The Ventrioloquist. Issue 6.
Constituencies or Change?
Grant Miller and Kimberly Prijatel
“We aren’t looking for a faith that provides all the answers; we’re looking for one in which we are free to ask the questions.” –Rachel Held Evans, Evolving in Monkey Town p. 204
Christian colleges and universities around the United States face a dilemma–one that will determine their futures (and for some, whether they’ll even have one).
Here at Cedarville, we pride ourselves on our tagline, “Inspiring Greatness.” Our logo testifies to the fact that we are a “Christ-centered learning community,” and usually after our administration calls attention to these two aspirations, they rattle off the accolades of our departments, followed by a call for us to be “one of the leading Christian universities in the 21st century.”
While Cedarville accomplishes many things with excellence, boiling under the surface are some disheartening issues I, as well as my friends from around the country, notice and experience at our respective religiously-affiliated schools– issues that seem to stem from one central conflict.
A great tension is building. A tension between history vs. progress. A tension between faithfulness to the past vs. aggressively seizing the potential of the future. A tension between the old culture of faith and a new, blossoming culture of faith.
Many of our Christian-school-attending comrades are frustrated by “the [insert name of his/her school here] Bubble…” (a sentiment surprisingly shared across school lines and geographical locations in the Christian community!) The sentiment bears witness to the deep desire of the 21st century, post-post-modern student: authentic living, coupled with a strong “action” component to her belief and faith. As students strive to explore exactly what this means, our colleges and universities work to accommodate, but there is a fundamental dissonance between the ideologies of the older generations running our schools and those (the students and dedicated, critically-minded faculty and staff) who are seeking to maximize their time and effectiveness at such institutions.
The underlying problem is the inevitable collapse of once previously assumed-solid foundations for faith and “good, Christian living.” For the majority of their respective histories, these schools have maintained an unbreakable Line with accepted, church-mandated theology and lifestyle. Such institutions have tailored meticulous constitutions with their rules and regulations around these precepts–after all, that is what “set them apart” from “secular schools.” At Cedarville, we see this manifest as the community covenant, a required document replete with explicit rules and a very specific checklist of theological beliefs their students must profess.
Some parents sent their children to such institutions with the assurance they would not be taught doctrine, philosophy, or science which contradicted the beliefs instilled in them since they were infants. In some way, parents were able to rest-assured their children would remain in a protected buffer for another four years before launching off into the world.
Yet, within the last several decades, the Christian church has undergone a dizzying amount of change in attitude and action (some would say “much too much!”, others would say “not nearly enough!”) Most young Christians conceptualize faith differently than the Religious Right: its ideologues, its Culture Wars. In the midst of these changes, the constituency of Christian individuals who have the capacity to donate large sums of money to the Institution remains largely older in age, a demographic which connotes (although is not limited to) a more conservative ideology.
This widening gap between the students and the constituency leaves many Christian institutions to walk a painfully tenuous tightrope between two extremes: somehow, they must change enough rules to keep the students happy, yet they cannot change too much without facing the indignant ire of loyal contributors who will pronounce the “slippery slope of the institution” and promptly withdraw their support.
Churches are changing dramatically and student perspectives are also changing dramatically on a plethora of issues.
(Why then do such institutions continue to react to the criticisms of a shrinking constituency?)
One instance in particular comes to mind:
This summer, I had the privilege of working in our nation’s capital and spent time at a government official’s office–conversing on a range of topics from art to philosophy to theology. At one point, he leaned forward in his red, wing-backed chair, placed his hands on his chin, and uttered these words:
Please explain something to me, Grant. I have been in this city for over twenty years and have never witnessed such a vexing phenomenon. Credible polls indicate that your Generation is the most pro-life Generation ever to live since such polling began.
Then, his tone changed to one of genuinely pained bewilderment:
Yet on the other hand, you are also the most supportive age group for gay marriage! Can you please help me try to understand why this is?
He leaned back in his chair, crossed his legs, and awaited my answer. The evening sun cast him in a silhouette. I understood this seeming paradox perfectly well and responded with conviction and without hesitation, for to me, the answer was glaringly obvious:
Sir, it is BECAUSE we are the most pro-LIFE generation.
