College should meet 2 objectives


Editor’s note: Dr. T.W. Lewis presented the following remarks Feb. 22 at a Founders Day Celebration at Millsaps College. The second part of those remarks is presented here. 

By T.W. Lewis
Guest Columnist 

If John Wesley understood that the gospel called the converted to address societal as well as individual needs of the 18th century, and if the challenge the founders of Millsaps College answered in the late 19th century was to offer higher educational opportunity to an impoverished citizenry, what would the founder’s challenge be to the college in the 21st century?   

Surely one challenge would be to develop in its students the ability to think critically and creatively in this global culture that is becoming ever more complex. The marketing mantra of the college: “We don’t teach students what to think; we teach them how to think” covers a broad and demanding curriculum within the sciences and the arts.  

But it is not enough for students today merely to develop their reasoning powers and deepen their understanding of their own tradition and culture; it is also increasingly imperative that they acquire understanding of cultures and traditions of the broader world. Moreover, it is important that students discover spiritual resources that would enable them to respond with their gifts and graces to the world of need within and beyond their community of study. Now there’s a Wesleyan challenge for you. 

Why is this important? It is important because in order for a woman or man to be an informed and responsible presence in the world today, they not only must be able to think critically and creatively, be equipped with knowledge and skills to excel in a highly competitive economic environment, but they must also have the resources and capacity to engage an increasingly pluralistic cultural environment. The growing diversity within this college community is but a glimmer of what is already well underway in the world.  

So the challenge of building a community of mutual regard and respect on a college campus is only a reflection of the urgent challenge confronting the residents of our planet today.  

In building meaningful community the mere toleration of difference is no longer sufficient, if ever it was. Toleration without understanding may work, as long as differences of a major kind do not emerge, such is the case with differences of beliefs and practices rooted in firmly held religious faith. Merely enduring “otherness” can be just polite condescension. Of course that is preferable to open hostility, but in crisis moments it can easily lead to the latter, since what we do not understand can be experienced as threatening. There is ample proof of that before us today. 

It is important that the church’s mission with its college today should have high among its fundamental aims two objectives:

  • To provide students with the opportunity to acquire a deep understanding of the faith they embrace;
  • To enable students to gain understanding of religious and cultural traditions that are different from their own.  

John Thatamanil has argued that an intelligent grasp of the theological basis of others’ faith, as well as that of one’s own, “is fundamental to the deepening of one’s own religious life and to living a thoughtful life in a multicultural world.” 

Understanding in depth the ground of one’s own faith commitment can give a person the security and the freedom to relate to persons of different faith commitments — and to do that without being threatened by this “otherness.” Understanding the faith commitments of those who hold different beliefs can become not only the basis for meaningful dialogue, for mutual respect and appreciation but also for the development of shared goals in a pluralistic community. On such understanding and respect hangs the future of this “global village” we now share. So I am encouraged by the fact that the college’s curriculum calls for courses that are multi-cultural in scope. 

I wish to cite three examples of what might be viewed as contemporary responses to the founders’ challenge.   

The Campus Ministry Team is made up of students, under the direction of the chaplain. Members of the team provide leadership in creating opportunities for spiritual nurture, community celebrations and outreach service beyond the campus. The team is not only ecumenical, inter-faith.  

A second example is the 1 Campus 1 Community Project, which focuses on the relationship between the campus and Midtown, the neighbor to the west of the campus. Here the aim is first to discover who our neighbors are, to listen to their concerns and to learn from them how (Millsaps) may participate in the forms of service already in place there. The college in turn has the opportunity through this relationship to grow in its understanding of what it means for two neighbors to be one community.  

The third program begins in the classroom but reaches beyond. In the Faith and Work Initiative students engage in theological study and in dialogue and reflection on the meaning of vocation. They explore fields of work in internships and under the guidance of mentors with the aim of discerning their calling. These programs lead from the campus context out into the world of increasing diversity where learning continues, where training in service takes place, and where students listen as they sort out their life’s work.   

T.W. Lewis is a retired pastor and professor of religion at Millsaps College. 

Addressing the Issue

A public panel discussion on the subject, “What does it mean to be a United Methodist college? Religion and Academic Freedom” will be held at 7 p.m. March 27 in Room 215 of the Academic Complex at Millsaps College.