Tag: Kingdom of God

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”.

A Follow-up to Yesterday’s Civil Religion Post

There was something about yesterday’s post that felt unfinished. It’s bugged me ever since I hit the “publish” button. So I thought it was worth exploring a little more about what I’m thinking (besides, I have papers to grade and this is more fun).

There were two concepts in the post that I used and didn’t quite do justice to either. I began talking about civil religion in the way that Robert Bellah used it in the 1960s and others have used it since. It specifically deals with quasi-religious beliefs about the nation. There are ideas that God is on our side, that there’s some kind of divine destiny for the country, and so on. This is part of our nationalist celebrations at baseball games — “God Bless America/Land that I Love/Stand Beside Her and Guide Her/Thru the Night with the Light From Above” (written by the Christian Patriot, Irving Berlin!). It’s a vague sense of Exceptionalism with religious overtones.

I think some of the nostalgia imbedded in today’s political and religious rhetoric is an attempt to harken back to a time when Irving Berlin’s words were shared by all in the society. But that time never existed. Besides I have no idea what the lyric is supposed to mean! Does God Stand Beside America in ways different than he stands beside Canada? (Erik Parker, that was for you!)

So what I’m picking up with the slightly-incorrect usage of civil religion is the way in which our social assumptions about the world get “sacralized”. They take on religious tones and let us believe that we are acting for God because he would certainly support our values. This is Emile Durkheim’s take on religion in modern form.

It’s also what’s happening when we overlay religious imagery on top of existing social patterns. That’s the definition of my other concept: syncretism. Syncretism is well known to church historians and missionaries. We celebrate certain holidays when we do because the early church repurposed pagan holidays. Some aspects of Christianity in non-Western lands intermingle Christian faith with indigenous traditions.

This is what happens when we assume America is a Christian nation. We take existing patterns of behavior and bless them with the light from above. It brings me back to the polling data I mentioned. For decades, large majorities of the American public have reported a belief in God. But that belief is very diffuse, even more than Christian Smith’s Moral Therapeutic Deism. I’d argue that it’s much closer to the Alcoholics Anonymous 2nd step (“believing in a higher power however you define it”).

Whether we’re talking about church as a central community institution or fighting about the latest Christian outrage on Facebook, we’re dealing with one of these two concepts. We are either celebrating free-floating definitions of what it means to be Christian or we’re Christianizing secular patterns.

The Now-and-Not-Yet Kingdom of God requires that we get much better at distinguishing between God’s Story and the revisions we keep writing. Our version may make us far more comfortable and provide justification in light of changing social conditions, but it’s an exercise in either civil religion or syncretism. We have to do better if we are going to be the witnesses we are called to be.

 

The Kingdom of God is at Starbucks

New Starbucks

I drove to the Chicago suburbs on Friday to attend a Mission Alliance conference. The program posed the question: “How do we lead the church into our local neighborhood/context and what do we actually do when we get there?” It was a great time interacting with theology professors, church planters, mainline pastors, seminary students, and community organizers.

We started Friday night by eating dinner at Bishops, a lovely little chili joint in Westmont that has been in the same family since 1925. We didn’t tell them we were coming, but they were great nevertheless. The owner modeled the kinds of things we talk about in terms of servanthood in spite of a room full of conferency folks who didn’t know what they were doing.

After dinner, we went back to the church plant where we were meeting and heard the opening session from Chris Smith on the story of Englewood Christian Church in Indianapolis. For a variety of reasons, the church was in need of healthy dialogue about what bound them together and how they’d articulate their shared identity. That has allowed them to build bridges into the broader Englewood community to partner with various agencies in addressing social needs. You can read more here on your Kindle device for only $2.99.

As I listened to Chris’ presentation, I kept thinking about our assumptions about how the congregation related to the broader community. It seemed like the goal was to work through “issues” in the congregation in preparation for engaging those “out there”. Then new people would come in and we could bring them up to speed on what had transpired over time. But I wondered, why couldn’t we let those “out there” see us in our messiness? Why do we have to clean ourselves up before we engage? Does such an assumption push us into putting on our Halloween masks all year long?

If we do that, it seems that two things result. First, we lose the ability to be authentic with others because we’ve spent so much energy in making sure our masks fit. Second, those “outside” may have serious concerns about their ability to measure up to us (mostly because we didn’t tell them where the mask store is located!).

I’ve played around before with how much energy evangelicals expend in boundary maintenance. Sitting in a church in a western Chicago suburb, I returned to those same questions. How does the church engage? Can we do that without having to persuade others of the superiority of our position? Can we simply connect and leave the convicting and demonstrating to the Holy Spirit?

