More on “What is a University?”: A reply to Eboo Patel

I ran across a post this morning that may assist me as I continue to ask further questions about the university, its social context, its mission, and how the persons who constitute this institution might contribute to its reproduction and transformation.

In a post by Eboo Patel in Inside Higher Education, the question gets posed, “Are universities living up to their historic mission in how they engage diversity issues?” The question is a very good one, for many reasons and persons, and I hope to explore it below. I want to insert here something that some readers will be aware of already, viz., that I have some allergies toward binary questions, not unlike the question of Patel. Let me preview his answer: he’s not sure. Indeed, even at the end of his post when encountering “two-dimensional forms” of viewpoints, e.g., abortion or immigration, he raises another question: “Is this a violation of the mission/purpose/identity of the university?”

It would be a gross flattening of many topics to any binary of right-wrong, yes-no, good-bad viewpoints. I sense that is not Patel’s critique of the university, so much as it needs new approaches to diversity that exceed a choice from within paired opposites. For those who know of Patel’s work on campus and beyond, his good efforts at expanding religious pluralism deserve some sustained response and engagement; I know of a few people who have taken him up in this regard. Everything I’ve read of Patel suggests he lives out of a religiously plural experience and is about as gracious a guy as you’ll find on the planet. I’ll put out here a couple of responses here, one to the post, and the other a historical incident with his materials.

In the post, Patel quotes Alasdair MacIntyre, from his Three Rival Versions of Moral Enquiry:

“universities are places where conceptions of and standards of rational justification are elaborated, put to work in the detailed practices of enquiry, and themselves rationally evaluated, so that only from the university can the wider society learn how to conduct its own debates, practical or theoretical, in a rationally defensible way.”

Now, there’s a “trigger word” inside that quote, and, thankfully, if you read the post, one commenter picked up on it as well: “only.” I have this hazy recollection of reading MacIntyre before, thinking: “Really?” What about religious institutions and other social groups who also attempt to form rational judgments, detailed enquiry, and practice evaluation? In other words, while we often change our gaze toward the university when attempting to address some of the challenges and problems of the world we inhabit, that institution is hardly the only one in our societies that we turn to for consultation. For Patel, following MacIntyre, the university represents that social space uniquely empowered and constituted for a variety of viewpoints, ideologies, and theologies to be engaged, questioned, and evaluated. Fair enough, but it’s not the last stop for adjudicating religious claims and beliefs.

My historical incident: About 10 years ago, I was serving graduate and international students at Rice University. I was contacted by the Wellness Office via Student Services about a new resource from Patel that would administratively gather all of the campus religious groups, using a model of religious pluralism to be embraced on campus by all of the religious groups. I found that description fascinating, especially since the proposal explicitly promoted religious pluralism. As I read the promotional materials, sure enough, there it was: religious pluralism. So, I touched base with the contact person, and we had a great conversation, and he clarified something for me: this really would be a model of religious pluralism, not religious plurality.

So, one of my colleagues on campus hosted a get-together of campus ministers about this move to gather all of the religious groups under one administrative canopy of religious pluralism. Even a rabbi came; no one from the Muslim Student Association attended, nor from the Campus Buddhists. My colleague was quite excited about this intention of the university to gather us. I have to admit: we had both wondered if the university cared about the religious and spiritual life of the students and faculty, so this move had some good prospects.

As the discussion moved around the table, I had to come clean: I did not want to participate in the gathering. While I still remained in favor of the intent of improving relations and moving closer to the administration, I had learned enough about the model to resist my participation. You need to know: up to this point, I had already served as the campus director for two Veritas Forums, and I had lots of trust to lose and break in this meeting. With the exception of the rabbi, I had collaborated with everyone in the room, from Catholics to RUF to the Progressive Christians.

So, I had everyone’s attention when I made my announcement. I said it then, I’ll write it now: I am totally in favor of religious plurality. I am not in favor of Christians endorsing religious pluralism as a belief or a practice. There is a flattening out of truth claims that takes place within religious pluralism. I am not in favor of any kind of triumphalism: that was a claim made against me in the meeting. That claim is an example of what can happen inside institutions, like the university: If you’re not in favor of religious pluralism, then you must be in favor of a colonizing version of your religious faith. To which, I assume, Patel would join me in saying: No, those are not the only options.

