Davidson's New Lilly Grant Administrator Will Be Testing Personal Beliefs
March 16, 2001
The newly appointed director of Davidson's Program for the Theological Exploration of Vocation, Timothy Beach-Verhey, will be putting his own beliefs to the test when he begins guiding the initiative next fall. The college recently received $1.9-million from the Lilly Endowment for a four-year program to encourage members of its community to consider applying spiritual beliefs to lifetime vocation. Beach-Verhey, who has been filling a temporary teaching position in the religion department, applied to direct the program because the issues of faith and vocation are central to his academic interest.
"My Ph.D. research has been about how moral discourse in contemporary society is possible, and can even be constructive, despite our increasing diversity," he said. The dissertation is entitled, "Christ Transforming Liberal Democracy: H. Richard Niebuhr's Theocentric Vision of American Political Thinking."
Beach-Verhey continued, "I'm concerned about the nature of moral discourse in our society. There are those in who say that religious pluralism demands that we use only some sort of neutral, minimal moral language for communication. And some Christians say that their beliefs are so different from other faiths that Christians should live apart and not concern themselves with others. I'm convinced that neither of these is appropriate for a diverse society, nor is it a proper theological assessment of Christianity's relation with other faiths.
"Niebuhr contends that the historical Christian community has faith in a transcendent God. God is the creator, the sustainer, the redeemer of all people, and not just Christians. This idea gives Christians the impetus toward the whole, and opens up the possibility that people of other faiths can tell Christians something about God as well. It opens up discourse and consensus."
Because Davidson's Lilly program aims to support a dialogue about faith and vocation across ideological boundaries, Beach-Verhey said his new responsibility for the program feels like "putting my money where my mouth is!"
He continued, "I have good theological and theoretical reasons for thinking that a faith-based consideration of vocation can help bring us closer together, and now I get to put it to the test."
Davidson's Lilly program will promote the idea that faith applied to the workplace can lead to a more fulfilling career. It contends that people who align their beliefs, values, and principals with their work find it more meaningful, and manifest solidarity and compassion through it.
The program encompasses students, faculty, staff, townspeople, and alumni of all faiths and religious persuasions. Some aspects directly address the Lilly Endowment's intention to encourage young men and women to consider a career in Christian ministry. Other aspects invite students who are avowedly Christian to think about how their Christianity should influence their vocational choices. Still other aspects invite students who are not Christian--perhaps not avowedly religious at all--to think about the influence of their values upon their life goals and tasks.
Beach-Verhey believes the faith-based consideration of vocation can help bring together elements of society that increasingly seem to be splitting apart. He explained, "As America has become increasingly diverse, the religious base of our understanding of work has been replaced by a language of utilitarian individualism. As the dominant cultural and religious tradition has eroded, our only common ground has become 'the market' and our self-interest in it. This has been an incredibly successful way to think about things, and has allowed people who have very little in common to cooperate."
However, he continued, this point of view has pushed aside many religious traditions. "For example, Christianity isn't about self-interested, contractual relations with strangers. It's about love of God in everyday life. At end of worship services there is a benediction intended to send worshippers out in the world and prepare them for worshipful lives throughout the week. Their religious responsibilities don't end at the end of the service. The service is the foundation for taking the faith into everyday life, into the work one does."
He continued, "I think in our market-driven world, people are longing for a deeper connection between themselves and others, and the feeling that their work serves a universal purpose. I think we need to revive the religious languages people use to describe the work they do. But the reality of our tremendous diversity means that it must happen in ways that transcend the boundaries of particular historical, cultural, and religious traditions.
"That's the experiment," he concluded. "Can we have a common working life on the basis of something more profound than market mechanisms and the language of self interest?"
The broadest application of the Lilly funding will be applied to Davidson sophomores, who will be invited en masse each year to participate in a three-day off-campus seminar either immediately prior to the fall term or prior to the winter term. Beach-Verhey said, "The second year is the right time to approach students about considering these questions. They have moved past the adjustment of their first college year, and have to start selecting their academic major. That's a good time to examine their beliefs in light of the big choices they'll soon be making."
Another component of the program invites parents of those sophomore students to participate in a meeting during Family Weekend to talk about the program and their children.
There are several initiatives for Christian students who want to develop their faith. They include funding for summer internships, for community service trips during fall and spring breaks, for projects at area churches, and a two scholarships a year for post-graduate community service mission trips.
The grant will help students specifically interested in Christian ministry by providing three students each year with "bridge" scholarships. Those scholarships will help students defray costs during their final year of college and first year of seminary, and fund a summer internship and discussion groups in between.
Davidson's academic program will be strengthened in year two and four of the grant through funding of a Lilly Resident Scholar for a semester. The scholar will be a professor whose expertise is related to the Reformed tradition. The holder will teach classes to students, and also guide faculty in the exploration of value-based education. Funds will also be available for members of the faculty to develop courses within their disciplines that deal with vocation, faith, and morality.
The community beyond the campus boundaries will benefit from a Lilly Lecture Series which each year will sponsor four prominent speakers on vocation, faith, values, and morality. In addition, the grant will fund seminars at local churches focussing on vocation, faith, and values.
Funds will also initiate a "theological education day" on campus each year, and provide travel money for students interested in visiting seminaries to consider enrollment there.
The grant extends beyond current students to invite alumni to consider their faith and vocations. Each year the college will conduct two weekend seminars for alumni in cities with high concentrations of alumni, and will hold one four-day summer seminar on campus for alumni.
Beach-Verhey said his office will also work closely with the college's careers office and community service office to help students reflect on their vocational calling. His work will be supported by two full-time assistants who are yet to be hired. Their first major assignment is crafting and promoting the sophomore year retreat, which will involve about 60 students in two or three days of off-campus activities immediately prior to the opening of school in mid-August.
Beach-Verhey graduated from Hope College in Holland, Mich., with a philosophy degree. He went on to earn his master's of divinity degree at Union Theological Seminary in Virginia. He is currently completing his doctoral thesis in the ethics and society program at Emory University.
Davidson is a highly selective independent liberal arts college for 1,600 students. Since its establishment in 1837, the college has graduated 23 Rhodes Scholars and is consistently ranked among the top liberal arts colleges in the country by U.S. News and World Report magazine. Davidson recently launched "Let Learning Be Cherished," a $250 million campaign in support of student financial assistance, academic resources, and community life.