I’m going to start this last installment by going negative, philosophically speaking. Don’t worry, though–it won’t get nearly as nasty as a presidential campaign that goes negative. Instead I will be negating some tendencies that Christian colleges might and sometimes have taken on, naming them faults rather than tendencies in general.
Christian Colleges Are Not Congregations
Back at Milligan, we used to watch for the folks who came to Sunday lunch still in pajamas. We knew they were the narc-elect-ics, the congregation of Bedside Baptist. Usually, when we joked about such church membership, they laughed along with us in a spirit of good humor and assured us that sooner rather than later they’d be back in a congregation. Others would occasionally fight us on the fact, arguing that their attendance at Milligan’s required chapel services and their own personal Bible reading and prayer benefited them more than any local preacher’s sermon ever would.
With the last claim I cannot argue; in fact some folks do not reap immediate benefits from weekly liturgies, if by benefits one means consumer goods passed from a seller to a buyer. The mentality that keeps the unrepentant bedside baptists out of the congregations is related to some folks’ tendency to imagine a Christian college as a Christian congregation.
The temptation is a clear one: Milligan at least was a place populated on one hand by the young and idealistic and on the other hand by the educated and dedicated intellectuals of the Church. The energy and the wisdom there lie by which one might construct a dream congregation. The problem is that the Church is bigger than the young and the professorial. More often than not, if a Milliganite professes to being a proud bedside baptist, the next sentence will be a complaint about the stiff-necked old people, the self-centered young parents, and the various human, all-too-human congregants that make up any given congregation.
The Christian college exists not to replace but to serve the local congregation. If these young consumers want the experience of Church-in-a-place to be a good one, odds are that they’ll find that goodness (that eudaimonia, if I might borrow from Aristotle) not in consuming a service as a product but by entering into a community with the will and the stated willingness to serve. Such is not to let those old folks and young parents and the preachers who get their money from them off the hook: those congregations in proximity to such colleges must imagine themselves and order their common lives at least in part as training grounds for young Christian intellectuals.
Christian Colleges are not Forever
Colleges in general are strange places: time there does progress from then through now towards not yet, but for a college professor there’s more than a normal sense that time is also a cycle: when a Shakespeare professor stands in front of a graduate classroom on the first day, she probably has read a fair bit of new scholarship since the previous first day of Shakespeare class, and her syllabus has likely changed, and the faces in front of her (hopefully) are different, but for all that, she knows that
in a few weeks she’ll be collecting a library research techniques paper, then proposals for research papers after that, then in about fifteen weeks final papers. Undergraduate classes are even more cyclical: about the same time every year, a midterm exam, a final exam, and various response papers will come in.
That sense of time-as-cycle should, however, not extend to the students at a Christian college. From the time they set forth in their first chapel service they should experience their college time as limited and as pointed towards a life of service. Unlike a congregation, in which the same person can and should begin as a new convert, live and serve for a while as an adult, and perhaps (if life lasts so long) become one of the old and wise and perhaps even an official elder, students at Christian colleges should have short life spans, four or five years as an undergrad and not many more as a graduate student.
This short life is an extension of the college’s identity as not-congregation: unlike congregational life, in which working with one’s elders and one’s minors can be a blessing but always requires a certain kind of hard work, a Christian college stands to be a testing ground for ideas, a place in which nobody has an entirely solid idea of how things are and in which (hopefully) few convince themselves that they have nothing left to learn. The flip side is also true: nobody should be in such a place so long that she becomes an establishment figure.
Of course professors can and should have long careers, but their position as instructors and evaluators somewhat insulates them from becoming establishment as such. In a congregation the preacher and the elders and the youngest converts are (or should be) on the same footing formally. Elders certainly bear responsibilities that new converts do not, but they do not issue grades to new converts (or should not). Because professors, no matter how friendly with students, still have that formal evaluative power, they stand outside of the student body, allowing the young to be young together (even if some of the young are, as some of my classmates were and some of my students have been, in their fifties).
Christian Colleges do not Save
Because this point is so patently obvious it won’t be a long section, but I want to emphasize that the congregation and not the college stands as the community of the saved-in-Christ. What the students in these places learn might and should create some alienation between themselves and the members of congregations, but that should never drive the students to isolate themselves as a community of the pure–that’s Gnosticism, pure and simple. Instead the Nietzsche-reading young Christian, the young biologist and the beginning economist should venture into local congregations again and again, knowing full well that the puffiness that their new knowledge threatens is not to be indulged but overcome, not for the sake of unpleasantness itself but because a Greek-reader or a psychologist or a journalist who lives out such a vocation in a local congregation can be a blessing there if only he’ll be patient and give his fellow congregants enough grace to attempt patience.
The Integrated Church
The common thread that’s run through all of these negations is in fact a positive statement (philosophically speaking) with which I’ll end: the Church exists bodily in the local congregation, and Christian colleges exist to serve the Church body. I have refrained to some extent from tedious lists of benefits, but I hope that my series has indicated the pedagogical, apologetic, martyrological (in the sense of bearing-witness in general, not exclusively as dying gruesome deaths), and mutual-service works that young people educated in such ways can bring to a congregation. Ultimately the Christian college, like the pulpit ministry, is nothing more and nothing less than a ministry, a service to God’s people on earth, and a proper spirit of humility must inform both endeavors. To return to one of my favorite riffs (Ooze.com people are rolling their eyes already), humility is always an Aristotelian mean, wandering neither into too much self-regard (hybris/superbia) nor into deficient self-regard (self-hatred) but knowing both the goodness and the limits of one’s role in the world. So while Benedictine stability belongs not to college but to congregation, yet congregations can benefit from the virtues that a season of intensive study builds in those who study. And while colleges necessarily create an artificial environment of innocence and energy, yet congregations that recognize that reality can order their common lives so as to welcome their pilgrims back into the village.
In short, so long as both college and congregation, both scholar’s gown and communion table, recognize their roles in the ongoing tradition, both might rightly aspire to bless the nations.
Once again, I thank Jay especially and others who have helped to sharpen these ideas, and I hope that we can continue this exploration. (In other words, post comments, please.)