Duke Chapel is broadly three things. (1) It is a grand building, suitable for hosting major events in the life of the university and its members. (2) It is considered a suitable institution to act as moderator and advocate for the twenty-seven groups that currently constitute the diversity of religious identity and expression at Duke. (3) And it is a Christian institution of an unusually interdenominational character, with a Sunday 11 a.m. service attended by around 1,000 people--about a third of them students--and a high reputation for choral and organ music, liturgy, and preaching.
Almost everyone I meet relates to Duke Chapel in one of these three ways. But only a handful relate to Duke Chapel in all three. In a sense, Duke Chapel earns permission to pursue the third dimension by doing the first two well.
Everyone at Duke is highly conscious of the need to embody respect, rejoice in diversity, and promote a range of cultural experience. Meanwhile the noisiest Christians in America seem wedded to cultural imperialism, manipulation of major legislation, bullying of minority lifestyle groups, and an obsession with flagship anti-academy issues such as intelligent design. The result is that the thriving character of the "church" dimension of Duke Chapel is a relatively well-kept secret.
Nothing wrong with that--except one thing. This large but somewhat stifled reputation constitutes one dimension Duke Chapel finds it difficult to talk about: power. Duke Chapel has gradually acquired and now possesses enormous social capital. And, one way or another, it hasn't known quite what to do with it--chiefly, I suspect, because it might be seen to inhibit its performance of the first two roles described above, particularly the second one. Put "Christianity" and "power" in the same sentence, and the intellectual elites of America become extremely nervous--with pretty good reason. Too many American Christians have had no hesitation about using power and have sometimes used it in destructive and shameful ways. All American Christians have to find some way of dealing with and responding to this gloomy reality.
But not all uses of power are wrong. Power is a gift to set people free. Social capital is a form of power, and it should therefore be used to set people free. What does that mean in the context of Duke University Chapel? Let me suggest three things.
I have lived in a variety of social settings, from a post-welfare underclass project to a rust-belt, post-industrial working-class town to a stylishly shabby urban village. In each community I have discerned a different kind of powerlessness. And Duke Chapel has it, too. There is a deep class and race divide in Durham. Everyone is aware of it; most people care about it; many are angry about it; few have much idea what to do about it. There is a profound need for bridges of trust across which people can walk. In my experience there is one relationship that matters most of all in social change, and that is friendship. There are ways Duke Chapel as building can become more available to people in Durham to promote individuals, initiatives, and ideas, and there are ways in which Duke Chapel as church can become more present to the poorer neighborhoods of the town.
A second area, more focused on the campus, is in fostering discussion, in respectful dialogue with other traditions, that treats Christianity as an intellectual gift and a challenge to the university rather than as a bland irrelevance or a culturally coercive threat. If Duke Chapel is to continue to be a leading institution, I see it not so much as a refuge from the intense competition and confusion of academic life, but as a community seeking to integrate body, mind, and spirit. To translate social capital into liberating power means to see preaching, music, and practices of community not as an escape from intellectual rigor but as an attempt to pursue truthfulness in personal and organizational integrity, as well as academic sharpness. This means facilitating conversations across the university about what it means to seek the good and how fragile people may together seek higher aspirations than they individually can realize or embody.
A third area is to help the American church become more fluent in a new language. For so many American Christians, the real enemy appears to be other Christians. I hope Duke Chapel will increasingly articulate a humble way of speaking that continues to strive for truth, understanding itself within the tradition of historic orthodox Christianity, but always seeking ways for that truth to set people free in a just and compassionate manner. The reason the so-called Left and Right have dominated debates in American Christianity is partly because those with subtler messages have been slow to clear their throats. Of those institutions well placed to change the terms of these debates, none, I suggest, has more social capital than Duke Chapel.
These are bold hopes; but the Christian tradition tells us that from those to whom much has been given, much will be expected. All three of these ambitions are appropriate ends in themselves. But there are two other potential beneficiaries. On the one hand, there is a generation of undergraduate and graduate students who themselves may feel powerless to use their gifts for good. They are eagerly looking for models of how to address issues of class and race, how to live with integrity, and how to speak about truth in a culture that discourages it. I'd like Duke Chapel to be an inspiration to such a generation in these things.
On the other hand, there is a self-proclaimed great university also seeking ways to do these things. Duke Chapel may feel it has a lot to lose taking risks with its social capital, but doubtless the university as a whole feels it has more. If Duke Chapel can inspire the university to address its own sense of powerlessness in relation to class, race, integrity, and truth in a pattern of growing grace and humility, then it will have fulfilled its ambition to be experienced as a liberating gift by every member of the university. Now that really would be something.
Wells is dean of Duke Chapel and research professor of Christian ethics at Duke Divinity School.