Pilgrim Pathways: Notes for a Diaspora People

Incarnational Discipleship

Christian Colleges Making a Real Difference #2 Eastern University

I have made the charge that most Christian colleges and universities in the USA are not adequately doing the work of the Kingdom of God.   This series is about the real exceptions to that charge.  All the schools in this series (1)are  academically challenging; (2) strongly promote service learning and promote non-market values of service to others and work for the common good; (3) are serious about their Christian identity, but in a fashion that promotes tolerance, diversity, openess, and respect for others; (4) cultivate global awareness through both recruitment of international students and strong study abroad programs; (5) reject the dominant cultural values of consumerist materialism, nationalism, and militarism (points are taken off if the school has an ROTC progam and points are added if they have a peace studies program); (6) promote peace and social justice strongly as part of their core Christian identity and mission.

Eastern University, St. Davids, PA (a suburb of Philadelphia).  Founded in 1925 as Eastern Baptist Theological Seminary, the college division began in 1932 and was chartered as a four-year liberal arts college (Eastern Baptist College) in 1952.  Because both the faculty and the students were increasingly drawn from a much wider constituency than Baptists, the school was renamed Eastern College in 1972 and, when a small number of graduate programs were added in 2001, became Eastern University.  The seminary was renamed Palmer Theological Seminary in 2005.  Both institutions are still voluntarily (but strongly) related to the American Baptist Churches, USA the current name of the old Northern Baptist Convention.

Eastern University is an evangelical institution with a progressive vision and a strong social conscience.  In some ways this is surprising, because it was founded as a reaction to liberal and secularizing trends.  The seminary (which will not be discussed much since this series focuses on undergraduate, liberal arts, education) was founded as a conservative alternative to Crozier Theological Seminary, a liberal Baptist seminary in the Social Gospel tradition then-located in Chester, PA. (Crozier was the seminary where Martin Luther King, Jr. earned his ministerial credentials and is now moved to Rochester, NY and merged as part of Colgate Rochester Crozier Divinity School.)  Eastern Baptist College was founded specifically as an alternative to Temple University (which had been founded by Philadelphia Baptists, but had become a secular or “non-sectarian” institution).  So, Eastern (and Palmer) could have become reactionary, fundamentalist institutions.  But the founders combined a commitment to Protestant orthodoxy with a strong vision for justice and peacemaking. In 1925 and 1932, you could have accurately called the faculty, administration, and trustees “social gospel fundamentalists” and as the term “evangelical” became distinct from “fundamentalism,” Eastern’s people and ethos were always clearly with the broader evangelical ethos. 

    There is a brief doctrinal statement which faculty, administrators, and trustees must sign annually (non-Baptists are exempt from the specifically Baptist articles on baptism and ecclesiology), but it is a basic Trinitarian statement with a classic Reformation soteriology.  Scripture (Protestant canon) is named as the supreme and final authority in matters of “faith and life” (i.e., doctrine and ethics), but the document does not demand adherence to inerrancy. Other than a commitment to Christ’s Second Advent, there is no specific eschatological position demanded. Other than a reaffirmation of Christ as only Mediator, no specific view of the atonement is demanded.  The statement is brief and, though traditional, broadly ecumenical.  I could sign it without any qualms and hold several views that many U.S. evangelicals consider suspect.  There is no doctrinal commitment required of students. 

An early motto (still used at the seminary) of the school was, “the whole gospel, for whole persons, to the whole world,” and this is still part of the core commitment of Eastern University.  The university’s motto is “faith, reason, and justice.”  Faith:  Eastern is a specifically Christian university, though welcoming students of all faiths and no particular faith.  It’s curriculum and campus life is shaped from an evangelical Protestant perspective, seeking to blend faith and scholarship seamlessly. But faith is more than doctrine and Eastern emphasizes the “whole gospel,” including evangelism and holistic mission, and commitment to social justice. One does not work for “saved souls while bodies go to hell.”   Reason: St. Augustine is famous for saying that “faith seeks understanding,” and Eastern believes that. It’s academic standards are high and it works hard to promote the life of the mind. Below we will examine the university’s Templeton Honors College, but, for now, it suffices to note the presence of several honors societies, standards of admission that are higher than most Christian colleges, and a strong commitment by the university to create lifelong learners of all students and graduates.  Justice:  The commitment here is especially to social justice–to economic justice, racial equality, equality of the sexes, and care for the earth.  The campus is green and getting greener.  There is a strong commitment through many academic and service programs to urban renewal, to education for the rural and urban poor, and a resistance to the culturally dominant messages of consumerist materialism.  Esperanza College, is Eastern’s junior college run in Philadelphia’s Hispanic Community. They also have an accelerated program for adult, non-traditional students working on undergraduate education in mid-life.  Eastern’s Campolo College of Graduate and Professional Studies works for social workers, business leaders who, as social entrepeneurs, will seek to transform late post-modern capitalism from within–forging companies that do justice, not just make money.  All students, through both hands-on service learning and traditional classroom work, are encouraged to become active citizens who seek to change public policies to promote greater economic and social justice and greater environmental responsibility.

