Why Mission Matters Today
Susan VanZanten

The year 2017 was not a good year by any reckoning. The earth, our island home, has suffered high winds, earthquakes, mudslides, flooding, record heat spells, and wildfires. Ten hurricanes in ten weeks swept across Central and North America. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, 2017 was the costliest year on record for natural disasters in the United States, with sixteen separate events causing damages in excess of $1 billion. The total price tag? An estimated $306 billion.

Humanity’s frailties and follies further contributed to the darkness. London alone suffered four major terrorist attacks. A lone gunman perched in a hotel room window in Las Vegas killed fifty-eight people and injured more than 500 others. Terrorist attacks occurred in Somalia and Stockholm, Manchester and Nigeria, Afghanistan and Paris. Wars continued to rage and threats of war grew ever more belligerent. Fake news, election hacking, social media abuse, divisive public discourse, name-calling, ad hominem attacks, and violence against people on the basis of their physical appearance, religion, or national origins proliferated. For example, in June, The Guardian reported that Islamophobic hate crimes in Britain were up fivefold after the London Bridge attacks.

College campuses have not been immune to this growing darkness. An increasing number of racially charged incidents occurred on campuses across the United States in 2017, and white supremacy movements and alt-right groups sowed discord and disruption. The 2017-2018 academic year began in August with the violence that broke out in Charlottesville, Virginia. Hundreds of neo-Nazis, Klu Klux Klan members, and other white-supremacist groups first marched across the University of Virginia campus carrying torches one night, and then attempted the next day to hold a downtown rally that was disrupted by counterprotesters. The violent clashes injured many, killed one young woman, and plunged Virginia into a state of emergency. Charlottesville epitomizes every college and university administrator’s worst nightmare.

The year 2017 was also the year of the total eclipse, and many avidly followed the complete veiling of the sun across much of North America. Thousands descended on the zone of totality to witness the eerie silence, the sudden drop in temperature, the daytime stars, and the strange half-light and shadows. The eclipse seemed an apt symbol of our world, covered with a cold, dark shadow, unfamiliar and foreboding.

Yet in such dark times, Christians remain people of hope, and mission matters to Christian educators because of that hope. In times such as these, we need frequent reminders of this fact. We need to read and re-read Psalm 33: “The eyes of the Lord are on those…who hope in God’s faithful love, to rescue their soul from death, to keep them alive in famine…May your faithful love be upon us, as we hope in you, O Lord” (18-19, 22). In terms of eternity, we are living through a brief, albeit painful, moment. When we step back and view the cosmic picture, we remember God’s providential care and love for creation and its creatures. Even in the terror of an eclipse, we can be confident that the light will emerge.

I find great comfort in the words of the unparalleled Emily Dickinson:

“Hope” is the thing with feathers –
That perches in the soul –
And sings the tune without the words –
And never stops – at all –

And sweetest – in the Gale – is heard –
And sore must be the storm –
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm –

Part of my tuneless hope in the midst of the current storm stems from a belief that colleges and universities with a mission inspired by Christian faith can be part of the reappearance of the light. Unlike James Burtchaell, who lamented “the dying of the light” in mission-based colleges and universities in his 1998 book, I see possibilities for brighter days. Mission matters now in three key ways.

Mission Provides a Foundation

Even though Christian institutions of higher education embody and express their Christian identity in a plethora of ways, our institutions all affirm and embrace Christian belief. We share a common profession of a creator God, an incarnate Son, a Spirit at work in the world. We believe in grace, forgiveness, and the resurrection from the dead. We affirm a common vision for human flourishing and share a sense of obligation to love our neighbors. The strong Christian intellectual and theological tradition that we collectively draw upon, with individual institutions representing different strands, provides a raison d’être for life goals, vocations, and ethical behavior. When we see people and the natural world in the light of creation, fall, and redemption, it frames everything we do. We have solid ground from which to speak in troubled times.
Mission Leads to Formation

This common foundation and governing narrative results in our focus on student formation. Mission-driven institutions do not exist merely to instill knowledge and skills, to prepare people to get good paying jobs, or to produce research that increases the wealth of the 1 percent. In teaching and scholarship, we are concerned about the formation of students and ideas: people and practices that will change the world, often only one mere inch at a time. Our colleges and universities challenge and prepare students to work for a better world in their jobs, family life, community engagement, and leisure time. Of course, we are concerned with how students think (intellectual growth), but we also challenge them to make wise choices concerning the direction of the steps of their lives (vocational growth) and the stories on which they base their character (ethical growth). We not only are in the vanguard of a growing concern for character development, ethical formation, and spiritual growth in the twenty-first century academy, we are well supplied to lead the way.

