By William Underwood
At Mercer University, we communicate with alumni and friends through an electronic newsletter. Not long ago, one of these electronic newsletters mentioned some upcoming campus events, including a lecture by President Carter on how his faith informs his perspectives on issues facing our society; a visit by a prominent Islamic scholar, who would be speaking about the Muslim world view; and a national summit to examine ways that persons of faith should respond to the practice of torture.
We received several interesting responses. One said, “Muslim Mercer. Jimmy Carter Mercer. Political Left Mercer. Well, no wonder it’s no longer Georgia Baptist Mercer. And rightly so.” Another noted that it saddened him to see that his alma mater had “become a very liberal institution similar to ones in the Northeast with summits on terrorism and torture as well as lectures from an Islamic leader and a misguided past U.S. President” (sins apparently unmitigated by the fact that prominent conservative leaders Newt Gingrich, Arthur Laffer and John Bolton also had recently spoken on campus).
This type of criticism is nothing new. It reflects a long-standing and fundamental disagreement about the nature of Christian higher education.
Our finest Baptist universities were founded by more progressive Baptists, who believed that religion and ignorance were a dangerous combination, and who therefore advocated for places where students would grow both spiritually and intellectually as they learned to pursue discovery, solve problems and think for themselves. They prevailed over more conservative Baptists, who objected that education could lead students toward doubt and even disbelief unless it focused on inculcating particular doctrinal or political points of view.
The most conservative Baptists, however, intensified their resistance to the aims of higher learning as new discoveries in science challenged literal interpretations of the Bible. Rather than attempt to harmonize the discoveries of modern science with our understanding of the Bible, as prior generations of Christians had done, the most conservative Baptists rejected the discoveries of science and challenged the teaching of those discoveries in Baptist schools. Similar controversy occurred in response to new discoveries in an array of other academic disciplines.
Some of our best schools responded by walking away from their Baptist identities. Others defended the integrity of their academic environments by adopting measures to protect themselves from control by particular Baptist denominational bodies. The landscape of Baptist higher education continues to change as our remaining schools face declining financial support from state and national Baptist bodies and become more ecumenical places, with a declining Baptist presence among their governing boards, administrative leadership, faculties and student bodies.
So, if being a Baptist institution of higher learning no longer means we are formally affiliated with a particular denominational body — or that a majority of our faculty, staff and students are Baptists — then what will it mean?
Surely it will mean that we are places that embrace serious intellectual life as a way to glorify God — places where students and teachers are free to follow the path of knowledge and understanding, regardless of where that path might lead. This commitment to excellence in a free and open search for truth, knowledge and understanding is the most important attribute of any great university.
But that alone is not sufficient to make a school a great Baptist university. Baptist schools should be distinctive in important and substantive ways from state universities or secular private colleges. Surely being Baptist should mean that we provide a quality education in an environment that reflects the core values of our faith — including regular religious observances on campus, expectations of personal integrity and morality among students and staff and creating a campus culture where people genuinely care about one another.
But being a Baptist university can mean even more than this.
Our faith-based mission empowers us to explore a broader range of issues than are examined at secular universities today — issues that are fundamental to leading an informed life and were once central to higher education but are now largely forgotten in our universities. Why am I here? How should I spend my life? What should I care about most?
Baptist schools are empowered to explore these questions and the ones that grow out of them, like: Where was God at Auschwitz? Or, how can a God of love allow millions to be trapped in almost-unimaginable poverty?
We can likewise be places where the great moral and ethical issues of our age can be considered in an intellectually rigorous fashion from various faith perspectives. What can we learn from ours and other faith traditions about torture, creation care, immigration, war and peace, human sexuality, abortion, assisted suicide and the death penalty? These and a host of other questions cry out for rigorous intellectual consideration from Christian and other faith perspectives — especially in a culture where debate on these questions seldom extends much deeper than battling bumper stickers.
But we should also remember that faith is not entirely, or even primarily, an intellectual matter. We are commanded to love our neighbor, and we are instructed to manifest that love by serving those in need. Surely central to our mission as Baptist universities should be encouraging our students to see the face of God in the hungry, the thirsty, the sick, the stranger and even the prisoner. Central to our mission should be cultivating in our students an ethic of service.
Perhaps more than anything else, cultivating this service ethic in our students will be at the heart of the finest 21st-century Baptist universities.