“Nothing for your journey”: The Future of the Christian Liberal Arts

By the time this week is done, something like thirty members of the Bethel University faculty will learn that their positions are being eliminated after 2020-21. And even if I don’t lose my job, it’s likely that I’ll still be affected indirectly by restructuring and streamlining of departments and programs.

For months, I’ve been dreading this week. And that was before I knew what COVID-19 was.

I’m glad we’ve done our part by moving classes online and shutting down our campus, but it’s unclear just what higher education will look like this fall, next spring, or in the years to come. If Bethel’s enrollment declines by the 15% one higher ed group predicts as a national average, I’m not sure how much longer any of us will have jobs.

It’s a difficult time, a season of grief, anger, and uncertainty.

But it’s also Easter time, a season of joy, peace, and hope.

As I struggle with how to inhabit both seasons, let me try to sound braver than I really feel. For if no one else needs to read these words, I do.

“Don’t just believe in the resurrection…”

Grünewald, Resurrection
Matthias Grünewald, “Resurrection,” from the Isenheim Altarpiece

How many times over the last few years have I said some version of this: “We shouldn’t just believe in the resurrection. We should live as if we believe in the resurrection”? Again and again, I’ve repeated that mantra at Bethel as part of my ongoing efforts to explain what our Pietist heritage means to us. Whether I was addressing new faculty or students gathered in chapel, I’ve insisted that Pietists — for whom Christianity is experienced and practiced more than it’s believed — should not trumpet their fidelity to the doctrine of resurrection but continue to live in fear.

We should live in hope. I still believe that.

But that axiom sure feels trite right now.

Even if we could somehow suspend our fears of an invisible contagion spreading a potentially fatal disease, many of us at Bethel are experiencing the death of dreams and ideals and relationships. Losing a faculty position at a place like Bethel means the loss of income and stability, but also threatens a loss of calling. Most of those who lose their positions will struggle to find anything like a true replacement; many will have to leave academia and seek work in a depressed economy.

None of the anger, anxiety, and loss that people are going to feel this week is magically eliminated by a resurrection that left scars on Jesus’ own body.

I still believe my late friend Glen Wiberg was right that nothing, not even the brokenness and grief of mortal existence, is wasted, that God is “gathering up the fragments in resurrection so that nothing goes down the drain, nothing at all is lost.” But that’s something we can only see in remembrance, not in the moment of dreadful anticipation or wrenching experience.

So what can we hold onto right now? How can we live as people of hope?

I can only speak for myself, not our entire community. But I know that it needs to start by stepping back from particular vocations in particular settings to remember, more fundamentally, who I am, and whose.

Promise and Purpose

As the season of Easter entered its second Sunday, one of our readings yesterday morning came from the beginning of the Book of Acts. In the moment before he ascends to heaven, the resurrected Jesus tells his followers that they “will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8).

Jacques Le Breton, “The Ascension” (ca. 1519) – Vanderbilt Divinity Library

Knowing what’s about to come this week, I knew how badly I needed to hear those words. Sharing in Jesus’ resurrection does not mean that death and sorrow are banished and will sting us no longer, but we do have a promise and a purpose from the One through whom God gives us victory over such enemies, in whom we can rest assured that our labor is never in vain.

A promise: we will receive the power of the Holy Spirit. Nothing this week will break that promise or sap that power. “If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells” in us, then “he who raised Christ from the dead will” continue to give us life by that Spirit (Rom 8:11). If there’s nothing in all creation that’s high or deep enough to separate us from the love of our resurrecting God, then whatever happens at Bethel surely won’t.

And a purpose: to bear witness near and far to the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Even if I can no longer do that through teaching at Bethel, I can trust that I will continue to fulfill that commission some way, some how, and some where, with whatever post-Bethel days I have remaining.

If these were just hollow words, I would never have known Christ myself. If that promise were untrustworthy or that purpose were shaky, surely two thousand years of earthly trials would have dissipated the great cloud of witnesses long before it had a chance to encourage me.

So I’ll start there: as a child of God the Father, I will continue to bear witness to God the Son in the power of God the Spirit.

