By Ken Starr
Baylor University President and Chancellor
In ancient Greece, townspeople came together into the marketplace for both commerce and trade, on the one hand, and the exchange of ideas, on the other. This culture, which reached its zenith in ancient Athens, is powerfully captured in Acts chapter 17. There, during his second missionary journey, the Apostle Paul – who had just escaped religious-based persecution in Thessalonica and Berea – found a refuge, where all ideas were welcome. Although dominated by Stoic and Epicurean philosophical thought, the Athenians of the first Century listened to what Paul had to say. They did not interrupt. At Mars Hill, they listened respectfully, even if skeptically. However, even in the free flow of ideas, we do well to remember Paul’s admonition to the church at Ephesus to speak “the truth in love.”
In the spirit of Mars Hill and of “speaking the truth in love,” a university is, at its best, a modern-day Agora – a place of conversation. That is especially true at a Christian, comprehensive research university, like Baylor, where all persons are seen as having eternal value and are thus warmly welcome in the spirit of a caring community. At its best, a Christian university is a hospitable gathering place, where persons of all faiths are not only safe and secure, but each is treated with fundamental human dignity and respect.
This is also America at its best – a land of freedom, including what the Supreme Court so eloquently called “the freedom of the mind.” Justice Robert Jackson made the point powerfully in a case involving freedom of conscience of school children: “If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein.” This is what Baylor is and stands for – a place where conversations about important (and yes, controversial) subjects can unfold.
Just yesterday, the Baylor community welcomed Bob Fu, founder and president of ChinaAid, a Christian human rights organization. His message at chapel was one of hope and joy. Even while languishing in a Chinese prison, Pastor Bob was an example of kindness, including to his captors. It’s little wonder that his presentation reminded us of the words of the great Nelson Mandela: “There is no easy walk to freedom anywhere, and many of us will have to pass through the valley of the shadow of death again and again before we reach the mountaintop of our desires.”
Nelson Mandela echoed the mighty words of the Apostle Paul, who long after his mighty sermon on Mars Hill wrote to the churches in Galatia: “For freedom, Christ has set us free.” Consistent with the Christian message of freedom for all persons, we at Baylor are to join with brothers and sisters in the household of faith, and then with all human beings of good will, to lift up the ideals of religious liberty for all.
In that spirit, we were blessed to welcome to campus earlier this month Professor Anne Zaki of the Evangelical Theological Seminary in Cairo. She spoke movingly and eloquently about different faith traditions living together in peace and harmony. She urged a radically different way of dealing with religious differences – of moving beyond mere “tolerance” to an attitude of genuine respect and understanding of the world around us. Professor Zaki warned against harboring fears about different religious communities. She called us to what Mr. Lincoln elegantly called “the higher angels of our being.”
Threats to religious freedom abound around the world. Threats to other basic freedoms, including freedom of speech and the press, are the order of the day in far too much of our broken world.
Our task at Baylor is to encourage – in the spirit of liberty savored with an unwavering commitment to human dignity – deeply respectful, reasoned conversations and discussions among those of different faiths and worldviews. That is Baylor at its best.
Judge Ken Starr is the president and chancellor of Baylor University. He is The Louise L. Morrison Chair of Constitutional Law at the Baylor Law School.