those traditional mechanisms associated with confessional Christian schools.  I’ll share some more practical ideas soon.

About Stephen Rankin

Professionally I am an ordained elder in the United Methodist Church. I currently serve as University Chaplain at Southern Methodist University. Personally I am married to Joni and we have four grown children and four grandchildren. You can find my personal thoughts on this site, as well as on twitter at @stephenwrankin.

Comments

  1. I attended a UMC college for a couple of years. Not only was the school “affiliated” with the UMC, but it was owned by the local conference as well. I think they did a number of things right. We had a weekly chapel service, but it wasn’t compulsory. I think almost every student attended at least once, but it seems to have been more popular among the faculty and administration. There was also a student led worship service one night a week.

    Professors were allowed to begin each class with a prayer if they chose. Some started with traditional Christian prayers, other professors chose to begin class with a meditation period, without explicitly invoking the name of any deity, and others chose not to have any prayers at all. I only had one professor I felt exhibited a bit too much evangelical zeal, but almost every other professor, at one point or another, talked about the importance of faith in God, whether it be the Christian concept of God or other, in their lives.

    Most importantly, professors in the natural sciences were allowed to teach science, English professors were allowed to assign reading assignments, and the drama department able to stage plays without consulting with any church doctrine. I learned more about Darwin and his theory of evolution at this college than I did in my public high school.

    There were some things they did wrong as well, most notably establishing the office of the President for the school as an actual pastoral appointment. While some college Presidents might make good pastors, not all pastors are qualified to be college Presidents. During my matriculation, a professor accused the President of altering a student’s grades. Additionally, other members of the administration spoke openly of the President’s financial impropriety, yet there was very little they could do, as the President was appointed and ultimately answered only to the episcopacy.

    This president passed away while in office and the conference decided to end the appointment, instead looking to academia for his replacement, but the damage had already been done and the conference’s negligence ultimately led to the school’s bankruptcy and subsequent shuttering.

  2. Candy Pettey says:

    Definitely food for thought.

  3. I understand and like that “this vision does not requires that faculty, students or staff adhere to the Christian faith,” but think there must be some critical mass of Christians on campus if the school is to remain Christian. Of course, it is also true that a majority of the faculty, staff, and students be Christian and the school not be Christian. Our local community college would be an example of that.

    One of our difficulties is that we have to start (apparently) with the assumption, as developed in the broader culture, regarding what the purpose of a college/university is. If the primary purpose of a college/university is to “give students the credentials/knowledge/skills they need to be gainfully employed” we are already operating under severe limitations. As a parent about to send my youngest off to college, I like the idea that she might get out with employable skills. But I also want education to be more than that. I want some institutions that go beyond just “doing what other colleges do, but Christianly;” perhaps even some schools that don’t even focus on the JOB angle.

  4. Martha Myre says:

    Wonderful as usual. Thanks for moving to the practical implications. Now, how can I help!?

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