Musings About Life In The Borderlands: A Short Essay
On The Mission Of The Christian College
David L. Parkyn and Linda K. Parkyn, Messiah College
The Christian college is a borderland--a place wherein its border people (students and faculty members) straddle multiple cultures. When influenced by these cultures, the student discovers that the Christian college is "a place to change my mind a lot about a lot." And these multiple cultures in the borderland also influence faculty members as they determine how best to attain the outcomes variously expected by the academy, the church, and the home. Following from this metaphor, the essay includes a discussion of the practices which Christian colleges should incorporate to effectively engage the dynamics of the borderland.
A young friend of ours who is in high school recently attended an admissions preview day at one of the country's better known and respected Christian colleges. Through the visit she grew increasingly excited about many aspects of the campus, including the books students were discussing in their classes, the human and physical resources available there to promote and facilitate learning, the potential for new friendships, and the environment of the college in general. She returned home after the weekend full of anticipation about the possibilities of college life; she looked forward to leaving home and adolescence, and becoming an adult in her own right.
One comment puzzled her, however, and even after attempted clarification its mystery stayed with her. In a discussion session with parents of current students, she was advised to "watch out" if she planned to attend this college. The parent who expressed this sentiment had graduated from the college years earlier, and as she now experienced it through her son as a junior on the campus, she had concluded that the college no longer provided a safe learning environment. As our young friend probed a little more deeply, the parent remarked, "The devil is using some of the departments of this school. Be careful."
Not long after this weekend, our friend visited another school, this time an Ivy League university. During the course of the visit, she had opportunity to share her concerns about which type of college she should attend. The admissions counselor at the university gave her some advice. He said, "Be careful. The religious will only tell you one side of the story."
The Christian college is a borderland; in this frontier, students and faculty members are border people. We straddle cultures in a sea of contradictions. Too often, the prominent features of the landscape along the borders are suspicion and intolerance. The physical borderlands we inhabit are the boundaries between higher education in general and higher education grounded in a faith tradition, and between higher learning and the traditions of church and home. The psychological borderlands we inhabit rest between teaching students who are still children close to their parents, and who are at the same time young adults making their own choices and becoming their own persons. The spiritual borderlands we inhabit place us on a fence between living our lives as academics and living in concert with others in the community of faith. As our friend discovered, those who live and work in these borderlands are suspect; one needs to be careful of them, she was told. Yet, she remarked, "It sure is hard to figure out what or who to be careful of."
Borderland inhabitants travel between established worlds, between cores and peripheries, between centers and margins. Borderlands exist wherever identities, cultures, classes, religious faiths, and ethnicities mix. The borderlands of education include all this and more. Henry Giroux writes:
Knowledge must be reinvented and reconstructed by inviting students to be border-crossers, by encouraging them to collapse disciplines that separate high from popular culture, theory from justice, art from life, politics from the everyday, and pedagogy from education.
Giroux's list is not exhaustive, and when applied to the borderlands of the Christian college it surely must include the disintegration of barriers separating faith from thought and action, as well as those which separate thought and action from faith.
Borderlands are those settings in which one tradition is challenged by the presence of another way of living, another way of believing, another way of knowing. Dormant areas of consciousness are awakened in the borderlands. The "alien" becomes familiar, not predictable nor comfortable perhaps, but recognizable. Borderlands are hybrid in nature, wherein a collective consciousness is possible. Many voices clamor for attention in the borderland; many voices are heard.
Most, perhaps nearly all, students at Christian colleges are surprised, even shocked, by life in these borderlands. They come from ethnic cocoons that reflect their individual way of life, their faith tradition, and their approach to knowing. Their neighbors almost always have been much like their own family. The members of their church agree on how to live the spiritual life. The friends with whom they studied in high school were frequently carbon copies of themselves. Their basis for belonging, that which gave them a sense of who they were, was predictability, a sense of being comfortable, of fitting in.
When effectively engaged, the atmosphere of the progressive Christian college classroom, thereby, is unexpected by many students; some are even taken aback by it. Professors seek to point out alternative points of view, students argue different persuasions, many voices are hanging on the barbed wire of the border. Open-ended dialogue about life means learning about the other. The Christian college is centered enough to be recognizable, but living in the borderland is messy, and sometimes students fall over on opposing sides of the border--often to their shock, and frequently to their dismay. The homogeneity of their home and church, the homogeneity their parents and pastor told them they would find at the Christian college, the homogeneity through which the Christian college advertised itself to them, has vanished.
