Can Two Walk Together Unless They Be Agreed?
Traditions, Vocations, and Christian Universities in the Twenty-First Century
Caroline J. Simon

We who teach at Christian liberal arts institutions tend to underestimate their peculiarity. This disadvantages us when addressing the question of institutional vocation, the particular calling of Christian liberal arts colleges and universities. Such institutions, both Catholic and Protestant, often recruit students with the promise that the kind of education they offer will equip their graduates to do more than begin careers—their graduates will be equipped to discern and prepare for their callings. It is appropriate that such institutions will have reflected deeply on their own sense of calling. In order to answer this question of calling it is important to ask a related question: What good outcomes would be at risk in the world if all Christian liberal arts institutions were to go out of existence?

In order to highlight the peculiarity of Christian liberal arts colleges and universities, I want to share my own story in order to illustrate how strange an idea Christian liberal arts can seem to those on the outside looking in. First, though, I want to say a bit about the title of this essay, “Can Two Walk Together Unless They Be Agreed?” Perhaps you recognize this as a quote from the Bible. In its original context in Amos, this question occurs in a list of negative rhetorical questions. The implication is that, of course, two people cannot walk together unless they are in agreement. And surely there is truth in that. People will not walk together for very long if they are going in radically different directions. But the natural follow up question is: agreement about what?

As a philosopher, when I think about the liberal arts, one of the first images that comes to mind is the two figures at the center of Raphael’s fresco The School of Athens. Plato and Aristotle are depicted as walking along together, disagreeing about fundamental questions. Plato is pointing up, toward the eternal world where he believed the perfect unchangeable Forms that constituted the only genuine realities abided. In contrast, Aristotle’s hand is extended horizontally, toward the physical and practical realities of the empirical world. The point of their walking together is to dialogue about their fundamental disagreements. Yet their disagreements, though profound, rest on a shared agreement that the quest for truth is possible and that it is facilitated when lovers of the truth who disagree with one another engage in philosophical disputation—disputations that will eventually, it is hoped, lead to fuller understanding on the part of both parties and, ideally, if not in fact, lead to convergence of points of view.

The history of Protestantism seems to give a different answer to this question about whether two can walk together unless they agree. Estimates of the number of Protestant denominations vary, but all agree there are hundreds—many would say thousands—of different kinds of Protestant groups. The majority of these came into existence when Christians within what had been a single group came to believe they could no longer stay together. Their disagreements about liturgy or sacraments or polity or hermeneutics were too profound to allow them to remain in fellowship.

Often along the way, these denominations have founded liberal arts colleges, some of which have gone on to become universities. When there are splits within founding denominations, these educational institutions can end up feeling like adult children of divorcing parents. Can the institution avoid taking sides? Do these colleges and universities have an obligation to help their founding bodies think well and deeply about the contentious issues?

Those are interesting questions, but I am more interested in a mystery or tension that is more central to what defines a Christian liberal arts college or university. Liberal arts education is, among other things, an enterprise that thrives when faculty and students see those with whom they disagree as resources in seeking truth. Yet Christians, at least when they are gathered in congregations and denominations, have, throughout history, acted as if like-mindedness is a virtue—and have often cultivated like-mindedness by shunning, expelling, or separating from those with whom they disagree. I am left intrigued by this tension innate within Christian liberal arts institutions, and the particularity of their vocation.

Christian Liberal Arts: Communities in which Christian Intellectuals Are Not “Odd Ducks”