Saturday morning began at Starbucks as I connected with Michelle Van Loon, who I’ve written about as an internet buddy but hadn’t met. Meeting Michelle proved that the “othering” of the internet still can allow for personal connection. The Holy Spirit had gone before and allowed us to find great commonalities in spite of very diverse backgrounds.

Back at the meeting, David Fitch opened the day by suggesting that we think of the Kingdom  “out there” as a material reality and not a theological possibility. We connect in the authority of the Holy Spirit who is already working in the neighborhood before we get there. David contrasted an approach based on projects with those based on presence. We don’t just do stuff — we are. We relate. He told a story about his connection with one of the guys who is a regular at the McDonald’s he goes to (I don’t like McD’s coffee, so therefore Starbucks is in the title of this piece). The guy was in need and David was able to offer his connectional resources as an investment into the person’s life. It was a Kingdom moment even though nobody talked religion (yet).

The next session dealt with issues of reconciliation, but I was still bothered by the us-them language that showed up in that context. First we separate, then we repent of the separation and look for bridges. Part of that discussion involved the confrontation passages in Matthew 18. Go to the sibling who has wronged you, then take some friends, and finally treat the person as a sinner or tax collector. That sounds like inside/outside language describing what to do when people are out of line. The final stage is be put outside the group. But in the small group discussions, several of us recognized that Jesus gave us a model for dealing with the sinners and tax collectors. He ate with them.

So they weren’t excluded from our company. They were still connected. Their lives are important and significant.

Lunch was catered from a wonderful restaurant down the block from the church (where church folks were regularly engaged, including waitressing there). We gathered around tables in the lower level of the church. Interestingly, the village of Westmont held their annual Halloween walk on Saturday. While we were eating, I could see children in costume and their families walking by the casement windows. All of a sudden I realized how much better the church would be at engaging the neighborhood if we had glass walls on our churches. We could  see the neighbors engaging their lives, they could see us with the messiness of being a community of Grace. Maybe Robert Schuller had part of a good idea. Don’t build a Chrystal Cathedral with sunlight and birds. But find a way to let others see in and for you to see out.

That set up the final session. Cyd and Geoff Holsclaw presented on what it means to Proclaim the Gospel. This Gospel isn’t solely the focus on Sin-Salvation-Service of past evangelism. This is the Gospel but not the complete Gospel. Cyd reflected on Luke 4 and how we are “proclaiming the year of the Lord’s favor“. When we confront people in need, people who are hurting, people who are fearful, people who despair, we are really telling them: “It isn’t supposed to be like this“. God is restoring his creation in our midst even when we can’t see it.

Geoff followed up with a wonderful illustration of a guy at Starbucks. Someone who struck up a regular conversation, much like David’s McDonald’s friend. Geoff took the opportunity to engage, to explain his own work and commitments. That opened the possibility for the other guy’s life struggles to be authentically shared. The story doesn’t end with a marvelous conversion tableau that can be shared in conferences. It is just the illustration of connecting to another in Jesus’ name. Geoff didn’t have to take the Kingdom to Starbucks because the Kingdom was already there.

I went to the conference to try out an idea I have about how evangelicals can engage a broader culture that doesn’t agree, doesn’t understand, and likely doesn’t care. My thinking is that if we can simply be present and tell our story about God’s Grace, we’d still be playing a vital role in society.

I came away revising my thinking considerably. We don’t begin by being ready to witness. We begin by being aware of the Kingdom around us. Then we find that the stories “out there” aren’t any different than the stories “in here”.

Which was really the Gospel we were trying to Proclaim anyway.

Easy for Me to Dream: Fifty years after MLK’s speech

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If you’ve been distracted by Miley-gate and rumors of war, it’s possible (but  unlikely) that you missed the fact that tomorrow is the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech on the Washington Mall as part of the Poor People’s March on Washington.

It’s a remarkable speech. You can take a moment and read the full text from the national archives. There are a few things I notice when I read it. First, the speech is only 5 1/2 pages long but is full of significant content. Second, the phrase “I have a dream” doesn’t appear until near the bottom of page four. He opens that section with the hope that “one day this nation…will live out the true meaning of its creed, that all men are created equal“. He speaks of the table of brotherhood, And, of course, he has that beautiful line about his children being “judged not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” From there on, he’s streaming toward the finish — My Country Tis of Thee, Let Freedom Ring, the Mountains of Georgia and Tennessee and Mississippi. and the big finish with all of God’s Children singing Free at Last.