Indeed, if anything is not contested in the NT (!), it is that the contemporary colony of Palestine was a religiously plural society. Jesus understood this in all of his encounters with the Jews, Gentiles, and especially those from the occupying force of Rome. That a variety of religious communities existed, and associated practices and beliefs followed from such groups, never was denied or even elevated to some supreme social ideal. As one reads both the NT and different historical texts of the first 100+ years of the Christian movement, one finds this community as a distinct, religious minority in Palestine and the Mediterranean: any notion of a “Christian nation” would prove laughable and patently false. The preaching of the Gospel routinely occurred in religiously diverse contexts and often lead to persecution. At no time could one hear the preaching (or much later read the NT) and conclude, “Oh, this is just like [some other religious tradition].” Plurality, not pluralism, prevailed.

My colleague caught up with me a few days later, and said he was shocked by my reply in the meeting: but, that after a few days, he understood my concern. He hadn’t considered the difference between “pluralism” and “plurality.” He also mentioned, and I later received a similar message, that the rabbi appreciated my comments and decision: he hadn’t perceived any difference either until I spoke up. Remarkably, many of my more-conservative Christian colleagues remained disturbed by my resistance to join the gathering. I tried with a couple of them to hear them out, as well as receive their questions: but, they could not fathom the difference I proposed.

Like Patel, I share many of the same expectations and ideals that MacIntyre proposed: but, I don’t expect that the university is the only social institution that can achieve those aims. I doubt Patel does either. But, we still have this question of how well the university is living into its mission when engaging diversity issues, especially religious issues.

I’d want to propose that affirming plurality over pluralism will affirm the identities and traditions of those religious communities: and those will— let’s be honest— collide with each other, especially with regard to truth claims. I make this proposal now, provisionally, knowing that I could be flat-out wrong.

Yet, I anticipate that by consenting to plurality, we not only affirm the various traditions, we also have a unique setting with which to develop communication across traditions, collaborate in service and justice, and esteem the dignity of the human persons who live within such traditions. The university could become a unique social context for the development of this proposal: a proposal that can hardly be considered as original.

Advertisements

A partial fulfillment of a response to early questions on “What is a University?”

GFM H2O BottleIn my earlier post, I received a couple of comments, as well as some off-line responses that I will initiate a reply to here. As some of the readers know, I posted a link for my colleagues in IFES to read and respond to. Thanks to the nifty statistical apps embedded in WordPress, I learned that the post has been read throughout the globe, presumably by those in IFES. The post proper, regarded the question of “What is the University?”, and to be sure, I only intend to start a series that will respond to that question, and I observed some of the severe problems existing within the university.

Towards the end of the post, I raised some questions for Christian ministries. I serve within InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, a Christian ministry in the USA that serves on college campuses among students and faculty. I raised questions at the end of the post that asked why InterVarsity would have an exclusive focus upon developing ministries of evangelism and chapter planting in light of the pervasiveness of the many problems that are both unique, intertwined, and interlocking on the largest of the R1’s down to the smallest of the community college campuses.

I suggested—missed by some readers, I hasten to add—that all of those involved in university life, including Christian ministries, would do well to “hit the pause button”, take a deep breath, and ask more penetrating questions. In the case of InterVarsity and its allies, I am of the mind that we are well equipped to perform such tasks: of reflection, of listening, and of self-critique. I must add here: It turns out we are well-prepared and well-equipped for such tasks, and I would posit our range of influence possesses a greater radius among administrators, faculty, and students than we understand: or risk to understand.

If you scroll down to the comments on the post, you’ll observe Bob and Vinoth’s comments; the latter’s questions take on a much more focused appraisal of the dedication to evangelism and chapter planting made by the senior leadership of InterVarsity. However, both Bob and Vinoth have questions that overlap with each other. I’m going to risk here a conflation of their questions, and then, with future posts, disentangle that merging.

To wit: The Gospel of Jesus Christ makes enormous claims upon our lives while simultaneously offering the human person a remarkable breadth of freedom to respond to such claims. What outcomes might follow from acting on those claims in the kind of initiatives and responses in the university that promote human flourishing, interrogate and develop disciplines, and construct academic, student, and faculty structures?

Well… If you’re on InterVarsity Staff or you’re a faculty member, or students, or even an alumnae/alumnus, one might expect some signal in the ministry that makes reference to the Statement of Faith, and you’ll find a couple of items that are worth your attention. First, a linking statement gets made: “our beliefs lead us to these core values”, and second, a statement of context:

CONTEXT
College and University
We are called to be a redeeming influence
among its people, ideas, and structures.

