The title of a study released this month explained its key findings, “The Rise of and Demand for Identity-Oriented Media Coverage.” In our Age of Identity, there is a greater proliferation of identity-oriented media coverage, which the authors of the study chalk up to greater demand. Thus, one of the challenges with the Age of Identity is that identity-based categories necessarily become the basis for our intellectual conversations.
Of course, identity-based generalizations are inescapable, and it is certainly possible to make accurate identity-based generalizations using representative samples and percentages (i.e., this % of this group affirms this belief or does this action). I make them as part of my academic work.
The challenge though is when contemporary conversation about a group becomes hindered by inaccurate generalizations based on only a few anecdotes or only telling one part of an identity group’s story. In this post, I hope to provide suggestions for why Christianity can and should help us overcome the problems with this problematic type of identity-based generalization.
To illustrate the challenge with identity-based generalizations I’m going to use a recent Chronicle of Higher Education article, “In the Fight over Wokeness, Christian Colleges Feel Pressured to Pick a Side.” I don’t want to be too hard on the author, who is a senior at Wheaton College (IL). In fact, I think the problem was with the editors who did not do their job mentoring a young writer.
As a scholar of Christian higher education, here’s my main concern with the headline and the article’s argument: Christian higher education includes lots of institutions. My co-authors and I have identified 537 Christian colleges and universities that operationalize a Christian identity in a least one way in our forthcoming book, Christian Higher Education: An Empirical Guide. We found 179 Catholic institutions, 357 Protestant institutions (including Mainline Protestant, HBCUs, evangelical, and other low-church institutions), and one Eastern Orthodox college.
Yet, the Chronicle article reads as if conservative Christian higher education is the norm for Christian higher education. Thus, it states, “There’s a theory often discussed among the faculty in Christian higher ed that institutional leaders think coming out strongly against ‘wokeness’ will draw more applicants.” That theory would only make sense in the context of conservative Christian institutions. The Chronicle article noted controversies in four such institutions. Of course, one cannot make a generalization about Christian institutions based on n = 4 when using an identity in which n = 537.
In other words, the problem with this kind of identity-based generalization is that it only applies to a particular minority of Christian institutions. It does not apply to St. Olaf College, Eastern University, Xavier University (OH), and certainly not Xavier University in Louisiana, the highest-ranking Christian Historically Black College and University according to U.S. News and World Report.
I suggest that Christians should take a slightly different approach to this problem than humorist Dave Berry’s tongue-in-cheek line, “I realize I am generalizing here, but, as is often the case when I generalize, I don’t care.” I think that we should develop Christian scholars who can be some of the best at avoiding these kinds of identity generalization mistakes. After all, there are a variety of theological reasons we should take particularity seriously.
First, God’s creation is complex and the social worlds we have created are similarly complex. Thus, respect for God’s creation and our social creations means we will undertake a scholarly quest for complex particularities. That’s why I also think it is important to use particular examples in my blog posts and book. It involves naming names and being uncomfortably specific at times (such as with my earlier example), but I find that such attention to particular arguments, people, and institutions is the best way to grapple with the complexities of God’s world.
Second, inaccurate generalizations are a form of misrepresentations and even at times lying. They feed our fallen tendency to believe the worst about people or outgroups. If we make a habit of writing about those liberals, conservatives, Agnostics, Catholics, Muslims, Christians, secularists, white evangelicals, Hindus, or fundamentalists in general terms without empirical nuance, it will come at the expense both of accuracy and love.
Consider that a good marriage counselor will teach the problem with, “you always” statements. Our loving quest for precision should lead us back to rereading the person we are criticizing more than once to make sure we get an empathetic understanding of his or her point. It also helps you avoid creating straw person arguments. When I am reading my intellectual adversary’s argument again and again, I usually end up realizing that their points are not as outrageous as I initially thought and that my disagreement is often more subtle and less substantial than I realized. Along these lines, we should also resist calls from our publishers, fellow professionals, and audiences to make critiques about broad identity groups based on a few anecdotes.
Third, our God came down to be a particular human person, among a particular people, at a particular time. Furthermore, all of the New Testament epistles are written to particular people or churches. Likewise, Christian scholars can and should imitate God’s actions by embracing the particular and focusing upon it.
Fourth, we should practice intellectual humility by getting input from trusted others so that we avoid these kinds of generalizations. My graduate students catch me making general claims I should not be making more often than I would like. It is a bad habit that even as a full professor I engage in too often. We should continually confess and repent from this bad habit.
Finally, in our research, to paraphrase a saying, we should go big with our particularities, precision, and humility, or go home (meaning stop making broad identity generalizations using anecdotes instead of broad data). I will give three examples from my own scholarly experience.
More than a decade ago, I realized after conversations with Joel Carpenter and Nick Lantinga that we needed to start a database about all the Christian universities in the world, so we could discover what God is doing around the world, avoid making problematic generalizations about worldwide Christian higher education, and help Christian institutions find academic partners and patterns around the world. That conversation led to compiling a list of Christian institutions around the world for our book Christian Higher Education: A Global Reconnaissance. Those specifics then provided a realistic picture of the particular problems institutions face in various countries and regions as well as some hopeful ideas about redemptive innovations and solutions. Importantly, dealing with particulars requires one to stay humble. I am continually finding new institutions to add to my list, either that have started or have grown from Bible colleges, singular professional or technical schools, etc.
More recently, I realized that scholars have continually written about the diversity of American and Canadian Christian institutions of higher education and even created sophisticated typologies for classifying them, but no one has specifically measured how all of the individual institutions operationalize their Christian mission. This leads to journalists and others identifying certain institutions as Christian are not (e.g., see this Wall Street Journal article from two days ago). Thus, my research team recently undertook to classify every institution that operationalizes a Christian identity for our forthcoming book. As a result, we can now make informed generalizations about the 537 Christian multi-disciplinary universities in the U.S. and the sixteen institutions in Canada instead of generalizations that do not account for nuance and particulars.
Third, a few years ago I realized when sitting in a committee meeting about faith and character at Baylor that our discussion was largely based on a few examples. We did not have a broad empirical picture of the current state of first-year students regarding faith and character or how they changed while at Baylor. Thus, with my colleagues Kevin Dougherty and Sarah Schnitker, we undertook a longitudinal mixed-methods study to find out. It has helped Baylor guide creative innovation in these areas (e.g., a massive restructuring of chapel to include forty-four break-out groups). This data also helped us make accurate generalizations about students (e.g., we found students of color attend church 10% less not only at Baylor as well as the 44 other CCCU institutions for which I had data). At Baylor we realized that we needed to hire a specific chaplain that focused on helping these students make connections to religious communities both on and off campus.
In this Age of Identity and the demand for identity-based generalizations, Christians should be the academics and people who try to be as accurate as possible with our empirically-based identity generalizations but also give our attention to the particular. We should also be mentoring our students to do the same.