I have spent almost thirty years at Christian institutions of higher education, first as a faculty member and then as an administrator. But I came to my first tenure-track position at a Christian college with very little understanding of Christian liberal arts. I am what is now called a “first gen.” Neither of my parents had gone to college. When it came time to apply to colleges, they expected I would go but that I would figure out where to go, how to apply and, beyond a certain point, how to pay for college on my own. My father had gotten three $2,000 whole life insurance policies when his children were babies, one each to cash out for each child, in order to provide for our advanced education. My first choice was Judson Baptist College in Portland, Oregon, my hometown. A youth group leader at my Baptist church was teaching there. That is all I knew about Judson Baptist College, except that it had only been in existence for a short time. (At this point, a disclaimer is appropriate. There are many kinds of Baptists and many kinds of Baptist institutions. My references to Baptists in telling my story are not meant to imply anything about the attitudes and beliefs of most Baptists.) My backup school was Portland State University, a comprehensive public university that was on the same metro bus line as my parents’ house. I was accepted to both institutions, given a modest scholarship at Judson Baptist, and granted admission to the honors program at Portland State. My parents’ strong advice was that I go to Portland State. They pointed out that they had paid taxes for years, and that some of those taxes were the explanation for why I could take my $2,000, live at home, and graduate from Portland State in four years without borrowing any money. Why would I choose to spend my $2,000 in my first year at Judson Baptist? If I did that, where would I get the money to finish?

Having no good answers to these questions, I went to Portland State, although I was not very excited about this choice. After two years I transferred to University of Oregon, where I completed a bachelor’s degree in philosophy. My teachers at both universities, —almost all of whom were competent, caring, secular humanist intellectuals—taught me to think critically, frame useful questions, read difficult prose, and write coherent essays. They taught me that seeking truth is an intergenerational endeavor that spans millennia. They taught me that in the realm of fundamental human questions, “new” does not necessarily mean “better.” They taught me that Plato, Aristotle, and Descartes were at least as worthwhile as intellectual conversation-partners as many twentieth-century philosophers. Some of my teachers took a personal interest in my success. I got a good enough college education to go on to graduate school in philosophy at the University of Washington with a teaching assistantship that paid for my tuition and provided a modest amount of money to live on.

As an undergraduate, my university experience was almost all individualistic and often isolating. I never lived in a residence hall. I went to class, I read, I studied, I talked with professors during office hours. I hardly knew the majority of my classmates, though I talked with a few of them before class. The only student organization I participated in was InterVarsity Christian Fellowship.

I felt like an alien and a sojourner in the environment of the public university. InterVarsity taught me to think of universities as places to do evangelism. My particular branch of the Baptist tradition taught me to view the university as a dangerous place full of sin and false teaching.

I began to feel equally alien among those with whom I attended church. My theological beliefs and central values had not changed, but very few of the people I worshipped alongside would have understood the questions with which I was grappling as a student, nor would they have interest in the authors I was reading. Well-meaning church members quoted the warning in the second chapter of Colossians about the deceitfulness of philosophy and prayed for my soul.

I was an odd duck. Eventually I became aware that there were indeed other living Christian philosophers, but actual sightings of these other odd ducks were rare.

By the time I had finished my Ph.D. and was applying for tenure track positions, I was in many ways more nervous about the idea of becoming a faculty member at a Christian college than I was about teaching at a secular university. While I was indeed an odd duck as a Christian in a secular intellectual environment, philosophers are all odd, each in our own way. I found most of my professors and colleagues in public universities were at least polite about what I believed and some were even curious about why I believed as I did. In contrast, I wondered how many faith statements at evangelical Protestant colleges would have at least a clause or two that I didn’t interpret in exactly the same way as the powers-that-be at those places would prefer.

As events transpired, I was offered a tenure track job at Hope College, an institution founded by Dutch Calvinists in the mid-nineteenth century. Hope College did not have a faith statement but sought to hire faculty with a mature understanding of and commitment to the historic Christian faith. They asked me for a statement about my Christian faith as part of the application materials; their provost and president asked me follow up questions about my faith during my campus interview.

I do not remember anyone asking me whether I understood what a Christian liberal arts college was. That was fortunate for me, because I spent many years after arriving at Hope College trying to figure out what a Christian liberal arts college was and why students would go to one. Frankly, during my first years, I found Hope College confusing. Hope students were paying thousands of dollars more per year than they would have paid to attend a state university. I came to understand and appreciate the attraction of the residential environment Hope provided. Students knew and cared about one another. They formed lifelong friendships. The quality of the teaching was consistently higher than at a public university. Faculty also knew their students and mentored them both intellectually and personally. Those would be reasons for choosing a residential liberal arts college, but why Hope in particular? After a year or so of teaching Hope students, I found most of them were bright but not highly academically ambitious. I hypothesized that many of them had chosen Hope College because they wanted a residential environment and a decent education but that their lack of academic drive had probably meant they had not been able to get into elite private universities.

