In the present era of “identity politics,” Dr. Perry Glanzer affirms the centrality of human identity, but not in the usual way. Glanzer is Professor of Educational Foundations in Baylor’s School of Education. He is also a prolific author on topics of moral education and the relationship between higher education and religion.
Rather than reducing human identity to one or two categories — sexuality, or ethnic background, or gender — Glanzer affirms the fullness of the human person. In his view, every person has manifold central identities; the most central is that every human being is made in the image of God. For Glanzer, when the Scriptures declare that “in the image of God He created [them] male and female” (Genesis 1:27), they are not trafficking in religious platitudes, but revealing the foremost mark of human identity.
As Glanzer notes in his most recent book, Identity in Action, this identity is given by God, not achieved by the individual. The implications are profound.
As he says, “the discovery that God fundamentally defines who we are brings tremendous relief and insight” (29). For one thing, it means that every person “shares a special connection to . . . God” (30). This connection is a gift of grace, not a human achievement. Moreover, “the core reason for recognizing the dignity of all humans” springs from the imago Dei in each person (31). God’s image in the other warrants respect. As Glanzer argues, even in the midst of a divided age, we could recognize the imago Dei in our putative enemies — and love them.
Perry Glanzer’s long-standing curiosity about human identity also frames his understanding of the mission of a Christian university, like Baylor. Just like a person, an institution has many identities. But, a university striving to be “unambiguously” Christian must, according to Glanzer, draw its central identity from the Scriptures.
Glanzer looks back to the book of Genesis again where the story of Creation, Fall, and Redemption commences. This three-phase story informs his view of Baylor. A university is composed of its members, who are created in God’s image and yet fallen and in need of redemption.
Glanzer recognizes that this fallenness infects the moral aspect of students and teachers; it also has lasting impact on their minds and capacities to learn. Relatedly, fallenness produces a disintegration of faith and learning.
Yet, the New Testament reveals the power of Christ’s work to accomplish redemption. Fallen image-bearers can be redeemed — so too, in Glanzer’s view, can learning. A Christian university is called to imitate God’s action of creation and redemption by focusing upon “the creation and redemption of learners and learning” (11).
As he writes in The Idea of a Christian College:
Our need to integrate faith and learning stems . . . from our human limitations . . . and our fallenness. Biblically speaking, however, God is in the business of creating and also redeeming his fallen creation. By understanding their task as creating and redeeming learners and learning, Christian universities undertake the noblest of tasks—imitating and joining in the actions of the triune God. (11)
The unambiguously Christian university seeks to imitate God in every creative, redemptive learning endeavor. For Glanzer, every discipline needs this creative and redemptive activity, and it is the Christian university which engages it fully.
Given Glanzer’s vision of the mission, and how critical identity is, how can a Christian university develop Christian identity in the students it nurtures? To answer this question, I interviewed Dr. Glanzer in his office in mid-December.
As our conversation began, it became clear that Glanzer is grateful for Baylor:
Baylor is really the top Protestant Christian research university. We need to expand this. Most professors [who teach at Christian colleges] get their PhD.s at secular institutions and haven’t really been taught and mentored about how to go about the creation and redemption of learning and learners. I see this as Baylor’s role.
He envisions Baylor as the place where future professors are trained to think and teach in an intentionally Christian way. “I agree with President Livingstone when she says ‘the world needs Baylor,’” he said.
I asked him how Baylor could grow in its training of students, as well as professors. The first step, for Glanzer, is to invest first-year students with the conviction that they are made in God’s image. The “imago Dei . . . is their first identity, their most primary.”
He suggested this concept might even animate the instruction and activities of Welcome Week. As he noted, when students understand their true identity, it transforms their approach toward others. They begin to see the reason for “treating [their fellow students] with dignity and respect, no matter what their background” is.
Secondly, he observed that professors could include a special statementin a course syllabus. Right after the section on the grading metric, a professor might state: “‘As a Christian, I don’t believe grades define who you are. I believe your identity is defined . . . by God; that you are made imago Dei, and so that’s where your ultimate worth and value comes from.’”
Dr. Glanzer’s boldest idea emerged from his work on the Baylor Faith and Character Study. In 2018, Glanzer began working with Baylor sociology professor, Dr. Kevin Dougherty, neuroscience graduate student, Juliette Ratchford, and neuroscience professor, Dr. Sarah Schnitker. They surveyed 4,600 Baylor students and alumni, seeking to determine longitudinal growth in “religious belonging, beliefs, and behaviors, as well as students’ development of moral virtues and character strengths.”
The results of the study provoked much critical reflection for Dr. Glanzer. He noted a disheartening lack of development in a typical student’s vision of the good life between their first and final years at Baylor. As a result, he dreams of instituting a First-Year Seminar at Baylor.
While a university often shines at training students to embrace excellence in their identity as a citizen or as a professional in their chosen field, we must “think about all the other positive identities in which we seek to excel. A university neglects many of those.” In Glanzer’s vision, Baylor needs to help students excel not only in the identities related to their profession, or their sexuality, or their ethnic background, but also in other identities “in which we try to be excellent for our whole lives.”
Collectively, Glanzer calls these “The Great Identities.” They include such roles as: member of Christ’s body, neighbor, friend, enemy, lover, and steward. Recognizing one’s identity as steward of one’s body, resources, culture and planet, for instance, is crucial to Glanzer: “the Freshman Seminar then would perhaps take a week in which students would be exposed to . . . [how to think] theologically or Christianly about what does it mean to steward. You know, money. Well, is it really yours?”
The idea of a First-Year Seminar on the Great Identities appears particularly strategic to Glanzer. Such a seminar would equip redeemed learners with a biblical vision of the good life. But, Glanzer notes, this seminar is not a traditional Great Texts class; it is a Great Identities class. The topics are tied to “particular questions and subjects which are perennial. Lots of cultures and civilizations . . . have great writings about” such questions. Now that Baylor has reached R1 status, the potential to “create and redeem learners and learning” is enhanced. And when Baylor professors and administrators and regents dream about Baylor’s future, Glanzer is convinced that dream “must set before students a grand vision of the Christian narrative that encompasses all of life.”