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“We are not living in an era of change, but a change of era.” – Pope Francis

Written on the Feast of Pentecost.

Graduation is coming here at Seattle Pacific University (SPU). (Our school year in the PNW starts and ends late compared to the rest of the U.S.). Graduation, of course, is a time of endings and new beginnings for students eager to find their place in the world. It is a time to end one era of life and start another – one still shrouded in mystery.

And this year, it’s more than the graduates at SPU who are facing major transitions. In a perfect storm of difficulties at once financial, political, and spiritual, SPU itself has become a microcosm of so many ills rocking contemporary, “first world” culture: ideological polarization, personal isolation, deep anxiety, emotional fragility, and habitual distrust. And while SPU is leveraging its Christian foundation to maintain basic civility despite these challenges, it is suffering deep wounding – wounding that feels like a hundred amputations. In the next three years, up to forty percent of SPU’s faculty are slated to leave the institution.

Yet, “we are not living in an era of change, but a change of era.” I try to remember this.

Part of the reason my Christian university suffers so much, alongside the wider culture, is because we can’t yet see the way forward. We know the “old ways” were not sufficient to present conditions, but we don’t, yet, know a “new way.” Or rather, we don’t yet, collectively, know an authentically Christian “new way” that meets wealthy, first-world, postmodern psychological suffering where it is, out in the existential trenches, without taking its cues wholesale from the very “world” it’s trying to help.

The suffering the Christian university is called to address today comes from many unique conditions almost unknown in earlier eras – or if they were known, they manifested only among a sequestered elite.

In what era in the history of the world have millions of young people been taught that they, personally, are somehow responsible for “changing the world”? (What a toxic marriage of flattery and crippling pressure!)

In what era in the history of the world have opportunities for personal reinvention been almost limitless – to the point of reshaping one’s very body into unrecognizability? (Not to mention graduation-speech bromides like: “You can be anything!”)

In what era in the history of the world have so many millions of impressionable young people grown up with a relentless barrage of manipulative imagery meant to circumvent executive processes and trigger impulsive responses (usually so someone can make a buck)?

In what era in the history of the world has the precocious sexualization of the young, aided by the ubiquity of pornography, made the human body an open field ripe for exploitation, with no secrets left, and certainly no sacredness?

In what era in the history of the world have so many millions become so thoroughly estranged from an authentic home or birthplace, as well as from the real means by which food, clothing, and shelter are produced from the land? In other words, in what era have so many been uprooted and estranged from Creation and its processes?

In what era in the history of the world have so many millions had high-calorie, processed food and entertainment on demand, 24/7, along with a huge complement of mind-altering drugs? In this respect, a lower-middle-class household in America is more decadent than a royal palace in Grand Siecle France.

In what era in the history of the world has pervasive intellectual pride and self-righteousness combined so thoroughly with a mood of deep malaise and even despair? (Many of us are Solomon in the book of Ecclesiastes, now.)

No wonder “post-apocalyptic” is a popular genre of literature, film, and television. There is so much muchness. We exist, it seems, to consume and be consumed – sexually, socially, aesthetically, and opportunistically. The only solution, it sometimes feels, is just to get rid of it all. To somehow throw it all away.

In Seattle, and at Seattle Pacific University, I sometimes feel that I’m surrounded by a pervasive, inarticulate, and unconscious sense of shame (or its flipside, brittle defiance). We know we are objectified, exploited, manipulated. We know we are broken; we feel it in our spirits, even if our minds don’t understand.  We know we have been complicit in our degradation, but we don’t know how, or when, or why. We cry out against the suffering all around us, but we also feel vaguely responsible for it. Above all, we just don’t understand.

Because we are wounded, wounded, wounded. Our wounding is so deep that blood flows into our eyes and we can’t see. We falsely think the world is red.

“We are not living in an era of change, but a change of era.”

These are the birth pangs. These are the groans of the Spirit pushing forth new life from an arena of pain.

In this arena, angels and demons brandish shadowy instruments upon which earth-light now glints. Bare eyes see it sometimes, that errant glimmering, and wonder what is afoot. And then it’s gone.

In this arena, innocent minds, innocent bodies, that never acquiesced to their wounding, bear the marks of the Crucifixion in hands and feet and hearts, crying out, “why have you forsaken me?” to a God they barely knew – maybe they intuit Him, at last, only through His absence.

But I feel hope.

I feel that our Father whispers sometimes, in the wind: “Rise up and be human again, my children made in my image. Come stand and face my piercing gaze and be embraced. Mourn to see yourselves, and then rise up. Rise and be saints who would happily die for a Good whose glory could burn you to cinders. Rise and die for a Good whose beauty is death itself, for fallen flesh can’t hold its majesty. Rise and die to yourselves – to your precious selves – as did my Son, whose preciousness far outweighed yours. And then, though you don’t deserve it, you’ll be reborn.”

That is when the new era will dawn. Let us give thanks for the fresh things divine providence will bring. Come, Holy Spirit and use our pain to invigorate and cleanse us. Use it to make us trust you more! “In all things, God works for the good of those who love him.” This we know.

May our valedictories, this year, be spoken with tongues of spiritual flame.

Katie Kresser

Seattle Pacific University
Katie Kresser is Professor of Art History at Seattle Pacific University.


  • Rob Wall says:

    Beautifully written, Katie. A prophet’s sigh. Not only as her expression of collective shame but of soul-crushing sadness. May the hope sounded by your benedictory be realized. This must be our prayer. What strikes me, the educator, is that I can’t imagine this “new dawn,” this new creation, this new SPU that you prophesy can be realized by the professionalization of curriculum and faculty that the 40% reduction (in mostly liberal arts programs and faculty) envisages. Your profound reading of human life and culture is the work of the liberal arts and sciences drenched in and cultivated by theological understanding. This once was SPU’s focus; it must be again.

  • Gordon Moulden says:

    Very thought provoking.

    I also work at a Christian institution of higher ed and sense a crisis of purpose. But as you have hinted at the end, there is hope.

    To paraphrase Christ’s words to the religious leaders of His day;

    John 5:39-40: “You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about Me, yet you refuse to come to Me that you may have life.”
    “You look in the world for answers and the world points to Me, yet you do not come to Me to get the answers.”

    Perhaps the west is ready to come to Christ; it’s clear it is not the solution to its self-made crisis.

    • Gordon Moulden says:

      The present hope being the increasing numbers of people flocking to church; clearly many are looking for answers in a society marked by ideologies having supposedly “irreconcilable” differences.