A few months less than four years ago I wrote about taking my daughter off to college: Missional Campus Ministry 4. Coming full circle, this last weekend we attended her graduation – a great experience celebrating the achievements of the students. Because we live some 600+ miles away we haven’t gotten to visit the campus much during the last four years, but have remained impressed each time we get the chance. This time, at the reception after graduation, we had an opportunity to meet and chat with a few of the professors she has studied under the last few years and came away impressed by them as well.
Most graduation ceremonies are inspiring, but there were several features of this one I found particularly significant – and distinctly different from my usual experience (besides the obvious one of having my daughter walk across the stage). Being a professor at a school where a phrase from the Northwest Ordinance is prominently displayed:
Religion, morality, and knowledge, being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind, schools and the means of education shall forever be encouraged
yet the inclusion (worse yet, primacy) of “religion” is commonly apologized for or explained away, it was definite change to be at a school where the role of religion is valued and encouraged. While the ceremonies included the usual exhortation to go forth and make a difference, the focus was noticeably different – and the baccalaureate service the night before graduation included communion for the graduating class, served by a selection of faculty and staff, including janitorial and food service. I was particularly impressed by the latter because we too often overlook the support workers as an important part of any community, especially an academic community.
When I posted on the occasion of my daughter’s matriculation I asked about traits of an effective Christian college. My suggestions then (with a few edits and added commentary):
It will have an outreach within its community. This isn’t simply evangelism, but a way of living that provides a witness in the community.
It will encourage its students to participate in kingdom activities. This is a difference of focus that makes a difference.
It will be focused on shaping the future not placating the parents (or pastors).
It will educate not indoctrinate. It will be broadly Christian not dogmatically narrow. The purpose is not to teach the right answers or a narrow doctrinal position, but to equip students to grow in mature faith. We need the humility to realize that some of our expressions of Christian doctrine are in need of refinement. A point added in comments: “to seek truth is not (primarily) to understand or affirm propositions, but to enter into relationship with a person.” This kind of focus, accompanied by an education that allows exploration and discussion of important questions, will make a difference.
It will send its students out to participate in the mission of God. (However well the students carry it out, this should be the intent.)
It will equip students to be a witness in all levels of our society. This means high standards and quality programs.
While no school is perfect, Bethel is doing it right on many of these fronts. I am sure some people will find exceptions and areas for improvement (some did on my last post), but that isn’t really the point. Overall the focus is right on target. I am glad my daughter had a great experience, at an excellent school, and with professors who helped her learn to think as a Christian.
But the list of traits above deserves a bit more discussion. If you compare with my earlier post, I expanded most noticeably the point about education rather than indoctrination. This point raised a fair bit of comment on the last post – so I would like to clarify a some here. First a definition:
Indoctrinate. Cause to believe something. To teach somebody a belief, doctrine, or ideology thoroughly and systematically, especially with the goal of discouraging independent thought or the acceptance of other opinions. (Bing)
Or a slightly different definition of indoctrinate (Merriam Webster):
1: to instruct especially in fundamentals or rudiments :teach
2: to imbue with a usually partisan or sectarian opinion, point of view, or principle
While the first definition from Merriam Webster has a neutral tone, most uses of “indoctrinate” do not. The definition from Bing and the second definition from Merriam Webster represent the more common usage. Indoctrinate is generally pejorative and distinguished from education in that those indoctrinated are expected to accept, not critically examine, the ideas presented. Of course any Christian institution will have a position on some, perhaps many, issues including issues of doctrine. But are these taught in a way that students are free to question and learn, or are they untouchable, closed to the hard questions? Are they ideas that should be accepted without critical examination? Another commenter on my original post noted that a Christian college should be a place that “fosters a generous perspective on orthodoxy and encourages independent thought.” Otherwise the questions, if or when they come (and for many, moving out into a largely secular world, they will come), will invariably feel like attacks on the foundation of the Christian faith when, in fact, they address issues on which orthodox Christians hold a wide range of views.
Peter Enns had an interesting post on his blog a couple of weeks ago that makes a good complement to my post today: Thoughts on Teaching Bible at a Christian College. After many years teaching in graduate school or seminary, he is now teaching undergraduates at Eastern University. He makes two points worth highlighting here (emphasis in the original):
My ultimate goal is spiritual formation. In biblical studies classes, a means toward that goal is to find a regular, rhythmic, balance between confirming and challenging the students in their present state of biblical understanding and spiritual development.
Intellectual and spiritual growth at a Christian college requires transparency, vulnerability, and commitment to community. It is my job as the professor–especially in teaching some potentially tough topics–to create that culture.
Good Christian colleges encourage that community and provide opportunity for growth and spiritual formation. We need Christians who can think critically about the Christian faith in all disciplines and vocations.
Secular universities and colleges play a very important role in our society. I teach at one and enjoy the experience very much. But there is something missing, for the Christian student anyway, in an environment where many faculty simply assume that religion is something we have outgrown, and eventually most will come to realize it; an environment where indoctrination, when it occurs (and it is less often than many may fear), often runs counter to Christian belief. It can be harder to find one’s way to a reasoned and robust Christian faith. There is an important place for Christian colleges and universities, for students and for the development of Christian scholars.
What is the purpose of Christian education?
What important roles do Christian Colleges and Universities play in our church today?
What are the advantages or disadvantages of Christian and of secular schools?
To finish this post I would like to take a bit of a turn and end on light note, posting one of my favorite commencement “speeches” available on YouTube. This is not at a Christian college – but it is by a Christian man, and one making a difference in many ways.
If you wish you may contact me directly at rjs4mail[at]att.net
If interested you can subscribe to a full text feed of my posts at Musings on Science and Theology.