The Challenge of Christian Liberal Arts in This Pandemic and Beyond

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Bethel University in St. Paul, Minnesota will cut thirty faculty positions this week. Today, at Messiah College, we learned about how the administration will cut seven million dollars from our budget over the course of the next five years. I don’t feel comfortable sharing details, but, as you can imagine, it has been rough. And Bethel and Messiah are not alone.

Over at his blog, The Pietist Schoolman, history professor Chris Gehrz reflects on this reality, and the future of Christian higher education, in the context of Eastertide. Here is a taste of his post, “‘Nothing for your journey’: The Future of Christian Liberal Arts“:

Whether the future takes me far from Bethel, or finds me still walking its hallways, I know I’m being challenged to “take nothing for” my journey. Whether I stay at Bethel or leave that “house of God” for the welcome of another, I need to shake off my dependency on whatever promises predictability, stability, and security and go forth in the name and power of the one to whom we bear witness.

(Big talk. We’ll see if I can live up to it.)

But Bethel and almost all of its religious competitors also need to welcome the same kind of unburdening. As much as Christian individuals, Christian institutions need to take much less for their journeys.

For example, while I’m glad that our students can choose from so many options — not just academic programs, but the extracurriculars and amenities that history conditions us to associate with a college experience, it’s possible that we’ve been so focused on what students want that we’re not giving them what they truly need. (Or making them pay too much for the package.)

But still more importantly, I can’t shake the feeling that preserving the status quo of Christian higher education has required that we linger in houses whose welcome was always conditional or incomplete.

I’ve often argued that the humanities prepare students for gainful employment, but it’s possible that we ought to be less responsive to economic forces that deepen inequality and diminish dignity. I’ve often praised my discipline for cultivating prudent, empathetic citizens, but it’s possible that we need to speak out more strongly against political authorities that abuse their power and neglect their responsibilities.

Most often of all, I’ve rejoiced that Christian scholars like me get to participate in God’s mission as part of the larger Body of Christ, but it’s possible that we need to ask harder questions of Christian denominations and churches whose support has always been tempered by their suspicion of free inquiry and expression.

All that seems impossible right now. How will we draw students if we don’t treat them as customers, or if we antagonize their pastors? How will we attract private donors or public funding if we criticize the wealthy and powerful? It’s much more likely that our educational institutions will make more compromises, not fewer.

And so my greatest fear right now is not that Bethel will close, but that it will try to stay open by drifting further from its core mission as a liberal arts college that bears witness to Jesus Christ: seeking the truth found in him, transforming students in his likeness, and spreading his kingdom.

Read the entire post here.