Setting the Open Table
As the new director of the Center for Faith and Learning, John Barton helps set the “open table” of Pepperdine’s religious and academic mission
In his welcome message on the Center for Faith and Learning website, director John Barton reinforces the following claim: “In the world of faith-based higher education, Pepperdine is uniquely positioned to blend a diverse, world-class education with a robust, inclusive, Christian experience.” Through the years the University has been challenged to explain—and oftentimes dissect—how it demonstrates this strongly- held institutional mission. At the center and throughout the University, higher learning is aligned with a higher purpose, and Barton has been tasked with helping to define and implement what that means for the University community.
Following his first month in the position, Barton sat down with Pepperdine Magazine to discuss his vision for the Center for Faith and Learning, offer a snapshot of how its mission resonates with students, and share his perspectives on how Pepperdine’s Christian values help unite the diverse University community.
GD: What is your take on the role of faith in academics?
JB: George Pepperdine once said that Christian education should help students learn not merely “how to make a living,” but “how to live.” I think that summarizes it nicely. A Christian education is not only about preparing for a career. It is about living well. It is not merely about receiving information but experiencing transformation, and faith is central to such transformation. A healthy, robust faith not only shapes the way you experience the world and how you see others. It also motivates learning and drives the pursuit of further understanding. When I think of faith and learning in this way, Pepperdine is situated in an exciting place. Not only do we celebrate the University’s specific Christian heritage with Churches of Christ, which has always emphasized the importance of education, but we also participate in 2,000 years of Christian intellectual traditions. In addition, we also participate in the broad, diverse, and diversifying realities of the world around us. All of this provides a wonderful context for exploring the intersections of religious faith and academic learning. It provides the context in which we invite people into a deep process of transformation.
GD: How does the Center for Faith and Learning serve the diverse campus community?
JB: Faith and questions of faith are alive and pervasive at Pepperdine. The Center for Faith and Learning is one of the mechanisms that helps keep the conversations about faith alive and vibrant on the University’s campuses. In a number of different ways, we work to equip faculty for the integration of faith and learning in their teaching and scholarship and we provide numerous opportunities for students and all members of the Pepperdine community to explore the intersections of faith, learning, and vocation.
Of course, because Pepperdine is a Christian university, Christian identity and community shape and guide the conversations, but that identity also invites the contributions of people from diverse backgrounds including di erent cultural, racial, denominational, religious, and nonreligious backgrounds. In fact, the Christian mission of Pepperdine doesn’t simply tolerate such diversity; it welcomes it, celebrates it, and even requires it. The notion of an open table and the inclusive community that it represents is discussed widely on campus these days, and that language and pursuit is motivated by the call and the welcoming hospitality of Christ. As the Apostle Paul wrote to the Christians in Rome, “Welcome one another just as Christ has welcomed you.” I find such hospitality to be an engaging and important part of the integration of faith and learning.
GD: You’ve mentioned on Twitter one of your favorite Elie Wiesel quotes: “Questions unite people. Answers divide them.” How do you think that plays out at a place like Pepperdine where students are encouraged to engage in “spirited inquiry?”
JB: People of all di erent backgrounds find solidarity around the big questions, the big pursuits, and the dialogue we have as we ask those questions together. Obviously, we ask those questions and take part in those conversations in search of answers. Elie Wiesel wasn’t trying to undermine the importance of seeking answers, but he was reminding us that when answers become too rigid, they can become divisive and even abusive—they become poles of division rather than invitations to dialogue and relationship. I find Wiesel’s insight to be both sobering and inspiring. It encourages both a confident pursuit of truth and profound humility along the way. We should think of ourselves as being on a journey rather than having already arrived, as seekers of truth rather than controllers, advocates rather than guardians. That’s what the academic enterprise is all about and, I believe, faith is a powerful motivator and guide in that.
So, I think Wiesel’s statement resonates with the call of Christian academics. Jesus doesn’t call us to act as if we have all the answers. He calls us to be humble, to be seekers, to be in dialogue with the world around us. He calls us to treat everyone, in every situation, as we want to be treated. He calls us to seek and serve, and promises to be with us as we do.
GD: How do you think Pepperdine expresses its Christian mission?
JB: The integration of faith and learning is about knowing yourself, knowing your world, and knowing
your global neighbors. Through these pursuits, we are on the path to knowing God. Pepperdine’s Christian mission inspires and guides such processes. It helps us to imagine and live in those “thin spaces” in which heaven and earth come near to one another.
At its core, the Christian faith is built on a conviction that truth appeared in clearest form in the incarnation of Jesus, who is the embodiment of truth. When we apply that to faith and learning, we’re right back to the transformational process. The integration of faith and learning is more than theories and pedagogies. It is something to inhabit and embody. Whether you’re teaching physics, constitutional law, or any other subject, the teaching enterprise is embodied in people who care not only about the subject matter, but who teach it as a kind of worship and who care deeply about their students as people.
GD: What are some of the most pressing questions or concerns that students bring to the classroom?
JB: Pepperdine students are incredibly bright, passionate, and ambitious. They are also overly busy, feel many cross- pressures from a demanding society, and o en put too much pressure on themselves. Like many in our culture now, they also experience an ironic mix of global connectedness and personal loneliness. Students (and professors!) carry all this into the learning environments of the classroom. Because of that, I think Pepperdine’s small class sizes and “whole person” orientation is vitally important.
Religiously, students are trying to figure out how to navigate an increasingly diverse world. I find many students are seeking ways to both inhabit a distinct and robust faith while also maintaining a posture of openness and respect for others. Those qualities make working with them exciting, and I think Pepperdine has something unique and important to offer them.
GD: You are passionate about exposing students (and yourself) to different faith practices. In what ways do you think this enhances learning?
JB: We live in a diverse world. If you take a short walk through a major metropolitan airport like LAX or a shopping mall or many other public locations, you can hear more languages, rub elbows with more nationalities and religions, and experience more diversity than many of our grandparents or great- grandparents would have experienced in a lifetime. Our world is also becoming more diverse in the sense that people from di erent backgrounds are living and working together in shared political and national spaces. That presents both challenges and wonderful opportunities. One of the key things that education must do is prepare people for that world, for how to live well in that world, to collaborate peacefully and e ectively in that world. We must all know how to both learn from and contribute to the diversities around us.
Toward that end, cultural and religious literacies and competencies have never been more important. Of course, when studying other religions and meeting and interacting with people from those religions, not only do you learn more about the world and our global neighbors, but you also learn more about yourself and your own convictions and practices. This is faith and learning at its best and undergirds again the importance of Pepperdine’s Christian mission. In the end, if we can be true to that mission and embody its humility and welcoming hospitality, then we can become a model for the kind of inclusive community of learning that our globalized world increasingly needs. That can happen, and is happening, on our campuses. I am grateful that the Center for Faith and Learning is able to contribute to that.