So, if you’re a missiologist like myself, or a missionary like myself, or merely one who pays close attention to statements like these and watches what follow, you likely have some questions. Such as: What is this movement from “beliefs” to “core values”? The core values, as you no doubt have observed, are inventoried below the context statement. But, how is that movement made from beliefs to core values? And, why is the “context” inserted?

As almost an afterthought, the statement of faith realizes: “Oops! No faith is ever falling from the sky! Our faithfulness to the Gospel always takes place in some socio-cultural community, and ours overlaps with the university.” OK. Good. Perhaps, the context statement serves as a bridge to the core values. Let’s assume that to be true for the moment. And, let me insert something that the authors could not have known, although possibly anticipated: Their notion in the year 2000 of the answer to the question, “What is the University?”, can hardly serve in 2018. If pressed, I trust the authors would assent to more of a dynamic, living version of the answer. Let’s return to the bridge proposal.

The calling presents as vital, and from my social location: exciting! Such is my evangelical heritage: The winsome, non-oppressive, proclamation of the Gospel flows from an initial, now-enduring, encounter with the risen Jesus, who has given us the Holy Spirit. Without diverting too far from the post, let me suggest that the calling could plausibly contribute to energizing the most flaccid of evangelical communities. But, here is where Bob and Vinoth’s questions return to us.

As of now, in conversations with senior leadership of InterVarsity, one hears two distinct messages. One message recently declared a new sense of calling for the fellowship is to reach every corner of every campus. This “reaching” will be empowered by ministries of evangelism and chapter planting. A variety of resources, from cultivating prayer that both transforms people and intercedes for the campus, to increasing funding and to fund in more equitable ways, to developing training resources for staff, students, and faculty, to establishing new and renewed partnerships with other campus ministries: will be cultivated, grown, and deepened for the fulfillment of the calling. All of this sense of calling and the manifest resources has its origins in the senior leadership. All of the executives and management have oriented themselves toward interpreting and establishing plans to fulfill this calling.

The other message, though, fascinates me. When asked about “who” in the senior leadership has assumed responsibility for developing the redeeming influence for the ideas and structures on campus, the reply has continued to present remarkably and uniformly: “It is best if this development comes from the field staff.”

Many, many affirmations and critiques can—and should—be made of both messages. If we take up the conflation question I posed earlier, what we can mildly state is the following: Responding to Jesus Christ as Lord presents as a form of human flourishing. Recognition of the fallenness in a human person that occurs in the movement towards the healing, deliverance, liberation, and forgiveness offered exclusively in Jesus can surely receive affirmation as a form of human flourishing. Insofar as InterVarsity participates in a joyful and crisp declaration of the Gospel and such responses continue: Amen. One can hardly deny the enduring importance of such transformation. Indeed, such proclamation remains as an on-going imperative for Christians of all cultures and traditions.

But, what of the ideas and structures? Both Bob and Vinoth, coming from different angles, wonder about this. Vinoth makes the historical observation of campus outcomes, of which have power exerted throughout the globe; Bob asks about a long-term influence and (sorry Bob to put words in your mouth) the massive “what if” InterVarsity staff took on a longer emphasis to their respective campus context that would move the disciplinary content and university structures toward increasing human flourishing. Vinoth wonders if the senior leadership even has this concern for ideas and structures in their purview, the publication of the contextual statement notwithstanding.

It will come as no surprise: I wonder about this daily.

I fear the relative silence about ideas and structures runs in parallel to the lack of conversation and consultation between senior leaders across InterVarsity with their IFES colleagues. Let me identify or make transparent here a commitment and its attendant idea that dwells in an exclusive focus upon becoming a redeeming influence among people in a North American, evangelical context: When you commit to evangelizing and planting among a specific people, you can both inventory and identify who fulfills the commitment and responds to the efforts.

Of course, such has biblical sources for the commitment: that goes uncontested here. But, what frequently remains involved includes the tacit overlay of enlightenment and positivist ideologies that animate the commitment and the idea. Here, we find that the “decisions” can be counted; the timing of such can be made relative to specific ministry events; narratives assist in identifying the movements of persons toward life in the reign of God. Such efforts represent valuable synthesis: but, have their priorities aligned with positivist tendencies.

Of which, tend to flatten out context. Such an overlay (1) drapes expectations that may not fit with the university in its present historical context, (2) empowers urgency, and (3) diminishes thoughtful engagement with the university context. In strong contrast: Time, open-ended and undemanding, needed for careful, prayerful listening to the university; conversations and reading about ideas; observations of historical judgments, policy decisions and regulations that form the university structures: all of these and much more will raise expectations for learning about how a university lives and breathes.

