Jesus is the Reason: Part 4, The Pursuit of Excellence

In my talk to the Christian coaches, from yesterday's post, I was really just describing a particular example of a larger phenomenon. 

I work in Christian Higher Education. I'm a professor at a Christian university. And one of the things that I've noticed about Christian Higher Ed, and I'm not alone in this assessment, is that working at a Christian university isn't all that different from working at a public, secular university. 

To be sure, there are differences. For example, we pray before departmental meetings. We sing hymns and have devotionals at our university pre-sessions. We have departmental chapels with our students. A devotional and pietistic thread runs through our campus life. But a lot of times, this piety can feel performative. What makes a meeting "Christian" is tacking on a prayer. What makes a mission statement "Christian" is invoking God. A lot of what makes a Christian university "Christian" is devotional and rhetorical, the words we sprinkle around our work and decision-making. Work and decision-making that often isn't all that much different from the work and decision-making at public, secular schools. 

Let me put it this way. The "Christian" at a Christian university should affect the engine, how the car runs and operates. But far too often, the "Christian" at a Christian university feels more like the paint job, how the car looks from the outside. 

If that's so, what is configuring the engine? 

Christian universities are competing to sell their product in a highly competitive and stressed marketplace. Consequently, Christian schools adopt the metrics of reputation and success of this marketplace. Broadly speaking, these metrics of reputation and success can be gathered under the banner "the pursuit of excellence." This "pursuit of excellence," with "excellence" being defined as the performance metrics of the Higher Education marketplace, directs and shapes the work of Christian universities. We play the same game everyone else is playing, advertising all the metrics of success we achieve in contrast to competing institutions.

This is why life and work at a Christian university can feel just like life and work at public university. For example, the tenure and promotion process at my school is pretty much the same as that at a public university. You have to demonstrate "excellence" in the classroom and with scholarly productivity. And at the larger, institutional level, we keep a very close eye on enrollments, budgets, endowments, and college rankings.

Warrant theology shows up here by providing our schools with the Christian warrant for this pursuit of excellence. Jesus is the reason we pursue excellence. Jesus is the reason our US News & World Report ranking is going up. Jesus is the reason our enrollments and endowments are growing. Jesus is the reason we secure external grants. Jesus is the reason we are so productive and successful as students, athletes, teachers, researchers, administrators, and scholars.

I hope you can see the problem here. When Jesus becomes the reason for the pursuit of excellence, the life and work at a Christian university becomes pretty much identical to the life and work at a public institution. We're all pursuing the exact same metrics of success. We want our football team to win. We want our professors to publish. We want our endowments to grow. We want our rankings to go up, up up. The engine under the hood is exactly the same. Only the paint job is different.  

Now, am I suggesting that Christian schools should stop caring about endowments and enrollments? Of course not. At the end of the day, a university is a (non-profit) business. You need to be taking in as much money as you are spending. Am I suggesting that professors at Christian schools be hapless in the classroom and poor scholars? No, of course not. The issue here, rather, is the same one I raised with the Christian coaches. There's no problem with "the pursuit of excellence" in and of itself. The problem comes when we never allow Jesus to interrogate or trouble our definition of excellence. And the reason this never happens is due to warrant theology. When Jesus is only ever the "reason" for being excellent, we're tempted to default to how the marketplace defines "excellence." We end up pursing the same metrics as everyone else. But when Jesus is allowed to become the end, rather than the means, it creates the opportunity to select metrics of "success" and "excellence" that are uniquely and distinctively Christian. Beyond enrollments, budgets, publications, football wins, and rankings, we might measure "success" a bit differently. And our schools might become more Christian as a result. 

We might stop fussing about the paint job to lift the hood and take a look at that engine.  

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