Conflicting Allegiances: The Church-Based University in a Liberal Democratic Society
Michael L. Budde and John Wright, eds. Conflicting Allegiances: The Church-Based University in a Liberal Democratic Society. Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2004.
I TAKE IT AS A SIGN OF MATURITY that Christian higher education recently has generated not just a slew of taxonomies and histories but also manifestos, jeremiads, and calls for reform. Conflicting Allegiances belongs in the latter camp, a particularly apt metaphor since Michael Budde and John Wright hope to march religious colleges back to boot camp and reshape their flabby flanks. The goal of these essays is not just to "imagine some of the particulars of a new sort of Christian institution of higher learning" but also to jettison the "names, the books, the arguments that have made "Christianity and higher education' a cottage industry of conferences, workshops, foundation grants, and consultancies over the past few decades" (8). The irony of announcing a coup funded by the very cottage industry the preface decries appears to be lost on the editors (granting agencies include the Rhodes Foundation, Baylor University, and Point Loma Nazarene University itself) and signals a myopia reflected in many of the essays, but it is this very brashness that recommends the collection. By imagining the contours of institutions that do not exist, these essays provoke those of us who work at real-life colleges and universities to think more critically and perhaps expansively about our own schools.
The "new sort of Christian institution" this book imagines is a university that is truly church based ("ecclesially based" is the preferred term), that takes as its foundation and touchstone the church as "a distinctive people called into being by the Holy Spirit to continue the priorities and practices of Jesus Christ in the world" (8). The goal of such a university is to form Christian disciples rather than produce citizens for a liberal democratic society. The essays, which cover topics as diverse as Great Books programs, the sciences, professional schools, Women's Studies, and student life, vary widely in thoughtfulness and quality, but all raise serious questions about the very structure of Christian higher education.
What, for instance, are the consequences of using traditional metaphors of war, such as "the fight against disease" or the genetic "code," in the life sciences? What would a cruciform narrative of the sciences look like? In what ways can Christian institutions of higher education resist the privatization of religion in decisions about curriculum, pedagogy, fundraising, and the like? How can Christian colleges and universities wrest the teaching of Scripture away from the professional guilds so that students learn to read the Bible theologically "as shaping and being shaped by the church's ongoing struggle to live and worship faithfully before the Triune God" (172). Some of the most radical proposals, such as disbanding professional schools in order to escape the crushing demands of accreditation and careerism, dare to speak aloud what is merely muttered in many schools, but raise perplexing questions about the ethics of abandoning students and selected academic fields as well as the potential re-inscription of the secular/sacred divide.
The absent but presiding presence in this volume is Radical Orthodoxy as outlined by John Milbank, whose essay forms the penultimate chapter. Radical Orthodoxy's insistence on the primacy of Christ and the priority of the church, as well as its British-inflected outside view of North American institutions, provides a welcome and challenging voice in the field of higher education. But the volume slides around this central question: if Christian discipleship is the telos of the ecclesially based university, what strictures must be placed upon the hiring of faculty and the selection of students? How does the vision of a pluralist university shared by most of the authors accord with this goal? In fact, the tone of many essays as well as some of the specific proposals (such as dismantling professional schools) sound uncannily like the mission statements of bible colleges and conservative universities the authors either dismiss or despise. Only Wes Avram, in his trenchant critique of the chaplaincy, dares to suggest that "there may be things an ideal ecclesially based institution may yet learn from places like Grove City College or even from universities like Oral Roberts or Bob Jones," although he hastens to add, "but I would not advocate their model" (228). Nor is it entirely clear how the goal of creating "educational and formative processes oriented toward discipleship and the church" (257) is substantially different from the Reformed understanding that there is no square inch of which God does not say, "This is mine," or the Lutheran insistence on the suffering Christ in the world, or the evangelical call "For Christ and his kingdom"—all presumably "customary, but inadequate, ways of thinking" about Christian higher education (9). Similarly, many of the "new" ideas articulated in this volume are far from novel. William Cavanaugh's argument that the university itself, rather than individual professors, should be the subject of academic freedom in order to maintain a proper diversity of institutions of higher education has been a staple of Christian college rhetoric for a number of years.
Furthermore, Radical Orthodoxy's sacramental blinders occasionally cause serious misreadings of other Christian traditions, as when Barry Harvey attributes the moral strength of the French people in the village of Le Chambon, who harbored many Jews during World War II despite persecution and political pressure, to their rootedness in the "material sinews... of baptism and Eucharist" (65). Now as a Calvinist, I am thoroughly committed to the material reality and significance of the sacraments, but Harvey fails to credit the tradition of preaching in the Huguenot churches that formed and transformed the consciences of ordinary people. There were many Christians in France who participated in the "material sinews" of baptism and communion but who did not form communities to rescue Jews, presumably in part because they lacked the theological imagination that might have enabled them to see themselves in continuity with the Old Testament cities of refuge and the Old Testament people of God, a theological imagination inculcated in the villagers of Le Chambon through years of listening to sermons.
Throughout the volume, it is often difficult to see what connection the eccelsia, imagined by Milbank as "the taking up and intermingling of many human traditions" and therefore analogous to the "plural space of the academy" (246), has to actual, local, practicing bodies of believers. The sense of ecdesia as an abstraction may be due in part to the fact that all the essayists, with one exception, are theologians or philosophers, many of whom teach in seminaries or other graduate schools rather than in undergraduate programs. The book as a whole would have benefited from dialogue between these thinkers and practicing scholars from the disciplines they critique. It is no accident that one of the best essays is by Wes Avram on the chaplaincy, a difficult vocation that he practiced with skill and not a few scars at Bates before he joined the faculty at Yale Divinity School.
Despite these quibbles, Conflicting Allegiances is well worth reading. It may not convince you to establish an ecclesially based university, but it will challenge you to rethink your own assumptions about and commitment to Christian higher education.
Susan M. Felch,