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.


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:

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.

“What is the university?”: The beginning


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.

2017 is starting out just… epic… #not normal

So, in the last 48 hours, I’ve had remarkably encouraging and remarkably disappointing experiences.

First, I attended a challenging and brilliant lecture given by Kirsteen Kim of Leeds Trinity University. Some background regarding the challenge and brilliance of the lecture.

For those unfamiliar, a significant amount of my ministry with InterVarsity involved international student ministry at Fresno State and Rice University. Of the many facets in this cross-cultural ministry, one involved the training and mentoring of American Christians. Often, these devout followers of Jesus were completely unaware of how much of their theological commitments represented the American dream. Yet, one could hardly fault them for their readiness to host and welcome low-English speakers into their homes week after week, befriending I-students, and including them in their lives in ways that demonstrate a generosity and sincerity that cannot be explained as other than a genuine commitment to Jesus.

Kim recognized that often we in the West perceive hospitality as mission. How easy it is to welcome the stranger into our home for a meal and care for them: such behavior and attitudes represent a significant practice throughout the Christian tradition. We care for and seek the welfare, best interests, and offer our love to the guest.

Similarly, migration receives a strong perception as mission. As Jehu Hanciles asserts the consensus perspective, “Every migrant a potential missionary.” And, there is much to support this viewpoint. The sheer volume of migrants from the southern hemisphere who hold the Christian faith deserves better attention from the western church. Moreover, such followers of Jesus merely assume that the proclamation of one’s faith still has validity wherever they may find themselves in the world. Kim did a great job of explaining this phenomenon.

But, she took this a step further. The tricky part involves a pair of pairs that give evidence of cultural commitments that inadvertently displace the gospel. Take the last perspective: The prevailing assumption of myself and my colleagues involves that our students know their culture best. Kim confronts this: How can we demonstrate this? Only by asking questions? Not a bad start, but we cannot confirm that any migrant intends to reproduce or “bring with them” all of their culture with themselves to their new home and relationships. Some may have a variation in how and what they disclose of their faith commitment. My critical realist heart swooned.

But, she took all of this into another pair: Often we perceive hospitality as a binary: the host and the guest. As you might guess, Kim exposed how peoples from the west can preserve unequal power differentials. I observed this all the time in my interactions with Americans with the best of intentions. They deftly kept the I-students from making their own theological conclusions in reading the Bible, settling for “teaching the truth of the Bible.”

Kim proposed a different way of identifying ourselves: what if the Christian also perceived themselves, theologically, as a sojourner? One could look to Abraham, or the early life of Israel, and the early church found in Acts. This proposal for identity allows for a mutuality of learning and serving together, each person, instead of host and guest, contributing to the flourishing of the other and the created order. Furthermore, such a response to grace positions one toward the Holy Spirit in ways that allow for empowerment, healing, and local movements of mission that occur through life in proximity to one’s neighbor.

Suffice it to say, I was deeply moved by this robust description of Christian identity and mission. Kim’s presentation deserves publication, and I hope that happens soon. One of the adjacent ideas that sprouted during her presentation regarded the development of self-awareness of one’s powers. More often than not, most of my white friends have no clue as to their privilege. Merely telling them that they can enter a room, an office, a grocery store: and no one will question their location or their intent, simply bounces off of them. It’s not as though they’ve ever had to consider the question—literally— in their lives.

This matter of self-awareness of one’s powers really benefits from the long game, as it’s rarely the case that anyone can flip the switch and know how much power they possess as a function of their ethnic identity, especially if they are white. Put another way: one of my colleagues in smaller group settings of students will ask aloud, “What’s it like to be white?” Without fail—I’ve observed this several times—the white students will begin a nervous laugh, and then fall into embarrassment. Why? Often, as I later hear, such white students discover the answer to the question involves a scandalous reply: It’s normal. It’s the way it’s always been. It’s my way. They may not utter the answer right away, but they instantly realize the power and privilege that inhere their social location as a function of their dominant ethnicity. Remarkably, when the silence to my colleague’s question has lingered long enough to become awkward, he turns to a Black or Latin/x or Asian student, and asks if they can answer the question. Boom. They already know the answer, and articulate the sense of privilege that white students possess with easily accessible narratives that happened: even the same day, right before the event.

Friends: That just begins to account for ethnicity, this need to develop our self-awareness of power. I haven’t touched gender, or socio-economic status. Or even political identity, i.e., citizenship.

