Having taken part in numerous Christian faculty or staff development conversations, I notice one key issue in these conversations: Christian educators have often absorbed a liberal democratic way of thinking about hospitality. As a result, they open themselves and their institutions to secularization since they practice the liberal democratic virtue of hospitality instead of the Christian virtue.
What is the difference between the two approaches? Liberal democratic hospitality is something that Americans tend to acquire and practice even though liberal democratic institutions do not require it. It involves diminishing one’s language and one’s self to avoid anticipated offence.
Here is the typical scenario that illustrates this practice: A Christian educator recognizes that they are addressing an audience containing a mixture of Christians and non-Christians. Often in these cases, the Christians are in the majority. Thus, in order not to offend the minority who have less power, the Christian educator avoids Christian theological language.
Perhaps the professor or student affairs professional is talking about what gives us worth and value. Instead of mentioning that this worth and value derives from a particular theologically-rooted concept, such as the fact that we are all made in the image of God, they will use a broader secular term, such as “we all have human dignity” to convey the point. God is not mentioned, and the non-Christians are supposedly more comfortable. Yet, the Christian educators have also secularized their discourse and left human dignity bereft of any theological orientation. They have also neglected to provide Christian education.
I have seen the same trend happen when it comes to discussing Christian virtues. Instead, of discussing the key Christian motive for virtue,1 the Christian source of power for virtue (i.e., the Holy Spirit), or Christian definitions of virtue, student affairs professionals and faculty will simply talk about virtue in generic ways (e.g., be courageous, show justice, demonstrate mercy, have hope, etc.). Teaching about Christian virtue is secularized and neutered to save non-Christians discomfort and perhaps to avoid the need to educate them about Christian views.
This tendency is magnified when teaching in state-funded institutions. Often, educators mistakenly believe that the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment requires them as government employees to secularize their discourse. It does not. It does require that they show justice to different worldviews in the classroom, but showing justice toward a worldview means that you present it authentically and not in a watered-down version bereft of its metaphysical content.2
Covenantal Christian hospitality requires something different. As described in a previous blog post, I contend that a Christian university that accepts non-Christian students should operate similar to the Old Testament community of Israel. Israel was a covenanted educational community. God commanded the Israelites to show love and hospitality to non-Israelites without compromising their worshipping community (e.g., Dt. 10:17-20). That means they were to share with non-Israelites God’s gift of the law and educate them about it.
In the same way, I would argue that Christian universities, professors, and staff should continue using biblical or theological language within their educational community (I would argue somewhat differently if they were trying to make a public policy argument in the political sphere). Indeed, if they are not using theological language and are simply using the language of their academic discipline alone, they have been colonized by their discipline. Of course, creating a culture with this rich type of Christian dialogue requires a few things to demonstrate Christian hospitality.
First, this type of Christian university needs to be clear in their advertisement to students, staff, and faculty that they are a Christian university that takes Christian reasoning seriously. For example, they would expect discussions about virtue to take place within the Christian tradition using theologically derived anthropology, motivations, reasoning, etc.
Second, the university will need to be honest that educational positions, whether a professor, staff, or even RAs, will be reserved for Christians who can reason, love, and act Christianly. After all, if the goal of the institution is Christian education, it should want all educators to be able to articulate Christian reasons for a policy, way of thinking, etc.
Third, a Christian university welcoming but not compromising with strangers would need to offer strangers an education about Christian worship instead of requiring them to participate in worship. Perhaps, their version of chapel would bring all kinds of different Christian worship groups to campus to demonstrate and teach about the myriad of ways Christians worship—thereby making it educational. However, to be clear, I do believe non-Christian students should still be required to take Bible or theology courses within the core curriculum, since those are primarily educational in nature as well
After years of teaching students about the tension between resisting unfaithfulness and showing hospitality to strangers, as well as studying how secularization occurs, I have concluded that this Israel-like covenanted education approach would be the most faithful to God and loving to strangers. Secularization often occurs simply because the university community loves their neighbor more than God (or they love themselves and survival more than God). This type of disordered love usually compromises anything distinctly Christian at a university because Christians become embarrassed and sensitive to how theological language and reasoning influence their neighbors to whom they are trying to be hospitable.