From my perspective, it is unfortunate that the university (and the seminary) takes a traditional view of “homosexuality,” so that gay, lesbian, bi-sexual and transgendered persons would probably feel like second class citizens.  Many faculty openly admit that neither gender identity nor sexual orientation is chosen, but the institution still promotes the view that the only morally permissable context for sexual expression is in heterosexual marriage.  This is a negative strike in an otherwise strongly positive institutional commitment to social justice and GLBT prospective students (and parents and friends) are hereby warned of this weakness.

It’s a strong plus that there is no ROTC program or “military science” major, but I would like to see the foreign languages and international relations programs strengthened.  Eastern is very strong in Spanish, but that is the only modern foreign language offered and the strong political science major focuses only on the U.S., without even a minor in international relations, never mind programs in peace and conflict studies.  These are programs that would not need to be “grafted on” to Eastern’s core values and commitments, but would be strong outgrowths of them.  Since the school is currently growing, I’d like to see the administration seek to add to the foreign languages department–not only traditional options such as French and German, but languages in high demand for both global citizens and Christian mission workers (including aid and development workers): e.g., Japanese, Chinese, Russian, Arabic, Modern Hebrew, Farsi.  The Communications Studies department should seek to expand to include journalism (we certainly need more journalists with commitments to justice and with interfaith sensitivity!) and film studies.  I’d also like to see the Christian Studies department take the philosophy minor and expand it to include a major as well as offer more courses in world religions and interfaith dialogue.  I’d like to see a Classics Department added with concentrations either in Classical Languages (learning two of the following three: Classical and Hellenistic Greek, Latin, and Biblical Hebrew) or Classical (Mediterranean and North African) Civilizations.  These are expansions that I think fit well with Eastern’s history, commitments, and traditions. 

Beginning in 1999, Eastern University created the Templeton Honors College, through grants from the Templeton Foundation.   This is a program open only to gifted and highly motivated students and competition to enter it is severe.  The curriculum is based on The Great Books of the Western World which once formed the core curriculum of the University of Chicago and is still the ONLY curriculum of the St. Johns Colleges. Students in the Templeton Honors College pursue individual majors, but, in place of the traditional Core Curriculum Requirements, substitute a four year series of seminars and colloquia, study abroad, a senior thesis and a capstone course.  This program is more specifically Christian than the St. John’s College curriculum or the old University of Chicago curriculum, and includes courses on the question of “The Good Life,” “Justice, the Common Good, and Contemporary Issues” in addition to biblical, theological, and Christian spirituality courses, but students still read large sections of the Great Books.  There are also additional cultural events and opportunities as well as service opportunities and internships.  This is a program that will produce persons of character and leadership and (in many cases) faith in numerous fields after graduation.  It’s an excellent program that is rightly highly acclaimed–and could only be improved by requiring at least one ancient language (Hebrew, Greek, or Latin) and one modern language (Spanish, French, or German) of all students in the program as it expands.

Academic support and counseling is offered with every major and every program.  There are no teaching assistants and student development is a priority for all faculty and staff.  Generous financial aid programs, including grants, scholarships (merit based and need based) and loans are available and the university is committed to making certain that no student is unable to enroll or continue because of financial need and that all graduate without being saddled with decades of student debt.  The university has also long recruited a multi-cultural student body, though its faculty is less diverse. 

Students are supported by a campus wide “Office of Faith and Practice” consisting of the University Chaplain, the Director of Christian Formation, and the Chapel Worship Advisor.  Weekly mid-week chapels are offered, and no conflicting classes scheduled, but they are not mandatory or coerced.  The religious life of students is also helped by student chaplains, mission trips, service learning requirements, and ministry groups.  The names and directions of numerous nearby churches are provided all prospective and new students.  I would like to see intentional support programs for Jewish and Muslim students and believe that this could be done without compromising the university’s specific Christian identity and mission. I understand the hesitation:  church-related colleges and universities that have provided such services have often soon after cut their church-ties and moved from being Christian insitutions to “non-sectarian” schools with a Christian heritage.  (Most private, secular universities in the U.S. began as church-related, specifically Christian, schools, including all the Ivy League colleges and universities.  The story of higher education in the USA, except for the land-grant state colleges and universities, is largely the story of the secularizing of once-Christian institutions.) But such a progression is not inevitable and offering such support, especially in a large, multi-cultural city like Philadelphia, should flow from Christian hospitality, from welcoming strangers as guests and neighbors. 

