Monday, April 09, 2007

My Regent Semester

by Sara

Well, the entire left blogosphere seems to be up in arms this morning, having finally discovered -- courtesy of Monica Goodling -- that Regent University exists, and that one-sixth of its grads have networked themselves into with jobs in Bush's government.

Since I am almost certainly the only tuition-paying Regent student on earth who's also a lefty blogger, I suppose it's incumbent on me to say a few words. I was going to wait until the end of the semester, three weeks from now, to say anything publicly about my Regent semester; but events appear to have overtaken that plan.

First, a recap of how I came to be at Regent in the first place. I'm a graduate student in Futures Studies at the University of Houston, working toward an MS that will be granted sometime in late 2008 or early 2009. In 2005, Regent's School of Leadership and Management (its graduate business school), instituted a Futures program that was built very closely on the UH model, and with the help of UH's faculty. This spring, they offered two classes -- "Religionists & Futurists" and "Images of the Future" -- that fulfilled my elective requirements at UH, while allowing me to pursue a couple subjects that really interested me as a futurist specializing in the social implications of authoritarianism.

It should go without saying that I approached the entire enterprise with massive trepedation. Having escaped this community once already, I was not at all thrilled about the prospect of going back. Furthermore, the fact that Regent -- a school whose very name reflects its Dominionist aspirations (Robertson's vision for his graduates is that they are God's "regents," being trained to rule the planet until Jesus returns to take his throne) -- was building a serious Futures program alarmed me. This is a school with a very specific anti-democratic agenda, I thought. And they're going out of their way to equip their a new generation of futurists the strategic planning, foresight, and change management skills that will allow them to implement that agenda. Should partisans of constitutional democracy feel some consternation about this? (The answer is yes. And no.)

Still, I forged ahead. With the blessing of my UH dean, I arranged to take a semester off, and enter the belly of the beast. And so it happened that I've been a visiting student at Regent since January -- visiting in the virtual sense, of course, since I'm an online student who lives over 3,000 miles from Virginia Beach, and haven't gotten any closer to the place since school started. (I had to sign a solemn pledge that I wouldn't bring alcohol, tobacco, or drugs onto the campus. I can say with great confidence that making good on that pledge has not been a problem.)

The no-substances pledge was one of several I had to sign in order to complete my registration. Regent is the fourth university I've attended in my academic career; but it's the very first to require me to sign a long, detailed online contract governing all manner of behavior. Most of it was pretty trivial (I was waiting for a Bob-Jones-style dress code contract, which fortunately never materialized). But, stepping through the web pages, I finally came to one that absolutely stopped me cold.

The page asked me to affirm that I understood and accepted that I would be educated by faculty who adhered to the following principles (the following is a direct cut-and-paste):

* That the Holy Bible is the inspired, infallible and authoritative source of Christian doctrine and precepts.

* That there is one God, eternally existent in three persons: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

* That man was created in the image of God but as a result of sin is lost and powerless to save himself.

* That the only hope for man is to believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, the virgin born Son of God, Who died to take upon Himself the punishment for the sin of mankind, and Who rose from the dead so that by receiving Him as Savior and Lord, man is redeemed by His blood.

* That Jesus Christ will personally return to earth in power and glory.

* That the Holy Spirit indwells those who receive Christ, for the purpose of enabling them to live righteous and holy lives.

* That the Church is the Body of Christ and is comprised of all those who, through belief in Christ, have been spiritually regenerated by the indwelling Holy Spirit. The mission of the Church is worldwide evangelization and the nurturing and discipling of Christians.

On first reading, I thought that they were asking me to affirm these things personally -- which, as a non-Christian, I simply could not do. But then, on second reading, I realized that they were simply making sure that I was willing to cooperate with professors who were coming from that place. And (since I already knew the professor who would be teaching both courses), I knew I could do that. So I signed -- and, in the process, almost certainly became the first pro-gay pro-choice howling-at-the-moon San Francisco Pagan Unitarian heathen student in Regent history.

Fortunately, as an online student dealing with one faculty member who knew right up front what he was getting, I haven't felt the need to be anything but honest about my own religious leanings. Indeed, our class discussions, both in real-time lecture and e-list posts, have been surprisingly wide-ranging and non-doctrinaire. I've cherished my interactions the young Southerner who turned me onto the whole gestalt of the Emerging Church movement, who is also active in voluntary simplicity and global anti-slavery movements. And I've been delighted to catch our professor in the act of challenging his students -- from the very first day, in fact -- to move beyond dogmatic biblical literalism, and resist the common fundamentalist impulse to hide from the present by either retreating to a mythical past, or staking it all on an absurdly overdue Revelation-based vision of the future. He seems determined that tomorrow's evangelical leaders move away from positivism and toward critical realism -- a switch that's going to change both the theological structure and the practical priorities of the movement. In this department, at least, "because the Bible tells me so" is not accepted as a good enough answer.

As a futurist, what I've taken away from my Regent Semester is a deeper awareness of how the stories we tell ourselves about How It All Began and How It Will All End create tremendous implications for the courses of action we choose. (For most of the past 2000 years of western history, these images of the past and future were almost entirely dictated by the Church, until the Enlightenment came along and offered new visions based on human agency -- and kicked off a culture war that has raged to this day. Make no mistake: the struggles over the historical and scientific past are really about whose story gets to determine the future.) These stories can make us optimistic and confident in our ability to create change; or utterly discourage us from making any attempt to plan the future at all (either it's all in God's hands; or else humans are simply too wicked and corrupt to do anything right). We've looked at the ways these foundational myths and metaphors have varied over the course of Western history, and where they've taken us over time. And we've considered the ways in which our cultural and religious stories are now serving us -- or disserving us -- as we approach the great challenges of the coming century. All of this is the stuff of future blogging; but, as you can see, it's definitely not the kind of stuff you'd probably hear from the televangelists on The 700 Club.

I'm sure if I’d spent the past three months hanging out in the faux Federalist stage set of the Virginia Beach campus, I'd have had better, funnier stories to tell on my classmates. Still, given that roughly one-third of Regent's student body consists of online students, my experience of Regent can hardly be dismissed as atypical. It's clear from the syllabus that the professor was expecting more garden-variety evangelical students -- and he probably would have had them, had there been students from the law or government schools in these courses. Instead, he got some older, wiser, more flexible and open minds who had already vaulted the rigid walls of fundamentalist dogma, and had integrated traditionally liberal issues like peace, justice, human rights, and the environment into their devoutly Christian worldview. They're not my grandmother's prayer group. But they are people I'd be glad to make room for on the political front lines of the various interests we do share.

Regent and its fellows -- Bob Jones, Patrick Henry, Wheaton, and similar evangelical universities -- are an important and gathering force on the landscape of evangelical America. For that reason, we on the left absolutely need to track their activities with careful and persistent attention. At the same time, we do ourselves, our readers, and the institutions themselves a great disservice if we allow ourselves to take everything we hear and see at face value, or interpret it through our own filters without really listening to what's being said. Because, in my experience, what's being said by the official spokespeople doesn't always square what's going on in the faculty lounges, libraries, coffeehouses, and classrooms.

It's so very tempting to stereotype and demonize. After all, the religious right has done it to us for years. But accuracy and fairness -- the only two true allegiances of any journalist -- demand that we take the time to take off our own ideological filters, wander into their communities, stay awhile, and commit to listening to them on their own terms. When it comes to the emerging evangelical elite at places like Regent, we will often have our prejudices more then confirmed. But we may also be rewarded with more friends and allies than we might have imagined.

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