Happy 110th Birthday, Lesslie Newbigin!!!

Newbigin1Today would have been 110th birthday of Lesslie Newbigin. His life and ministry in the name of Jesus Christ informed all of his writings on theology, mission, church, and contemporary culture. As you’ll read below, much of what Newbigin penned continues in salience, and presages so much of what the church lives into at this very moment. Continue reading

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A few griefs observed…

Yesterday, a friend and colleague, Jen Huerta Ball fell asleep in Christ. Jen had a unique way of speaking the truth in love, an irrepressible joy of being known by Jesus, and a complete confidence that our humanity was involved in a long journey of transformation by the Word and Spirit. One might look across Facebook and read of the many tributes and expressions of grief from those whose lives were personally touched by Jen. I will add that when I first joined InterVarsity, I met Jen and Jon, and upon learning I was serving among international students, they instantly perceived the importance and dignity of me and of the service. I felt so loved: and I still do. And that embrace and understanding by Jen remained a constant thread in our infrequent meetings.

I’m not into folk religion, but my wife has oft commented, “2018 has really sucked.” She’s right. It’s been a hard year for a variety of family and friends; I will spare you the other sorrow-generating circumstances. In just this year alone, I’ve observed 3 men lose their wives: my father-in-law, a friend from the other side of the world, and now, Jon. I’ve watched and listened to these three men steward their wives, in varying measures, in the path of this life into the next. They are nothing if not heroic. They would demur at this point, but I will stick with my judgement.

And, for them, as is true for each of us, grief has a way of surprising us, of sneaking up, unveiling our memories, assisting us in that imperfect recall of life together. The loneliness that follows is the worst: but, I would not want my memory erased or lost.

I’ve noticed that grief can serve as the great reset button in our lives, and this is true for the three men. What I mean by “reset” is that who is important, and thus, complaining about them or anyone else, for that matter, gets resolved in a way that, first of all, recovers their humanity. To cavil, to practice the unnecessary pettiness, erodes the one being picky and the person in focus. Grief has a unique power to illuminate this characteristic and to redirect it into the constructive and right questioning of matters that lead into life.

My sense is that these men are on a vocation of grief; it is a calling that demonstrates the heart-rending power of grief to transform us, and collaborate with Jesus in ways that make us more human, and ready for a eternal-kind of life.

Remembering Well on Memorial Day

While browsing through Facebook this morning, I spotted a couple of posts that, well, took me by surprise once my feelings calmed down. One was from a high school friend regarding respect not given to a political leader of our country; the other was from a leader within the mission I serve within, asserting a split between preaching content and responsible concern for justice issues. And, today is in the USA, of course, Memorial Day; it’s the day in which remembering those women and men who died while in serving in the US military. It just now occurs to me, that such a day could be also be in effect for other nations. Those from the so-called West might be more familiar with Armistice Day (France; Nov 11) and with ANZAC Day (Australia and New Zealand; April 25). South Korea honors their military dead on June 6; Nigeria gives honor to theirs on January 25, to coincide with the conclusion of the civil war.

Returning to my friend, I was captivated by the kind of remembering taking place in the post. First, it was a recollection that graduating students from Notre Dame walked out when Vice President Mike Pence began his speech. My friend found this act from a year ago highly disrespectful. Much to my surprise, several other high school friends chimed in, although taking a more diplomatic resistance to the intent of the post. My initial thoughts were two-fold. One, while Pence shares a faith in Jesus Christ that most of the audience at the Notre Dame commencement holds, his enactment of his faith runs counter to Pope Francis and the historic corpus of Catholic social teaching. The refusal of the VP to welcome Syrian refugees is but one item of strong conflict with the church. The list of problems really could occupy this entire post. So, when my friend and others claim the graduates disrespected the VP, and that they hadn’t considered the consequences of their actions—and would likely do so in hindsight with remorse—I couldn’t help but wonder if my friend understood higher education and how our consciences often work. Two, I know faculty at Notre Dame. They saw the walkout coming before Pence was announced to the public; I suspect some privately rejoiced to see their former students both demonstrate independent thinking and embody their Catholic tradition with regard to the Gospel and justice.

Which brings me to the leader’s post. There was a weird split in the post, one that hearkens memory of how Pence both embraces the evangelical tradition but holds on to practices that sustain the power and privilege of whiteness. In brief, the post proposed the split between politics and preaching content. While affirming participation in efforts to confront and address injustice, the post claimed such would also ruin the testimony of Christians, merely in the taking of political sides. This kind of claim informs so much of the kind of preaching that omits anything thought of as political, so as to remain clear about “the message.”

