What Does Our Heritage Offer Higher Education Today?

By Andrew K. Benton
President

Of the many sweet expressions of goodwill and encouragement I received during my inauguration as president of Pepperdine, now some 15 years ago, none are as meaningful to me as the gift of George Pepperdine’s Bible.

Though I am only a steward of this precious artifact until the next Pepperdine president takes office, I often gently thumb through its pages making a mental note of the underlined words and the fading notations penciled in the margins. I know that well-worn book was important to him and I will treat it, not only as a special treasure that points to the values of our founder, but as the most important guide to Pepperdine’s future.

I say this, not to keep faith with the founder’s wishes (though that is very important to me); I say this because I believe that a quality university committed to the highest standards of academic excellence and Christian values must seriously consider the witness of Christ presented in Scripture. It may be that young people today, at least in the United States and Europe, seem uninterested in religion; but I am convinced they are intensely interested in discovering the meaning of their life. George Pepperdine hoped his college would thoughtfully engage scripture, science, literature, history, philosophy, law, politics, business, economics, education, and the arts to search and test that which is true. That question, “What is true?” is on the mind of every young person I have ever met and the pursuit of answers to that enduring question is central to Pepperdine’s mission.

Over the past several years, changes in leadership at both the administrative and academic levels have afforded us an opportunity to pause and reflect upon the heritage and mission of Pepperdine and to consider both as a basis for creating its future. Faculty, students, staff, and alumni have all been engaged in an effort to better understand the foundation of Pepperdine’s mission and to interpret it for our times.

The faith dimension of Pepperdine’s mission is expressed in wonderful ways. Students from many faith backgrounds gather for worship services and service projects. Professors masterfully blend faith and scholarship in their classrooms and in their research.

Serving as a foundation for our heritage of faith is Pepperdine’s unique relationship with Churches of Christ. In September 2014, the Religious Standards Committee (now called the Heritage and Faith Committee) of the Board of Regents met for a couple of days to consider how Pepperdine’s affiliation with the Churches of Christ was relevant not only to our past, but more importantly, to our future. The conversation was bold and at times tense; but in the end, an inspiring and sound interpretation of the role of Churches of Christ in the development of scholarship, spiritual development, and professional preparation at Pepperdine emerged from the proceedings.

Under the leadership of provost Rick Marrs, a white paper was developed based upon the deliberations of the board retreat and was later affirmed by the Board of Regents. I believe this paper will prove to be a legacy document that provides a platform for Pepperdine to build upon as it continues to position itself as a preeminent, global, Christian university. I encourage you to go to: pepperdine.edu/about/administration/provost/content/rsc.pdf to read the paper.

The Centrality of Scripture and a Diverse Learning Community

Among several points outlined in the paper, two major themes emerged that highlight the historic values of Churches of Christ and their contribution to Christian higher education—acknowledging the centrality of Scripture and discerning truth in a diverse learning community.

The Religious Standards Committee noted that the Restoration Movement tradition, of which Churches of Christ are a part, has historically approached scholarship through inductive reasoning and empiricism.

“Not surprisingly, Churches of Christ focused upon the original texts of Scripture, refusing to complacently receive interpreted versions of those materials through secondary sources,” Marrs writes. “Although institutions of higher learning today recognize multiple methodological approaches, the scientific approaches of empiricism and inductive reasoning retain their epistemological power to create knowledge and analyze previous insights and discoveries, endeavors central to the higher education agenda.”

Though many can claim this high standard of scholarship and research, the fact that it is imbedded in the DNA of our faith tradition provides us with a platform for freely engaging in scholarly endeavors without hesitation. No question is off the table. No line of inquiry is out of bounds. The only requirement is that the research meets the highest standards of academic excellence.

The Open Table

The second theme coming out of the Restoration tradition flows from the vision of Lord’s Table as an open table. The Religious Standards Committee recognized that this theme not only resonated within the Church, but provided a powerful vision for a learning community such as Pepperdine. Marrs writes:

An open table affirms that all believers are welcome; no official predetermines the legitimacy of the participants. This vision for a welcoming community is captured in an early Restoration mantra—‘Christians only, but not the only Christians.’ With a theology of an open table centered in the gracious gift of God, it is an easy step to acknowledge not only the necessity of diversity in thought and background of the community but also the celebration of that diversity.

While the theme warms the heart, it creates an extraordinary challenge whether you are talking about the church or the academy. To be candid, institutions and organizations tend to entrench and isolate. Pepperdine must embrace the element of diversity and inclusivity to create a community that welcomes all to the table while respecting its core values. This is will not be easy, but it is necessary to fully realize the potential of a university that is simultaneously committed to the highest standards of academic excellence and Christian values.

Several other important themes emerged from the Religious Standards Committee retreat that sparked thoughtful conversation. These themes have caused us to reexamine the true value of our heritage of faith. The Religious Standards Committee paper concludes,

Pepperdine chooses to embody and celebrate the faith and convictions of its founder and intellectual ancestors, sacrificing neither the Christian mission nor academic excellence as it lives out its mission in tumultuous times. Pepperdine is uniquely situated to provide an intellectual environment that courageously welcomes all participants to engage in serious and sustained dialogue about the nature and essence of God and the world God created and the unique placement and role of humanity in that world.

As I look at the road ahead, I see great challenges for future leaders of Pepperdine. I am encouraged to note, after this period of self-reflection, that our heritage of faith, the Churches of Christ, provides not an anchor as much as a platform for becoming our true and best self.

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