A Hopeful Vision for Christian Higher Education

I don’t normally write blog posts in the wee hours of a Sunday morning, but I made the mistake of checking Twitter before bed and couldn’t sleep after reading this from John Mark Reynolds, the former provost of Houston Baptist University:

Reynolds referred to Union University‘s decision to leave the Council for Christian Colleges & Universities when the CCCU did not quickly expel Goshen and Eastern Mennonite after they announced in late July that they would now hire faculty and staff in same-sex marriages.

[The preceding paragraph has been corrected after a reader informed me that Reynolds is no longer at HBU. My apologies for the error.]

Earlier in the day Reynolds had tweeted this:

Reynolds is a brilliant scholar and innovative educator (before coming to HBU, he founded the Torrey Honors Institute at Biola), but if there’s any crisis of vision in Christian higher ed, I think it’s to be found among those seeking to tear the CCCU apart.

Cover of The Pietist Vision of Christian Higher EducationIn the past year I’ve given a lot of thought to vision. Not only did I get to help develop a new vision statement for our institution, but I edited a book sketching a vision for Christian higher education. And while our vision for Christian higher ed is rooted in a particular religious tradition, Pietism, I think that much of it would resonate widely with those in the CCCU — Evangelical, Baptist, Reformed, Wesleyan, Anabaptist, Pentecostal, Lutheran, Anglican, Catholic, etc. — who grieve what they see and hear from the leaders of Union and Oklahoma Wesleyan.

Forgive me if this sounds self-promoting, but I do think that the conclusion of my remarks last fall to another Christian college group suggests at least something of the vision that Christian higher ed needs in this moment: not one blinded by fear and articulated with anger, but a vision that prompts us to step together, hopeful and expectant, into the future.

After a brief history lesson on how German Pietism rose from the ashes of the Thirty Years War, here’s what I told the presidents, provosts, and other leaders of the Christian College Consortium:

Over 300 years later we may be exiting a culture war in which Christian conservatives, if not the losers, are certainly not the victors. It would be easy to respond by holding on to whatever territory we control, patrolling the boundaries separating us from our cultured despisers and saying farewell to the traitors within. Meanwhile, those across the border — including other Christians — will do the same. The result is likely to be something akin to what happened to Germany after 1648: ever clearer, and ever more lifeless, orthodoxies.

That, for the Pietist, is the threat to our Christian identity. We have nothing to fear from technological, economic, cultural, political, or legal change — nothing to fear, that is, but our demise as institutions that may potentially outlive their missional utility. But we do need to beware the risk that when we set ourselves over and against others, we may possess the form of piety, even as we lose the power thereof.

The hope, then, is much the same as it was when [Philipp Jakob] Spener wrote Pia Desideria in 1675: to emphasize convertive experience over intellectual assent; to ask “Where is it written?” and not mean a creed or confession; to cultivate an irenic spirit and avoid needless controversy. To be, as the Brethren historian Dale Brown once said of Pietists, the servants of our culture, not its mimics or its rulers — or those watching it burn from a safe distance.

The Golden Gate Bridge
Creative Commons (Rich Niewiroski, Jr.)

Our hope lies in recognizing that, like the Alsatian Spener, we inhabit a borderland — between faith and reason, church and academy, public and private, commerce and service. Borderlands are often where the combat is fiercest, but they teach their denizens to speak multiple languages, and to move between groups, earning the trust of both. 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.

8 thoughts on “A Hopeful Vision for Christian Higher Education

  1. The notion of a conscious, thoughtful servant is a potent image, and so useful in many spheres of life. It seems to me this is the place Christians belong, conversant with culture and the language of culture (as you say), but always holding firm to a purpose of drawing others toward God. I am very weary of culture wars and even more tired of staunch defenders of questionable orthodoxy. Thanks for writing this.

    1. Thanks, Kirk! What’s so frustrating is that I have no doubt that schools like Union are sending out graduates who genuinely do want to make their faith active in loving service to others, but because of a debate over one arguably secondary matter, their leaders are presenting a very different image of Christian higher ed to the world.

  2. This is very, very unfortunate. As someone who is committed to the CCCU for better or worse, I find such actions distracting from the overarching message of hope and shalom that emerges from our CCCU institutions. These actions are short-sighted and unfortunately, I find that this backlash relates to the lack of social and political power white evangelicals are now experiencing. However, when one looks at scripture, one finds that the church grew vibrantly in difficult times, times filled with persecution and uncertainty. Perhaps the current cultural context could bring us together and to our knees for deeper reflection and contemplation about our pride and how we have run away from the culture at large. We need to be interdependent as we walk into the future. .

  3. I was working on setting up the lesson plans for my American History from 1865 course and kept running across culture war references. Every culture war has ended in defeat for those seeking to prevent change. In many cases the change accelerated beyond what was going on earlier as a direct result of the culture war itself.

    The idea that change will be prevented is ludicrous. All religions change over time whether the people involved in it realize it or not. The actions taken to prevent change often result in schisms. There is a reason for so many different Protestant faiths, not to mention the fact that there is Protestantism at all. It is the failure to accept change that breaks faiths up.

    The gay and lesbian concern is here to stay. It will not go away. Either they are children of God or they are not. It is a pretty simple decision. Why the war to deny them a place at the table of God? How much of this is really about power? Evangelicals have dug themselves a hole and are now finding out that their static position is one that is being rejected by the majority of people. They can adapt or they can stay in their hole. Either way, the faiths continue to change as they always have whether those in the hole like it or not.

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