Recovering the Transcendent Values of the Church During Tumultuous Times

Recovering the Transcendent Values of the Church During Tumultuous Times

Spring 2024

A conversation with Jennifer Boehmer, Dr. Trisha Posey, Tyler Castle, and Dr. Keith Beutler

When President Gerald Ford visited Warner Pacific University (Portland, OR) to speak to the graduating class of 1976, he set foot on a very different campus. Back then, WPU (then Warner Pacific College) was best known throughout the state as a leading launcher of new pastors and worship leaders. Portland was in the national news because of the Trail Blazers, who would go on to win the national championship the following year. And Ford addressed a mostly white audience of listeners — mirroring the significant majority of higher education enrollees in Oregon at the time.

Half a century later, WPU is serving in a new paradigm. Today we operate in a still-beautiful city, but one whose political perspectives are more likely to shape our national reputations than our sports are. WPU’s array of degrees has blossomed to master’s level programming, online modalities, and adult degree completion options, and graduates hold careers in hospitals, classrooms, and offices, in addition to churches. Most astoundingly of all, we find ourselves in the position of being named the most ethnically diverse institution in Oregon, with nearly 65 percent of our students identifying as people of color. Moreover, we are honored to be the only Christian college in the Pacific Northwest designated an official minority-serving institution (MSI) by the U.S. Department of Education.

However far forward the Lord leads us in our walk of service, an important clarity of purpose links our past to our present: Christ-centeredness as the enduring heart of what it means to truly deliver quality higher education that uplifts all people and cares for the calling as much as the credential. Our outward expressions may look different, but the Lord has consistently led WPU — and certainly many other Christian institutions — toward the role of pioneer, regardless of the terrain.

Likely, our fellow CCCU institutions can relate to huge changes over the past several decades and recent pandemic years, too. It’s a perfect moment to reconsider President Ford’s historic commencement address and the national context in which it was given and to reflect on similar realities and themes that still reverberate all these years later. What about Ford’s words still rings true, though we may understand them with new vision and clarity? How does Christian higher education meet the moment regardless of the time period? What does it mean to keep an unwavering focus on our missional callings, and how does our Christian faith prepare us to serve students today in a way that no other sector can achieve?

I invited four Christian university leaders to discuss this. Tyler Castle is a graduate of Westmont College (Santa Barbara, CA) and a Ph.D. student in political science at the University of Notre Dame (South Bend, IN); Dr. Trisha Posey is dean of undergraduate studies at John Brown University (Siloam Springs, AR); and Dr. Keith Beutler is professor of history at Missouri Baptist University (St. Louis, MO). Here are their thoughts on the enduring relevance of Christian higher education through the lens of President Ford’s speech.

Jennifer Boehmer: When President Gerald Ford accepted the invitation to speak at Warner Pacific, he did so amid great national turmoil — a collective reckoning with the Vietnam War, Watergate and Nixon’s resignation, and competing perspectives around how to approach the worst economy in four decades. In many ways, today’s national context is not dissimilar. For his time, Ford called for an antidote in the “recovery of transcendent qualities of spirituality and morality.” 

From your vantage in Christian higher education, how relevant is Ford’s premise today? And what does it mean to cultivate spirituality in our students that is truly “transcendent” in this politically divided moment in American history? 

Dr. Trisha Posey: Ford’s premise is extremely relevant today. We may not have the same crises that Ford faced in 1976, but we live in a period of instability similar to what Americans faced in the mid-1970s.  

Americans today, like those in the 1970s, are losing trust in institutions like government, education, church, and business. This loss of trust extends to our neighbors as well, as political divisions have hampered our ability to come together in a shared effort to address our most pressing problems, including the crisis of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Our students are both participants in and keen observers of these trends, and an important role of Christian higher education is to disrupt the cynicism that accompanies a lack of institutional trust by pointing our students to the “transcendent qualities of spirituality and morality” that Ford highlights. This means that, at our institutions, we understand that education is not only about gaining knowledge and skills, but also having conversations about human flourishing and how to participate in the redemption of the broken systems and institutions around us. 

We do this work with the example of Christ constantly before us. Jesus was no stranger to great turmoil — the peace of the “Pax Romana” was hardly peaceful for those who lived under the constant pressure to conform to the pagan values of Roman rule. In the midst of this, however, Jesus demonstrated to his followers how to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God. The life, death, and resurrection of Christ can serve as our spiritual lodestar as we carry out the work of educating the next generation of Christian leaders. 

Tyler Castle: As I write this response, we are in the midst of Holy Week. I cannot help but think of Jesus’s words to Pontius Pilate: “My kingdom is not of this world.” We all know these words, but accepting them is another thing entirely. This has always been the case. Immediately following the dialogue between Jesus and Pilate, the crowds raucously call for the release of Barabbas in place of Jesus. Who was Barabbas? A Jewish revolutionary who sought to bring about a kingdom that was very much of this world.  

