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Christian Faith & Life Community: a residential college student program conducting theological studies for laymen and pastors

The Christian Faith and Life Community (CFLC) was an audacious experiment from its conception. The CFLC was chartered as a nonprofit religious and educational institution in Texas in 1952. The Community hosted the Campus Ministry Experiment (otherwise known as the Austin Experiment) to train students to be laymen at the University of Texas, Austin. Both the Community and the Experiment, according to George West, were inspired by experiments in the lay movement in Europe in response to the “horror of the Second World War” that challenged the role of the church in the modern world.


According to CFLC publications, the Experiment’s programs centered on  corporate areas related to issues confronting people within and outside the Church: worship, time, goods, study, style of life, symbol recovery.and mission. These issues, according to the Community, represent the “underlying structure of every endeavor and clarify the intimate relationship between qualitative lay theological education and genuine secular education.”


In the eyes of the CFLC, the university environment was the ideal place to further this mission of education. In 1953, the CFLC started the College House to provide a residential theological education for male students at the university. That same year, the Wooten Mansion was purchased to use as a student dormitory, which became known as the Laos House. The Laos House (College House) programs served as a research center and demonstration of what the CFLC called an “effective secular faith” and theology adapted to the 20th century. Likewise, the College House concerned itself with how university students seek to be more than “the embodiment of the accumulated factual information about this world” and find spiritual purpose amidst daily frustration and the “radical shiftings in the forms of our culture.”


That being said, what exactly did the CFLC do? How did they pursue their mission of connecting the church to a new generation? Within the campus community, the CFLC conducted daily worship and service via the Daily Office. The Office consisted of fairly typical Christian worship rituals, such as “confessions” and group prayer. The CFLC was innovative in that it utilized contemporary poetry and more secular language in worship to adapt to modern times and tastes. Liturgical music served to highlight the symbolic value of song in representing underexplored aspects of human experience of the 20th century. The hosting of guest speakers and lectures on subjects such as the “image of man” relative to that of God in the 20th century expanded upon that goal and provoked fruitful internal dialogue.


Much of life within the House consisted of communal activities as simple as the sharing of a “common meal” or supper. Indeed, internal life centered around the idea of “Symbolic Life”, which entailed rituals and symbolic activities that “rehearse the story” of the community. Many of the changes and improvements in the way the Community approached spirituality in its internal life and in its religious studies came under the stewardship of the Director of Studies Joseph Wesley Mathews who joined the CFLC in 1956 alongside his wife Lyn.


Under Mathew’s leadership, the CFLC conducted research into existential theology that manifested in a decisive change of direction for the CFLC’s curriculum with regard to religious and cultural studies. The Community, up to Mathew’s arrival, had been primarily preoccupied with lay studies that focused on how men and women of the church related to and could relate to the “ills and anxieties” of the modern age in advocacy of the layman as a vocation.


In 1957 Joseph and Lyn Mathews traveled to Europe to visit centers of church renewal and ministry experiments in the Taize community in France and the Iona Community in Scotland. Mathews and other community members appreciated how these intentional communities in Europe prioritized the mode of the local congregation as the locus of effecting change in society.


The following year, the Community developed the first of its Religious Studies Curriculum, which arguably became a longest-lasting contribution to the Ecumenical Institute. The first of the seminars offered under the new curriculum, titled Religious Studies I (RS-1), offered five symbols that represented “The Way Life Is” in a way that captured the relationship between the church and the larger world at the time: The Big Squeeze, the Intrusion Event, The Word, The Tension, and the Wedge Blade. The CFLC offered the course both to student groups at the university and to local congregations. The ethos of RS-1 was best encapsulated by its “life message,” which stated that this “Event destroys an illusion…gives us our real lives…[and]is the final judge of authenticity, thus it is the measure of profound human living.”


Additional courses were added, turning Religious Studies into its own curriculum. In addition to RS-I, which served as an introduction to the 20th Century Theological Revolution, subsequent courses instructed students on the historical church, the role of the local church, ecumenicity, and religions of the world outside of Christianity. From 1960 onwards, RS-I and other courses in this series were offered regularly. They were complemented with additional coursework for laymen, such as the Parish Ministers’ Colloquy, as well as a secular set of courses under Cultural Studies after 1961. A seven-year report of this work gives more detail.


It is difficult to state the impact of the Community’s curriculum, as it represented a precursor of sorts to the efforts of the Ecumenical Institute and the Institute of Cultural Affairs, in Mathew’s words, to “wrench Christianity out of its ancient trappings and recast it in modern language, symbols, myths, and hopes.” This was the heart of the CFLC’s mission and efforts.


Curriculum aside, the CFLC began to turn towards the world and the issues within it in the 1960s. As a 1960 Letter to Laymen issue put it, this decade was seen by the Community as “a time of radical and comprehensive revolution.” The key to this revolution was the urban  – American cities, where heated questions surrounding politics and the identity of communities (if not the country as a whole) seemed most prevalent at the time. The Civil Rights Movement was a definitive test of what the character of the country and the composition of the American city would look like in the new decade. The city of Chicago was one of many sites of conflict in this movement, having been the site of riots and peaceful protest campaigns surrounding segregation in housing and education, as well as systemic racial inequality. At the same time, restructuring within the CFLC had the effect of pushing Mathews and colleagues towards the Windy City. On April 13, 1962, the CFLC’s Board of Directors accepted the resignations of Mathews as well as seven other members, due to longstanding concerns with the Community’s finances and the future of its priority and mission.


What might have been an unfortunate setback turned into a new opportunity to bring the CFLC’s mission into the Ecumenical Institute and the city of Chicago. As the EI description attests to, the Institute had, by this time, established itself in Evanston as the Institute of Ecumenical Studies, an educational and training center for the Church Federation of Greater Chicago. In 1962, Reverend Mathews became its new director and brought the seven men who had resigned alongside him, as well as their families, to the city. After a year, Mathews and the other-former CFLC members moved the Ecumenical Institute to Fifth City to commence the definitive community development project that would come to define and shape the Ecumenical Institute and the Institute of Cultural Affairs into the present. (Embed EI report)