The vast majority of independent, private institutions of higher learning in the U.S. were established by the church. Hundreds of historically Protestant and Roman Catholic colleges and universities dot the current higher-education landscape. Unfortunately, many of these institutions that were once established to educate the minds and hearts of students have long since abandoned their church-related missions. And for an increasingly smaller set of schools for whom those links to the church are still vital, navigating the sometimes treacherous terrain that links the ideals important to the academy (like academic freedom and cultural engagement) with values important to the church (like holiness and doctrine) has become quite harrowing.
But I remain optimistic that for Whitworth University and for other institutions like it, which remain pervasively Presbyterian and unwaveringly Christ-centered, opportunities to bring together virtues that the world so often sees as incompatible — curiosity and conviction, openness and commitment, compassion and responsibility, grace and truth — present the best chances to help forge for great purposes the minds and hearts of the next generation of global citizens and leaders in Christ’s church.
At Whitworth, we describe our intention to honor both mind and heart as a commitment to locate the university on what 20th-century Jewish philosopher Martin Buber called “the narrow ridge.” Buber built this metaphor as a way of illustrating where two differing parties can come together to find common ground. Rather than seeing this ridge as a “happy middle” where competing ideas seek nothing more than neutral ground, Buber meant the narrow ridge to be precarious — and at times truly dangerous — topography where slippery slopes abound, where paradox and contradiction are embraced and where competing “truths” are debated vigorously. What better place to locate a Christian and Presbyterian university?
If, down one side of the narrow ridge, there are piled in heaps those institutions of higher learning that traded in their commitments to serve Christ and the church in favor of greater academic prestige or an easier path to navigate cultural plurality; and if, down the other side of the ridge, are institutions that have slipped and abandoned their academic missions in favor of protecting some privileged version of truth, the ridge itself offers a place where we can face the difficulties of life, learning and ministry with integrity and without needlessly shedding the missions of academics or faith.
What does life on the narrow ridge look like as we create space for courageous encounters with ideas while remaining grounded in our faith in Christ? Our Reformed theological foundations serve us well here. With its emphases on the sovereignty of God, common grace, the divine nature of truth and the importance of engaging rather than retreating from culture, the Reformed tradition grounds the Presbyterian university in ways that yield confidence in the search for truth while also teaching humility when that truth is thought to be found. The Presbyterian university’s commitments to academic freedom and to conversations among faithful Christians who will, inevitably, disagree are vital to its role as thought leader. The Christian university serves the church and is made up of members of the church, but it is important to note that it is not the church. Hence, the university is less encumbered than the church in taking specific doctrinal or ethical positions. Staying on this intellectual and practical high ground will be important for open and evangelical colleges and universities like Whitworth that opt to remain on the ridge.
For Whitworth, these commitments have meant eschewing unnecessary institutional positions on controversial ethical issues over which thoughtful Christians disagree and denominations divide. By pointing to the centrality of Christ and the authority of Scripture, and by avoiding immersion in the hermeneutically centered controversies of the day within the denomination and broader church, Whitworth has discovered that it can foster healthier and more inclusive conversations, that it can encourage all voices to be heard, and that our students are equipped with unhindered and constructive perspectives from which they can decide issues for themselves. And aren’t these among a university’s most essential roles?
Life on the ridge offers matchless views and exciting opportunities. But it takes courage and resolve from an institution to hew to its core beliefs when so many constituencies seek to turn the university into mirror images of their own agendas. Our students consistently offer the greatest and most encouraging testimonies of life-changing experiences that spring from opportunities to consider for themselves their Christian identities and worldviews as they confront some of life’s most difficult questions. They tell us that this struggle is noble and worthy.
BECK A. TAYLOR is the president of Whitworth University in Spokane, Wash.