November 22, 2022
Shirley Hoogstra, leader of a network of Christian colleges, discusses why she champions interfaith work and Christian education.
Shirley Hoogstra, president of the Council for Christian Colleges & Universities, advocates for 500,000 students on 188 campuses in the United States and beyond. She talks about the diversity among evangelical Christians and why Christians are called to interfaith work: “The CCCU wants to stand for Muslims, Jains, Buddhists, Hindus, and other faiths to practice fully and flourish.”
A visionary leader who is passionate about Christian higher education and the role it plays in the common good, Shirley V. Hoogstra became the seventh president of the Council for Christian Colleges & Universities in September 2014. She has focused on expanding diversity and inclusion on CCCU campuses and making education available, accessible, and affordable to all students. Hoogstra serves on the steering committee for the Washington Higher Ed Secretariat, is a leader for the Evangelical Immigration Table, and serves on the boards of the American Council on Education, the National Association of Evangelicals, and Trinity Forum.
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What do evangelical Christians want for America?
Eboo Patel: This is the Interfaith America podcast, and I’m Eboo Patel.
Eboo: It was not so long ago, when Muslims in America were approached with the implicit question, tell me you’re not a terrorist. These days, it’s too often the case that evangelical Christians are approached with the implicit question, tell me you’re not a violent white nationalist. I know too many evangelical Christians who are doing the good work of building American pluralism.
One of them is my friend, Shirley Hoogstra. Shirley has been the president of the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities since 2014. There are well over a hundred campuses that are part of the CCCU. I have visited a dozen, maybe more myself, places like Baylor, Pepperdine, Wheaton, Bethel, Calvin. I have experienced a warm welcome and enriching discussions at every single campus. Shirley, I am so excited to welcome you to the Interfaith America podcast. Let’s jump right in.
So many people want to tell the worst story about religion. You and I are committed to telling the best story. Let’s begin with that. When do we see faith at its best? How can it serve American pluralism?
Shirley Hoogstra: When we see faith at its best, irregardless of where it originates from, first of all, this builds the strength of America. What can Americans count on as a counter to coarseness, to lying, to bullying, to getting your own way, to self-interest? Where would the counters of those kinds of qualities come from?
You would hope they would come from the vast array of faith communities in the United States who would say, “You don’t actually have to operate that way. Here’s a way that you can be for your neighbor, that you can be for your community that is gentle and kind and faithful and loving and truth-telling and sacrificial.” That is the America we need. As it becomes more diverse in an interfaith way, we would hope that we would join arms together to make the best America.
Patel: Absolutely. Let’s keep on talking about religious diversity. One of the things I actually want to talk about, begin with is, is the diversity within CCCU campuses. I think one of the things that Muslims and evangelicals have in common is that so often people look at us as monoliths, and a monolith that is defined or embodied by its worst elements. I remember you said something to me a couple of years ago.
You were like, “Do you have any idea how much theological diversity there is within the CCCU?” Of course, there’s political diversity and cultural diversity. Let’s leave those aside for a moment. Just let’s geek out for a second. Tell us about the theological diversity between say, a Calvin and a Baylor, or choose any other two campuses within the CCCU.
Hoogstra: One of the things when you’re working theologically, Eboo, is the fact that we’re talking about salvation issues, eternal life issues. We are pondering not just an earthly life, but an eternal life. People want to live an earthly life well. Within the framework of theological Christian spectrum, you have individuals who would say, “Look, you can’t actually lose your eternal life.” Once God has chosen you, you are chosen for the rest of your life. There’s going to be ups and downs in that journey, but you can’t do something to have God unpick you.
Patel: That’s the reform tradition.
Hoogstra: Yes. Then you might have traditions where you say, “Look, if you don’t get it right, you could actually be showing evidence that you’re not saved.” Then your salvation is at issue in the kinds of decisions or alignments or allies that you make. Now, that kind of theological pressure is going to affect your work, and your life. Now, people would criticize the Calvinists to say, “Hey, look, you guys just have too much freedom.” If you can’t lose your salvation, it’s like, “Well, everything’s open, let’s go.” That might be a fair criticism to the extreme.
On the other hand, you might say to someone who could lose their salvation, “Hey, wait a minute. Where did we get the power as humans to control God?” That’s just too narrow. The beauty of the CCCU, what I love about the 35 different denominations that I represent in my organization, 35, is that they all bring something of extraordinary value to the discussion of God and humans. I love learning about it, and I love honoring it, respecting it, advancing it.
