Reimagining United Methodist Education
What would it look like for United Methodist colleges and universities to be identifiably Wesleyan in ethos and practice? Most Mainline-related institutions of higher education have very little about them that is recognizably Christian: maybe a rarely used, symbolically neutral chapel, or perhaps a required religion class that may or may not have anything to do with Jesus. Some formerly religious universities are even shunning any organization that would expect certain beliefs (say, the resurrection or the Trinity) from its leadership.
To explore this question, I present to you an interesting exercise. I have replaced “Catholic” with “Methodist” in the quote by R.R. Reno below. I believe the thrust of his argument (found in an article here) still holds. The only problem is, no one is seems to be interested in what the Wesleyan tradition has to say to higher education. See what you think:
Maybe I’m simple-minded, but I don’t think the solution is all that difficult to understand. Methodist universities should challenge students—with the full force of the Methodist tradition. A truth that presses us toward holiness is a far greater threat to naive credulities and bourgeois complacency than anodyne experiences of “difference” or easy moves of “critique,” which bright students master and mimic very quickly.
I don’t think that the lectern should be turned into a pulpit, but the soul of Methodist education requires classrooms haunted by the authority of the Church and the holiness of her saints.
Ironically, I read this the same day I watched the opening mass for Catholic University of America. Cardinal Wuerl drew on the tradition that R.R. Reno names, challenging students, especially the incoming freshmen, that there is more to their education than just career ambition. Rather, he beautifully articulated the gospel’s call, preached and lived by Jesus, to live for something above and beyond self. With the Spirit’s power, Christian students ought to be driven to transform the world inspired by the vision of the One who proclaimed, “I am making all things new.” (Revelation 21:5)
To receive that power and see that vision, the Cardinal then led the whole assembly in the celebration of the Eucharist.
By contrast, the United Methodist university I attended has not, as best as I can tell, had Communion celebrated in at least a decade and probably more. And it’s not merely apathy to the sacrament. I was honored to be invited a couple of years ago to preach at the chapel service on homecoming weekend. I requested that we have Communion as part of that service – because what, after all, says “homecoming” for Methodists more so than gathering around the Lord’s Table?
But I was told “no” by the alumni office. So many students and alum are not Methodists, you see – what they were really saying is that we have all these Catholic students – that we wouldn’t want them to feel unwelcome.
For a Catholic university, that would be unthinkable. The Mass is who they are, regardless of who goes to school there.
I suspect the neglect of the Eucharist and the neglect of United Methodist identity and formation in holiness at our educational institutions are intimately related. We believe Communion is a sacrament, a means of grace, a way to grow closer to God.
But we have, as best as i can tell, abdicated the vision of the Wesleys who began the tradition of Methodist education: educating people both for their own flourishing and as part of our comprehensive mission as followers of Jesus to renew and sanctify ourselves and our communities in all aspects of life. At our best, Methodists have not educated young people so that they can go out and be decent, middle-class citizens with 2.5 children and an SUV.
At our most Wesleyan, we have educated young people so that their lives can flourish in holiness and thus be a blessing to others. We educate soteriologically. Our goal ought not to be merely informational, but formational. James K.A. Smith, in a recent lecture at Harvard, made an excellent case for why Christians in general should be invested in this vision for higher learning.
A lofty ideal, of course. But then, we are a people who claim to strive after perfection. What would it look like for our colleges and universities to take that seriously?
One example that goes against the grain that I have been identifying – that is, a United Methodist university that is proud of its Methodist heritage and builds on its faith-based identity – is Pfeiffer University outside of Charlotte, NC. I would encourage any United Methodists considering college to seriously consider Pfeiffer.
What do you think? Are Presbyterians, Lutherans, or others doing any better than Methodists are in educating for holiness? Are there other UMC colleges I should know about?