In contrast to an enlightenment overlay, the above approach has remarkable history, traction, and credibility among contemporary mission partnerships. Those partnerships with local congregations allow the missionary the leisure to watch, listen, learn language, develop relationships, and discover the vitality of the existing institutions, as well as observe the remarkable and sordid breadth of the human condition in another culture. Suffice it to say: no rush is made to make the missionary competent in the culture, even if the agency and the local congregation agree that, of the many goals, the evangelization and establishment of witnessing communities rests in that partnership.

That kind of approach, while coherent to most modern missiology and mission education, fails to gain a hearing and traction in many campus mission agencies in North America. Thus, it should come as no surprise that: any dialogue about strategic ministry within the USA with those from outside does not have any mutual commitment; InterVarsity staff and students, once returned to campus from mission partnerships with IFES movements across the globe, have little-to-no challenge to demonstrate learning or advocacy for those who host them; and, thus: we have no commitment from senior leadership to developing a redeeming influence for the ideas and structures of the university that parallels the one to influencing people.

To face some possible objections, let me take some of those here. First, what about an alleged influence, or even dominance, of enlightenment upon our leadership? It does none of us any good to deny or ignore the social and cultural influences upon us. That such exist and have indeterminate power upon us cannot be contested. That we can resist such influence is also uncontested: which is why I bring the matter up to begin with. Lesslie Newbigin often observed that we have a conflicted relationship with the enlightenment: we’re products of it, and for that we can be glad (consider the alternatives); we’re also aware of how it has power upon us, and sometimes we feel helpless in the face of it; we’re also unaware of how the enlightenment exercises power upon us. When we make discoveries of how that tradition has contoured our thinking or expectations, we can recoil, and sometimes quite strongly.

And that leads to another objection: One doesn’t ordinarily repent of the influence of an idea or a structure. To which I reply: Thank you. So much of our contemporary reading of the word, “repentance” or the verb “to repent” (Gk., metanoia and metanoiete) involves one well-bounded meaning: turn from your personal sin. Conversely, when one reads such usage in the NT, say, the Second Gospel, we find a far-greater scope called upon by Jesus: “Repent, and believe the Gospel.” Such a call does not merely confront unbelief, as though that were the problem of his largely Jewish audience: surely they were a people with a long history of belief in YHWH.

No, the call to repent involved a much deeper confrontation with their ideas, how they operated upon those ideas, and the kinds of social forms generated from those people holding those ideas. Note well: Ideas and the people who hold/use the ideas are distinct from each other, but often conflated. To continue, the point made by Jesus here and elsewhere involved the investigation of what the people thought, and how they used such thoughts: and his invitation to reconsider both given his presence and his proclamation. Everything they knew was about to be called into question with the one person who could be trusted. Suffice it to say, his influence was and remains remarkable and trustworthy.

I’ll conclude on a couple of notes. The objects of InterVarsity’s redeeming influence,  “people, ideas, and structure” have a remarkable counterpart in sociology. The primary question of the entire discipline, according to Margaret Archer, involves the analytic discernment of the interplay of “structure, agency, and culture.” Let that one sink in for a moment.

Finally, let’s face it: it’s hard to count influence upon ideas and structures. But, once you’re living through an enlightenment perspective, it’s hard to even imagine what could constitute reporting on changes in ideas and structures, let alone empowering staff to exercise Gospel influence upon such ideas and structures in the University.

Happy 125th Birthday, Martin Niemöller!

 

Today is the 125th anniversary of the birth of Martin Niemöller, Lutheran pastor and theologian who resisted the Nazis. You can Wikipedia his bio. What I continue to find fascinating about Niemöller regards his development as a disciple of Jesus. When the Nazis came to power, initially Niemöller was some what neutral, even quiet, about their presence, power, and agenda. As time developed, and he observed the growing incarceration of Jews, followed by those who dissented from the arrests, Niemöller’s conscience pushed him to preach against the Nazis. He originally, on the basis of a meeting with Hitler, articulated strong anti-Semitic views, believing that both Jews and the German church would not be harmed. Soon after his preaching opposed the Third Reich, he was arrested and imprisoned. Once in prison, with a Jewish cellmate, he admitted routinely that he was duped and completely wrong-headed in his thinking. Although on the threshold of a death sentence, he was liberated, having been imprisoned for nearly 7 years, including a stay in Dachau.

