But, if approved, it would place Presbyterian College among other liberal arts schools that, in recent decades, have relaxed requirements for students taking courses in the Bible, sometimes in favor of a course of their choice of a class in religion, sometimes with no required Old or New Testament course at all.
Some of those changes took place years ago. The 1960s, for example, was a time of re-evaluation, of colleges with ties to all of the mainline denominations pulling back from the closeness of those connections. But now, some 40 years later, certain of those schools are revisiting the question of what it means to be a college that’s Christian in identity.
In part, that’s a conversation about whether it’s possible to be both a serious liberal arts school — a place that encourages critical thinking and analysis and scholarship — and also a place that teaches the gospel of Jesus Christ.
At many liberal arts colleges, “proselytizing and critical thinking are thought to be opposites,” said William “Beau” Weston, an associate professor of sociology at Centre College in Danville, Ky., and a member of a task force on strengthening ties with Presbyterian-related colleges that reported to last year’s General Assembly.
“That’s the irony here,” Weston said. “If you teach that biological evolution is true in the biology class, then you’re a good biologist. But if you teach the Bible is true in the religion class, then you’re proselytizing and imposing your views and not a good scholar. I think this is not fully thought-through and fully faced.”
The links between the denomination and Presbyterian-related colleges have been loosening for decades. Years ago, the predecessor denominations of what’s now the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) were involved in the actual governance of some of these schools — providing money, sending representatives to sit on the board of trustees, sometimes even appointing the president of a college. But in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the colleges became much more independent of the denominations. Some long ago dropped any requirement that students take a Bible course, although they may require at least one course in religion, said Gary Luhr, executive director of the Association of Presbyterian Colleges and Universities.
Sometimes, it’s the college faculty who wants to downplay the church-relatedness — perhaps out of concern for academic freedom and integrity. And sometimes admissions officers raise concerns about how potential students might react, both positively and negatively, if a school intentionally positions itself as a “Christian” school.
How to strike a balance, to have academic integrity but still be church-related, is “an ongoing conversation that happens at all of our schools all the time,” Luhr said. “Sometimes it sort of rises to the top, and sometimes it’s sort of a submerged issue.” At Presbyterian College, it’s definitely risen to the top.
Richard L. Baker Jr. is a professor of philosophy there, and he has strong feelings about what’s at stake.
At Presbyterian College, “the faculty are committed to Christian higher education,” Baker said. “Now there are lots of ways to do that.” But he’s convinced that “it should still be an institutional priority,” with a requirement that students study the Bible, and to back away from that is to be “more concerned about U.S. News & World Report rankings” of colleges than of what a Presbyterian college is called by God to be.
The proposal on the table at Presbyterian College, which was approved by the faculty on March 25 by a 51-25 vote, is much broader than just dropping the requirement that students take courses in both Old and New Testament. It would reduce the faculty teaching loads from eight courses per year (four each semester) to seven courses a year. It would provide new critical-thinking challenges for students as freshmen and seniors and require students to develop electronic portfolios of their best work. And some course requirements would change, to give students more choice of what courses within particular disciplines to take.
The school has been working on proposed changes for five years now, and John V. Griffith, the president of Presbyterian College, said in an interview that he and the board of trustees plan to appoint a commission to study the proposal further and continue exploring the question of what does it mean to be an institution committed to the Christian faith.
“Our identity as an institution of the church is very important,” Griffith said. “It’s our task to keep faith and reason in the same corral — not always easy partners, but always challenging. It’s my experience it creates a greater good than either alone.”
Presbyterian College takes seriously its mission to prepare future church leaders, in lay leadership and the ministry, Griffith said. And part of the role of a liberal arts college is “freeing the mind from narrow dogmatism and developing the capacity to think critically” — and educating students about the Old and New Testaments can play an important role in that, he said.
Presbyterian College, in Clinton, S.C., is reflective of both a particular place and the challenges of a broader world. The school has about 1,200 students, many of them from South Carolina, Georgia and Florida, or elsewhere in the South. And many of them are struggling to understand how what Christianity or whatever they believe in — if they know what they believe in — fits in with a multicultural world.
At Presbyterian College, requiring students to take both Old and New Testament has been one of the hallmarks of the school, said Peter Hobbie, chair of the religion department. And the reason for that is not to be narrow-minded or fundamentalist, he added, but to make sure that students who graduate from a Christian school emerge with some level of biblical literacy and an understanding of what’s involved in critical thinking and biblical analysis.