I know this is in the Muslim faith, too. There’s not one type of Muslim, there’s not one type of Jewish person. There’s not one type of Christian, one type of evangelical, but it does take some time to get to know people. It does mean that you have to suspend what you think you know, and ask yourself, “What don’t I know? What could I learn about this religious group?”
Patel: First of all, I just think this is all fascinating. Thirty-five denominations?
Hoogstra: Yes. Right.
Patel: Most of us run around thinking of you as this evangelical, and imagine you as cookie-cutter images of yourselves. Thirty-five denominations. That is unbelievable. It is remarkable that you all are willing to, generally speaking, ride under the label evangelical.
Hoogstra: I think it goes to the nature of the kind of fundamental beliefs that all 35 of those different denominations have. They are: love God, love your neighbor, show yourself worthy of the love of God in your life, make sure that you can give the reason for the hope that you have. There are some really big pillars of faith, and within the CCCU we say, “Hey, look, let’s align around the big pillars of faith.” The way in which we express them on a more day-to-day basis, or in our churches, or in our organizations, doesn’t have to be a divider. They can be respected, they can be honored.
I think that’s the way we should be as people of faith generally. Looking for the common ground, the common good. Within maybe individual churches, you can do the nuance work, but when it comes to being a witness to the world, I think that the world would be better if they saw the consistent witness of the big pillars of faith.
Patel: First of all, I totally agree with that. I don’t want you to get away with just assuming that everybody believes that and would lead that way. That’s a lot about you as a person and as a leader. The ability to unite what might otherwise be a very fractious group, and you to say, “Listen, we’re going to focus, as a community, on the big things we have in common, and we’re going to have civil dialogue about some of the interesting differences.”
I think that says a lot about you as a leader. Incidentally, to continue on the path of diversity here, and to widen the lens, a big part of what you’ve done at CCCU, is you’ve said, “Hey, listen, these big pillars, love of God and love of neighbor, we have in common with other religious communities.” On your stages, at your invitation, you’ve had me a couple of times, thank you for that. You’ve had, Sheikh Hamza Yusuf, the president of Zaytuna College. You’ve had, I believe, the president of Yeshiva University. You’ve had other faith leaders. Tell me why an evangelical Christian consortium of colleges and universities would be so proactive about having leaders of other faiths on its stage.
Hoogstra: Thank you for that. Another observation, and you have always been an extraordinary friend to the CCCU in your work and in your posture. Here’s why. The first thing is that as Christians, we believe that there should be religious freedom for all. I know that sometimes is counter to what people see on the national landscape. Some people would accuse Christians of wanting to have a Christian nation. That’s not true for my organization or my members. Christ is Lord of all, but that doesn’t mean that that is about the civic engagement.
What we want to make sure is that everyone can practice their particular faith in a way that makes them flourish. You can only believe that other faiths should be able to flourish if you know people of other faith. We have something to learn from people of other faiths. Again, if you don’t get proximate to people of faith, that is your faith or their faith, you cannot really believe in religious freedom for all. Our organization very much wants to be able to have our colleges and universities function within their mission. It happens to be a Christian mission.
Sometimes that really advances the common good, sometimes people find that it seems offensive to the common good, but in America, you get to practice your religion. The CCCU wants to stand for Muslims, Jains, Buddhist, Hindus. Other faiths to practice fully, and flourish. Second of all, we love to learn. Higher education loves to learn. When we are all together, what better than to get as many minds around topics as possible.
In fact, on our YouTube channel, that particular session with all of those faith leaders is one of the most viewed sessions. I think that’s terrific because then we are an instrument of teaching about the value of many faiths in a pluralistic nation, and that we have to be for each other in that civic good.
Patel: I just want to underscore two things in that answer. Number one, we should put this in a billboard, the CCCU stands for and is going to advance the flourishing of Muslims, Buddhist, Jains, Hindus, and do this in very proactive and concrete ways. I just think if there is one stereotype about evangelical Christians is that evangelicals seek to dominate. This is the same stereotype that there’s out there about Muslims. That we seek to dominate. You’re saying here, not only do we seek to cooperate, but we want you to be strong. It is part of our faith that you are strong. I just think that that is so powerful.
Hoogstra: I am enthusiastic about the flourishing of humankind because we are all created in God’s image. I think also, Eboo, there is this paradox where you can want the flourishing of all people. You’re alluding to the fact that there are examples where Christians said, “You have to be like us in order to be good.” That is a misplaced example of how Christians believe a particular way salvation occurs. If you love your neighbor, you want to have an opportunity to say, “Hey, look, I have a recipe for eternal life for you.”