What Niemöller is most remembered for involves a saying that has only intensified in its hortatory and prudential power. Confession: I used to believe that we needed to pay attention intensively during Obama’s presidency, and I would encourage people to reflect upon Niemöller. Obviously, that was merely a warm-up to the present.

Clearly, we need to revisit Niemöller’s saying—and as I write “we”, I imagine all Christians and other people of faith, and especially any of my immigrant friends, no matter what your status is in the USA— as Niemöller has this sense of how easy it is for people like ourselves to: dismiss the rhetoric of the White House, trust promises made and emerging from that executive office, and assume that we will not be harmed or betrayed by the current president. Here is a link to the source

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—

Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—

Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—

Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

The voice of a fallible, growing disciple speaks to us across the years: Pay attention, and do not be quiet, my family and friends. We need each other’s voices in this season of life.

The 24-hour rule: An early-2018 practice

 

When my son played hockey, he had several really good coaches along the way. One of which spoke to the players, and he followed by addressing the parents after a really bad loss. “When a game like this one is lost, I have a rule, and I encourage you as parents to abide by it with your sons. Don’t talk about the game for 24 hours. Let your emotions settled down, then listen to your son. No need for fake encouragement, and by waiting a day, you’ll be less likely to scream and shout after a loss like this one.”

When the news broke on 45’s description of Haiti and African nations as “shithole countries“, my heart broke as well. To be clear, that DJT is a racist— as well as a liar, sexual predator, 3-times divorced, certifiable nut-case— is not anything new to me or anyone else.

As some of you know, my grandfather is from Afghanistan: where Trump thinks they are all terrorists. My grandmother is from Mexico: where Trump thinks all Mexicans are rapists and running drugs across the border. (By the way, except those in my family reading this, how many Afghan-Latino-White people do you know? Please raise your hands: higher!) So, my family and I come from shithole countries.

As some of you know, most of my work and service within InterVarsity has been with international student ministry: and many of these students were born, raised, educated in the Caribbean and in African nations like Egypt, Madagascar, Kenya, and Senegal: North, South, East, and West. And: according to Trump, all shithole countries sending their best and brightest for education in the USA.

And, my wife’s family comes from southern China: And not just there but throughout Asia, as do the families of my friends, neighbors, colleagues, and the faculty I serve. Because none of these beloved and beautiful people look like white people, they must also originate from shithole countries.

I will add parenthetically, that, DJT’s use of the N-word (“Norway”) notwithstanding, Norwegians have little incentive to migrate to the USA. Indeed, the contrasts between the two nations make Norway far more palatable as a destination to live.

Returning to the topic at hand, these are me and my people: and the executive of the United States deems us all as refuse for the toilet. The level of insult and disrespect caused me to boil internally with anger. While I have cautiously stewed for the last 24+ hours, others have immediately come hard after DJT: especially in the media. I was a little surprised, I must admit. The reporting and the analysis seemed a little late to the party: It was like they couldn’t say he was a racist before but they are now? Nonetheless, I was glad to see and hear this accurate description of the president out in the open. Remarkably, there hasn’t been a substantive denial of his racist vulgarity.

What I need to say next has been said by others, likely with more forceful rhetoric and far more felicity. I don’t need to prove my humanity to Trump and other white supremacists. I really don’t. Let’s not let the terms of this discourse get set by debates about immigration, although, to be sure, matters of immigration, policing, economics, education, and voting rights will most certainly follow the starting point I will endorse.

I am proposing we start with the reality that if you’re a human, you’re a human. It’s not about your skin color, or your family, or the geographic origins of your family. It’s not. There is a lot of theological anthropology going on out there, but some of it is getting hijacked by discussions of whether we can allow, for example, Haitians who are physicians to legally immigrate but those who do not possess “skills” will remain unqualified for migration to the US. Let’s not commodify people. Let’s not use bodies to advance the well-being and economic prosperity of—let’s face it— white people, of those with whiteness (available to anyone, regardless of ethnicity), and of those who already possess economic power to insulate themselves from the debate about who can label who and thus determine who can be a resident in the US. If you make someone’s humanity about how it inevitably fits into a business model of any kind, your theological proposal has already been hijacked by other powers, other agendas, and other missions.

So, in case there was any doubt: I had to practice the 24-hour rule, because I was ready to scream and shout. The erasure of human dignity could not have gone any lower by the president. It will be interesting to see how those in Congress act next: not just with statements of feeling (further) appalled, but with the kind action that has teeth in it that restores and asserts human dignity throughout the globe. It will be especially interesting to listen to sermons this Sunday, especially in those evangelical congregations where the word of God is preached. Does God have a word—from within a sermon—for his people during this season of life? Or is a prior commitment to “a preaching series” remain inviolable, no matter what the current events may present and social exigencies may manifest? One wonders if any evangelical preacher can effectively remain credible by “keeping the world outside” without naming what every single member of the congregation knows before they enter and what they inevitably face when they exit the sanctuary? What does the preached word of God have to say about human dignity?

