Eighth in a series about Panhandle values and quality of life.
In his 1893 essay, “The Significance of the Frontier in American History”, Frederick J. Turner acknowledges the importance of faith and renewal in America’s westward expansion in the 19th century. He probably had little regard for organized religion and was probably an agnostic. Nevertheless, he recognized the power of faith on the frontier. In 1923, Peter G. Mode noted that throughout the history of Christianity, “place” has influenced the manifestation of religious belief, contextualizing varieties of faith based, in part, on geography. In “The Frontier Spirit in American Christianity,” Mode said, “In adapting itself…to a varied and changing environment, it (religion) has from time to time assumed corresponding variations in type. Even during the same period and within the confines of a single civilization, its (religious) manifestation has often been far from uniform.”
If correct, a distinct place will develop its own use of faith, and its practice of that faith will be influenced by the environment, social actions, political and economic forces, and the various expressions of family and community life that have an impact on life in a particular place. . As a practicing Christian, I recognize the various manifestations of Christian faith in different contexts, but simultaneously accept the deep premises of this practice of faith. I have already shared the following:
I am Christian. I hold the faith, founded on the principles set forth in the Old and New Testaments of the Holy Bible, which I believe to be the inspired Word of God without equivocation, qualification or excuse. I share this with you so that any peculiarities of my Christianity, any predisposition they may create, any outlook or worldview associated with this caste, may be confessed.
I do so again as a mark of clarity and a revelation of bias.
The structure of the Texas Panhandle, in all respects, is sensitive to the elements that compose it. Likewise, faith in the region has been sensitive to geography: a freer, less confined, more open receptivity and unsuspecting recognition of the challenges of life in our landscape. Any effort to metropolise the exercise of any religious tradition in this part of the world, or any other distinct part of the world, will meet the challenges of observing Mode. The place affects the practice not only of faith, but also of medicine, architecture, education, engineering, law, health, teaching and all other human activities. . The nature and power of geography cannot be denied. Like many urban areas, this can be more difficult to grasp and achieve. However, this is not the case in various rural areas.
If Mode’s perspective is true, it is essential to recognize and include regionalism in religious life. In an effort to listen to students and their aspirations, universities need to be aware of the deeper beliefs and principles that students bring with them to the institution. In other words, if an institution in such a region is sensitive to the needs of the citizens it serves, appreciation of those core beliefs and principles is essential. Challenges to core beliefs must be encouraged through ideas and understanding rather than ideology, and only by appreciating that one brings one’s whole self (and beliefs) to the task of education. Blindly adopting anything doesn’t serve well on a college campus.
The pursuit of knowledge seeks to understand the human condition through reason without excluding faith. The genesis of Enlightenment thought. Such an integrated perspective differs markedly from ideologies that cannot tolerate disagreement and deny or separate spiritual and intellectual life. This narrow and illiberal view “allows and encourages addressing the important issues of the day from a perspective limited by the fact that an individual’s life of faith is irrelevant to the presentation of ideas, evidence, thoughts or knowledge”.
John B. Boles, analyzing Turner’s claims that faith was of secondary importance, wrote: “He (Turner) personally was hostile to organized religion and had no interest in theology. Perhaps that he (Turner) found it difficult to understand that (religion or theology) could have been of great importance to others.” Martin Luther’s reservations about organized religion were similar to Mode’s. In fact, the first three of his 95 theses, allegedly nailed to the door of the church in Wittenberg, responded to this concern. Luther believed that faith in God through Christ was more personal than institutional, more internal than external, and localized to person and place. Embraced in the frontier regions as deliberate autonomy, this recognition was the foundation of survival. The importance of family and local groups was emphasized as healthy individualism and adaptation.
In a recent Atlantic essay, Shadi Hamid, in America Without God, makes a profound observation and poses a powerful question: “As religious faith has declined, ideological intensity has increased. The quest for secular redemption through will politics condemn the American idea?” Running away from ideas, like many universities that eschew thought while embracing ideology, is a wild ride. Good universities must run straight for ideas, wisely informed by individual perspectives and regional influence. A faith perspective gives substance and shape to ideas, enhancing rather than diminishing relevance.
Walter V. Wendler is president of West Texas A&M University. His weekly columns are available at https://walterwendler.com/.