Tuesday, February 7, 2012

What if faith were part of the Witt brand?

Weaver Chapel, February 7, 2012

What if faith were part of the Wittenberg brand? Some could easily suppose that making faith more central to our identity would mean we would become more sectarian and inhospitable. That is possible – but unnecessary. On the interfaith model I suggest to you this morning, there would likely be disagreement over whether to move in this direction, but it would be over a different worry.
            My wife, Charlotte, is the rector, or priest-in-charge, of Christ Episcopal Church here in Springfield. Each fall she works with a group of clergy that plans an interfaith community Thanksgiving service. Representatives from the An-Nur Islamic Center and Temple Sholam are involved, and also from seven Christian congregations, including Episcopal, Roman Catholic, United Church of Christ, Methodist, Baptist, and Presbyterian congregations.
Each year they plan a new service and liturgy. They follow principles they’ve agreed to in previous years, but they do something new that will be interesting to members of the various congregations who attend. So each year the planning group has to be intentional about how to celebrate and give thanks to God for the gifts we enjoy without invoking names or themes that alienate or offend members of any of the congregations involved.
It is not a Christian service to which Jews and Muslims are invited, let alone a Protestant service to which Roman Catholics and Episcopalians are invited. An interfaith team assembles an interfaith service through which all can celebrate God’s gifts. Each year there are challenges, but they work intentionally to resolve them for the sake of giving thanks together.
Could faith become part of the Witt brand by making this type of negotiation and intentional cooperation, and the self-examination it prompts, central to who we are?

You know that we have settled on a logo for our brand, the Witt “W” with a flame atop, symbolizing the torch and the light we pass on to others, as on the Wittenberg seal. We also have chosen a tagline or slogan: “Pass it on.” But we still haven’t really defined our brand, what our logo and tagline are supposed to stand for. We’ve been asking, “What is distinctively Wittenberg?” What experience, outcome, or product do we want most associated in people’s minds with Wittenberg? Once we know the answer to that question, we can market our brand.
            The problem, as any of us who has been on multiple college visits knows, is that most schools like Wittenberg say more or less the same things about what makes them distinctive. Professors have students to their homes for dinner. The community on campus is welcoming. The school may seem small, but it offers a great variety of activities and organizations – and you can start your own if we don’t already have what you want. You can even design your own major! It is hard to be distinctive if lots of colleges are saying the same things about why they’re special.
            The fear may be that we are a generic, third tier, Midwestern, small undergraduate "university," neither thrivingly urban nor picturesquely and tranquilly rural. To define our brand, we need to identify what sets us apart in a good way. This, I propose, means that to define our brand, we may have to redefine ourselves and become something we are now potentially but not actually.
My premise is this: Witt has been unable to thrive as one among many similar small "liberal arts plus" colleges in the Midwest. My proposal is that we should not try to be everything to everyone. According to a standard principle of marketing, we need to be willing to become unattractive to most prospective students in order to be more attractive to a sufficiently large minority of students – even though doing this might make some of us already here queasy or upset.
I took part in a small group conversation about branding at the recent Board of Directors meeting. One proposal we discussed briefly is that our brand should focus on three aspects of our history and core identity at Wittenberg: academics, athletics, and faith.
Highlights in academics surely include that the Wittenberg faculty counts among its ranks 6 Ohio Professors of the Year, the highest for schools of our type in Ohio, and 17 faculty Fulbright Fellowships in the past dozen years, also unrivaled. This is not us bragging on ourselves; it is others recognizing how outstanding our faculty is. Highlights in athletics include the following winning records:
·      Our field hockey team has had 28 consecutive years without a losing season, beginning in only the 5th season of the program’s existence.
·      Paco Labrador is the most winning NCAA volleyball coach by percentage and is ranked second for total wins – across all NCAA divisions.
·      We have the most winning men’s basketball and football programs in NCAA Division III (440 member institutions), both currently on the leading edges of more than a half-century of consecutive winning seasons, except for one season in football.
About one-third of Wittenberg students participate in varsity athletics, and about 40% of campus visits to Wittenberg involve visits of prospective students with coaches.
            It is not hard to see why some of our less athletically accomplished sister colleges think of us as a jock school, with the negative connotations that go with that. To them at least that may be the Witt brand. We would need to talk more about how making athletics part of our brand need not mean being just another jock school. But that is for another occasion.