Traditionally, these two values are at extreme odds with one another within conservative, evangelical politics and faith. However, our generation is beginning to see the inconsistencies, incongruities, and downright nonsensical ways with which others contradict themselves or execute power-plays to remain in control of a conversation or “doctrinal statement.” Our generation is sensitive to the hegemonic political games, manipulation and hypocrisy our religion’s name has carried through the last 50 years.
Schools that are facing the challenge of meeting the times will go one of two ways:
They will either reconcile their inconsistencies and live as fully as possible with integrity and forward-gazing Vision,
They will entrench themselves and write white papers on the “literal nature of Adam and Eve,” impose limits on types of churches staff can attend, and mandate other behaviors and beliefs in an effort to re-invigorate and reassure themselves of their Rightness, pressuring individuals to conform or fear removal from posts of leadership–or even employment.
Many Cedarville students have heard our president passionately explain why we are not known as a “Christian university.” It is because “universities cannot be a Christian, only people can.” I applaud this distinction and respect the way in which Dr. Brown seeks to differentiate between the institution of Cedarville and the people of Cedarville.
However, Cedarville falls into the same behavioral patterns as many of the other schools in capitulating to the constituency. As of late, there has been a renewed effort to crack down on differing theological positions ranging among justification, Omniscience, and perspectives on creation. The language of these white papers creates a hostile environment for questioning, journeying, and different opinions to be held with conviction, perhaps even taught; effectively severing them from the conversation.
For instance, language in these circulating papers on the doctrinal statement (specifically dealing with creation) includes the following:
“Since the establishment of the university’s current doctrinal statement until the present, the clearly understood meaning of article four has included the commitment to the special creation of the first humans. The current Board of Trustees once more affirms that God, by a special act of creation, made Adam and Eve and that they did not share a common ancestry with primates. They consider all positions which endorse Darwinian evolution, or which deny the historicity of Adam and Eve to be incompatible with the Cedarville University Doctrinal Statement.”
The language of this–and other–white papers circulating seems to be an effort to silence discussion. In this particular quote, we do not see room for questioning, no room for nuance or subtle difference, no room for recent theological developments in our tradition–effectively, no space for authentic exploration.
This is the aspect we find to be the most damaging: squelched diversity and forced homogeny. In response to these decrees, we must ask this question:
If a “university cannot be Christian and only people can,” then why are individuals within the university allowed to issue such draconian statements on “approved theology” and mandate such beliefs?
Even if one agrees with the tenants listed above in the white paper statement, the way in which it is communicated should be enough to cause widespread discomfort and/or opposition from students and members of the faculty and staff. While we strive to live “in community” here at Cedarville, this does not mean we shouldn’t be allowed to disagree on issues of theology and faith. That, to us, is the beauty of community–the diversity of belief, opinions, standpoints, and thoughts which lead to rich discussion and the challenging and refining of such positions.
Another issue our university faces is the incorporation of students into these–and other–ongoing conversations of policy, faith, and community. So often, I hear students lament the tightly partitioned way in which Cedarville operates: decisions on direction and theology are made by the administration and associated individuals while the students, who are either unaware of the conversations taking place or who are deliberately kept out of the loop, are left to bear the brunt of these decisions (sometimes without even knowing it). If, in fact, Cedarville is to be a true community, a much more symbiotic relationship must be fostered between the conversations taking place on the administrative level and what students are experiencing.
Taking these things into consideration, schools which choose to take the second approach of the two listed above are in grave danger of slipping below the waves of progress and a global re-orientation, only to drown on their own attempts to preserve a much-vaunted Culture…and the ever-important Coffers.
At the end of the day, a revealing question must be asked, “Are such schools truly Christ-centered or constituency-centered?”
If the answer is “constituency-centered,” the purpose and mission of these schools is in danger of being lost. Or, the respective Administrations have reconciled that what was once a heartfelt attempt at nurturing people into critically-minded thinkers has turned instead to primarily a business and product-peddling institution aimed at survival.
Will Christian colleges and universities stand the transition into the new era? It’s too early to tell, but it does not look incredibly promising if schools continue on a “coffers & constituency-centered” trajectory.