The Twentysomething Soul #4 – Nones (Don’t Believe Everything You Read about Them)

In this last installment on my little series of reflections from Tim Clydesdale and Kathleen Garces-Foley’s book, The Twentysomething Soul, I focus on that oh so slippery demographic category, The Nones.  This cohort of emerging adults has suffered a good deal of misunderstanding in public opinion.  I’ll summarize a few of the chapter’s most important findings and offer a thought or two along the way.  Because there is so much confusion about the Nones, I will quote from the book more extensively than I did in previous posts.  Forgive the length.  I rather wish I could just quote the whole chapter.  Better to read the whole book.

“Nones” make up somewhere around 30% of the Twentysomething age cohort.  As careful readers of these studies recognize, and as Clydesdale and Garces-Foley point out, the numbers do not support the standard secularist narrative about the decline of religion, even though there has been a significant shift in identity:

The rise of the Nones, especially among Americans under age 30, has been a popular news headline, but this label is widely misunderstood.  Though Nones indicate no religious affiliation, it does not mean that they have no religious beliefs or practices.  Religion is a complex phenomenon with individual and social dimensions, including affiliation, belief, and practices.  While some Nones are ardent secularists, a solid majority of Nones hold beliefs in a supernatural or transcendent reality, and some appear quite conventional in their beliefs. (p. 143)

To sort out the 30%, Clydesdale and Garces-Foley use four sub-categories:

  • Unaffiliated Believers (17% of the 30%) – these Nones often pray, read their Bibles, and, on occasion, attend worship.  Why are they unaffiliated?  There are several relevant answers, but I am convinced that the main two are: (1) we did not properly catechize and disciple them, because (2) we ourselves are not properly catechized and discipled, therefore have not properly passed on our faith.  “Properly” is a very important qualifier.
  • Spiritual Eclectics (17% of the 30%) – they borrow beliefs and practices from a number of faith traditions and philosophies.  One out of three Nones view God as a “spiritual force” (p. 155).  While we label them with “spiritual,” “the term ‘spiritual’ or ‘spirituality’ did not appeal to most Nones, a finding that runs counter to characterizations of today’s young adults, especially Nones, as a ‘spiritual but not religious generation” (p. 156).  This observation emphasizes the need for us not to impose a misleading interpretive grid that drives a wedge between spirituality and religion.
  • Philosophical Secularists (12% of the 30%) – “reject religion or spirituality in any form” and choose a philosophical explanation of reality as a rival to religious views (see p. 145).  We could put here the young people influenced by the so-called militant atheism of Sam Harris or Richard Dawkins.  (Secularists in the academy misleadingly love to generalize about Nones under this banner.)  They think about the meaning of life very or fairly often (p. 156), so they are at least somewhat engaged with faith-related questions.
  • Indifferent Secularists (54% of the 30%) – these young people “express no interest in any type of worldview” (p. 145).  I would add, though, that expressing no interest in a worldview does not mean that they don’t have one.  I would also argue that their apparent lack of interest in spiritual questions can be mostly attributed to the dominant pedagogy in American education.  They have (mostly) learned to mimic the attitude of indifference.  We teach by what we talk about all the time and we teach by what we never mention.

Let’s add some approximate numbers to these percentages.  If there are 42.7 million people aged 20-29 in the United States, how would these sub-categories appear numerically?  (I hope I did the math right.)

  • Unaffiliated Believers: +/- 2.2 million
  • Spiritual Eclectics: +/- 2.2 million
  • Philosophical Secularists: 1.5 million
  • Indifferent Secularists: 6.9 million

These identities can be fluid (p. 145).  The authors give the example of “Joe,” who was initially labeled as a Philosophical Secularist, but shifted his thinking and practice, which prompted the researchers to move him into Spiritual Eclectic.  Remember, these conclusions come from personal interviews.  That these identities can be fluid is directly related to the fact that we humans are social beings who are influenced by our contexts:

We do want to draw attention to the role that context plays in shaping these changes.  Universities, where our first interviews with religiously unaffiliated twenty somethings occurred, are on the whole more welcoming settings for Nones than other settings–such as family homes, neighborhoods, community organizations, and workplaces, and these latter contexts can foster exploration of religious and spiritual resources by post-college Nones…Our point is this, when Joe’s context changed from secular-and-spiritual-friendly to religious-and-spiritual-friendly, Joe changed with it (p. 146).

