One of my favorite publications is The Cresset, which regularly publishes diverse collections of thoughtful essays on literature, art, education, politics, and more. Hosted by Valparaiso University, it “explores ideas and trends in contemporary culture from a perspective grounded in the Lutheran tradition of scholarship, freedom, and faith while informed by the wisdom of the broader Christian community.” Or as one of its past editors put it, The Cresset does not exist “to prescribe doctrine, but to relate doctrine to life, to search out the elusive but vital connections between Christianity and culture.”
In the newest issue, that commitment to relating Christianity — not Lutheranism, but “the wisdom of the broader Christian community” — to life is reflected well by Hope College provost Richard Ray’s lead article, which seeks “to encourage those who inhabit Christian colleges to think about the notion of ecumenism, what it means—or could mean—to be an ecumenical Christian college, and how this concept might shape their thinking, their common life together, and the degree of trust they have for each other, both within and among their campuses.”
As Ray notes, there are many pressing issues dominating conversations in higher education; a lack of ecumenism on Christian campuses might seem rather insignificant when people are already wrestling with “the underappreciated humanities, dwindling funding for the arts, the ever-increasing commodification of the bachelor’s degree, the steady drip of demographic challenges, liberal arts on the brink.” But having just given a talk for a local church about the importance of seeking unity in the midst of divisive times, I resonated strongly with Ray’s hope for Christian colleges and universities:
I confess that the signs of the times as I understand them—imperfectly, to be sure—compel me to bear fresh witness to the imperative for Christians everywhere to acknowledge and embrace our differences in a spirit of informed, honest, charitable, patient, and ongoing dialogue. Those who work in Christian colleges can be an example to all of higher education for how this can be done, primarily for the benefit of their students, but also as a beacon for an increasingly fragmented American culture, a culture every bit as fractured as the Christian church we aim to build up through our teaching, scholarship, and service.
As I argued last fall, Christian unity — as in the partnership of distinctive Christian colleges or the shared life of a diverse learning community — “is an icon — in part because of [its] differences.” Ray is right to warn that “ecumenia” can become a “false idol,” but as an icon, the sight of complicated, committed community helps invite surprised onlookers into relationship with the God who makes such unity possible.
No doubt, this is a challenge. We’ve seen abundant evidence just this year of how hard it can be for Christian colleges to model an alternative to fragmentation. And Ray goes on to note that ecumenism is sometimes confused with “false irenicism,” another way of avoiding the hard work of unity. But “Christian colleges who will not or cannot take up this challenge will become equally implausible and preposterous.”
Indeed, Ray continues, Christians “require something worth struggling for, and not just as mere individuals. We require something worth the sacrifices made to obtain it, sacrifices jointly owned and jointly borne.” While Christian institutions of higher learning share many challenges with their peers (“the problems of demographics, shifting markets, fickle governments, and tuition dependence will always be with us”), they have another distinctive to them, one that that they ought to welcome, for it’s fundamental to the mission of Christian higher education:
To count our certainties as uncertain. To weigh with others all that is known—and unknown—in a common search for Truth. To avail ourselves of every sense God provided, especially the sense of hearing. To wrestle together in the search for a more perfect understanding found only on the sunlit uplands of our shared intellectual and spiritual geographies. To open ourselves through mutual struggle to a more Augustinian understanding of our personhood: amor ergo sum, “I am loved; therefore I am.”
Read the full article — including Ray’s call for ecumenical Christian colleges “to move beyond narrow notions of denominationalism and the idea that our colleges privilege a particular kind of Christianity” — here.