Saturday, August 17, 2013

What Makes a Christian University Christian?

Between August 12 and 16, 2013 the International Association for the Promotion of Christian Higher Education. (IAPCHE)-the association I work for-held a seminar for professors/lecturers and administrators from six Christian universities in the Eastern African region. There were representatives from Africa Nazarene University, Catholic University of Eastern Africa, Daystar University (Kenya), Bilingual Christian University of the Congo, Uganda Christian University, and St John University of Tanzania. Along with me were a colleague from Calvin College and another from Azusa Pacific University. We spent the week responding to the question of what makes our institutions Christian. We started by looking at what universities are and what they have stood for over the years; noting that there are many shared traits between universities shaped by our faith in Christ and those that are not. For both the goal is the pursuit of knowledge that informs and is informed by the social realities of the places and times they inhabit. Such knowledge is pursued without fear and favor and when done well it should be unsettling to the status quo. For Christian universities there is the dimension of forming students by inhabiting the Biblical drama that culminates in glorifying God and deeply loving His creation. They are places where we live God with our hearts, hands, and minds. 
We talked about the importance of avoiding a common practice of Bible "verse hunting" where we look for specific verses to attach to our practices and instead asked that we consider the entire story of the Bible and align our work with it. The danger with verse hunting is that we often do not articulate the contexts within which those verses emanate and can often limit their meaning or even provide opportunities for others that contradict them. Similarly, it is not enough to start class with prayer if we do not use a Biblical perspective to look at and even critique our disciplines or course content. We do not want to treat faith like a neighbor to our disciplines in which case as one participant asked "if we removed those neighbors (the prayer before class or verses at the beginning of the syllabus) how would the rest of the course and its content be different from a similar availed in a non-Christian institution?" In response to this very important question we discussed the need to have a "sociology of our disciplines"-the critical analyses of the history and assumptions of the disciplines since they are culturally constructed. Disciplines are ways of seeing and analyzing the world (they do not create it) and are shaped by certain questions that were and have been asked by specific people located in specific places at specific time periods.
For instance, within the social sciences there are theoretical frames that locate human "problems" in structural or systemic struggles between those that have and the have-nots. As much as we appreciate this reality we do know that humans are fallen and we might change the structures/system and still not get rid of the problems (apartheid ended but many in South Africa are not better off neither are many other Africans in their post-independence nations after the end of colonial occupation). By understanding the history and assumptions of our disciplines we are able to utilize them as tools of looking at God's created world in ways that honor our faith commitments. This approach is critical especially given that the kind of education system that operates in this region, as it is in many other parts of the world, is derived from the German university model which was brought by the British and Belgians to Eastern Africa during the colonial period. After independence, our institutions were not able to fully take ownership of these education systems in ways that responded to local realities but instead became places that produce graduates with some of the similar qualifications that were meant to serve narrow colonial goals. While this is a challenge even today (for many universities around the  world) it is an opportunity for Christian universities: they can take this old colonial model of education and reshape it to faithfully inhabit the biblical worldview that reflects the local realities and aspirations of the people. The Bilingual Christian University of the Congo has started to do this because it is starting from the ground up. The reality of what we do is in knowing that there is no intellectually neutral ground, that knowledge is produced from a specific location/standpoint. Quite often many of us have taken our disciplines, our subjects, to be neutral as if they came from heaven and can only be given out as they are. 
This angle on universities led us to another issue. We focused on two questions: first, do we have universities in Africa or African universities? Second, are our institutions Christian universities or universities where Christians are employed? As we listened to accounts of our colleagues from the different institutions represented it was clear that some of the work of reshaping them to respond to local realities (especially through service as well as graduating individuals prepared to make a difference) is already happening and/or that many acknowledge the challenge and are addressing it. We also discussed leadership strategies and practices that advance the missions of our institutions and how we can learn from the work carried out by scholars not necessarily aligned with our faith. From this discussion came a number of specific tasks to be undertaken on different campuses to better serve students and colleagues. 
So what makes a university Christian? It is its ability to faithfully address these issues along with its hiring and training practices, focus on faith formation inside and outside of the classroom, the continuous focus on disciplines as tools that are shaped for the specific purposes of revealing/analyzing/affirming the created world, and offering leadership that seeks to glorify God by deeply loving His created world. In a phrase it is "faith-shaped learning and service."  
As all 27 of us shook hands and hugged on the last day, we went back to our institutions refreshed and with some suggestions to share with our leaders and colleagues as well as our own individual action plans that we will "test out" in the coming semester(s) and report back to the same team when we meet again in early May 2014.
For me it was such a privilege to spend such focused time with colleagues interested in similar issues in higher education and to learn of all the great work they are undertaking despite the challenges. I am looking forward to staying in touch and then regathering in May 2014.

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