Thriving institutions that serve the reign of God can pop up in the most unexpected places, as Jason Byassee discovered when he looked at two schools, as different from one another as imaginable.

It is humbling to contemplate how many vitally important institutions were created by the church. The hospital (early church). The university (medieval). The social service organization (early 20th century). Habitat for Humanity (late 20th). All trace their roots back to the church.

Yet, even though specific institutions might start out Christian, many have had a difficult time remaining Christian in any way other than name. However thriving and vibrant it might be, a Baptist hospital or a Methodist university, for example, over time might become more generic or secular, its Christian roots remaining only in a token way.

All the more reason, then, that the church should give thanks for colleges and universities that promote the ends of the reign of God. Last fall, I became better acquainted with two such schools that are as dramatically different from one another as can be imagined. The first is tiny Berea College, in Kentucky, founded by an abolitionist Christian community in 1855 and still avowedly Christian.

The other -- believe it or not -- is the University of Virginia, one of the oldest public universities in the United States, specifically founded as a secular institution. Though still as secular as its founder, Thomas Jefferson, intended, UVa is today the home of one of the most vibrant religion departments anywhere, a rich center of theological thought. Together, these schools show us the extreme lengths to which God will go to help the church love God with our minds.

Located in the Appalachian Mountains in eastern Kentucky, Berea was founded after the Second Great Awakening by converts coming from revivals held by the likes of Charles G. Finney. It was created as a work college, with a vision for serving rich and poor alike, committed to making each student work with his or her hands as well as their minds. Yes, Berea admitted men and women. In keeping with the egalitarian spirit of revivalist preaching (all have sinned, Christ died for all, all can be saved), Berea was coeducational from the beginning. Even more impressive -- a miracle, really -- Berea took that “all” to include African Americans. This was in a slave state. In 1855.

The college maintains these same commitments today. It is still a Christian work college with a mission to educate poor kids from the mountains. Its motto is the same as in the beginning, taken from the book of Acts: “God has made of one blood all peoples of the earth.” As Shannon Wilson notes in “Berea College: An Illustrated History,” few institutions -- educational or otherwise -- can claim to have pursued that vision in the South for so long.

The rationale for that vision -- and the way in which it was executed -- is breathtaking. Berea would be “antislavery, anti-caste, anti-rum, anti-sin,” insisted its founder, John Fee. The school was modeled after Oberlin College, an institution founded in Ohio by a pair of Presbyterian ministers, refugees from a battle over race at Lane Seminary in Cincinnati. The link to Oberlin shows how remarkable Berea is. Oberlin is still an elite liberal arts college, one of the nation’s best, but any Christian commitment is long gone.

‘What is right is also practicable’

Convinced that Jesus’ gospel is a “gospel of impartial love,” Fee intended to create in Berea an institution that demonstrated and furthered this conviction. The school’s third president, William Frost, put the rationale beautifully. Berea, he said, “stands as an object lesson to the world -- a demonstration that what is right is also practicable.”

What is right is also practicable! How radical is that? So many of our beliefs remain abstract, distant, unpracticed. We believe the demanding words of the gospel: Christians should give up their possessions, love their enemies to the point of a cross, join with despised outsiders in a society with neither “Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female.” But we have all sorts of sophisticated rationales for why these things can’t be fully practiced.

By contrast, people who were converted in a revival more than 150 years ago believed the gospel so deeply that they founded an institution to show its truth -- a college that has blessed its region and maintained its mission through all these years. There have been setbacks, of course. Early debates over doctrine hurt the school. Berea today wrestles with its Christian heritage in an age where colleges must be open to all faiths and none. For much of the 20th century, until the 1950s, a state law prohibited the school from admitting black students. But when that law was overturned, only Berea could claim that it was returning to a heritage of interracial education. Other schools had to begin one. Only those with high ideals can actually fall short.

Remarkably, Berea’s ideals didn’t remain ideal. What would happen if we founded institutions to show that what is “right” is also “practicable”? Examples abound among social entrepreneurs: Muhammad Yunus, who pioneered the use of microcredit as founder of the Grameen Bank, showed that poor people could be good credit risks and so helped millions of women and their families in Bangladesh; Kiva , an online lending website, has built upon Yunus’ insights, using the web to recruit millions of microlenders; Teach for America has shown that young people in this country still want risky, demanding, low-reward (materially speaking) vocations.

What about the church? Where are we now founding institutions to show that our radical beliefs are also “practicable”?