We continue to wrestle with the same temptation and the same choice today. To cultivate “transcendent” faith means to set our hearts on the heavenly kingdom, not on any earthly kingdom; to accept our status as pilgrims in this world. This is not to say that we should escape from “immanent” life, or from politics. But it does mean that they are always penultimate for us. They are not where we find our hope or our fulfillment.  

Transcendent faith therefore gives us the freedom to act in turbulent times with confidence, peace, and charity, rather than fear or malice. To use Ford’s words, it instills a “spiritual richness” in our hearts, which enables us to endure the sorrows and imperfections of human life, especially political life. As a result, we are empowered to do good in the world without needing to be successful (and despairing when we’re not). I propose, and I think Ford would agree, that these are exactly the sort of citizens our country needs today. 

Dr. Keith Beutler: As poignant as in the Bicentennial year of 1976, President Ford’s call to embrace transcendent moral and spiritual qualities resonates today on the cusp of the United States’ 250th anniversary. From the standpoint of biblical anthropology, which is to say, telling the truth about human nature, such a call will always be relevant. Every generation in every society participates in original sin, as it has come down to us from Adam. Every nation and person, we confess, needs redemption from our shared heritage of sin and to be reconciled to “transcendent… spirituality and morality.”  

As Christian educators, we accept that if it depended upon us to acquire it, the true, lasting, ultimate spiritual and moral rescue we require would forever remain problematically transcendent, entirely beyond our reach. But Jesus Christ, God himself, has graciously come down to us. He has “walked among” us, as the scripture says, seeking to “draw all” people to himself, and to be our “Great Physician.”  

Boehmer: Ford talks about a spirit of individualism as essential — but also makes clear that organizations such as churches, schools, and communities must play a role. How can we best inspire our students to see their personal callings as both inextricable and valuable to community success? How are you preparing students to be freely all they can be as individuals while also applying their gifts in service to the Kingdom and to the greater good? Why is Christian higher ed especially equipped to accomplish this in today’s world? 

Posey: Ford mentions two aspects of individuality as important — individual expression and individual opportunity. Both are key to supporting our students in pursuit of their callings.  

As image-bearers of God, our students have been gifted with unique abilities that allow them to pursue their calling as co-creators with God. We need to provide opportunities for our students to understand these gifts and to consider the spaces to which God might be calling them for his use. Moreover, we ought to work against whatever barriers prevent them from pursuing their giftedness. This is why Ford’s focus on individual opportunity is also important. There are many things that keep our students from freely pursuing their callings — personal doubts, social barriers, and financial limitations, to name just a few. I hope the work we do at Christian colleges and universities helps our students address these limitations so they might fully lean into their vocational callings. 

In the classrooms of my university, especially in our first-year seminar course, students often hear faculty quote Frederick Buechner: “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” I appreciate how Buechner recognizes the deep interconnection between individual calling and community service. As we train future teachers, engineers, historians, nurses, and pastors, we are preparing them for lives of service to the world as expressions of God’s deep love for the world, a love they discover as they begin to understand God’s work in their individual lives. 

Christian education is particularly well equipped to accomplish this in today’s world because the church has been doing this from the beginning. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus presented a social ethic rooted in care for the poor, love for our enemies, and a pursuit of peace that also requires personal transformation into Christlikeness. These things cannot be separated. As we follow Christ’s teaching in educating our students at Christian colleges and universities, we are able to recognize the interrelated nature of our individual call to follow Christ and our pursuit of human flourishing in our communities. 

Castle: The church is made up of many unique parts that together form one body in Christ. This implies that the uniqueness of the parts is essential to the wholeness of the body. (A bunch of hands and no feet wouldn’t make for a very appealing — or functional — body!) Moreover, unlike the ideologies that Ford decried, the Christian worldview importantly holds that individuals contribute to the whole without ever being subsumed by it.   

In light of this rich theology, Christian institutions have always been especially equipped to promote the goodness of individuality alongside the goodness of community. Christians affirm that each person has individual giftings and something special to offer the world, a unique mode of serving that will answer a need in a way no one else could.  

We should therefore encourage the development of our students’ individuality, knowing that the wholeness of our community is dependent upon them being uniquely themselves. After all, a mosaic with many different colored tiles is always more beautiful than one with just a few, as long as each tile remembers it is part of the whole and not complete on its own.  

