Calling Creighton Home: Many Faiths, One Mission

Bette Novit Evans

During my interview for a faculty position at Creighton in the fall of 1974, the dean asked me the routine question about my attitude toward teaching at a Jesuit university. Without much thought, I muttered something like, “I don’t mind.” Such a cavalier answer now would have meant an automatic trip back home, but it seemed to be satisfactory at the time. Had he continued questioning me, I probably would have said that I do mind moving to a nowhere little city in the middle of the Great Plains where the winter temperatures are not fit for civilized human beings, and that I plan to get out of here as soon as a better offer comes along. Fortunately, he didn’t ask.

That was more than thirty years ago, and I have spent my entire career at Creighton. I made the transition from student to professor at Creighton; from young faculty who made disparaging remarks about old faculty, to being one of the old ones. At Creighton I learned how to be a teacher and how to be a scholar. I learned to cherish the Jesuit tradition of intellectual excellence, cura personalis, and ethics. Perhaps most importantly, I became Jewish at Creighton, and became Jewish within the context of Catholic and Ignatian values.

Creighton has always been welcoming to persons of other traditions, and has a long relationship with the Jewish community. Generations ago, when other institutions had “quotas” for Jews, Creighton educated some of the first Midwestern Jewish lawyers, dentists, and doctors— and has maintained a close relationship with the Jewish community ever since. My own experience at Creighton was equally welcoming—even if I did have to swallow a few times while learning to call a colleague “Father.” Over the years, “Catholic” language has become part of my normal vocabulary; as when I insist that my own children to engage in more “discernment” and to be more “intentional” about their “vocations.” Of course, some Jewish vocabulary has also seeped into the discourse of my colleagues, although they seem to favor the earthy Yiddish insults.

It was Jesuit spirituality and practice that first made me take note of my own religious heritage. In the common sense, I was born Jewish, in a not- particularly religiously observant family, living in a pervasively Protestant small town Texas atmosphere, where I learned Southern Gospel songs before I knew any from my own tradition. My Jewish education was indifferent, at best. During my early years at Creighton, I probably spent more time in St. John’s, attending weddings, funerals, and university events, than I ever spent in a synagogue. But over time, attending Catholic rituals made me reflect on rituals generally, and to think seriously about my own. The more I learned about Catholic doctrine and practice, the more I wanted to know about my own. My first adult Jewish education took place at Creighton, when I audited a night course on “Introduction to Judaism,” offered by Rabbi Myer Kripke, then teaching part time in the Department of Theology.

Learning to live in two different religious worlds had an enormous impact on my scholarship. At the time I studied political science, my discipline completely neglected religion and politics. To the extent political scientists thought about it at all, we treated religion as a “dependent variable,” explainable by social and economic factors, or psychological factors, but certainly not as something to be taken seriously in itself. In my own teaching on constitutional law, religion was relegated to one or two lectures about the First Amendment—and that was more attention than my own professors had given it. But as I observed the role Catholicism played in the life of my colleagues and students, and became aware of the differences and similarities of my own faith, I began to take religion seriously as a scholar. My first professional writings about religion were grounded in constitutional law, but I quickly realized that writing about religious rights required a much better grounding than I had about religion itself.

The wonderful thing about a college campus is that there are always scholars around who know things one wants to learn about. I pestered my friends in the sociology department endlessly about the sociology of American religions. And I imposed on colleagues in the theology department with endless questions. For several years I used to jog during our lunch hour with (now- retired) theologian Sue Lawler, and on sweaty laps around the gym, I barraged her with questions about Jesus ,sacraments, salvation, and other theological questions—and relished her intelligent and thoughtful answers. By the 1980s, I was deeply engaged in Jewish adult education as well, and the combination of readings, discussions, and classes eventually made me a pretty good amateur knowledge of comparative religion.

