Consuming Rightly: The Task of Christian Higher Education

Jason Lief Uncategorized 1 Comment

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Ask any 18-22-year-old why they decided to go to college and you might be surprised at the response. They know the “right” answers: to get a good job, to develop their skills, to be part of a community, even to grow in their faith. Just try telling them it’s possible to do this without going to college and they get cynical. Most of the students I talk to never gave a serious thought to not going to college—it’s just what you do. Even those who hate school see it as a necessary evil to be endured. Admittedly, this is nothing new. Most of us recognize the increasing financial burden of higher education, as well as the economic hardship of those saddled with debt trying to find a job, but we also recognize that higher education is necessary. Statistics continue to show that the earning potential of people with a college degree is still higher than those without one, even with the cost of schools loans. So if you ask a college student why they decided to go to college I’m guessing they will look at you like you’re an idiot.

This is where I’m supposed to decry the influence of consumerism on higher education, express moral outrage at the fact that young people see college as a way to get higher paying jobs, or shake my old man fist at how the humanities are dismissed as a waste of time. Some might expect me to discuss how Christian colleges and universities have bought into the capitalist gospel, like Gideon shouting “For the Lord, and the large donors.” Or, bemoan the current “carnival cruise” amenities that make choosing a college more akin to picking the right four-year resort. Honestly, all of these are merely symptoms of a much deeper issue, one that Jesus addresses in Matthew’s gospel.

No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and Mammon.

Notice that it’s not a question of loving or dedicating our lives to something (or someone). It’s not a question of whether we consume, at issue is the question of what we love and what we consume and the implications for our lives. Inevitably, loving Mammon creates the conditions in which anxiety and fear take hold. It leads to a way of life dominated by competition in which young people struggle to make themselves marketable, consumable, and loved. Increasingly, as colleges and universities serve the spirit of Mammon, they contribute to a life of abstraction and alienation. Faculty, students, and administrators are alienated from their humanity, alienated from their work, alienated from each other—driven by an unhealthy desire that is never satisfied, never at rest, always trying to stay ahead.

Jesus invites us into a different way of life— a life of non-anxious consumption. After Jesus makes his pronouncement about serving God or Mammon he says this: “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink…” The absence of worry is not an absence of striving or seeking—Jesus ends by saying, “but strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” The kingdom of God calls us into a new form of consumption that is grounded in love and reconciliation. It is a way of life in which five loaves and a couple of fish are transformed into a feast for all to share. Or it is a wedding banquet in which the doors are thrown open, the poor are welcomed, and the sick are healed. It is a way of life shaped by an economy of the Eucharist, the gift of grace that is ours as we consume the body and blood of Jesus Christ—a form of consumption that does not require credentials or grades, money or branding, but a gift that brings healing and forgiveness.  As Jesus makes very clear, this way of life is at odds with the consumerism of the Western world. There can be no compromise—either we serve one, or we serve the other.

As Charles Taylor describes in A Secular Age, secularity is not the absence of faith; it is the transformation of transcendence from an other-worldly spirituality to the imminent forces of economics, politics, and science. This is seen in how the religious authority of pastors and priests is now bestowed upon bankers and business leaders. To make this point, I once brought a hundred-dollar bill to class, showed it to the students, and then tore it in half. Their visceral reaction betrays the fact that Western culture remains sacramental, will still believe that some things are imbued with a power and substance that is not essential to its material existence. While the bread and wine are increasingly seen as just bread and wine, it’s difficult for the staunchest of iconoclasts to believe that the green tinted cotton paper is just paper. The point is we are immersed in a Western way of life that is shaped by the religious power of economics, politics, and technology. Increasingly, institutions of higher education are driven by the pragmatic concerns of the economic and technological spheres, unleashing cycles of anxiety and fear that prompt us to make and remake ourselves so we can be relevant and successful.

The task of Christian institutions of higher education is to help young people “consume rightly” by cultivating a Eucharistic way of life. This is a way of life that embraces embodied particularity over universal abstraction, it affirms difference over uniformity, and it evokes a generous hospitality over strategic obsolescence. Attempts to address the issues facing Christian colleges and universities by focusing on techniques, branding, and market niche, miss this basic point: the communal life and practice of Christian institutions are grounded either in the love of God or the love of Mammon. In an anxious and fearful world, Christian colleges have the unique opportunity to become an oasis of rest for young people who are accustomed to being hurried and fragmented. Rest, in this context, is not the absence of work, it is instead being enveloped by the peace of God that brings reconciliation and forgiveness. Christian colleges and universities have the unique opportunity to participate in God’s call upon lives of young people:

Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.

(This piece was originally written for In All Things and can be found here.)

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