By J. Timothy Cloyd, Ph.D.
President of Hendrix College
Sponsored by the Lilly Endowment
April 1, 2004
Note: These speeches have been digitized from print documents. During this process, formatting and other errors sometimes occur. I am correcting mistakes as I see them, but be aware that these speeches may still contain unintentional errors. I also give special thanks to Helen Plotkin for her help editing and researching these speeches.
Before I offer some remarks in response to the Bishop’s historical review and theological analysis, I want to pose seven questions. I think that these seven questions are critical to me as I reflect on the issue of what it means to be a church related college. I think that it is important for me and perhaps for you in this community to struggle with these questions if not in a formal way then through our own quite reflections and prayers in an ongoing way.
But in particular I think that it is important for a church related liberal arts and sciences college to struggle with these questions. Not so much to settle on answers or to close this matter once and for all, but to keep in front of us the factors that must be in dynamic tension and at work in the context of leadership at church related liberal arts colleges.
I will tease out some of the details in some of these questions, but I will also intentionally leave some of these unexamined and not probed open ended for discussion and for you reflection.
Before I start setting out these questions, I want to give you the context in which my thoughts developed. Last week I went to see Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ with a Jewish friend of mine. For those of you who have not seen this film it is powerful and very bloody. The film is moving and disturbing in a number of ways. But watching this film with a practicing Jew in a theatre in Central Arkansas gives it a whole different feel. People around us that evening were weeping as these painful horrific scenes unfolded. Some people were voicing anger and frustration. The film in a Jew or in Christians provokes all sorts of emotions.
But needless to say it was interesting reading the translated subtitles while at the same time trying to translate the story and the significance of the Passion to the pewrson sitting next to me. My Jewish friend would whisper questions from time to time like “What are the Phasisees/” or whole is the chief Rabbi? It was an odd contrast. We were all in extreme emotional distress and the film does provoke some kind of religious pathos.
As you know however this film is a true blood fest in the best of Hollywood style. It has earned well over $300 million and in addition it has raised all kinds of questions about the relationship between Christianity and other faiths. The film has also raised questions about just how tolerant our liberal pluralistic society is to a particularistic form of Christian Orthodoxy.
Some Christians feel that the reaction to this film shows just how hostile mainstream society is to Christianity. Nevertheless, this film has inspired of churches – Catholic, evangelical, fundamentalist, and mainstream – to rent out entire theaters so that whole groups of congregations can watch the film. This is interesting in light of the criticisms often leveled against Hollywood by some of these same groups. The film really is the gospel according to MEL.
The film is being supported by many ultra conservative Christian groups. The images of these groups factious and otherwise have been given names like the Legion of Christ and Opusdei. Many of these conservative groups believe that the Church, Catholic and Protestant, have become too liberal and have abandoned the central Truth of Christianity. Needless to say that there are group within each faith historically and today that have similar concerns about there faiths in the face of Western Liberalism.
These Christian groups think the Church has rejected what they regard as points of doctrine or faith that cannot be compromised. Furthermore, they believe that any institution that is affiliated with the should be called to accountability on these points of orthodoxy. Thus as we are having this conversation today, groups in our own church like the GOOD NEWS Movement and the Confessing Movement are making similar claims on the United Methodist Church. In this upcoming General Conference some of these orthodox groups are proposing that any college or university related to the United Methodist Church require all faculty to agree to an oath of faith in God and in Judeo Christianity. In some United Methodist Colleges faculty appointees are required to sign a statement in their appointment letter saying that he/she will not interfere with the relationship between the institution and the church. In addition, some groups are proposing that any faculty member who teaches religion in a Methodist Seminary or in a religion Department at a Methodist related school, commit to an oath of orthodoxy in belief in the Methodist doctrine of faith. I have confidence that these two types of moves will be soundly defeated at General Conference, but this is the context in which we are having these conversations.
In addition, since this speech was first delivered the administration of President George W. Bush did a masterful job at organizing the heartland of America around evangelical issues and in particular the issue of the status of homosexual unions.
So back to our quest and our questions today!
What does it mean to be a church-related college? What is the vocation – the calling – of Hendrix College in particular, as a national liberal arts and sciences college related to the United Methodist Church?
First of all let me say that I deeply believe in the place of the church-related college in mainstream Protestantism and in mainstream America today. This project is not under serious attack, it is not worn out, it is not irrelevant. Indeed in this current divide of Evangelical, Orthodox, and Fundamentalist higher education. The mainstream protestant church-related liberal arts college has become all the more important in a resistance to a marginalization of faith projects.
