Tag: Community

Community as a Tangible Resource: Tragedy at Seattle Pacific

SPU LogoLike all Christian College faculty and administrators, I was stunned to hear Thursday’s reports of a shooting at Seattle Pacific University. Our general sentiment seemed to be “it’s not supposed to happen here”. Not that we expect mass shootings in any location, but we’ve long felt that what made Christian colleges different was that they were removed from the crises and conflicts of the broader world. It’s why so many of them are located in remote areas.

But Seattle Pacific was closer to home for a number of reasons. I spent over a decade at another Christian college in the northwest and feel an identification. SPU is a sister Free Methodist school to Spring Arbor. I have been on campus multiple times, most recently in the spring of 2013 for the Wesleyan Theological Society meetings. I’m pretty sure one of the last sessions I attended was in a lecture hall in the science building. Most importantly, SPU president Dan Martin is a personal friend who wrote the foreword for my book.

It’s been fascinating to watch the news media try to make sense of the ethos of SPU. The Seattle Times attempted to get at the dynamics in a number of ways. This story from yesterday does a good job of portraying both the external assumptions about Christian colleges and the internal realities. On the one hand, it relies on standard descriptors small, faith-based, restrictive, homogeneous:

The small evangelical Christian college, on the north slope of Queen Anne Hill, stands out in the Seattle area for the degree to which it works on developing students’ faith and for fostering a tight-knit community.

All undergraduates must take at least three courses in theology, and are encouraged to attend worship services, bible studies, bible retreats and other such activities to nurture their faith. They are expected to adhere to a code of conduct that prohibits premarital, extramarital or homosexual sex, as well as the use of alcohol or tobacco on campus, and marijuana on or off campus.

The some 4,000 students are predominantly Christian, although there are a few non-Christians at the school, which was founded in 1891 by the Free Methodist Church of North America.

At the same time, the essence of SPU seems to be carried not in these expectations but in the vibrant faith community that is present there. What outsiders don’t recognize is that the community dynamic is as important, maybe more important, than the faith component. Or, more accurately, the outgrowth of the faith is expressed in community.

All of that — and especially his theology classes and relationships with others at SPU — helped develop the faith of Alex Piasecki, a 21-year-old junior majoring in theology.

He is drawing from that faith now, even though “I don’t know if there’s any way of making sense of what happened,” Piasecki said. “I’m placing a lot of faith in God at this time. It’s a new thing for all of us. It’s very hard to go through. I truly believe that God is the ultimate healer and redeemer. We’re just going to have to be patient through this process.”

This is a similar sentiment to that expressed by President Martin in this press conference. He talks of the regular preparations that any institution must go through to prepare for the unthinkable. But he talks most passionately about the kind of institution that draws together in faith and in support of one another, trusting Christ to be present in the midst of tragedy.

Paul Lee, the young man from Portland who was killed in the shooting, was a part of that community. So the loss wasn’t just about a violent act but the violation of community. But that community also is what motivated Jon Meis, the building monitor who used pepper spray to disable the shooter when he stopped to reload. It wasn’t about stopping “the bad guy” but about protecting others from harm. His faith and his belief in community caused him to act in ways that clearly put him at risk.

Jon Meis acted for others because he learned about mutuality at SPU. We call him a “hero” because he put others first. But that’s not really unusual. What’s unusual is the circumstance through which his heroism got noticed. The outside world doesn’t know quite what to do with that, which is why they responded by buying material goods on his wedding registry or by using him as an example in ongoing gun control debates.

We don’t know a lot about the shooter. He appears to have picked SPU because of the presence of students and the hope to create bedlam before committing suicide. He could just as easily have gone to the University of Washington or Seattle City Community College. The sad reality is that there is little any of us can do to guarantee that some individual won’t come onto our campus looking for the same notoriety.

In spite of all of our best efforts, we can never be sure that tragedy won’t strike through a troubled individual, a tornado, an auto accident, or illness. But we can know that we are upholding one another. Not just in prayer but as tangible expressions of the Body of Christ acting in a hurting world.

I’ve been in Indianapolis this weekend for the wedding of two of our sociology graduates. It was wonderful to be present, to share in their joy, to see other students, friends, and family who have loved them over the years. Sitting at dinner last night, I was struck with how much we enter into each other’s lives.

The minister who performed the wedding talked of a golden chord that bound the couple together in their love for Christ. In a deeper sense, we’re all bound together by that chord of faith. I feel loss at SPU because in some ways I know students, faculty, and families there. We are part of each other’s world. And it is that sense of community that is the driving force of pedagogy at the Christian college. Not chapel requirements, or alcohol bans, or prayer before class.