In fact, think about it this way. If you have cancer and you can either have chemotherapy that can make you better or no one shares with you that you can have chemotherapy, you think, “Wow, why didn’t they tell me I could have had chemotherapy? I can choose not to, but why didn’t someone tell me it existed?” The person who’s caring for someone around options for medical treatment does that kind of conversation with care for the patient. It is not a forced hard line exchange, it’s a caring exchange. The best kind of exchange where a Christian is sharing their formula, their medicine, their recipe for eternal life should be done with the same kind of care and permission.
My doctor gets to share with me the kinds of things that are going to help me as a person. I think for Christians, when you want to share your formula, your recipe, your belief about an important aspect of life, which is, “what happens when you die?” You’ve got to do that in a way that, first of all, says, “I want the best for you.” Just like we were talking about, I want the best for each person who is living out their faith, and I have the desire to share with you something that I found important that you might want to consider. It never should be a hammer. I think people experience Christians sometimes as a hammer.
Patel: Part of what I love about what you said was, people want the good for other people. Part of what higher education is about, and maybe this is one of the interesting reasons that religion and higher education have actually gone together for so long, Muslims built the world’s first continuing university, Al-Azhar, in Cairo. In fact, my community, the Ismaili Muslim community, built that. The good is not just coming out of one scripture, it’s also in the world. Part of what higher education is about is a discovery of the world. In fact, there’s a term for this in Islam, the ayah. Ayah is not only a verse of the Quran, it’s also a sign in the world.
This term which stands for the good, it’s a verse in the Quran, and also a sign in the world, both of that is holy. That’s part of what you’re doing in Christian higher education, is you are illuminating the good. There’s good that comes out of scripture, and there’s good in other people. I love the example that you gave, of some of your most watched videos are of people of other faiths speaking about what is good in their faith. That is precisely what higher ed is about. I have seen that at conferences, and I’m curious about how you think that that has filtered into the student experience.
One of the things that you write about is that CCCU schools, and this should come as no surprise to anybody, take the Bible very seriously, and you want students to graduate loving Jesus Christ, and knowing him more. You want them to graduate being able to be good doctors and nurses to Muslim patients, good teachers to Hindu students, good city council members when the Jains want to establish a temple. How do you see that process happening? That CCCU schools are nurturing people in a biblical worldview and also preparing them to live and be neighbors and leaders in a religiously diverse America.
Hoogstra: First it starts with a belief in excellence. If you believe that a Christian college graduate will be excellent, they should have the experience where they can anticipate and then serve others excellently. If you’re a doctor, a nurse, a social worker, a person who has a funeral business, somebody who is in business and is going to work in a large corporation, a well-educated Christian college grad would have an understanding of the religious tenets that may be held dear by their patient, by their client, or by their coworker. That’s what an excellent education is.
The idea that you have to fear another religion is actually proven to be false. If you understand what is dear to another person, like we’ve done, we exchange, “I love to hear what’s dear in your religious faith.” When I hear that, I think, “Oh, that resonates for me here, or I have much deeper respect for the way God has been really forming the world for thousands of years.” You were talking about the educational institution that was formed from your faith perspective, and it preexisted, I’m sure, every Christian college that I serve. This idea of a love for learning is actually a reflection of God.
God used your faith, your people, to establish this educational learning, and I want Christian college grads to respect the way that God has operated in the world for thousands of years. That’s why our organizations have been working together. We’ve been working together on a number of projects to bring this kind of interfaith awareness, curiosity, respect into the classroom.
Patel: It’s been some of my favorite work to work with you, to design that Christian Education in a Multifaith World curriculum, and to do the vaccine project with you. We had 110 college campuses participate in the Faith in the Vaccine Ambassadors. About 50 of them were CCCU campuses. Again, this stereotype of like these Neanderthal evangelicals who don’t want science and don’t want the vaccine and don’t want part of the common good.
Almost half of the people who participated in our national major initiative, the Faith in the Vaccine Ambassadors, came from your network, so thank you for that. I loved the emphasis of excellence, and your comment about what’s dear. Actually, one of the things that’s dear in Islam is this concept of Ihsan, which means excellence.
Patel: There’s actually three stages in Muslim faith. The first is Islam, which is submission to the will of God. The next is Iman, which is faith, and then the third and highest is Ihsan, which is excellence. This notion that everything you do should be excellent. Being excellent around religious diversity as a nurse or a doctor or a teacher or somebody who leads a funeral business, that is really important. In fact, it’s holy.
