Seek the Flourishing of the University (Part 1 of 2)

An Interview with Steven Garber of The Washington Institute

Back in May, I was given a tremendous opportunity to join a “D.Min. Cohort” dedicated to studying the intersection of faith, vocation and culture…even though I have no plans to pursue a doctorate in ministry degree. As a master’s student at Covenant Seminary, I was assured that there would be “other M.A. students added to the mix,” so I needn’t feel like the odd man out when the group convened for its first week in St. Louis.

So you can already see where this is going, right? When I arrived at Covenant, it turned out that everyone else at the table already had their M.Div and/or doctorate degree(s) or had begun pursuing thier Ph.D. I was, I am quite certain, the only guy at the table who could not read, write or adequately pronounce a word of Hebrew or Greek. All the other M.A. students, apparently, had sufficient sense to quietly pursue their degrees in less-intimidating environments. As the other guys around the table began to open their mouths and discuss the topic at hand, I became quite certain that a clerical error had been made somewhere, that I was an interloper of the worst kind. Surely I would be found out before too long!

And then Steven Garber, director of The Washington Institute, arrived a bit late, his flight delayed. Steven had committed to spend five days with our group, gently challenging our presuppositions about how, when and where the Christian church best interacts with society at large, and otherwise blowing a few circuit breakers in everyone’s head. The topic of how to live faithfully in an American culture that is increasingly hostile (or, more often, uninterested) in the Christian meta-narrative of Creation, Fall/Rebellion, Redemption and Consummation is not an easy study, to be sure, and so it was comforting to have Steven on hand to relay several instances of how believers are actively engaging in the culture – as opposed to walling themselves off – and profit from his considerable experience.

As just one measure of his ability to persevere and endure unspeakable suffering, Steven agreed to allow me to interview him for ESI once I had completed reading his book, The Fabric of Faithfulness. And here’s just one indication of how Steven thinks differently on a seemingly-simple topic: While his book is available for purchase through just about any outlet you might normally use, Steven would instead encourage you to open an account and get to know the folks operating Hearts and Minds Bookstore in Dallastown, Penn.

Our conversation took place via e-mail; Part Two will be published next Monday (Aug. 29) on ESI.

QUESTION: Mr. Garber, your book, The Fabric of Faithfulness, makes an excellent case for the idea that the modern university is seriously short-changing its students by failing to connect vocational education to a student’s larger sense of purpose.

As you know, Columbia, Mo., is a college town of approximately 108,000 and serves as the main campus for the University of Missouri. As you and I speak, many parents in and around Columbia recently shipped their college-age high school graduates off to Mizzou for the Fall 2011 semester. Doubtless, many Christian parents are terrified that their children will very quickly abandon their faith, never to return. Worse, statistics from the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life tend to back up the reasonableness of that fear.

Additionally, the congregation that today comprises The Crossing Church in Columbia is made up of hundreds of faithful individuals who serve the University system in one capacity or another. Many are perhaps “silently dismayed” at how the person and work of Jesus Christ has been excluded from meaningful discussion in the public square. In an increasingly diverse and multicultural society, what might you say to an individual who works at Mizzou who is genuinely interested in redeeming education for the glory of God…but at the same time fearful that they may well lose their job in the process?

RESPONSE: It is a good question. We are called to honestly be in the world, but not to be of it. That dynamic runs through the Church’s history. So while the first years of the 21st-century present challenges to people who long to be in-but-not-of, a deeper reality is that we are perennial people, sons of Adam and daughters of Eve that we are. Some things change, but most things cannot change – we are still living in the only world that is really there, i.e. God’s world, and we are still image-bearers of God, whether we want to be or not.

We do live in a globalizing, pluralizing, secularizing moment in history. And in the West, the university is all of that, and intensely so. That reality does make working at a school like the University of Missouri an honest challenge. Professors are not hired on the basis of their creedal commitments to mere Christianity, obviously. In fact more often, though not always, faculty hires are made with the intention of keeping people out who have known loyalty to transcendence and truth. That is one of the harshest faces of contemporary liberalism, i.e. that in the end it is not very liberal at all. See Steve Turner’s brilliant poem, “Creed.”

The perennial call that is ours is to be salt and light, remembering the wisdom of the Anglican pastor and theologian John Stott, who taught that we are not to blame the world for being the world. When meat rots, we don’t blame the meat. Rather we ask, “Why wasn’t it salted?” When rooms are dark, we don’t blame the rooms. Rather we ask, “Why wasn’t the light turned on?” So Stott taught a sober truth, viz. if there is blame to be given, it is first of all ours for failing to take our vocations seriously.

The Mizzous of this world need the Church, whether they ever acknowledge that. Otherwise they are rotting places, dark places, and human beings will not flourish. And that has to be the yearning that keeps us going. We are to do all we do so that human beings might flourish. In the words of Jeremiah to the exiles, “Seek the flourishing of the city, pray for its flourishing – and remember that when it flourishes, you will flourish.” (Jeremiah 29:7) He was speaking to the Daniels of that world who of course were hearing him in their city of Babylon, the most iconically pagan city in history.

We are not romantics. So we will groan and sigh, sometimes we may even suffer – but we are still to pray for the strength to be what we should be and need to be, viz. the salt and light of the gospel of the kingdom, in and through our varied vocations seeking the flourishing of the university.

QUESTION: Isn’t the task of “redeeming higher education for God’s glory” too massive and daunting for the individual worker? What kind of realistic expectations should we keep in mind as we consider how each of us can work for the glory of God?

RESPONSE: Yes, probably it is “too massive and daunting.” It is why I have taken the poetic imagery of Bono as seriously as I have, who, in reflecting on his own vocation, wrote, “I’m a musician. I write songs. I just hope that when the day is done I’ve been able to tear a little corner off of the darkness.” They are words we can all live by. We believe in the coming of the kingdom, and we believe that in and through our lives we are to be signposts of the coming kingdom – not only individually, but to long for institutional transformation, too. That is what is meant by “seeking the flourishing of the city,” where cities and societies reflect some measure of the truth of the universe. But even as we give ourselves to that vision, we must make peace with proximate justice, even as we make peace with proximate happiness in the rest of life, e.g. in our marriages. “Proximate” is an important word, as it allows us to stick with things that are not all that we want them to be, all that we think the kingdom of God will someday be. If our only choices are “all or nothing,” then in the end it will always be “nothing,” because in this fallen world it will never be “all.”

Next Week: Steven Garber tackles some challenging issues relative to “being in the University…but not of the University.” [Read Part 2]

Jeremiah 29:7 (ESV)

But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.

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