Why I Love Being Part of a Christian Learning Community

I’ve spent a fair amount of time this month criticizing the leaders of other Christian colleges and universities. I don’t regret the posts, but it’s certainly not the kind of thing I enjoy writing. And it risks creating the false impression that I’m deeply dissatisfied with or disillusioned by Christian higher education.

So as we near the end of 2015, let me say something here that I’ve said often to prospective students and parents who visit my office:

I didn’t have anything to do with Christian colleges until I started working at one… and now I can’t imagine being part of another kind of learning community.

Blanchard Hall at Wheaton College
Blanchard Hall at Wheaton College – Creative Commons (Liscobeck)

My undergraduate and graduate education came courtesy of two rather elite institutions, one a top 30 state college and the other a top 10 research university. But having now spent more time at Bethel University than at those two schools, I can say that everything Alan Jacobs writes of his experience at Baylor University and Wheaton College is true of mine:

…I believe the kind of education students receive in the Honors College at Baylor, and at Wheaton, is in most respects far superior to what they would receive at secular schools of greater academic reputation and social prestige. Indeed, in my years at Wheaton I often heard comments to this effect from visitors. I think for instance of a professor at one of America’s top ten universities who said to me, after spending some time with one of my classes, “Your students are better informed and ask more incisive questions than mine do.”

To be clear, I was surrounded by brilliant students and professors when I studied in Williamsburg and New Haven. Neither of my alma maters, however, offered a better education than what my students receive at Bethel. Jacobs argues that Christian colleges are deeply committed to education as whole-person formation, aimed at human flourishing and facilitated by faculty who regard teaching and mentoring as their primary callings. Perhaps more surprisingly, he also observes that people at such institutions encounter tremendous intellectual diversity:

We read a great many books written by people who don’t believe what we believe; we are always aware of being different. This is a tremendous boon to true learning, because it discourages people from deploying rote pieties as a substitute for genuine thought.

(Now, part of me wonders if non-evangelical, church-related colleges that take faith seriously but also have more religiously diverse faculties and student bodies don’t do a better job of forming whole — and holy? — persons through encounters with difference. But I know such schools only secondhand, through the experiences of family. My wife, her siblings, and my brother’s wife all attended liberal arts colleges affiliated with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.)

Even if Jacobs overreaches in his claims about the distinctive strength of teaching and learning at Christian colleges, there’s another reason I can’t imagine being part of another kind of learning community.

Bethel University: Community Life Center and Benson Great Hall
The Community Life Center and Benson Great Hall at Bethel University

Christmas Eve Eve has always struck me as a rather dismal day. If Mary and Joseph ever lost faith and again doubted their callings, it must have been at this moment, when the memories of angels’ impossible promises were faintest. (And when the weariness of travel was at its greatest: if those two were anything like what my wife and I will be like around 7:30 tonight, when we’re still an hour away from our destination in Iowa and passing the kids’ bedtime, their mutual patience was at its most tested.) December 23rd is the day when Advent seems least like a wondrously contemplative, counter-cultural alternative to “Christmas” bustle and most like an interminably long period of ritualistic waiting for something that might never happen. (Even as I wrote those words, “In the Bleak Midwinter” filled my earbuds…)

Stacey Hunter HechtThis year had the potential for Christmas Eve Eve to be especially dark: it was two weeks ago today that my friend and colleague Stacey Hunter Hecht died. But while I grieve what’s in the immediate future for her family as they try to celebrate their first Christmas without Stacey, the grief that lies in my own recent past is mingled with considerable joy — and even hints of peace.

Wrenching as it’s been to participate in multiple commemorations of Stacey (from informal gatherings of friends to two public memorial services), those occasions have convinced me that I wasn’t far off when I wrote, in tribute to Stacey, that “to have a friendship… is to be lavished with abundance: to be given something which is neither necessary nor dispensable.”

But also, remarkably, that I’m blessed to experience such abundance in the midst of work: most of my best friends are colleagues and former students. Being together in these times has offered concrete, concentrated reminders of the joy of sharing life in Christ at a place like Bethel.

It’s always moving to hear people struggle to put their most complicated feelings into a few words, but I was especially affected to listen to three colleagues share memories of Stacey one week ago at the Bethel memorial service. (Here’s the text of those three eulogies, plus my own.) I’m not sure how many colleges or universities would have had such a service in the first place, let alone one in which an American historian reflected on how her opportunity “to bear witness to [Stacey’s] suffering” echoed her work as a teacher, in which a political scientist ruminated on the virtues of humility and loyalty, in which a retired international relations expert quoted an early modern saint on the meaning of human flourishing:

Several centuries back St. Francis de Sales wrote, “Be what you are, and be that well.” That was Stacey, fully herself; and through knowing her each of us is able to be more fully who we are, more fully human, more fully the person we are called to be in God’s good plan.

Hicks, "The Peaceable Kingdom"
Katie recalled discussing all this with Stacey, whose office had a print of Edward Hicks’ “Peaceable Kingdom” painting (1834) – Wikimedia

Then the next day, many of us reconvened at Stacey’s neighborhood church, where we were blessed by the words of Rev. Katie Koch, a former student who reflected on the prophetic words of Isaiah 11:

A kingdom where wolf and lamb are together, where the lion and ox are side by side, and where even the baby is safe with the poisonous snake. In political science terms, there is a kingdom where power and powerlessness no longer clash against one another but rather live in a gracious harmony.

It seems that in every area, Stacey lived her own life striving for this when and where she could — believing that somehow deliberate acts of kindness and hospitality could make this all too harsh world a bit more like that Peaceable Kingdom.

Time would fail me to quote all the eloquence that Stacey’s memory inspired in so many alumni, so on their behalf I’ll give Katie the last word — one that reminds me that our Advent waiting, like our often frustrating labor for flawed institutions, is done in hopeful expectation, not in vain:

[Stacey] knew too that despite her best efforts, this world would alway harbor brokenness. And yes, our hearts hurt today with the brokenness of death.

So hope comes then in the one who truly reigns in this Kingdom of God. For in Isaiah we hear that it is a little child who shall lead this grand kingdom; this righteous branch of Jesse, this messiah, comes with such hope and promise that though this seems impossible on Earth, there is a kingdom of God where such perfection is finally known.

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