One of the consequences of the Fall is rather obvious. We have differences about who we should love and worship, and when political entities try to force the proper ordering of loves, they often fail miserably. Politically speaking then, one of the beauties of the American system of higher education is that it is the most religiously diverse higher educational system in the world. As a result, there are hundreds of different types of Protestant institutions affiliated with different denomination, hundreds of Catholic institutions affiliated with different orders or diocese, Eastern Orthodox colleges, Mormon universities, Jewish universities, Muslim colleges, a Buddhist college, agnostic universities, nonreligious universities and more. I would argue that true respect for religious freedom and diversity always starts by strengthening and even expanding this overall system instead of expecting every university to conform to a particular state or pluralistic university model.
One challenge for Christians in their institutions; however, involves engagement with other religious groups. In a Christian university, how can interfaith engagement take place? When I discuss how to achieve this engagement with future administrators in my classes, their answers usually resort to one of four problematic metaphors. First, there are those students who think that the ideal model for a Christian university is the public university. In this respect, they want to consider their university like a nation (e.g., “Baylor nation”) and follow the administrative standards of state-sponsored institutions. Of course, the problem with this approach is that it actually undermines the institutional diversity mentioned earlier and respect for religious freedom.
Second, there are students who take the approach that the university is a business. In this view, every student is a paying customer, and you need to provide paying customers what they want. Thus, if non-Christian students demand something, it is the responsibility of the Christian university to supply it. The difficulty with this approach is that if a student comes to a Christian university, they should realize that similar to Chick-Fil-A, they cannot demand a cheeseburger at a chicken restaurant. Of course, the Christian university does have the responsibility to advertise and recruit students responsibly.
Third, there are those students who view a Christian University similar to a church. Only Christian students can and should be members. This metaphor may be appropriate for an institution that is owned by the church or one that only admits Christians, but it is not appropriate for an institution such as my own that admits non-Christians.
For these institutions, some students propose a fourth metaphor of the Christian university as a family dinner. Certainly, there are often references here to the university population as the “Baylor Family,” even though we have 19,000 students. Yet, I find this metaphor problematic, because it fails to be honest about the favoritism and privilege toward Christianity in the family. It feigns equality when in reality certain requests to change the furniture or wall decorations in the Christian house (e.g., taking down a crucifix) will not be honored.
So, what is my alternative metaphor and its implications? One that I think is worth consideration is John D. Barton’s idea of the Christian university as an open table. Personally, however, I’m not sure it escapes the family meal problems. Christians are still in charge of the food, the physical space, the furniture, who gets invited, the curriculum, and more. We should be honest about these power dynamics.
As an alternative, I would argue that that a Christian university that accepts non-Christian students operate similar to the Old Testament community of Israel. Israel, among other things, was a covenanted educational community. Within Israel, there were clear understandings of truth and goodness, some of which non-Israelites could share and practice with strangers (e.g., love your neighbor) and some they maybe did or should not (e.g., love God and do not worship other gods). Yet, God required the Israelites to show love and hospitality to non-Israelites without compromising their worshipping community (e.g., Dt. 10:17-20).
How then could such a Christian university prepare students for robust and productive engagement across lines of difference in this model? First, they could welcome strangers by establishing a set of visiting professor position for non-Christian research and teaching partnerships. For the research professors, the university would provide monetary incentives for attracting top-rated talent to these positions, so faculty would be motivated to seek out these research partnerships to learn how to work together on projects of common interest. For the visiting teaching professors, the university would allow non-Christians to teach specialized classes together with Christians. We learn from each other when we undertake common tasks together that have fairly common aims.
Second, this type of Christian university would also need to be clear in their advertisement to students and faculty: we are a Christian university that abides by a community covenant with God that is educational but also more. The virtues in the covenant would be justified based on the Christian tradition—and many other traditions would share them but have different religious reasons to support them (e.g., love, humility, forgiveness, gentleness, self-control, patience, etc.). As a result, the university will likely need to be honest that certain leadership positions, such as being a Resident Assistant (RA), are reserved for Christian leaders. Although the institution has a community covenant that sets forth a set of virtues that all students should strive to demonstrate in our community, it would want RAs who could also articulate Christian reasons for a policy and incarnate the Christian tradition. Both visiting professors and students who live within the community would need to abide by the Christian community covenant at the university
Third, a Christian university sensitive to but not compromising with strangers would offer different types of Christian worship and a Christian worship class as part of the curriculum. First, students from various Christian traditions could and should perhaps wholly or occasionally experience the worship style that appeals to them (e.g., a Spanish language chapel, a Gospel chapel, etc.). I recently had a Latina student in class tell me, “I felt like I could be Christian and Latina at Baylor, but I never felt like I was in a space where those were combined.” Not surprisingly, she attended a Spanish-speaking church growing up, but chapel at Baylor involved worship songs with which she was not familiar. In addition, for those who are not Christian, an alternative liberal arts class on Christian worship would be offered (and perhaps even required) for all students. Thus, we would allow non-Christian students an avenue by which to learn about Christian worship without participating (something that currently does not happen). This class would bring all kinds of different Christian worship groups to campus to demonstrate and teach about the myriad of ways Christians worship.
Fourth, a university open to showing hospitality to strangers could also enhance interfaith engagement could ask students to participate in what I call Civic Society Service Groups (CSSG). The CSSG would foster engagement with diversity at multiple levels. It could design the groups to maintain ethnic, racial, gender, and worldview diversity. The groups would then engage in a service-learning project during a semester in which they discuss, not only the service they are doing in the community and what they are learning from the community, but also diverse issues related to race, religion, and gender. A program like this one could honor the Christian roots by respecting the religious consciences of all students but engaging in the Christian mission for service.
After years of teaching students about the tension between resisting unfaithfulness but showing hospitality to strangers, as well as studying how secularization occurs, I have come to the conclusion that this Israel-like covenanted education approach would be the most faithful to God and loving to strangers. Secularization usually occurs simply because the university community loves their neighbor more than God. This type of disordered love usually compromises anything distinctly Christian at a university, because Christians become embarrassed and sensitive to how these things influence their neighbors.
Of course, one thing that this approach admittedly does is that it recognizes that that “sacred” higher education term “belonging” needs to be reconsidered in light of the Christian narrative. I would argue that we need to recognize that not everyone will feel full belonging in a Christian university in the same way I never felt full belonging at Rice University. And that’s ok. It is the nature of choosing to be part of a covenantal educational community that does not embrace one’s major identities that one will not belong. Of course, even Christians at a Christian university should recognize that they never will really feel like they belong (I Peter 2:11-12). As administrators and faculty well know, no Christian university is the kingdom of God.