In his book The Dying of the Light, James Burtchaell traces the history of higher education’s relationship with the church. He documents the transition of disengagement over time, revealing the subtle acceptance of faith integration as anti-intellectual. In another discourse, George Marsden in The Soul of the American University examines the once pervasive guidance of the church on the intellectual, cultural and social life of higher education, then its loss of influence. He maps the decline from its naissance in faith through the growth of unbelief.
Christian higher education is a response to the dying of the soul of faith in the academy. Most private colleges established by the church now maintain only a casual association, if any, with their faith affiliate. Fresno Pacific University cherishes its relationship with the Mennonite Brethren conference and has established a mission and vision statement which affirms the importance of a Christ-centered education. The official vision of the university is: “To be known for academic excellence, innovative programming and spiritual formation.”
We have dialogued about academic excellence and innovative programming, but seldom discuss spiritual formation as a community. Our Office of Spiritual Formation and Diversity does a great job of engaging many of our students, while many of our faculty are intentional in the integration of faith and learning in the classroom. But how do we articulate what it looks like to be known for spiritual formation?
Just a few weeks ago I began to think about this issue. I asked myself several questions: What does it mean to be known as a university with a strength in spiritual formation? What can our students affirm by their experience? What is our testimony in the Central Valley, where we are called to be light in the community? How do we partner and serve the Christian community in this area? The most engaging question is, how should Christ-centered development flourish at a university with multiple campuses and significant diversity in faith traditions?
Before the Thanksgiving break I jotted down some thoughts on how thriving in this area might be evident. I listed seven areas:
- An environment that encourages prayer with freedom from embarrassment.
- A place where the Word of God is revered and serves as a guide for how we work together.
- A freedom of expression of faith, hope and humility in corporate and individual relationships.
- A spirit of thanksgiving.
- Quiet and public spaces for meditation, counsel and worship.
- Expressions of our love for God through our work and interaction with others.
- A place to affirm gifts, vocation and calling.
During the Thanksgiving break I stumbled across Jesus’ exaltations to the churches in the Book of Revelations. The churches are identified as lampstands or lights throughout the region. Jesus affirmed their gifts or good deeds, but also identified areas of concern that would cause them to lose their light. The prophecy to these churches was clear: make the changes necessary or their lampstands would be removed.
For FPU to be known for spiritual formation encourages us to be a light in the Central Valley. Knowledge by itself does not produce light, but what we do with knowledge can produce and sustain light. So, what can we learn from the message of Jesus to the churches, noting that historically most of those churches he identified loss their lampstands? I would suggest that applying the following three exaltations will advance spiritual formation at FPU. They are not new or complicated. They are so simple we can easily overlook them in our work together. Here is how I hope we identify our community:
- A community where we love God with all our heart, mind, soul and strength.
- A community where we love our neighbors as ourselves.
- A community where we practice love using the example of Jesus.
Strangely enough, all the laws and prophets, all the work we do, every relationship we have will be measures against these three commands. All come from the heart of God. The third was the manifestation or the model of how the first two came to life. We will continue to be known for spiritual formation; a light in the Valley, as the love for and of God is the motivation and core of all we do as an educational community.
Jesus tells us that by our love for one another others will know we are his disciples. Our selfless service to others is an expression of this love. Over the last 74 years this university, and later the seminary, have developed a reputation for preparing individuals to love their neighbors in this manner—an expression of how we love God. This is the light we provide for the Central Valley; and not just the Valley, but every place our graduates go. This is the light we fight to sustain; the light that gives life. In our December commencement we will graduate a class of 439 students. Last year we graduated over 1,100 students in the December and May commencements. Our prayer is that these individuals will be lights that extend the influence of the kingdom of God throughout the Central Valley and beyond. This fulfills our mission and affirms our vision.