That sounds like a jaded hypothesis, but I think I came to that conclusion because my own past had taught me to expect that the point of choosing a Christian college is that it would provide a sheltered environment. Hope College didn’t look like it was set up to do that. Students didn’t sign a behavior code, nor were they required to attend chapel. Hope did have rules against alcohol on campus, but drunkenness was all too frequent at parties held at houses students rented off campus. There were hours that students of opposite sexes were prohibited from being in one another’s residence halls, but from conversations I had with students, I gathered this did not curtail premarital sexual activity among many of them.

The intellectual environment was also not protective. While faculty members were required to be Christians, and there were faculty development activities that encouraged thinking about integrating faith with learning, there was no shared understanding among faculty of when, if ever, faith should enter the classroom. Some faculty proudly declared they taught exactly the way they would teach at a secular institution. Others said they let students set the pace for how and when faith entered in. If students raised questions from a Christian perspective, those questions were treated with respect—but given that not all students at Hope were Christians, many faculty were reticent to be what they thought of as “pushy” or “preachy.” Other faculty included in their syllabi Christian authors who would not usually be included in the same types of courses at secular universities. Some designed all or many of their courses to be taught from a Christian perspective. However, the most widely shared intellectual value among Hope College faculty was a commitment to openness. Few, if any, thinkers, perspectives, ideas, or topics were seen as inappropriate to be brought into courses at Hope. I am sure my Baptist youth group leader would have been just as concerned about the health of my soul if I’d attended Hope College as he was at my choice of Portland State.

Freedom to sin and occasions to be led into error would have stood out vividly to my Baptist youth group leader in contemplating what was going on at Hope. What would have been much less visible to him would have been the freedom to pursue Christian faithfulness as a choice—a choice that almost all faculty and staff made and that many students made; a choice reinforced by aspects of the environment I have not focused on up to this point. Students, whether Christian or not, were required to take at least two religion courses. These courses were serious academic studies of biblical and theological topics taught by people who combined professional rigor with Christian belief. The required humanities classes included Christian authors such as Augustine, Aquinas, Dante, Calvin, Luther, Pascal, and Kierkegaard. A required interdisciplinary capstone course invited students to consider how the Christian faith could inform a person’s life view. A well-staffed campus ministry program provided an array of very well attended chapel services four times a week, as well as small group bible studies. The union of Catholic students hosted an on-campus Mass conducted by the local parish priest. Hope College was a place where to be a Christian was not to be an odd duck.

For me as a Christian philosopher, Hope College was a rich environment for pursuing questions I would have been unlikely to tackle as a faculty member at a secular university—at least in the same way. I had colleagues in my own department and in many other departments who were pursuing projects from Christian motives and from Christian perspectives. These colleagues were shaped by a variety of different Christian traditions. I learned a lot about Catholicism by overhearing my Catholic colleagues argue with one another and reminisce about growing up Catholic or converting to or from the Roman Catholic tradition. Likewise for Lutheranism, Methodism, Episcopalianism, Quakerism, Pentecostalism, and various forms of Calvinism. These colleagues provided a wide array of potential role models for pursuing disciplinary questions from Christian points of view. They were also generous informants for me when I was grappling with questions that crossed disciplinary boundaries and needed to track down reliable sources or test my understanding of areas outside my home discipline. In innumerable ways, Hope College allowed me to make progress on my own quest to become liberally educated and to grow as a Christian humanist.

There was also plenty of debate about how to interpret and carry out Hope College’s mission. Eventually I got so interested in these debates that I proposed to James Kennedy, at that time a colleague in Hope College’s history department, that we collaborate on a project exploring the history of the religious identity of Hope. That project became the book Can Hope Endure? A Case Study in Christian Higher Education. One way of interpreting the thesis question of that book is whether Hope College was a counterexample to the general pattern noted by historian George Marsden. He notes that the religious identity of Protestant colleges and universities very often attenuates over time. Marsden’s historical work on higher education accentuates the fact that although almost all private universities and colleges were founded with religious missions, their typical trajectory eventually moves in secular directions. By the mid-twentieth century, many religiously-founded liberal arts colleges had jettisoned religious requirements for their faculty and begun to see such requirements as interfering with the freedom of inquiry needed for the pursuit of truth—especially scientific truth.

