Stewarding Our Call to the

Stewarding Our Call to the "Middle Space"

Spring 2024

Jonathan P. Schimpf and Dr. Shirley A. Mullen

As our nation grows more polarized, the damaging effects invade even our most sacred spaces. With competing ideologies pushing and pulling Americans to opposing sides, finding common ground is an act of courage. President emerita of Houghton University and author, Shirley Mullen, calls this space of exercising humility and seeking truth on both sides the “courageous middle.”

Dr. Shirley A. Mullen has served the students of CCCU institutions for four decades, first in residence life at Bethel (St. Paul, MN), then as a professor at Westmont (Santa Barbara, CA), and finally as president at Houghton (Caneadea, NY). Growing out of her academic preparation in the fields of history and philosophy, she seeks to cultivate in each student a boldness for God’s calling in service to the common good.

This same calling led her to author Claiming the Courageous Middle: Daring to Live and Work Together for a More Hopeful Future. In her book, Dr. Mullen explores how embracing this middle ground can help us navigate a polarized nation and find truth amidst chaos.

Jonathan P. Schimpf, the CCCU’s government relations fellow and a graduate of Covenant College, interviewed Dr. Mullen about her new book, which was published on April 16, 2024.

Jonathan Schimpf: Can you remember when you knew you needed to write this book?

Shirley Mullen: The notion of the “courageous middle” came to me in 2012 as I realized how the Wesleyan tradition of Houghton College did not allow us to fit into either the “right” or the “left” of the growing polarization in our society. Our heritage of commitment to both concerns of personal wholeness and biblical justice required us to join in dialogue with those on both wings of the political spectrum.

Out of this realization, I came to see the particular calling that rests on us to be agents of active hospitality in a middle space — hosting conversations of “translation” and “bridgebuilding” that allow those on either pole to see each other as fellow human beings and not enemies or abstractions. Ultimately, the hope is that these conversations lead to imaginative action for the common good that would not happen as long as the two sides remain entrenched in their self-contained framing of reality.

While the initial notion of the “courageous middle” grew out of the Wesleyan context, I soon came to understand that it also applied more broadly to the work of Christian higher education. As believers who are entrusted with the tools of higher education, we also bridge aspects of the current polarization within our culture.

Various members of the Houghton community asked me to develop more fully the notion of what it would mean to be a college of the “courageous middle” — not so much that we would always lead with that phrase, but that we would operate with that stance. But the catalyst that resulted in my decision to embark on the project came from someone in the broader evangelical world with whom I happened to be speaking about this notion. He said, “You have to write on this,” and even went to the trouble of determining whether the term had already been used on the Internet. I credit this person — and he knows who he is — with my taking on the challenge to write.

Schimpf: Can you discuss any pushback to the ideas in the book and how you navigated them?

Mullen: The toughest aspect is unquestionably the word “middle.” The “middle” is often viewed as a position of timidity, intellectual and moral confusion, inaction, and a lack of courage. We also have such powerful passages as the text in Revelation 3 that remind us about the spiritual dangers of “lukewarmness.” Both as an American culture and as a Christian subculture, we tend to associate “taking a stand” with choosing one side or the other. Even to advocate listening to the other side seems as if we are “going down the slippery slope” to unacceptable compromise.

We are not trained well in bringing together moral and spiritual conviction with either intellectual or moral complexity. We do not have well-honed skills in holding seemingly incompatible goods or values in tension. For fear of being viewed as wishy-washy, we often do not hold space for enlarging our understanding of a topic around which we have convictions; we do not leave room for intellectual curiosity or personal humility, let alone consider our own finiteness and fallenness.

These capacities, which should be the mark of Christians in general, and especially those Christians with the tools of higher education, are often suspect in a time of polarization.

To make it even more complicated, it is absolutely true that someone remaining in “middle space” can be guilty of the stereotypical charges of moral and intellectual irresponsibility. My claim is simply that this middle space need not be a space of spiritual, moral, and intellectual laziness, and can be a place of courage.

Schimpf: You write in a way that could draw people from all over the political spectrum. Did you have a specific audience in mind when writing? How do you hope different audiences respond?

Mullen: As a lifelong educator in Christian higher education, I have a special burden to pass along the call to steward “middle space” to graduates and students of CCCU institutions. Each of us has been given tools and experiences that empower us to be “bilingual” in the terms of today’s cultural polarization. We have the skills to be translators and interpreters between audiences who would not otherwise have any hope of understanding each other.

Furthermore, it is almost inevitable that we would know people on both sides of the political spectrum and would find ourselves not quite fitting on either side. That is, as graduates of CCCU institutions, we often find ourselves already in the “middle space.” It then becomes a question of how we steward this space, whether we, for example, hide the complexity of our own stories or draw on these complexities for God’s redemptive purposes.

So, I wrote with the audience of CCCU students and graduates in mind. But the more I speak with individuals, the more I see the potential value of the book for group discussions in adult education classes within churches. I have even had someone suggest that the book might be helpful to those outside the conservative Christian world who want to understand more fully how to interact with thoughtful conservative Christians.

Schimpf: What steps would you recommend to others called to work in higher education that could foster a spirit of conviction rather than passive timidity on their own campuses?

Mullen: The first step is to understand one’s own context. No two persons in the “company of the courageous middle” will look exactly alike. The “middle” can be a space in the political world, in the theological world, in the world of intellectual debate in one’s academic discipline, or even in one’s own family.