I count it a great plus that Eastern has no “Greek Life,” i.e., no fraternites and sororities promoting drunken debauchery and undermining both the Christian identity and academic mission of the school.  Far too many church-related colleges and universities have undermined their mission by inviting “Greek Life” in the form of non-academic fraternities/sororities and their residence houses to take up residence on their campuses. Eastern does well to keep such elitist cliques far away from it forever.  The university has also chosen not to have a “College Democrats” or “College Republicans” chapter.  Social justice, service, and political awareness clubs and activities abound–but without specific party ties. This decision probably works to promote greater dialogue and less fractious division on campus.  (It is definitely superior to the decisions by some conservative Christian colleges to permit a College Republicans chapter but NOT a College Democrats chapter!  For any Christian college that allowed such chapters, I would advise promoting student awareness that other options exist, by encouraging the formation of College Green Party, College Libertarians, Natural Law Party, or even Socialist Party chapters. Reality is more pluralistic than “Republican vs. Democrat” even in the USA.) Faculty, administrators, and students belong to various political parties, but are united by the deeper bonds of Christ.

Eastern University isn’t perfect.  I have mentioned the areas I would like to see expanded, improved, or, in the cases of sexual minorities, even reformed.  But it is an excellent Christian college that is actually doing the work of the Kingdom of God.  It has made a good beginning and I would love to see it continue to improve.  I think many of its strengths can be traced to the influence of Dr. Antony (Tony) Campolo, Emeritus Professor of Sociology, also an alumnus of the college and seminary.  But the core values were there from the beginning and others had to share and commit to the parts of the Eastern vision that do stem from Campolo.  All evidence points to a bright future for Eastern University as it builds on the vision and commitments that have brought it thus far.


October 11, 2010 - Posted by | blog series, education


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  2. Michael,

    I have two daughters, ages 13 and 11. They attend a local Christian school and while the education they receive is very good, their textbooks are very biased toward a Republican viewpoint. The school also does very little to promote compassionate activities like assisting the poor. Do you know of any Christian schools who are more progressive in their views, cirriculum and community activities? I would actually consider moving out of state if I found one of these schools. Thank you very much.

    God Bless you,
    Mike Morris

    Comment by Mike Morris | October 25, 2010 | Reply

    • Well, Mike, I don’t really believe in Christian private schools. My daughters go to public schools as I did. Of course, the quality of education available varies greatly from school district to school district (and within them) and I cannot advise you much beyond that without knowing where you live.

      But I think churches do better to have after school programs for primary and secondary school students (especially for at risk kids) than to build parochial schools–in most cases. I think that (with exception for extreme circumstances) the home school movement is even worse. But, if the public schools in your area are awful and you can’t do community action to improve them, and the “local Christian school” is biased, homeschooling may be your only option–if it is. (Finances would make that impossible for us–neither of us could afford to quit our jobs.)

      I remember how difficult it was to explain to my daughters at the ages yours are (they are now 15 and 11) that textbooks and teachers could be wrong–even if their parents had more education than most of the teachers. But it’s worth the effort. I got them reading Adler’s How to Read a Book (which promotes critical thinking) and Lies My Teacher Told Me. The family watches BBC America World News and listens to NPR on the radio and reads alternative newspapers and magazines, so our daughters are used to an atmosphere that encourages considering diverse viewpoints and asking questions.

      If you and your family volunteer at homeless shelters, and soup kitchens, and work with Habitat for Humanity, etc. it also helps your children learn more (or differently) than a school curriculum may promote.

      No matter how good or poor the schools, there is no substitute for family influence.

      Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | October 25, 2010 | Reply

      • If, for whatever reason, public education is not a “live option” in your area, look to see if there are primary and secondary schools related to the Friends/Quakers or the Mennonites. These do excellent work at promoting peace and justice as well as academic excellence. On average, Catholic parochial schools (which began when the public schools were actually promoting Protestantism and anti-Catholicism in 19th C. America) also do pretty good at combining high academics with a social justice emphasis.

        Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | October 25, 2010

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