As a nation, we like those last two pages. They remind us of a dream we all share. It fits with the kind of colorblindness that Stephen Colbert looks for (he doesn’t see color but thinks he’s white). It’s a dream that Glenn Beck likes. It’s a dream that I can embrace (although I have to guiltily admit that far too often I don’t look for content of character soon enough!).

It’s a good dream. It’s an aspiration for us as a society. That’s why 45% of Americans polled think we’ve made “a lot” of progress toward racial equality. Of course, that same polling shows that 32% of black respondents think the same. Perhaps even more telling is to look at the percentage saying that we’ve made only a little progress. Just over 1 in 10 whites report little progress but over 1 in 4 blacks say the same.

It’s not hard to understand that discrepancy when we look at the first four pages of MLK’s speech. He opens with the recognition that 100 years after the Emancipation Proclamation, “the Negro lives in an island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity“. The nation’s promises, he said, had been given as a promissory note that came back marked “insufficient funds” — an image much too familiar to his listeners. In the middle of page 2, he suggests that “this is the time to make real the promises of democracy“. It is not enough, if mobility involves moving from  “a smaller ghetto to a larger one“. At the top of page 4, he offers a critique that is prophetic in light of changing voting laws: “We cannot be satisfied as long as the Negro in Mississippi cannot vote and the Negro in New York believes he has nothing for which to vote.

The blog By Their Strange Fruit had a brilliant post Sunday pointing out that too many of the statistics King looked at in 1963 we could find today. The black unemployment rate still runs about twice the white unemployment rate. The black infant mortality rate is twice that of the white rate. Add to that data, the differences in incarceration rates and crime victimization rates, and the difference is still stark 50 years later. Right before he gets to his dream of a better future, MLK speaks to people jailed, beaten, and what he calls “creative suffering”.

it is because of all these injustices that the Dream has such power. Take away the suffering and the Dream becomes a vague hope.

I can make this more personal. I don’t get the first four pages of the speech. I haven’t suffered systemic injustice. I don’t know persecution. I’ve made my share of mistakes in life (like flunking out of college after my freshman year) but that wasn’t a deal breaker. Because i was a white middle class kid with lots of options, getting back to school and eventually earning a PhD was not just possible but likely.

My world makes it hard to celebrate the Dream speech. This was make clear by a remarkable piece on The Daily Show about Race in America. Jessica Williams (who is black) did a focus group with a group of white New Yorkers. Samantha Bee (who is white) interviewed a similar group of blacks. While both interviewers made great light of their situation, the contrast between the two groups was amazing. The vast majority of the black group had been stopped by authorities on the streets of New York. There was one woman in Jessica’s group who thought she’d been frisked — by the TSA. Like those folks talking to Jessica, my life can make me think that life is fair and based on hard work and good intentions.

At the rhetorical turning point of the speech, King recognizes the white citizens on the mall and encouraged his listeners that our freedoms are intricately tied up in each other’s freedom. This sounds like the Kingdom of God to me.

As long as I want to think about some happy time in the future without dealing with the reality of now, nothing much is accomplished. I can dream of sweetness and light and be cut off from the realities that others face. But my true calling is to identify with those for whom life is not fair. I have to enter into the suffering of others to really understand my place in the world. I have to see their fortunes increase, even if mine suffer some, to see the Kingdom Come.

In short, I can’t start my celebration of Dr King’s speech two-thirds of the way through and think I got it. I have to enter into the sufferings of the first four pages and work toward their resolution if I’m ever hoping to “join in that old Negro spiritual and sing Free at Last“.

Sharper than a Two-Edged Sword

[Written as my July contribution to the American Evangelicalism project at http://www.respectfulconversation.net. This month’s topic is on “Evangelicals and the Modern Study of Scripture.“]

My fellow essayists this month have raised some interesting questions. What are the logical limitations of inerrancy? Are these important? What makes many evangelicals skittish about modern biblical scholarship? Are there valuable lessons to learn? What does it mean to “stand under” the text? Why is understanding original language important? How do we recognize the role of culture in biblical text while guarding against the tendency to read scripture only through our own cultural lenses?

This essay will explore the ways in which many evangelicals use scripture as a rhetorical weapon. In short, scripture is too often used as a conversation-ender and not a means of hearing God speak to all listeners. This rhetorical stance is relatively new in Church history and has distorted the meaning of scriptural authority. In the process, the scripture has become a tool to use on behalf of a position rather than allowing the Holy Spirit to lead us to deeper understandings.

