What does it mean to be a Christian college? The answer to this question, as it turns out, depends on whom you ask. For some, a college is Christian only if it reflects in a deep, organic way the commitments of its founding denomination. To others, this commitment might render such a college a living embodiment of error, a place that promotes heresy in one form or another. Are these two ends of the continuum irreconcilable? Can professors teach, can students learn, and can each grow in faith on a college campus where an ecology of spiritual gift and reception provides the dominant ethos?
The purpose of this essay is to encourage those who inhabit Christian colleges to think about the notion of ecumenism, what it means—or could mean—to be an ecumenical Christian college, and how this concept might shape their thinking, their common life together, and the degree of trust they have for each other, both within and among their campuses. The ecumenical spirit on my campus has liberally seasoned our new strategic plan, and so this seems an appropriate time for my colleagues and me to think more deeply about this. I hope it will be useful for you as well.
There are so many subjects that one could argue are more timely and central to daily life on a college campus: the underappreciated humanities, dwindling funding for the arts, the ever-increasing commodification of the bachelor’s degree, the steady drip of demographic challenges, liberal arts on the brink. Those who teach and learn in Christian colleges could earn a graduate degree in any of these subjects by simply reading the Chronicle of Higher Education every morning. These subjects are important, and we ignore them at our peril. But I will admit that after five years as a chief academic officer they are starting to bore. There is little in these subjects that inspires, that animates, or that conjures vision. And, to quote the ancient book “where there is no vision, the people perish” (Proverbs 29:18).
So why draw attention to ecumenism as an organizing theme for how one might think about Christian colleges? I have several reasons. Earlier in this essay, I made mention of a common life together. Ecumenism well-engaged in any given place and time implies that there is actually some form of common life to which it can cling and take root. Do those in Christian colleges have such a common life together? What is its state of being? If they don’t actually have a common life together, then the big issues of the moment that comprise the daily prattle of the prognosticators and pundits seem like so much sound and fury, signifying nothing.
But why this, and why now? I have written and spoken before of the need for a renewed sense of ecumenical fraternity in our common life together (Ray 2014). The Second Vatican Council more than half a century ago exhorted all faithful Christians to recognize the signs of the times and to take an active and intelligent part in the work of ecumenism (Unitatis redintegratio, I-4). I confess that the signs of the times as I understand them—imperfectly, to be sure—compel me to bear fresh witness to the imperative for Christians everywhere to acknowledge and embrace our differences in a spirit of informed, honest, charitable, patient, and ongoing dialogue. Those who work in Christian colleges can be an example to all of higher education for how this can be done, primarily for the benefit of their students, but also as a beacon for an increasingly fragmented American culture, a culture every bit as fractured as the Christian church we aim to build up through our teaching, scholarship, and service.
Peter Leithart (2015) spoke true when he reminded us that “if the Church is going to face the challenges of this new century, she will have to face them as a united Church. Nothing has so weakened our witness as our tragic divisions. Nothing has made the Gospel so implausible, if not preposterous.” In my view, Christian colleges who will not or cannot take up this challenge will become equally implausible and preposterous.
A final reason for this theme is that those of us who serve Christian colleges require a challenge. We require something worth struggling for, and not just as mere individuals. We require something worth the sacrifices made to obtain it, sacrifices jointly owned and jointly borne. And we need a hopeful place from which to do so, mindful of Richard John Neuhaus’s claim (George 2014) that we may well be living in the last days of the early Church! Confident that God may have much more in mind for us, we should remember that the problems of demographics, shifting markets, fickle governments, and tuition dependence will always be with us. They are the day-to-day stuff faced by any educational enterprise, including Christian colleges and universities. The problems of Christian college and university in this regard aren’t all that different than those of secular colleges and universities. But many colleges and universities have as their principal paradigm a purely immanent, Cartesian understanding of the mind as the source and summit of an individual striving toward a higher state of being. Cogito ergo sum—“I think, therefore I am.” We should be honest enough with ourselves to see too many Christian colleges in this picture. This has its place, but as a goal worthy of collective striving it is uninspiring, for, as John Henry Cardinal Newman (1999) proposed, the acquisition of knowledge for its own sake “exerts a subtle influence in throwing us back on ourselves, and making us our own center, and our minds the measure of all things.” As Liverpool Hope University Vice-Chancellor Gerald Pillay has suggested (2011), a worthier orientation for Christian colleges is reflected in a more transcendent, Kierkegaardian proposition: pugno ergo sum—“I struggle, therefore I am.” To count our certainties as uncertain. To weigh with others all that is known—and unknown—in a common search for Truth. To avail ourselves of every sense God provided, especially the sense of hearing. To wrestle together in the search for a more perfect understanding found only on the sunlit uplands of our shared intellectual and spiritual geographies. To open ourselves through mutual struggle to a more Augustinian understanding of our personhood: amor ergo sum, “I am loved; therefore I am.”
