Christian Colleges on the Mind: Part Five: Gown and Table

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.)


About Nathan Gilmour

Nathan P. Gilmour is a Christian, a husband, a father, and a college English teacher. He tries to do all of that and write something worthwhile on occasion.


9 thoughts on “Christian Colleges on the Mind: Part Five: Gown and Table

  1. >a metaphysics of participation rather solves the quandary that you set up,I’ll take your word for it, although I am completely unconvinced that the baptist doctrine of the church is based on a metaphysical theory of any sort (present company excepted of course). 🙂

    Posted by M. Jay Bennett | March 19, 2008, 6:19 pm
  2. >Ah, theological grammarians! ;)Alright, then, how about I meant something other than “in” as in “Somewhere in this thread somebody tried to make a point before things got pedantic!” :PIncidentally, a metaphysics of participation rather solves the quandary that you set up, though I’m too tired from reading 17th century city comedy right now to offer a full explication of that.

    Posted by Nathan P. Gilmour | March 19, 2008, 12:24 pm
  3. >I’m still confused as to what you meant. Setting (1) “the Son came in the flesh” alongside (2) “the church exists bodily in the local congregation” doesn’t help me understand. In (1) I would understand “the Son” to be the eternal Son of God and “the flesh” to be his human nature assumed through incarnation. In (2) I don’t know how to distinguish the Church from the local congregation (i.e. body) without conceiving of it as invisible. In that case the local congregation would be the visible expression of the invisible church. But the invisible/visible distinction requires one to either define the church itself in terms uncommon to both its visible and invisible forms, which contradicts essential unity (akin to Nestorianism with respect to the (1)), or define the church (both visible and invisible) itself according to the commonality of covenant membership (akin to Chalcedonian Christology with respect to (1)). If the invisible church exists in the local body in a way comparable to the incarnation, aren’t we bound to define the church (both invisible and visible) in common terms unless we risk a fundamentally disunified ecclesiology, which quite naturally leads to a fundamentally disunified Christology?

    Posted by M. Jay Bennett | March 17, 2008, 8:45 pm
  4. >Gotcha. I had in mind “in” as in “The Son came in the flesh.” You had in mind “in” as in “I know that flashlight is in here somewhere!”:)

    Posted by Nathan P. Gilmour | March 17, 2008, 6:34 pm
  5. >the Church exists bodily in the local congregationI took “in” as “within” rather than “as.”

    Posted by M. Jay Bennett | March 17, 2008, 4:29 pm
  6. >Out of curiosity, from which bit of my post did you infer an invisibility to Church?

    Posted by Nathan P. Gilmour | March 17, 2008, 3:11 pm
  7. >Excellent finale Nathan! I’ve enjoyed this series very much. I especially appreciate your call away from pride and toward humility. As one with so much invested in the academic realm, I understand your call against a Gnostic-like pride. I also recall a prevailing tendency among congregations that I have been a part of in my more distant past to (that excludes PCPC and Providence Church [where Gunny pastors]) to minimize intellectual pursuits for the same reason, pride. I think Augustine said humility is the chief Christian virtue. I am prone to agree with him, especially when I find my own heart so puffed up so often.The Church exists bodily in the local congregation, and Christian colleges exist to serve the Church body.Besides my differing definition of the church (i.e. that it is also definably visible), I couldn’t agree more. Service to the church and in the church should be one of our highest priorities, perhaps THE highest if understood holistically (i.e. that ministry in the church includes its ministry to the world).

    Posted by M. Jay Bennett | March 17, 2008, 3:46 am
  8. >That’s precisely the sort of thing I was thinking of when I wrote that first section, and I’m glad someone has actually seen it.I know that Milligan is very open about its expectation that students and faculty both participate in local congregations, and mainly for that reason there has never, as far as I know, been a regular on-campus Sunday service there.

    Posted by Nathan P. Gilmour | March 17, 2008, 12:18 am
  9. >So many thoughts. . . . Last Fall during communion, my husband and I were both struck separately with the same thought. Our alma mater and former employer had Sunday morning church services for years on campus, but they never served communion. I had just started Luther’s _Commentary on Galatians_; Luther was responding to his interlocutors who asked if there were Christians in the Roman Catholic Church. He responded that of course, there were! They were serving the Eucharist, and that’s a means of grace so God can work through that even if the rest of the RCC is flawed. I realized that there were faculty/staff/administrators among my former colleagues who hadn’t participated in communion for years. Not all of them, of course, because some would attend local churches in the evening. But still — so many hadn’t communed. No regular reminder to confess your faults to your brothers and sisters. This is serious. No wonder campus worship is so lifeless and pointless!There are other things. Few administrators actually come under the authority of any local body. I don’t care even about the bad example this sets. It’s about the hubris. I agree that there needs to be a check-and-balances kind of system between facets of Christendom — gown and table. What I’ve seen, however, in my narrow but deep experience, is that the purse too easily gets the final say. And it never should. Just ramblin’. . . .

    Posted by QueenKnitter | March 16, 2008, 1:40 pm

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