I find encouragement in these observations.  Based on my reading over the years, as well as my experience working with college students, the vast majority of them are unfailingly interested in “life” questions.  They want to talk about their God questions with trustworthy people.  They are not the aversive skeptics that they are often made out to be.  I have made the appeal many times to churches simply to offer friendships and transparency to college students. Start there.  (It takes time.) Don’t throw more programming at them.  They are over-scheduled, as it is.  They need models and exemplars from among ordinary Christians whose lives show that they are committed to the way of Christ.  Don’t worry about being perfect (flawless). They already know that we aren’t and they don’t really need or want us to be.  They want to see how real, honest-to-goodness Christian discipleship looks.  And works.

The reference to higher education in the block quote is telling and requires a little detour.  In the studies that I have read, students attending overtly Christian schools (often called confessionally Christian, with chapel and other requirements like a Bible or theology course) often report crises of faith at higher rates than their counterparts at public or so-called church-related non-sectarian schools.  Why?  Because their Christian professors introduce them to challenging content.  This fact does not fit the many prejudices about Christian schools as places of narrow indoctrination.  Ironically, at church-related colleges and universities, students almost never encounter this sort of experience in the classroom.  It is relegated to campus ministry groups or some other place where “faith” is allowed.

At public or non-sectarian, church-related colleges and universities, the default position is too often “secular-and-spiritual-friendly,” as noted by the authors.   To the degree that a school’s ethos sees overlap between spirituality and religion, then the positive role of religious faith is generally acknowledged.  To the degree that spirituality is lifted up as the superior alternative to religion – that is, where faculty and staff frame spirituality in positive terms and religion in more restrictive and even negative terms – then a default position of pluralistic spirituality characterizes the school’s ethos.  This is particularly ironic for church-related schools who claim a relationship to the Christian faith but generally suppress that faith out of a desire to be open and welcoming to people of all faiths and no particular faith.

Let me drive that point home a little more strongly.  Church-related colleges that function so as to avoid the purportedly negative aspects of a strong Christian identity – as if that identity promotes narrowness, exclusivity, and the loss of academic freedom – easily slip into a different kind of narrow dogmatism.  The dominant faith is one that fits nicely with American civil religion.  Whatever that religion is, it is not Christian.

Back to the Nones.  After looking at a number of factors such as civic engagement and registering to vote, the authors note that Nones share several characteristics with the religiously affiliated, but also differ  with the religiously affiliated in one very important respect (other than the obvious one about religious affiliation).  They “are more privatized in their outlook and behavior than religiously affiliated Twentysomethings” (p. 160).  They “appear to tolerate institutions rather than seek them out and join them” (p. 160).

They keep politics and social institutions at an arm’s length, preferring the periphery of American public life.  Not only is our republic the worse for these citizens’ disengagement, life at the periphery is challenging and marked by frequent turnover (161).

How, then, should churches respond to the Nones?  Certainly, we interact with Twentysomethings with attentive care.  We listen to them.  (I have failed at listening too often.)  Mainly, we invite them into relationships.  We have conversations.  We share from our hearts.  We draw from our stock of doctrinal understanding and experience as we share our hearts with them.  (If you need to grow in your knowledge of Christian doctrine, get busy!)  That’s it.  It is not rocket science.  It is witness, pure and simple.

The final chapter in the book is titled “Practical Postmoderns.”  It is a rich summation and provides more nuance than my generalizations in these four posts could include.  I do hope that what I have shared has prompted thought about the church’s ministry with/to Twentysomethings, especially with college students.  I have said many times over the years that college students are among the most talked-about and least understood group of any that the church targets for mission.  It’s time to up our game and use the resources provided by scholars like Tim Clydesdale and Kathleen Garces-Foley, and others they name.  It’s time to get serious (again) about reaching the rising generations.

The Twentysomething Soul #3 – Evangelical Protestants

We have entered the Advent season, so this post comes with the prayer that your Advent preparations bring blessing to yourself and others.