Mission Grants True Freedom

Seattle Pacific University’s opening convocation traditionally features a speech made by a retiring faculty member. This fall’s address was delivered by a history professor, Donald Holsinger, who had started his career at George Mason University before moving to SPU, where he taught for almost three decades. Reflecting on the narrative arc of his career, Professor Holsinger spoke of his initial trepidation about leaving a tenured position at GMU for a “religious” institution, only to discover, to his surprise, a much greater freedom at SPU to talk about the things that most deeply mattered to him as a person steeped in the Mennonite tradition.

During the many years in which I led the SPU New Faculty Seminar, I heard similar sentiments from other faculty who had previously taught at major research universities and state land-grant systems before landing at a private institution. They found a greater sense of freedom to talk about their deepest beliefs and commitments at a mission-based school. If they held certain faith-informed positions on economics, aesthetics, war, poverty, human personhood, globalization, death, and genetic modification, to name only a few, they encountered more latitude and even encouragement to speak out of their whole identity in the classroom, laboratory, and lecture hall.

Some may argue that academic freedom means that Christian expressions are accepted in the secular academy. And in some places they certainly are. But too often the academy and the disciplines don’t allow faith-based voices and perspectives, mutes such perspectives, or overlooks them. In my work mentoring graduate students in the Lilly Fellows Graduate Program over the last decade, I have repeatedly heard about the ways that both Catholic and Protestant students have found it necessary to self-censor their deepest beliefs, their most significant affiliations, and their genuine academic interests. Again, this isn’t the case everywhere, but it occurs far too often. 

More subtle strictures may occur in disciplinary fields. For example, consider the career and critical assessment of Jacob Lawrence, one of the most important artists of the twentieth century, who received national recognition in the 1940s with “The Migration Series” and later lived in Seattle in until his death in 2000. The first African-American to be represented by a New York gallery, Lawrence is known “for his modernist depictions of everyday life as well as epic narratives of African American history and historical figures,” according to the DC Moore Gallery. Yet what the DC Moore biography as well as the Wikipedia entry on Lawrence fails to mention is the crucial role that the African American church played in Lawrence’s art and life. A friend of mine collects the work of Northwest painters, including Jacob Lawrence, and spoke with Lawrence several times about the importance of faith and Christian tradition to his art. One of Lawrence’s more stunning later works, seldom discussed in the critical literature, is a series of eight illustrations commissioned for a limited edition of the King James version of Genesis. In the Genesis series, Lawrence drew scenes based on his memories of the preacher at Harlem’s Abyssinian Baptist Church. In each panel, the impassioned orator is proclaiming the word to his congregation; a Bible is always prominent, and in the background, four church windows show scenes related to the specific act of creation that is the verse’s focus.

Lawrence is rightly acclaimed as one of the greatest African-American painters of the twentieth century. But why, my friend asks, is Lawrence not recognized as one of the greatest Christian painters of the twentieth century? The modern art world has lacked that freedom.

The freedom found at mission-based institutions allows for the practice of true plurality, if done well. All Christians, including myself, can be just as closed-minded as anyone else, thinking our own understanding is the absolute truth. But authentic Christian belief acknowledges our frailty and requires humility. It teaches us that we are limited and make mistakes. It reminds us that we need to hear multiple points of view and be especially sensitive to different ethnic and cultural perspectives. We should not keep out other theories, stories, and perspectives, but welcome all to the table of conversation. As Jane Austen writes in Emma: “Seldom, very seldom, does complete truth belong to any human disclosure; seldom can it happen that something is not a little disguised or a little mistaken.” We need the collective wisdom of our communities.

