One Body, Many Thoughts

One Body, Many Thoughts

Fall 2023

A conversation with Vincent Bacote, Louise Huang, Beck A. Taylor, and Morgan Feddes Satre

For Christian colleges and universities committed to the integration of Christian faith with the academic learning experience, there come times when the campus community wrestles with questions of orthodoxy — the doctrines and beliefs that define our understanding of faith within community.

With over 185 members around the world, the CCCU’s membership encompasses dozens of Christian denominations that hold to central, shared orthodox beliefs (e.g., the divinity and humanity of Christ) but interpret others differently. Add in the academic learning environment — where students and faculty are constantly exploring tough questions, exchanging and questioning each other’s opinions, and learning new information and perspectives — and it creates ample opportunities for theological differences within the campus community.

The following conversation, moderated by Advance managing editor Morgan Feddes Satre, explores the impact of orthodoxy on the faith and learning integration process and on campus life. Vincent Bacote is a professor of theology and the director of the Center for Applied Christian Ethics at Wheaton College (Wheaton, IL). Louise Huang serves at Azusa Pacific University (Azusa, CA) as interim dean and associate professor in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences and the director of both the Center for Research and Science and the environmental studies program at APU. She also participated in the Bridging the Two Cultures of Science and Humanities program at Scholarship & Christianity in Oxford, the CCCU’s U.K. subsidiary. Beck A. Taylor has served as president of Samford University (Birmingham, AL) since the summer of 2021; he previously served as president of Whitworth University (Spokane, WA) from 2010 to 2021.

The conversation has been edited for length and clarity; to view the full conversation, visit the CCCU’s YouTube channel.

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Morgan Feddes Satre: An understanding of orthodoxy is important in the development and maturation of Christians’ faith. When you think about the work of Christian higher education, how does orthodoxy factor in? In other words, is a chief goal of a Christian college education to give students a good foundation in Christian doctrine and practice, or is there more to a faith-integrated learning experience than that?

Vincent Bacote: The first question to ask is how each institution understands or articulates what their mission is. Their mission is going to give an indication of what kind of formation they’re thinking about. To the extent that the mission is very clearly about forming certain kinds of Christian persons, then something is informing your idea of what “Christian” is — and so whatever that something is will be some version of orthodoxy. It may be as basic as the Nicene Creed, or it may be as particular as a certain denomination’s views.

However we approach that, we are thinking about orthodoxy in terms of right belief or proper belief, and depending upon what kind of lifestyle expectations you have for students, that’s going to play a role in how you’re thinking about the role of orthodoxy. … To the extent that that’s clearly articulated, then people know that what they are agreeing to is being in an educational environment where — however you’re thinking about the broad range of disciplines — there is some way that Christian belief is informing and is engaged with those various disciplines.

But again, I think it’s going to vary, depending upon what the institution is, what the history of the institution is, what peaks and valleys the institution has had, what’s going on in society, [and] what vocabulary you are using. But to the extent that [campuses] are calling themselves Christian institutions, something about “Christian” is going to be defined, articulated, and presented as what the aspirations are of the institution. So in that case, they are taking orthodoxy with some kind of seriousness.

When people are assessing different Christian institutions, people need to ask, “What is the goal of this institution? Is it to form pastors?” Then the education should reflect that. But if you’re talking about wanting to provide an education where people encounter the Christian faith through the various disciplines, then that’s going to be a very different thing, because you want people to experience and encounter a way of thinking about business, law, art, et cetera, with the fact that there’s some lens of Christian faith on that.

Louise Huang: I really appreciate the underscoring of the institutional identity, vision, and mission, because that can vary. And I see faith integration being key—how one’s faith enhances one’s discipline, and vice versa. Then students from different traditions can experience a Christian faith and value in a very academic way, and as a result, the orthodoxy might not be presented in just a theoretical way. Rather it is expressed in a rich way. As I teach science, I try to help students make connections and bring them to question [things like], why did God design a certain chemical a certain way? As a result, they can see how faith informs the science and how science informs the faith. At the end, I’m praying and hopeful that it will be a very rich transformation.

Beck A. Taylor: I, too, think about this question from the perspective of institutional identity. We know that CCCU institutions were founded by the church and for the church, but we are not churches. I say that because I think it’s important to realize that we Christians have typically depended upon churches or groups of churches like denominations to be the primary entities in and through which theological standards are created and sustained. Those are the teachings that have been sustained and generally agreed upon throughout the history of the church. That is what defines orthodoxy.

