"Before you can search for truth, you must be interested in finding it." -Miroslav Volf

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Life at Evergreen, Part 1 (and a lengthy tangent)

My job at Evergreen State College has been an unexpected gift of my new life in Olympia. I wasn’t sure whether or not I’d be working in addition to pastoring when I moved here, but doing the bi-vocational thing has opened up a lot more opportunities and contacts than would have otherwise been the case. I love helping lead and serve the community I do as a ministry leader, but being in this environment has opened me to a fascinating community of characters…

• There’s a semi-regular booth setup in the quad that is all Obama-merchandise. The election may have been nearly two years ago, but some students are really marketing his image. Not sure I’ve ever seen that before, such fervor and veneration of an American president (this also may be a college student thing, though the culture of my alma mater, George Fox, is clearly very different than Evergreen, so I missed this as an undergrad).

• I occasionally walk by Evergreen students and hear them discussing a host of highly intellectual topics…people are strolling through the campus talking about a certain author’s values being expressed through his characters, or discussing the meaning of “supporting” our troops and whether or not that means one supports war as a general policy or simply supports the individual, removed from his or her involvements. This is just in a casual stroll through campus. When I was a freshman at college, my out-of-class conversations were more about the latest Will Ferrell shtick or playing the I-love-Jesus-and-play-guitar card to woo young women (not claiming to have been successful at this…well, perhaps with one particular girl).

• I was handed a flyer for a “Young Socialists” Organization trying to recruit. It’s funny…I think I overheard a conversation of some kind of club meeting at Batdorf’s (my coffee shop) a couple weeks back. It sounded at first like some kind of Young Life meeting, with phrases like “reaching out” being thrown around. Nope. Socialist’s club. Interesting to hear the same language, obviously showing this group believes deeply in the goodness and helpfulness of its agenda, just as evangelistic-minded Christians do theirs. The flyer said capitalism was the cause of the world’s problems, and that socialism was the answer. Maybe a tentative, heavily-qualified, partial “yes” to the first assertion, but “no” to the second?

• Yesterday I listened for a few minutes to the beating of tribal drums in the center of campus. I don’t know who they were or all the details of why they were doing it, other than to guess it was probably some kind of shout-out to local First Nations peoples in the area, or possibly just a group of musicians. It reminded me of China a bit, where people, mostly older generations, would commonly have organized “jam sessions” in common areas.

• There were a couple students recently standing in the main square with a couple red-painted doors asking for people to write on these doors their thoughts about who Jesus is. I talked to them for a couple minutes, a bit curious of their agenda. Seemed like two guys just trying to creatively start/continue a conversation on campus about faith while appearing to be devoted Christians themselves.

One guy gave me very direct answers to my questions. The other guy was a bit more cryptic and evasive. For example, upon my asking how many Christians he thought were on campus, he responded by saying that “it’s hard to say…people are always either moving toward Christ or moving away from Christ.” Hmm. Okay…I think I know where he’s coming from and what he’s trying to accomplish in saying that—it’s reminiscent of the bounded sets vs. centered sets conversation (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XWqk1o6bDxA)–but I’m a bit wary of this line of thinking.

One of the goals of this kind of language seems to be to avoid labeling/judging and to break down in-group/out-group classifications. If I had more time with this student, and he wanted my opinion, I’d probably encourage him toward four ends (and I’m not picking on him, just addressing the stream of thought that has evidently influenced him):

1. Be careful about labeling someone a pre-Christian, which seems to be the end result of this kind of thinking. If I were a passionate Muslim or an atheistic humanitarian, I think I might be offended or annoyed if someone told me I was moving toward Christ. So don’t disrespect a person of another faith by essentially calling them a pre-Christian. The message sent to another person seems to be: “your traditions, customs, experiences, culture, and opinions are inferior to mine, and you are really on the path toward (or away from) my Christian faith.” You can try to distinguish between Christ and Christianity, but I think others will link the two together. It just seems like such an approach does more damage than good, as much as we may believe in the goodness and legitimacy of our message.

2. When we talk about a “Christian,” I think we should be talking about someone who has consciously chosen to follow Jesus. A Christian believes Christ is Lord, King, Victor, Savior of the world and is attempting to redefine their thrust/life story/agenda/purpose/lifestyle in light of this reality. (I know Christians have varying degrees of success in staying true to and living out their beliefs, and I know some might define “Christian” differently than this…but I think this is the general gist). A Christian is not someone who reminds you of Jesus (Gandhi reminds me of Jesus). And I think it’s logically and theologically safe to assume not all people will become Christians, in this life at least. (Yes, loaded statement. Also, I differentiate between the term “Christian” and those who will ultimately be redeemed and restored by God—though I’m not commenting here on whether or not there’s a practical difference. I suppose if you want to talk about who God will ultimately “save,” then I think the moving toward vs. moving away, “centered sets vs. bounded sets” conversation has a place.)

3. Don’t be afraid of labels. I don’t think in-group and out-group classifications are necessarily an evil, unless they are used in way to declare one’s superiority or as a means of the in-group oppressing or unlovingly excluding the out-group. I think eliminating such classifications might be a path to uniformity and sameness, not unity. I think unity is better fostered not through conformity and the erasing of distinctives but by learning to value differences and the way that this plurality reveals the glory of God. It’s okay for you to be something I’m not as long as we can respect one another. Perhaps our common humanity is found not in our sameness but in the way we all “commonly” reveal the glory of God in our diversity. Labeling someone a Christian (or any religion for that matter) just strikes me as a reasonable way of understanding another person, clarifying to at least a minimal degree what they are and aren't. If someone says they are a Christian, I’ll take them at their word. If they say they aren’t, then they aren’t, I guess.

4. Perhaps apply this line of thinking to the spiritual formation and pastoring of Christians. It might be helpful to be able to discern how one’s particular habits or actions are helpful or harmful in their walk with Christ, pushing them away from living in obedience to and unity with God. If someone is moving away from or toward Christ in a particular area, knowing this can be helpful in discipling them, rather than assuming everyone is sufficiently “ministered to” because they have made the leap of faith to being Christian. Becoming a Christian is more like a beginning, not an end.

Okay, enough about that. :) Feel free to comment if you have an insight on the matter I may have missed. I feel like maybe I'm coming at the whole issue a little too narrowly.

• Evergreen is beautiful, especially right now. It’s surrounded by forest, and while the trees are mostly evergreen, closer to campus are a wide array of changing colors and falling leaves. One of the highlights of my day is walking from my car to my office…it’s so fresh and gorgeous.

• Evergreen people look about how you imagine they’d look…a high percentage of beards, dreads, piercings, and protest T-shirts. I love it!

I’ve been talking a lot about Evergreen, but haven’t yet mentioned the international students with whom I work. But I’ll save my ESL student snapshots for another post…


joann renee said...

Well-worded tangent. It's been fun discussing this with you. And your guitar-playing/i-love-Jesus schtick certainly charmed more than just me. :)

Ian said...

Matt! Love reading your posts. Always really deep, insightful, full of Boswellian theology, and Boztastic goodness. :)

Miss you and looking forward to spending time with you (and perhaps your wonderful wife as well) very soon!


Ian said...

P.S.: Your guitar-playing / i-love-jesus schtick for SURE charmed me :)

Matt Boswell said...

"Boswellian." Thank you, Ian, for the ego boost. When your name becomes an adjective, you know you've arrived.