“Those of us who are here are broadminded and open to all ideas,” Hobbie said of the Presbyterian College religion faculty. He’s a graduate of Union Seminary in Virginia, for example, and said of his colleagues: “We’ve got kind of the mainline Presbyterian outlook. We are not trying to indoctrinate anyone.”
But both Hobbie and Baker said many of the students who come to the college, even those who’ve grown up going to church regularly, don’t have a particularly strong grounding in the Bible — many are not biblically literate. And some students come from churches where they’re told the Bible is true, but no serious questioning takes place about how to read the Bible or interpret it.
By requiring Old and New Testament courses, where students are taught techniques for understanding and interpreting the Bible, “we have found it to be a way to liberate our students,” Hobbie said. “Their struggle is against fundamentalism, and the fundamentalists are always throwing the Bible at them. They have never understood the Bible is a diverse and open book.”
That’s one of the threads of the discussion that Presbyterian-related schools are having: what do Christian students who want to become mature in their faith need to learn? Some Presbyterian College students say that requiring Bible courses has been valuable to them.
“Students don’t have a strong understanding of everything in the Bible,” said Jay Benson, a 20-year-old political science major, who said, “I learned a lot” by taking the required Old and New Testament courses.
“Presbyterian College is known for its Christian education,” said Dani Fernandes, a 21-year-old music and political science major who just graduated. “If I wanted to go to Wake Forest or I wanted to go to Davidson, I would have.”
William Meyer, an associate professor of religion and philosophy at Maryville College in Tennessee and a PC(USA) minister, said he tries to introduce his students to the idea that in the Christian tradition, Jesus is the Word, and “Scripture the pointer to the Word and not the Word itself.”
He teaches them that “the Bible is more like a library than a single book,” written at different times by different people. Some students are surprised to learn, Meyer said, that there were differences of opinion even in the early church — Paul versus James, for example — and that over the centuries there have been varying interpretations of what it means to follow Jesus or the meaning of particular passages, such as the Sermon on the Mount.
Meyer said he has had students who were surprised to discover that there was not one original version of the Bible locked away somewhere. If they’ve grown up going to church, “students should not be dumbfounded when they realize that the gospels are written 40 to 70 years after Jesus, that there are differences within the gospels,” Meyer said. “Students will say, `Why didn’t anyone ever tell us that?’ “
At Maryville, the goal is to provide students with genuine literacy about the Christian tradition and other religious traditions — they’re also required to take a course in world cultures, which introduces them to the belief systems of India, the Middle East and Asia, Meyer said. And they’re taught “to begin to recognize that doubt is not antithetical to faith but doubt is a part of a vital life of faith.”
Some faculty members at Presbyterian-related liberal arts colleges worry, Luhr said, that if their students are required to take classes in the Bible, people from outside the school may assume the students are being told what to think and what not to think. But others contend just the opposite is true, that students are taught techniques of interpretation from the Reformed tradition and critical thinking skills that they can use to make sense of the Bible for themselves.
One college chaplain told Luhr recently that he can almost predict the point in the academic year when the Bible classes will begin to challenge the students to think about what they really believe and why. That’s when students will start appearing at his office door with questions of their own.
“For the first time in their lives, some of their long-held beliefs are being challenged in the classroom,” Luhr said. “For some that’s threatening, for some that’s liberating, for some it’s just a totally new experience.”
C. J. Thompson is associate pastor for campus ministry at First church, Clinton, S.C., not far from Presbyterian College, and he knows from his own experience how eye-opening the process of studying the Bible at college can be — when “they learn that everything is not as black and white as people told them. That was my experience.”
Thompson, a 28-year-old from Tennessee, said, “I went through a period of saying, ‘My Sunday school teachers lied to me. I’ve been lied to about the Bible at church.'”
Thompson said he later reached a deeper level of thinking about it — realizing that his teachers did the best they could, and through more exposure to theology seeing the Bible himself, not just as an exterior object to be studied critically, but as the Word of God that affects him deeply, that’s part of what makes him live and breathe.
And “that’s what’s ironic about faculty at Presbyterian colleges being concerned about the school’s church-relatedness,” Luhr said. “In the Reformed tradition, all truth is God’s truth. So presenting truth in all aspects of life — not just in religion courses but science courses and humanities courses — is part of what we’re being called to do. It’s just the opposite of a narrowing focus.”
