Best of The Pietist Schoolman: College Architecture and Christian Simplicity

First, what do we mean by simplicity? Dallas Willard describes simplicity — “the arrangement of life around a few consistent purposes, explicitly excluding what is not necessary to human well-being” — as one particular expression of the larger Christian discipline of “frugality,” by which

we abstain from using money or goods at our disposal in ways that merely gratify our desires or our hunger for status, glamour, or luxury. Practicing frugality means we stay within the bounds of what general good judgment would designate as necessary for the kind of life to which God has led us. (The Spirit of the Disciplines, p. 168)

And frugality, like fasting and chastity, is a practice of abstinence meant to help us practice “that self-denial required of everyone who would follow Christ (Matt. 16:24)” (p. 167).

This has external and internal implications. External in that frugality or simplicity “frees us from concern and involvement with a multitude of desires that would make it impossible for us ‘to do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God’ (Mic. 6:8)” (p. 169). I think this is what Lundquist was getting at when he contended that the youth of the early 1970s were interested less in “monumental architecture” than in redirecting resources to those who truly needed them.

I’ve heard this sentiment expressed by a few students who look out my office window into our newest building — a university commons complete with all sorts of luxuries, including a coffee shop selling hand-baked pastries and a multi-level dining center with several stations at which to select custom-made meals — and fret that it distracts us from serving others, from being the “world-changers,” “reconcilers,” and “salt and light” that our university core values proclaim us to be. Now, that facility also generates a wonderful kind of community, and some of the interconnectedness that Lundquist prized, but it’s easy to become cynical that, in prospective students’ consumerist minds, such facilities indicate that Bethel is a place that will give them all the luxuries that the larger culture has caused them to confuse with essential needs. Are we simply endorsing the values of “the Western world of today, where no extravagance is thought to be shameful, but only a more or less astonishing exercise of one’s presumably sacred right to ‘pursue happiness'” (Willard, p. 168)?

Lundquist at Seminary Groundbreaking, 1964
Carl Lundquist at the groundbreaking ceremony for the new campus, 1964 — Used by permission of the Bethel University Digital Library

On one hand I’m tempted to want such extravagance lavished on academic programs as well. But on the other, I fear that an external embrace of luxury will hinder the cultivation of inner simplicity. External frugality, again in Willard’s words, “makes it possible for us to concentrate upon that ‘one thing needful,’ the ‘good part’ Mary chose (Luke 10:42)” (p. 169). Willard’s friend and collaborator Richard Foster would certainly agree. Writing on simplicity in his Celebration of Discipline (he later wrote an entire book on simplicity alone), Foster explains that “The central point for the Discipline of simplicity is to seek the kingdom of God and the righteousness of his kingdom first and then everything necessary will come in its proper order” (p. 86).

Even simplicity itself can become a distraction — an idolatry or temptation to legalism — from this central goal. (Foster would surely note here that external simplicity can mask deep-seated anxiety or even duplicity, the antithesis of inner simplicity.) But when properly practiced, simplicity brings us back to that “divine Center,” the lack of which, Foster argues, leaves moderns “trapped in a maze of competing attachments” and driven by our anxiety and “need for security” into “an insane attachment to things” (p. 80).

This could be true even of designing academic facilities and learning environments. I’ve contended in several venues that the purpose of Christian higher education in the Pietist tradition is, above all, to bring about a convertive experience of Jesus Christ. He is our Center; all else is periphery. And while improved facilities, expanded space, and technological enhancements can assist in bringing about this experience, they can also distract from it and, if we even begin to love them for their own sake, supplant that purpose.

Foster rejects a connection between simplicity and asceticism, but I wonder if he wouldn’t accept the latter as it’s been defined by Kathleen Norris:

…[asceticism] is not necessarily a denigration of the body, though it has often been misapplied for that purpose. Rather, it is a way of surrendering to reduced circumstances in a manner that enhances the whole person. It is a radical way of knowing exactly who, what, and where you are, in defiance of those powerful forces in society — alcohol, drugs, television, shopping malls, motels — that aim to make us forget. (Dakota, p. 23)

And this phrase — “surrendering to reduced circumstances” — has gone through my head at every stage of this master planning process.

Again, I hesitate to idealize where we’re at — I’m sure that I have friends and colleagues reading this who are enormously frustrated by the space and facilities available to them (e.g., our librarians have been “surrendering” for nearly four decades now) and feel in no way that their circumstances enhance the “whole person” education Bethel claims to provide. But I both sense in myself and see in others the growing excitement about adding more and more and more, and so feel all the more compelled to listen to this nagging voice telling me that, to some degree, we need to think about how we might surrender to circumstances that would strike only 21st century Westerners as “reduced.”

At the very least, I think that members of a Christian learning community like Bethel should pay attention to some of the “controlling principles” that Foster proposes for individuals desiring to take external action to help foster (so to speak) internal simplicity:

  • “…buy things for their usefulness rather than their status”: I take my colleagues at their word when they say they “need” more lab space or common areas or bigger offices, but I think there’s also a temptation for small, tuition-driven schools like Bethel to make decisions based less on utility than on how they will enhance our status in an increasingly competitive marketplace, where too many schools pursue too few students.
  • “…develop a habit of giving things away”: not probably in the way Foster means it for individuals, but I think there are some applications for a community. First, we need to be careful as individual offices and departments not to covet new space and facilities at the expense of others. Second, and especially because Bethel is isolated in an especially cut-off part of a suburb, we need to place a high emphasis on how our facilities help us serve and draw the wider community. I hope that whatever facilities we create or improve are, in a sense, given away to others.
  • “…refuse to be propagandized by the custodians of modern gadgetry”: this speaks especially to me, as someone who loves technological gadgets and needs to be reminded by Foster that most such devices “are built to break down and wear out and so complicate our lives rather than enhance them,” cause an “unnecessary drain on the energy resources of the world,” and lead to a cult of the “new” that “[seduces] us into buying what we do not need” (p. 92).
  • “…develop a deeper appreciation for the creation”: a key concern that has been expressed by many people at Bethel during this stage of master planning (and by our consultants, to their credit). One of Bethel’s distinctive strengths is that it is nestled in a beautiful setting, next to a lake and surrounded by forests and other ecosystems; building any more structures can only reduce that advantage, and distract us from our built-in reminder that what we build pales next to what God has created.
  • “…reject anything that breeds the oppression of others”: I write this with the utmost hypocrisy, tapping away at a Bethel-provided laptop produced by a company accused of relying on Chinese factories widely accused of engaging in oppressive and exploitive labor practices. That said, before we outfit more and more computer labs, or design classrooms around the notion that students will be using something like the iPads produced in said factory, or even before we decide to raise the tens (hundreds?) of millions of dollars that will be needed to pay for our burgeoning vision for campus development, I hope we ask Foster’s question: “In a world of limited resources, does our lust for wealth mean the poverty of others?”

Finally, Foster returns to his central theme, and encourages the reader to “shun anything that distracts you from seeking first the kingdom of God,” recognizing that “It is so easy to lose focus in the pursuit of legitimate, even good things.” With Foster, I pray that God will give us “the courage, the wisdom, the strength always to hold the kingdom of God as the number-one priority of our lives” (p. 95). In short, may we live simply.

Note: the photos of Bethel’s past buildings come from the Bethel University History Collection and the Bethel Historic Photographs Collection, both part of Bethel’s page on the CLIC Digital Collections website. Thanks to Kent Gerber (our digital librarian), my History Department colleague Diana Magnuson (also our archivist), and their student assistants for digitizing such sources and so making them more widely available and easy to search!


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