Friday, June 24, 2011

On the Religious Identity of Religious Colleges

Cardinal Newman Society president Patrick J. Reilly weighs in on the controversial NLRB decision that St. Xavier University isn't Catholic enough to claim an exemption from federal labor law that would otherwise allow the university to prevent the organization of adjunct faculty. His point, simply put, is that the NLRB has no business deciding how religious an institution is.

SWNID, of course, agrees with Reilly in excoriating the NLRB, recalling that a group that cites Boeing for building a plant in SC hardly shows the discernment to mark the boundaries of the world's largest religion's largest denomination.

But we note nevertheless the dilemma for organizations like St. Xavier, namely, how to thrive in the mainstream of higher education and maintain a robust religious/sectarian identity.

Most Christian groups have started institutions of higher education. They do so because of the obvious convergence of higher-ed aims and religious aims: to nurture (a particular kind of) knowledge and wisdom in people. It's always a both/and proposition: our IHE will provide what all the good IHEs provide, plus a vital faith perspective that aligns with and supports the mission of our religious group.

And thus is born a litter of conflicts and dilemmas. Education is about personnel, and a growing IHE needs a lot of them, specifically of rare folk who are experts. Finding enough who can pull off the both/and proposition, who know their academic discipline and their faith, is daunting. Living in a world that prizes debate while standing for an orthodoxy is paradoxical, to say the least. Adhering to the explicit and implicit standards of the educational "mainstream" and of the religious community, both of which suffer chronic identity crises, is well nigh impossible to do singly, let alone in tandem.

So we sympathize with those ardent Catholics who find themselves in grief-stricken agreement with the NLRB. It's rather tough to see what makes most Roman Catholic institutions Roman Catholic these days, at least if one focuses on the content of instruction and the faith outcomes of students rather than the identity of senior administrators and the architecture of the campus.

Of course, the same pressures affect non-Catholic, Christian IHEs. A historical narrative that dominates the consciousness of many evangelical Christians is that of the institution that is founded on solid faith principles but over a few generations moves from ardent faith to nominal faith to anti-faith. Harvard, Yale, Princeton: gentle readers know the roster.

So, sensing the pressures and knowing the narrative, many live in fear that every move made by their sect's IHEs is another step in the inevitable decline of the IHE into rampant secularism.

And so we turn to the issue of the hour for those in SWNID's sect of choice: the renaming of IHEs. Those that once announced "Bible" in their names now call themselves "Christian." The "college" is now the "university." And now one has made the latter move while dropping altogether any adjective that boldly claims a distinctive: Johnson Bible College is now Johnson University.

And they're the object of scorn for so doing. And once again, SWNID finds ourself compelled to defend our colleagues in Tennessee.

First, let's realize the situation: while Roman Catholic IHEs are barely Catholic these days, and while many prominent IHEs that once were proudly Protestant are so no more, presently evangelical Protestant IHEs remain visibly committed to faith distinctives in ways that are readily noted and measured. Recent publications demonstrate what is obvious enough: that in the main (we aren't interested in naming exceptions), evangelical colleges demand curriculum and behaviors that go against the grain of the higher-ed mainstream. Like same-sex dorms, strictures on sex and alcohol, required courses in the faith tradition and its authoritative documents (a.k.a. the Bible), required attendance in worship, and all that. The same studies show that the students, in the main, do think and behave differently than their peers at mainstream institutions, and they do so gladly. Exceptions abound, but Christians who read their Bible know that exceptions are nothing new.

So despite their fears, evangelicals can chill out in the knowledge that their IHEs are mostly doing what they're supposed to be doing.

At the same time, evangelicals want their IHEs to expand their influence. They want a wider and broader population to attend, including some people who are less committed to the faith or the sect than they are at least interested in it (the notion is that many such will be persuaded, given what believers believe about the potency of the message). They want more opportunities for employment and influence for graduates (the notion is that such opportunities expand the reach of the potent message). So it would help if the prestige of the institution were enhanced too, inasmuch as institutional prestige tends to drive admission to graduate and professional schools, employment opportunities, and other avenues of influence (a.k.a. wealth, but we won't talk about that).

