(re)Imagine Space

creating space

When you get a sense of how faith fits into a campus, you get a better sense of the community as a whole.[1]

Mary Jacobs is right; understanding how faith fits into a campus community is essential.  In her article, “Soul Searching: Students Can Make College Search a Spiritual Journey,” Jacobs noticed that how faith fits into a campus discloses the value that an institution places on educating the whole person, because, as we know, education is not just about the depositing of data.  Our word “educate” comes from a root—educere—meaning “to lead out.”  In other words, while education does include the exchange of bits of information, education is more than simply the accumulation of fact upon fact.  If education is anything, it is an exercise in moving from one place to another, from one way of thinking to another way of thinking and seeing and perceiving.  Education is self-transformation, preparing us for world alteration—on grand and modest scales—through gaining insights, data, skills, and techniques.  Education is fact accumulation.  But it is, also, so much more.  Education’s primary objective is to change us.

Education and faith have a lot in common.  After all, isn’t faith but another way of saying change, change from one way of being to another, from one way of seeing the world to another, from one set of loves to another?  The more central the role granted faith the more profound and sacred the transformation possible . . . be our task education or community service or raising a family or whatever.  The United Methodist Church, the denomination that founded and still supports Young Harris College, has always intuitively sensed this vital connection between a robust faith and deep, transformative learning.

Nearly three hundred years ago, two young brothers—John and Charles Wesley—and their college friends gathered regularly for prayer, bible study, and mutual support at Oxford University.  This self-described “Holy Club” recognized at its inception the indelible connection between intellectual pursuit and spiritual discipline.  For them and ultimately for the church that emerged from that Oxford gathering, intellectual pursuit could never be adequately realized without spiritual discipline, i.e., the pursuit of perfection—wholeness—was an integrated intellectual and spiritual endeavor.

So, education is central to the history and ministry of the faith tradition underpinning our College.  But, in a creative turn, The United Methodist Church has always understood that faith is central to our education because education is about the transformation of the whole self—body, mind, and spirit.  For this transformation to bear the sacred imprint of faith, conversations about meaning and purpose and the Divine should not be marginal or arbitrarily inserted but permeating the ethos of a place, found in its cultural and intellectual DNA.

Colleges and universities of the church—like Young Harris College—are naturally well suited to this comfortable comingling of faith with education because of our longstanding commitment to create inclusive and celebrative atmospheres that nurture and support the faith journeys of students, faculty, and staff.  We don’t have to be reminded to welcome faith into our conversations, to promote the spiritual as a fundamental conversation partner in our efforts at self and world transformation.  Such conversations and promotion, on our best days, are simply part of who we are and how we seek to engage each other, our academic disciplines, and the world around us.

For more than 125 years, our College has located itself firmly and comfortably within this same tradition, a tradition that generally appreciates the mutual, essential benefit of a mind-full faith and a faith-filled mind.  YHC affirms this connection between faith and intellect by joining together with other United Methodist affiliated colleges and universities—like Wesleyan and LaGrange, Emory and Duke, Syracuse and Boston University—in a covenantal agreement.  This covenantal agreement ensures our institution will always promote an enduring link between faith exploration and intellectual development.  I want to take a moment to explore the first of the six principles of our common educational covenant.  I think this first principle deserves a little unpacking, an unpacking that both affirms the particularity of our College as a college of the church and our College’s openly welcoming and nurturing diverse religious expression and exploration.  Seemingly oppositional, these two ideas may function comfortably within the same context.

As alluded to above, that first principles reads: “CREATE an inclusive and celebrative atmosphere that nurtures and supports the faith journeys of students, faculty, and staff.”  The United Methodist Church is an unapologetically Christian denomination that celebrates its faith and heritage.  That heritage includes a longstanding practice of forming a sectarian college that advocates for a nonsectarian education, i.e., generating an inclusive and celebrative atmosphere for all faith journeys present on our campus.

But, what does that really mean?  What is sectarian and nonsectarian?  How are they related?  How are they different?