Before going much further, I had better get to the sticky business of defining terms. Academic training instills a love of precise language, tight definitions, and clearly delineated categories. Graduate school imposes such discipline on its inhabitants, after all, and so we require some form of common vocabulary with which to engage this subject, to engage each other about this subject, and—most importantly—to engage each other from this subject.
Ecumenism is, in its strictest sense and original meaning, a concept limited to the religious realm, and in particular, the Christian realm; it suggests a restoration of unity among all Christians. It is intended to be both a process engaged in and a state of being sought by persons and corporate bodies who invoke the Triune God and confess Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior (Unitatis redintegratio, 1). It is also a distinctly modern movement, although it is based on an ancient idea. This being the case, it is unlikely that those who founded Christian colleges in the American context were talking much about ecumenism, much less engaging in it as part of their daily life together. That the readers of this essay can discuss what it means to be an ecumenically Christian college and take active steps toward being worthy of the noun and its two modifiers says something about our ability to be forward-looking while remaining firmly rooted in the first things we share in common with our colleges’ founders.
I wish to expand the concept of ecumenism in two critical ways. The first expansion involves cloaking ecumenism in its essential form with a mantle of receptivity and reciprocity. Peter Leithart (2015) again:
(A) receptive ecumenism is an ecumenism of hospitality, welcome, and listening, an ecumenism of gift exchange—one that asks not “what do others need to learn from me, but rather what can I learn from others?”
to note in this more expansive conception is that receptive ecumenism does not
require us to shed our first principles in exchange for amicable relations with
each other. Nobody should have to exchange truth for peace; rather, receptive
ecumenism presumes that we bring amicable relations with each other to the
conversation and that each partner speaks with a deep understanding of and
passion for her own first principles. Indeed, receptive ecumenism cannot be
authentically engaged in by those who are unfamiliar with their own first
principles. This is one reason why Christian colleges should provide programs
and conversation opportunities for their faculty and staff to deepen their own
sense of Christian formation. As regards their students, when they send them
across the stage at commencement and into the world, they ought to want them to
be highly informed and deeply formed Christians, not only because this
is an inherent good, but because they will not be able to engage neighbors in substantive ways—whether those neighbors are Christian, adherents of some other faith, or believers in nothing at all—unless they themselves know what they are talking about.
Receptive ecumenism is a very challenging thing to do well. Being open to receiving the gifts involved in a receptively ecumenical dialogue can be hard, for these gifts require an openness to conversation about some of the things closest to our hearts. Most people pull up the drawbridge too readily for any genuine conversation to take place, much less take effect. And mere tolerance won’t get the job done. “Tolerance” is a problematic word. It connotes surviving in an inhospitable world. It isn’t a big enough idea for common flourishing (Tippett 2015). Receptive ecumenism is a struggle—a good struggle, but a struggle nonetheless.
The second way in which I wish to expand the notion of ecumenism is to suggest that the signs of the times call us to a kind of cultural ecumenism. American culture at this point in history is a fractured mess. This is borne out in so many ways. Twenty minutes of television, Internet, or newspaper reading leave one with the impression that America—and America is where many of our Christian colleges live, despite our global yearnings—is a kind of three-ring circus beyond Barnum and Bailey’s wildest imaginings. The Republican-Democrat, liberal-conservative, Fox News-MSNBC, religious-secular culture of party-line votes and five-four decisions have divided our neighborhoods, churches, and workplaces and created within them intellectual and moral outposts. The spaces between these outposts are a kind of desiccated no-man’s land that challenges our idea of what it means to flourish. Christian colleges can serve as an antidote to this. And yes, this too will be hard. This too will be a struggle, but a good struggle. And if Christian colleges don’t do it, who will? They are precisely the kind of colleges educating the exact species of student that can make a difference in this regard.
I have called ecumenism a good struggle. Why is it a struggle? What problems does ecumenism pose for those who would engage it? I can imagine three obstacles to be overcome if we are to fulfill our promises as receptively ecumenical Christian colleges, not counting the stain of original sin and its Kantian “crooked timber” from which we are formed.
The first problem is one unique to our higher education setting and involves the disciplinary perspectival lenses engrafted onto professors in graduate school. They graduated from college as broadly educated people; then they went to graduate school. Graduate school is good for many things. It deepens knowledge in a narrow field of inquiry. It teaches the secret handshakes of the guilds. It develops research skills, and as it does so it provides a disciplinary vocabulary marked by narrow tolerance for meaning. It also tends to transform professors into steely-eyed skeptics who learn to see the world only through the lens of their discipline:
These are all fine for advancing the discovery of truth, but they make for poor conversation partners. Those engaged in a receptively ecumenical relationship with others in their community learn to set aside their methodological rigidity and the limits inherent therein. They take off their disciplinary lenses—even briefly and temporarily—while they try looking through the lenses of their interlocutors. Closely related to this is the hubris in which those blessed with intellectual gifts can sometimes wallow when faced with the challenges of a genuinely receptive ecumenism. Hans Urs von Balthasar once wrote in a Christmas homily that those who are rich in knowledge “have to do a great deal of gymnastics to extricate themselves from their neat and tidy concepts, opinions, perspectives, experiences and worldviews” before they can approach in humble faith “the naked earth where the Child lies in the crib” (Weigel 2014). This is challenging. I know of very few colleges where it is done, and even fewer where it is done well. It is a struggle, but a good one.