Hope College had looked as if it was moving in this direction in the 1960s. During that decade, it moved quickly from an ecumenical impulse that led it to hire its first Catholic faculty members to an interfaith impulse that led to hiring its first Jewish faculty members to a view held by some search committees that whether a candidate had any religious beliefs was irrelevant, or, at best, much less important than her or his promise as a teacher and scholar. In the early 1970s, Hope’s board of trustees deliberately hired a president who would restore the hiring of faculty who were Christians to a top institutional priority. From the 1980s until today, Hope College has arguably succeeded in pulling off something rare: paying due regard to its Reformed foundations, being firmly committed to remaining ecumenically Christian in its hiring policy, and allowing the degree of academic freedom needed to be a high-quality liberal arts college.

Whitworth University, the institution where I now serve as provost, has arrived at a similar, though not identical, nature and composition through a somewhat different historical path. Whitworth describes itself as a Christian liberal arts university with Reformed, evangelical, and ecumenical strands in its “DNA.” In elaborating on its educational environment, Whitworth’s website asserts: “While some Christian universities limit discussion or exploration of certain ideas, our professors encourage students to ask tough questions and search fearlessly for answers wherever they may be found. And while many institutions reject any role for faith in the pursuit of truth, Whitworth lifts up Christian conviction and intellectual curiosity as complementary rather than competing values.”

I want to turn now from autobiography to theory. I want to address the nature of Christian liberal arts institutions conceptually. One document that informs Reformed Christianity and my own thinking about the liberal arts is the Belgic Confession. The second article of that confession says:

We know God by two means: First, by the creation, preservation, and government of the universe, since that universe is before our eyes like a beautiful book in which all creatures, great and small, are as letters to make us ponder the invisible things of God….Second, God makes himself known to us more clearly by his holy and divine Word, as much as we need in this life, for God’s glory and for our salvation.

This idea of God’s “two books”—the created order and scriptures—is not just a Protestant idea. The Catholic scientist Galileo, for example, defends his scientific investigations in “Letter to Princess Christina” by asserting that God’s “two books” do not contradict one another, when rightly understood. I agree; all truth is God’s truth. This allows me as a Christian teacher/scholar to be confident that rigorous and open intellectual inquiry is fully compatible with commitment to God’s written and incarnate Word. This confidence is a hallmark of Christian liberal arts education.

My view of higher education is also shaped by Augustine, especially the broad picture of two cities that Augustine sets out in his book The City of God. Augustine draws the distinction between the Earthly City and the City of God. Citizenship in one or the other of these cities is determined by the primary focus of one’s love. The Earthly City contains structures focused on the temporal human flourishing of those whose primary love is for temporal things. Earthly cities are based on power, and if they are functioning well, they restrain evil, give incentives for outwardly virtuous behavior, and keep the earthly peace. The City of God has a citizenship spread through time and space. To be a citizen of the City of God is to love God more than temporal goods and to have the love of God order all one’s other loves. Outwardly, citizens of the City of God appear to be citizens of particular earthly cities, and, in a certain superficial sense, they are. But in a deeper and more important sense, citizens of the City of God are a pilgrim people, sojourning among the cities of this world but not really “of” them.

Both the idea of two books and of two cities are clearly dualisms. But they differ from the dualism of my 18-year-old self and my particular Baptist upbringing, because both books and both cities are good gifts from God. The book of God’s created order does not lure us into error, if rightly understood. Similarly, Augustine’s Earthly City is not inherently evil or dangerous—it is a genuine but limited good. Augustine tells us that Christians should obey and respect the laws of the earthly cities they inhabit, unless those laws contradict divine law. Christians, insofar as they love God more than anything else, are law-abiding out of respect for the role of human law in maintaining the earthly peace, not out of fear of temporal punishment or desire for earthly reward.