At the same time, evangelicals want their IHEs to be what they've always been: homogeneous institutions that serve their supporting sect by keeping the sect's progeny safe from outside influences and ready to serve in the sect's institutions.

[Please forgive our repeated use of "sect": we employ it as a social descriptor, not as a disparagement.]

So, how can an institution be mainstream and sectarian simultaneously? It is, of course, a paradox.

But to the case of JBC/JU. What drove the decision to rename this storied IHE?

The institution has answered that question clearly, and at length. We summarize.

First, "college" doesn't signify "postsecondary education" in global English as it does in American English. "University" does. Johnson is an IHE with a global mission. 'Nuf said.

Second, any modifiers in an institution's name that indicate a distinctively Christian identity are problematic for people who come from or want to go to countries where religion is regulated, i.e. countries where a majority of the world's peoples reside. Take a big one, for example: China, where Johnson has developed significant ties. Johnson's Christian friends in the People's Republic quietly told Johnson's leaders that anything in the institution's name like "Bible" or "Christian" will create problems with the government. As to that once-popular placeholder for such terms, "International," Johnson's Chinese friends said, rightly, that this term has become associated with institutions of questionable quality and integrity (that is no reflection on Hope International University, gentle readers, and we mean that).

As to one expedient--operating under two names, one explicitly Christian for domestic consumption and the other a "DBA" that omits the Christian label--why do so? If someone wants to suspect the institution because it omits a Christian label, the suspicion is hardly put to rest if the institution does so with an assumed name.

So what is the result? Johnson University, obviously.

And you'd think that the devil went down to Kimberlin Heights. The internet is alight with "SMH" remarks about how a once proud Bible college is now ashamed, ashamed of the faith and its authoritative book.

Mind you, Johnson, as it always has, requires a major in biblical studies of every student. Mind you, students at Johnson who aren't aiming at a career in ministry deal every day, as do students at many similar IHEs, with a campus culture that barely acknowledges the presence of students who won't earn their living from the church.

But Johnson University has lost the faithful way on which Johnson Bible College once tread proudly.

Folks, get real. Take the measure of the moment. Make factual comparisons, not fanciful ones to a selectively remembered, idealized past and a counterfactual present. Realize what you've got, which is some of the leading institutions of higher ed that are deliberately pursuing a distinctive approach to higher ed, one that is intensely focused on biblical instruction, that is faith-active and not just faith-based, that has always graduated more than preachers but still graduates more, better preachers, in balance with demand, than most other contemporary institutions.

Remember that there are narratives besides "faithful college goes secular." Like "faithful college grows out of touch," "faithful college turns inward," or "slander assassinates character."


carl said...

i have a question about part 2 of this 3 part entry. you gloss over rather quickly the desire of evangelicals to attract new/more people to its IHEs. the change in names of referenced schools, or at least of mine, seem to reflect a slight change in mission. granted, it is a small change that still keeps its religious vision central, as your contrast to catholic universities makes clear. but the mission changes nontheless, and it seems if this does not raise varied opinions of is supporters that they are not paying attention.

Jon A. Alfred E. Michael J. Wile E. SWNID said...

We're not confident of your meaning, but taking a guess, we'll respond that such concerns have to do with what we mentioned: a counterfactual, idealized view of the past. "Bible colleges" have always graduated people who didn't preach for a living. That's a fact. They've always graduated people who came to study with no intention of preaching for a living. That's a fact. They've accommodated such students in various ways, deliberately. They continue to do so. All facts, all unremarkable, all indicating that's what has happened recently isn't an alteration of mission but an adaptation of strategy.

JB in CA said...

The internet is alight with "SMH" remarks about how a once proud Bible college is now ashamed, ashamed of the faith and its authoritative book.

So according to this sort of logic, I guess we'd have to conclude that those who originally named the school "Johnson Bible College" were likewise ashamed of the faith for not having named it "Jesus Bible College".

I wonder if those who are on the front line criticizing Johnson for eliminating "Bible" from its name are also on the front line praising Emmanuel for adding "Christian" to its name?

Jon A. Alfred E. Michael J. Wile E. SWNID said...

The folks in the know know that things can never get better, only worse and worse.