In my work as a pre-med advisor, I help students navigate the pictures and words medical schools use to recruit students. Each school has a website and promotional materials making their case that they’re a good fit for YOU, the reader. One paradox of the Internet Age though is that the more information is available, the more the words all start to look the same. The school colors on the websites may be different but the pictures and paragraphs blur into a list of Very Good Things: smiling students with coffee, smiling students in lab coats, at schools that teach excellence, diversity, professionalism, etc. All admirable goals! But the words are common and over-used, becoming as worked-over and rubbed-down as old coins. The pre-meds feel worn down by the process.
In a co-taught class, I observed my colleague Max Hunter, an expert on medical school admissions, cut through the fog by putting the schools’ mission statements through a close reading. Sure, all the same terms are there, but which one comes first? What words do they use that others avoid? After comparing dozens of these, you start to see the one unusual sentence among the paragraphs of echoed typical sentences. That point is where the school steps out and says “This is who we want to be,” and where the pre-med can say “That is the kind of doctor I want to become.”
We should all probably apply this exercise to our own institutions’ mission statements and promotional materials. At my institution, the first unique word in the mission statement is “Christian,” literally and admirably putting Jesus first. The rest of the statement consists of phrases that in my first decade here, I used to hear every day, but in my second decade hear less, or with an ironic tone: the motto “engaging the culture and changing the world,” then the words “competence,” “character,” “wisdom,” and “grace-filled community.” After twenty years, most of these words have lost their luster, as words will do, but “wisdom” is more enduring than the others – to me, it still catches the light and gleams.
Our university is changing, but our mission statement hasn’t changed in twenty years. What has changed is our new slogan, “Faith for the Future.” This new catchphrase now fills our promotional materials, but it raises important questions about the use of the word “faith.” As this word moves into other documents and statements more and more, it has resulted in two problematic changes, one of subtraction and the other of addition.
The first change was noted by my theology colleague Rick Steele in his speech on the history of SPU’s Faith Statement at a faculty in-service. He found SPU’s preamble to the faith statement had changed.
Instead of “At Seattle Pacific University, we seek to ground everything we do on the transforming gospel of Jesus Christ,” the new opening sentence of the Faith Statement read, “At Seattle Pacific we practice a generous faith that welcomes people from all backgrounds but cultivates deep, thriving relationships with Christ.”1
The new slogan “faith for the future” was present, in italics, as well as “service, academic study, and vocation,” “the Church’s rich diversity,” and the goal “to learn, grow, and serve in community.” I’ve seen most of these words in other statements from institutions both Christian and not. They are newer words (after all, what can be newer than the future?), yet already feel worn-out with overuse.
Shortly before Rick spoke at the inservice, the University Administration learned of the change (likely as surprised as anyone) and restored the original wording. Probably the preamble was rewritten by someone unaware that it was part of the Faith Statement – there was little in the online format to show that it was in fact integral — and the changes were certainly reversed quickly.
But all this increases my uneasiness that these most important words can change without due process. The fluidity of digital documents can lead to the loss of a densely argued agreement, one that we faculty all signed onto when we joined the university. We remind each other of these words to bond us together.
The second change in the use of “faith” is more minor, only appearing on banners hung from lampposts across campus for the 2020-2021 school year. These listed the first name of every first-year student below the title “Faith in You.” My son was part of that class, and I liked seeing his name raised up at a time when COVID protocols kept so many people apart.
But I wish the heading was rephrased. My faith in my students is more accurately a faith that God is at work in my students. And maybe that interpretation can be read between the lines. Still, I’m left with a confusion about what someone means when they say “faith.” We keep using that word, but I don’t think we know what it means, or to Whom it should be directed. Has it worn out?
Of all the words in the Faith Statement, the one that has caused the most problems lately is not “faith” but “evangelical,” which has been politicized and polarized into a set of propositions and assumptions, even prejudices, rather than an invitation or good gift. My own struggle with this word led me to Karl Barth’s small book Evangelical Theology, originally lectures given in April 1962 to American theologians,2 but relevant to Christian academics of all disciplines. Karl Barth uses the words “faith” and “evangelical” both often and well.
I imagine walking around campus with Barth and showing him these banners or — after I explain how the internet works — the new, now-deleted preamble. I’m pretty sure he’d respond with his famous “Nein!”
In Evangelical Theology, Barth states that “faith would no doubt be a somewhat petty event, scarcely worth mentioning in this context, if what was meant by it was a human notion.”3 Barth didn’t have much “Faith in you” — unless the “You” was capitalized. “The real object of theology certainly demands faith, but it also opposes any attempt to dissolve it into thoughts and expressions of faith.”4
For Barth, faith is an event: “something is ‘moved,’ and something really ‘takes’ place.”5 Faith is more a place where you meet God than a datum you believe or a box you check.
Barth contrasts what faith is not to what faith is: “[F]aith is definitely no such venture as that which Satan, for instance, suggested to the Lord on the pinnacle of the temple (Luke 4:9-12). It is, instead, a sober as well as a brave appropriation of a firm and certain promise.”6
If the word “faith” has lost its meaning, it’s because we are looking at the word itself too closely, maybe even using it too much, instead of looking through it to the Author and Perfecter of our faith. As Barth said, “Christian faith occurs in the encounter of the believer with him in whom he believes.”7
Faith is not a diamond in the rough (that would be wisdom!) or a pious example to stir the soul. Rather, faith is a lens, focusing outward on the event of knowing Christ, “the power of God and the wisdom of God” (1 Corinthians 1:24 NIV).8
This light shining through the words of the text is what preserves the power of the word “wisdom” when I read and re-read SPU’s Mission Statement. This wisdom is buried like rubies, and it doesn’t wear out. It may be overlooked, even rejected, as Paul told the Corinthians. We find it if we focus, not on anxious attempts to appeal, but on forming lives, both ours and our students’, open to unexpected encounters with a holy, elusive, ever-loving God. Then we can set our hands to the work of carving out the habits and reflexes of wisdom.
- My close reading of the statement wonders why the conjunction used is “but” rather than “and.”
- Karl Barth. Evangelical Theology: An Introduction. (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1979).Also available on vinyl as 7 LPs from the SPU library.
- Barth. Evangelical Theology, 99.
- Barth. Evangelical Theology, 102.
- Barth. Evangelical Theology, 102.
- Barth. Evangelical Theology, 104.
- Barth. Evangelical Theology, 101.
- Throughout Evangelical Theology, Barth maintains an outward focus as essential for the practice of hope and love, as well as faith. See the discussion on agape in Chapter 17.