Story by Jake Harris, published in Image Magazine’s Spring 2013 issue. Photo taken by me.
At 137 feet, the steeple of Robert Carr Chapel is the highest point on the university’s campus. The chapel was built in 1953 and the steeple represents the notion that God should be at the highest point of anyone’s life.
Historically, the university has been affiliated with the Disciples of Christ Church, a denomination that sprouted off from the Presbyterian Church during the Second Great Reformation in the early 1800s. This history has played a huge part in influencing the university’s culture, but it seems that the university as an institution does not wish to impose those religious beliefs on anyone. The mandatory weekly chapel sessions that once governed religious life are long gone. Tour guides are trained to tell prospective students who ask about the “C” in the university’s name that TCU is “affiliated with but not governed by” the Disciples of Christ Church.
There are many avenues for students to explore their faith, whether they are Christian or not. The university has 22 religious organizations available to students, and its student body comes from 60 different religious traditions, according to the university’s website.
But now in the age of mega churches, the reformed church movement and the increasingly postmodern outlooks on faith, how does the university reconcile its affiliation with the Disciples Of Christ?
The answer is diversity. Be it in religion, people or opinions, diversity should be found in church services and student organizations just like anywhere else in the world.
Chancellor Victor Boschini, the university’s second chancellor who is not a Disciples pastor, is Catholic. However, he said he identifies with the “spirit of the Disciples Church,” and the beauty of a private school like TCU is that the students and faculty members can have discussions about religion and disagree.
“I think the model for Disciples is that there’s room at the table for everyone. So please disagree with me, but let’s talk about it,” Boschini said.
That freedom to express personal beliefs took on a new face earlier this semester when Alexis Lohse, a junior political science major, founded the Secular Student Alliance. The Secular Student Alliance seeks to prove that compassion can be found without the use of religion, according to an article from TCU 360.
The fact that the Secular Student Alliance falls under the umbrella of Religious and Spiritual Life speaks volumes about how far the university’s positions on religion have evolved since its founding.
Rev. Angela Kaufman, the minister to the university, explained that evolution using a common example that many people ask about when applying to TCU: weekly chapel.
“At one point there were no classes offered when we offered weekly chapel,” Kaufman said. “Over the years we’ve had to offer more classes, and we’ve had more students, so we had to have class during that designated chapel time. But I’m comfortable with that evolution because now I see students worshiping in many different ways all over campus. So our church relationship has evolved but not at all in bad ways.”
That church relationship is kept intact by a covenant, which was updated in Nov. 2010, that governs all 14 Disciples of Christ affiliated schools in America. That covenant states that “the core values of a liberal arts education are shared by the church: valuing the dignity of all people, acting with integrity and responsibility, viewing self as part of community, living life within a global context, providing service to others and pursuing lifelong learning.”
Compare that with the mission statement of the university: “To educate individuals to think and act as ethical leaders and responsible citizens in the global community.”
It is no coincidence that the two are alike, Kaufman said.
“When I hear ‘We’re not a Christian institution,’ I say, ‘We absolutely are a Christian institution.’ With every fiber of our being, TCU is a Christian institution,” Kaufman said. “We live out that requirement by having the same diversity on this campus that students will encounter out in the real world, reminding people that through dialogue with other faiths, we grow stronger not weaker in our own concept of faith.”
The diversity that students encounter on the university’s campus can take several forms. One of which is the civil rights bus tour that happens every year through Inclusiveness & Intercultural Services.
Junior religion major Scott Brown sad that the bus tour opened his eyes to ways that religion can be used to cause social change.
“I was able to learn a lot through the civil right bus tour on the social justice aspects that religion could have,” Brown said. “It was interesting learning firsthand how the civil rights movement could take principles both Christian and Hindu and radically recreate what society should be to challenge racism, to challenge racial inequality. So you’re able to see religion in action.”
Brown also got the chance to go to San Francisco this past summer through the Better Together program to learn about different faiths in America. Through this experience, Brown said that he learned that other religions besides Christianity could cause people to affect change, too.
“I was able to learn how much power can be in a religious community and how it doesn’t need to be defined with who’s in and who’s out,” Brown said.
Another way that students encounter diversity on campus is the Ignite student ministry, which embodies Brown’s idea of acceptance.
About to celebrate its third year at the university, Ignite is the newest non-denominational Christian group on campus that aims to lead students in a “come as you are” worship atmosphere.
“There’s not a whole lot of structure to it or a whole lot of formality to it,” Ignite copresident Kaity Wegen said. “One of my huge prayers for the ministry is that it’s approachable.”
Even with its new postmodern take on worship and religion, Ignite at its core shares its most important concept with the Disciples of Christ Church diversity. Wegen said that the leadership staff of Ignite consists of a large variety. She said that anyone who attends the service can expect to see Greeks, independents, churchgoers and anyone else on campus who wants to come.
“I think there’s a lot about the formality of religion that’s intimidating to a lot of people, and I just don’t think there should be anything intimidating about Jesus,” Wegen said.
Wegen said she thinks America’s Christians are shifting toward a more nondenominational viewpoint because it is more approachable.
Boschini agreed, saying that he sees students on campus becoming more spiritual than religious. “Everyone defines it a little differently. I think that these issues are becoming more important to people because I think all of us are looking for more connections in our life. As our world gets quicker and faster and more unpredictable, we all want connections, and I think that that’s all a big return to spirituality,” Boschini said.
Those changes manifest themselves in different ways for students on campus, whether it is the formation of a secular student group or expanding one’s views on what it means to be a Christian.
“I don’t agree with [the Secular Student Group], but I will defend their right to believe what they want to believe,” Boschini said. “My take as a Christian is that’s great they have every right to that because that’s what I think a Christian would say, but that’s my take on Christianity.”
That seems to be the biggest issue at stake here—What is the definition of a Christian? Surely there must not be one definitive answer, or there would not be other forms of Christianity. And if there is only one form of Christianity, what does it mean to be a “Christian” university?
The rumor has always been that the administration will take out the “C” in TCU’s name because the university falls to reflect that. However, Boschini and Kaufman disagreed.
“I think a big part of the problem is that everyone defines Christianity differently, just like everyone defines Catholicism differently. [It is the] same with Disciples of Christ. That’s what’s great about America. I don’t find that threatening, though. I kind of find that fun,” Boschini said.
Kaufman echoed Boshini’s statement, saying that since the university might not be the place Christians think of when they think of Christianity, then the university must not be Christian at all.
“There’s often a big difference between going to Mass and going to a contemporary non-denominational worship service with a live band. Aren’t they both Christian? The answer is yes. It’s just different,” Kaufman said.
Differences—and acceptance of those differences—are what make the university a Christian institution. Maybe those who say the university is not Christian are just looking in the wrong place.
Maybe they would do good to remember these words, written by Paul:
“Just as a body, though one, has many parts, but all its many parts form one body, so it is with Christ…Even so the body is not made up of one part but of many…If they were all one part, where would the body be?” 1 Corinthians 12:12, 14 and 19.
Jake Harris is a junior journalism major from Wahiawa, HI.