What is a Christian College?

a9fde-messiah2bgraduationHere are some of my thoughts about evangelical higher education in light of the Larcyia Hawkins case at Wheaton College.  I pitched it a few places, but no one seemed to want it.  My opinions here are solely my own.  Regular readers at The Way of Improvement Leads Home will find some of this stuff familiar–JF

It has been a few years since I taught Messiah College first-year students in our “Created and Called for Community” course.  The course begins with Genesis 1 where we read of God speaking his word into the darkness which covered the face of the earth.  He said “let there be light,” and there was light.  He then went on to create the water, land, plant life, the universe, and all living creatures.  His greatest creation, of course, was human beings.  Genesis 1:26-27 reminds our students that women and men are the highest form of God’s creation as they were created in His image.

“And God saw that it was good.”

I like to think of these first days of the Created and Called for Community course as a fitting introduction to a Christian liberal arts education.  Students learn that all of their fellow human beings have dignity, worth, and value because of the doctrine of Imago Dei.

As a historian and a Christian.  I am especially appreciative of this aspect of Messiah College’s curriculum.  Historians, after all, are a very earthy bunch.  We are in the business of studying human beings. The Imago Dei reminds us that the human beings we study have a very special identity, independent of their actions and behavior.  While people have been created with freedom, and are thus capable of performing villainous or sinful acts, even the most despicable human subjects bear the image of God and thus have inherent value in his eyes.

If life is indeed sacred and valuable, then Christians have a responsibility to celebrate and protect it.  Scholars debate the way a belief in Imago Dei should be applied in our lives, but most would agree that it serves as a foundation for Christian social teaching and, by extension, a Christian education.  I want the students in my history courses to know that all the voices of the people we encounter in the past count in the stories we tell in the classroom, on the printed page, on the Internet, and in museums and other historical sites.

I have been thinking a lot about “Created and Called for Community” and the Judeo-Christian doctrine of Imago Dei in light of the recent Larycia Hawkins case at Wheaton College.

In case you have not heard, Hawkins is a political science professor at Wheaton, the Chicago-area school that many consider American evangelicalism’s flagship institution of higher education.  Last December Hawkins decided to wear a hijab during the Advent season to show solidarity with her Muslim neighbors.  It was a compassionate, even Christ-like gesture that at least one Wheaton alumnus believes was fitting with the college’s nineteenth-century commitment to social justice.

But when Hawkins claimed that Muslims and Christians worship the same God she apparently went too far.  The Wheaton administration has placed her on leave, threatened to take away her tenure, and has decided to move to terminate her employment at the college.

After listening to Hawkins speak in a video posted by The Chicago Tribune it seems that her decision to wear the hijab and acknowledge the common monotheistic ancestry of Christians and Muslims was a direct expression of her evangelical faith.  Think about it.  How many political science professors in the United States engage in what Hawkins calls “Advent worship?” Better yet, how many evangelical Christians–the kind of folks who could sign Wheaton’s statement of faith–participate in “Advent worship?”  On this front, Hawkins appeared to be a model faculty member.

Of course the leadership of Wheaton College has every right to draw theological boundaries as they see fit.  If we believe in religious liberty we must defend the college’s right to terminate Hawkins, whether we agree with the decision or not.  But this entire case does offer some interesting opportunities to think about the identity of Christian colleges.

I imagine that there are a lot of evangelical colleges and universities who would have responded to Hawkins’s Advent worship in a similar fashion as Wheaton. But not all Christian colleges are alike.  I would hope that any administrators at Christian colleges would take Imago Dei seriously, but they would not all apply this doctrine in the same way amid the day-to-day life of their institutions.

What is an evangelical Christian college?  First of all, Christian colleges are not churches.  Churches exist to uphold, defend, and promote Christian theology and the proper worship of God.  Churches are primarily in the business of formation and catechism in a particular Christian tradition.  One should expect the leadership of a church to promote what they believe to be correct doctrine and, in the process, show how other manifestations of religion are wrong.

Second, Christian colleges are places of learning, just like every other college. They are educational communities where students should feel comfortable asking the “big questions” about the meaning of life.  They are places where intellectual risks are taken and ideas—even ideas that we may believe to be sacred—are critically analyzed.

But what makes Christian colleges unique is the fact that they occupy a space somewhere between the church and the broader non-Christian academy.  This makes them different from the public university down the road or the private, non-sectarian liberal arts institution.  Christian colleges do not offer the same kind of academic freedom afforded to faculty at other institutions.  They have statements of faith and community expectations that result in the drawing of specific intellectual boundaries.  They attract faculty who feel comfortable pursuing their academic vocations in such a confessional environment.  (Some have argued that this is a kind of “academic freedom” unavailable to faculty at a public university). They attract students who want their college education to be steeped in a particular Christian tradition.

At the same time, Christian liberal arts colleges are in the business of educating young minds and thus do not draw boundaries in the same way that churches draw boundaries.  We hope that students who attend Christian colleges will be more confident and secure in their faith when they leave four years later, and we want spiritual formation to happen on campus (and we should be concerned when it does not), but this is not the primary goal. Spiritual formation is primarily the job of the church.

So to what extent should an evangelical college carve out space for the celebration of the universal values that apply to all human beings as created in the image of God?  And how should such space exist alongside, or in conjunction with, the more particular or specific doctrinal beliefs that define evangelical Christian faith and the identity of an evangelical college?  These questions seem to go to the heart of what recently happened to Larycia Hawkins at Wheaton.

Don’t get me wrong. The particular doctrines and faith commitments of historic Christianity (however they are defined by the institution) should always be paramount at an evangelical college. These commitments should inform the life of the institution in every way–from student programs to faculty hiring and from the classroom to the chapel. But the kind of expression of human solidarity that Hawkins exemplified in this situation– an expression rooted in Christian theology (the Imago Dei)–is also appropriate at times.

One cannot deny that both Christians and Muslims trace their roots to Abrahamic faith. So in that sense, they do worship the same God.  Of course there are some major distinctions between the way Christians and Muslims worship this God, understand His identity (the Trinity, for example), and interpret his plan for the human beings he created.

Hawkins never denied these distinctions.  Instead, her Advent worship was meant to show us that we all belong to the same family–the human family. And there are times, even in the life of an exclusively Christian college, when those human connections should be acknowledged and even celebrated.

Caution, care, and education must accompany such expressions of solidarity.  They must be explained in the context of a theology of Imago Dei.  But dialogue and conversation on these matters is good.  I am afraid that Wheaton  either missed such an opportunity or, perhaps more likely, was unwilling to be a host to this type of discussion.  In the Hawkins case Wheaton College erred on the side of being Christian over its identity as a liberal arts college.

 

One thought on “What is a Christian College?

  1. In the Hawkins case Wheaton College erred on the side of being Christian over its identity as a liberal arts college.

    The question is whether that was an error. Many would say no, just as a sizable chunk of Catholics think Notre Dame has abandoned its Catholic mission.

    http://www.projectsycamore.com/

    History demonstrates that the secularization of a religious college or university is the product of the secularization of its faculty. While the outward signs of religious practice typically continue well after the faculty has been transformed, giving the impression that nothing has changed, in the end only traces of that religious identity remain.

    The University should not compromise its academic aspirations in its efforts to maintain its Catholic identity.

    University of Notre Dame
    Faculty Senate, April 9, 2008

    That’s a shocking declaration from a place where, Fr. Hesburgh has declared, “the Church does its thinking” and reflects a radical weakening of Catholic identity under the Golden Dome. Still, hope is not lost! And we invite you to learn more about our mission of Catholic renewal at Notre Dame and how you can help.

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