The title of my post comes from Hebrews 4:12: “For the word of God is living and active and sharper than any two-edged sword, and piercing as far as the division of soul and spirit, of both joints and marrow, and able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart (NASB).” This verse, along with others I’ll explore, provides insights into how evangelicals USE the scripture. I have often heard people quote this verse as a declaration of the Bible’s authority. Never mind that commentaries describe the broader Hebrews 4 passage as being about sabbath-keeping as instructed in the Law. The phase “word of God” becomes synonymous with the Bible and any verse is then a tool used to divide soul and spirit or judge hearts.

Yesterday, Christianity Today posted this story announcing that YouVersion had achieved the 100 million mark in downloads of this popular bible-based mobile app. They also released their newest list of the most popular verses sent via text or twitter or posted as a Facebook status. CT expressed concern that John 3:16 didn’t make the list. The most popular verses were Philippians 4:13 and Jeremiah 29:11.

First of all, the very idea of something called YouVersion is the absolute epitome of the Extreme Individualism which has so colored American Evangelicalism. The scriptures thereby become MY possession, readily available for me to use as necessary. It is just that much easier for my to take these verses and make them about promises TO ME.

Jeremiah 29:11 reads “For I know the plans I have for you … plans to prosper you and not harm you, plans to give you a hope and a future (NIV).”  In spite of all the gifts we give to high school graduates anticipating college and beyond, this verse is written to the people of Israel collectively. Too often, we take the verse as a stand-alone tool to give comfort in anxiety or to somehow make prosper into a guarantee of riches to those who are obedient.

Biblical scholarship would have us recognize the specific role Jeremiah’s words of comfort played to the exiled Israelites. It’s a promise to God’s people collectively not to me individually. As Andre the Giant says in The Princess Bride, “I do not think that means what you think it means.

The YouVersion list illustrates something very important about evangelicals’ use of scripture. We really don’t know much about the Bible at all. That has been regularly demonstrated in research by Stephen Prothero and many others. Modern biblical scholarship that looks for the context of the biblical narrative isn’t particularly interesting to the folks who’d be attracted to YouVersion.

I’ve often joked that it would be interesting to put together the list of verses most often repeated by evangelicals (so I guess I should thank the YouVersion people). It’s an easy list — Proverbs 3:4-5 (used by Nic Wallenda in walking across the Grand Canyon), Psalm 139:13, Romans 8:28, Romans 5:23, 1 Corinthians 13, Ephesians 5:22, Isaiah 6, Revelation 3:20, and many others including the verses mentioned above. I figure I could publish the Real Evangelical Version is about 22 pages!

So where does this approach to scripture come from? I think it’s based on a misunderstanding of biblical authority combined with a utilitarian view of evangelistic argument.

The latter is a direct expression of enlightenment era rationality. It’s caught up in the phrases”evidence that demands a verdict” and “God said it, I believe it, and that’s good enough for me.” In this sense, scripture is a tool to use. Because it’s God’s Word, it automatically trumps any other appeals. A sword is valuable when it is used, either offensively or defensively.

Fundamentalism has reset definitions so that the only view of biblical authority seems to require a belief in inerrancy. This was a point of conflict at one of my colleges when we thought we’d done a good thing by emphasizing the commitment to the authority of scripture as core institutional values. The immediate response from students and other conservative critics was that we ought to immediately fire the non-creationist faculty members because that’s what authority demands.

Justin Barnard’s post makes great use of C. S. Lewis. I was already thinking about how different Lewis’ rhetorical style in Mere Christianity is from the style of modern apologists. How many scriptures are cited in MC? Why doesn’t his argument include the obvious top ten list from YouVersion?

Not to make C.S. Lewis the model for evangelical rhetoric. Many others have observed his own limitations. But it’s striking that we use that sword as a tool that makes folks in Game of Thrones seem passive.

John’s gospel recounts how Peter responded at the point of Jesus’s arrest. Peter draws a sword and attacks the guard. Jesus rebukes Peter and restores the ear. Shortly thereafter, as he is being interrogated by Pilate, Jesus says “My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jewish leaders. But now my kingdom is from another place (John 1:36 NIV).

As Amos Young observes, maybe attentiveness to the Spirit can lead to a new rhetorical style, one that seeks to engage the other rather than winning argument. I’m reminded of the two disciples walking the road to Emmaus. They knew their scriptures and had a means of understanding them leading them to believe their side was winning. Now Jesus was dead and their understanding was shattered. When they encounter Jesus on the road, they stop worrying about what they thought. He leads them to understand all of scripture in a new way. Not only are they restored, but they reverse course and return to the scary place that was Jerusalem.

As they follow the Spirit’s lead, the wind up not needing a sword after all. Because Jesus’ kingdom is not of this world, they don’t have a need to fight. Modern biblical scholarship, in this view, is not a threat but another means through which the Holy Spirit bears witness.

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.