The two “sides” will also look different depending upon one’s situation. So, if we want to work as an agent of hope and redemptive imagination in “middle space,” we need to listen to the questions that are being asked and observe where an institution or a community is paralyzed by binary polarization.

We need to know our own convictions and be grounded in our own identity as God’s children, both as members of God’s image-bearing human community in Creation, and as members of God’s Kingdom in the story of Redemption. It is from this grounding in our identity that we can listen and learn with humility and invite others into conversation.

Then we need to ask, as individuals or as institutions, what communities do I bridge? Who do I have on both “sides” of an issue? With whom have I built trust on both sides of an issue sufficient to invite them into a difficult conversation with others who might think differently?

“Courageous middle” efforts are more like the work of salt, and light, and yeast. They are powerful agents of change but often remain behind the scenes and out of sight.

Schimpf: You discuss the courage of facing the unknown. What does it look like to sit in the spaces of ambiguity? How do you differentiate between humility and complacency?

Mullen: This may be the hardest question — how we cultivate the humility to operate as a person of the “courageous middle.”

Sometimes humility means that we must dare to speak out, standing by what seems true to us, but also being open to further knowledge or insight. Assuming we have done our homework on an issue, humility certainly does not mean standing back until we have complete or perfect knowledge, even assuming we could know as finite human beings when we had that.

Sometimes humility means holding back, not because we feel intellectually inadequate, nor ashamed of what we must share, but because our audience does not seem ready to receive what we have to share. Speaking too soon can result in squandered trust and limit the opportunity for long-term engagement with a person or audience. We are called to be humble about ourselves and our own reputations but bold about the Truth.

In all this, it is vital to realize that we are not operating on our own or for ourselves. We are working in league with the Holy Spirit, who is at work in the world, always leading us into a fuller understanding of the Truth, and always at work in those with whom we are interacting. Our call is to be passionate servants of Jesus Christ, in whom are hidden all “the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” (Colossians 2:3). When this is our motivation in mediating what we believe, our reputation and the integrity of our character is not in our own hands.

“Courageous middle” efforts are more like the work of salt, and light, and yeast. They are powerful agents of change but often remain behind the scenes and out of sight. — Shirley Mullen


Schimpf: You dedicate a portion of the book to the concept of imagining options for moving forward that acknowledge convictions from both sides, prioritizing truth over being right. What would it look like for our culture to reorient itself around truth and engage in civil dialogue? Is significant cultural transformation necessary to return to a place where civil discourse can thrive?

Mullen: This is a large and multifaceted question. I certainly do not believe that our culture is suddenly going to become hungry for truth, nor will individuals magically become willing to give up the comfort of wanting to feel that they are “in the right.”

For many reasons — economic, political, intellectual, religious, and cultural — individuals today are desperate for certitude, something they can hang onto when it seems that everything secure in their world is being shaken. It is a time of great fear and uncertainty about whom to trust, all exacerbated by the recent pandemic and multiple centers of international turmoil.

Culture will not change because of any top-down or centralized effort, especially at a time when trust in institutions of any sort is at a low ebb. If our culture is going to change, it is going to happen because bold individuals have chosen to risk working from a platform of courage and hope rather than fear. It will also happen incarnationally as individuals embody hope, humility, and grace in working with each other as concrete human beings, rather than wielding arguments in the form of abstractions.

This will be costly. This is a major theme of the book. And, interestingly, it is one of the first things that most people say to me when speaking of the “courageous middle.” “You will get hit from both sides,” as if they are the first to have thought of this. “Yes, of course” — that is part of the deal. But in this fallen world, all wholeness comes at someone’s cost. Ultimately, that is at the core of the great cosmic exchange we as Christians celebrate at Easter.

If our culture is going to change, it is going to happen because bold individuals have chosen to risk working from a platform of courage and hope rather than fear. — Shirley Mullen


Schimpf: How can the CCCU continue to embrace the ideals captured in this book as we advocate for our institutions? As a nonpartisan organization, what does it look like to engage in a partisan climate for policies that are inherently political, such as immigration reform and religious liberty?

Mullen: The CCCU already embodies many of the principles of this book in the ways it operates as a coalition of individual institutions and as an advocate for this association in the large, diverse world of higher education and an even larger pluralistic culture.

The CCCU serves a fairly wide range of institutions within the spectrum of Christianity. It seeks to cultivate a culture of mutual respect and appreciation, learning and listening within itself, ensuring that the full range of voices is represented in programming and allowing for open discussion of controversial issues within the membership.

The association also embodies the work of the “courageous middle” as it seeks to interpret the commitments and the contributions of conservative Christianity to the larger world of American higher education and those in the various branches of government.

Furthermore, the CCCU has often found itself serving as a bridge-builder between conservative Christians and larger civil society, affirming both the constitutional legitimacy of conservative Christian values within the overall fabric of American democracy and that our enjoyment of religious freedom is not only for ourselves but part of our overall commitment to the common good.

The CCCU seeks to support the flourishing of American democracy — it also seeks to cultivate the flourishing of all citizens of our civil society, not just those who share our faith commitments.

It has been a privilege to have served the CCCU as a professor, administrator, and board member in various seasons over the past 40 years, and to be a graduate of one of its institutions. I believe more than ever that this sector is a rich and utterly unique treasure for both the church and civil society in this country and around the world. May God continue to enlarge our imagination as an organization, and as individuals within the organization, of what is possible when we dare to steward the tools God has made available to us for the creative and redemptive work of his Kingdom.