By Max Nelsen
More and more, I’ve come to notice that there is a very common misconception about Whitworth going around on and off campus. For some inexplicable reason, everyone seems to think that Whitworth University is a Christian college.
To be sure, Whitworth has a lot of Christian trappings. Most easy to recognize would be the university’s heritage, of which it is very proud, indeed. We’re all familiar with the university’s affiliation with the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A), with Whitworth’s goal of educating both the “mind and heart,” and we all know the oft-repeated mission of the university: to “honor God, follow Christ and serve humanity.”
On a more day-to-day level, Whitworth has generally Christian professors, regular chapel service and a network of Christian-based small groups. These aspects of the university definitely lend to the appearance of Christianity. However, looking beyond these superficial indicators, by what definition can Whitworth really be called “Christian?”
Perhaps a Christian school is one in which the student body is exclusively Christian. However, many Whitworth students are not practicing Christians and the university openly welcomes non-Christian students. Though the overall atmosphere of the university could be far worse, it is not difficult to find Whitworth students engaged in behavior that differs little from typical college students. Consequently, Whitworth cannot be considered Christian on the basis of its student body.
In 1966, Whitworth commissioned a Spiritual Life study committee. According to the second set of meeting minutes, available from the Whitworth archives, the committee asked: “Why is [Whitworth] a Christian college? A Christian college is different from other colleges because it wants to do something for its students. It is a Christian teacher interacting with a student by displaying his or her Christian love in letting each student know that individually they are wanted and loved and they in turn are wanted and needed by others.” I will admit that, by this standard, Whitworth could be considered Christian.
Though this is not the official position of the school, elements of this perspective are easy to find. The university has a tendency to go out of its way to accommodate students, championing nebulous ideals like tolerance, community and diversity. However, too often walking the “narrow ridge” results in sacrificing the pursuit of truth in the name of not hurting any feelings.
Don’t get me wrong; there are dedicated Christians in both the student body and the faculty. Also, there are many other schools less friendly to Christians. But there is a distinction to be drawn between permitting Christian perspectives and consistently defending them. Merely having loving faculty and being friendly toward Christianity does not make a school Christian. In Whitworth’s case, it is not that the school is not pro-Christian; it’s that it is pro-everything. As with other universities, if there is a prevailing social cause or academic idea, it is only a matter of time until it finds a place at Whitworth.
This was not always the prevailing view of Christian universities, however. George Marsden, on page 127 of his book, “The Soul of the American University,” looks to President of Yale, Noah Porter, who served during the maelstrom of secularization that occurred in the late 1800s. Marsden describes a situation strikingly similar to ours today:
“Faced with the practical atheism of modern culture there could be no middle ground … ‘The question is not whether the college shall, or shall not, teach theology, but what theology it shall teach …’”
The question of the openness of higher education looks entirely different in this light.
“The plea of freedom and tolerance is put in on every quarter,” said Porter, but if that meant that these atheistic views were to be presented without Christian refutation, the plea was deceptive. Not to answer atheistic views was practically to promote them, which was beyond the pale of the Christian college.”
Academic openness is fine. Examining diverse views is fine. Learning about different cultures, practices and ideas is all well and good. But if Christianity becomes just another one of those perspectives, and if ideas are examined without Christian refutation, than it cannot be said that the core of the university itself is Christian, no matter how many external trappings it may possess.
Should Whitworth be a Christian university? Well, that is a question for another day.
Editor’s note: The last sentence read “Should Whitworth be a Christian university? I for one am not entirely convinced.” in print, but was originally “Should Whitworth be a Christian university? Well, that is a question for another day.” and has been corrected above.