Today is the first day of fall classes at Bethel University. So before I get too caught up in the details of particular courses, I want to take some time this week to step back and reflect on our larger mission and identity. Let’s start with the tag line that now shows up on Bethel University’s website:
I know next to nothing about advertising, but I think I can take some credit for Bethel adopting a phrase I’ve been using for several years now, as in this contribution to our current vision statement: “Like [former president Carl] Lundquist, we believe that Christianity is ‘more than a creed’: it is life in Christ. Ours is a living orthodoxy that engages the world’s most challenging problems, to God’s glory and for our neighbors’ good.”
So why do I find it so compelling?
First, it reminds us of our Pietist heritage.
As my Brethren Church friend Jason Barnhart had to point out to me, the phrase actually has a Reformed origin: as part of the Heidelberg Catechism‘s answer for when it’s justified for Christians to swear an oath. But “God’s glory and neighbor’s good” was popularized a century later by Pietism, the renewal movement that sought to renew Protestantism in central Europe. In particular, it’s associated with August Hermann Francke (1663-1727), founder of numerous philanthropic institutions in the city of Halle — to the point of becoming the title for his English-language biography. That book was published by the printing wing of the Evangelical Covenant Church, the historically pietistic denomination where “God’s glory and neighbor’s good” has been in wide use as long as I can remember. (See, for example, the ECC’s page on the meaning of membership.)
So without using “Pietist” or “Pietism” — religious terms that mean nothing to most 21st century Americans, and something negative to many others — proclaiming Bethel’s commitment to seeking God’s glory and neighbors’ good is a subtle way of signaling our particular religious identity.
But what does it mean in the context of Christian higher education?
I actually took a shot at this question two years ago, after I got back from speaking at North Park University, the Covenant school in Chicago. I think most of what I said about North Park pertains to Bethel, but I’ve noodled some more on it since then. So what follows is a rewrite of that 2017 post.
For God’s glory…
“In everything,” you read halfway up the stairs in Bethel’s Community Life Center, “honor and praise to God through Jesus Christ.” That “everything” could certainly cover higher education, but how do we seek God’s glory within the context of a university like Bethel?
First, we acknowledge, with the 2nd century theologian Irenaeus, that “human life consists in beholding God.” From different vantage points, through different prisms, every academic discipline offers a way of “beholding” the glory of God. In the sciences and mathematics, for example, students and teachers regularly gaze on God as Creator of a world of extraordinary precision, diversity, and beauties sublime and mundane. In our 2015 book, The Pietist Vision of Christian Higher Education, Bethel physics professor emeritus Dick Peterson quoted from Psalm 19: “The heavens are telling the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims his handiwork.”
But in most of our disciplines, we glimpse God’s glory reflected imperfectly in the complicated creatures made in his image. Indeed, Irenaeus’ observation about “beholding God” is prefaced by a more famous sentence: “The glory of God is a living human.” Here’s how journalist Andy Crouch reinterprets that maxim in his book Strong and Weak:
“Gloria Dei vivens homo,” Irenaeus wrote. A loose—but by no means inaccurate—translation of those words has become popular: “The glory of God is a human being fully alive.” To flourish is to be fully alive, and when we read or hear those words something in us wakes up, sits up a bit straighter, leans ever so slightly forward. To be fully alive would connect us not just to our own proper human purpose but to the very heights and depths of divine glory. To live fully, in these transitory lives on this fragile earth, in such a way that we somehow participate in the glory of God—that would be flourishing. And that is what we are meant to do. (pp. 10-11)
We seek God’s glory, not our own. But God is glorified in the development of those creatures whom he “crowned… with glory and honor” (Ps 8:5). Crouch argues that God means us “to flourish, not just to survive, but to thrive; not just to exist, but to explore and expand.”
Because Pietism is so often thought of as anti-intellectual movement within Christianity, let me first underscore the role of intellectual exploration, for human flourishing demands a flourishing life of the mind. Much as our students want to skip ahead to do “neighbors’ good” through their preparation for any number of professions, “beholding God” often comes through activities that seem more contemplative than active: listening to a lecture, gazing at a work of art, reading a text, waiting for the results of an experiment… each of them a kind of silent prayer reaching out for a God whom Irenaeus knew to be “in this life invisible and incomprehensible, nevertheless He is not unknown.”
That’s why an education that seeks after “God’s glory” is built on the foundation of the arts, humanities, and sciences: the liberal arts. For it’s these seemingly needless disciplines that disciple us to concentrate on the one thing needful, to set aside the distractions and anxieties of the world and, like Mary, listen to the Word through whom all things came into being. In doing this, we realize that God is not an idea to be admired, but a triune person to be loved. We realize what Carl Lundquist wrote during his retirement years, that truth “is personal as well as propositional. Truth, in fact, is troth—a way of loving.” Indeed, Irenaeus concluded that God’s greatness could be known only through our response to his love.