I’m glad I practiced the 24 hour rule, but I’m still angry, and I would commend to preachers everywhere the Lord Jesus Christ. God help you with power and wisdom as you preach the Gospel that includes the Lord Jesus restoring the human person to her/his God-endowed-and-designed human dignity: and naming persons and their sources of power that would deny God, Jesus, and his mission.

“What is the university?”: The beginning

41Qsl6GIS8L._SX326_BO1,204,203,200_

As my “About” identifies, I’m a campus staff member with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship. I’ve been in this ministry now for most of my adult life! I’ve loved the calling from Jesus, and I’ve loved the people I’ve met and served with on campus. I’m sure that some of them might venture to say the same about me! The experience, history, and cultivation of faithfulness to the Lord Jesus in a Western academic context continues to fascinate and delight me; the Lord has been kind to chasten, correct, and empower me, colleagues, students, and faculty for the kinds of witness and service that both indicate the transcendent presence of God and demonstrate the power of the Gospel in a variety of university settings. I’ve enjoyed this work, and the efforts require much of my emotional, intellectual, and social energies quite unlike other work that I can inventory in my short lifespan. Some reading here will be aware that InterVarsity has had some important changes in leadership over the last few years: I won’t rehearse that now, but it’s all out in the open for anyone to read up on.

But, a question has emerged for me, and I know I’m not alone, and the question largely popped out during my service in Texas, and continued throughout my doctoral research: “What is the university?” I mention this as one who, obviously, works as a Christian missionary on campus; the leadership changes within InterVarsity that produced the twin emphases on evangelism and chapter planting have also contributed to my curiosity about this huge educational institution. Apparently, I’m not alone in wondering what the answer to my question is, and could be. Within 24 hours of each other this week, two independent essays came up, and yet, the overlap between these authors in itself suggests a closer look for contributions to answering the question. First, the history behind these essay authors, Michael Emerson and Christian Smith.

Emerson and Smith wrote the landmark study on white evangelicals and racism in the USA, Divided by Faith. Of the many findings and layered conclusions, one befuddling element continues (regrettably) to this day: the inability of evangelicals to see/perceive/understand social structures and culture because of a default to reducing all human relations to matters of the individual. Without even a hazy vista of how institutions, policies, and the histories that explain the people, motivations, and powers behind such, evangelicals remain in the dark about how racism endures in North America. Both of these men possess a robust and critical Christian faith; both have their unique affirmations and criticisms of evangelicals. But, their independent essays published earlier this week both shed some light upon my question.

In Emerson’s irenic examination of the faculty in elite sociology departments in the USA, he observes a hiring pattern: the elite departments hire faculty from those who graduate from elite departments. His analysis is remarkably simple, but devastating in its results. Emerson concludes:

My sociology advisor’s advice [If you want to work in a top-ten department, graduate with your Ph.D. from a top-ten department], given in the 1980s, holds true today. Top ranked departments, with almost no exceptions, hire their faculty from highly ranked Ph.D. programs. In fact, we might wonder if there isn’t a rather strong correlation between the average ranking of one’s faculty and a department’s ultimate ranking in the hierarchy of Ph.D. programs, perhaps stronger than actual publication productivity or influence. We also learned that the large majority of Ph.D. programs in sociology—perhaps 100 of the nearly 130 programs—do not place their graduates in top programs. Their students often instead go to teaching schools, regional state universities, and the private sector.

In the final analysis, for a discipline which often sees understanding and overcoming inequality at its core, we have managed to create it rather well.

I had heard rumors of this kind of hiring pattern, but not until Emerson’s post did anyone have the beginnings of some empirical investigation of the rumors. Lest I be misunderstood here: the kinds of inequalities that Emerson has demonstrated exist all across the disciplines and departments of any university. It’s not only a “sociology” problem described by Emerson, nor would I assert it, either. Google any engineering faculty page, and you’ll quickly observe: the kinds of Ph.D. institutions that educate the faculty (and the kinds that do not…); many more men than women; many more whites than POC; and often those with tenure are white males constituting the majority of the faculty. What is going on here? And, mind you: this just describes most engineering faculty. How does this contribute to answering the question? For one, inequalities can be found throughout the university; how those manifest in policies, curricula, pedagogy, and student services deserve further attention.