Hoogstra: Yes. Can I say that by admiring something in another faith is not compromise of your faith.
Patel: It’s an expression of one’s– Of my faith, at least.
Hoogstra: Yes. This ability to see, again, excellence. Attributes that are admirable. Pathways of loving your neighbor that is outside your tradition should spur you on in your faith tradition, not make you afraid of the faith tradition that is doing something excellently. Let me say there’s some critique that if you are involved with other faith traditions, you might lose your faith. To that critique, I would say, that is not the problem of the other tradition. That is the problem of the education of your own student.
Patel: Oh, that’s powerful. Yes.
Hoogstra: Right? This is, if you are concerned about the impact of another expression of faith on your student, then make sure that they really love their faith. Make sure they really understand their faith. Make sure that they believe that their faith can hold big questions. It’s really an indictment on the people who do not want the interaction rather than an indictment on the faith of the other group.
Patel: This notion of big questions, it’s faith that inspired me to ask big questions. Like, what’s my purpose? Where does it come from? What am I meant to do? I love that our faiths, in fact, the nature of faith is to have the capaciousness to engage positively with the other, because that other comes from, in the Muslim tradition, the breath of God, right?
Patel: Speaking of big questions, let me ask this final big one. So much of the dominant story about religion is scandal and decline. Especially when it comes to evangelical Christianity. There’s the sexual abuse crisis in the Southern Baptist Convention, there’s the meltdown of Mars Hill, I can go on and on. As a Muslim, I know all about the narrative of scandal and decline, and worse. I know about how it dangerously distorts. Here’s my question. How do you think this narrative affects Christian students? What role might the CCCU play in advancing a different narrative of evangelical Christianity and maybe of American religion as a whole?
Hoogstra: Look, it’s devastating when you’ve been told, as you’ve grown up in your Christian life, that you can look up to leaders, that leaders will be wise, that leaders will be exemplars, and then you find out they’re not. Or worse, you’ve been abused by one of them. This is soul-shattering, and we need to name it. That is why the Bible actually says, if you’re a leader or a teacher, you have even a higher standard of accountability because you have been responsible for either leading people towards Christ, or leading people away. You will be held responsible for the kinds of actions. It’s devastating when that happens.
There is a beautiful story that comes out of an African tale where there’s a story that happens, and it’s true, but it happens to not be complete. I like the ability to say, “You know what? It is true that Christian leaders and practices can be entirely disappointing, and that it’s not the whole story.” For students, I think that if they are on the verge of becoming disillusioned, you have to give them some other stories that are true. You have to point them into a bigger focus, a bigger lens of where the Christian faith is operating at its best, not its worst.
Patel: It operates in its best in so many ways in CCCU schools, in your heart and spirit and leadership. I remember being in college and reading the line from Martin Luther King Jr., “I am many things to many people, but in the deep recesses of my heart, I am a Baptist minister. My daddy was a Baptist minister, my granddaddy was a Baptist minister, my great-granddaddy was a Baptist minister. My commitment to the love and vocation of Jesus is the Son of the living God, is the highest commitment that I have.” I just remember that shocking me into new thinking, of like, “Wow, without Christian faith, there is no Martin Luther King Jr.”
Patel: Nobody had ever told me that before. All the Martin Luther King Jr. days in elementary school and middle school and high school, nobody had ever said, “This is the fruit of the spirit.” I love how we are committed to telling the best stories of our own communities, but even more how we’re committed to telling the best stories of other communities and traditions. Being friends with you, Shirley, it is not hard to tell the best story of evangelical Christianity. Thank you for your friendship. Thank you for your leadership of CCCU. Thank you for your time in this podcast.
Hoogstra: Thank you, Eboo. I so appreciate your friendship and the invitation to be here today.
Patel: Great. Thank you so much.
Hoogstra: You’re welcome.
Patel: I love this insight from Shirley. Excellence means anticipating and serving others at the highest quality, regardless of who they are, including what religion they are. Being Christian, for Shirley, means using one’s faith to anticipate the needs of people from all faiths, and serving them as excellently as possible. To read more about this conversation and to find resources and stories about bridge building in our religiously diverse nation, visit our website, interfaithamerica.org. I’m Eboo Patel.
Intro/outro music provided by Mysterylab Music and composed by Mott Jordan.
Credit music provided by Die Hard Productions.
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