Returning to my historical observation above, through Bible reading and an explicit attentiveness to how one moves through the West as a function of gender, ethnicity, and socio-economic status, I began to imagine the Holy Spirit might generate painful but fruitful ways to prune back our western privilege from life as “hosts.” Such identities have a unique way of sustaining privilege, but a relocated identity in Christ as a sojourning follower of Jesus allows for one to receive the power from the Holy Spirit to set aside that culturally and socially conferred advantage. Again, Kim’s lecture was excellent, and if I catch that it gets published, I’ll link to here.

However, following the lecture, I learned of power employed to suppress and to threaten: all coming from, unfortunately, from Christians. Following the Kim lecture, I observed some paternalistic comments made about women in the academy that made me pause. The comments occurred in the flow of a public meeting, and I wondered, “How do people get away with these statements?” Then, I received an earful from some of my female colleagues who also heard the comments, and I realized that those comments landed with so much more offensive power than I had realized. I imagine I have an upcoming conversation with at least one of the offenders in the near future about such egregious statements; it won’t be easy (see preceding conversation about power differentials and “hosts”) but I’m sure it needs to happen: because too much of Christian leadership these days really relies upon social location instead of pneumatology.

Also, even within InterVarsity, I observed some remarkable uses of power in the last 48 hours that made me wonder about the ongoing decay of western evangelicalism. One colleague has received…how shall I say this?…ominous prospects of termination. Others find that the absence of many of our colleagues at our triennial national staff conference is, of course, due to their disagreement with either the new theological statement on human sexuality and the roll-out of the employment policy related to the statement: and we miss their presence and ministry.

Adjacent to the statement and the new policy stand Black colleagues and friends on InterVarsity staff, for whom the presence of Michelle Higgins and her dynamic message at Urbana signaled a new day for InterVarsity: and this remains an unfulfilled symbol for them and their students. The palpable sense of anger and disappointment emerges from a displacement of the movement of the Holy Spirit at Urbana to attend to the roll-out of the new policy. The levels of trust continue to lower, and morale proceeds to descend among staff of color who wonder if the movement to preach Christ crucified for our sins and to call for justice will ever received the same kind of energies and funding that the statement and the new policy received.

The serendipitous lecture of Kim still rings in my ears and in my heart: the sojourner as Christian identity, and for mission.

So, 2017 has started, and much of it is the same as 2016: epic, in its peculiar inattentiveness to personal power and privilege. But it is not normal.


Keeping the Faith Among Freshmen/First-Year Asian American Students: For the Parents (Part 2)

I had a draft written about 3 weeks ago on this topic, and then the agonizing death of college freshman Mike Brown of Ferguson, MO, took place. I decided to pause, watch, and listen to what followed from Brown’s death. It will seem like a small matter here, but I trust by the end here, it will have some greater importance for parents of Asian American freshmen: namely, that Mike Brown was a college freshman. So, I have revised the topic.

The vulnerabilities of new students entering the university are many. Of course, nothing that happened in Brown’s death involved his campus, or the campus police. But, what of your children–adult children–and their early experience on campus? What kinds of conversations can you host with them, as you move in, unpack, and assist in the transition to classes beginning and the formation of their faith commitment?

I’m describing in this series some of the early discoveries I’ve made in my research so far. I’m attempting to describe how freshmen/first-year, Asian American students keep their faith in that first year of university life. Of course, most the background of this study emerges from a well known phenomena of Christian students of all ethnicities entering the university and abandoning their faith. I’ve taken up the question on the other side, so to speak: Why are some students keeping their faith, and how do they go about this, given their experiences of living in dorms, getting introduced to new ideas from their academics, and from their participation in extracurricular groups like InterVarsity Christian Fellowship?

In case you’re just joining the series, you can return here and here for some of the preceding discussion, but I would want you to know a couple of personal matters. For one, I am one of the multiethnic people you’ve always heard about (Asian-Hispanic-Anglo), and am married to a Chinese American woman: and we have a couple of great adult children. So, the research topic is close to home. The other personal matter is that I belong to the campus staff of InterVarsity; I’ve served for the most part among international students for 20 years. I’ve seen this abandonment of the faith up close, done by both domestic and international students who are freshmen, and beyond. This research really moves from observing what is taking place on campus to how such decisions to sustain one’s faith are made; I’m also aware that the experience of freshmen leaving their faith occurs in universities throughout the world (unfortunately), not just in North America.