A few of you reading this will recall that I have already conducted research on absence in preaching, and the kinds of causal efficacy these omissions in sermons exert upon a congregation. My initial study involved sermons in Southern California the Sunday immediately following the Charleston massacre at Mother Emanuel AME in 2015. What can be disclosed follows: It is as if a mass shooting in a church in North America never happened. This research is on a hiatus for now—still finishing my dissertation—but, since that horrific event, there have been other assassinations in churches, most notably the sad event in Sutherland Springs, TX.

As I mentioned above, the impulse of so much evangelical preaching involves a selective memory, so as to avoid any confusion of politics and the Gospel. This impulse has a social reflex within North American evangelicalism, and it routinely gets exercised so as to sustain whiteness. Thus, the preaching of “the message” becomes reduced to “receiving Christ”, assenting to his execution at Calvary, and, based upon an exclusive interpretation of the atonement, receiving the forgiveness of sins so as to secure entry into heaven. In large part, the preceding constitutes the bulk of evangelicalism.

Consequently, the rhetoric does not leave room for ethics, beyond “making a decision.” Which is weird, right? For example, it’s not as though Jesus ran to the front of the line, and pleaded with the centurions: “Hey, nail me up first!” Indeed, just a small moment of pause has lead more than one non-theologically trained reader to conclude: the religious authorities of the day conspired with the occupying military force colonizing the nation to execute the Nazarene for an imagined religious offense that failed to present as a capital crime. The Gospel message has always been intwined in politics: even before we have the New Testament. The real question, beyond “receiving Christ”, is: “What do you now do about this state of affairs in the world, now that you belong to Christ?” Surely, the 2017 graduating class of Notre Dame offer a partial and memorable answer to that question.

On a day in which memory is intended to renew our respect for those who died to secure our political freedoms: even Google has failed me. I cannot recall who said it, and so I paraphrase: “The Old Testament can be summarized by one word: ‘Remember’.” It occurs to me, that for those of us who place our faith in Jesus Christ, we do well to remember how Jesus and the prophets attempted to hold in tension the grace of God with allowing the logic of that same grace to penetrate our entire world. The risk of being misunderstood or confused will doggedly exist and cannot be reduced or minimized while actively living into this memory that pushes us into the future with God. Demands for respect and proposals for clarity are not inadmissible, insofar as such explicitly offer submission to the God of Israel, disclosed in Jesus, who gives us our salvation and invites us to remember that. Otherwise, these kinds of posts offer a politic that attempts to place itself in parallel to the reign of God, a politic that aims to generate a memory that is respectful and respectable. That is a version of remembering that we would all do well to reject.

Fuller Plans Move: A Letter to Mark Labberton

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Dear Mark,

Thanks for the announcement of the plan to move Fuller to Pomona. I am grateful for your leadership. In what follows, I hope to summon some of your memory here, and to make a couple of requests of you and the Board regarding the move to Pomona. I realize that many hallmarks of the proposed move may seem very large, and thus unavailable for editing or revision, or lack plasticity. Nevertheless, I put these two requests forward as brief ideas and proposals that attempt to summarize conversations I have been part of with other students and alumni.

First, our memory. Many years ago (!), when we were both in Berkeley, I asked you about learning and life at Fuller. It was clear to me now and in retrospect, that Jesus would lead, inform, and empower my theological education. More than that, life and learning at Fuller would also set me on a path of personal formation and Christian transformation.

I mentioned the latter path, as the conversation we shared occurred shortly before Annette, John, and I would travel to Hong Kong. You suggested to me that I meet and listen to Fuller alumni during our sojourn in East Asia. I met alumni from all three schools during that summer. This was before 1997, and the level of discourse reminds me of what we routinely observe now in North America, viz., how do we follow Jesus in this political setting? Besides this, I sensed that all of the alumni were on a path of suffering with Jesus and while they did not perceive this as desirable, they welcomed it as an authentic participation with Christ. In short, your conversation with me was already becoming evident: If you come to Fuller, you follow Jesus in ways unanticipated but that will prepare you for mission later as well. But, I’ve become aware of an omission on my part.

I have attempted to make this memory about Fuller: and not about Pasadena. True: the joyful and painful memories of an MDiv education have a geography. But, what was clear then is now: The people sent into the institution contributed to generating those memories. To my disappointing recall, I can’t think of a time in which my life as an MDiv student contributed to the well-being, the shalom, of Pasadena. How I missed this crucial element bothers me. I’m sure the opportunities were there through Fuller, but I won’t make excuses for how I missed those occasions for service. So, yes to personal formation and Christian transformation. But, I can’t help but perceive that I missed a great setting to follow Jesus, and that miss may have been assisted by how Fuller was then structured for the MDiv. In the end, though, that absence falls on my shoulders.

Next, as I read your letter (and the FAQ’s), I noticed the implicit declaration: “We will be debt-free.” Here, I begin on the above-mentioned couple of thoughts/requests with regard to solvency and an improved endowment.