Even the term “orthodoxy” can be a contested idea on our campuses. For example, in a very practical sense, we know that throughout the history of the church, issues of human sexuality were not up for debate. Christian scholars and theologians, practitioners from the vast mainstream of Christianity were of one mind about same-sex activity: Homosexuality has always been considered contrary to God’s design for human flourishing. It’s really only been, say, in the last 40 to 50 years that there’s been a concerted effort to make more heterodox viewpoints around same-sex relationships more mainstream. I say all that simply to make the point that we as Christ-centered institutions of higher learning are now being brought into these debates. There may have been debates in the past that we would not have paid a lot of attention to. But as these debates have been focused on our campuses, and to the extent that our institutional standards and beliefs are now being called into question by some, I think it’s very important for us to be very clear about our institutional values and beliefs.

To that end, a defense of orthodoxy as we understand it becomes increasingly important. Inasmuch as Christian colleges and universities find themselves in the middle of these social debates and theological conflicts, I think it’s loving and responsible for us to stakeout where the boundaries of orthodoxy lie on our campuses so that members of our community can successfully navigate the terrain, no matter which side of the boundary they may find themselves on. I’m of the mind that it’s increasingly important for us at Christ- centered colleges and universities to be thinking of issues of orthodoxy to help our communities understand where those boundaries of orthodoxy lie on our campuses, and to acknowledge that orthodoxy in and of itself can be a contested idea.

Bacote: To add to that, part of the challenge is for people to understand the orthopraxy [right practice] that goes alongside of that in terms of how orthodoxy is articulated, how it’s displayed, how it’s engaged with others who are in tension with it, that it’s not being done in ways that give confirmation bias. I think it’s important that people see that a commitment to orthodoxy isn’t a commitment to the worst kinds of things that you see in terms of Christians behaving badly towards people with whom they might have tension or disagreement.

Taylor: That’s a really good point. The way we live out our commitments to orthodoxy is just as important as our stance for orthodoxy — particularly the way we may treat people who disagree with our particular perspectives. Whether they be employees or students or external constituencies, the way that we, in a very grace-filled way, engage in orthopraxy and live out our commitments to orthodoxy says just as much about us as image bearers of Christ as our stance for orthodoxy might.

Satre: How have you addressed issues of theological conflict that have come up within your community in ways that respect the differences of opinion that can arise in an academic setting, but still hold true to those orthodox beliefs that each institution has defined as central to your mission?

Huang: We live in such interesting times that are increasingly divisive. I’m keenly aware that whenever a disagreement happens, it’s actually an opportunity for us to embody how we practice our charitable and intellectual humility. When there’s a conflict, I first want to listen and identify the different stakeholders and parties who might approach the topic very differently. In the classroom, I remember when I started teaching about fossil fuels and where they came from, I had a student come up after lecture and say, “Well, I heard this growing up in the church that this is the age of the earth.” I’ll invite individuals to come to my office hours and I’ll walk them through [the conflict]. I will first ask them, where are the hangups, where are the conflicts? And then I’ll share with them, “Well, based on the science that we have learned so far, this is what that [what we’ve learned] is pointing to.” And I’ll then share my point of view and hopefully unpack some of those. My goal isn’t to convert when there’s a conflict, but really to listen and point out where the common ground is and what we can understand from the Christian point of view, especially if there are any ethical considerations that we need to consider.

I think it is sometimes common nowadays to jump to a conclusion, especially on things that we don’t agree on, and to have some kind of response. But I want to foster a hospitable space so that students will feel comfortable and safe to ask questions, even questions that might seem out of the ordinary. I think with that, we can grow in our tactical empathy and therefore practice intellectual humility — which I feel very strongly that we have to demonstrate as Christ’s followers. I don’t think the world really knows how to handle that [humility]. If we can show that and be an example, we will have accomplished quite a bit.

Taylor: As a president, I tend to find myself arbitrating conflict and negotiating peaceful resolutions at the institutional level. We’re a large campus; we have hundreds of faculty members, thousands of students. We expect that employees and students will differ in their understanding of the issues of the day. We know that faithful Christians can and do disagree on many topics of faithful living. In an academic community we need to create spaces, I think, for dissenting and contrarian perspectives on many issues, so long as faculty members don’t undermine the central theological tenets of the university — and disagreeing and undermining are two very different things.