At the beginning of the day, at the end of the day, and at the bottom of life: Your child is just like you: They will live in such a way to fulfill what matters most to them. That is an obvious statement, but needs to be kept in front of us more often.

And, if the interviews I’ve had so far with Asian American freshmen could be broadly applied: You may not know what matters most to your child. Of course, some parents are exceptions, and there is an interesting possibility here…

…Namely: That you’ve had a conversation in which you listened and your child did all the talking. That is the exception. I am not saying that those parents who listened agreed with what their child had to say. Far from it.

Rather, the few students I interviewed who had parents who listened to them, these students also had a pretty calm, secure sense of their faith in Jesus.

So, there’s my suggestion to empower your freshman/adult child: When you go out together this week or next, ask your daughter or son, if you can stop somewhere for a shaved ice/coffee/boba, and ask them, “If you had the chance to study anything at the university, what would it be?”

Then, no matter what comes out of their mouth next: Listen. Pray silently. Welcome their answers, and refrain from critiquing or commenting on those answers: even if you agree with your child…

I have a disposition: That we want our children to know that we love them, and of course, we demonstrate this by making sure that they have clothing, food, a home, and the resources they need for becoming a successful student.

What they also need is the kind of demonstration of love that cares about their social and emotional lives as well.

For some reading this, please don’t confuse what I am saying as, “You need to hug your children and tell them ‘I love you.’” That is not what I am saying. Listening carefully without criticism, even to the expressions of dreams and aspirations you disagree with, will inform your child of your affection for them.

Enjoy your time of listening.

Prayer for Freshmen: Thursdays, 8:55 AM

It occurred to me that I should include you in my weekly routine. Namely, every Thursday at 8:55 AM, I pause to pray for freshmen students, campus ministers, pastors, and universities.

I pray at 8:55 AM on Thursdays for a variety of motivations. It’s just before the top of the hour, and right about now is when work and life become animated for me. It’s also just before the weekend, and for a huge chunk of first-year students, of all the things they could reflect on, they consider what they’ll do with their weekend and who they’ll do it with: on Thursdays.

So, some intercession for wisdom and risk-taking that contributes to their present as well as their future makes it into my prayers.

But, the prayer that always makes it into my intercession is this:

How are we communicating the Gospel among freshmen?

Obviously, that prayer opens me up to all kinds of input, and that is good, given my research topic. And, that prayer alerts me to how and what freshmen students hear, how they respond, and how they interpret the Gospel engaging their present aims and future goals.

My Facebook feed is blowing up right now with announcements and prayer requests from my InterVarsity colleagues and students preparing for New Student Outreach, just a scant 3 weeks away from the start of classes at many universities in North America. I am full of joy for them, and pray the Lord grants them the fullness of his Holy Spirit as they proclaim that one name by which we are saved. (Acts 4:12)

Here’s my invitation: Please join me on Thursdays at 8:55 AM, wherever you are in the world, and pray for freshmen, perhaps your daughter or son, and for the campus and those who serve there, and this prayer in particular: “How are we communicating the Gospel among freshmen?

Keeping the Faith Among Freshmen/First-Year Asian American Students: For the Parents (Part 1)

First off: Congratulations! Your daughter or son is heading off to the university. You should be feeling proud! Keep in mind the great privilege your children have received: less than 7% of the world’s population has a university education. Just getting admitted confers a unique status to your child in this world.

Sure, but does it pay? The next 4 to 5 years will go by in a heartbeat: and upon graduation, your adult child will potentially earn more than 70% over their lifetime than any of their classmates who graduated from high school without a college degree.

So, even if they did not get admitted to (or will attend) the university you wanted for them, your child–your adult child–will likely have a prosperous future before them. And, I would like to believe, that includes sustaining and growing their faith in Christ. More on that in a moment.

In case you’ve read this far and it was missed: I’m a PhD student in the School of Intercultural Studies at Fuller Seminary: My research topic is about how Asian American first-year students make decisions that impact their faith commitment. I am just concluding a pilot study among freshmen (or first-year) students.

As you can tell from my family name, I have an Asian heritage–far more diffused, and I will explain why later–and my wife is Chinese: we were both born in California. I also serve with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, and for the last 20 years, the majority of my ministry has been among international students and in churches among Asian Americans. While I bring academic rigor to my research, I also have a stake in what I learn; my children have graduated from different universities, and their faith commitments are intact, but quite distinct from my own.

And that leads to what is next for you: When it comes to what matters most to your child, when it comes what they care about most, or when it comes to their dreams for the future: I am pretty sure from just my pilot study: They haven’t told you.