I continue to mull over the findings of Tim Clydesdale and Kathleen Garces-Foley in The Twentysomething Soul.  Let’s look at what they say about Evangelical Protestants, described as “church-committed [and] theologically conservative,” and who “share an unwavering commitment to Jesus Christ as Savior and to the Bible as God’s revelation” (p. 114).  The authors are sociologists and don’t explore or evaluate these theological characteristics, but we see that doctrines serve as distinguishing factors for Evangelicals.  No surprise here, but still very instructive.

Evangelicals in American Protestantism comprise 30%  of young people. The authors use the same three sub-divisions as they had done for Mainline Protestants: Active, Nominal, and Estranged.  47% of Evangelicals are Actives, while 50% are Nominals and only 3% Estranged.  For comparison purposes, 19% of Mainliners are Actives, 64% are Nominal and 17% are Estranged.  These percentages identify stark differences:

“The proportion of Active Evangelicals is more than twice the proportion of Active Mainliners or Active Catholics, while the proportion of Estranged Evangelicals is at least six times smaller than the proportion of Estranged Mainliners or Estranged Catholics” (p. 127, italics in the original).

The authors make a couple of other important generalizations.  First, “the Evangelicals we interviewed were born and raised in Evangelical churches.  [T]hey have not been away from churches for any extended period of time…when many Catholic and Mainliner young adults…’took a break’ from churches” (125).  Second, Active Evangelicals “have little difficulty finding a young-adult-friendly church, especially if they live in or near a city…” (126).

Let’s put some rough numbers to these percentages and proportions.  About 6 million twenty somethings identify as Mainline Protestant.  About 12.6 million identity as Evangelical Protestant.  Of these divisions, 1.1 million or so Mainliners are Actives.  Of the Evangelicals, roughly 5.9 million are Actives.  For those of us in Mainline churches, these numbers should sober us.  They remain consistent throughout the literature.  Simply put, Evangelical churches hold their young at a much higher rate than Mainline churches.  When a young Evangelical moves away from home to take a job or attend school, they most often find an Evangelical church to attend.  We Mainliners are tempted to grasp at every instance of a young Evangelical ditching their faith and joining the Mainline, but this is small consolation.  The larger reality tell us something much different.

Another major difference between Evangelical and Mainline young adults relates to preaching and teaching versus the aesthetics of worship or shared values/mission (see #2 Mainline Protestants).  Evangelical Protestants speak consistently about their conviction that God is personal.  They testify, for example, that God actively led them to the church in which they participate.  (Remember that 40% of Mainline Protestants think of God as an impersonal force.)  Secondly, when asked what they liked most about their churches, they spoke about preaching and teaching (pp. 118-119).  Teaching topics often are very practical (e.g. emotionally healthy Christianity), but Evangelicals share a strong commitment to core Christian doctrines.

The chapter offers a number of other interesting nuances showing diversity among Evangelical Protestants, for example, racical/ethnic makeup, married or single, education level, and income-bracket.  These characteristics offer fine-grained analysis on topics more narrowly-scoped than the focus of my posts, but deserve strategic reflection.  Unfortunately, Evangelicals generally are still racially segregated, even though the authors interviewed young people active in large, high-profile multi-racial churches, found most often in large urban areas across the country.  But in one important way, Evangelical young adults agree: they do not like the judgmentalism associated with Evangelicalism, especially from high-profile (dare I say, celebrity?) Evangelical leaders.

This study has made one point especially clear, one that many Mainline Protestant leaders seem to want to avoid.  Doctrine matters.  Evangelical young adults remain committed to what Jude calls the faith once delivered to the saints, albeit with many American cultural colorings.  Again, don’t let the exceptions you know hide the general truth.  Evangelicals believe in Christ as Savior, in the scriptures as authoritative divine revelation, in the atoning work of Christ and his bodily resurrection.  For Active Evangelicals, these doctrines matter in the way they live.

To be sure, that Evangelicals express adherence to orthodox doctrines does not mean that all is rosy.  There are many Evangelical Nominals.  There is plenty of heterodoxy to concern us.  Nevertheless, by comparison to Mainline Protestant young adults, we see clear and consistent patterns of belief and activity much more in line with what anyone in a pastoral and teaching role should consider the norm for Christian discipleship.  Whatever our differences may be on specific matters like sexuality, if you claim to hold to the faith once delivered and you have teaching responsibility in the church, the contents of these chapters in The Twentysomething Soul should concern you.