As I wrote in my book, we are truly practicing being the Kingdom of God. And that has tangible power to “engage the culture” and in so doing, “changing the world”.

People Like Me

I finished drafting another chapter for the book today. The chapter has the title of this post: People Like Me. I use that to explore the tension between two competing forces in our search for community: affirmation of individual identity and community built through recognition of others.

I describe the first idea by reading the title as People Like ME. Remember back when Al Franken was a comedian instead of a United States Senator? Does the name Stuart Smalley sound familiar?

Admittedly, Stuart tries too hard. Yet the sentiment of wanting to be known is common to us all. Set against that are the demands put on us when in groups. We want to fit in. I think of that by reading the title as PEOPLE LIKE me.

Pursuing both of these simultaneously requires Grace. Much of the chapter explores the stages of community building outlined by M. Scott Peck. His four stages are pseudocommunity, chaos, emptiness, and then community.

Pseudocommunity is where we live most of the time. The dominant ethos is one of politeness. We don’t want to make waves. We want to fit in. Doing so comes at the price of the very affirmation we were looking for. If I tell people what I really feel, others in the group would be uncomfortable. There could be a scene. I might even be ostracized, thereby losing the sense of belonging.

Too many churches and too many Christian universities are characterized by pseudocommunity. It’s why we advertise them as “friendly, family oriented” places. In other words, nothing will happen here that will make you uncomfortable.

Sometimes, however, we’ve got enough safety to let a bit of our true selves out. We start sharing uncomfortable opinions. Some people won’t like what’s been said. There will be bad feelings all around. This is what Peck calls “chaos”. That’s probably a little melodramatic but it does characterize a lack of control and the introduction of uncertainty. You know then you’re there because suddenly a number of others try to squelch the discontent and restore the politeness norm.

Peck says that we can press on to “emptiness”. That’s another label that may be more Buddhist than intended, but it means to go along with the uncertainty. Parker Palmer says it requires adhering to a rule of “no fixing, no saving, no setting each other straight.” In other words, it means to live with the uncertainty without attempting to resolve the situation.

Then, and only then, do we get to community. Like the stage theories I explored a couple of posts back, these aren’t fixed in time. We slide back into earlier patterns and must repeat the process as we go along.

It’s helpful here to remember that Bonheoffer’s wonderful little book Life Together underscores that we don’t make community happen. Community, he says, is a gift of God’s Grace. It comes because all of us in the group stand in common relationship to Christ as the basis of our connections. It comes because we are together pursuing obedience to Christ.

I was wrapping up this chapter when the news broke that Exodus International was shutting down and president Alan Chambers issued a statement of apology. I haven’t been impacted by EI in any way, so my reactions to the apology and the end of the ministry probably don’t count as much as others. But as I look at his statements and those of others on Facebook and Twitter, glance at comment sections, and generally pay attention, it strikes me that Chambers’ statements certainly begin to push the edges of pseudocommunity. When you read reactions of those deeply scarred by E-I’s work over the years, we begin to approach chaos. When we add in the reactions of those who wouldn’t be happy with any apology, we’re getting really close to it.

Looking at community in this way suggests that the evangelical world can move back into pseudocommunity or forward through chaos. If the former, we’ll isolate into interest groups of like-minded folks where our identity can be affirmed without threat. Our groups can then comment about the wrongness of those on “the other side”.

Or we can venture on through chaos. We could choose to live with the uncertainties of those who are trying to reconcile their faith and their sexual orientation on the one hand while others are tying to reconcile hospitality and scriptural authority. The truth is that the way forward is messy.

But if Bonhoeffer is right, and I’m sure he is, we aren’t making that journey alone. It takes courage to build community that isn’t based on safety, that affirms the identity of the other. It’s a courage well beyond our own capacities. But not beyond God’s.

P.S. As I was finishing this, Andrew Marin of the Marin Foundation posted this response to the Exodus story which illustrates what I tried to say here at the end better than I did.

My Wesleyan Perspective on Christian Higher Education

What follows is the concluding section of a paper I’m presenting next week at the Wesleyan Theological Society meetings at Seattle Pacific titled Wesleyan Implications for Christian Higher Education. I’m glad to be participating but still feeling a little out of my element as a sociologist presenting to theologians. There are some references to people and arguments from earlier sections, but I think you’ll catch my drift. I eagerly covet any feedback (constructive or not).

So then, we are formed as Christians through understanding the broad strokes of scripture, through reflection on our experiences, through lovingly sorting through our past traditions, and through using our brains as enlivened by the Spirit’s leading. That means that the total of the Christian university experience is part of the whole of faith development. Sure, it’s easier to see that in chapel or in Old Testament class. But it’s also operating when students at Denny’s at 2:00 in the morning, are doing calculus homework, or are playing video games with friends.

