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 (itâ€™s been a few decades since all the faculty were required to be Christians), they are adding a chair in â€œReformed Theology.â€ 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 Davidsonâ€™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 Eastlandâ€™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 churchâ€™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 â€œin which we standâ€ is not one that â€œfears, excludes or belittles those who are differentâ€ but is â€œecumenical in spirit,â€ the point being that ecumenismâ€”a truth now more fully understood, apparentlyâ€”compelled opening board membership to non-Christians. Spach envisioned the â€œpursuit of truthâ€ by an ecumenical board: â€œWe [Christians] tell others what we believe and also humbly…listen to [the] beliefsâ€ of â€œpeople of other faithsâ€â€”and â€œperhapsâ€ learn â€œfrom each other.â€ For Spach, an ecumenical board will be better able to pursue truth than an entirely Christian board.
When I hear â€œReformed Traditionâ€ itâ€™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 â€œReformed Traditionâ€ 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 â€“ or Christian â€“ 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 â€œaffiliatedâ€ with the United Methodist Church â€“ part of the Wesleyan Tradition â€“ they tout an ethos indistinguishable from Davidson or completely secular schools.
And yet they see themselves as being faithful to the Wesleyan Tradition!
What Eastlandâ€™s article suggests is that itâ€™s not the colleges that are to blame: theyâ€™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 (â€œbabiesâ€), we actually think that reproduction is a bad thing. We donâ€™t have the truth â€“ 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 â€“ intelligence, courage, character and success â€“ and sleep in on Sunday mornings.
Until we learn to see Christianity and the Methodist tradition as true â€“ 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.