In the mid 1970s, Calvin College hosted a conference of educators from various Reformed institutions of higher education around the world, including both black and white delegates from South Africa. A decision had been made to devote one evening of the conference to a debate about apartheid. The auditorium was full that evening, and the discussion was very heated. At one point, late in the proceedings, the president of a white South African university was trying to defend his school’s racial policies. He told us that he hoped that apartheid would soon come to an end, but in the meantime his university was going along with the racial practices of the larger society. It was difficult to convince the majority of the white Dutch Reformed constituency that change must take place, he said. And then he added, with obvious pain in his voice, “We cannot get too far ahead of our people.”
At this point a black South African theologian stood up. Addressing the white leader by his first name he said, “You keep talking about your people. You have to educate your people. You cannot get too far ahead of your people. Well, I want to say as a black African that I too love my people. But I also have to say this: as difficult as it would be, I would forsake my people in order to be obedient to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. And that is because belonging to Jesus is more important to me than my racial identity. So I want to ask you, my friend: Are you willing to forsake your people if the Gospel demands it of you?” Sadly, the white leader never directly answered his question.
This was an important moment in my spiritual and theological journey. The black South African’s testimony brought home to me in a powerful way the demands of the Gospel with regard to issues of racial, cultural and national identity. If I genuinely believe what I am saying when I confess that “I am not my own but belong to my faithful Savior Jesus Christ,” then this has profound meaning for my understanding of who I am and what God calls me to do.
A sensitivity to the multicultural realities of the Body of Christ ought to have a clear impact on the way we conduct our primary academic activities: teaching, learning and research. A biblically shaped perspective on these matters will necessarily run counter to many prevailing views about, and strategies for cultivating, multicultural diversity in academic life. In Christian higher education we can display a different kind of diversity by exploring, with all of the intellectual resources, sensitivities and insights that are available to us, the complexities of the Kingdom realities that are the real context in which we conduct our academic business.
The mandate to do this is clearly stated in Isaiah 49: 6. “It is too light a thing” simply to conduct business as usual, says the Lord to the people of Israel as they return from their time of exile. You need to do more, he says, than merely to maintain the status quo. “I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.”
“It is too light a thing.” This is an important word for Christian colleges today. “It is too light a thing for you only to train preachers and Christian school teachers,” the Lord said to these colleges in the early days of their existence. “I want you to show my glory by being an excellent center for the study of the full range of the liberal arts.” “It is too light a thing,” said the Lord in the second half of the twentieth century–“it is too light a thing for you to concentrate almost exclusively on educating students from ethnic Reformed enclaves; I want you to show my glory by also showing hospitality to students and faculty from the broader evangelical world.” And at this time in history, when the human race is experiencing new tribalisms, and new programs in ethnic cleansing, and the threat of new genocidal campaigns–and in an academic environment where the confusion of Babel often seems so much more powerful than the harmonies of Pentecost–we must hear his word anew: “It is too light a thing for you to go about business as usual. I have raised you up to demonstrate how an academic community can honor the multicultural, multiracial, multinational designs of my creating and redeeming purposes.”
This word also comes to us as individuals. Are we tempted to see our studies, our teaching, our research programs, primarily as means to making a living, or gaining a reputation, or positioning ourselves to extend our spheres of personal influence? “That is too light a thing,” says the Lord of hosts. Are we as students tempted simply to get by in our studies with the minimum of intellectual effort, treating our time on this campus as an experiment in exploring new ways to enjoy ourselves. “That is too light a thing,” says the Lord of hosts. Do we see our colleges as a fortress against the world, a place for preserving and reinforcing what Henry Stob liked to call, disapprovingly, “the mind of safety”? “That also is too light a thing,” says the Lord of hosts.
To be sure, we are indeed called to be faithful to the best of what we have received from the past. Mere experimentation, an inordinate love of new things, an anything-goes approach to Christian teaching and learning–all of these things also are too light a thing. We are not our own. We belong to the Lord, and we pursue our callings in a world that belongs to him. This means that we must continually seek his will, praying for the discernment to know what he is calling us to do–so that we can find our own place in his wonderful program of bringing his salvation to the end of the earth. To do anything less–well, that would be too light a thing.