By the Book

August 1, 2005
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GRAND RAPIDS — In a philosophical climate dominated by moral absolutes, it is ironic that today's Christian institutions of higher learning find themselves reaching for the middle ground. West Michigan's four Christian colleges — Aquinas College, Calvin College, Cornerstone University and Hope College — have unique perspectives on Christian higher education, but they share one common challenge: an ongoing struggle between staying true to their historical faith, and adapting to a changing world. Or, in other words, they must decide if it is better to be a specialized, sectarian institution with a limited audience or to be all things to all people at the risk of losing a sense of religious heritage.

Throughout the course of American history, hundreds of colleges and universities that were founded by religious groups have become gradually — or intentionally — secularized. As new Christian institutions have begun, and as old ones have held true to their religious missions, a rift in perception has grown between them and the mainstream, secular institutions.

"I would say that one of the challenges we face — as Christian colleges in general — is the perception that you have to choose between really high-caliber academics and being really seriously Christian," said Dr. Gaylen Byker, president of CalvinCollege. "If students get in to a high-status, well-known national reputation institution and they get in to a Christian college, (it is perceived that) they have to choose one or the other."

"I think the real commitment is to be able to do both," said Dr. James E. Bultman, president of HopeCollege in Holland. "Our passion at Hope is to provide exceptionality in the educational program and, at the same time, a vibrant commitment to the Christian faith."

But just how "vibrant" should that commitment be? How much should the Good Book find its way into the textbook? Does a college need to sacrifice some of its spiritual integrity to attract the best students and professors? Must the faculty all share the same religious beliefs? What about the students? The presidents of Aquinas, Calvin, Cornerstone and Hope all have different answers to those questions.

CalvinCollege: A different kind of diversity

For nearly 130 years, CalvinCollege has been providing exceptional educations to Dutch Christian Reformed Church members. They're not all Dutch these days, but the student body is still 90 percent white, and 65 percent claims faith in the CRC or its closely affiliated allied churches. Nearly all of Calvin's students are Protestants. The school requires its faculty and high-level staff to maintain an active membership in a CRC or related congregation, to educate their children in Christian schools and to avow belief in some fairly specific theological positions.

That might not seem like an ideal environment to encourage a diversity of opinion. Of course, sharing the same beliefs does not necessarily mean that Calvin's faculty shares the same worldview. However, to an outsider, Calvin's policies could seem to stifle independent thought and dissent.

According to Byker, that kind of homogeneity of belief, viewed from a more detached perspective, is just a different kind of diversity.

"We want to maintain the Reformed tradition of the institution. We think that it is important that there be diversity of institutions, or among institutions, as well as the other kinds of diversity within institutions. If every institution has to have all exactly the same characteristics and diversity, there's no diversity between institutions," he said.

"There are almost 4,000 colleges and universities in this country. There is room for Catholic colleges and universities that are distinctly Catholic. And there's room for Reformed institutions, and Mennonite, and Baptist and so on. And that actually is something that the greater society ought to value just the same as saying, 'We want diversity within these institutions.' We don't want all of these institutions to be identical. And that's one of the things in society is to have those kinds of choices. And in our case, we think that the Reformed tradition has a particular strength when it comes to intellectual engagement."

Scholar Robert Benne called that strength "a penchant for theological precision" in his book "Quality With Soul." Benne largely held up Calvin as a model by which other institutions could incorporate Christian identity and tradition with first-rate academics. On the secular side, Byker mentioned a recent U.S. News & World Report ranking that put Calvin's educational quality at the top of 110 schools of similar size and educational programming (secular and religious, public and private).

So, as Byker said, Calvin students don't have to choose between high-caliber academics and a Christian education. However, if a student is looking for a good education but could do without all the God business, he would do well to look elsewhere.

"You can't come to Calvin — if you read our materials and go through the orientation — without understanding that this place is thoroughly Christian," he said. "You've got to want what we want — what we offer — or it will be uncomfortable for you."

Aquinas College: A worldview

On the other side of town from Calvin — and on the far side of a handful of philosophical and theological morasses — is Aquinas College. The structural and financial support that the Christian Reformed Church supplies to Calvin is all but absent in Aquinas' relationship with the Roman Catholic church. So are the orthodoxy and many of the faith-based requirements. The school is Catholic in name and in practice, but not necessarily in hiring strategy.

"I'm a Catholic and the provost is," said Aquinas President Harry J. Knopke. "One of the vice presidents is Greek Orthodox. Another's Episcopalian. The director of the emeritus college is Al Lewis, who is a former rabbi. One of our senior development officers is a Muslim. So we've got a whole panoply of folks here."

Knopke said that Aquinas stays true to the principles of Catholicism without making any religious requirements of its employees. In essence Aquinas' faculty vows to support the mission of the school; so long as they don't do anything that strays from that framework, their religious beliefs are irrelevant.

"The way I characterize it is that it's Catholic with a big 'c' and catholic with a small 'c.' Catholic with a big 'c' refers to the faith. Catholic with a small 'c,' the definition is universal," Knopke said. That said, about 60 percent of both faculty and students are Catholic.

In the theology department, however, they skip the small "c" entirely. In accordance with a papal directive issued by the late John Paul II, professors of theology at Catholic universities must teach in a way that does not stray from the teachings of the church. Each of Aquinas' theology professors has received a mandatum — a document affirming their adherence to Church-sanctioned theology.

