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Davidson’s decision and Reformed tradition

Davidson College’s Board of Trustees recently decided that people who are not active members of a Christian church may serve on that board. Some have criticized this as a move away from our Christian heritage. I would like to offer a different interpretation, as I see the change as a forward-looking expression of how we want our particular understanding of Christian faith to be embodied.

Davidson College is related to the Presbyterian Church U.S.A. It stands in that part of the family of Christian churches known as the “Reformed tradition.” The college’s Statement of Purpose is explicit about our religious heritage and convictions: “Davidson commits itself to a tradition that recognizes God as the source of all truth, and finds in Jesus Christ the revelation of that God, a God bound by no church or creed. The loyalty of the college thus extends beyond the Christian community to the whole human community and necessarily includes an openness to and respect for the world’s various religious traditions.”

For Christians in the Reformed tradition, God’s truth is revealed fully but not exclusively in Jesus. As human beings, our understanding of God’s truth is always imperfect and partial, because we are limited by historical and cultural circumstances. Therefore we Presbyterians believe no church or denomination fully embodies or expresses the one truth revealed in Jesus.

Precisely because of our faith in Christ and in light of our own limitedness, we must be loyal to people of other faiths. We may not agree on many theological matters, but we should respect and love one another, for Christ called us to love both God and our neighbors. In pursuit of truth, we should be prepared equally to tell others what we believe and also humbly to listen to their beliefs, for perhaps we can learn from each other ways to be more humane to one other and faithful to God, which is what matters in the long run.

Davidson College has worked diligently to embody this Christian identity. Five years ago we initiated a program in which students, faculty, staff and alumni explore their vocation in terms of faith commitments. This program, led by a Presbyterian minister, encourages students to consider entering ordained ministry, brings Christian scholars in the Reformed tradition to teach on our faculty, and promotes conversations across faith traditions.

In our campus religious life, we help students of many backgrounds find ways to be nurtured in their faith. In collaboration with local houses of worship and religious organizations, we now have, in addition to myself, 10 adults (including ordained clergy from the Episcopal, Methodist, Presbyterian Church U.S.A., Presbyterian Church of America, and Jewish traditions, and a Catholic laywoman) working with student religious organizations. Every Thursday approximately 200 students gather at the Davidson College Presbyterian Church for an ecumenical, student- led Christian service of praise and worship. We also have Catholic, Episcopal, Jewish, Presbyterian and Quaker worship on campus on a regular basis.

To understand the recent changes to the Board of Trustees as a turn away from our religious heritage is perhaps to make mistaken assumptions about the tradition in which we stand. At its best, ours is not a tradition that fears, excludes or belittles those who are different. From its beginnings in the 16th century, the Reformed tradition has been ecumenical in spirit. Davidson has never sought to be a school only for Presbyterians, though they continue to comprise the largest Christian denomination represented in the student body.

Today, the college also has Buddhist, Hindu, Jewish and Muslim students and staff. They are as much a part the Davidson family as any Presbyterian, with as much to contribute to our common life. If we are to be authentically Christian in our particular Reformed context, we should respect them enough not only to “allow” our sisters and brothers of other traditions to be trustees, but, in fact, to hope that they will serve the college in that capacity. Our recent policy change therefore gives us reason to be glad that we seek to be a Presbyterian church-related institution that bears witness to a Christian tradition in which respect for and loyalty to all people is a hallmark and a source of hope for the whole human family.

ROBERT C. SPACH is chaplain of Davidson College, Davidson, N.C. This article is reprinted with permission of The Charlotte Observer. The copyright is owned by The Charlotte Observer. It first appeared in that newspaper April 5, 2005


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