In Smith’s essay, we have a broader, yet incisive critique of the university. The sense of odorous despair that Smith writes about is “actually painful and morally complicated” for himself.

But calling out the BS is not about my personal experience, limits, or feelings. It is not even only about the unconscionable fact that countless millions of students are receiving compromised and sometimes worthless college educations, as sickening as that is. Ultimately, we must grasp the more dreadful reality that all of this BS in the academy is mortally corrosive of our larger culture and politics.

Ideas and their accompanying practices have consequences.

Smith zeros in on a given that often gets some attention in evangelical ministries like InterVarsity but deserves a better engagement: encountering a given that pushes past the entrenchment of individualism and moves to a higher level to learn to observe how structures both constrain and enable students and faculty, viz., that people involuntarily receive from university structures and academic content empowerment for transformation.

As Smith describes, and your own personal history will confirm, not all of that transformation is neutral, benign, or productive of developing an ongoing theological competency that sets Christians on a journey with Jesus for participation in witness and service in the world. That is how powerful the encounter with the university is, and the results are abundantly evident without having to swivel one’s head.

What might we do? A suggestion: we all need to hit the pause button, so to speak, and ask more difficult questions about the “ideas and accompanying practices” that have generated some remarkably awkward, immoral, and divisive social relations. This can and should include the presence of Christian ministries like InterVarsity. Merely reducing the problems of outcomes to aggregations of individuals, and then applying an exclusive blanket solution of evangelism and chapter planting may be contributing to the reproduction of the same social relations of racism, as well as sustaining inequities and injustice. Surely the Gospel deserves publication by those of us committed to Jesus (N.B.: This is already my personal practice): but, is that the only intervention? How well, beyond an agreed understanding of the human condition, have we understood the context of our ministry, that the only service available to us on campus must be winsomely demonstrating in word and deed that Jesus is Lord for the aim of individual transformation and new trust in Christ?

But: we still haven’t answered the question, “What is the university?” We are gathering evidence, but no explanation. Yet.

So, I will aim to create a series here for everyone to read, and you can contact me (you know how to do this) with your questions and comments.

A Request for Prayerful Attentiveness: Missile Launching, Tax Shifting, & the “Big Lookaway”

I’m making a request for you to join me in prayer. I realize, as well, that some of you reading this request do not live in the US, but, more often than not, you are much more keenly aware of American politics than most Americans.  So, in advance, thank you for your intercession, above and beyond what I’m about to write here.

As many of you already know, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, aka, North Korea, launched a ballistic missile as a test on Tuesday (11/28/2017). Observers from around the world concluded that this test launch confirmed that such a missile could strike the US.

Meanwhile, the Congress of the US continues preparations for a tax reform bill. As some Americans understand, this reform will shift the tax burden away from corporations and on to most of middle-class Americans. A few highlights, or lowlights…:

  • Corporations will receive a decrease in tax from 35% down to 25%.
  • Homeowners will only receive a tax deduction on their mortgage interest for notes up to $500,000.
  • Graduate students will be taxed not only for their income (usually minimum wage work for serving as TA’s), but also for their scholarships/fellowships, any other stipends, and health care benefits. This change in taxes will amount to a 400% increase.
  • Low income mothers with young children will have to pay more to receive less coverage for health care.

These elements are well known, and I’ll leave it up to you to Google those various elements. This tax reform (or “shift”, as one friend put it) has gathered much attention, as it will cripple many households in states like California and New York, where the cost of living is higher, and, thus, mortgages routinely go over $500k; it also poses a direct public health threat to women/mothers of color and their children, as they are typically the largest number of women who benefit from tax breaks for health care; and, finally, the number of graduate students leaving PhD programs because of the financial burden of tax shifting will skyrocket: thus, cutting off original, pure research, which often resources business, health care, education, military, and the government.

But, the above is not why I’m asking you to pray. Rather, it is that intersection of both the DPRK’s test launch and the tax reform/shift bill that I would ask you to pray about. Put another way, this intersection invites us to “lookaway”: if you attend to the response/reaction of 45 to the missile launch, no one keeps their attention to the progress of the tax bill. If you watch the progress of the tax bill, you might not observe how the US military (and those of other nations) organize themselves to engage North Korea. If we lookaway, we might miss how forces that aim to harm and destroy get to advance. It’s a weird intersection, and it’s one that I pray the Lord will peacefully resolve.