I want to follow the pattern Richard Hughes set to suggest some educational implications of what we’ve seen in Wesley so far. First, Wesley suggests that the Spirit can enlighten our human frailties. Our task is to be responsive to the light we’re shown, whether that happens in chapel or in French class. Part of the discovery of one’s self in the learning process, of finding new avenues of exploration, or making connections others haven’t seen can be conceptualized as spiritual senses come alive.

Second, God is continually creating; new information, challenging reading, difficult conversations are the avenues through which this can happen. God is still in sovereign control and we need not feel like he must be protected from challenging subjects or situations. This is especially true in the tensions between Tradition and Experience mediated by Reason. Traditionalists may not like having certain questions of doctrine or textual criticism raised within Christian universities, but to deny such questions a community forum seems out of synch with our belief that God is leading.

Third, we must be attentive to the means of grace – not simply the expected “religious” ones like chapel or accountability groups, but to recognize the importance of the daily patterns of our life. Even issues like going to sociology class or doing accounting homework or sitting in on one more assessment committee meeting can operate like ordinary sacraments. That is, if we are looking with open eyes. Such regular patterns of practice can lead to the development of virtues, habits, and spiritual formation as James K. A. Smith observes in Desiring the Kingdom (2009).

Finally, Wesley’s “method” was thoughtful yet messy. There would appear to be a lot of space in the midst of the interplay between the factors. That interplay calls for a sense of tentativeness on the part of scholars and students. We explore what seem to be the best connections at the moment. Because we do so in community, the hearing of new ideas in tension with tradition is good for the entire group. The messiness is the means for common understanding and not the place where one draws lines in the sand (neither silencing dissent nor abandoning tradition should be a first step). One comes up with tentative conclusions and then must hold them loosely while testing them against the method of others.

In short, when we embracing Wesleyan perspectives as the framework for Christian Higher Education, we can come out at a very different place from most of the schools in the CCCU. I haven’t been a fan of all of James Davison Hunter’s books, but I recently came across a contrast in his work that underscores my thoughts.

I really liked his first book, American Evangelicalism (Hunter, 1983), and the most recent, To Change the World (Hunter, 2010). While I could quibble with certain arguments, there is story told over the intervening quarter-century worth attending to. The story is told in the subtitles of the two books: the first talks of “the quandary of modernity” while the latter refers to “Christianity in the late modern world”.

The evangelicalism Hunter describes in the first book is struggling with cultural identity against a backdrop of Weberian rationality. In it’s heyday, evangelicalism was attempting to set boundaries against the broader culture. This showed up in a focus on behavioral pietism, strong positions on particular social issues, and celebrity voices that could articulate THE evangelical worldview.

To Change the World speaks to the challenges of pursuing those efforts at boundary management. Hunter writes:

The irony is this: the idealism expressed in the worldview approach is, in fact, one manifestation of the very dualism its proponents are trying to challenge (27).

Hunter describes our past approaches to cultural engagement in three paradigms: Defensive Against, Relevance To, and Purity From.  Evangelical denominations like ours may have focused more on the first and third (although Hunter sees “seeker sensitive” movements as illustrative of the second). He says, however, it’s time for a paradigm of Faithful Presence:

A theology of faithful presence is a theology of engagement in and with the world around us. It is a theology of commitment, a theology of promise. It is disarmingly simple in concept yet in its implications provides a challenge, at points, to all of the dominant paradigms of cultural engagement in the church (243).

I think that Faithful Presence is found in Wesley’s theology. We recognize that the Creator God in the beginning is creating now and will continue to do so in preparation for the Coming Kingdom. When we engage others in Christian dialogue while listening for the leading of the Spirit, we are practicing the principles of that Kingdom that Jesus said was at hand (Mark 1:15). Howard Snyder concludes The Radical Wesley as follows:

What does all this mean of the life and experience of the church today? Primarily that we must determine our understanding of the Kingdom of God and of the church’s agency in the Kingdom of God on the basis of the biblical revelation. The body of Christ is to be an eschatological and messianic community of the Kingdom in a more fundamentally important sense that Wesley understood (p. 103).

The task of the Christian university is no more and no less than this. It’s true that we’re in the middle of learning and teaching and living. But that’s just what we’re doing. It may be a type of means of grace, but it’s really the place where we experience the current and coming Kingdom of God. Such a place values individuals, quests for new articulations of truth, and engages this postmodern world from a place of strength and not fear.