Maryville has gone through an intentional process over the last six years of exploring those issues, and emerged with a Faith and Learning Statement which says, in part, that “a genuine church-related liberal arts college must ensure that both diversity and Christian identity are present on campus in a creative balance.”
Generally, liberal arts schools that are church-related tend to fall into two general groups, said Meyer, who’s also chair of the school’s Faith and Learning Committee. The first are colleges “that have moved away from church-relatedness because they thought it inhibited quality liberal arts education and critical reflection,” he said. The second are colleges “that embrace their Christian identity but perhaps are not as open to the critical questioning that is a vital part of the liberal arts. We intentionally sought to define and articulate a third way that embraces both.”
The 66 colleges and universities that are formally “related” to the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) can be grouped into three general categories, Luhr said.
Just under half have mainly historic relationships with the Presbyterian church. They were founded by Presbyterians long ago, and now basically say, “It’s part of our heritage, but it’s not something we emphasize,” as Luhr put it.
Another group — again, just under half — have what are called “dimensional” connections, where the college defines its relationship with the Presbyterian church as being one important dimension of its institutional life.
And a third, small group, perhaps 10 percent, have a “pervasive” relationship — schools such as Montreat in North Carolina and Whitworth in Washington state, which position and promote themselves as Christian colleges, and view their educational mission “as an extension of the Christian gospel,” Luhr said.
This is also a conversation that includes synods, often the entity with whom the colleges have covenant agreements, although it’s sometimes with presbyteries or even congregation, Luhr said. And those covenants often are renewed on five-year cycles, and “that often becomes the impetus,” he said, “for the latest discussion about what does it mean to be a church-related college and what does being a Presbyterian college imply.”
There also are differences, said Weston of Centre College, in how schools in the different categories teach about the Bible, even if they do require students to take a course in it. The pervasively Presbyterian schools — those that consider themselves to be distinctively Christian colleges, “and there are only a handful of them,” Weston said — teach the Bible “as truth.”
The historically Presbyterian schools, on the other hand, “teach it as what cultured people need to know,” Weston said. “They teach about the Bible, they teach it as history and literature, as an important document in civilization. But they definitely don’t teach it as truth.” Some people might see that as the influence of a secular society, Weston said. But he sees it as more self-imposed, with religion professors concerned about academic respectability doing whatever they can to avoid the appearance of proselytizing. “There has always been a worry about being too anything for fear of scaring off some possible source of students or support,” he said.
But in recent years there’s started to be some re-evaluation of that, in part because of an influx of grant money from the Lilly Endowment to church-related colleges to encourage students and faculty to think about the idea of vocation.
Maryville College, for example, got a Lilly grant in 2001 for a “Faith, Leadership and Vocation” project, in part to encourage students to consider both the ministry and the idea of “servant leadership” in their personal lives and whatever profession they choose.
“We talk to our young people from the minute they get here about their introspective process, about `Who are you, and what is your calling and how are you going to fulfill this?” said Kathleen Parnham, Maryville’s director of church relations. They’re challenged to think, “What are you going to do in the world?”
And some of the schools in the “pervasive” category, those that position themselves as distinctly Christian schools, argue that their reputation for academic quality and scholarship stacks up favorably against the competition, and that there is room in the marketplace for schools that aren’t considered “Bible colleges,” but strong Christian liberal arts schools.
At Whitworth College in Spokane, all faculty members are required to be professing Christians. “We would require them to believe in Jesus Christ as their personal savior whether they teach in math or history or religion,” said Dale Soden, a professor of history and director of the Weyerhaeuser Center for Christian Faith and Learning. And faculty members are encouraged to think of the Christian dimensions of what and how they teach.
But Whitworth has fewer restrictions on student behavior than does, for example, a school such as Wheaton College, a private interdenominational Christian college near Chicago. Whitworth sees itself as being similar to a school such as Calvin College, an institution of the Christian Reformed Church in Grand Rapids, Mich. — offering strong academics from “a self-consciously Christian perspective and self-consciously Reformed perspective,” Soden said. And “we don’t think we have anything to apologize for from an intellectual standpoint,” because Whitworth’s graduates are competitive in nearly every field.
In the end, what this conversation comes down to for some folks is how much room there is in the liberal arts world for diversity, for schools to answer the question, “What does it mean to be a church-related liberal arts college” in somewhat different ways.
“When it comes to this issue, there’s some nervousness about variety,” Soden said. But higher education is not the place, he argues, to require that “everyone do and think like everybody else.”