I also believe that the place of the church-related colleges in mainstream Protestantism in particular is critical not only for the future of the Church, but for the sustenance of liberal republicanism grounded in values of democracy, tolerance, and pluralistic society. Our current theological debates forget the roll that faith paid in the founding of the republic. Democratic society requires institutions that enable citizens to reflect on the moral and spiritual roots of the values we hold dear. Those values, I believe, under grid notions like justice, tolerance, diversity, liberty of faith and freedom.
I do not agree with people like John Rawls or other theorists of contemporary liberalism who think that democratic values can be maintained by simple exercises in reason or rationality alone. For those people with the right game theory or original position we can maintain by reason alone as the foundation for civil democratic society. That is just wrong. We can not enter into political relations or discourse devoid of any notion of truth or rootedness. So I am more than skeptical of the notion that we think ourselves or reasons ourselves into democratic values fro some agreed upon original position. Kant also has his own problems that I will not go into.
I believe that being a whole person and maintaining the values we hold dear in a civil democratic society requires notions of justice, tolerance, mercy, forgiveness, and liberty grounded and rooted specifically in our particularistic histories and that these are rooted in spiritual and faith experiences and yes in class, gender, and race experiences.
Having written this and having said that the film – Mel Gibson’s The Passion – reminded me of a number of verses of scripture that I am continuing to return to for reflection and thought I would like to elaborate. One of the scenes was from the Gospel of John or the Gospel of Mel – Pilate asks Jesus if he is a king. And Jesus answers, “My kingdom is not of this world, if my kingdom were of this world my servants would have fought you.” Then Jesus says this: “you say I am a King. For this I was born and for this I have come into the world to bear witness to the truth.”
Then you remember what Jesus says don’t you? Jesus says “Everyone who is of the truth hears my voice.” (Understands ME) Do you remember what Pilate responds? Pilate says to Jesus in not a mocking way, but in an unknowing way. He asks: Quiest Varitas? What is Truth?
So these are my background thoughts for these seven questions.
1 My first question is this: Is there a difference between a church-related college, a Christian College, and a church-related liberal arts and sciences college? I of course think there is, but what is distinctive when we ask ”what is the vocation of a place like Hendrix College, a college that is a liberal arts and sciences college?’ This is different from the question of what is the role of a church related college generally.
The tradition of the liberal arts originally was about exposing students to a certain set of texts and readings and in doing so to cultivate civic virtue. As the liberal arts have evolved and as the enlightenment shifted in significant ways the terms of our discourse and our universe…liberal educations shifted to the creation of a space where the search for truth and virtue was not prescribed by certain common texts, but by the search itself….the problematic of the search itself became the cultivation of virtue. But virtue nonetheless…. The idea was not to fix truth or virtue once and for all but to constantly reflect on it meaning and to reflect and pursue it possibility.
2. My second question is how does the church related liberal arts and sciences college make room for Pilate’s question, What is Truth? I think we can and must do this , but it requires us to continuously tend to the fire of the academic space, a space that is open to inquiry and open to unfretted inquiry. An academic space is not one where truth is just apprehended by those who have the eyes to see. An academic space is one the creates the possibility for the rough and tumble of difference, for debate, and for intellectual conflict.
Let me be clear, nor is an academic space a place where faculty and/or students should feel justified in the dismissal of entire traditions of thought or belief out a bias toward that tradition be it Islam, Judaism, or Christianity.
How do we maintain this space while at the same time embracing our church-relatedness as an institutions and not holding in contempt people of faith?
3. Third, how do we as a church related college hear Jesus’ statement that there is a truth and that the faith he gives us as Christians gives insight into the truth? How do we affirm this idea while at the same time hold on to the possibility that there may be a multiplicity of modes of knowing the truth? Or that our epistemological challenges may be more than we can overcome in this life?
In addition, in a trus open academic space we must hold out the notion that we or HE may be wrong about the truth and that it is possible that the truth is something that cannot be known fully or completely or by a single group or certainly by a single individual.
This posture is not one of radical certainty, but one of humility and faith.
4. My fourth question requires some background. And I apologize to the philosophers among you. I know how much you love precision, but some things do not lend themselves so easily to you little obsessions. Neichez is perhaps the most important contemporary critical voice faced by modernity, the enlightenment, and Christianity. If we have not confronted Neichez’ thought then we must remember that Neichaz does not say there is on GOD and that there is no universal truth. He does say the grammar is a slave and we will never be rid of GOD until we end grammar. I can understand that position. Neichez does say that if there is such a truth or God we cannot know it to be so. In other words, what he poses is a epistemological problem
What is knowledge and how do we know it?