The second obstacle to receptive ecumenism is false irenicism (Ut unum sint, III-79). Think of this as being nice for the sake of building peaceful relationships. Receptive ecumenism requires honesty. It also requires charity, but charity without honesty is almost never helpful. If you want someone to understand your point of view, you must offer her first the gift of your honestly held and charitably conveyed understanding of the situation. And when she offers you hers back, receive it charitably, leaving room for the next conversation and the next, and so on. Caritas? Sure. But Veritas too.
problem of “ecumania” is the next issue with which we
must deal in our striving to shape receptively ecumenical Christian colleges.
There are some who, for good reasons, are concerned that ecumenism is a kind of
false idol. They are rightly concerned that it is too frequently watered down
and easily mistaken as an end unto itself rather
than as the means toward the God-centered beloved
community it is meant to be. Many who hold this view—while they work tirelessly
for a truly global church and have plenty of dirt under their fingernails
laboring for social justice—are suspicious of dialogue, diversity, and
multiculturalism. These and similar concepts are frequently included in
ecumenical conversation and counted by some as golden calves that, while not intrinsically wrong, are easily misused when separated from the Gospel that provides ultimate meaning for our lives. Indeed, some have said that modern ecumenism is a fraud, a false principle “concealed beneath the mask of virtue” (Catholic Apologetics). No less a thinker than Rusty Reno (2015) posits that:
All [diversity, dialogue, multiculturalism, etc.] are formal, procedural gestures. They are designed to avoid substantive moral and metaphysical questions. They represent late modernity’s desire to shape the common good without any reference to the nature of the human person, his proper ends, or natural law.
In my view, Reno and his fellow travelers are overly discouraged, as they seem to impute nefarious intentions to things that can and do serve the common good when they are properly understood as means rather than ends. Should ecumenism be left behind because it is sometimes misunderstood or misused? No. We should simply try to do it better, conscious of its challenges and honest about our own shortcomings.
A Way Forward
Exhortations of this kind have their place. But what of concrete advice? How can Christian colleges become more receptively ecumenical? How can Christian colleges serve as a balm to our burned and bruised culture? How can they shape their campuses as better places for every person who has accepted the invitation to work or study there?
We must first, I think, avoid the understandable temptation to withdraw. Some who serve students in Christian colleges may feel tempted in light of what they might think of as a world run amok to simply put their heads down, ignore the hubbub, and try to avoid engagement as a way of maintaining their own sense of spiritual completeness, to exercise what Rod Dreher (2013) has called the “Benedict Option.” But even Dreher concedes that withdrawal rarely works. How are we to witness to each other and our students if we are withdrawn from the world or from each other? A receptive ecumenism and radical forms of the Benedict Option are antithetical to each other.
It would be better to take the approach advocated by James Davison Hunter (2010) by remaining engaged as a kind of “faithful presence” to each other. Faithful presence is a way of being with others. It doesn’t preclude doing for others, but it prioritizes the two in a way that can be helpful to us as professors. Avoiding withdrawal may not sound like a profound step in building a receptively ecumenical Christian college, but it is at least half the battle and maybe more.
The second imperative for building receptively ecumenical Christian colleges is to move beyond narrow notions of denominationalism and the idea that our colleges privilege a particular kind of Christianity—another struggle. I return to the definition of ecumenism—to a common vocabulary—I offered earlier: a restoration of unity among all Christians... intended to be both a process engaged in and a state of being sought by persons and corporate bodies who invoke the Triune God and confess Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. This encompasses a very wide landscape and is true to Protestant, Orthodox, and Catholic traditions.
Finally, proceeding with each other on a receptively ecumenical path requires ongoing internal conversion, one that impels us to act with “all humility and meekness, with patience, forbearing one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the spirit in the bond of peace” (Ephesians 4:1–3). While we have to pursue our mutual relationships and deal with inevitable controversies with a spirit of realism and good will, we should also acknowledge that there is a hierarchy of truths (Unitatis redintegratio, II-11), and that we do best together when we major in the majors, leaving the minors for another day; we must focus, as Pope Francis encourages us, “on the essentials, on what is most beautiful, most grand, most appealing and at the same time most necessary” (Evangelii gaudium, 1-III-35). We are called to acknowledge with repentant hearts “long-standing misgivings inherited from the past, and mutual misunderstandings and prejudices. Complacency, indifference and insufficient knowledge of one another often make this situation worse” (Ut unum sint, 2). This will require those who serve Christian colleges to struggle together, but it is surely a good struggle.
“It’s impossible,” said Pride. “It’s risky,” said Experience. “It’s pointless,” said Reason. “Give it a try,” whispered the Heart.
Richard Ray is Provost of Hope College.
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