Beutler: Ford came from a generation of “joiners,” who, for all their disagreements, came together time and again to meet common challenges, most famously in the Great Depression and World War II. Nearly 50 years ago, Ford found it necessary to call for a spirit of individualism, perhaps in part because, from the mid-1960s into the mid-1970s, there was a sense among many younger Americans that their elders had taken lockstep acquiescence in politics and society too far.  

At the same time, many in Ford’s generation thought of Baby Boomers as too counterculture, excessively free-spirited, and dangerously anti-institutional. At Warner Pacific in ‘76, Ford spoke, as he did so often during his presidency, in a spirit of reconciliation. He addressed both generations. He acknowledged the value of collective institutions and enterprises so meaningful to the generation already in power: their churches; their government; and what he called America’s “reach to the moon,” NASA’s massive, expensive, lately concluded, but by then retrospectively controversial Apollo program.  

Yet, in the same address, Ford spoke pointedly in defense of the integrity and value of the individual, a recurrent imperative in youth culture by the mid-1970s. He expressed concern that in a technocratic age, the seemingly “endless agencies” his generation of leaders had formed might “reduce human beings to computerized abstractions and program people into numbers and into statistics.”   

Fifty years on, Ford’s insistence that Americans consider how they relate to their technology and their institutions is relevant again. In our era of corporate mergers, mega-churches, and popular euphoria over generative AI, the integrity and place of the individual is again contested. 

As a cultural historian and a Christian, it strikes me that, in sharp contrast to the dehumanizing reductionism against which Ford presciently warned, the Christian tradition offers well-developed alternative understandings of self and society: such as the “body politic” paradigm, the view championed in early America, however imperfectly, by the Puritans — a vision of social relations consciously derived from Paul’s organic description of Christians as the body of Christ, with each member of society meant to live in vital union with every other person in society, irreducibly and irrefutably precious, created alike “in the image of Christ.”  

Boehmer: Ford speaks eloquently about enlarging personal freedom, placing a high premium on “creativity, originality, and your right to differentiate yourself from the masses.” But in 1976, not everyone had the same opportunities to succeed. We’ve made progress, but we still grapple today with challenges stemming from racial disparity, economic disparity, and a general lack of access to education. How are you actively working to include all students in the opportunity to pursue a calling and be who God placed it in their hearts to become, and to see the value in Christian higher education? 

Posey: I’m glad you highlighted this reality because it’s something we need to be attentive to in Christian higher education. The first step in including all students in the pursuit of their calling is taking an honest look at the historical barriers that have kept some from doing so. Many of these barriers are external, but some are internal to our institutions. Taking stock of our own histories and practices is uncomfortable but necessary work. 

At my institution, we try to look at all aspects of our students’ educational experience — from the recruitment process through graduation — to understand the challenges to student success. For example, in the past few years, we’ve changed our recruitment practices to more effectively support students from our Latino communities and their families who want to give them access to Christian higher education. We recognize that recruitment isn’t enough, though. We provide support through peer mentoring and affinity group gatherings, chapel services and celebrations that are culturally diverse, and conversations about the challenges that students face in our classrooms. 

Including all students in educational opportunities at our institutions requires intentionality, constant attentiveness to student needs, and a commitment to including a variety of voices in the decision-making at all levels. There are always opportunities to improve in these areas, but I’m grateful for the ways in which Christian colleges and universities have leaned into this important work. 

Castle: We have not always lived up to it, but I think Christians ought to possess a unique capacity to see beyond racial, socioeconomic, and political divides. Echoing a previous question, we should be able to acknowledge the transcendent truth that we are all members of one human family even when there are visible, temporal barriers that appear to divide us. In academic environments where members of marginalized groups often do not feel welcome, Christian faculty members and administrators have a special responsibility to make them feel like they do belong and to affirm the immense value that they bring to the classroom and the broader community. 

Beutler: I think that acknowledging the unfinished work is key, and not pretending that we are simply in a maintenance stage, as if these disparities have already been wholly overcome. It is fine and good for us to debate as academics, say, the relative rectitude of the science of the moment, how capital should accumulate and circulate, or the value of nation-states. Yet as Christian academics, we must always acknowledge that we are not ultimately looking to any social “isms” — not to scientism, not to capitalism, not to nationalism — but only to the Lord Jesus Christ for ultimate deliverance.  

Let’s be sure then, that in laboring to overcome historical disparities, in reaching out to those who need help to access Christian higher education, we do not make idols of staying slavishly true to any of those “-isms.” Rather, Ford’s well-chosen citation of Proverbs 3:5-6 in his wonderfully modest address might serve to remind us: as Christian educators, we must be willing to set aside our own provincial, politicized, culture-laden ways and understandings to trust the Lord’s. 

