Does the Way of Improvement Still Lead Home?


After a fifteen month sabbatical I have returned to my day job.  Earlier this month I resumed my role as chair of the Messiah College History Department.  The week has been filled with meetings related to this charge.  On Tuesday I return to the classroom.  The wheels of academic teaching and (low-level) administration–committee work, meetings, planning department social events, writing syllabi, holding office hours, etc.–are always churning.  I have yet to hear about a reentry program for faculty who have been on leave.  (If you know about one I would like to enroll!).

As I prepare for the new academic year at Messiah College I revisited an essay I published in The Cresset back in 2011 titled “Does the Way of Improvement Lead Home?: Rooted Cosmopolitanism and the Church-Related College.”

Here is a taste:

So is cosmopolitan rootedness possible in the academy? Can the way of improvement lead home? Can we think of our vocation and our work in terms of serving an institution? Our natural inclination is to say something similar to the comments in the aforementioned blog discussion. I can be loyal to an institution as long as the administration of the institution remains loyal to me. Fair enough. Administrators must be sensitive to the needs of their faculty, realizing that institutional loyalty is something that needs to be cultivated over time. But this kind of rootedness also requires faculty who are open to sticking it out because they believe in what the institution stands for—whatever that might be. (This, of course, means that the college or university must stand for something greater than simply the production of knowledge). It requires a certain form of civic humanism—the ideological opposite of Lockean contractualism—that is willing to, at times, sacrifice rank careerism for the good of the institution.

So what does this have to do with Christian scholar-teachers and students at church-related institutions? What is it about a church-related college that might lead a professor to remain loyal? Or, to ask a related question, one that transcends the professoriate, what is it about being a Christ-follower that might lead one to want to pursue an intellectual life in a particular place?

Church-related colleges are by nature rooted in a particular Christian tradition. At many of these colleges, the religious tradition is palpable, and this informs the sense of place. It is hard to be at Valparaiso University very long without breathing the Lutheran air. At my own institution, Messiah College, a school rooted in a mix of evangelicalism and Anabaptism, the confessional and liturgical air is not as thick, but a clear sense of place manifests itself in the praise songs emanating from the chapel during Thursday night “Powerhouse” worship or the feeling around campus each Spring when 2,800 students take a day off from classes to perform acts of service in the surrounding community. The absence of an American flag speaks volumes about the kind of place that we are. The prayers and devotional thoughts before class give the college a sense of distinctiveness.

Of course, at many, if not most, church-related colleges the intellectual life of the community is grounded in a particular theological understanding of the world. When at their best, church-related colleges offer a truly Christian education that combines the spiritual, liturgical, and theological commitments of a tradition with the life of the mind. The interaction between deeply held religious conviction and the pursuit of knowledge brings vibrancy to the educational experience of students and the intellectual lives of faculty. Church-related colleges are places where the tensions between particular loyalties to faith and the cosmopolitan pursuits of learning result in much creative energy.

Yet at times, the religious convictions that inform the missions of our institutions can become suffocating, especially for those faculty or students who may not share in the so-called home tradition. Commitment to a place defined by a specific way of thinking about the world can be stultifying.  This is why church-related colleges need people from outside the tradition. For some colleges and universities, this might mean having non-Christians who are good citizens and sympathetic to the school’s mission add their perspectives to the mix. For other church-related colleges or universities, it may mean faculty who come from Christian traditions that are different.

For those rooted in the tradition, these “outsiders” can help the confessional insiders think more deeply about their core convictions. For those who are not from the tradition, there is much to learn from the so-called religious guardians of the place. I have learned a lot from the members of the Brethren-in-Christ Church and other Anabaptists who teach at Messiah College. The Anabaptist flavor of the place has shaped the way I think about and teach American history, a subject that by its very nature raises questions of nationalism, war, and justice. I have become a more thoughtful Christian and scholar by imbibing as much as I can from the religious convictions that inform the place where I teach. There is a level of intellectual engagement that I am not sure I would find at a non-church-related school. Cosmopolitan rootedness can make the church-related college a vibrant and energetic place to work.

Over the course of the last few days I have been wrestling with the ideas in this piece.  Do I still believe them?  And if so, to what extent?

Perhaps readers may find the piece helpful as the new school year gets underway and we once again start to think about our relationship to the institutions in which we teach and serve.