Interestingly, in our longitudinal study of Baylor students’ character and faith development, we have found that religious non-Christian students indicate the same amount of belonging as Christian students. Not surprisingly, these students do not see a community that takes seriously Christian language, thinking, and theology as detrimental to their belonging (and it may even be what attracted them in the first place).
Of course, atheist and agnostic students indicate less belonging, but we should not be surprised by that finding. An educational community that worships the triune God will likely alienate those who do not. We should not be embarrassed by God and downplay talk about God simply for comfort and belonging. That is like being embarrassed about your spouse or best friend, so you never bring them up. It’s also what leads to unfaithfulness.
- E.g., “This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another” I John 4:10-11
- Perry L. Glanzer, “Taking the Tournament of Worldviews Seriously in Education: Why Teaching about Religion is Not Enough,” in Education and Religion: Major Themes in Education, edited by Philip Barnes and James Arthur (New York: Routledge Taylor Francis, 2016).
Thanks Dr Glanzer for your welcome admonitions. Sadly, it is a needed tonic for the ever diminishing vitality of a once Christian system of education and formation!
Well said indeed! Your point about avoidance of secularization of education in Christian theological settings, of course applies in much wider socio-cultural and socio-political contexts. That said, it is for Christian educators to lead the way, not just on home territory, but also in the wider community. Not one of us should bend the knee.
First, I think you made an unfortunate use of the term “liberal democratic hospitality,” implying a required political orientation to be truly Christian. If that is not what you intended, perhaps different language could be used. More importantly, I agree that our institutions must take Christian theology and reasoning seriously. In that regard I am disappointed that you fail to mention how we and our institutions might address the more significant problem of evangelical cult-like adoration of our former president and what he represents. Michael Gerson, a Christian but not a liberal democrat, recently wrote an excellent column about this, “Trump Should Fill Christians with Rage. How come He Doesn’t”. It’s worth a look. Perhaps it’s time to address that failure of Christian education in future columns.
Richard, I certainly did not mean to imply a required political orientation to be truly Christian (e.g., Democrat, Republican, Independent, Libertarian). I was using the adjective “liberal democratic” not to refer to a particular political party but the general approach to government in nations that embrace democracy and the protection of minority rights. A liberal democratic hospitality then is a kind of habit that develops in nations that embrace pluralism. We learn to speak and act in ways that take into account the pluralism in society as well as power differentials among groups. It’s not necessarily a bad thing in certain public institution, but it often spills over into the rest of what political scientists call civil society (e.g., voluntary organizations such as Christian schools and universities).
Thank you for a valuable observation on Professor/Student relationships. I first anticipated more of a view on social distance and its application in the coaching/mentoring relationship. This might be a worthwhile addition to your argument.
Nevertheless, this is a valuable argument for sensitive Theo-centric instruction.
That’s a great point. I think young professors who are concerned about offending non-Christian students in the classroom need the mentorship you describe to practice Christian hospitality that does not secularize one’s teaching.
Thank you! This is right on target. I have noticed the trends you speak of in churches as well.
Thanks for this very thoughtful and timely article, Perry. We were just discussing this issue in a departmental retreat two days ago at Seattle Pacific University.
You make valid points within what I perceive to be an intentionally narrow framework of application. Your title on the other hand might provoke many different paths of thought, some helpful others not. In some ways you have chosen some of the easier examples (e.g. Image of God vs universal human dignity) to make your points. The thornier issues of gender sensitivity, sexual preferences, questions of origins, or even embracing false truth claims, (see R. Stout’s comment above) are what is troubling the waters in many Christian Institutions today. Many of those issues challenge civil discourse from either a theological or secular orientations. Are Christian scholars up to that task?