A Red Letter Campus

Try as I might throughout my teens and early 20s, I could not reconcile God the parent having sent God the child to die. My parents would have come themselves rather then sending my brother or me. It was only after becoming a parent that I began to grasp the ineffableness of God’s sacrifice in that great act of passion. That part of my spiritual formation led to an ever-deepening hunger to apprehend the overwhelming love of God. The Holy Spirit’s response to that hunger has been to focus my devotions in the “red stuff” (those words of Jesus in crimson ink in some Bibles), leading to a growing awareness of how fully Jesus revealed the heart and ways of God.

What does it mean for a college to be called Christian? More important, what should it mean? I respectfully suggest that it should mean that both the college’s epistemology—its theory of knowledge—and its ethos—its character and behavior—must reflect the mind and ways of Christ.

A Godly Knowledge. At Eastern University, for example, where I am president, we hold the view that knowledge is best attained through the integration of faith, reason, and justice in a mentored process of interpretation and formation. That is our epistemology. The ultimate expression of such knowledge was in Jesus Christ, who was completely devoted to God, learned, insightful, prudent, righteous, just, and equitable. In the earliest chapters of Proverbs, those seven qualities of knowledge and wisdom are twice presented as what seem to be laddered components.

The first component, called fear of the Lord in Proverbs 1:7, is the beginning of knowledge. It means total devotion to God and God’s goodness, resulting in a reverential awe and a visceral grieving of evil. It is a foundational quality that was demonstrated throughout Christ’s life and in his death. Knowledge built on any other foundation, though powerful and even constructive, would not be truly Christian.

A similar observation can be made about the second component, learnedness. People were astounded by how much Jesus knew, even though he was a carpenter’s son who did not serve as a student to any known rabbi. He combined remarkable quantities of data from both his own human discovery and supernatural revelation. To be learned in a Christlike way today would imply a construct of the same two sources.

The third component, insight, which aligns with the first two, is an ability to perceive the very nature of things. Jesus could see right into people’s situations and conditions. He understood them. Luke 24:45 describes Jesus as opening the disciples’ minds so that they, too, could understand. The Lord’s “second mile” teaching in this regard is captured well by a Cherokee proverb that we should walk a turn of the moon in another’s moccasins. That is a much longer journey than a mile. The Jesus who wept was the Christ who understood deeply.

Prudence, the fourth component, requires the exercise of sound judgment in matters small and large. Jesus often demonstrated such discretion, as when he decided to remain in Ephraim with the disciples rather than entering Jerusalem “before his time” and encountering those planning to kill him. Prudence grows out of devotion, learning, and understanding. It is an objective of a sound liberal arts education that teaches analysis, synthesis, and judgment.

Similarly, the fifth component, righteousness, builds on the others. With inspiration and strength from the Holy Spirit, we are to make “right-doing” a habit of mind and character. Jesus modeled righteousness while teaching it. A college identified with him must include righteousness in its standards and expectations.

Justice, the sixth component, is certainly a Christlike quality. Jesus’ statement of mission in Luke 4:18 declared that “the Spirit … has anointed me to preach good news to the poor … sent me to proclaim freedom to the prisoners … to release the oppressed.” His concern over economic injustice was a recurring theme. Jesus showed compassion for the oppressed and disenfranchised time after time; the Samaritan leper and woman and the blind beggar are just three examples.

The last component of knowledge in Proverbs 1 and 2 is equity. In fact, righteousness, justice, and equity are the goal of true knowledge or wisdom. Jesus’ lessons on greatness always included themes of impartiality and fairness. Colleges expressing the knowledge and wisdom personified by Jesus must embrace his mission and his commitment to equity in what is valued, taught, and practiced.

Seeking a Christlike Character. Knowledge comprising these seven components is not of this world but is, instead, knowledge from above that was personified and exemplified by Jesus. It is foundational to a Christlike ethos in a community of higher learning. How might four elements of a college’s ethos—beliefs, attitudes, habits, and commitments—mirror the ethos of Jesus, thus making the college Christian in its character?

What beliefs espoused by Jesus distinguish a college that is Christlike? One answer is our understanding of the nature of truth. Jesus taught that God’s truth is unified; he also proclaimed that he is the revelation of that truth and that his (and our) companion Spirit of Truth would dwell in those who follow him. A Christian college, then, would embrace both scientific discovery and spiritual revelation as sources of truth. I encourage students to immerse themselves in the prayerful study of Christ’s own recorded words regarding his and the Holy Spirit’s revelation of God’s truth.