In fact, some are keeping it under wraps from you for a variety of reasons, experiences, and perceived outcomes. I don’t think that is a surprise to most parents: namely, that our young adult children have a private, inner life that they do not disclose to anyone except– possibly– those for whom they trust will contribute toward the fulfillment of what matters most to them.

Plenty of the first-year students that I’ve met inform me that you want them to become a doctor or an engineer. So, they are studying some major that will contribute toward that goal. Some of those same students really do want to become doctors and engineers! Awesome! And many are doing this, in part because they trust you, and in part because they don’t want to disappoint you.

But, flowing from their interests and faith in Christ, if given the opportunity to serve the poor directly (and not by way of graduating from medical school, etc.) or to become an artist: they would do that in a heartbeat. Here’s where this post gets a little tangled.

As you already know, lots of Asian families put “family first.” Collective matters receive a higher priority than individual concerns. In contrast, when living in North America, much of the social and cultural items, like education, place a higher value on the forming of the individual.

So, while you (and I) were encouraging and empowering our children to perform well in school, the school took that posture our children brought in from us; they attempted to mold it so our children would live with making their individual concerns the highest priorities for their lives. This is a tension that many of us have with our children: They hear at home, “Do what is best for the family,” and that is picked up by good-intentioned educators who articulate and practice: “Do what is best for yourself.”

So, in case your child ever came home and announced, “I want to become an artist”, and went on about that: and you silenced them or ignored them: in part, their announcement was energized over a short amount of time by their experience in school. And it really doesn’t matter if your child attended a private or a public school in North America.

This happened to an friend from East Asia, not long after migrating with his family to the US: He announced, “I want to become an artist,” and his mother’s response was swift: You will either become a doctor or a dentist. End of discussion. And it was…in more ways than one.

He furtively continued to paint, hiding his brushes and paints from his mother, always washing his hands scrupulously to remove any residue of paint, secretly taking art classes in high school and college, always avoiding detection from his mother. He graduated from dental school, and developed a thriving practice. Having disclosed what matters most to his fiancee, he married and they bought a home: and their garage has never had a car inside it and it has always been a studio. His wife loves his art: and for good reason: he’s an excellent painter. His mother has never made a critical comment about his painting to my knowledge. But, it was never the way my friend ever wanted to live, having to keep secret– from his Christian mother– what mattered most to him.

Obviously, my friend’s experience is a unique example of someone who knows his ultimate concern, and orients his life toward the fulfillment of what matters most to him.

Now, I mention this, not because I already know that your child has some ultimate concern that they are hiding from you. They might be hiding it from you, assuming they even know what it is, or hiding a collection of ultimate concerns. Rather, I mention the story for you to be aware that my friend made this discovery of painting in his elementary school in North America, and in part, the tenacity of his commitment to paint was strengthened within a North American educational context that values and supports becoming a unique individual.

Our children–no matter what our family’s cultural history may be–routinely encounter this kind of “hidden curriculum” within their schools and extra-curricular groups. Our children make decisions rather quickly about how they will participate, inasmuch they already know that we want them to succeed. Yet, some of the commitments and the momentum of their participation would never get endorsed by us at home. They are doing this, by and large, by themselves.

And this individuation gets affirmed to the extreme in the university. This affirmation can work in some peculiar ways upon the faith of our adult children, both developing and denying their faith commitment, but certainly encouraging and empowering their ultimate concerns.

But, make no mistake: plenty of the first-year students want their faith and their ultimate concerns to meet up in the world, or “to make a difference” in the name of Christ.

What should we do, as parents, even if our adult child doesn’t know their ultimate concerns? There are no “silver bullets”, no formulas for which we “add water and stir,” no weekend seminars to repair and heal broken (or incomplete) relationships. I will make some suggestions in my next post about the days ahead: that days precede the day you assist your child with moving into their university residence hall.

Meanwhile, please pray for yourself and your adult child. Plenty of parents make the abrupt discovery that their former high school student is moving out of the home to the university, and is unlikely to ever become a permanent resident again: that discovery can be tough on the heart. Pray for your adult child to be and become wise regarding how they live into what matters most to them. Pray that you and your adult child will continue to follow Jesus, albeit in some new ways apart from each other. Thank God for the great privilege your adult child has received in even being admitted to any college or university. Pray that their faith in Christ and their ultimate concerns will meet in the development of skills and competencies to participate in the mission of God.