As a companion to the previous installment, in this post I want to advocate for a thesis that long ago fell into disfavor. I’ll put it in its simplest and most straightforward form and then explain. Church-related colleges and universities need to become more churchlike. In their institutional cultures, they should warmly embrace and judiciously employ the Christian theological foundations that prompted their formation in the beginning. Most people working in church-related higher education see this call as illegitimate. It’s time to re-consider.
First, I need to be clear about the kind of school I have in mind. It’s the kind I worked in for twenty-five years, colleges and universities associated with the Christian tradition, and, more specifically, a Protestant denomination, but not claiming to be Christian schools. This is a distinction that most people outside the industry don’t recognize. Decidedly Christian schools (sometimes called “confessional) openly identify themselves as Christian. Take a look at the Council of Christian Colleges and Universities website and see their member organizations. Pick one and read how they describe themselves. I am interested, for this exercise, in schools who often call themselves “church-related” and may use “non-sectarian” as a way of distinguishing themselves from openly Christian schools. However they communicate their religious affiliation, they approach it with ambivalence, with nervousness about communicating the wrong thing and alienating people. They tend to avoid referring to themselves as Christian schools, for fear of creating the wrong impression with prospective students and faculty. This concern complicates the school’s relationship to its Christian heritage as well as to its identity and mission. I am convinced that church-related schools, in order for the church relationship to have any meaning, need to think carefully about how they can be appropriately church-like and offer a truly distinctive and excellent educational experience. I will use the term “church-related” with tiresome repetitiveness to keep the kind of school I’m talking about in front of us.
To be clear, as I inch my way into the argument, I love church-related higher education. I could have worked in explicitly Christian schools. I chose the path I’ve trodden. I am deeply grateful for the opportunity to work in the two schools where I did. One is a small, regional college still in the liberal arts tradition, but often called “comprehensive.” The other is a major national research university. They are both affiliated with The United Methodist Church, even if (now especially) in different and evolving ways. It’s’ interesting, though something I won’t explore in this post, how similar they are in certain features of institutional culture while also very different from one another in all the expected ways.
One important qualifier as we get started: To be sure, a church-related college or university is not a church, even if, as I will argue, it should be church-like. The mission is different. A school has no creed to which everyone is expected to adhere. It includes people of all faiths and no particular faith. Furthermore, the principle of academic freedom demands that scholars, teachers, and researchers have the prerogative of pursuing truth wherever it leads, without the church imposing dogmatic restrictions on that pursuit. Finally, most of what a school is concerned about is not directly linked to the faith of its founding, anyway, so my use of “church-like” comes with an important set of limits. Once we establish the proper limits, however, then “church-like” becomes an essential characteristic for church-related schools.
Once we lay down some of these qualifications, though, we still find plenty of conceptual space to think of church-related colleges and universities as needing to be more churchlike than most of them have become. Every school, for example, has a prevailing set of values, an ethos. This feature is inevitable. The question quickly arises, “What sources are deemed legitimate for shaping those values?” At a macro-level, higher education is controlled by a dominant set of values. How do they comport with the Christian faith? Church-related schools should think about this question, otherwise they lose what makes them truly distinct and valuable.
The dominant values in higher education, affecting every college or university in the country, stand on what amounts to a working anthropology – a view of human nature. A school’s ethos is also shaped by some overarching understanding of human goods and ends. When schools talk about justice, for instance, they are talking about human goods and ends. A dominant view of human nature and ends pervades higher education. This is ground covered by Christian theology, too.
Higher education’s working anthropology is that students are autonomous individuals. (So are faculty.) Proper human development demands freedom to follow one’s own path. (Notice the teleology.) It is very important to protect individual freedom as much as possible. Expressive individualism” as a number of thinkers, such as the sociologist Christian Smith, have put it, is basic to the way we understand what humans are like and what they need.
To illustrate this point, I’ll talk in terms of world view, even though it implies something bigger and more basic than my example addresses. On the campus from which I recently retired, you can find a robust human rights program. You also find a world-renowned business school, with the finance major as one of its most prestigious career paths. In terms of world views, most finance majors and most humans rights majors stand worlds apart. That they co-exist peacefully on the same campus is considered a good. Educational leaders assume that the normal interactions of college life give these students the opportunity to rub shoulders – and opinions – and learn from each other. Most schools assume that such interactions help students gain respect for people who differ from themselves and the “soft skills” necessary for working in a world filled with diverse peoples. It is through these kinds, of experiences, so the belief goes, that students can develop a healthy sense of self and become responsible citizens.
In truth, that vision is not happening for the vast majority of students populating our church-related schools. For all the diversity found on virtually any of these campuses, most students hang out with people they like and agree with, the people who are like them. Professors, administrators and staff do the same. Outside of brief and limited interactions through some sort of curricular, extra-curricular, or co-curricular program designed to foster honest interaction among differing peoples, homogeneity persists.
Why? Because we prize individual freedom above all else. It is precisely what a college degree says that someone is getting. Both finance majors and human rights majors assume that individual autonomy is their right and their goal (human nature and ends). A college education equips them to have the kind of life they choose. Some may choose Wall Street. Others may choose Occupy Wall Street. Students in these two groups may vociferously, even violently, disagree with each other about all manner of topics, but they both assume autonomy of choice is their goal. The mission of the college they attend is to grant each student her or his freedom to become who they want to be.
Christian theology has something very important to say about individuality, quite distinct from the expressive individualism of popular culture. If you look carefully at how this vision of individual autonomy plays out in the academy, you can begin to discern a kind of anti-theology, since specific religious claims are deemed inappropriate for shaping the campus community. This prejudice stands in contrast and, in its stronger forms, in open opposition, to a Christian anthropology, with troubling ramifications. The reigning view of human autonomy promises a kind of freedom that it cannot deliver. A commitment to human freedom that has no limits except whatever society justly or unjustly puts on it is no freedom at all.
A church-related school that does not recognize this challenge winds up promoting a view that stands in marked opposition to that of the faith that prompted the start of the school in the first place. Church-related colleges and universities, in order to keep good faith with their identity and mission, need avenues to think about how the theological grounding of the faith that brought them into existence offers good to all its community members, whether they share the Christian faith or not. This is not about requiring anything religious in the curriculum or student life experiences. It is about an institutional culture that understands how Christian theology helpfully construes true individuality (and its limits) and finds ways of communicating that view through its ethos. Paradoxically, orienting a school’s mission theologically in this way opens up the very sort of liberative educational experience we say we want students to have.
It is in this sense that church-related schools should become more churchlike. They need to recognize that some view of human nature, goods, and ends, will come to dominate institutional culture. There is no neutral ground in which absolute objectivity makes sure everything is perfectly fair to everyone. Church-related schools should have a critical mass of leaders who recognize the life-enhancing value of Christian theology, specifically with regard to human nature and ends, which includes, we should keep in mind, a view of justice. A Christian view properly embedded in a school’s culture invites and promotes dialogue with people of all faiths and no particular faith. Rather than restricting such conversations, it encourages them. The irony between what the dominant secularist or pluralist bias insists will happen and what is actually taking place with students is palpable.
There is much more to say about these matters, but I’ll save it for another medium. Right now, I am trying to advance a basic, starting point idea. In helping churches to become more school-like, and challenging church-related colleges to become – in the sense laid out in this post – more church-like, we can develop fertile ground in which people grow and thrive. All of them.