But at the same time, this kind of education helps us grapple with the reality that God’s glory is not always easy to see, especially in ourselves. We wrestle with the hiddenness of Irenaeus’ invisible, incomprehensible, yet not-unknowable God. As we study the problems of evil and suffering, for example, we not only see God’s glory sketched in negative space but learn more deeply that Creation fell into sin. We recognize through our studies that we “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom 3:23). We see to our despair what happens when we do not love God with all our heart, soul, strength, and mind, nor our neighbors as themselves.
We acknowledge that we are not yet whom God made us to be and repent of our sins. But we don’t languish there; this kind of education leads us from death into (new) life. As I write in the conclusion of The Pietist Vision of Christian Higher Education, quoting again from Carl Lundquist, “the liberal arts are liberating arts, freeing us from ‘the chains of ignorance, provincialism, bigotry and narrowness’ to choose to follow Christ, and to become ‘our unique and creative best for the glory of God.’”
…and our neighbors’ good
Or, in Crouch’s terms, we are freed to flourish. But this not for ourselves! Crouch observes that, throughout history, the Christians who were most “fully alive” — those “in whom the glory of God was most fully seen” — were those “who flourished and brought flourishing to others” (p. 25, emphasis mine). Or as the apostle Peter reminded those first Jesus-followers, in the passage adapted for the inscription I quoted earlier:
God has given each of you a gift from his great variety of spiritual gifts. Use them well to serve one another. Do you have the gift of speaking? Then speak as though God himself were speaking through you. Do you have the gift of helping others? Do it with all the strength and energy that God supplies. Then everything you do will bring glory to God through Jesus Christ. All glory and power to him forever and ever! Amen. (1 Pet 4:10-11, NLT)
If using God’s gifts “to serve one another… will bring glory to God through Jesus Christ,” then the first half of Pietism’s greatest motto is inseparable from the second.
There’s something fundamentally conversional about a Pietist model of education that aims at a personal encounter with the God who loved the world enough to send us his Son. But I think we mean conversion in the sense that one of my favorite Pietist theologians, North Park seminary dean Don Frisk, meant it:
To be converted to Christ is always in a sense to be converted (turned) to the world. It is to see the world through the eyes of Christ, to share his compassion, to perceive his will for the world, and to strive to follow it. (The New Life in Christ, p. 18)
Acknowledging in his 1969 and 1970 reports that one result of a Bethel education was “a pained awareness” of everything from hunger and poverty to inequities in education and health care, Carl Lundquist believed that “Bethel is being most true to its spiritual heritage when it encourages its students to be concerned about the social ills of their world.” Through the very process of being “transformed by the renewing of our minds,” we should come to love and serve the same world to which Paul wants us not to conform.
I’m sure this is why schools like Bethel have historically tended to graduate so many teachers, nurses, social workers, missionaries, and pastors. But our suffering, foot-washing Servant-Lord can also serve as the model for the engineers, accountants, lawyers, and other highly-paid professionals being trained in an institution of higher learning. A.H. Francke taught that that the convert to Christ should “[carry] out his professional calling joyfully and cheerfully to the glory of God and his neighbor’s good without greed.” Conversely, he warned that “if you cannot turn your profession itself to God’s glory and neighbor’s best, but rather it brings about your neighbor’s harm… you must also change your profession even though it may appear as hard to you as the command of Christ to the rich young man.”
Notice that Francke renders it individually (“neighbor’s good”) while Bethel’s motto uses the plural framing that I’ve come to prefer: “neighbors’ good.” The difference is subtle, but I like the change for two reasons.
First, I think it’s incumbent on a university dedicated to seeking “neighbors’ good” to resist the forces seeking to shrink our understanding of “neighbors.” We should be all the more aware that we’re preparing students to serve a diverse array of neighbors — many of other or no religion — in a pluralistic society. When we help students love their neighbors as themselves, we should remind them that Jesus answered the lawyer’s question, “And who is my neighbor?”, in the most radically inclusive way possible for his context.
Then seeking after the good of neighbors (plural) might also push us to think somewhat differently about what’s keeping other people from their own flourishing.
I still think Carl Lundquist is right that permanent social change is inseparable from “the inner revolution within man’s heart when he is transformed by the saving grace of God.” We want students not just to know God, but to make God known; not just to be converted, but to see such profound change in others; not just “exterior change,” wrote Lundquist, “Life must be remade from within.”
But too often, those who share the Pietist concern for the inner life have tended to understand social evils in purely personal terms. For example, what former Bethel professor Michael Emerson wrote nearly twenty years ago in Divided by Faith still seems true: that in responding to the problem of racial injustice, white evangelicals like me have “emphasized mainly the individual-level components” like personal prejudice, “leaving the larger racialized social structures, institutions, and culture intact.” While they can should continue to seek the good — spiritual and material — of any individual neighbor, our students must also understand how systems diminish entire groups of neighbors.