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.


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.

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.

Revisiting Hope via Jeremiah

No need to rehearse all of the calamities, natural disasters, protests, tweets, counter-tweets, job-suspensions, failures to care for the humanity of our own citizens living in distress, and the proverbial “drumbeats of war.” Just scroll through the news or turn on your TV: any of those can be found, often in located in the same geography. It’s really impressive in many respects, and I do not mean that as though there is a splendor, or beauty to all of it. I can hardly step back and callously disregard how these persons and events have literally extinguished lives.

Typically, I can look out my window to the south and look across a small valley, and see the sunrise cast early morning light on the homes of thousands of residents in the Inland Empire. Today, I see a thick, white haze of smoke, the sign and faint smell of the Anaheim Hills fire, and it covers the valley. People have lost homes and memories, and lives are now displaced. This fires in No. California amplified this experience in ways that simply do not make sense: entire neighborhoods scorched. Gone.

In September, back-to-back hurricanes devastated the Texas Gulf Coast and Florida. Family and friends in Houston were displaced from either flooding or storm damage to their homes; the toll on lives continues to demand payment in human misery in so many ways. Puerto Rico was hammered in succession by hurricanes: friends there tell of a nightmarish situation, one that is easily confirmed by the media. Meanwhile, the Tweeter-In-Chief assures that he’s great when it comes to alleviating the problems of these natural disasters. His lack of empathy for the humanity of the citizens he purporting serves stares back at the world as a black hole.

So, I’ve wondered, “What’s our future, Lord? Will this get any better anytime soon?” I let this question come to surface often these days in my morning office. Last week, my BCP app, in the midst of the horror of Las Vegas, does what it often does: just presents the reading for meditation and prayer, with apparent disregard for the context that we find ourselves.

Jeremiah 38 narrates the political backlash that lead to dumping Jeremiah into muddy cistern, the subsequent rescue initiated by Zedekiah, and the private conversation between the king and the prophet. I’ll leave it to you to read the text, but what becomes apparent in the second half of the chapter involves the two men negotiating through distrust of each other, a breathtaking assessment of the current political season and the treacherous relations with Jerusalem officials, and a robust affirmation by the prophet: obedience to YHWH will unexpectedly lead to life while everything else, literally, burns down.

And this is our hope: That God calls us, in and through Jesus Christ, crucified, dead, raised to life, ascendant, exalted: to a faithfulness that produces life. All this is promised, but not upward social mobility, not suburbia, not contentment, not freedom from natural disaster: certainly not prosperity, as though that were the Kingdom of God. No, hope, on-the-ground hope in Jesus Christ gets received through this matter of obedience. And, here’s where such gets unfamiliar.

We’re in a season of weirdness, politically speaking. Any veneer of civility has been shed, and this cannot be limited to 45. Just take a look anywhere, throughout the many levels of government, and our elected officials have simply lost it. Far easier for them to play the blame game, and, thus, execute the “look-away” from their transgressions and avarice, both of which only add to the misery of those suffering (see Puerto Rico), than to obey the Lord (for those officials who think themselves Christian and others from the Judeo-Christian tradition) and take what follows. It’s weird, and most of that weirdness has its catalysis from the November 2016 election. But, I digress.

What Jeremiah and other biblical prophets summon Christians into—not only politicians— involves new terrain: an obedience that involves unvarnished truth-telling and a resonant clarity regarding the human condition. This obedience recognizes that our hearts are in big trouble—sin is the best noun here—and that only a two-fold response of confession of Jesus as the crucified Lord and to walk in his ways offers a life-giving path. For some Christians, historically and in a contemporary practice, this way has always acknowledged the both-and: our hearts are in trouble—our very lives—and creative faithfulness for the context demands speaking up—resisting—the political powers that would exacerbate our mutual troubles for all human persons.

Yes, this is an unfamiliar obedience: for many of my evangelical group (in using “evangelical,” I feel like when I first heard the new name of “the artist formerly known as Prince”: awkward), the preferred division of labor involves: preach to the heart problem, then, address matters of the world: if at all. This splitting leaves one with a version of the “sweet-by-and-by”, a theological call to distant-after-you-die “heaven”, and no genuine responsibility to the Lord or to others who share our humanity to participate in a mission which is in continuity with the crossing of the Red Sea and Calvary.

So, there is an unfamiliar obedience in Jeremiah: “Obey the Lord by doing what I tell you. Then it will go well with you, and your life will be spared.” One should assume—and test while in progress—that the reprieve aims for inclusion and participation in God’s mission. It is not a leniency that sections us off from harm, maladies, and injustice: suffering is still part and parcel of the human experience. Yet, this obedience proposes that God’s mission is one of life, of justice, and of flourishing: for all of creation. That is what we hope for, and, in Jesus Christ, God calls us by his Word and Holy Spirit into that very hope.

Pan-Asian American Ethnicity

This. See also below quote…

As a Vietnamese American who is married to a Filipino American, I have a personal interest in pan-Asian American ethnicity. This personal interest has led to theoretical questions: How, under what circumstances, and to what extent can groups of diverse national origins come together as a new, enlarged panethnic group? …

After four years of researching, thinking and rethinking, writing and rewriting, I still find pan-Asian American ethnicity a complex and changing topic, often defying sociological interpretations and generalizations. This is because Asian Americans are a complex and changing population: far from homogeneous, we are a multicultural, multilingual people who hold different worldviews and divergent modes of interpretation. Thus, although this book tells the story of the construction of pan-Asian ethnicity, it is not about obscuring our internal differences, but rather about taking seriously the heterogeneities among our ranks. Only in doing so can we build a meaningful solidarity as a pan-Asian group—one that allows us to combat systems of chauvinism and inequality both within and beyond our community…

Yen Le Espiritu, Preface
Asian American Panethnicity: Bridging Institutions and Identities

Just swap “Multi-ethnic American” for “Vietnamese American”, and exchange “Chinese” with “Filipino”, and you get a partial lens into my life and my research.

I was ransacking this book for understanding “reactive solidarity”, and, as custom, I browse the Preface. Often, you learn of some of the “questions behind the questions of the book” in the Preface. Occasionally, you also get some personal stuff: like the above. Beautiful. I am sideswiped. This prefatory section captures so much of my life! Thank you, Yen Le Espiritu!

When Respectability is more important than the Gospel

I’ll just leave this right here. Stuff like this doesn’t get as much airtime, but it should.  #notnormal

“You know Richard,” the fellow attendee said, “I have been coming here for three decades, and I no longer feel like the redheaded stepchild at the family reunion or the company picnic. I feel like a respected colleague and guest.”

Where Trump’s Hands-Off Approach to Governing Does Not Apply