On Monday afternoon, I learned for the first time that the Fall Alumni Art Exhibition features prominently a work that openly challenges some of the college’s theological stances on sexual morality, especially related to LGBTQ issues. There was immediate concern raised by some about the appropriateness of privileging the display of these works in the Ortlip Gallery, especially during our Homecoming & Family Weekend. The concern was that this would be confusing to both alumni and current students to feature so prominently work that is in direct opposition to the college’s commitments.
While there is no question that this work will create controversy—and while it will be puzzling and confusing to some as to why the college has allowed the show to remain up—I believe that it is an opportunity for Houghton College to exhibit unequivocally its commitment to being the deeply Christian and fully liberal arts institution that we claim to be.
Let me explain:
First of all, the exhibition in question entitles itself “We are all Houghton” as if that is a controversial claim. It is decidedly not. Houghton College welcomes students from a wide range of cultural, economic, and religious backgrounds, who wish to benefit from the environment of our Christian learning community and who freely choose to abide by the behavioral commitments that are part of our life together. As a national liberal arts college, we share the commitments of the academic community to free and thoughtful discussion of all controversial issues, seeking to fairly represent all sides and complexities of these issues, and encouraging students to arrive at their own considered opinions on all matters. As a Christian college, we also cultivate intentionally a deep exploration of the Christian scriptures, of church history, and of the lived experience of Christians today to understand what it means to follow God faithfully in addressing—with the Grace and Truth of the Gospels—the moral and ethical challenges of our time. We welcome diversity of all kinds among our students, and affirm often that our alumni, “no matter where they have been or what they have done,” are always welcome at the proverbial family table of their “alma mater.”
Second, the issues raised by the exhibition are important questions that are dividing the church around this country and around the world. This is not a uniquely Houghton issue. Christians who take the scriptures of the Old and New Testament seriously, and who seek to follow faithfully our Lord Jesus Christ truly seek to know how to embody the Love of God in the context of the controversies around LGBTQ issues. There is no question at all about the desire to receive members of the LGBTQ community with love and respect and to treat all members of the human community with the dignity due individuals made in the image of God. The controversy resides around what the scripture requires of us in our behavioral choices and commitments.
These are important questions—and questions worthy of discussion—even in the context of Homecoming and even at the cost of making some uncomfortable. It is as if we are sitting around the table and Uncle John brings up one of the most sensitive family issues just as people are getting ready to eat. Homecoming is our family gathering dinner—and this is a family discussion.
Third, as a Christian liberal arts college, we embrace and seek to cultivate the creative arts. These disciplines provide especially powerful avenues through which we as human beings image God in their creative and imaginative capacities. One of the functions of art is to provoke difficult conversations that need to happen. Art—especially in the modern period—has often been a vehicle through which individuals express their own views of the world and seek to invite others to engage with them in considering these views. In serving this function, art often makes people uncomfortable.
As a Christian liberal arts college, we welcome the opportunity to consider the messages that have been presented, to reflect on them, and to consider how we ought to respond to them. As always, we seek to embrace difficult questions without fear, and to embody in our responses the cardinal Christian virtues of I Corinthians 13—Faith, Hope, and Love.
In the spirit of a Christian liberal arts community, we will include in our Homecoming schedule a time of reflection Houghton Alumni Family Dinner Conversations: Learning to Discuss Difficult Topics in a Polarized Context to consider together the questions raised by the exhibit. A panel will consider such questions as: How do we best raise difficult questions for our community in ways that build trust, rather than erode it? How do we respond to the direct challenges of the exhibit about the nature of our community life at Houghton? How do we more effectively embody a pastoral and generous love to all those made in the image of God even when we have deep and profound disagreements about how best to live out our lives as God’s children? How do we as a Christian college community cultivate graduates who can be agents of gracious bridge-building in a society and in a church that is riveted by division and polarization about a wide range of issues?
We welcome you to join this time of reflection. We welcome you to be part of this grand family celebration at Homecoming—and to continue to be part of the extended Houghton community long into the future.
Shirley A. Mullen, Class of 1976