What I have found is that it isn’t the academic or good faith disagreements that drive conflict on our campuses. Our campuses are well suited and built to sustain civil debates about interesting and timely issues without threatening the underlying faithfulness we have to orthodox teaching. What drives conflict — and often it’s the worst kind of conflict in my experience — are certain forms of bad faith activism that surround these issues.

For example, if a faculty member were to use their position of power — their place in the classroom — to speak out on particular issues, and sometimes even on issues that are far outside their academic expertise and experience, that can put students in a very vulnerable position, and it ultimately undermines the unity that binds our campuses together. And so at Samford, while I certainly want to create space and room for faculty members to hold views that might be contrary to our institutional positions, I do expect, at the end of the day, that faculty members will treat those institutional positions with respect — to acknowledge that those positions have been arrived at in principled ways and not to try to actively undermine them in ways that violate their responsibility as faculty members under the privilege of academic freedom.

Bacote: One thing to add is we want to think about what students are told before they’re coming to campus. Where do they think that they’re coming? It depends whether it’s open enrollment or whether it’s specifically supposed to be the Christian population, but people are given a narrative about what kind of place they’re going to. And sometimes the narrative that they have is, “I’m going to go here but I want to make sure that I don’t lose something or that something [in my faith] isn’t undermined.” And then their presumption may be, “Okay, I’m here to make sure that I get the best of this institution but also that I don’t lose anything.”

Then the challenge is to help students understand that, even if they were completely right about their position, they’re going into a world where everybody isn’t like you. How are we helping you to go into a world where everyone isn’t like you so that you can be a person of conviction but also a person of generosity? Even if you are learning something that you disagree with, what I tell my students is, “Can you articulate that in a way where a person who does not agree with you sees themself in your explanation of what you just said?” Then you’re doing that in a good-faith point of view, even if you think it’s bonkers. You’re saying, “Hey, I hold certain things and I believe these things are true, but I’m also going to make sure that I’m respectful of views that are not my own.”

The mission of the institution is a piece that also plays into this, whether you’re faculty, staff, or students. What kind of place is this? What kind of discourse is here? What kind of conversations are we trying to have here? What kind of people do we want going across the stage and graduating? Who will you become if you’re here? If people understand that, it has the possibility and the opportunity in these polarized times to form people that can have deep conviction but also are okay with recognizing that there are people who don’t think what I think, and that doesn’t have to be a threat to me. I can come to a place and see there are Christians who see things differently from me, and most of them aren’t a threat to me either. If people can learn how to be respectful of other people, even if you disagree with their argument, then that’s an opportunity of being in an educational space. And arguably places that are committed to Christian orthodoxy expressed out in a second-greatest commandment view [of loving your neighbor], those places create people that are leaving that view wherever they go in the world. You’re holding a conviction that doesn’t require you to demand that everybody agrees with you, and you can be okay with that.

Satre: How would you advise campus leaders to weigh and consider the input of groups beyond the students and faculty and staff who are invested in the campus community but aren’t involved in the day-to-day learning?

Taylor: I’ll tell you candidly, this is one of the more frustrating parts of being an administrator these days. Long gone are the days of being a sleepy campus where we could depend on the close-knit and closed off communities that colleges and universities often were, particularly when contending with difficult issues. The notion of having a bright light, if you will, shine on us as we try to deal with these very difficult issues is one of the more challenging aspects of the job these days. I would quickly point to the pervasiveness of social media, which turns what used to be relatively small events on our campuses into potentially international media events.

It does change the way institutional leaders deal with these things. In the past, we would deal with these controversies, these disagreements, as a close-knit community. That’s how we want to continue to deal with them, I can assure you — as a community in a faithful, loving, grace-filled relationship with each other, without the prying eyes of a world that too often doesn’t have the first clue about what we’re trying to do and teach on our campuses. But now, with the advent of having so many external constituents engaging in the issues of our campus today, the stakes are just that much higher for institutional leaders. And the peering eyes of the world sometimes prevent us from engaging issues or conflict in the healthy ways that we might have otherwise done in the past. It can quickly derail an otherwise healthy opportunity to discuss a controversial issue or to host a speaker that might bring responsibly provocative thoughts or ideas — a discussion that isn’t intended to threaten an institutional position, but rather one that’s intended to expose students to the kind of thinking that is pervasive in the world beyond the gates of campus, so they can exercise critical thinking and begin to discern what is truth and what is folly.