Yet, we argue, a permeable borderland consciousness is a strength for the Christian college. It is not something to be feared, swept under the rug on Parent's Weekend and during admissions Preview Days. Rather, it is something to be celebrated and encouraged. Discussions of our differences on the Christian college campus--differences among individuals and between college and home--can become the basis of our unity. "Us" is a quintessential border space. Christianity is a border space. The incompleteness of the borderlands is a part of our spiritual and academic journeys. God does not intend for us to be predictable, comfortable, or overly certain about our corner of the truth. One of our tasks as Christian educators is to encourage and help students to move effectively in their Christian faith and in their intellectual capacities from the comfortableness of the heartland into the unpredictability of the borderlands.
Our young friend saw the struggle that was about to begin for her. She perceived, perhaps for one of the first times, the complexities of her life to come. We talked about her parents' lives, and how they had made choices to become the people they are today. She struggled with the border space that would demand of her, as a thinking individual, the evaluation of what it means for her to live a just and honest life. Toward the end of our discussion, she remarked that the college experience, the borderlands, will be "a place to change my mind a lot about a lot."
And so it is. The Christian college is a border space. It is the border between adolescence and adulthood, between home and independence, between self-building and self-giving. It is a place to change one's mind a lot about a lot. Some students rush into the border space and get their minds working immediately. Others emulate the positions they read and discuss, and without careful thought decide who they will be. Still others agonize, and hold belief at arms length because they have trouble processing all the ways to make sense of the world. They think, and in that thinking they withhold making commitments. And yet others sift and pour and change almost whimsically their ideals semester by semester.
The Christian college, this border space, must allow all these positions to stand. It is not a place to emphatically make judgments or pronouncements, it is a place where ideas are allowed to be stirred, and ingredients are added at different rates, and at different times, in order to facilitate the emergence of a person of faith and intellect. The loss of faith is never at the expense of intellect. And the loss of intellect should never be at the expense of faith. What frequently appears to be, and is assumed to be, a loss of faith in college students, is the result of the sifting ingredients in the border space wherein the recipe of faith brought to the borderland by one individual accommodates parts from the recipe of another. The Christian college is a place, it must be a place, wherein this mixing is allowed and the writing of new recipes is encouraged.
As our young friend discovered, there are some who defy the mixer as a valued function of the Christian college. Some people fear the introduction of new ideas at the Christian college; other people believe the Christian college fears, and thereby prohibits, the introduction of new ideas. Some sense that certainty should be the hallmark of the Christian college. They wish and/or think that the Christian college should just tell students how to live, and then the graduates would be prepared to live appropriately through their adult years. People in this tradition cringe at openness of thought, and remark that "The devil is taking over some departments." Others sense that the Christian college indoctrinates and is thereby closed to ideas which are not part of the particular faith tradition which gave rise to the school. They think learning is stymied at the Christian college because the individual is only taught to listen to and "bank" what is taught, investing it as sufficient to guide the graduate throughout the adult years. They remark, "The religious tell only one side of the story."
Both perspectives fall short, yet both perspectives have something to offer to our understanding of Christian higher education. The task of the Christian college is the pursuit of truth. In the Christian academy this task should be undertaken in an intellectually coherent, spiritually sensitive, and socially alert manner. At the same time, the comprehensive task of the Christian college must not be subverted by any of its individual parts--the intellectual, the spiritual, or the social.
On the one hand, the pursuit of truth involves the search for truth. Students at a Christian college should undertake the realization and understanding of truth as it has been perceived by people throughout human history. Traditions of past generations offer insight which should be formative for the present generation. On the other hand, the pursuit of truth involves the construction of truth. Hence, students at a Christian college should approach an appreciation for the manner in which the conceptualization of truth is rooted in the social and cultural context, and a commitment to the articulation of truth in a manner appropriate for the present day. The Christian college is involved in both, it should be involved in both, and it must acknowledge its responsibility to be involved in both.
The pursuit of truth--the search for and construction of truth--occurs within multiple parameters. It involves the intellect; so the pursuit of truth must be intellectually coherent. It involves the spirit; so the pursuit of truth must be spiritually sensitive. And it involves the social context; so the pursuit of truth must be socially alert.