An accidental theology department

Few colleges or universities can claim a founder as radical as the University of Virginia’s Thomas Jefferson. Today, his statues stand triumphant over the campus he “fathered,” as his tombstone says. Apparently, for Jefferson, being president of the United States was a lesser distinction, so insignificant he had the carver leave it off the stone.

You can understand why when you visit UVa, a place where history lives and breathes. The beauty of the Appalachian foothills is still stimulating, just as Jefferson intended. One of Jefferson’s dreams was that his school would be an “academical village” where faculty and students lived and worked together. Some students still live in housing Jefferson designed on the Old Grounds, in rooms still heated the same as in Jefferson’s day, by firewood. Even a few professors still live in housing with students, including Chuck Mathewes, my host on a visit to the campus last fall. He and his wife, Jennifer Geddes, also a UVa professor, are co-principals of a residential college. They and their children live with undergraduates in a house where James Monroe lived for a decade before the university was founded. The academical village still lives.

It’s not surprising that UVa is both beautiful and historic. Many state universities are. What is surprising is that it boasts a world-class theology department, though it’s not called that. Technically, it’s a religious studies department. But with world-class thinkers like Mathewes, Jamie Ferreira, Charles Marsh, Judith Kovacs, Kevin Hart and Jim Childress, and faculty alumni like Robert Wilken, Eugene Rogers and John Milbank, it is most certainly a center of theological thought and inquiry.

If you know anything about Jefferson, you know how odd this is. The hyper-rationalist was not content to lead the United States, birth a state university, write the Declaration of Independence and define separation of church and state. He also wanted to update Christianity for a new age. Taking scissors to the New Testament, he cut out all but the non-miraculous, figuring he had updated the faith for a new day and allowed it to survive. Today, Jefferson’s bible is a literary oddity. Biblical Christianity, meanwhile, is alive and well.

So how did it happen that Mr. Jefferson’s university would be home to a thriving theology department rooted in historic orthodoxy? The answer is counterintuitive: “It’s because non-Christian religions led,” Mathewes told me. “We backed into it more than anything.” Early on, UVa hired a leading Buddhist scholar and translator of the Dalai Lama. Buddhists are nonthreatening to Western secularists. They pose no danger of taking over the United States and running things. Later, Virginia hired Abdulaziz Sachedina, a leading Shi’a scholar. Peter Ochs and Vanessa Ochs are great thinkers and practitioners of Judaism. If Virginia had set out to build a solely Christian department of religious studies, it would, and should, have failed. Instead, the department offered up full-throated theology, non-defensively and always open to challenge from other perspectives. And it worked. Students loved the courses.

Bursting at the seams

By aggressively courting and hiring scholars of faiths other than Appalachia’s predominant Christianity, the department cleared the necessary space to allow it also to hire top-notch Christian faculty. Once it did, those faculty naturally attracted top-notch graduate students. Now the department is bursting at the seams, literally. Two massive trailers flank its current building as the department awaits the completion of a new edifice to house its growing faculty and programs. It competes with the very best programs for Ph.D. students and often wins. Its Ph.D. graduates, including Duke’s own Jay Carter, make its name great elsewhere.

This status is fragile, of course. Virginia will still need to hire non-Christian faculty and recruit graduate students for them, as many as or more than the Christians have. More power to them. We can’t have too many excellent institutions of theological training. The University of Virginia won’t be the only one who benefits. As UVa’s religious studies graduates go out into the world, the church will be made smarter, more faithful, more like the biblical Christ. All, ironically enough, because of Mr. Jefferson’s university.

The lesson for leadership is also counterintuitive: If we are to clear the space for a more forthright profession of Christian faith, then maybe we need first to clear more space for the forthright profession of other faiths. Long may great Buddhist and Muslim scholars inhabit the halls of “The University” (as the school presumptuously calls itself). The church is better off for it.

Second, a thriving community, on Christian grounds, can pop up in unexpected places. Truth be told, a Christian department is probably what Jefferson would have had in mind for religion. It just would have been a Christianity ruled by the Enlightenment’s vision of a rationalism on the warpath against superstition. It may be a surprise that something much different has taken root and grown at UVa. But Jesus, who told us the parable of the sower about fruit coming up in unpromising ground, has a way of surprising his people.

Note how dissimilar Berea and Virginia are. One is a story of dogged determination in the face of overwhelming opposition, dedication to a principle and eventual vindication. Another is a completely unplanned department -- a side effect of hiring great non-Christian scholars. Both institutions are to be celebrated and to be mined for lessons. And both should give us pause. God will have God’s way with God’s people. We should do all we can to help. But often as not, it happens despite us and not because of us.

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