Fractures & Hope: Reflections on Religious Higher Ed

Fractures & Hope: Reflections on Religious Higher Ed October 8, 2015

Lilly-Fellows-Program-Logo-LrgToday I’m at Belmont University in Nashville for the National Conference of the Lilly Fellows Program national network of church-related colleges and universities. Having served on the National Board for the LFP since 2011, I have been paying attention to many of the headlines about shifting alliances in religious higher education this year.

The impetus for recent activities was Obergefell v. Hodges and what federal marriage equality law means for institutions who are actively and historically affiliated with Christian traditions. At stake for some is what it means to be Christian.

In July, I wrote about the decisions of several schools like Goshen College, Eastern Mennonite University, and Hope College, to amend their employment nondiscrimination policies and benefits to including sexual orientation and, in the case of Goshen and EMU, gender identity. I find this hopeful and called it good news:

“Earlier this summer, Christianity Today reported on Belmont University doing the same, and the University of Notre Dame stating that it will comply with civil law when it comes to employment and benefits after Indiana legalized same-sex marriage.

“Statements from some schools themselves indicate commitments to equality and fairness in hiring, as well as dedication to living out their mission as Christian institutions. This includes hiring people who support the values of the school. This is a perennial struggle of any college or university that tries to live out of and live into a religious identity.”

I also pointed out that all of these schools are members of the Lilly Fellows Program National Network of church-related colleges and universities. The network “addresses issues of common interest to institutions in church-related higher education. … Through their collaborative efforts they explore and discuss the relationship of Christianity to the academic vocation, and strengthen the religious nature of church-related institutions through a variety of activities and publications.” This national conference is one of those activities, along with a postdoctoral teaching fellowship, graduate fellowships, regional conferences, mentoring opportunities, and seminars for college faculty.

More recent headlines have been about another network of religious colleges and universities, with the announcement that Union University and Oklahoma Wesleyan University decided to leave the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. They did this because the CCCU counted EMU and Goshen among its members when these decisions were made. The Council went through an extended discussion and review of the situation earlier this year, which was more or less resolved when Goshen and EMU voluntarily left that network rather than subject its members to a divisive decision.

John Fea, professor of history at CCCU member school Messiah College, former member of the Lilly Fellows Program National Network Board, and former postdoctoral fellow (with whom I worked at Valparaiso University) reflected on these events:

“This is a sad day for the CCCU. Eastern Mennonite was a charter member of the council.  With both Eastern Mennonite and Goshen gone, the CCCU has lost much of its Mennonite voice–a brand of Christianity committed to social justice, peacemaking, and a cautious approach to nationalism. (Bluffton University, Fresno Pacific University, and Tabor College are Mennonite schools that remain in the CCCU).

“The bottom line is that the CCCU has always maintained, in writing, a traditional view of Christian marriage. (Or at least that is how I understand this statement).  By resigning, EMU and Goshen did the CCCU a big favor.  The CCCU dodged a bullet this time, but I don’t think this issue is going away anytime soon. In the meantime, its membership will continue to embrace traditional marriage as a mark of fellowship.”

Rather than have a religious test for membership, the Lilly Fellows Program National Network continues to count among its members an ecumenically and politically diverse group of 97 schools that includes Union University, Goshen, and EMU. As I pointed out in July,

“The Christianity Today article also discusses decisions by Baylor University, Gordon College, Messiah College, Azusa Pacific University, and Westmont College to, in various ways, ‘affirm traditional sexual ethics.’ (READ: Affirm heteropatriarchal sexuality alone.) These also are members of the Lilly Fellows Program National Network. Church-related higher education, like Christianity itself, brings together people who don’t agree on all things.

“Yet all of these schools seek ways to continue living their mission in relationship to a religious identity in the contemporary context. Hope, Goshen, EMU, Belmont, and others serve as examples for those who are moving toward expanding Christian models of inclusion and justice.”

HopeDimnentChapelThe LFP has not suffered the high-profile fractures that the CCCU has, in part because the missions of the networks differ. While the CCCU seeks

to advance the cause of Christ-centered higher education and to help our institutions transform lives by faithfully relating scholarship and service to biblical truth,”

the LFP talks about “issues of common interest” and

seeks to renew and enhance the connections between Christianity and the academic vocation at church-related colleges and universities.”

The similarity lies in both organizations living at the intersection of religion and higher education. The difference lies in language like “Christ-centered higher education” and “biblical truth” versus “Christianity” and “the academic vocation.”

I can only speak as somewhat of an insider to the LFP in saying that this network does not presume to define what Christianity means for its member institutions. It is and has historically been a diverse religion lived out in multiple ways from its very inception, and the membership roll of the LFP demonstrates that. CCCU’s recent statements and actions reveal that it has a clear idea of what Christ-centered higher education looks like. The LFP brings together Catholic (of many kinds), Protestant (of many kinds), and evangelical (defined variously) colleges and universities with the goal of empowering them to define, strengthen, and live out their own mission and the academic vocation in relationship to the Christian tradition.

It does not presume to define that mission or that tradition for them.

Photo via wikimedia commons.




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