Michele Hershberger is chair of the Bible Department at Hesston College. She wrote A Christian View of Hospitality in 1999.
Can and should college students be treated as beloved guests? Can faculty venture beyond the instincts of competition to establish genuine relationships with each other? Is it possible, even desirable, to fight against supposed inhospitable forces on our campuses? And what model should we use to fight such forces? Dale Schrag provides an answer to these questions in Beautiful Minds. He gives us the right answer, and for the right reason. Other scholars laud the praise of hospitality as the key to intellectual renewal for the academic world (1), and while I believe that hospitality is the key to this renewal, Schrag calls for us to look beyond the utilitarian reasons and practice hospitality on our campuses because we follow Christ. We are being transformed into the crucified mind of Christ. And while I may disagree with Schrag on his evaluations of the Reformation era models we have to help guide us in our hospitality, I affirm his emphasis on hospitality based on the life of Jesus.
Biblical hospitality is not the "tea parties, bland conversations, and general atmosphere of coziness" (2) that many envision it to be. When several of the faculty at my college discussed Schrag's paper, the fear rose among us that it did in fact mean just that--being nice. We wondered how "being nice" could really help the student. We feared that hospitality meant going "soft" on our standards. And wouldn't that very attitude impede academic excellence rather than promote it? But hospitality, as understood by the original audience of the Bible and for ancients in general, had nothing to do with being nice. It simply meant loving the stranger. And while ancient hospitality usually involved food and lodging, it also implied a relationship of mutual respect, a willingness to be open to the other. It required suspending initial suspicion about the other and at the same time putting one's own cards on the table. There was confrontation, but always with the goal of community in mind. In some ways, then, as Bennet points out, courtesy, civility and being nice, are antithetical to true hospitality. (3)
An important key to biblical hospitality is the fluidity of the guest/host role. In the hospitality encounter, both host and guest are blessed, and both act as givers as well as receivers. This fluidity is supported in the ancient tongues. The word for host in Arabic (dayf), Greek (xenos), and Latin (hospes), also means guest. (4) In biblical hospitality stories, the guest--the stranger--always brings a gift. When Abram and Sarai entertain the three angelic visitors, the guests become hosts, and present them with news of a son. Elijah receives bread from the widow of Zarephath, and in turn, speaks the prophetic word and the widow has an unending supply of flour and oil in the midst of a famine. And when Cleopas and his friend invite inside the stranger they met on the road to Emmaus, they receive a tremendous gift--the presence of the risen Lord himself. As Jesus lifts up the bread and breaks, their eyes are opened. The guest is none other than the Master himself.
But do our students and fellow faculty members have a gift for us? Can they provide correctives to our thinking, a fresh image of God? Yes, they can, through a commitment to intellectual hospitality. John Bennett writes, "An indispensable characteristic of healthy learning communities, intellectual hospitality involves welcoming others through openness in both sharing and receiving claims to knowledge and insight. The sharing is marking by consideration toward others and recognition that others' distinctive individualities and overall experience are inherently relevant to their learning. The receiving is marked by awareness that however initially strange, the perspective of the other could easily supplement and perhaps correct one's own work or even transform one's self-understanding." (5) If we allow ourselves to see our students as people who have something to give in the classroom, and not just the recipients of our wisdom, we change the classroom dynamics. We give the students dignity. We receive new ideas and fresh paradigms that bring renewal to our own intellectual and relational life.
But intentionally looking for the gift of the stranger can seem messy on a college campus. Many times the gift is not apparent. And in so many ways, the student moves past the role of the overnight guest at the Benedictine monastery to the novice seeking admittance. It's one thing to treat every guest as Christ when you know he's only staying three days. It's another thing altogether to interact with them throughout several semesters. What does hospitality look like when we must live with angry, lazy, unwilling students? Perhaps our very openness, our washing of their feet, will so impact them that they open themselves to transformation. I think I have seen some of that in my classroom. But what if it doesn't? Does hospitality mean caving in and giving them what they want?
