This past month, my wife and I had a Muslim Kazak family over for dinner. To show hospitality, we did not take down all of our Christian symbols in the house. In addition, we began the dinner as usual, with a prayer in Jesus’s name (I explained that as Christians this practice was our usual ritual). In addition, we did not shy away from providing Christian answers to questions that came up that included Christian themes (e.g., “How do you celebrate Christmas?”). In other words, we were openly Christian in the ways we usually are and did not downplay or hide our faith.
A contrast to our approach to hospitality can be found in Baylor University’s new $60 million-dollar welcome center. I have not seen one physical shred of evidence that Baylor is a Christian university in the welcome center (perhaps I missed one hidden somewhere). Apparently, the designers of the welcome center think that Christian hospitality involves hiding our institution’s Christianity identity so as not to give offense. One of my colleagues tells a similar story about being at Davidson as they took down all the crosses so as not to give offense to non-Christian students.
I find many Christian professors and students think you need to take the Baylor Welcome Center approach to hospitality when hosting non-Christians in one’s classroom. They contend you should downplay one’s Christian identity and scrub one’s classroom and teaching of overt Christian symbols, references, and especially theological terms, theory, and conversations. In this blog post, I want to explain why this approach undermines Christian education, hospitality and faithfulness. I’ve addressed this topic before, but it continues to amaze me how wherever I speak about Christ-animated learning, this issue is often the first one raised as an objection against Christ-animated teaching.
I want to preface my explanation by noting another reason why this conversation is important. The vast majority of Christian institutions accept non-Christians, and thus face this question. Plus, this number continues to grow. Just this past summer, Inside Higher Education wrote a story about Multnomah University starting to accept non-Christians. Altogether, of the 542 Christian institutions I have identified, all the Catholic institutions except one, and 83% of the Protestant institutions accept non-Christians. The question I always find that emerges in these contexts is: “How do I apply Christ-animated learning with non-Christians in the classroom?”
The primary problem with taking the Baylor welcome center approach is that its practitioners think they need to be nicer than God or God-directed communities in the Bible. They automatically assume that Christian symbols, language, and rituals make people uncomfortable, and in the West, being the source of discomfort is a major sin. Thus, in order not to produce discomfort among the non-Christian minority who have less power, the Christian educator avoids Christian theological language and theory. Likely, the Christian professor has been socialized by the public school or secular university paradigm wherein the government-funded teacher should not use their power to favor a particular religious or non-religious worldview.
The obvious problem with this approach is that Christian professors are at Christian universities that claim to offer a Christian education. In taking such an approach, they are not only adopting a problematic understanding of hospitality not meant for Christian spaces, but they fail to fulfill their mission of offering a Christian education.
It also does not follow the pattern of God’s people. Consider how God instructed his people of Israel to show hospitality and how Jesus critiqued bad hospitality. God instructed the Israelites to show hospitality to strangers and foreigners since they too know what it means to be a persecuted and enslaved minority without power (Ex. 23:9; Lev. 19:34). Yet, and this point is important, hospitality is not making sure strangers are comfortable and unoffended. Israel was not in any way to disorder their loves by loving their neighbor more than God by allowing their idol worship or other corrupt practices. They educated the strangers and foreigners among them to experience God as they did (Lev. 16:29; 17:10-13; 18:26; 20:2; Numbers 9:14; 15:15-16, 26, 29). They asked them to enter their linguistic, moral, and theological reality.
Or consider the time in the New Testament when Jesus critiques bad hospitality. In Luke 7, we find Simon the Pharisee refused to demonstrate to Jesus basic human dignity, much less recognize Jesus for who he was. In contrast, it is a sinful woman who recognizes Jesus’s identity and gives him the honor He deserves. As Luke recounts of Jesus,
Then he turned toward the woman and said to Simon, “Do you see this woman? I came into your house. You did not give me any water for my feet, but she wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. You did not give me a kiss, but this woman, from the time I entered, has not stopped kissing my feet. You did not put oil on my head, but she has poured perfume on my feet.” (7:44–46)
Certainly, Christian hospitality that invites both the Spirit and strangers into our classrooms should not involve downplaying Jesus’s presence or Lordship. What it should involve is both treating all students with human dignity as image bearers of God and acknowledging the identity and lordship of Christ and its implications for learning.
