Hope for (Spiritual But Not) Religious Colleges?

According to many surveys, growing numbers of younger Americans are describing themselves as “spiritual, but not religious” and identifying with no particular denomination or tradition. For example, a 2013 study by Trinity College found that 32% of American college students are “spiritual,” vs. 31% “religious” and 28% “secular.” But according to an article in this morning’s Chronicle of Higher Education (subscription required, alas), that might actually be good news for Roman Catholic colleges, which are

Church of the Gesu at Marquette University
Church of the Gesu, a Jesuit church on the Marquette University campus – Creative Commons (SCUMATT)

finding some of their most ardent supporters, faculty and students alike, among this crowd. That’s because these institutions are defining themselves in ways that focus not on traditional measures of Catholicity, such as the number of theology classes they offer or daily mass attendance. Instead, they are connecting their religious mission to topics of broad interest, like developing a meaningful philosophy of life or pursuing social justice.

Catholic colleges may be uniquely positioned, too, to appeal to the spiritual-but-not-religious crowd. They are able to explicitly encourage conversations about faith in ways that public institutions cannot. When asked whether colleges should be concerned with facilitating students’ spiritual development, just 18 percent of faculty members at public universities agreed, compared with 62 percent at Catholic colleges, according to the Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA. That meshes well with what students want: Four out of five say they have an interest in spirituality.

Now, there’s enormous debate among Catholic scholars about the state of Catholic higher education. For example, one that I sat next to at a wedding reception this summer would strongly dispute the notion that the Jesuit universities featured in the Chronicle article “have maintained their religious character even after legally separating from their religious founders.”

Still, it’s hard not to be intrigued by a university like Marquette, which recruits more than half its faculty and one-third its students from beyond the Catholic church, yet has also “added a slew of programs and positions to strengthen its Jesuit character, reaching into classrooms and offices to engage faculty, staff, and students in shaping and continuing the college’s Catholic legacy.” For example, the school’s Manresa for Faculty program seeks “to develop a deep understanding and effective use of Ignatian pedagogy in the classroom, building on the 500 year tradition of writing and practices begun by St. Ignatius. This will include connections to community based/service learning, education for social justice, faith formation and vocation discernment.”

The Chronicle piece suggests that Catholic schools are better-positioned in this respect than their evangelical cousins, since most don’t “require statements of faith from their faculty members. They’ve also long been welcoming of students and professors of other religions, and, more recently, of lesbian and gay students.(And faculty and staff — see this recent announcement from the University of Notre Dame, contrasted by rather different statements from two nearby Protestant schools.)

But I can’t help but wonder if there aren’t applications here for schools like Bethel and its counterparts in the Christian College Consortium and Council for Christian Colleges & Universities.

Marquette Hall
Marquette Hall – Wikimedia

First, while I wouldn’t suggest dispensing with some faith affirmation for faculty (though I would broaden it and — as I’ll write in an upcoming post — emphasize orthopraxy rather than orthodoxy), we should rethink keeping student “faith screens.” The religious tests in admissions applications like Bethel’s were designed in a time of evangelical growth and power and now may be off-putting to students who can’t provide a pastor’s reference or give the date of their conversion experience but find themselves drawn to a model of education that seeks to form heart, hands, and spirits as much as minds, asks the most important questions of human existence, sustains meaningful relationships within a vibrant community, and prepares graduates to serve others. Rather than screening away those not yet in the fold, could evangelical colleges and universities better draw students of all and no religious traditions towards the Good Shepherd who stands at the center of their missions and communities?

I don’t mean that rhetorically; I’m in flux on this and related questions. So I’d very much like to know, particularly from readers at Christian and church-related colleges of all sorts, whether they think that it’s necessary for such schools to retain some faith screen for students, faculty, staff, etc.

But I am convinced that this is exactly the right time for Christian educators to revisit such fundamental questions as the nature of participation in our learning communities. And new visions might emerge from old traditions…

John Paul II in 1993
Pope John Paul II in 1993 – Wikimedia

The Chronicle article places what’s happening today in Catholic higher ed in the context of a conversation initiated by Pope John Paul II’s Ex corde ecclesiae. While its release in 1990 prompted robust debate on Catholic campuses,

Today many leaders in Catholic higher education look back at that time as a turning point for Catholic colleges: If they didn’t actively promote their mission, they risked losing their unique identity and rich history. “When I look at Catholic higher education now, it’s working a lot more consciously to develop its identity than it was 20 years ago,” says Thomas M. Landy, a sociologist and director of the McFarland Center for Religion, Ethics and Culture at the College of the Holy Cross. “I have no doubt about that.” 

Which just reinforces my conviction that Bethel and other colleges and universities rooted in the Pietist tradition cannot sustain their mission without drawing on their oft-neglected, misunderstood roots. [insert link to forthcoming book on topic] In the process, they might rediscover a “Christ-centered higher education” that offers a more winsome witness to a “spiritual, but not religious” culture. As I argued recently in a talk at Wheaton College,

Our primary task as a Christ-centered university is not to stand watch on the intellectual frontier demarcating orthodoxy from heresy. It is rather the task of conversion, turning people towards the person in whom we live and move and have our being, however near or far they stand from him.

…At its best, a Christ-centered university like Bethel is not a garrison of defenders of the faith, preparing for battle in the safety of their citadel; it’s a community of people serving faithfully, fearlessly in contested territory, building bridges, healing wounds, and inviting their enemies to turn towards the Prince of Peace.


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