Sterile Traditions and Higher Education

Terry Eastland recently wrote about the transformation of Davidson College. In the past couple of years the trustees have led the school from association with the Presbyterian Church (USA) to merely being an expression of the Reformed Tradition. While they are dropping the requirement that all the trustees be Christians (it’s been a few decades since all the faculty were required to be Christians), they are adding a chair in “Reformed Theology.” While some might see this as a step away from Christianity, Eastland says the trustees see the move as flowing distinctly from their conception of the Reformed Tradition.

While I am neither a Presbyterian not a participant in the Reformed Tradition (though I consider myself a friend of that tradition), I see parallels between Davidson’s situation and United Methodist higher education.

Since my own attendance at an institution of higher education that was United Methodist but not Christian, I have been wondering how we lost our colleges and universities. While my alma mater still claims its United Methodist affiliation, many others have left even the scent of affiliation in behind. USC and Syracuse were once Methodist schools. Perhaps they had left the church behind because of the secularizing forces of modern academia. If Eastland’s account of the happenings at Davidson is correct, another possibility appears.

At Davidson the trustees, not academics, led the change. Their very conception of what the church’s nature and purpose is identified as the cause.

Indeed, the trustees made clear their belief that the Reformed tradition actually provides the basis for their decisions. Writing in the Charlotte Observer, the college chaplain, the Reverend Robert Spach, declared that the Reformed tradition “in which we stand” is not one that “fears, excludes or belittles those who are different” but is “ecumenical in spirit,” the point being that ecumenism—a truth now more fully understood, apparently—compelled opening board membership to non-Christians. Spach envisioned the “pursuit of truth” by an ecumenical board: “We [Christians] tell others what we believe and also humbly…listen to [the] beliefs” of “people of other faiths”—and “perhaps” learn “from each other.” For Spach, an ecumenical board will be better able to pursue truth than an entirely Christian board.

When I hear “Reformed Tradition” it’s not ecumenism that comes to mind. I think instead of Calvin, Knox, the sovereignty of God, TULIP, common grace, etc. According to Spach, the “Reformed Tradition” seems indistinguishable from the ethos of modern academia: tolerance, constant seeking for truth, humility, and diversity. Surely these four virtues are unquestionably good (assuming, of course, that we know for sure what they are), but surely there is more to the Reformed – or Christian – Tradition than these modern platitudes? My search for institutions of higher education that are both United Methodist and Christian has led me to examine many University mission statements. Though many remain “affiliated” with the United Methodist Church – part of the Wesleyan Tradition – they tout an ethos indistinguishable from Davidson or completely secular schools.

And yet they see themselves as being faithful to the Wesleyan Tradition!

What Eastland’s article suggests is that it’s not the colleges that are to blame: they’re merely tools of academia and the church. Rather, it is the theological and ecclesiological traditions themselves that have become sterile. Not only do our institutions not produce new participants (“babies”), we actually think that reproduction is a bad thing. We don’t have the truth – well, maybe a little bit, but every other tradition out there has at least as much (maybe more). Why should our new children be Methodists? They can have everything out institutions offer – intelligence, courage, character and success – and sleep in on Sunday mornings.

Until we learn to see Christianity and the Methodist tradition as true – as worth reproducing (which is not the same as saying all other traditions are valueless), we will continue to lose not only our institutions, but also our next generation.

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3 Responses to Sterile Traditions and Higher Education

  1. Guy says:

    Baylor seems to be having a difficult time trying to reach for both top-flight research status and integity as a Baptist Christian institution.

    I wonder if the CCCU schools could teach us something about higher education as discipleship formation?

  2. Bishop Schnase of the Missouri AC has begun questioning our support of and affiliation with Central Methodist University. One local pastor that I know well suggested that we strip them of their name and sue them for defimation of the name–half jokingly. A seminarian friend of mine at Duke said that you could probably ask any non-divinity student what church Duke was affiliated with, and most wouldn’t even know that it had a religious affiliation at all.

  3. Guy says:

    It seems to me that one problem we’ve got as UM’s is that we want to have strong academic schools with lots of smart folks. Trouble is, if you’re that smart, we don’t seem to think it’s reasonable to expect you to believe in orthodox Christianity. Probably secularism or a pluralistic liberal version of Christianity is about all we should expect of someone of your intellect.

    So, if that’s true for individuals, then it’s certainly true for institutions–for some reason we think really smart and faithful orthodox Christian don’t go together.

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