Beyond this, the Christian college acknowledges that the pursuit of truth is to be manifested in both thought and action; it is both cognitive and affective; it is both theoretical and applied. The General Thanksgiving declares that Christian faith is expressed "not only with our lips but in our lives." In like manner, the pursuit of truth in the academy under the sign of the cross is explored and expressed "not only with our lips but in our lives." It is in this context that Parker Palmer describes teaching as a process of creating "a space in which obedience to truth is practiced;" he argues that "however accurate a teaching may be it is not truth until we follow it in obedience."
The borderlands demand that the Christian college [its faculty, students, administrators, parents, alumni, friends, and trustees] be open to truth in whatever form it may come, from wherever and whomever it comes. The pursuit of truth necessitates moving beyond any single narrowly defined ideology and beyond the confines of any single select group of humanity. As this occurs, we will cultivate a healthy respect for diversity, we will not only tolerate but defend academic freedom, and we will extend an open and tolerant ear to a variety of thoughtful ideas.
Such an approach to truth is a necessary outcome of the long-held assumptions that (1) "all truth is God's truth," (2) all people are created by God, and (3) God is omniscient, omnipotent, and omnipresent. The first suggests we should not fear any truth, for all truth comes to us from God. The second affirms that all humanity is God's, that all humanity incarnates the image of God, and by implication, that as the truth of God is revealed through humanity it will be found across the human spectrum, not just in those who are Jewish, male, or free, nor only in those who are Gentile, female, or slave. The third principle, combined with one which articulates the limited, finite nature of human beings, implies that not all of God's truth can be incarnate in any single individual, nor any single segment of humanity. God's truth extends far beyond the perspective of the one, and is not limited even to the perspective of the whole.
Furthermore, life in the borderlands demands that we recognize the contemporary social context; we live in a pluralistic America and a global, international environment. A college campus is a good place, but given its limited perspective on and involvement in life around the world, if one stays there too long it becomes a premature grave--for both students and faculty.
Related to this, life in the borderlands shows us that we should pursue truth in a manner which allows us and helps our students become aware of, reflect upon, and respond to the unbearable condition of much of humanity. We must learn what truth--what the life and teaching of Jesus--mean to those who stand, at their moment in history, with their backs against the wall. Any celebration of faith, any pursuit of truth, short of this masks God and truth from us.
Beyond this, although we affirm the Christian context of higher education, life in the borderlands should guard against an inappropriately narrow "spiritual correctness." While a Christian faculty may be the bedrock of a Christian college, there is danger in defining "Christian" too narrowly. There is no need for all faculty members on any single campus, in any given borderland, to use a common jargon to express their faith. And students need to become aware of all aspects of faith, as well as multiple intellectual options. Intelligent and meaningful choices cannot be made when you do not know what the options are. Students need to leave the borderlands with their own faith and not a "hand-me-down" faith received from someone else--not from their parents, pastors, or teachers. Too often we fear that allowing students to hear multiple perspectives of faith will position them to make the "wrong" choice. What better place to explore new or different ideas--even ideas of faith--than in the borderlands.
Associated with this, borderland colleges should recognize themselves as academic institutions with a religious cast, not as a churches with an academic ministry. There is a difference; one which is too often cast aside. The Christian college is an academy, under the sign of the cross.
The pursuit of truth in the borderlands requires a discourse community--a place where diversity of opinion is encouraged, where learners collaborate in learning, where peers listen to and speak with each other for as long as is necessary to know the other. Such a community requires each participant--faculty member, student, administrator, parent, friend, trustee--to share responsibility; participants must be prepared to participate in and be informed by open, honest, loving, truth-seeking dialogue.
The borderlands also demand the best scholarship from both faculty and students. Christian colleges must work hard to retain and support faculty who are bright, articulate, and willing to honestly grapple with ideas among themselves, with students, and with others beyond the borders. Scholarship is important--scholarship which directly addresses issues related to faith and the academic disciplines, scholarship which advances the pursuit of truth in the disciplines themselves, and scholarship which advances human physical, social, spiritual and aesthetic well-being.
