Last week I attended the annual New College Lectures at the University of New South Wales. It’s a wonderful series of lectures that have attracted some stellar names in theology over the years.
This year the lectures were delivered by Stanley Hauerwas. That’s him at the right with the wonderful tie. He is the recently retired Gilbert T. Rowe Professor of Theological Ethics at Duke University in North Carolina. He is widely regarded as one of the Western world’s most influential living theologians, and his work has been very influential in my own developing theological thinking. There’s a useful (short!) introduction to his thinking here.
Hauerwas’ New College Lectures covered a lot of ground, but in this post I want to focus on his thinking about the modern university and what it means for campus ministries like the one I work with at the University of Sydney – the Evangelical Union (EU).
In his third and final lecture, Hauerwas remarked that the modern university trains students to be ‘power people for the future.’ In my experience studying and ministering at Sydney Uni, his description rings true. The university teaches students that they are the culture-shapers and world-makers of the future; the ones who will rule and conquer and subdue and remake the way things are.
In order to do this students are expected to work hard enough to get a plum internship in a powerful company, so that they might get a foot in the door of the corridors of power. The promise is that they will gain power and influence – indeed, in our world they are two sides of the same coin. Many of the students I know are run ragged chasing that dream. It is certainly a tempting vision: you are the ones who will make the world in your own image (and make a fine salary as you do so). You are powerful.
On my campus the primary indicator that the temptation to be power people for the future is too powerful to resist is the growing prevalence of summer internships and overseas holidays. We frequently have very able gospel-hearted students who forsake opportunities to learn and lead in our ministries for the sake of a mid-year European sojourn or a fancy post-semester internship with a big law firm or consultancy. In my experience (that is, anecdotally!), the number of students choosing these activities over going on mission to a rural church or learning to teach Christian basics to international students is increasing. The university’s tempting vision of becoming power people for the future is winning.
The desire for power is at the heart of sin: Adam and Eve’s temptation was to take hold of the power to define good and evil (Genesis 3). The temptation facing students at the University of Sydney is one and the same: it is the temptation to think we can remake the world in our own image. It is easy to be blind to this temptation for many university students on my campus because they often come from the upper echelons of Sydney society, have significant family wealth, or have graduated from a highly respected school. In addition, many come from churches that are almost exclusively populated by upper-middle class Anglo-Saxon professionals, thus completing the illusion that there is no real tension between the humility of Christian witness and the way we wealthy Westerners lead our lives.
In short, they have always been able to do what they want, which gives the illusion of control over one’s destiny. It’s an illusion because, as the Scriptures teach us, our lives are ‘meaningless,’ (hebel, the refrain of Ecclesiastes) ‘a chasing after the wind.’ Rather, it is God who sustains every moment of our lives by his Spirit and through his Son, ‘in whom all things hold together’ (Colossians 1v17), ‘according to the riches of his grace that he has lavished upon us’ (Ephesians 1v7).
By contrast, Hauerwas argues that Christian politics is embodied in a life of humble witness. Humility is key to the politics of Jesus, as he himself teaches his disciples (Mark 10v35-45) and exemplifies in his own self-giving for the sake of the world, stepping down from his rightful place of power to become incarnate, suffer and die (Philippians 2v1-11). The example Hauerwas gives of this politics in practice is the hard, patient work of learning to live with those suffering intellectual disabilities. Such work requires the humility to place the needs of the intellectually disabled above our own, not asserting our power but forsaking it for the good of the other. Again, this is in contrast with the life of ‘power people for the future,’ who learn to assert themselves, climb the career ladder and make their mark on society in tangible, impressive ways.
Hauerwas asked: ‘What would it be like if the life of the University of New South Wales revolved around that work?’
After the lecture I approached Stanley Hauerwas with a question. Reminding him of his description of the university’s work as training students to become ‘power people for the future,’ I asked him what he thinks those of us ministering on university campuses can do to help students avoid giving in to such a powerful temptation.
