My alma mater, The University of Chicago, was recently in the news for an overtly politically correct act for replacing its historic Bond Chapel's pews for Muslims to worship. This act is raising hackles reminiscent of the university's other, recent, tone-deaf decision to demolish the childhood home of former President Ronald Reagan, on its campus, and replace it with a parking lot and a commemorative plaque.
The school, founded by the Rockefeller family in the late 19th century as a Baptist-affiliated institution of higher learning, with an English-style undergraduate college, and German-style graduate research school, today positions itself as completely non-denominational research university.
However, being a non-denominational organization means that the organization is Christian, in terms of values, but does not express its Christianity in a particular form, welcoming all baptized Christians, regardless of denomination.
There are a number of wonderful, non-denominational churches on campus, including the Rockefeller Cathedral, and the Bond Chapel, providing space for communal worship for Christians on Sundays, and holidays and as a beautiful setting for weddings.
Yet, it appears that the administration has developed a new understanding of exactly what non-denominational means. The university permanently removed pews from Bond Chapel in the name of religious tolerance, so that Muslims in the school community could conduct their prayer services. The pews from the Bond Chapel were shuttled across town to the Museum of Contemporary Art, where they are on exhibit as some sort of cultural relics from an ancient civilization.
The Joseph Bond Chapel was designed by the architects Coolidge and Hodgdon at the end of the Gothic revival period in the U.S. The chapel was donated by Mrs. Joseph Bond in memory of her husband, a former Trustee of the Baptist Theological Union, the predecessor institution of the Divinity School of the University of Chicago. The Divinity School is one of the most important divinity schools in the U.S., rivaled perhaps only by Harvard, Yale, and Duke.
The Gothic architecture is magnificent to behold, like something out of the Christian middle ages. "On the outside, chiefly along the sides and the back, are monochrome gray stone sculptures of hideous and noxious creatures: imps, demons, dragons, lions, griffons, and grotesques," the university's website states. "They cling precariously to the cornices. They jut from the corners. They slide down the waterspouts. The west wall features the scriptural quotation, "Ye shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free" (John 8:32).
The university seems to be moving beyond that old-time religion, and, may well believe, as former instructor (but never professor) of law, Barack Obama once said the U.S. was never a "Christian" nation.
"The benches were removed... to make Bond Chapel a more appropriate comfortable space for its many uses: ceremonial, spiritual, and artistic," said Susie Allen, a spokeswoman for the university, in a statement to the media.
Theaster Gates, the university's director of arts and public life, was quoted in the media as saying the removal of the pews and the opening of the Muslim worship space, is a pure gesture of "religious tolerance."
A Muslim student organizations at the university states on its website, MSA Chicago, "Insha'Allah, Jumuah prayer will be held in Bond Chapel every Friday this quarter."
One wonders whether this is appropriate use of a space donated by a Baptist preacher's wife and dedicated to furtherance of Christian prayer and spirituality. Or is it just another form of political correct madness that seems to infest our best universities, and has, in one form or another, since the days long ago when William F. Buckley wrote, God and Man at Yale.
Islam was founded as a decidedly anti-trinitarian religion, meaning it does not believe in the God of the Nicene Creed – Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
I have no problem with them practicing their religion, or practicing it on campus. I just wonder about the wisdom of co-locating the prayer facilities. "Christian and Muslim prayer are not the same and interchangeable," writes the religious scholar, Christian Troll in the authoritative Bloomsbury Guide to Christian Spirituality, edited by Richard Woods and Peter Tyler. The author spent most of his life studying Islam.
Why is Christian prayer not the same as Muslim prayer? There is some controversy, even today, as to whether Muslims worship the "same" God as Christians, or whether it is some other purported deity.
The University of Chicago needs to clarify a few things here, before continuing on its new trek through the theological desert. They should convene a panel of scholars to discuss the idea of whether Christian and Muslim prayer are compatible, and if so, how. If the answer is in the negative, as current scholarship suggests, perhaps the university administrators can simply move the pews back into the Bond Chapel from the MCA, and house the Muslim worshippers out to another site on campus. I suggest a nice space at the forthcoming Barack Hussein Obama Presidential Library would be the right place for a Muslim house of worship.