"So when they teach the Catholic theology courses that are listed in the catalog, they stay true to the teachings of Catholic dogma," Knopke said. "But that doesn't mean that when they teach a class in world religion or others that (the teaching is) colored. That's the ongoing principle in our teaching, that you have to look at the whole world to develop a complete world view."

Although the religiosity of Aquinas may be less overt than that of some other Christian schools, Knopke said that the guiding beliefs of the Dominican Charisms (prayer, community, study and ministry) are present throughout the curriculum. But some say that isn't enough. Knopke said critics accuse Aquinas of downplaying its religious background and nature. He said the school isn't trying to hide anything: The word "Catholic" is in the mission statement. It is worth noting, though, that when referring to the Charisms, Knopke uses the words "reflection" instead of "prayer" and "community involvement" in place of "ministry."

Cornerstone University: An evolving institution

The same critics who say that Aquinas downplays its religious heritage might be inclined to say the same thing of Cornerstone, mainly considering the fact that the school dropped the word "Baptist" during its 1994 name change. Upon closer inspection, however, no one would suggest that the erstwhile Grand Rapids Baptist Bible College is anything but devoutly Christian. For President Rex M. Rogers, it's a question of degrees.

"It's: How Christian are you? It's the challenge of differing litmus tests and perceptions of a vast audience — a public who are coming at you with differing faith standards, a differing understanding of their faith, and having been taught differently about how to measure (what it is) that they're looking for," he said. "So, if you don't have this, you mustn't really be Christian. Or if you do that, or allow that, you mustn't really be Christian."

Rogers likes to say that Christians shouldn't "major in the minors," meaning that they would do well to focus more on becoming better, more holy people than on what Cornerstone's position is vis-à-vis Harry Potter. Rogers would prefer that his students (and their parents) be well educated in both secular and religious concerns and leave matters such as which books to read up to "Christian liberty."

This principle seems to permeate the Cornerstone curriculum. Students are encouraged to become strong, independent, ethical citizens. They are trained to rely upon their intellect and their faith to make the right decisions in life. Rogers said that the school is moving away from its former "legalistic" authoritarian ways. That said, students' "Christian liberty" does not include the freedom to enjoy a cocktail anywhere on campus, to be gay, to suggest that man evolved from apes, or to embrace the teachings of another religion.

The school is very straightforward and candid about its beliefs. The Cornerstone Confession, which Rogers called "a limited set of understanding about what the Scripture says," codifies these beliefs.

"It's our glue. It's our focus. It's our foundation," he said of the Confession. "So if you're a Wesleyan or Methodist or Christian Reformed or Catholic, and I'm Baptist, we can sit down and have a nice conversation where maybe there's some denominational distinctives and yet share a core commitment to the Christian faith … We can grow from there."

Rogers said that Cornerstone's faculty and students tend to be "self-selecting." They are very aware of the university's Christian beliefs and find them to be in line with their own. Some come to Cornerstone from secular institutions, fleeing what they describe as a culture of persecution and ostracism for those who would vocally promote their Christian beliefs.

"And of all the cry for tolerance in postmodern culture today, (secular academics) are incredibly intolerant," he said. "It's kind of like they're tolerant of everything but a Christian perspective."

At Cornerstone, Rogers said, these students and professors find the kind of tolerance they seek.

Hope College: Opportunities, not requirements

Students at Hope College can't get enough of chapel services, according to the school's president, Dr. James E. Bultman. It's usually standing-room-only at the thrice-weekly services. But should that come as a great surprise? Hope is a Christian school, tied to the Reformed Church in America, so it seems obvious that the students would be required to attend chapel services.

"Students at Hope have opportunities for spiritual growth. They don't have requirements," said Bultman. "They don't have to go to chapel. And that's what makes the overflowing chapel crowds so exciting, because kids are there because they want to be."

That laissez-faire strategy extends to the faculty, as well. Hope's professors (like those at Calvin and Cornerstone) share a common faith. Beyond that, Hope entrusts them with broad leeway.

"We support academic freedom at Hope," Bultman said. "And we have, I think, a lot of confidence in our faculty that they will teach in their areas of expertise professionally. And that when they do have positions that differ from the position of the college, they will attribute that position to themselves and that they would purport that position respectfully and in a restrained way, that they would do it accurately."

Bultman believes that because of the confidence and freedom the college invests in its people, it attracts the best students and faculty. Of this fall's 792 incoming freshmen, 326 have a high school grade point average of 3.9 or higher.

"Hope is able to play in the big leagues of undergraduate higher education in this country. And that would be demonstrated by the fact that we have more undergraduate research grants from (the National Science Foundation) than any other liberal arts college in the country. And our faculty author about 20 to 25 books a year … they are both scholars and teachers," Bultman said.

Whether Hope is a Christian college that offers a first-rate education or a top-notch school that offers a Christian perspective is hard to distinguish. Bultman doesn't seem to value one over the other or, to some degree, even differentiate between the two.

"The two reinforce each other. I think the education offered at Hope is stronger because of the Christian perspective. And I think that the Christian perspective is enhanced by rigorous academic study," he said. "Many places would probably see the two as mutually exclusive. I see them as reinforcing each other."    

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