Voices: Forming authentic faith at the university

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What reputation should you or I want today for the future? What sort of influence should we have, and will we be identified with it?

For us who believe in Jesus Christ and all who want belief that matters, to us and anyone who seeks it, the Apostle Paul reminds us that because we are made right with God in and through Jesus Christ, our primary service—the essence of the good news of the gospel—is to show others the way to reconciliation in Christ (Colossians 1:21-28). We must be able to show we have been made right; we cannot fake it.

Dr. Emmanuel L. McCall an example of authentic faith

Recently, the T. B. Maston Foundation presented Dr. Emmanuel L. McCall with the Maston Christian Ethics Award, honoring him for his long record of leadership in education and activism for racial reconciliation. His divinely sourced passion and faithfulness changed many minds and opened up new commitments for Baptists.

Dr. Emmanuel McCall
Dr. Emmanuel L. McCall, with Suzii Paynter, receiving the Maston Christian Ethics Award at the T.B. Maston Foundation Dinner at Dallas Baptist University on Oct. 4, 2019 (Photo by Stephen Stookey)

Like the Apostle Paul, Dr. McCall recollected his agonizing, struggling and rejoicing with his coworkers over reconciliation.

McCall’s legacy is true because it draws attention to the reconciliation Jesus Christ has won through his sufferings for everyone. McCall’s sufferings authentically incarnated the sufferings of Christ, and so he modeled Christ’s continuing work. So should all of us.

William Wilberforce called for authentic faith

By 1796, when William Wilberforce, a minister of the British parliament, published his A Practical View of Christianity, Britain and its empire faced continuing crises as industries and cities swelled. Countless common folk found themselves stripped of traditional work and home, pawns of a system bringing great benefits and great pain.

Many moral and ethical sins of omission and commission in early modern English society exaggerated the imbalances between the haves and have-nots. Then there was the slave trade.

As a member of the aristocracy himself, Wilberforce called to account the nation and its rich and powerful upper classes who ruled Parliament and set the social norms. For decades, he led a movement for the practical application of Christianity in the body politic—a “reformation of manners” to revitalize English moral life and to end the slave trade in the British empire.

Wilberforce observed that many professing Christians knew Christianity only superficially but not its ethic. Theirs was a surface-level, socially acceptable, churchly but meaningless Christianity. Their moral claims rang hollow—a powerful irony in Christian England.

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Countering the way things were, Wilberforce claimed it was not selfishness but “the tendency of the public spirit”—what we would call promoting flourishing community—that preserved and promoted the life of England. His ethic seemed laughable to cynical and powerful men.

Our own practice of authentic faith

The question for us, then, is whether we care enough about the moral lives of our neighbors and the development of our children’s consciences and spiritual responsiveness. Do we care whether professing Christians authentically represent Christ? Such belief should always transform people.

In our day-to-day world, do we live so as to incarnate the truth of Christ that overcomes the limitations of our own time?

Don Newbury, past president of Howard Payne University, often quoted the 22-term U.S. Congressman George H. Mahon of Colorado City, Texas. Mahon taught, “There is no hope for the world outside of the church and education, and it has always been that way.”

I believe Mahon intended more than the church as an institution and education as a means to individual advancement and privilege. To speak as he did sounds not just quaint but absolutely irrelevant to many people.

Many in the current college generation are told that through higher education they can excel as persons and succeed professionally. However, they are not told how to find what they crave in their hearts, chiefly significance and authenticity. They are not told how to answer the questions: “Am I valuable and valued? Am I real?” These students need clear direction without indoctrination from reliable people of conviction who are authentic and showing it.

Forming authentic faith in Texas Baptist universities

We live within a community and its beliefs hoping for authenticity yet struggling to find sources of that authenticity. Oddly, those sources are so close.

I serve a Christ-centered Texas Baptist university where we strive to shape a learning and serving community where we all work faithfully to form in ourselves and our students the habits and tendencies of Christ’s mind and spirit.

East Texas Baptist University President Blair Blackburn, reminds us that our commitment to Christ must be shown as we “prepare our graduates for service to God and humanity.” His faithful reminder focuses our justification for this Christ-centered university. Even with the value of education at ETBU, there is no justification for the university apart from its commitment to the mission—incarnating Jesus Christ in mind and spirit.

At ETBU, church and university share the mission. We emphasize demonstrating its truth in every word and action in the classroom, in every feature of our common life, and in the transformed lives of ETBU graduates.

Jerry Summers is dean of the School of Humanities and the Sam B. Hall Professor of History at East Texas Baptist University.

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