By the 1990s I had learned enough about American religions to offer courses on religion and politics as part of my regular teaching schedule. And my interest in constitutional religious rights had grown into a book on religious free exercise and American pluralism. While the book only earned me enough royalties to take my family out to dinner once or twice, it earned something much better: the Alpha Sigma Nu award for the best book in its category written at a Jesuit college the year it was published. It also gave me enough credibility as a scholar to be able to participate with other religion scholars in national seminars, conferences, workshops, and conferences where I could not only learn more, but contribute intelligently as a scholar. Currently I am serving on a national task force on Religion and American Democracy sponsored by the American Political Science Association.

Religious minorities may find that they have a certain affinity for each other. Although I have had only a few Jewish colleagues and students over the years, I have come to feel a certain kinship with my Muslim students and colleagues— and that has led to endless discussions about the similarities and differences in our traditions. One of my proudest moments was the time I was asked to be the faculty sponsor of the Islamic Student Association, until they could find a Muslim faculty sponsor.

Spending a career at an institution that takes religion seriously has not only made me a better scholar of religion, it has made me a better Jew. Observing the majesty of Catholic rituals gave me an appreciation for the rituals of Judaism, and an ability to find comfort in ritual. Spending time in an institution that takes theology seriously gave me a burning desire to study Judaism with the same intellectual rigor, so I began to gobble up adult education opportunities—starting with studying for my own adult Bat Mitzvah. Undoubtedly the most demanding and enjoyable part of my education has been in the longstanding Jewish/Christian Dialogue group sponsored by Temple Israel, and consisting mostly of Creighton theologians. As my knowledge grew, and as I began to teach courses on religion at Creighton, I felt confident enough to begin teaching in Jewish adult education programs—mostly by bringing comparative perspectives to Jewish audiences.
This would not be an honest essay if I left the impression that there are no conflicts between my own faith tradition and the Catholic one. Judaism has no hierarchy, no official interpretations of doctrine and dogma; in fact, its tradition takes pride in the plurality of interpretations. Whenever I introduce Judaism to my classes in American religion and politics, I always start with the old joke, “Two Jews, three opinions.” Hence, the Christian notion of a single overriding Truth is not a comfortable fit. Several years ago the College of Arts and Sciences adopted a Mission Statement that called for a search for Truth. I argued then, and would still argue now, that we should aspire to a search for Truths . . . always in the plural.

In the mid-1970s, Creighton was not as intentional about its own religious heritage as it has become. Perhaps if it had been, I might not have initially felt so comfortable. My own department was overwhelmingly Protestant. And yet, over time, I have welcomed the increasing emphasis on spirituality, ethics, and particularly the Jesuit emphasis on service, peace and justice. As I near the end of a long career, it increasingly seems clear to me that my students will probably not remember my pearls of wisdom about what Thomas Hobbes said, or about the commerce clause, or even about the difference between legal positivism and legal realism. Perhaps they will remember the quirks of their individual professors. But I have come to believe that what they will most remember most about Creighton is the cura personalis that pervades the entire environment. I hope they will also remember seeing their professors struggling to understand things we do not know, and to do the right thing when what is right is not at all clear.

 Looking back to my flippant comment more than thirty years ago, I probably would have preferred a university in the mountains, or in a warmer climate. But I know there is no place I would have found a more rewarding career, or had more fun, or felt more at home. My Jewish friends and family laughed about my being a Jewish saint when I was awarded the St. Ignatius award in 2007—and by the way, I was not the first Jewish faculty member to have been so honored. Standing in front of the altar at St. John’s was a bit awe-inspiring and even intimidating, but it also felt very much a part of my “home.” Looking back, I cannot recall a single occasion at Creighton in which I ever felt the need to submerge any part of my identity—as a Jew or as any other part of myself. On the contrary, Creighton has helped me learn who I am, and enabled me to flourish as a Jew, as a wife and mother, as a scholar, as a teacher—and as a member of this wonderful campus community.

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