This point is not to deny that Christians at Christian universities can use their power in problematic ways. First, they can fail to be honest or clear with potential students about the Christian nature of the university (that’s one of my major concerns about Baylor’s new welcome center).
Second, teachers or staff can coerce students to participate in worship activities. As we know from the thousands of years of attempted coercive religious or modernity’s coercive secular practices, these efforts do not make devoted believers or true disciples of anyone except the malleable few. I would suggest that all Christian institutions that accept non-Christians but have required chapel, create a separate educational program that non-Christians can choose to discuss the basics of Christianity and Christian worship.
I do not suggest creating a non-Christian chapel that sidesteps Christian education. That approach would be a betrayal of the institution’s educational mission and Christian hospitality (unfortunately, I have heard about some progressive Protestants advocating for this approach at Baylor). Christian hospitality does not mean allowing the worshipping of other gods in one’s house.
Third, a Christian teacher can assume certain types of Christian knowledge that not all their students possess (which is simply bad pedagogy). The answer though is not to leave out the Christian perspectives but to explain them, as a good educator or host is supposed to do. When I have a Buddhist, Muslim, or Agnostic student in my class, I realize I need to explain things Christians may assume (although many Christians do not know those things either). In these cases, you are not asking a nonbeliever to sing Christian worship songs or participate in a sacrament. You are educating them and asking them to understand how and why Christians think, love, or act a certain way.
In other words, Christians should offer theologically-rich Christian education in the same way a Jewish course at Yeshiva University or a Muslim course at Zaytuna College. One would hope their courses would take Judaism or Islam seriously and not fail to provide the student with a clear understanding of how Jewish or Islamic thinking relates to a topic. Excellent Christian education teaches students the various ways Christians reason, feel, and behave just as excellent Islamic or Jewish education would teach one how Muslims and Jews reason, feel, and behave. Of course, the reality is that most secular public universities function in this way without acknowledging or realizing it. They teach students how to reason, love, and behave in secular ways.
What I often hear though is that teachers are scared that such an overt theologically-rich approach will make non-Christian students feel unwelcome. I want to say a couple of things about this point. First, if you actually talk to and survey Muslim and Hindu students at Christian universities, as I do, you’ll find that, in general, they actually greatly appreciate the authentic religious and moral atmosphere (and is often one of the reasons they attend). Indeed, Muslim and Hindu students at Baylor score just as high on belonging as Christian students do.
Second, if the marketing department was honest, these students should not be surprised at—and should actually expect—theological language in the classroom. If students seem to be surprised or offended about the presence of Christ-animated learning at your institution, the problem may be with the Christian institution’s marketing department or welcome center.
Third, the worry or anticipated discomfort about others’ feelings may be projections about Christian educators’ own embarrassment and their inability to provide nuanced and respectful understandings of Christianity’s relevance to what they are teaching. I have seen this problem when it comes to discussing virtue education. Instead of discussing key Christian motives for virtue, the Christian source of power for virtue (i.e., the Holy Spirit), or Christian definitions of virtue, professors and student affairs professionals and faculty will simply talk about virtue in generic ways (e.g., be courageous, show justice, demonstrate mercy, show humility, etc.). Teaching about Christian virtue is secularized and neutered supposedly to save non-Christians discomfort and perhaps to avoid the need to educate them about Christian views. In reality, it’s simply bad Christian education and fosters unfaithfulness.
Indeed, my studies of Christian higher education make one thing crystal clear. This kind of “hospitality” is idolatrous love of one’s neighbor. Secularization most often occurs not because overtly anti-Christian leaders gain power. Instead, the leaders, faculty, and staff come to love their neighbor’s comfort and feelings more than God. Unfortunately, they develop a habit of being embarrassed about God-talk, affections, and behavior and ultimately, the triune God.