A second distinguishing belief concerns how Jesus taught those in the kingdom of heaven to relate to the kingdom of this world. The latter is fallen, influenced by evil, and is focused on the self. The former is redeemed by Christ’s passion, influenced by the Holy Spirit, and is focused on our neighbor—and “neighbor” includes all of those people in the social system we call the (fallen) world. A Christlike college, then, teaches students to be in but not of the world, loving their neighbors with the love of Jesus, a love that demands sacrifice and persistence. What good are salt and light that are hidden? Too many Christian colleges are islands where students learn to remain apart from the world the Lord has called us to influence.

What attitudes distinguish a college that is Christlike? A number are recorded by Matthew in chapters five through seven. The first eight are the beatitudes: an awareness of our brokenness, a penitent spirit, gentleness, a longing for God, compassion, a pure heart, a spirit of mediation, and a long-suffering and forgiving spirit. Also found in those chapters is an emphasis on witness, patience, fidelity, truthfulness, love for enemies, charitableness, prayerfulness, simplicity, and trust in God’s goodness. Such attitudes are not likely to form on most college campuses today. Campuses that claim to be Christlike, however, should have intentional cultures that call students, faculty, and staff to these attitudes, literally making them a cultural norm and community standard.

Christian campuses should also be places where a Christlike attitude of worship is formed. Recall the events recorded in John 2:13-22. Jesus angrily transforms the temple from a marketplace into a house of prayer, causing his disciples to observe that the zeal for God’s house had eaten him up. Jesus then declared that his body would become the temple of God, foreshadowing the birth of the church at Pentecost. Christian campuses need to be places of such zealousness with regard to Christ’s body. An attitude of devotion to the purity, redemptiveness, charity, power, and love of Christ and his body should be cultivated. Everything done in the community, including study and play, should reflect that devotion to God and neighbor.

What habits espoused by Jesus distinguish a college that is Christlike? He prayed and fasted often, both in private places and in group settings with the disciples. He chose to spend time with people from every social station but was most often found among the poor. He called society to goodness, holiness, and justice. To be like him in matters of habit, a college would be a place in which spiritual discipline is exercised by an economically and racially diverse community that is dedicated to improving the human condition.

The next question flows logically from the last: What commitments espoused by Jesus distinguish a college that is Christlike? Two stand out. The first is a commitment to be the salt of the earth, to “flavor” the world’s system so poignantly that those in it seek redemption from it. A second commitment is to be a light of divinity to the social system of humankind, enlightening the world by reflecting the incandescent godliness that emanates from Jesus’ words and deeds.

Those commitments take the form of callings, or vocations, for which college faculty prepare students through curriculum and pedagogy. Paul teaches us in Romans 12 that the body of Christ has seven distinct callings that must be interconnected and operating fully if a community or system is to be whole. He explains that the Holy Spirit gifts us accordingly. I believe that our commitment to be salt and light require all seven if we as Christians are to influence the course of events in our world.

The first gifted calling is in the prophetic domain, empowering certain persons to speak the word of the Lord and envision with a special foresight. The second is administration. People with this gift build and maintain infrastructure as those knowledgeable about systems, legal affairs, finance, and management. The third gifted calling is as teachers. We all recognize those among us who inspire wisdom, knowledge, and curiosity in others. The fourth gifted calling is encouragement, or the building up of others through skills in human and community development. The fifth domain is wealth creation and giving. Clearly, some are gifted in this difficult but crucial vocation (though most college presidents think too few are hearing their callings). Leadership, or governance, is the sixth gifted calling. Though admonished to be servants, leaders remain crucial in organizing and advancing our work in groups. Mercy is the seventh gifted calling, referring to care for the sick and those who must depend on others.

College curricula should include the preparation of students at some level for all seven of these “vocations,” or areas of commitment. The critical analysis and synthesis of any good liberal arts education would help students understand that each gift area belongs to all of the others, thus leading to wholeness.

A Christlike college would espouse Jesus’ theory of knowledge and truth while reflecting in life and conduct his beliefs, attitudes, habits, and commitments. May all of us work to make the colleges of the church truly Christian, and may we do so by spending inordinate amounts of time in the “red stuff.”

David Black was president of Eastern University in St. Davids, Pennsylvania, when this article appeared.

Have Something to Say?

Add or Read Comments on
"A Red Letter Campus"
Launch Comments
By commenting here, I agree to abide by the Sojourners Comment Community Covenant guidelines