At the annual breakfast for graduating seniors, I tell our soon-to-be graduates that their best gift to the world is the courage not to step into one of the boxes that the world or the church has readily available for them. Their first obligation as Houghton graduates is to dare to not quite fit – especially when it comes to people’s stereotypes about Christianity. We must surprise our 21st-century world with the Gospel as much as our Lord Jesus surprised the world of the first century.
In this moment, we at the college would do well to heed this same advice. In our increasingly polarized world of politics, theology, and even news coverage, the safe thing might seem to be to turn either to the right or to the left. We would then at least have the security of knowing our friends – and our critics. It would be a neat arrangement. Our friends would be with us on one side, our critics on the other.
But there are at least two problems with Houghton making that choice. First of all, Houghton does not fit neatly on either side of the spectrum. Our Wesleyan story means that we share many features associated today with the left wing of the political-theological spectrum – our concerns for social justice, poverty, gender equity, immigrants and refugees, community, human rights, global engagement, Creation Care, etc. Our Wesleyan story means that we also share many features associated today with the right wing of the political-theological spectrum – our concerns for the authority of Scripture, for Truth (with a capital “T”), for ultimate values, for a traditional sexual ethic, for individual freedoms including freedoms of conscience and freedom of worship, etc.
Second, moving in one direction or the other for safety in this polarized moment does not position Houghton well to serve God’s Kingdom or our world for the long haul. This polarized moment will not last forever. As people of the Kingdom, we are called to resist any temptation to triumphalism that would associate that Kingdom with a particular political configuration of this temporal world. We are to be Kingdom people – working amidst any particular political configuration like light, salt, and leaven for the surprising values of a Kingdom that is not of this world and that will not be upended by elections or changes in political regimes.
Houghton’s gift to the world in this moment is that we cannot – and will not – give up part of our story to fit more neatly into one or the other side of the political spectrum. Our job is to prepare graduates who, whatever their occupation and each in their own way, can also serve as translators, mediators, bridge builders, conveners, and creators of hospitable spaces – wherever they find themselves on the political spectrum. Our job is to keep people talking thoughtfully and civilly – to remind them that whatever our politics, we are created in God’s image; that whatever our politics, we are fallen and in need of a more complete seeing of the world; that whatever our politics, we are in need of the redeeming work of the Holy Spirit.
May God give us the courage and the wisdom to serve this moment well, both as a college and alumni.
Shirley A. Mullen, Class of 1976