Lois is the head of the International Studies program.
Lois: I feel like the next step is a logical, organic culmination of everything that’s gone before. It’s probably hard for people to understand if they haven’t been part of the conversations. SSU is constantly shifting, and it’s different every term, depending on who’s here. But if you stand back and look at the trajectory of SSU, I think what we’re envisioning isn’t a dramatic shift– it’s a next step and an extension of SSU’s vision. I mean, I say ‘vision’ as if it’s one unifying vision… it’s been multiple visions.
I’m super excited about the community engagement piece. Whether we look at it through a Christian lens (which is my primary lens), or an International Studies angle, it’s so consistent.
The challenge to describe it is that there are so many pieces, and they’re all moving. And I see them moving into a coherent vision, but it’s really hard to articulate that. The 3 big pieces for me are the community engagement focus, the debt-free initiative (really addressing the issue of student debt), and figuring out how to articulate the role of Christianity at SSU authentically. For me, all those pieces are coming together in a really great, healthy, exciting way. For me, as a Christian, i’m excited about being more involved in the broader community, as a way of putting legs onto faith. Being present. For years I worked with the Baptist convention doing work on public witness. There was a guy–Bob Briner– who said something like, ‘Christians need to show up in the places where decisions are being made, but they need to show up listening, working together with other people, speaking the language of the table’. Christian language shouldn’t be getting in the way. I think being involved in the community at all kinds of levels is perfectly consistent with Christian faith. But it’s not exclusive to Christian faith. To the extent that we can live out our values of justice, beauty and compassion, and live them out in partnership with other people who might have a different foundation for their commitment to those values– that’s amazing. I don’t think we’ve got it figured out just yet.
When the term ‘open spirituality’ was first mentioned` at the strategic retreat in the fall, I thought, ‘this feels like freedom, to me, as a more conservative Christian.’ It’s trying to capture what is happening and describe it in a way that makes sense to other people. For me, it contrasts some of the other terminology we’d been considering, like ‘progressive Christianity’. I resonate with many of the tenets of progressive christianity, to an extent, but I would never describe myself that way, with that label. ‘Open spirituality’ gives more of an opportunity for everyone to be more authentically who they are.
We’re intentionally creating a space where faith matters. And I so profoundly believe that. That no matter what you believe, what you believe really does matter. And we need to be intentional about giving you space to sort that out and really engage with it. SSU often compares itself to other christian universities, but I think that part of the niche that SSU occupies relates more to secular universities, which might say, ‘we’re not going to talk about faith’. From an international studies perspective, how can you even have an education that doesn’t consider the importance of faith? Faith matters so much. So many of the fault lines in the world are faith-related. Faith is front and center, and we need to have places where we can talk about that. Faith is extremely important, and it’s going to be part of our conversations in class. Not in a prescriptive way. So I think the opportunities, academically, are huge.
I’ve never felt, at SSU, like I’m trying to guide students towards a particular way of seeing the world. In class, there should be no ideas that can’t be on the table. Students should be actively encouraged to put their ideas on the table for discussion. What makes a university a university is the quality of the discussion– we’re not just pooling our ignorance. We’re not just saying what we think (although it can start there). We need to be able to say, ‘this is why I think this’. And be open to critique. The importance of having different perspectives. What’s the value of peer review if your peers all think the same as you? To be able to create that kind of space in the classroom… I’m not sure how we’re going to do it, and I don’t think that’s the current reality. But I think we could be there.
Lois: The perception of ‘Christian university’ or ‘Christianity’, for many people, is a negative and narrow thing. And while we wanna say, ‘that’s not our view, that’s not how we’re using those terms’, how do you capture that in a way that’s meaningful? At a university fair, you’ve got 2 seconds to either interest or discourage someone from further conversation. We want to avoid the situation where students come and say, ‘ohh this isn’t what I thought I was coming to’. Either too-Christian or not-Christian enough. That’s been a long-term problem. I don’t want to be ashamed of our current Christian practices. My hope for SSU is that we can avoid the divide– that we will intentionally make room for diverse Christian voices, as well as for those from other faiths who embrace justice, beauty, and compassion as fundamental values for their life.
I had a student say, It can’t be a university if it’s not a place that’s pursuing truth. The challenge is that we have students who would define truth very very differently. Curious and critical thinking, to me, also are what make a university. I think no matter how committed you are to your own faith beliefs and practices, a university calls you beyond where you are.
Faith and belief and practice needs to be reintegrated, and that won’t always look the same for everybody, and it doesn’t need to. People can go deeper in their faith, out of knowledge rather than ignorance.
People say, ‘you know, it’s a slippery slope… you start messing with that, and who knows…’ and I think, ‘yeah, who knows’. Life’s a slippery slope. And I think what SSU is will always depend on the people that are here. We’re here now, looking at it from diverse angles– there’s the sense that this is a good direction.
We recognize the challenges. [As we’ve been], we’re not sustainable. We’re not viable the way we are. We can’t stay where we are. Something has to change.