For one, I was reminded of statements you made early as President that evangelicals have “aspirational culture.” The context, of course, regarded the indebtedness of the seminary. My memory is hazy here: but, your statement observed how evangelicals become animated or excited about a particular context or crisis or historical moment, generate a lot of activity—prayer, funding, human resources—and get to work, without much consideration of sustainability. And—I compress here—this often leads to many undesirable outcomes, including indebtedness. Forgive me: I know I haven’t done justice to your thought here. But, many at the seminary all looked at each other and knew what you labeled as “aspirational culture” to be all-too-true. We’d seen it and heard it, initiated it, and received it.

My initial sense, then, upon reading the intent of the letter from yesterday, “We will be debt-free,” was to wonder how that statement will resist the power of aspirational culture. Naming it helped; we all benefited from you making that identification. Having said this, I will be plausibly understood as impertinent in the request that follows:

Can the liquidation of the debt become completely transparent? All aspects, including when and how and why debt becomes re-negotiated, all payments, and any unexpected liabilities that become generated through all processes of becoming debt-free: deserve open and clear communication. Why?

Part of this answer involves personal formation and Christian transformation. Part of this answer involves demonstrating that the people who constitute the institution trust in Jesus. Part of this involves admitting that you and the Board will faithfully attempt to resist the powers of the aspirational culture that are endemic to evangelicalism. Part of this answer includes the profound trust that God intends for the seminary to conduct its ministry in a sustainable fashion. This last element leads to my second thought: Pomona.

It wasn’t until a couple of colleagues confronted me that I realized that I had merely “passed through Pasadena.” I had not considered the people, nor the land, nor its politics and history, as a site for mission. Apart from feeding those who walked through the campus, I don’t think of myself—to my shame—as one who loved the City of Pasadena. It wasn’t until my colleagues addressed me that something like scales fell from my eyes. And, now, Fuller intends to move to Pomona.

I will make my second request, and here I write again with some awareness that I may be perceived as rude and untoward: Can Fuller (yet again) revise the curriculum to integrate life in Pomona for all three schools?  What was missing in Pasadena should not become imported, and, thus, imposed upon Pomona: the tacit consent of the seminary (i.e., permission for the people who constitute the institution) to absent service, witness, and care for the people, the history, and the politics of Pomona.

Of course, in contrast to my absence in Pasadena, there are women and men who have long-suffered as part of Fuller in their care for Pasadena: we would do well to honor them and learn their stories, and give thanks to God for their lives. I fear too much of their faithful witness flies under the radar. The recall of their narratives—from faculty, staff, students, and alumni—impress me as crucial to how we depart from Pasadena. The fruitful stories of service and witness in Pasadena would do us all well to catalyze imagination for loving our neighbors in Pomona. In more ways than one, these women and men present to us an embodied theology of the land.

Thus, all energies from you and the Board that point toward a future east of the 57 should take up the central question: How do we follow Jesus in the City of Pomona as we: prepare ministers, therapists, and missionaries, and develop scholarship in intercultural studies, psychology, and theology, and routinely do this following of Jesus in sustainable ways that both keep the seminary solvent and benefit those residing in Pomona? A curriculum revision could plausibly contribute to answering that question, a reappraisal that specifically accounts for engaging with the Gospel in Pomona.

A new, embodied theology of the land for Fuller is irrevocably on the horizon, even if we do not explicitly take up that task by reaching down with our hands to place them into the soil. Better that we make this construction in theology clear: that we partially understand how we have and have not served Pasadena, and that, so encouraged and chastened by our past, we aim to serve and announce the crucified and risen Jesus among those living in Pomona in the presence and power of the Holy Spirit. Otherwise, some version of the theology of the land will be imposed upon Fuller, although we may not become aware of it until so confronted. Surely, this matter deserves urgent, parallel consideration with all the vision and planning for solvency, endowment depth, and material construction of the new campus.

Having reviewed the above, it occurred to me that some reading this letter to you might surmise I believe that any lack of service and love toward Pasadena caused the indebtedness of the seminary. No: that speculative conclusion is not mine. I believe it to be wrong; to make that judgment is a bridge too far.

In many ways, Mark, you’ve already framed and filled my version of the central question in your many announcements. I won’t presume upon you, but nevertheless trust that I’ve represented you and others well, and I would welcome your feedback. To be sure, I’ve omitted elements that you and the Board no doubt observe and would correct me on. Feel free to do that. I’m hardly free of fallibility or invulnerable to criticism. I know we keep talking about coffee together, and I’ve got that “little writing project” I’m working on: I won’t make that excuse anymore. I’ll be in touch.