Because doctrine also matters to Mainline Protestant young adults.  Yes, it does.  They have a view of God, of the church, and of what matters in life.  Their understanding of human nature is much more individualistic than Evangelical Protestants.  When they talk of God as love, they have some view of God and of love.  We should hope that these views are based on thought-through theological convictions learned through our discipleship efforts.  If they are not – if our young people have picked up their theological beliefs willy-nilly – then we who are called to the teaching office should be embarrassed.  My guess, though (and notice the irony), is that Mainline young adults have been taught to downplay doctrine for the sake of other values.  We teach what we take to be important doctrines in all sorts of ways.

Methodist pragmatism has taught young United Methodists that the specifically Methodist parts of being Methodist aren’t all that important, as long as you love God, love your neighbor, and work for justice in the world.  Methodists can lay no special claim to these commitments as somehow characteristically Methodist.  As the chapter on the nones will show (my final post of this little series), most of them come from the nominally-affiliated Mainline and Catholic portions of the twenty somethings.  Let’s face facts.

The Twentysomething Soul #2 – Mainline Protestants

This is the second installment of thoughts on the book, The Twentysomething Soul: Understanding the Religious and Secular Lives of American Young Adults, (Oxford, 2019).  See the previous post if you’d like to  see the start. I now consider what the authors have found regarding Mainline Protestant young people.  The researchers, Clydesdale and Garces-Foley, define “Mainline Protestant” as:

[reflecting] the early twentieth-century divide between those Protestants who hold to traditional Christian teachings–namely Evangelicals, Fundamentalists, and Pentecostals–and those Protestants who, to varying degrees, accommodate their theology to cultural norms (p. 84).

Keep in mind that the label “Mainline Protestant” does not refer strictly to denominational membership.  Rather, it has to do with a set of orienting values and identities.  By this book’s analysis, some United Methodist Twentysomethings are Mainline Protestant and some are Evangelical Protestant, which is a distinction important to keep in mind.

1 in 7 American twentysomethings (14%) identify as “Mainline Protestant,” numbering 6 million souls.  35% of that 6 million attend worship 2-3 times per month, around 2,100,000 persons (p. 85). 30% (180,000) “consider religion to be very or extremely important in their daily lives” (pp. 96).

Those numbers, which may seem encouraging at the outset, turn out, in my view, to be not so comforting.  The researchers sub-divide Mainline Protestants into three categories: (1) Actives (e.g. attending worship regularly), (2) Nominals (e.g. attending worship rarely, maybe once or twice a year), and (3) Estranged (no attendance and no involvement with the church at all).  Get this: some young people think of themselves as Mainline Protestant who nonetheless do not participate at all.

19% of Mainline Protestants are Actives.  This is roughly 1,140,000 young people.  64% of Mainliners fall into the “Nominal” category, 3,840,000 souls.  They attend worship rarely and don’t pray very often.  The third category of Mainline Protestants – 17%  or 1, 020,000, are Estranged.

For comparison’s sake, keep in mind that 35% of all Twentysomethings who identify as Christian (Catholic, Mainline Protestant, or Evangelical Protestant), attend worship weekly (p. 96).  Again, for comparison’s sake, around 60% of Evangelical Protestants, attend worship regularly, compared to the 19% of Mainline Protestants.

Another statistical wrinkle worth pondering is that even though estranged Mainliners identified themselves in a way as to put them in the “Mainline” category, “only half of Estranged Mainliners think of themselves ‘as a part of a particular religion, denomination, or church'” (p. 102).  Of the 1,020,000 Estranged Mainliners, 510,000 of them seem headed in the direction of the “nones.”  Keep in mind, they are not (yet?) “nones.”  The researchers have a separate chapter for this now well-known percentage of young people.

What do Mainliner Actives tell us about their reasons for being active?  They give community as the top one (p. 89).  Community to them means a shared vision and shared values sincerely pursued in their congregations, welcoming all persons, not making people feel judged, and strongly valuing diversity and inclusiveness.

