A paradox at the heart of Christian Higher Education

In a recent piece published as part of Christianity Today‘s Creative Studio, Julie Ooms, an associate professor of English at Missouri Baptist University in St. Louis, reveals a painful paradox at the heart of Christian higher education. These institutions are in many ways “the academic arm of the church” and therefore “essential to preserving and transmitting Christian traditions.” Yet, given the role that many religiously affiliated private schools have played as “segregation academies,” if they do not change then they may continue in “preserving segregation, consolidating power, and perpetuating injustice.”

Confronting this paradox is a matter of institutional mission, Ooms suggests. And it entails returning to the role that vocation has played as part of that mission.

Like other institutions in the current landscape of higher education, Christian colleges and universities are drawn into the trap of reducing the value of an education to career preparation. She cites the work of David Kinnaman, president of the Barna Group. In a 2018 report, What’s Next in Christian Higher Education, they found that most incoming first year students were focused on how their education would prepare them for “a career and financial success.” In this, the research finds, they are not different from their non-Christian peers.

Christian institutions of higher education must return to the meaning of vocation as a calling from God and to their mission to educate young people “for the common good and for the good of the church.” It is a form of education that is “oriented to forming the whole person,” and not just focused on training for a particular career, according to Philip Ryken, the president of Wheaton College. The essay goes on to describe the false dichotomy between financial stability and spiritual fulfillment. The hallmark of Christian colleges and universities is how they undertake the formation of graduates who are “committed, compassion, convicted citizens who want to engage deeply in this world, not in spirit of their faith, but because of their faith,” writes Shirley Hoogstra, president of the Council for Christian College and Universities (CCCU) in this interview from August 2019, and quoted by Ooms.

Sunset at the cross.

Sewanee, The University of the South.

Ooms goes on in her essay to draw a parallel between an individual and an institutional process of reconstructing one’s faith when it has been challenged. Following Greg Boyd, she approaches this as the task of identifying the basic essentials of one’s belief system and then “building up” from there. This is where the “promise and paradox” suggested in the title of her essay comes into focus. Although there have been demographic changes in the student populations of Christian colleges and universities, the institutions themselves have not sufficiently changed to address the needs of more diverse students or the persistent inequalities in the larger society.

She concludes her essay by citing Messiah College as engaged in an exemplary effort to undertake the “faithful reconstruction” that is needed. “The task of Christian colleges and universities going forward,” Ooms writes, “is to fight to preserve their distinctiveness and witness while resisting the pull, or the mere force of inertia, that leads to their perpetuating injustice. Like an individual Christian who comes to a point of faith deconstruction, these institutions must recognize and wrestle with the individual and systemic sins within themselves.”

Here is a link to Julie Ooms’ essay, “The Promise and Paradox of Christian Education,” CT Creative Studio (April 2020).

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