Mike

A few thoughts on American evangelicalism and symbols of violence

I made a Facebook post linking Hosea 9:7-9 to the opening of the new location of the USA embassy in Jerusalem. A friend and colleague mildly confronted me, observing,
“Seems easy to attach prophecy to anything related to the Jewish people and Israel… what’s more challenging is to understand what we mean by prophecy and how it applies.”
I’m sorry. My apologies. I share in his challenge, and what might be considered a glib employment of biblical texts surely deserves criticism. Among the challenges involves not only hermeneutics, but how application extends from individuals to larger social groups, institutions, and beyond. I trust that my friend would not stop with isolated application for individual persons.

But, my point could have been made, nonetheless, without any use of the Bible, viz., that Israel has been complicit in violence towards their neighbor, and, in their reading of Scripture as identifying themselves as the chosen people, have used that identity as justifying their agency inside and outside their borders. Others more deeply invested in the land, the history, the people, the three major religious traditions, and especially those enacting the violence and those receiving the violence have a far better understanding than I of the realities on the ground and in the Bible as it applies there.

The previous location of the US embassy, Tel Aviv, was serving everyone from everywhere (except Palestine) just fine. But, you know, there are some western christians that hold a unique hermeneutic with regard to Israel. They think of Jerusalem as the “eternal capital of the Jewish people.” OK. Maybe. Possibly. Those western christians will find safe harbor among the largely religious city of Jerusalem. Such persons held the ear of the current US executive and his advisers, and their counsel prevailed: move the embassy to Jerusalem.

But, here’s the sad, agonizing development. Palestinians simply feel increasing alienation from the USA, and of those who are Christian Palestinians (a shrinking number), they sense that American evangelicals simply no longer care about them: or their biblical unity that Christ prayed for (Jn 17:20-21). In short, one only has to read the news to learn how sad and angry the Palestinians are about the move of the embassy.

For this move illuminates the support of the USA with military force for the Israeli state violence enacted upon Palestinians, as well as tacitly denies any historical claims of land with regard to Jerusalem by Palestinians. Let me be clear: The light shed upon this move has generated yet-another eruption of rioting and violence at the border between Israel and Gaza; the evidence that the counter-antagonism of violence was planned simply reads as unconscionable. As I write this, more than 50 Palestinians are dead were killed; more than 2400 are wounded. Agonizing. Just agonizing. I can hardly endorse that kind of violence either: but, neither can anyone reading this deny the enormous, historic, and volcanic levels of frustration. No one commends this violent eruption. It’s been said before: the need for economic justice, freedom of movement, health care, and education for the Palestinians—as start—would go a long way toward peace. My comments are hardly comprehensive.

Yet, most American evangelicals remain incredibly ignorant of life on the ground for Israelis and Palestinians. Their thinking and cooption by certain western christians only intensifies the problems in the Middle East by failing to engage their pastors and political leadership for more developed and nuanced alternatives to violence. The symbol of the US embassy in Jerusalem has only exacerbated the Palestinian frustration and their long-standing sense of futility of appealing to Israel and to the USA. That American evangelicals have contributed to the desperation and chaos will not be forgotten; recovering and developing trust appears as a distant horizon.

My prayer: Proverbs 13:17
A wicked messenger falls into trouble,
but a trustworthy envoy brings healing.

My mild surprise at the response to Childish Gambino: thoughts on local dance

 

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About a week ago, the musical alter ego of Donald Glover, Childish Gambino released his amazing video, This Is America. It’s a great song, great video, great dancing: it’s tough material. Glover/Gambino is working on the interlocking problems of guns, racism, black America, policing, social awareness: and violence.

In case you’ve missed the video, a brief google and you will find a spectrum of responses, and, by and large, everyone expresses their delight at the total artistic expression, and the collective deep exhale: this video did it all for many of us. Lots of analysis and praise. Rightly so.

What took me by surprise involved the limited astonishment at the dance: including those who did not comment on it at all. How do I say this? I watched the video a couple of times, and I was mesmerized by the choreography. So much of the drama, the politics, the critique: it was all in the dance. Yet, for so many commentators: it was about a few segments or postures: the whole was not considered in regard to music.

I’m not a dance critic, and, of those who know me, all of my learning about dance comes through my family, especially from our days living in Houston. But, here’s the oddity: most of the really great political criticism these days can routinely observed and enjoyed in local dance companies. You don’t have to wait for the next production by Gambino.

Now, it is also true, that you can see some major choreographies around North America that have an excellent choreography, live music, and superb dancing at the highest levels of artistry. If you get an opportunity to see Ohad Naharin, don’t miss his company or choreography. All the works from Jiří Kylián have a similar edge, addressing historical matters of injustice and war.

But, more often than not, I am captured by the kind of critique you and I enjoyed from Gambino in local performances. My attendance at a few different festivals remains limited, but if you want to see more works like Gambino’s: Attend (and support!) local dance festivals. You’ll be amazed.

 

Dance Salad (Houston)

Dance Chicago

Pasadena Dance Festival

Los Angeles Dance Festival

 

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.