Duke Chapel

April 4, 2017

Duke’s Increasingly Tenuous Methodist Faith

On March 28, Duke University Chapel hosted a public conversation titled “The Role of Faith at a Research University,” which aimed to “address various ways faith contributes to the life and purposes of a research university inside and outside the classroom.” The panel was comprised of Dr. Valerie Ashby, dean of the Trinity College of Arts and Sciences, Dr. William Boulding, dean of the Fuqua School of Business, Dr. Mary Klotman, who is appointed as the next dean of the School of Medicine, the Rev. Dr. Luke A. Powery, dean of Duke University Chapel. The event was recorded and can be watched online here.

The event featured several faith-related question directed towards the panelists, ranging from, “What is the role of faith in a research university in your school…, in your job specifically as dean, and in your life?” to, “Are there systems of faith that work in [Duke] that are well beyond the bounds of religious tradition?” The four panelists gave several answers to these questions and provided commentary, some of which is incongruent with Duke’s founding principles based on orthodox teachings of the United Methodist Church.

At the beginning of the event in an almost preemptive manner, Powery mentioned the contents of James B. Duke’s Indenture of Trust as being indicative of Duke’s founding principles. James Duke’s indenture reads in part:

“I advise that the courses at this institution be arranged, first, with special reference to the training of preachers, teachers, lawyers and physicians, because these are most in the public eye, and by precept and example can do most to uplift mankind.”

Powery then alluded to how the indenture compares to the current Bylaws of Duke University, recently modified by Duke’s Board of Trustees, which, in Powery’s own words, “revised the aims” of the university. The new bylaws read in part:

“Recognizing its origin in this tradition, its continuing relationship to The United Methodist Church, and the diverse constituency that has developed since its founding, the University is committed to creating a rigorous scholarly community characterized by generous hospitality toward diverse religious and cultural traditions.”

The bylaws also mention Duke University’s aims to “advance learning in all lines of truth,” “defend scholarship against all false notions and ideals,” and “discourage all partisan and sectarian strife.” These statement make clear that Duke University, despite its deep history with the United Methodist Church, is more concerned about accepting religious and ideological diversity than maintaining a Christian witness consistent with the university’s founding principles. This point was underscored by Klotman when she described faith’s role in the university’s educational philosophy. According to Klotman, “Part of our training is not to really drive home a faith, but an understanding of what constitutes a patient, a person…” On this token, Klotman underlined the importance of Duke’s students to “respect and understand diversity… particularly diversity in faith.” Similar sentiments were expressed by Ashby when she claimed that understanding “religious direction and faith,” alongside culture, environment, and language, is an important component of the “full humanistic approach” used by Duke to teach its students how to understand and accommodate other people. To those ends, Ashby listed some of the qualities Duke seeks in its student. They include “empathy, respect, listening, and humility” – values which Ashby said are found in many “various faiths.” Valerie also claimed that the values of Duke that they want to foster in students include: a “sense of empathy,” “a sense of social justice,” and a “responsibility for other human beings who are maybe not as privileged…”

Some of the panelists had unorthodox explanations to the role of faith in their lives and work at Duke. Ashby described faith as “open-ended” and as akin to a type of hope. She said that to her, it is “faith-like” when students conduct self-examination and figure out who they “could be” and reimagine a better world in which we all could live. When discussing the role of faith in his personal life, Boulding said he was raised as a Quaker, and provided the following explanation of the implications of Quakerism in his life: “What [Quakerism] means to me, in terms of my faith, is that there’s a light in everyone, and so we should be looking for that light in all that we encounter, we should look for the best in everyone. At the same time there are very strong values associated with Quakerism which say you have a responsibility if that light is being diminished or extinguished by circumstances, then we have a responsibility to stand up for those who are not able to have their light shine.” William also said that Quakers are tasked with speaking truth to power. William’s articulated his understanding of truth with the following statement: “What truth is… the truth according to Quakers is that love always wins, basically, and that hate destroys.” William also claimed that Quakers should “engage that there is no such thing as ‘irreconcilable differences.’”

While the panelists made clear that “faith” is still a part of Duke University, that faith does not profess a traditional Christian witness consistent with the university’s roots in the United Methodist Church. Throughout the panel discussion, the word “faith” could almost always be replaced by “spirituality.” By referring to “faith” as a vague, nebulous, all-encompassing, feel-good spirituality to which many religious / spiritual people adhere, Duke University forgets and undermines its historic origins in professing a Christian witness. Duke’s embrace of political correctness and religious pluralism are but another example of the larger trend of American Methodism’s decline during the last century to liberal theology and progressivism. These changes in the university’s policy and rhetoric, along with Duke allowing same-sex marriage to be performed in the university’s chapel further demonstrate the Duke’s increasingly tenuous relationship with the United Methodist Church and Christian orthodoxy.

10 Responses to Duke’s Increasingly Tenuous Methodist Faith

  1. the_enemy_hates_clarity says:

    Does the United Methodist Church support Duke financially?

  2. Gregg says:

    What next? Are you going to suggest that Harvard isn’t primarily a school for Puritan preachers?

  3. Skipper says:

    That is so sad that Duke has disrespected out Christian faith and our United Methodist faith by allowing un-natural marriages in the university chapel. That shows a complete break with faith. I hope their Christian alumni are letting them know just how just ungodly this is and that they expect a lot more than that out of Duke.

  4. Nutstuyu says:

    Duke should be removed from the list of senate-approved seminaries.

    • Chad says:

      This article is not about Duke Divinity School, it is about Duke University as a whole. The mission of the University and its philosophy of education should not be conflated with that of the Divinity School.

      • Chad says:


      • Scott Carter says:

        I understand your point Chas, but sadly, as far as Duke is concerned, there really is no differentiation between the University and the Divinity School.

        • Chad says:

          That is manifestly untrue in my experience (M.Div 2012, ongoing relationships with people on faculty and staff)

          What knowledge do you have of the university or the Divinity School that makes you assert otherwise?

        • Chad says:

          Duke Divinity School’s stated mission:

          Duke Divinity School’s mission is to engage in spiritually disciplined and academically rigorous education in service and witness to the Triune God in the midst of the church, the academy, and the world. We strive to cultivate a vibrant community through theological education on Scripture, engagement with the living Christian tradition, and attention to and reflection on contemporary contexts in order to form leaders for faithful Christian ministries.

          Duke University’s stated mission:
          To these ends, the mission of Duke University is to provide a superior liberal education to undergraduate students, attending not only to their intellectual growth but also to their development as adults committed to high ethical standards and full participation as leaders in their communities; to prepare future members of the learned professions for lives of skilled and ethical service by providing excellent graduate and professional education; to advance the frontiers of knowledge and contribute boldly to the international community of scholarship; to promote an intellectual environment built on a commitment to free and open inquiry; to help those who suffer, cure disease, and promote health, through sophisticated medical research and thoughtful patient care; to provide wide ranging educational opportunities, on and beyond our campuses, for traditional students, active professionals and life-long learners using the power of information technologies; and to promote a deep appreciation for the range of human difference and potential, a sense of the obligations and rewards of citizenship, and a commitment to learning, freedom and truth.

          These are widely divergent philosophies of desired ends.

  5. Peachy Essay says:

    I was raised as a United Methodist in a pretty conservative, Orthodox Church. I am so saddened by its current direction. They have fallen into apostasy.

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