So what Neichez reflects back to us and make problematic for us is a world obsessed with science on the one hand and on the other the idea of truth being potentially relative in some form or a social and historical construction of truth.
So back to the fourth question: How do we as a church related liberal arts college affirm spiritual ways of knowing as legitimate? Perhaps this is another version of Pilate’s question “What is truth” Because Pilate in a way is asking Neichez’s question. Pilate is asking “If there is truth, how do _I_ know it”
I will call this a kind of relativism. When that kind of relativism (the epistemological relativism of Pilate and Neichez) is combined with science, spirituality finds itself in a difficult squeeze. We as church related colleges, I think, have to come to terms with this question and we have to be willing to affirm that a spiritual search, spiritual questions, and spiritual ways of approaching the world are legitimate. That is unless one wants to retreat into the arms of logical positivists.
Taking this ground is very very difficult. It is a hard position to hold in the academy.
We hold that position despite the skepticism of science on the one side and social historical constructions of truth on the other – But we hold this position nonetheless. “Here I stand I can do no other”
5 Fifth, how do we as a church related liberal arts college affirm the diversity and embrace an openness while at the same time resisting the siren songs of an even more pure cultural relativism?
The easy path for us to affirm diversity in any shape , form, flavor or taste, and then to somehow dodge the whole matter. I don’t think this is true to the tradition of the liberal arts college nor is it true to the tradition of the church related college. However, this read – the road to embracing everything as equal is the easy road and it is one that tugs at many faculty and many church-related colleges in America today. In fact it is a road that tugs at many colleges that try to be all things to all people. You may think this is an easy one but it is not….Were we as faculty, administrators and trustees stand on the notion that there are better and worse ways to live and that some values are better that others requires courage and community.
6. Sixth, Hegal once said that his project was to defamiliarlize the familiar. In a way, the project of a good liberal arts college is to create a curriculum that does just this. We want students to come here and have their most familiar truths held up to critical analysis and thought. We want to question all fundamental assumptions. How do we do that while at the same time remaining true to our roots and to our values? I think we can. I think we can defamiliarlize the familiar. But at the same time we can affirm a commitment to faith – to Christianity or Islam or Judaism…But these two things must be held in a constant tension. This must occur in our own classrooms when we tell our own stories. We did not become academics or develop our own passions in a vacuum devoid of our own histories.
In other words as much as we academics are committed to deconstructing orthodoxies we have to be prepared at the same time to offer constructions to our students of exemplary lives and our own lived lives. We must be prepared to hold out values and ways of living and faith stories that we believe to be true of informative for life.
We have to be courageous in asserting that there are indeed better and worse ways to live life and that spirituality, particularly Christianity in some form is one of those particular way that can bring about human fulfillment, honor, and justice.
7. Seventh, I once heard Czeslaw Milosz the great poet give a talk in which he said that Christianity as a prophetic voice in our world had to focus on the vertical and the horizontal beams of the cross.
If we can use our church relatedness as a college to affirm the truth of our brokenness, of the brokenness of all of humanity, and as well to affirm the emptiness that can come in a world devoid of spirituality….then I believe we can make a tremendous difference in the lives of our students.
So the last question is this : How do we as a church related liberal ast and sciences college continue to keep our eyes on the complete message of what Christianity asserts in the symbol of the cross? That is both the horizontal and the vertical beams of the cross)
This is make more difficult when on the one side there are groups who believe that we are doing a disservice to our students by affirming in any way a focus on the message that Christianity gives humanity through the cross. On the other side there are others who are more comfortable if we only talk about the social gospel and the horizontal beam of the cross. On the third side there are members of the Hendrix family who want us to convict and convert our students by focusing on only the vertical beam of the cross. The challenge for a church related liberal arts college, I believe, is to continue to resist closure and not to settle on easy answers to any of these questions.
We focus on the whole story of the cross.
The nature of an academic community is that it is dynamic and it is infused with the energy that comes form critical thought and action. If we settled for simple answers to these kinds of questions, we would end up not being true to our church relatedness or to our role as an open and free community of inquiry. The virtue of not having easy answers to these kinds of questions is that the church and higher education are in a healthy dynamic tension. Dialogue and interaction serve as a ballast which continues to raise prophetic and profound questions about the relationship between spirituality, tolerance, diversity, openness and free thought.