united methodists and higher education

The United Methodist Reporter recently ran a special issue focued on the topic of higher education. I have read these articles with interest as I have a deep love for higher education and campus ministry. It is one of the great challenges of the church today.

One article caught my attention in particular: “Whither the ‘M’ in SMU?” by Dr. Will Finnin, chaplain and minister to SMU in Dallas, Texas. In the article, Dr. Finnin deals with questions he receives about what makes SMU Methodist or about the connection of the university to the denomination: “In principle each question reflects a concern: does the ‘M’ in ‘SMU’ still have substantive meaning relative to the United Methodist Church to which it points?”

Dr. Finnin first goes on to appeal to historical roots of Methodism and the founding of colleges and universities. Second, he continues: “this quest for Truth and the advancement of knowledge it sometimes produces do not proceed according to or within pre-conceived notions of what truth should be or what knowledge of truth might be appropriately transmitted. The Johannine dictum, ‘Veritas liberabit vos,’ SMU’s ‘motto,’ points to the liberating dynamic of Truth in all its fullness, not exclusively religious truth, and certainly not one expression of religious truth.”

Read that last sentence once more. One of the problems of the Methodist movement today is rooted in a deep and pervasive misunderstanding of the message of Scripture, but more problematic is the marginalization of the notion of Scripture as Divine Revelation. It is curious indeed that the word “truth” is consistently capitalized throughout the essay, yet clearly disassociated from the actual meaning of the term in the “Johannine dictum.” In John’s Gospel, Truth is a person–Jesus Christ, the Son and Messiah of God, YHWH. Truth “in all its fullness” is none other that the person Jesus the Christ because of God’s self-revelation in and through him. This is why Truth has a “liberating dynamic” at all–because Christ is the Liberating One.

If Dr. Finnin is correct in his assessment of the place and role of the “M” in SMU, and I suspect he is, then it is patently absurd for persons claiming to worship the God narrated in Scripture, as United Methodists do, to elevate an ethereal and abstract truth with a capitalized “T” above “religious truth,” not least of all to attempt to ground that elevation in the Johannine dictum.

No doubt the United Methodist Church has established and still owns and operates many exceptional universities and colleges including SMU and others named in the essay: Emory, Duke, Syracuse, Northwestern, and Boston University. But they are exceptional as secular universities, not as church institutions (I am not referring to the Divinity Schools in these, as those tend to have a different character most of the time).

So, one wonders… Why the necessity to erect a wall between “focused intellectual inquiry” and orthodox Wesleyan Christian faith? Further pressing the issue, are colleges and universities exempt church institutions from the core mission of the church to form disciples of Jesus Christ?

In embracing a secular understanding of the search for truth in the university, we have little or no place from which to pursue what it might mean to form our students holistically as disciples of Jesus Christ (which–gasp! involves an understanding of who he is) in and through their academic education at United Methodist colleges and universities. But this is the very calling of the Church; not to erect secular research institutions, but to form students in Christ holistically. Faithfulness to this calling probably does not require mandatory chapel attendance or absolute creedal confession, as seen in more conservative and fundamental colleges and universities. We do need critical and creative thinking about how it would work, but the basic vision of higher education that is distinctively Christian may well hold the key to the transformative work needed in the Church today.

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2 thoughts on “united methodists and higher education

  1. Yes, it seems that in their quest to be free from one set of “rigid orthodoxies”–the orthodox Christian sort, they are more than happy to embrace another set–the canons of Western secular academia. SMU’s motto is a fantastic one. Trouble is, it points to “religious truth” exclusively as having the power to liberate unless we invest a meaning in the words foreign to their contextual meaning, having uprooted them from their narrative soil.

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