Along with common values, they also exhibit a decidedly casual attitude about a denomination’s particular doctrines.  Significantly, regarding this question, it does not matter if one is Active, Nominal, or Estranged:

[All three sub-categories of Mainline Protestants] equally and overwhelmingly agree ‘that it is OK to pick and choose [one’s] religious beliefs without having to accept the teachings of their religious faith as a whole.’  Similarly, 2 out of 5 Mainliners, regardless of type, indicate that they view God as a spiritual force and not personal; this demonstrates Mainliners’ comfort with holding beliefs outside the orthodox box. (p. 100)

Escaping the orthodox box only means that another box has become a Mainliner’s doctrinal home.  That 40% of Mainliners think of God as an impersonal force shows that they have picked up doctrine, to be sure.  It’s just not Christian doctrine, even if they have learned this view of God while participating in a church.  I am always struck by this irony.

In truth, the beliefs and values that Mainline Protestant Twentysomethings hold sound very much like the spirituality found permeating American popular culture.  It’s the new American religion, precisely the kind promoted in many colleges and universities and it presages the drift of young people toward no religious affiliation.  As other sources show, the lion’s share of nones come from Mainline Protestants.

If you worry that I have skewed the picture by cherry-picking the data in The Twentysomething Soul, I invite you to have a look yourself.  The next time we’ll look at Evangelical Protestants.


The Twenty-something Soul (#1)

Recently, I have been mulling over a new book by Tim Clydesdale and Kathleen Garces-Foley, The Twenty-something Soul: Understanding the Religious and Secular Lives of American Young Adults (Oxford U. Press, 2019).  I’ve read some of Clydesdale’s other work (The First Year OutThe Purposeful Graduate) and have had brief opportunities to hear and interact with him.  He is one of my go-to sociologists when it comes to young adults.

I have long worried that church leaders hop on research data of the sort these sociologists offer and frantically try to ride the trend.  Think of the alarmist responses over “nones,” for example (the subject of a separate post).  The desire to do something about the problem is laudable.  The tactics are usually tragically inadequate.  We in old-line Protestantism know that we’re not doing very well reaching young people, but we don’t have a clear, consistent, widespread, effective strategy.  Books like The Twenty-something Soul, read carefully, provide critical perspective.

I’ll make a couple of initial observations about the book’s findings (stay tuned for related posts), but for now let’s keep a couple of important points in mind.  First, the authors are sociologists.  They use empirical methods.  Their findings are descriptive.  They do not offer theological analysis or proposals, although it is clear that they care deeply that young people flourish and that church leaders understand them adequately.  These scholars have provided resources to church leaders and served as consultants, but church leaders need to the theological work using sociologists’ findings.  Sociology tells us what is.  We have to discern what ought to be and set our strategies accordingly.

Second, Clydesdale and Garces-Foley are critical of the disparaging stereotypes about young adults.  The notion that twenty-somethings are over-indulged post-adolescents who seek to put off adult responsibility makes them bristle.  I share that irritation.  Most young people are responsibly trying to figure out adult life in the face of dramatically different economic and social conditions than 50 years ago.  The economy is much different nowadays and companies are generally less loyal to their employees than in an earlier generation.  Everybody is responding to the vagaries of a global economy.  So, yes, young adults have more options and freedom to choose, but they also undertake more risk than their elders did at the same age.  It’s not that emerging adults refuse to grow up.  It’s that growing up is much more challenging, with a wider range of “social scripts” from which to choose and with much less predictable outcomes.

Again, Christians working with young adults need to do the theological reflection on changing social conditions.  We too often skip this desperately important task.

With those cautions in mind, let’s tackle a couple of sets of statistics.  First, almost 43 million twenty-something adults populate the United States.  91% fall into one of the four following categories:

30% are Evangelical Protestant

18% are Roman Catholic

14% are Mainline Protestant

30% are “Nones”

(9% are “other”)

(I’m using rounded percentages, rendering more than 100%.)

Right away we need to make one important qualification.  The researchers did not ask about denominational affiliation, but, rather, certain responses to specific questions (e.g. “only one religion is true” vs. “many religions are true” – agree or disagree).  They then classified certain responses from Protestants as “Evangelical” (more “conservative”) or “Mainline” (more “liberal”or “progressive”). It is highly likely, then, that we find United Methodists in both categories.  The same goes for congregations.  Some United Methodist congregations would be considered “Mainline Protestant” and others “Evangelical Protestant.”