A Case Study

If mission matters especially today because it provides a foundation, prompts formation, and grants freedom, let’s consider how this plays out in a specific instance—the white supremacist march, protest, and violence in Charlottesville. In the August 14, 2017, Chronicle of Higher Education, Chad Wellman, an associate professor of German studies at the University of Virginia wrote a illuminating essay called, “For Moral Clarity, Don’t Look to Universities.” Wellman described witnessing the torchlight march on his campus from his residential housing and spoke of his (and others’) disappointment in the initial response of the university president, Teresa A. Sullivan, to the white supremacy gathering and ensuing violence. She did not “express moral outrage” but spoke of “vague values and general disappointment.”

Wellman continues:

The contemporary university, at least in its local form in Charlottesville, seems institutionally incapable of moral clarity…. Sullivan’s missives, especially her initial ones, read like press releases from the bowels of a modern bureaucracy, not the thoughts of a human responding to hate. And that makes a lot of sense. What can the president of a contemporary university say? The University of Virginia is many things—a health center, a federal contractor, a sports franchise, an event venue, and, almost incidentally, a university devoted to education and knowledge. It is most often, as Clark Kerr wrote in 1963, a multiversity, with little common purpose but the perpetuation of itself and its procedures. Why should my colleagues and I look to our chief executive for moral leadership?

The essay continues by citing Max Weber’s admonition to his students that “they should not turn to the university for ultimate meaning or a world view.” The modern liberal university does not exist for guidance on how to live. Consequently, Wellman expresses that he must separate his personal and professional identities and actions:

When I welcome my students this Saturday, I will discuss white supremacy and the march, but I will use language different than the one my wife and I used with our three children. To them we spoke in the language of our faith tradition—in terms of the image of God, the church, and Christian love. When I speak to my students, I will do so in the language of the university and its traditions—in terms of open debate, critique, and a love of knowledge.

Educators and leaders of faith-based institutions are bound to a common moral mission. They are free to speak in the language of your faith tradition. They can condemn white supremacy, and unjust responses to natural disasters, and incivility, sexism, and mendacity by appealing to the image of God, the church, and Christian love. They are free to advocate for and uphold values based upon their faith commitments. And they have the amazing opportunity to contribute to the formation of the next generation, to prompt them to consider issues of belief, ethics, and human meaning. All of this can occur while still embracing the traditions of the university: open debate, critique, and a love of knowledge.

A recent article on pedagogy in the Chronicle of Higher Education, “How to be Political in Class,” by David Gooblar, affirms, “It’s not our job to change our students’ beliefs.” Gooblar’s position resembles that of Stanley Fish, who writes in Save the World on Your Own Time, that professors can “legitimately” introduce their students to bodies of knowledge and traditions of inquiry, and equip them with analytical skills, but professors should not try to instill virtues or beliefs in their students, such as a commitment to social justice.

Might the job of teacher-scholars at institutions informed by a sense of Christian mission entail changing their students’ beliefs? If one has a white supremacist student, shouldn’t one try to change his or her beliefs? In a writing course that focuses on the topic of homelessnesss, one of my objectives is to encourage students to have more compassion for the homeless and feel convicted to help them. Of course I’m introducing them to a lot of facts and history, as well as theories and proposals for solving the problem; I spend the greatest amount of time on teaching them writing and researching skills; but I also deliberately keep in mind an affective goal. I don’t prescribe how the problem of homelessness in America today should be addressed—that’s a matter for research and debate—but I do want my students to feel convinced that they should love and care for their neighbors who happen to be without homes.

Clearly, we cannot assess students’ academic progress based on their opinions, but I believe that a mission-based institution should try to change students’ beliefs—by appealing to facts, logic, and reason; by instilling a historical consciousness, an analytic mind, and a spirit of creativity; by exposing them to a variety of viewpoints and experiences—but also by helping them to form beliefs, values, and actions based on a love of God and neighbor.

It matters today, more than ever, in this dark world.


Susan VanZanten is the incoming dean of Christ College—The Honors College at Valparaiso University. She previously served as professor of English and interim co-chair of the Department of Languages, Cultures, and Linguistics at Seattle Pacific University. This essay is adapted from her address at the 2017 Lilly Workshop for Senior Administrators at Loyola Marymount University.

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