For the past several years, I have used the words “Courageous Middle” to describe the ideal “location” of Houghton in the midst of today’s deeply polarized culture. I have suggested that, as a college in the Wesleyan tradition that emphasizes both personal wholeness and social transformation, we are uniquely prepared to play a mediating role in a society where the fault lines of partisan politics grow deeper by the day. These are all nice-sounding words for a president to say. Over the past two weeks, we have come to understand more fully what it will mean for Houghton College to be true to this calling—and something of the cost.
Testing the Call
During the recent Homecoming alumni art exhibition, one of the works called attention to the pain that some of the alumni in the LGBTQ community have experienced during their time as Houghton students. Some who saw the work called for immediate withdrawal of the art on the grounds that it challenged the college’s and the church’s commitments on sexual morality. We continued to support the work on the grounds of the historic role of art as cultural critique especially within a Christian liberal arts context. We are clear enough on who we are as a college to hear our own alumni’s stories.
During Homecoming weekend, some of our students painted the student “spirit rock” with the rainbow flag—only to have it repainted shortly thereafter with the American flag. Needless to say, given the power of both of these symbols, we had a campus “culture war” in the making. The following Monday, Dean Jordan shared reflections on the incidents in a chapel message to the campus. I responded to an invitation from some of our students in the LGBTQ community and invited others to join me in a special event of repainting the rock in a way that would represent our campus’s commitment to notice and stand with all those in our community who feel alone and marginalized.
These responses all proved, not surprisingly, to be contentious and controversial—from both sides of the political and theological spectrum. It seemed impossible for many in our constituency to imagine that we could actually, in our time, embody our Lord’s pattern of seeking to bring together a commitment to both Truth and Grace in the same space. It seemed for some too much of a stretch to imagine that an institution could, out of its very confident commitment to a traditional Biblical understanding of sexual morality, also provide a place of pastoral care to all of our students from both sides of the political spectrum as they seek a safe place to grapple with the challenges of becoming an adult amidst the noise of our current culture.
The Character and Cost of the Call
Being a college of the “courageous middle” is hard work. It is not simply:
- splitting the difference between the two extremes—as if Truth were settled by statistical averaging…
- or avoiding our identification with either side on a particular issue—or passively sitting on the fence for fear of what the other side might think—Truth is also not settled by majority vote…
- or settling for a relativistic view of the Truth
Being a college of the “courageous middle” means taking an exceedingly difficult position in a polarized culture where the loudest voices on both sides of the political spectrum agree on some key foundational assumptions—even as they differ on many of their conclusions.
- They assume that the truth is simple.
- They assume that they have attained the truth.
- They assume that anyone who has not come to the same conclusions is either morally or intellectually deficient.
- They often assume that, even when the other side makes a claim that does not fit their stereotype, the “other side” is not to be trusted.
Being a Christian liberal arts college of the “courageous middle” means affirming quite a different set of assumptions for us at Houghton College:
First, that the Truth is often complicated—that, especially in a fallen world, even intelligent and good people might not have the complete picture. Time and time again, our Lord had to remind the most learned and devout people of his day that they were missing an important piece of the puzzle. They did not have the imagination to take him seriously when he said that he “had not come to destroy the law but to fulfill it.” That was much too mysterious and troubling—and did not fit neatly into their categories.
Second, as a Christian liberal arts college in the Wesleyan tradition, we believe that God has given us a range of resources to lead us into an ever deeper understanding of the Truth—the Scriptures first of all, but also our Reason, the experience of God’s people through the ages, and the Holy Spirit who was given to us to “guide us into all Truth.” Further, we believe it is our calling to steward these treasures for the good of the church and the world.
Third, that, at a time in our culture when even the churches, the universities, the media, and the government have all too often abandoned their historic commitment to careful analysis, dialogue, and debate, one of the most important gifts we can give to the church and to the culture is a “middle” space where students and faculty truly listen to each other—where we learn from those who do not agree fully with us what part of the Truth they believe they see that we have not yet seen as fully. We assume that, as fallen people, we might be mistaken or at least have room to grow. While we assert confidently that the Truth exists—that is, we are not relativists—we also know that we need to be appropriately humble about our own capacity to be in possession of the whole Truth. That is why we need the company of other good and wise people—and, above all, the guidance of the Holy Spirit.
Finally, being a college of the “courageous middle” will not feel entirely comfortable for anyone. An education, especially a deeply Christian one, will stretch us in our minds, our spirits, and our hearts as we prepare to be the “salt” and “light”—or the seasoning and illumination—of a fallen world. One can get a “credential” without being troubled with how to connect the whole counsel of God with the actual problems of the world in which we find ourselves. It is not possible to get a true education—especially a deeply Christian education—and be left entirely to one’s own preconceived opinions. At the very least, we are called to the painful reflective process of bringing those preconceived opinions into the light of day—so that they can be examined.
Courage for the Call
It will take all the courage we can muster to be true to the call we believe God has placed on Houghton College at this time. There are other colleges who may have simpler callings—and, at times, we might wish to trade places. We believe this is the task we have been given by our Wesleyan heritage in this complicated moment in our society and in the church. We ask for your prayers—for wisdom, for discernment, for humility, and for passion to be a place of Truth and Grace for all who those who come to this place to be prepared to be agents of God’s convening grace-filled hospitality in the turbulence of our world.
Shirley A. Mullen, Class of 1976