Slightly less than 40% of Mainline Protestant young people attend worship at least 2-3 times per month.  Slightly more than 60% of Evangelical Protestant young people attend at that rate.  Putting numbers to these percentages, we see that around 2.4 million young people attend Mainline Protestant services.  About 7.9 million attend Evangelical Protestant congregations.

Not only do Mainline Protestant (remember that key distinction) young adults attend worship less often than Evangelical Protestants, they also care less about the church’s doctrines.  They tend to care about social service efforts, ethical values, and community, apart from formal dogma.  Evangelical Protestants, on the other hand, are quite concerned about doctrine while also being strongly interested in social service ministries.

In a future post, we’ll explore some other implications of these differences, but for now, some questions.  What do we do with these numbers?  Since we have both types of young adults in our churches, how do we respond to their differing preferences?  One option is a kind of market response.  We have different churches for different types and we let young people sort themselves accordingly.  From a market perspective this makes sense, but theologically, how does it work?

Another market response would be to recognize that the far larger percentage of young people are Evangelical Protestant and aim our ministries more in their direction.  This tactic, of course, is completely unacceptable, but maybe it illustrates the problem of relying on market-oriented responses.

How would we go about developing theologically sound strategies?  We could start by ferreting out the theological assumptions hiding behind market strategies.  This would open up an enormously fruitful, though fraught, set of engagements.  We would discover implicit doctrines of God and of human nature.  We would begin to see hidden views of human flourishing and what counts as salvation.  Might we be quite surprised at what we tacitly believe?

How do the Articles of Religion and Confession of Faith, the General Rules, and John Wesley’s Standard Sermons, apply?  What, finally, does being United Methodist, actually mean?

Young adults, in their own ways, are demanding that we honestly, openly, and straightforwardly answer such questions.



What to Make of Recent UM School Hires?

Two United Methodist-related schools have gotten some attention lately because they have hired non-Christian chaplains.  Emory University’s new Dean of Spiritual and Religious Life, Gregory McGonigle, is a Unitarian.  Shenandoah University in Virginia has added Hanaa Unus as Chaplain and Muslim Community Coordinator to their staff, which is headed by the Dean of Spiritual Life, the Rev. Dr. Justin Allen. The university’s announcement notes that she is the first non-Christian clergy person hired in Shenandoah’s almost 150 year history.  These actions at two UM-related schools  have caused some consternation in UM circles.  Since I serve in a similar position at another UM-related school (Southern Methodist University), maybe a few thoughts from my end will serve a useful purpose.

Every UM-related college or university with which I am familiar, to one degree or another has a religiously diverse student body.  Research universities or substantial liberal arts schools certainly do.  Long gone are the days when Christian colleges had only Christian students.  They come from all over the world and from many different backgrounds to study with us.  Right now there are more than a half million international students attending US schools, the vast majority, not surprisingly, from China and India.  Exceedingly few are Christians.

Not all religiously diverse students are international, not by a long shot.  Although the USA is demographically still predominantly Christian (a fact that UM-related schools should not forget), the religious landscape is shifting.  This means that religiously diverse, native-born American students are also coming to our UM-related schools.  For example, my office provides institutional support for the Muslim Student Association.  A good number of their members are of Pakistani descent born and raised in Texas.  Think about that.  I am not from Texas.  Who belongs here?

How does a school affiliated with a Christian denomination respond to these demographic facts? To answer that question requires thinking theologically, which, unfortunately, does not happen as much as it should.  The key question is: from which theological viewpoint do we do this thinking?  Note: I used the singular, “viewpoint.”  Some people prefer the plural, “viewpoints,” but it is impossible for a school to operate in its institutional mission from a plurality of commitments.  A singular viewpoint inevitably dominates.  More to say on this point later.

Thinking theologically about these demographic facts, we can start with simple Christian hospitality.  More than hospitality is needed, of course, but we can start there.  If you have ever lived abroad, you were fortunate if you had local folk who welcomed you and helped you navigate the cultural particularities of their country.  At a very basic level, then, hospitality is key.  This is especially so for Christians.  College leaders, knowing that bright, young students come to our campuses trusting us to provide good support and resources, are responsible to think about what these students need to thrive while with us.  Most are away from home for the first time.  It’s a crucial developmental season.

