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.