Boehmer: The verse that Ford chose for his swearing-in is so deeply and famously beloved by many. Institutionally, as Christian education continues to face challenges locally and nationally, what does it look like for your institution to trust the Lord and “lean not on our own understanding”? How does holding this philosophy of faith set our institutions apart? 

Castle: God often works mysteriously. His ways are above our ways! Trusting that he governs all things for our good allows us to navigate challenging seasons with hope, even when his ways are inscrutable to us. It should also cause us to hold things lightly — including our five-year institutional plans and even our institutions themselves. 

Father Walter Ciszek, a Catholic priest who spent 23 years in the Soviet gulag, beautifully describes the freedom that comes when we surrender ourselves to God’s will. He writes, “For what can ultimately trouble the soul that accepts every moment of every day as a gift from the hands of God and strives always to do his will?” No matter what comes, for ourselves and our institutions, a posture of surrender and trust will enable us to accept every moment (including the hard ones) as gifts from our loving God, gifts by which he intends to bring us all closer to himself.    

Posey: Christian colleges and universities express a commitment to following scripture as the authoritative source of truth in all that we do. This commitment is what sets us apart from other institutions, and it allows us to transcend what Ford calls “the monolithic threat of sameness in our society.” We must battle the temptation to make decisions based on cultural, social, or political whims. Rather, we should submit all that we do to the authority of scripture, the wisdom of tradition, and the work of the Holy Spirit. 

This is not always easy. Enrollment pressures from all sides would have us stray from our mission, but we refuse to make decisions for the sake of expediency. Instead, fixing our eyes on the Author and Perfecter of our faith, we follow the example that Christ has given us. This means bathing decisions in prayer, following the narrow way even when doing so might come at a cost, practicing transparency in all our dealings, and holding tightly to our mission. Indeed, one gift that we have as Christian educational institutions is a shared mission among all members of our community. This shared mission allows us to work together, even in disagreement, toward common goals. 

Beutler: It means that we teach intentionally to please God, and to bring his mercies and common grace to our students. That higher trust in the Lord entails kindness on our part, as God is kind, but it also follows that we, as Christian educators, will not merely cater to what industry, politicians, our own evangelical subculture, or even students-as-customers might be demanding at a given historical moment. In fact, it often means that we have to put to death our own preferences in favor of Christ’s Lordship.  

Boehmer: Ford’s visit to Warner Pacific is a deeply cherished event in our institution’s history — how beautiful that a sitting president would travel to a small college on the other side of the country to speak to our graduates and affirm the relevance of our Christ-centered mission. How do these moments in your institutional history shape and support a throughline of missional continuity among your alumni? How do you continue to inspire future graduates with external validation? 

Posey: John Brown University has had several moments in our institutional history that have shaped our common understanding of our identity. Probably the most well-known is the visit by Billy Graham to our institution in 1959. We have a tangible reminder of this visit in an annual scholarship that we give to students. More importantly, though, we have a shared memory of this visit, which serves as a reminder of our identity as an institution that places the Gospel at the center of our mission. 

Outside of these historic moments, JBU also has other ways of affirming our Christ-centered mission. We have two institutional mottos: “Christ over all” and “Head, Heart, and Hand.” Every member of our community knows these mottos, and we constantly refer to them in the work that we do.  

The “Head, Heart, and Hand” approach to education comes directly from our founder, who sought to weave together intellectual development, growth in practical skills, and spiritual formation in a holistic educational experience. This commitment has served as a throughline for our institution, and it continues to shape the majors we offer, the cocurricular activities we pursue, and the ways in which we manage our policies and procedures. At our institution, we love to share stories of our community members, both near and far, who live out this ideal. Our first-year seminar students hear about those who have come before them, women and men who have been at John Brown University and continue to serve as exemplars of the faith. 

We also share stories of God’s faithfulness to our institution during difficult times. During the recent very challenging years, we often have turned to moments of our institutional history as a source of strength and encouragement. We have recalled times when finances were lean, when domestic or international conflict affected our own campus in deep, painful ways, or when tragedy struck our community. We have physical markers to remember these events on our campus: trees planted in remembrance of those who have passed, plaques honoring the lives and service of community members who have modeled Christ’s sacrificial love for others, and photos in the hallways of exemplary faculty members whom we have lost. These markers give us a sense of both gratitude and humility as we go about our work. 

Beutler: Increasingly in my classes, and as a community at Missouri Baptist University, we have been affording alumni, and leaders in the wider world who have appreciated our graduates’ contributions, opportunities to testify on the record about how their Christ-centered, excellence-demanding educative experiences at our Christian university have motivated and equipped MBU students to “shine on” to the glory of God in the service of others. What we are seeing is that these testimonies remind our entire community of just how eager and faithful the Lord is, and has always been, to equip us to serve.