To think “Christianly” about the kinds of students coming to our church-related college campuses is a crucial theological task.  When Christian faith-related schools provide appropriate support and resources for non-Christian students, they are providing basic hospitality in making sure that students can practice their faith.  Schools in the Christian tradition should do so enthusiastically as an expression of the love of Christ for all people.

But the responsibility does not stop at hospitality.  More importantly, schools are places of learning.  This point, too, should be rooted in sound Christian theology at a church-related institution, if we want to make sure we know what we are doing.  For students (and faculty and staff) of various religious perspectives to live and work together and engage their faiths honestly with one another is a powerful learning opportunity.  Christian students talking with non-Christian students will have their faith challenged, yes.  Time and again, I have had Christian students tell me that those challenges, which unsteadied them temporarily, ultimately strengthened their faith and sparked spiritual growth.

Thus, Christians can reasonably conclude that a church-related school that hires non-Christian chaplains is working to offer welcome and hospitality.  They thereby serve their school’s educational mission in a profoundly important way.  Providing this support does not automatically signal that a school is moving away from its founding faith or endorsing another faith.

Or does it?  This leads to a second concern.  When does theological commitment to religious pluralism overtake the demographic facts of religious diversity?  It takes some careful thinking to discern the difference.  This point is especially important, but does not get adequate attention.

The higher education environment has been undergoing changes regarding the role of faith on campus.  Secularism no longer dominates.  Although there is still plenty of influential secularist thinking around, the attitude toward religion has gotten – shall we say – friendlier, in certain respects.  Many educators recognize the positive role that religious faith plays and the need to treat faith respectfully.  Many have realized that the secularist belief that religion would eventually disappear as people gained knowledge simply is not happening.  A number of related books and articles have appeared, of late, such as Douglas and Rhonda Jacobsen’s No Longer Invisible: Religion in University Education.

The preferred alternative to secularism on college campuses, though, is pluralism and right here the picture gets dodgy.  That word – pluralism – gets used in two divergent ways, sometimes without proper awareness.  It often refers to the demographic fact, as I have mentioned.  But the other way, subtly tied to the first, is ideological in nature.  It is to think of religions as nothing but limited expressions of the human quest for transcendence and meaning.  In this way, whereas we can purportedly respect all religions equally (the fairest attitude to take) we can also regard religious expression – and here I include “spirituality” –  in all its variety as having the same human starting point, with humans ultimately “making” the meaning they find in their respective faith tradition.  Thus, religion is finally a human construction with, again, lots of variety and competing but ultimately untestable claims.  So, faith.  Not knowledge.

Religion understood this way certainly has an important but limited role to play on campus, mainly in terms of developing students’ personal values.  The specific dogmatic beliefs of each such community has nothing to do with a school’s educational mission.

We need to recognize that this viewpoint is based in a kind of background way on theological beliefs: that “God” (however understood) is ultimately unknowable and that all theological claims – including Christian ones – are therefore limited human constructions.  They might, as such, provide brilliant insight into reality, but in the same way that any great myth illuminates our experience of reality.  Among the great world religions, so this view goes, it would be arrogant presumption to privilege one faith over another in the public domain.

This is the largely unrecognized but nonetheless theological assumption dominant in higher education and influential in church-related higher education.  In practical terms the theology of religious pluralism marginalizes the specific doctrines of particular religions.  In a school affiliated with the Christian faith, this dogmatic assumption can functionally, if not conceptually, replace the school’s theological moorings with alien beliefs.

Earlier I said that some singular vision will take pre-eminence in a school’s ethos.  If a United Methodist-affiliated school hires non-Christian chaplains to provide hospitality and support to its non-Christian students, they are doing the right thing.  If they recognize the educational benefit to Christian students and indeed, to all students, of rubbing shoulders with people who think and act differently, while warmly embracing the truth values in the religious particularity of their church affiliation, they keep faith with that tradition.  I am convinced that this admittedly fine balance between openness in the educational mission coupled with firm theological integrity of a school’s religious affiliation is the best kind of education.

If, however, the UM-related school has adopted the dogmatic assumption of religious pluralism as its reason for hiring non-Christian chaplains, then those chaplains represent the new faith that the school is promoting and its affiliation with the church has no real meaning.  Every school should know what it’s doing.  And the church should, too.


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