His response was unexpected. (The quotes that follow are approximate, as it felt a little rude to be busily typing his response into my phone while he was speaking!)
“Well, I think you’re fighting a losing battle.”
For the reasons mentioned above, these pessimistic words resonated with me. He continued:
“I knew a student ministry that centred around Eucharistic celebration and mission trips to Honduras. When they arrived they discovered that the poor didn’t need them. They discovered that they needed the poor; they didn’t know the language or know how to get around. They didn’t know that you could be poor and be a Christian. I think that kind of experience is essential if students are to avoid such a temptation.”
Celebrating the Lord’s Supper and meeting Christ’s people among the poor. Could such experiences really have the power to snap us out of our presumption that power is a good thing for us?
The more our students preference European holidays over rural missions and summer internships over speaking the gospel to international students the easier it is to give in to the temptation to be power people for the future. They move from one institution of power and wealth to another, in the process moving further and further from those every day Christians living out their witness to the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ in humble circumstances. Instead of feeling the tension between worldly power and the humility of Christian witness, that witness becomes accommodated to power. Many students are probably under the illusion that Christians cannot be poor; or, even if they assent to this in theory, their experience confirms that such Christians must not be the norm.
In the EU we have been trying to burst this bubble by living out a value we have called ‘Less Resourced, Less Reached’ (LRLR). We have been encouraging students to consider making the move after graduation to an area where churches are less well supported and communities are less exposed to the gospel. We have sent mission teams to South West Sydney, areas of the city dominated by non-English-speaking populations, rural towns like Narrabri, the wealthy but relatively gospel-poor city of Adelaide, and suburbs comprised mostly of housing commission premises. We have tried to feature missionary guests at our conferences from nations where the soil is hard, like France and Italy, and from nations where the local residents struggle to feed themselves each day, like rural China.
The rhetoric is hard live up to. Even this well-intentioned rhetoric runs the risk of placing ourselves in an idolatrous position, as the well-off, well-educated, well-funded saviours of those poor churches who are unable (for whatever reason) to really get their act together. We need to keep working (as we have started to do) at making sure such missions are an opportunity to see how the gospel is at work among people and in places very unlike our own – and to see what we might learn from sisters and brothers in the Lord who are not as wealthy or powerful as we are. Such missions are an opportunity to see that the witness of the life of the church to the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ is not dependent upon expensive buildings, the rendering of professional services or enough members with six-figure salaries to have the ears of influential culture-makers.
I know of some students who have been powerfully confronted and convicted that Christian witness may not be as comfortable as they had assumed. Some have begun to seriously consider taking up the LRLR challenge to move for the sake of the gospel; some have even done so.
At present the ministry on Sydney University campus is centred primarily around the preaching of the Word and training students to handle the Word well themselves. The goal is that they might serve their churches as bible study leaders for the rest of their lives. While I’m certainly excited by that goal, and while I certainly believe the preaching of the Word should be central, are we doing our students a disservice – and through them the wider body of Christ – if we fail to adequately challenge the presumption that there is no tension between the Christian politics of humility and the worldly politics of power? Are we solidifying the illusion of control by failing to allow LRLR-thinking to pervade not only our rhetoric but our activity? Are we training our students in a half-hearted, insufficiently practical form of witnesses?
I’ve only begun to wrestle with this. There are many questions that remain unanswered for me. But as a thought experiment for all of us in campus ministry, here are some questions:
- What might it look like if training in humility was the central focus of our campus ministry?
- How could the celebration of the powerlessness of the gospel of a crucified Lord and exposure to Christians in circumstances unlike ours be integrated into large ministries in wealthy cities like the EU in Sydney?
- How would active engagement in the care of the mentally disabled and ministry among the poor shape our students’ witness?
- What would be the shape of a campus ministry with the goal of helping students avoid the temptation of power by training them in the politics of humility?
I’m not yet sure what it would look like. But it would certainly shake things up.