“Nothing for the journey”

Now, back to my particular vocation in my particular setting, for none of us is called to bear witness in the abstract.

Whatever else happens this week and next year, my chief task is to continue doing my job as a professor. No matter what happens this week, I will strive to keep teaching my students this spring — and I’ll keep getting excited about classes in the fall, old and new. I’ll keep trying to be a good colleague: living in harmony with the rest of a broken community; rejoicing in the joys of my sisters and brothers in Christ and, more than ever, weeping with those in sorrow.

But as much as I hope to see continuity in what I do, I’m also at the point of desiring fundamental change. Back to Acts 1 for a moment…

Carving of Jesus and the apostles, from a church in Switzerland – Creative Commons (Ivo Strigel)

When Jesus commissioned his followers before the Ascension, eleven of them must have thought back to an earlier moment, when he “gave them power and authority over all demons and to cure diseases, and he sent them out to proclaim the kingdom of God and to heal” (Luke 9:1-2). As the Spirit came upon the apostles and they moved even farther afield, I wonder if they thought back to Jesus’ original sending instructions:

Take nothing for your journey, no staff, nor bag, nor bread, nor money—not even an extra tunic. Whatever house you enter, stay there, and leave from there. Wherever they do not welcome you, as you are leaving that town shake the dust off your feet as a testimony against them. (vv 3-5)

I read that text yesterday as well and had to wonder: Why am I so worried? I don’t want to be irresponsible — I need to provide for my family and find meaningful work — but why have I allowed myself to be burdened by material concerns?

Whether the future takes me far from Bethel, or finds me still walking its hallways, I know I’m being challenged to “take nothing for” my journey. Whether I stay at Bethel or leave that “house of God” for the welcome of another, I need to shake off my dependency on whatever promises predictability, stability, and security and go forth in the name and power of the one to whom we bear witness.

(Big talk. We’ll see if I can live up to it.)

But Bethel and almost all of its religious competitors also need to welcome the same kind of unburdening. As much as Christian individuals, Christian institutions need to take much less for their journeys.

Michael Dales, “Long road ahead” (Creative Commons)

For example, while I’m glad that our students can choose from so many options — not just academic programs, but the extracurriculars and amenities that history conditions us to associate with a college experience, it’s possible that we’ve been so focused on what students want that we’re not giving them what they truly need. (Or making them pay too much for the package.)

But still more importantly, I can’t shake the feeling that preserving the status quo of Christian higher education has required that we linger in houses whose welcome was always conditional or incomplete.

I’ve often argued that the humanities prepare students for gainful employment, but it’s possible that we ought to be less responsive to economic forces that deepen inequality and diminish dignity. I’ve often praised my discipline for cultivating prudent, empathetic citizens, but it’s possible that we need to speak out more strongly against political authorities that abuse their power and neglect their responsibilities.

Most often of all, I’ve rejoiced that Christian scholars like me get to participate in God’s mission as part of the larger Body of Christ, but it’s possible that we need to ask harder questions of Christian denominations and churches whose support has always been tempered by their suspicion of free inquiry and expression.

All that seems impossible right now. How will we draw students if we don’t treat them as customers, or if we antagonize their pastors? How will we attract private donors or public funding if we criticize the wealthy and powerful? It’s much more likely that our educational institutions will make more compromises, not fewer.

And so my greatest fear right now is not that Bethel will close, but that it will try to stay open by drifting further from its core mission as a liberal arts college that bears witness to Jesus Christ: seeking the truth found in him, transforming students in his likeness, and spreading his kingdom.

Now, I trust our leaders more than that. And if I continue to work at Bethel, I’m sure I’ll be working with them to find new strategies that honor our mission.

But at this point, I’d rather contemplate radical leaps than accept more comfortable steps that end with us sliding into something worse than irrelevance.

(Again, big talk. We’ll see if I can live up to it. But let’s keep going down that path…)

In this season of resurrection, I need to believe that the dying of the status quo can bring forth new life — whether through daring experiments at existing colleges or the development of completely different Christian educational institutions. As I dare to look beyond weeks like this one and years like the next one, I need to see the Christian liberal arts being liberated, carrying fewer burdens as they enter new houses.

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