An Ecumenical Vision for Christian Higher Education

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.”

Dimnent Chapel, Hope College
Dimnent Memorial Chapel at Hope College, which is affiliated with the Reformed Church in America – Creative Commons (Trenner1945)

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:

Richard RayI 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.

2 thoughts on “An Ecumenical Vision for Christian Higher Education

  1. This is quite lovely. Thank you, Chris, for offering your summary and the link to this article. I might add that this man has a rather kind looking face – I can’t recall the last time I saw such a kind face on a Christian university top leader.

    I’m encouraged because the same message applies to other parachurch organizations. (Although here lies my ignorance – are Christian colleges/universities considered to be “parachurch”? It seems to be logically so but I wouldn’t know as an outsider to these kinds of conversations.)

    I am serving a parachurch that needs this same exact rejuvenation.

  2. It is unclear who Ray is talking to or what he is talking about when he refers to “the Church” or “Christian higher education” while quoting a range of Catholic and Protestant sources. Typically the adjectivally “Christian” colleges are conservative Protestant schools where a confessional and/or theopolitical identity defines the institution — increasingly an identity of opposition and “what we are not, and what we prohibit.” The main points in Newman’s “Idea of a University” (note the lack of an adjective) are intentionally, directly opposed at these institutions. This is the elephant in the room and the real cause of the problems Ray glosses over as “denominationalism.”

    I find it puzzling that Ray addresses the symptoms of parochialism and isolation by leading off with the suggestion that faculty and their (supposedly “secular”) graduate education are to blame as opposed to other possibilities, such as the decline of general education and the liberal arts at the undergraduate level. Rather than a skeptical ethos supposedly acquired in grad school, the lack of philosophical-theoretical and historical approaches to the sciences insulate scientists from humanists (and vice versa) as this is the one place where they can and should be teaching each other. Similarly, Ray seems to echo Reno, a highly reactionary thinker, in his distrust of diversity, dialogue and multiculturalism unless it is tied into an Aristotelian metaphysics and notion of “natural law.” (Read: “heteronormativity today, heteronormativity tomorrow, heteronormativity forever!”) I think that might be problematic for even Catholic philosophers (MacIntyre comes to mind) not to mention Reformed ones. There are many traditions, including many that are Judaeo-Christian, for talking about value, meaning, and purpose; privileging one seems very unecumenical.

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