Sectarian is a term describing our College’s historical and meaningful connection to a particular religious tradition, a tradition with unique and distinct commitments, i.e., we are a United Methodist institution.  These unique and distinct commitments connect it to other traditions and define our separateness.  One of the distinguishing features of that United Methodist heritage is a belief that knowledge and faith are comfortable companions in the formation of a holistic life.  And, somewhat surprisingly, that heritage advocates for life that maintains a loosening grip all sorts of potentially impinging influences because this particular religious tradition relies upon a belief in the inherent goodness of all life and the undergirding and permeating nature of God’s ubiquitous loving grace.  Because of this heritage defined by such a predominantly positive construal of reality, a natural comfort emerges with an education that is free and open—free from the need to advocate for one way of thinking or believing over another and open to persons of another or no faith becoming part of the learning environment.  This comfort with a free and open environment becomes a crucial characteristic of a United Methodist college’s educational experience, i.e., a nonsectarian education.

Nonsectarian is a term denoting our College’s commitment to an educational system and the substantive material it teaches that is not reliant upon a certain set of religious commitments.  In other words, we teach what is the best knowledge and skills that contemporary and rigorous critical thinking might produce without fear that such teaching delimits or denounces the Divine or our heritage’s particular construal of divinity or faith.  Facts and faith are not mutually exclusive but different aspects of the same world, describing different features and functions and possibilities without, automatically, rendering each other null.  In fact, The United Methodist tradition demands rigorous thinking, teaching, questioning, engaging, challenging, and debating.  Nothing is taken for granted, not even what we assume faith is.  Faith, the tradition claims, is a relational category, not an intellectual one. So, the growth and development of faith or knowledge does not demand the reduction or negation of the other.  They are mutually informative, mutually transformative.  In a strange way, our United Methodist particular commitments allow for a tradition defined by a general, broad openness and a comfort with challenging and deepening complexity and mystery.  Rather counterintuitively, it is the College’s commitment to its understanding of Christianity that actually longs to create space that is open and encouraging of (religious) diversity.  So, our College strives to be both particularly United Methodist and happily so, expressing its peculiar and positive understanding of Christianity.  While, simultaneously, our College hopes to welcome debate and dissention, difference and common dignity.

This posture frequently proves confounding.  On the one hand, some resist any expression of particularity by the institution, as if particularity is the same thing as hegemony or as if particularity might ever be eliminated in any substantive way from anything.  On the other hand, this posture leads some to resist any expression of welcoming religious diversity and open promotion of plurality, as if welcoming others and creating space for varied expression is tantamount to a denial of holiness, forgetting that holiness has its root in the idea of perfection as wholeness. Often, this particular yet diverse commitment proves difficult to maintain.  However, its maintenance is needed nonetheless.  We, as an institution, work daily to create space for both celebrating the tradition from which we emerged and that still sustains us and welcoming as equal, valid members of this intellectual community those who disagree and diverge from that tradition.

Recently, according to education researcher Arthur Chickering and his colleagues, the rest of the academic world has begun to appreciate what our College has understood for more than a century.  Chickering and his fellow authors observed that “at colleges and universities around the country, an expanding and increasingly vigorous dialogue has begun, centered on examining personal values, meaning, purpose—including religious and spiritual values—as part of the educational experience.”[2]  Education, to be thorough, requires intentional spiritual exploration, the kind of exploration colleges like ours come by naturally.

So, if Chickering and his colleagues are right, then Mary Jacobs was onto much more when she noticed that understanding the role of faith on the campus acts as an indicator of the character of a campus community.  More than just an indicator of campus character, the role of faith, also, acts as a barometer of an institution’s capacity to educate in truly deep and transformative ways.

Have a great week and see you along the way.

[1] Mary Jacobs, “Soul Searching: Students Can Make College Search a Spiritual Journey,” The United Methodist Reporter, March 12, 2010.

[2] Arthur Chickering, et. al., Encouraging Authenticity and Spirituality in Higher Education, (San Francisco: John Wiley and Sons, 2006), 2.

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