In the end, however, life in the borderlands admonishes us to acknowledge that the pursuit of truth requires humility and honesty--humility about one's capacity to grasp fully the truth which one seeks, and honesty as the hallmark of the manner we relate to each other. Humility implies toleration of dissent; varying opinions must be entertained because their truthfulness cannot be ruled out a priori. Honesty implies truthfulness; we must be ready to speak with each other face to face rather than behind another's back or through a higher office. Ernest Boyer agrees; he writes that the Christian college
...is a place where people understand and revere the centrality of language, and where there is a climate in which we seek to heal, not hurt. It is a place where everyone speaks and listens carefully to each other in what can only be described as a true community of learning.
These, it seems to us, are Christian principles, but ones that we often have difficulty accommodating.
The Chinese ideogram has seven strokes for the English word "I." Seven identities moved together throughout the generations to compose the current "I" in written form. The same thing happens symbolically when faculty teach in the Christian college classroom. A professor has been a child, a student, an alumnus, a church member, a parent, a community member, a professor. As each faculty member moves into the classroom, a collective consciousness is formed. It is impossible to separate the identities, they have fused into one "I."
Within this collective "I," how does the academic within us speak to the novice learner? Can the academic seeking truth be assured at the outset where that truth will lead? How can the collective "I" of the teacher bring out the collective "I" of each student, and meld these into an effective "I" of the discourse community formed within the classroom? Where do a desire for certainty and the search for truth by necessity part paths? How can Christian teachers explain their conceptions of truth, and those of others, without indoctrinating?
These are messy questions, and they belong, as messy questions, in the Christian college that has as its mission to be a border space. They don't belong in the college that has a copyright on truth. But they are fundamental in a quest for God's truth in concert with the academic life. The questions asked here, the mysteries discussed, require of us a commitment and approach to learning similar to what is necessary in our reading of Scripture, in hearing its questions and considering its answers. William O'Malley comments,
For centuries, Scripture had been poetry analyzed by accountants who were forgetting that it was written by men and women trying to awaken us from a dead-end world of nothing but the physical.... Scripture offers less-than-perfectly-enunciated answers to questions for which there are no terminal answers, about which we can forever continue to find more and more without achieving closure. They evoke mysteries.
Borderlands--where messy questions evoke mysteries.
Our young friend has yet to choose the college she'll attend. We're sure she'll crisscross the borders in her life with style and grace. Yet she reminds us of this same time in our own lives, years ago, as undergraduates at Christian colleges. One of us, for example, returned home the summer after our first year in college, and . . . I told my father, a pastor in a fundamentalist congregation, that I no longer believed the things he stood for. I expected fireworks; instead he listened and showed me this was my decision to make. He disappointed me in his response. I was a young person, looking to show off my new knowledge before my parent who couldn't possibly know what I had come to know; what I least expected was to be encouraged to pursue further this line of thinking. My father told me to keep working at it; he was sure I was learning some good things, but that I probably hadn't learned it all yet. He recognized life in the borderlands, and called it "good." He also knew that borderlands weren't for everyone--and so as he left the room he added, "Just don't tell your mother."
Living in the borderlands involves space, the sharpness of barbed wire, papers of identification, and resources for basic sustenance. Most importantly, living in the borderlands involves people, the kind of people who enjoy the journey more than the arrival--those who plan for the trip, and have just as much fun dealing with the mishaps in transit, as they do with arriving at the final destination. In point of fact, the borderlands do not have a particular destination, they only have a commencement of new lives on new journeys.
The borderlands, thereby, hold in tension commitment with discovery, what is known with what is yet to be learned, who we are individually and in community with who others are. Jesus' disciples wrestled with these same tensions. They believed him to be the Messiah, the one spoken of by the prophets, and so they listened when he taught in the synagogues. But they were ill at ease when Jesus engaged a conversation with the woman at the well, and they tried to keep the children and blind Bartimaeous at a distance. Early Christians faced similar tensions when faced with the task of whether or not to welcome Gentiles without requiring them to follow the Old Testament Law.
One might wonder why God permits us to be confronted by such mystery, by such messy questions, when it makes us so uncomfortable. This discomfort tempts us to seek quick and simple solutions to difficult questions and unanswerable mysteries. The trouble with these solutions is that they often push us away from the mystery which confronts us. Perhaps the deepest challenge is to find a way to include in our hearts and minds the Christ who includes all those in the borderlands, and those beyond as well.