Decades of experience in Christian colleges and universities have convinced me that academic institutions, whether secular or Christian, are Earthly Cities. They are structures designed to motivate those who love temporal things by the disbursement and withholding of temporal rewards. As an institution, a university is a not-for-profit organization that has to make ends meet and remain financially viable. As an institution, it hires people, occasionally fires people, tenures some faculty and denies tenure to others, promotes (or refrains from promoting) people based on perceived merit, and sets strategic priorities. As educational institutions, Christian colleges and universities treat students as if their motivations are shaped by temporal rewards and punishments—grades, rules, and sanctions. They award degrees based on fulfillment of academic standards. As institutions, they are shaped by the exercise of power and by giving and withholding temporal goods. This is just as true of colleges and universities that call themselves Christian as it is of secular ones. These markers of earthly-city-hood are evidence that there are no academic institutions that are pure embodiments of the City of God.

Yet, academic institutions give rise to realities that outstrip their institutional nature. Among the goals of all academic institutions is the goal of creating and sustaining an academic community. The ideal form of a scholarly/learning community would be a group that people voluntarily joined because of a common love for non-temporal goods. That love involves becoming more fully aware of, shaped by, and expressive of the True, the Good and the Beautiful. This would involve teachers and students believing in the intrinsic value of the life of the mind and spirit. Faculty and students would be dedicated to the free exchange of ideas, to creativity, and to growth in knowledge, delight, and human flourishing. I believe the goal of creating and sustaining an academic community should be the central goal of any academic institution; all other institutional goals should promote this end.

To the extent academic communities approximate their ideal form, and focus on the quest for more than temporal rewards, they are more like the City of God than like Earthly Cities. Course grades, academic awards, and professional promotions are not primary motivators. This is true of both Christian and secular academic communities; secular academic communities often do connect with the True, the Good, and the Beautiful. As a Christian, I see this as an aspect of God’s common grace. I was a beneficiary of that grace as bestowed through the education I received at Portland State, University of Oregon, and University of Washington.

A liberal arts education, whether Christian or not, uses the best of what humanity has produced in its quest for the True, the Good, and the Beautiful to shape minds and hearts. A liberal arts education equips students to reflect on what is worth doing with their lives and how they can serve humanity. It prepares students to deal with complexity, change, and unscripted problems.

A Christian liberal arts education does not put any of the resources of the liberal arts aside, but brings to those resources a perspective on both the glory and limitations of human nature. Practitioners of Christian liberal arts thank God for the ability to come to greater, and less misleading, understandings of God’s book of Creation. But practitioners of Christian liberal arts also acknowledge that human intellect cannot know even the natural order exhaustively and that human hearts do not love goodness, truth, and beauty perfectly. As Pascal says, “The last function of reason is to recognize that there are an infinity of things that surpass it.” Christian liberal arts education embraces the best products of varied cultures as gifts of God. It welcomes students into a community of truth-seekers who acknowledge human limits and our dependence upon grace through Christ. Christian liberal arts education helps students learn how to apply the past’s wisdom to solve the world’s most pressing problems, and how to develop a worldview that connects faith with reason and knowledge with experience and creativity. It seeks to motivate and enable students’ lifelong quest for the True, the Good, and the Beautiful, explicitly acknowledged as God’s gracious gifts.

Christian colleges and universities seek to nurture a Christian academic community. A community of Christian scholars and learners knows that when they grow toward understanding and embodying the True, the Good, and the Beautiful, they are receiving God’s grace. While a secular academic community may understand many of the same truths and espouse many of the same values, they are blind to their God-relatedness. Communities of Christian scholars and learners will be interested in exploring many subjects secularists would ignore or construe very differently. Theology and biblical studies are obvious examples, as are the sub-fields within many disciplines that are constituted by thinking through the implications of the Christian faith for particular disciplines.

