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Religious tradition ‘crucially relevant’ in Christian higher ed, speaker says

PANAMA CITY, Fla. (BP)–“A serious Christian college or university insists that its religious tradition — its vision, ethos and persons who carry them — is crucially relevant to all the facets of the life of the school,” said Robert Benne of Roanoke College during the annual meeting of the Association of Southern Baptist Colleges and Schools.

“[A Christian college or university] has to gather enough intense believers in the tradition’s vision — its comprehensiveness, centrality and unsurpassability — to make that vision the organizing principle or paradigm of the life of the college or university,” Benne said in his H.I. Hester Lectures during the association’s June 1-4 sessions in Panama City, Fla.

“It also has to have enough intense believers to model the tradition’s ethos within the life of the school as its dominant way of life, though it may make room for other ways of life,” said Benne, professor of religion and director of Roanoke College’s Center for Religion and Society and author of the book “Quality with Soul: How Six Premier Colleges and Universities Keep Faith with Their Christian Traditions.”

Benne said he wrote the book in response to the “pervasive pessimism of the literature of the 1990s on the secularization of the church’s schools.”

In his book, Benne cited Baylor University, Calvin College, Notre Dame University, St. Olaf University, Valparaiso University and Wheaton College for their continued commitment to their Christianity and church-based traditions.

“These schools’ faithful relation to their religious tradition has given them a coherent vision for shaping the life and mission of their school and thereby to form the intellectual, moral and spiritual lives of the students who go there,” Benne said.

Christian colleges and universities serious about their Christian mission have characteristics worth noting, he said. Among them are their “rich connections with their church constituency for students, faculty, money and proper influence; an unabashed presentation of themselves as Christian in a specific way; and they hire according to their mission all the way down to the grounds crew.”

Benne said, “These schools have real character. They are descript, not generic. Serious Christian colleges and universities have a living engagement of faith and learning.”

Benne encouraged the 250-plus Southern Baptist college and university presidents and administrators to be vigilant in maintaining their institutions’ mission of Christian education despite the “powerful forces of overt and covert secularization.”

“[As administrators] ask yourselves, ‘What resources do we have to shape our identity and mission so that we might fend off the powerful forces of secularism, and how can we draw upon those resources?'” Benne counseled.

“We in Christian education never will be able to escape the struggle completely of secularism, nor should we. To be free of the struggle would mean either we are no longer in touch with the world God has given us to work in or we have become unduly accommodating to it, so it is good for us to struggle as Christian institutions.

“Take your calling seriously,” Benne said, “and the cross will find you.”

Benne called on Southern Baptist college and university presidents and administrators to “maintain the soul” of Christian higher education without being drawn away by the ongoing pressures it faces by secularization.

“I will assume several things about your institutions,” Benne said. “You continue to strive for quality. Your calling is to give a good education. You will strive to communicate your Christian ethos as it is refracted through your particular traditions of worship, service, vocation, justice and sexual morality.”

Benne continued to say to the Baptist college administrators that he assumed the colleges they lead are teaching the “straight stuff” in their religion departments: Christian theology, ethics, church history, Baptist history and Baptist themes in theology.

“You want to form thinking Christians who can deal with the modern world without losing their soul, but without rejecting the truth in secular claims,” Benne said, “and that what you bring to the educational table is the full-blown Trinitarian faith, with its claims to comprehensiveness, centrality and unsurpassability.”

Benne challenged those in attendance to continue hiring faculty who are interested in engaging Christianity and Christian education in the classroom. Students, he said, are willing to take into the modern world what they have learned from these Christian educators.

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  • Marc C. Whitt