Saturday, January 30, 2016

SECOND CUP: Thinking about Christian higher education

Disclaimer: The following is the result of some of my reflections about what is going on in Christian higher education today. I have been involved in this endeavor in one way or another since I started at Warner Pacific College as an instructor in Language Arts Education—and have served there in a variety of roles and responsibilities; so I claim some expertise in that area. However, I am not a church historian, although I read in the field and count a few such historians in my friendship circle. But I claim no particular formal credentials in that area—nor do I want any of my friends who have formally or informally over the years of thinking about church and college to be blamed for what follows. This reflects some thinking about what’s going on and about where I am; certainly, I invite any one who wants to join in this discussion to do so.

WARNER PACIFIC COLLEGE is not an evangelical school—and therein lies its charm and its freedom.

In the last score or more years, evangelical as a descriptive and identifying term has grown looser and broader and, finally, less helpful and, sadly, often divisive. It’s become a term used widely as synonymous with conservative (sometimes, fundamental) Protestant Christianity. In the current political process, evangelical is also recognized or utilized as a term for a particular voting block. Evangelicalism is rooted in the Protestant Reformation, which, most of us know, grew as a reaction to corruption in the church, and, as the reformers saw it, the triumph of reason and tradition over revelation. It intended to be a reassertion of a biblically based faith.

Under the banner of “sola scriptura,” the growing protesting church began to grind out a series of doctrines and dogma intended to clarify what the Bible actually said. These clarifications became creeds and the creeds became more defining (and perhaps more restrictive) of what a particular brand of Protestantism understood the scripture to teach. That brand was, often, held up as Truth. Increasingly, persons were asked, then required, to sign on to a Creed, thus establishing their credentials as Christians. Being a Christian was more about believing right things—right knowing—than right living or engaging in serious, personal, prayerful devotional study.

During that reformation, another group emerged, generally lumped together under the rubric of “Pietist.” Seen as a more radical group, these persons reasserted a number of practices and convictions intended to restore greater personal connectivity and responsibility for truth in light of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. A key summary of this new/old approach is found in Spener’s Pia Desideria (“Pious Yearnings”).

In brief these are (From the Archives: The Pia Desideria (Pious Desires); The Manifesto of Pietism):

1. A more serious attempt to spread the Word of God. Pastors should preach from the entire Bible and Christians should meet in small groups to study the Bible.

2. The … doctrine of the priesthood of all believers should receive a new emphasis. The differences between the laity and clergy should be minimized.

3. More attention should be given to the cultivation of individual spiritual life. Love for God and man [sic] should take priority over theological disputes. Knowledge is secondary to practice.

4. Truth is not established in disputes but through repentance and a holy life.

5. Candidates for the ministry should be “true Christians.” Their training should include small groups for devotional life and personal Bible study.

6. Sermons should not show the preacher’s erudition, but attempt to edify believers and produce the effects of faith.

The Church of God reformation movement, part of the holiness revival of the 19th Century, had a radical perspective on living out of this understanding of scripture and truth.

WARNER PACIFIC COLLEGE, an agency of the Church of God (Anderson, IN), is not an evangelical school because it is rooted in the Church of God Reformation Movement that not only condemned creeds and refused to establish its own (other than scripture), but also affirmed the possibility that there is more truth to be found. This Movement disparaged and denounced denominationalism and, therefore, creedalism; it affirmed that the Holy Spirit will and does make scripture plain—and motivates us to live out of those affirmations. There are beliefs that this movement affirms as true, but I won’t go into those in this blog; however, they are understood as affirmations that do not bind the believer and, frankly, for better and worse, have changed over the years. But more than “right beliefs,” this movement emphasizes “right living.” Whatever else it might be, our understanding of holiness is that we have a deep commitment and a high expectation to live in, out of, and open to the all truth, as revealed by the Holy Spirit through scripture, and we do not, in fact, own the truth but rather are owned by it. We live in between times and are called to live with integrity as kingdom dwellers.

(Even Wikipedia: “One of [this movement's] more distinctive features is that there is no formal membership, since the movement believes that true biblical salvation, which will result in a life free from sin, makes one a member. Similarly, there is no formal creed other than the Bible. Accordingly, there is much official room for diversity and theological dialogue, even though the movement's culture is strongly rooted in Wesleyan holiness theology.” [My emphasis]

Of course, the Church of God (Anderson, IN) has roots in more than one plot (e.g. Anabaptist and Wesleyan); but they are strong in Pietism, which emphasizes how we live in the world more than what we believe in or about the world. So, we often avoid the boxes that not only define but also constrict and result in inquisitions of one kind or another. (Not that we have escaped such purges entirely but given the non legislative power of our assembly, they seem best defined as efforts to clarify and affirm rather than legislate and convict.) Instead we desire to live well out of an understanding of holiness that connects our understanding of truth/Truth as how we live in the world—free in the Spirit and open to the possibilities resulting from a creative and surprising God. This sometimes makes us seem without a center, and we grow uncomfortable with that, leading to a flurry of resolutions and efforts to more clearly define ourselves.

But there is a center and it is powerful; rather than limiting it is liberating because it believes God is at work in the world in ways and with others that we cannot even imagine. These roots make it (or should make it) possible for a school like WPC to avoid the kind of “creedal correctness” that schools in the evangelical tradition (like Wheaton, much in the news of late) struggle with; they also provide us with a more robust and “liberal/liberating” conversation. WPC defines itself as a Christ-centered, urban, liberal arts college. The term Christ-centered (rather than Christian) is an intentional choice that invites the kind of questions the answers to which are often assumed to be explicit in the term Christian.

Christ-centered, as a center, provides the ground to which all else is tied but not in a legalistic or creedal sense rather in a dialogical sense in the same sense that the people asked who is this son of man (John 12:34)? Further questions emerge about how is Jesus the center of what we do, how we live, how we think, and how we teach and learn? Rather than stand before some creedal definition of the truth, we stand before this Jesus and ask, as the demoniac asked, what have you to do with me (Luke 8:27-29)? Whatever else Jesus is, he is a living question demanding an answer; it is a personal answer and a communal answer, which we stand before, eager to understand.

Rooted, then, in a tradition that invites us into relationship with a living Jesus, in pursuit of the truth that will make us free, we are both freed and bound to faithfully live and learn in a context of love, mutual respect, and honesty. It is what makes it possible for a faculty member to sit with neighbors of other faiths and engage in conversations in and out of the classroom that explore similarities and differences but keeps open channels for relationship and mutual growth. It is what makes it possible for a faculty or staff member to sit with students struggling with their faith and not feel compelled to convert or convict or condemn but join them on a journey of faith that is freeing and engaging for both. It is what makes possible the porosity of our classroom walls, allowing students and faculty to move out into the world to engage to understand world so that we might better talk with it, change it and be changed by it (rather than run from, hide from, bunker down). It is what makes it possible for the College to be a safe place for students of all backgrounds, identities, paths, orientations, and ethnicities, and “creeds” to sit together, talk together, and grow together.

Because we believe God is at work, the Spirit is at work, in all these conversations and together the Truth that makes us free is revealed.

This is not new; I am not the first to call our collective attention to this. In March 1980, in the pages of Warner Pacific College News, Dr. Milo Chapman, then president, wrote about this reality in his time and in his language. I will post that in my next blog.

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