So, pray to the Lord of the harvest: yes, for more workers. The need to gather peacemakers, men and women who will interact and collaborate under the Lordship of Jesus Christ and with the power and wisdom of the Holy Spirit remains unfulfilled. Pray that we we can remain awake and attentive to powers that aim to harm and not heal. Watch and pray: thanks.

Grief On Display and For Manipulation

I can have some aims in a post like this that can go awry, and so, knowing that in advance, for you and for me, might help in both truth-telling and in acknowledging the ultimate sacrifice that some make that people like myself can live in relative security and comfort.

For the family of Sgt. La David Johnson, and the family of 2nd Lt. Robert Kelly, the words of comfort cannot replace the wonderful, joyful, and courageous lives of your son and husband. Clearly, they committed themselves to “support and defend the Constitution of the United States” in ways that few citizens of this nation will ever know, and even among their colleagues, that commitment extended to an honorable end. The sadness that you feel, I pray to the Lord, will be accompanied by the enormous sense of pride, the exchange of love, and the recall of fond memories of life together.

For the rest of us reading here, however, we need to pause. In a brief time— what?— 14+ days, 4 Army soldiers were ambushed in Niger (“nee-zh-air”, not “ny-ger”). While the specifics of who attacked them and why they would be ambushed remain clouded, what is transparent is the remarkable silence of the POTUS. Not until confronted by the media, did he immediately swivel and talk about Obama. This lead to an admittedly controversial phone call, one that was on speakerphone, and we learn that the POTUS did not use the name and rank of the deceased Sgt. La David Johnson, and apparently claimed that “he knew what he signed up for.” The widow, a mother of two and currently pregnant with a 3rd child, and Sgt. Johnson’s mother were aghast and further agonized. Suffice it to say, we continue to observe here that, in what might have been a private call (hardly secret), this episode of attempted condolence discloses that 45 still has all of the empathy of a sidewalk.

Enter the POTUS Chief of Staff, General John Kelly. Yesterday (10/19/2017), Kelly came to the podium of a media briefing, using both his office, and his agonizing experience as a parent of a deceased military officer, to defend the POTUS, and to excoriate the congresswoman, Rep. Frederica Wilson (D-Fla): who was also present when the POTUS called the widow of Sgt. La David Johnson. Listening to Kelly’s briefing was just horrible: no parent should have to disclose this kind of detail to the media. Thankfully, those in the audience had the decorum and smarts to both carefully address the CoS with questions that left behind the loss of his son, 2nd Lt. Robert Kelly, and focus on the most important question of all, and one that General Kelly completely dodged:

Why is the US Army in Niger?

It is worth acknowledging that at least we still live in a nation in which freedom of speech extends to the media. For those who have never travelled to other nations in which media reporting gets filtered and crafted to only allow for specific messages and thought to be publicly circulated, the banality and tedium of such “journalism” cannot be overstated. Having moved throughout China in the early 1980’s, reading the English paper, China Daily, I finally had to stop reading it after a few days: the template used for each article simply reproduced how great the government is/was, and how worthy any sacrifice made for “the people” can be. You can only read about agricultural-output goals fulfilled province-by-province so many times before you just close the paper.

So, when we see General Kelly defend the POTUS for his clumsy, unprepared efforts at comforting the widow of and the mother of Sgt. La David Johnson, we should all pause at this moment. I won’t try to imagine the emotional energy required by General Kelly to expose his grief before the media: my son is alive. But, not unlike the China Daily, we receive from the White House a careful, defensive, media message: “Don’t ask about Niger.” Kelly completely dodged the question. As I have mentioned elsewhere, this kind of communication, in parallel with the comments of POTUS regarding Obama’s lack of offering condolences to grieving families of military personnel (completely false), represents political diversion of the most insidious kind. This grief on display represents the worst kind of political manipulation.

So, please, especially if you think of yourself as Christian, pray. Pray for peace. Pray for truth-telling. Pray for sane journalism: to continue, and to be wise about the questions raised and the topics considered. Pray for renewal from the Holy Spirit. None of the Christian community can possibly sustain awareness of this kind of destructive governing without the promised, indwelling Spirit: Nor can we merely stay on the sidelines, claiming “soul care”, while political decisions continue to be made in the shadows that result in people losing their lives. Indeed, any soul care we participate in deserves to include prayers and the reading of Scripture so that we can both fruitfully participate in the Kingdom of God locally and globally, and resist those powers—in love— that attempt to rival the salvation offered us in Jesus Christ.