Engaging the university (see all posts) refers to moving campus ministries beyond the pietistic, evangelistic, and apologetic realms into new territory: participation and dialogue.
I have not yet asked in detail why we might want more of this, or what motivations we might have for trying to move in that direction, so in this post I want to briefly lay out some reasons (from an Australian evangelical perspective) for engaging the university.
The Christian understanding of love is not about ‘do no harm’, but about actively seeking the welfare of others: ‘Treat others as you’d like to be treated’.
When Jesus says, ‘Treat others as you’d like to be treated’, it puts us in an imaginative stance: hoping to be heard myself, how do I listen in a way that gives others a hearing? Hoping to have a voice myself, how do I speak in a way that gives others a voice?
This means we talk about love in specific terms such as hospitality and neighbourliness. We don’t just live and let live; we go above and beyond to care for and make room for others. The parable of the Good Samaritan is a key resource in this regard, as is the sacrificial, other-centred mindset of Jesus which Paul has in mind when he talks about ‘shining like stars’ (more on ‘shining’ below).
This makes us people of an open table, not in reference to the Lord’s Supper but in our dealings with the campus and city around us. Aussie evangelicals sometimes talk about our need for epistemic humility, but to this we must add the call for epistemic justice for others.
(This, by the way, is why I’m inclined to see the true ‘Christian university’ as being a properly secular university, a genuinely plural space that all can hold in common.)
In this way, love leads us to dialogue. Hoping to be heard myself, how do I listen in a way that gives others a hearing? Hoping to have a voice myself, how do I speak in a way that gives others a voice?
Why then do we engage? Because it is a manifestation of the love which expresses the heart of the Father and the movement of the Spirit, in which we join Jesus in living more and more as the image of God. In the same moment he calls us to ‘do unto others’, Jesus calls us to ‘give good gifts’ to others in exactly the same way our Father does. He adds that, in doing so, we will ‘sum up the Law and the Prophets’ — and Paul draws specifically on this teaching when he calls us to keep in step with the Spirit.
Yet we have a parallel aim: witness. Again, Jesus’ words are key: ‘Make your light shine, so that others will see the good that you do and will praise your Father in heaven.’
We live as participants in hope of shalom — wholeness, flourishing — and we are constantly ‘seeking the welfare of the city’, just as God is seeking the good of his beloved creation. Often, however, the world seems indifferent or even hostile to the creation of flourishing and wholeness. That being the case, we see ourselves not merely as shalom-bringers, but as beacons — heralds and ambassadors of a reality that, even when it appears dead to the world, remains fresh to us by the life-giving breath of the Spirit. We bear witness to the hope of all things made new.
Why then do we engage? Because even though true stewardship and image-bearing is something beautiful, its beauty is darkened — and so we must bear witness, and the flame of the Spirit of Christ burns brighter in the world.
(What ‘witness’ actually looks like is a question for next week.)
Love and witness are therefore two motivations for engaging the university (drawing especially on Matt 5:13-16 and Matt 7:9-12 as above). To relate this back to the ‘big idea’ of God’s shalom, perhaps we could say that ‘love’ is the relational fabric of shalom, while ‘witness’ is the ongoing expression of that fabric in the face of adversity and opposition.
Image credit: Joshua Earle
Arthur Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at meetjesusatuni.com.