Michael Emerson on the Role of the Christian University

Emerson and Smith, Divided by FaithAs a member of the Evangelical Covenant Church, I was thrilled to see our denomination’s university, North Park, hire sociologist Michael Emerson as its new provost. Most recently on faculty at Rice University, he taught at Bethel in the mid-to-late Nineties. Probably best known for writing Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America with Christian Smith, Emerson’s commitment to racial reconciliation and his expertise on cities makes him an ideal fit for North Park, which emphasizes its intercultural community and urban setting.

As a cap to our recent run of posts on Christian higher education, I thought I’d share Emerson’s recent comments on North Park’s Christian identity and the role of the Christian university today. (I especially like the second paragraph, which may dovetail with some of my own comments about schools like Bethel and North Park being called to serve others in the “borderlands” of our time.)

We have to begin by asking why Christian universities were founded, and the historical progression they often undergo. Typically a group of people at some point say something like, “Oh, our current universities are really secular. We need to create a place where our students can integrate faith and learning. So we’re going to create a school focused on Christianity.” What then typically happens over the course of 100 years or so—and it happens over and over and over again—is that as the university becomes more successful and attracts more people, pressure mounts to pull back on the Christian aspect of the university. This happens for all sorts of interconnected reasons.

Michael EmersonThe challenge is how do you, as a university, keep that faith commitment to actually create the better world that you say you want? I think that’s where North Park is situated perfectly. If we’re in this time of trying to figure out how to do new urban life together, you can’t do that without thinking about the great questions behind such a process. What does it mean, life together? What is life for? Why do we exist? We need some sort of guide and direction for the sacrifices it takes to do things that make it possible to make better lives. We need faith and deep, principled motivation.

One of my frustrations when I was in a secular university was having to stop short of talking about why we might want to do these things or asking the underlying questions. Many students, faith commitment or not, think we should have a better world. We have to treat people right, they say. Where does that come from? And when push comes to shove and you can make a lot of money by not treating people right, what are you actually going do in the end?

We need to have that discussion. Humans can’t operate without some sort of moral compass. So let’s talk about that moral compass. At a Christian university, we don’t have to ignore it.

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