What guests want, writes Henri Nouwen, is a balance of receptivity and confrontation. True hospitality is not a value neutral environment. Welcome without critique is like staying in an empty house where the fridge is full but there's no one to eat with. Our student/guests want to hear and receive our faith values and knowledge. They need a proper balance of receptivity and confrontation. Says Nouwen, "We can enter into communication with the other only when our own life choices, attitudes and viewpoints (and academic content and values?) offer the boundaries that challenge strangers (students) to become aware of their own position and to explore it critically." (6)
Being said, this balance of receptivity and confrontation is no easy matter. The Benedictines of the sixth Century did wash the feet of every guest and treated strangers as if they were the Christ. The hospitality got a little more complicated when the guest chose to stay and even inquired about entry into the fellowship. Monks who came as guests were automatically offered food and lodging as long as they wanted. But, writes Benedict, "If in that period, he should be found troublesome or vicious, not only should he not be incorporated with the community, but he should even be told frankly to leave . . ." (7) Other guests who wished to come to the religious life "should not find the entrance made easy." (8) After 4 or 5 days of knocking and asking, the novice entered a rigorous initiation period that lasted for several months. (9) And every Benedictine monk, novice or senior, had to abide by the rules of the monastery. The discipline could be as severe as excommunication or corporal punishment. (10) Anyone could become Benedictine. The standards were high, but all who joined did so voluntarily and with full knowledge of those standards. There was receptivity and confrontation.
How then, can we nurture this hospitality, including the messy balance of receptivity and confrontation? Schrag outlines three possible solutions, rejecting the Karlstadtian and Erasmian solutions for the Benedictine model. In my short experience teaching at the most Karlstadtian of the Mennonite colleges, I find that it has more merit than Schrag allows. Karlstadt, during at least part of his academic career, took off his academic garb and asked to be called "Brother Andrew." Schrag compares this with professor today who encourages students to call her by her first name and who wears flip-flops and cut-offs to teach class. Schrag concludes that these two practices communicate that there are absolutely no differences between students and professors. I agree that is a false assumption and would be dangerous if true. I don't think, however, that this was Karlstadt's complete point. Karlstadt understood that our rituals and our language help shape our reality. Without digressing into the debate over extreme Whorfianism and moderate Whorfianism, most linguists and sociologists would tell us that the language and cultural practices we use influence our thinking. (11) We set a political climate by our intentional choice of words, rituals and customs. Schrag is right that calling a professor by his first name does not necessarily make him approachable or hospitable. But the same logic says that just because a professor insists you call her Dr. doesn't automatically make her worthy of respect. The exceptions to the rule do not give us permission to throw out the principle. Social groups nurture a certain environment by their choice or words and rituals, whether intentionally or not. And if we desire a truly hospitable environment, and consider that a greater need than academic authority, we should then opt for customs and language that nurture that climate.
Karlstadt can teach us that we can nurture a climate of hospitality in many ways, one of which is by the language we use. This custom of calling professors by their first names doesn't need to be enforced, for that would not be hospitable, nor does the use of first names imply that such professors dress in inappropriate ways. But if we want to create a more hospitable climate on our campuses, one avenue to investigate is our common language and set customs, for such things influence our thinking and social environment.
Of course it does take more than language use to make us hospitable faculty, for hospitality is impossible work. Understanding what true hospitality means--loving the strangers among us, welcoming them as we would welcome Christ--should bring us trembling to our knees. Schrag brings us around to the heart of the issue. Through prayer and corporate worship, we nurture the reality that we are not a sum of our grades or our faculty review. We can risk loving the stranger, for we are recipients of God's love. We can give and receive from the other, for our value is rooted firmly in the Other, the one who comes to us as stranger and as warm host. It is as we experience God's hospitality toward us that we are transformed and in turn, can be hospitable to others.
1. John B. Bennett, Collegial Professionalism: The Academy, Individualism, and the Common Good (Phoenix, Arizona: ACE Series in Higher Education/ Oryx, 1998).
2. Henri J. M. Nouwen, Reaching Out: Three Movements of the Spiritual Life (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1975), 66.
3. John B. Bennett, "The Academy and Hospitality," Cross Currents, Spring/Summer 2000, Vol. 50, <http://www.crosscurrents.org/Bennett.htm>.
4. "Guest-Host." Encyclopedia of Religion (Provo, Utah: Macmillan Publishing, 1995) 1:471.
5. Bennett, "The Academy and Hospitality," Cross Currents, Spring/Summer 2000, Vol. 50, <http://www.crosscurrents.org/Bennett.htm>.
6. Nouwen, Reaching Out: The Three Movements of the Spiritual Life (Garden City, N. Y.: Doubleday, 1975) p. 70.
7. St. Benedict, The Rule of Saint Benedict, trans. Cardinal Gasquet (New York, N. Y.: Cooper Square Publishers, 1966) p. 106.
8. Ibid, p. 99.
9. Ibid, p. 100.
10. Ibid, p. 54
11. Daniel Chandler, The Act of Writing, (Aberystwyth, Great Britain: University of Wales, 1995) p. 14.
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