It’s frankly very hard to do in practice, but ideally, university leaders need to tune out those voices as much as possible and to really concentrate on their institutional missions and to serve their students well.

Bacote: I want to return to thinking about the title of our conversation — the place of orthodoxy. I think there is the opportunity in these moments to pivot and say, “Let me direct you to what our mission is, and to what our curriculum is, and what we do. And here’s how we do what we do.” In other words, “Here’s what we’re actually doing. Would you actually like to know what we’re doing, or do you want to only articulate something through fear or speculation? Do you know what the mission of the institution is? Do you actually know how this institution talks about the way that its statement of faith functions for this community? Do you understand the strategies that we are taking to prepare students for a changing world? Are you aware of all those things and how orthodoxy is an important driver for how all this is being navigated, as opposed to other worldviews?”

Satre: What are one or two practical things that administrators or faculty could be thinking about to help prepare their campus communities — and maybe to some extent these external communities we were just discussing — for possible theological conflicts that might arise in the future?

Huang: It’s so easy to get caught up in the frustration and the challenges of our times. I always have to go back to Jesus’ teaching that we are supposed to be in the world and not of the world. I sometimes think, “Can it [the problem] just be whisked away? Can this all just go away?” Time and time again, I’m being reminded we are here for a time such as this. I really believe Christian higher education institutions have a very unique and important role to play in these days — not just in conflicts, but to really live out and lean into our values and tradition of community. It is very unhealthy to have difficult conversations out of vacuums. [But if we seek to] build relationships all along and build community, that will allow for those difficult conversations to happen organically, not just because we are reacting to certain things. I know I’m busy and we’re all living in busy, hectic times, and it’s difficult, but making time for conversations and building relationships and bridges will go far.

Bacote: In a Christian college where you have a set of beliefs that everyone should know, [it’s also important] to remind them that this is an opportunity for generosity toward other people in this moment and to give other people the benefit of the doubt that they would want for themselves. So often there is a climate of fear that the sky’s going to fall. But [we as] Christians can say that we believe in what happens on Easter: God wins. And if we really believe that, then that ought to inform what we’re thinking. We ought to be hopeful people. Hope doesn’t necessarily mean things are going to be easy in the moment, but it does mean you know what the end of the story is. You know that the evil is going to be vanquished; it’s not going to win. If you can have that kind of a disposition, then you can’t let fear be the driver. Fear is much less likely to be the driver if you’re really letting hope be foregrounded in that way. That’s one of the things that I would encourage people to think about.

And then, just as Dr. Huang was saying, get to know people, especially people that are not like yourself, and talk about things that aren’t the topics that are the subject of conflict. Ask them about their family. Ask them about their hobbies. Just go for a walk with somebody. Go bowling with somebody, play tennis with somebody. Do something like that. You’ll probably discover that you might think that some of their ideas are just bonkers, but you really like this person. And then that will complicate the simple ways that we look at people. With a one-dimensional gaze, we dismiss people. But when they’re more complicated, then we really have to think about how to treat them as three-dimensional, complicated persons.

Taylor: I think our institutions are I’m being reminded when we think of ourselves as “bullseye” rather than “boundary” organizations. What I mean by that is we’re at our best when we’re focusing on the bullseye of our institutional missions, and that is the work and person of Jesus Christ. But we are distracted and often pulled off that mission when we’re more concerned about the boundaries of our organizations and defining and policing those boundaries. I firmly believe that. With that said, I do think — and this has been mentioned several times — we as institutions would do a loving service to our constituents if we were to spend some time gracefully articulating what orthodoxy means for our campuses. And doing that in a way, as has been said, to practice graciousness, to practice intellectual and faithful humility, to practice loving our neighbor.

The other thing that I would call us to is prayer. We will never fall short in our obedience to the Lord if we, at the very first sign of trouble, at the very first tension that we experience, if we go to the Lord in prayer and pray for Christian unity, even amidst the controversy or disagreement that we may be having.