What if faith were a prominent part of the Witt brand? What would we need to do differently, or more?
            For the purposes of discussion – and recognizing some may think this begs an important question – let’s not limit genuine faith to the specific beliefs and practices of a particular tradition. Faith is not the affirmation of particular doctrines or the recitation of the creed of a particular sect or denomination. It is also not only a vocation for social justice. Furthermore, faith need not presuppose a God who is primarily an almighty parent (which made good sense when I was a child) or a personal friend & confidante (to which I was attracted as an adolescent) or an alternative and much better ruler, judge, or boss (now that I’m an adult).
            A concept of faith that would work in an interfaith context should highlight how faith functions both psychologically and socially without suggesting that all there is to faith is its adaptive function. William James said that, “At bottom the whole concern of both morality and religion is with the manner of our acceptance of the universe. Do we accept it only in part and grudgingly, or heartily and altogether? ...For when it is all said and done, we are in the end absolutely dependent on the universe…Religion…makes easy and felicitous what in any case is necessary" (Gifford Lectures, 1901-02, published as The Varieties of Religious Experience, p. 41 and p. 52 of the Penguin edition, emphasis in the original). Religion can help us adapt, personally and socially, to our absolute dependence on the universe, but there is more to faith than its adaptive function.
            Faith, let’s say, is trust in and fidelity to a way of being and living, oriented by experiences of sources of meaning and purpose, embodied in a set of devotional practices and in practices of community and communion with others. So:
·      Trust and fidelity,
·      A way of being and living,
·      Experiences of sources of meaning and purpose, and
·      Devotional practices as well as practices of community and communion.
If faith in this sense were to be central to Witt’s brand, we would not simply allow students to ask big questions about meaning and purpose. We would intentionally prompt students to ask them and systematically assist students, throughout their years at Wittenberg, in discerning and exploring answers. The questions would include:
1.     What are the fundamental purposes of my life?
2.     What long-term and short-term goals are implied by these purposes?
3.     What are the sovereign powers in my life as I am living it now, given how I spend my time, energies, and money?
4.     What should be the sovereign powers in my life?
5.     What are my responsibilities to my neighbors, both near and far, who do not enjoy the privileges and comforts I enjoy, and from whose suffering I may be insulated?
6.     What are my responsibilities to future generations who will inherit the planet from us?
7.     And how could I relate to and cooperate with people who, because of their faith, are deeply committed to answers to these questions that are different from mine or my congregation’s?
Faculty, residence life staff, coaches, administrators, and other campus officials – at least a substantial subset of us – would have to be interested in and trained to help students wrestle with these questions. It would be part of our job, both in one-on-one advising and in public discussions on campus. The public discussions might regularly include consideration of how different faiths and religious disciplines have answered these questions and how they have historically lived them out.
            We would have to equip current faculty and staff to help raise and answer these questions. We would also have to be intentional about hiring faculty and staff for performing this task, principally among others. Faculty who want to focus on their specialties within their fields, or coaches who want to focus on skills and strategies in their sports, or residence life staff who want to focus on student safety or entertainment, or administrators who want to stick to their current areas of responsibility – we would all have to stretch. It would be uncomfortable. It could be stressful for many of us.
            The fundamental shift, I think, is that we officials of the university would have to give up the idea that, yes, Wittenberg works on developing whole persons, but I only work on one narrow part of each student in my care, and others are responsible for the rest.
            Already, however, those of us who are responsible not only for delivering services to students but also for getting students to perform their best – coaches, directors of student dramatic productions, dance instructors, choral and instrumental directors, and others – they already have to attend to and tend the whole person. A featured dancer, a starting point guard, a soloist, the lead female in the comedy, the goalie: they all perform as persons whose performances are affected by their lives outside the performance. Their coaches, directors, and instructors are already to some extent doing what I and others would need to learn to do. Faculty, in particular, would have to attend less to content delivery and more to student development and performance, including outside the areas over which we control transcripts.

What if faith were a part of the Witt brand? We would devote institutional and personal energy and resources to helping students and ourselves raise and answer questions about our purposes and goals in life, about the current and ideal sovereign powers to which we give our fidelity, about our responsibilities to others now and to come, and about how to relate to those who because of their faith are deeply committed to different answers to such questions. And we would tell prospective students and their parents that we do that.
            If they think their families or congregations have already answered these questions adequately, and they don’t want us to raise and discuss them in a hospitable interfaith context, they might not be Wittenberg material. Or, if they want job skills but not trials of their wisdom for life, they should look elsewhere.
            Wittenberg’s historic relationship with the Lutheran tradition in Christianity is a definite strength here. Among other things, Lutherans have been global leaders in ecumenical and interfaith dialogue for decades. Lutherans also famously insist on intellectual rigor in their theology and on social responsibility in their lives. It would be natural for Wittenberg to work more intentionally to make faith part of our brand – not easy, not without tensions and objections, but natural.
            Many prospective students might prefer not to come to a school like that, especially if an emphasis on faith development and athletics or other performance disciplines was more intentionally integrated into our academic life. But my hunch is that we would become a better integrated place, one more focused on what we now say is our mission and more attractive to a substantial minority of students.
            We could become the kind of liberal arts college that transforms student lives and thrives in the process. And our students would become even more articulate and thoughtful participants in the interfaith dialogues and negotiations – and we hope thanksgivings – that lie in all our immediate futures.