Self-conscious pursuit of knowledge of God and God’s created order, and recognition that whatever success they have is a gift from God through Christ, are distinctives of Christian academic communities. Yet this gift is always contained in earthen vessels. In this case, the earthen vessel is institutional life, which is an aspect of the Earthly City. Because Christians are at times more focused on temporal rewards than on the love of God, we are as much in need of institutional rewards and sanctions as non-Christians are. We do not yet fully live into our citizenship in either the City of God or an ideal scholarly community.

An aspect of the vocation of Christian colleges and universities is to learn to live out this dual nature, both as institutions where temporal sanctions help keep good order and as communities that are self-conscious occasions of grace. While aspiring to be guided by the Eternal, we must come to terms with the fact that we do not currently abide in heaven. We can neither lean totally on our Earthly-City-hood nor pretend to abide fully in the City of God. Christian colleges and universities must continually strive to negotiate the tensions of this dual nature in a way that nurtures a thriving Christian teaching and learning community.

The Vocation of Christian Liberal Arts Institutions

Having highlighted the peculiarity of Christian liberal arts education with my own story and having said a bit about the nature of Christian liberal arts, I want to end by examining more fully the topic of what Christian liberal arts colleges and universities are for. What is our calling? What unique good would the world lack if all Christian liberal arts institutions were to go out of existence?

The first answer to the question is what I have just been talking about. We would lose residential communities of Christian scholars and learners who self-consciously seek truth, beauty, and goodness as gifts of God’s gracious provision for us. As Wheaton philosopher Arthur Holmes used to remind us, we would lose a natural setting for the doxological aspect of education. Praising God for knowledge and creativity is part of the vocation of Christian liberal arts. Novelist and essayist Marilynne Robinson puts this point somewhat differently. She fears that as the legacy of the Reformation impulse fades, we will lose our “passion for disseminating as broadly as possible the best of civilization…and at the same time honoring and embracing the beauty of the shared culture of everyday life.” What is likely to take the place of this legacy is career preparation, narrowly construed, and an uncritical, dehumanizing, and reductive view of what it is to be human. Robert Zaretsky, in his 2015 Chronicle of Higher Education article, claims this has already happened. He says, “The academy has long been a place where we live for examinations, not where we examine our lives.” Liberal arts institutions, certainly Christian ones, are exceptions to this generalization. Helping students lead examined lives and discern their vocations should be hallmarks of Christian liberal arts education.

The second answer to the question of what we would lose if Christian liberal arts were to go out of existence leads me back to my title question: Can two walk together unless they be agreed? One way of distinguishing among types of educational institutions is by examining the nature and degree of the shared agreements that allow their participants to cooperate in collaborative intellectual endeavor. At some secular institutions, there is almost no institution-wide agreement, even about such a fundamental issue as whether there is truth that is the goal of inquiry. Such institutions are held together by a set of procedural rules. Their common life as universities is almost wholly Earthly-City-hood. As a result, their intellectual life is very fragmented. What do those who walk together on faculties at secular institutions agree about? Very little beyond the conviction that the administration is made up largely of dimwits.

At the other end of the spectrum, there are Christian colleges and universities that require all faculty and staff (and sometimes all students) to assent to a statement of faith or to the authority of the Roman Catholic magisterium or to key theological and moral teachings. Somewhere in the messy middle are Christian colleges and universities that are more similar to Hope College and Whitworth University. The messy middle is inhabited by colleges and universities that aspire to be communities of truth-seekers who acknowledge human limits and dependence upon God’s grace made possible through the person and work of our Lord Jesus Christ, yet do not codify this shared purpose in creedal statements or behavior codes.

One of the goods that Christian liberal arts colleges and universities can provide that secular liberal arts colleges have no interest in providing is producing two types of graduates that I will call Critically Reflective Committed Traditionalists and Seriously Faithful Selective Adherents to Christianity. Let me explain what I mean by these terms.

