Spatial Comparisons for the Christian Liberal Arts College
In the The Christian Imagination Willie James Jennings asks Christians to take places seriously. Jennings argues white Europeans replaced place with race as the key identity marker for people around the globe. As we still live with the effects of colonialization, how should we think about the Christian liberal arts college as a setting? One path is to consider analogous spaces from American social life; to what can we compare the Christian campus?
A common way to start would be to compare a Christian college campus to a home. At Wheaton College, students live in close proximity and we could act in our classrooms, residences, and other spaces as a family might: full of familiarity, grace, encouraging each other alongside learning from each other, and often contributing to lasting bonds. At the same time, a home may not be the best comparison. Within an American society that often idealizes the single-family home, a home represents certain things: privacy, a refuge from the outside world, and a symbol of our status. Do we want the college experience to be one that is a retreat from the outside world? A place where you have to be part of the family – which can include sharing similar backgrounds, expressing theology and Christian practices in particular ways, being white – in order to be comfortable? American homes are rarely open settings where family members and others share ideas and experiences and grow together. Unfortunately, the home in American society may only be welcoming for those who are known and invited by the homeowners.
If a home is problematic, there are other options to consider. How about commercial spaces? For decades, Americans have visited shopping malls where they can typically choose consumer goods from dozens of stores within a safe, fun, and weather controlled environment. College is sometimes depicted as a cafeteria of learning as students chose courses, majors, extracurricular activities, and even relationships. A coffee shop might work better: college is like a welcoming space for study, meetings, and sometimes enjoying the company of others. The atmosphere is warm, the seats comfy, and ideas and experiences can be shared. Taverns, pubs, or bars – especially those rare ones “where everybody knows your name” – might sound good for the exchange of ideas and the possibility of relationships… but they are unlikely to work with the ways white evangelical culture approaches alcohol. Ultimately, these three types of spaces rely on consumption and profits as well as lack a residential component. Reducing college to a commodity consumed in a private setting may help describe some of the college experience today but it does not fully capture what a Christian liberal arts college wants to do.
Could we appeal to civic spaces such as town squares or commons or plazas? These may be common features of a number of communities around the world but they are relatively rare in the United States. American communities tend to emphasize automobile travel and private spaces, limiting common areas where residents can wander, mingle, and share and debate ideas.
Online realms offer some possibilities: while they have limited physical proximity, college could be likened to the message boards, comment sections, and social media spaces where users can participate at times of their own choosing and discuss their particular interests. While such venues offer flexibility and information, they do seem to counter notions of what a residential campus is about: learning and growth facilitated by regular face to face interactions with peers, staff, and faculty.
The space of the typical Protestant church may not help much either. Following the Reformation, Protestant churches altered their spaces to emphasize the reading and teaching of God’s word from the pulpit. This limits interaction. Should college be primarily depicted as a place of lecture and teaching by trained specialists? The multipurpose rooms many churches have could be useful – for example, your dorm room is study space, bedroom, gathering place, and sacred setting – even if they lack glamor and living space.
Considering these options, I’m not sure we have many helpful spatial comparisons for the Christian liberal arts college. Where else in society do we have space dedicated to academic discovery and investigation, spiritual and character development, and life together with people of faith intended to encourage learning from each other and building each other up? Jennings might also caution against idealizing the residential college setting: colleges are often detrimentally separate from the communities in which they are located and they participate in an academic system that privileges a domineering, colonialist approach to knowledge. Still, this thought exercise hints at both the poverty of places in American life as well as the difficulties in communicating the unique setting that is a Christian liberal arts college.