In Souls in Transition: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of Emerging Adults, sociologists of religion Christian Smith and Patricia Snell identify six categories for understanding the religious stances of emerging adults. Their six categories range from those who appear to take religion most seriously to those who are completely irreligious. I want to focus on the two categories at the most religiously serious end of their spectrum, what they call Committed Traditionalists and Selective Adherents. Smith and Snell characterize Committed Traditionalists as active, knowledgeable, articulate practitioners of a traditional religious faith (166). They characterize Selective Adherents as those who have had a traditional religious upbringing but hold some different opinions from what their family’s religious tradition taught them (167). Smith and Snell say that Selective Adherents “do what they want religiously” (295) and they appear to take this as evidence that they lack religious seriousness. Committed Traditionalists, as characterized by Smith and Snell, wholeheartedly and unreflectively adopt their religious tradition’s beliefs and practices. Selective Adherents pick and choose, and, as characterized by Smith and Snell, they choose what to keep and what to discard on the basis of what they find convenient or what best suits their preferences.

I have certainly met people, some of them college-age emerging adults, who fit Smith and Snell’s descriptions of Committed Traditionalist and Selective Adherents. But I also know many Christians who are more critically reflective than their Committed Traditionalists and many Christians who are more seriously committed than their Selective Adherents, yet also do not embrace all of the beliefs and practices of their denomination. These adherents are selective, but they are not rejecting and retaining beliefs on the basis of convenience or whim. Their selectivity is based on critical reflection as they make every effort to be faithful to their tradition. Thus the term, Seriously Faithful Selective Adherent (SFSA). Both Critically Reflective Committed Traditionalists (CRCTs) and SFSAs are people who believe the Christian faith has an intellectual content that matters. SFSAs emphasize that the history of Christian thought is a repository of both truth and error. Both groups can and should embrace the belief that intellectual engagement with those who interpret Christian traditions differently is an effective means toward sorting truth from error. CRCTs have engaged in critical reflection about the teachings of their religious tradition and have retained their agreement with those teachings because they have found them intellectually defensible. Critically Reflective Committed Traditionalists and Seriously Faithful Selective Adherents are beneficial to one another’s intellectual and spiritual growth. SFSAs raise questions that CRCTs need to grapple with in their quest to be critically reflective. At the same time, CRCTs can help guard SFSAs from hastily concluding that some disputed point of doctrine or practice should be jettisoned or reinterpreted.

Critically Reflective Committed Tradition-alists and Seriously Faithful Selective Adherents are, arguably, the kinds of believers that the Church of Jesus Christ most needs in order to guard it from its most dire present threats. These threats are, on the one hand, too facilely splintering in the face of doctrinal or moral disagreement and, on the other hand, staying in fellowship with one another only by evacuating Christianity of almost all of its intellectual content.

The Christian faith is a living collection of traditions that have, over the history of the Church, benefitted again and again from Critically Reflective Committed Traditionalists and Seriously Faithful Selective Adherents. A few examples I would cite are Francis of Assisi, Catherine of Sienna, Thomas Aquinas, Hildegard von Bingen, John Calvin, Blaise Pascal, Jonathan Edwards, George Fox, Dorothy Day, and Martin Luther King, Jr. Christian ethicist Oliver O’Donovan urges us to seek ways of addressing serious disagreements that affirm and renew our communion with one another, instead of rending the fabric of our fellowships. In order to do this, we need to engage others with a willingness to learn from each other and with a hope that we can stay in fellowship as we seek to resolve our disagreements. In this way, we can explore and resolve important tensions within our Christian traditions. Pursued prayerfully and with grace, such attempts to reach resolution of serious disagreements can transform our experience of disagreement. We can continue to walk together even while we disagree. Christian liberal arts colleges and universities have a calling to model this kind of disagreement, for the sake of their students, for the sake of the Church, and for the sake of the world.


Caroline J. Simon is provost and executive vice president at Whitworth University. This essay is adapted from a talk presented at the Lilly Fellows Program Regional Conference at Georgetown College in 2016.


Works Cited

O’Donovan, Oliver. A Conversation Waiting to Begin: The Churches and the Gay Controversy. London: SCM Press, 2009. p. 32.

Robinson, Marilynne. The Givenness of Things, Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2015, p. 27.

Smith, Christian and Patricia Snell. Souls in Transition: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of Emerging Adults. Oxford, 2009.

Zaretsky, Robert. “Lived Philosophy.” Chronicle of Higher Education, December 6, 2015.

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