Houghton College 2017 Commencement Address | May 2017

Going Forward

Good morning, President Mullen, faculty, staff, and trustees of Houghton College.  Good morning, parents, families, and friends.  And good morning to the Class of 2017.

This occasion is mostly about those of you graduating today.  But in a nod to your parents, I’m going to take us all back to the 1980s’ coming-of-age movie, Say Anything.  Most people who remember the film think of a young John Cusack holding a boom box above his head.  For those of you graduates who don’t know what a boom box is—think of a giant iPod with a built-in speaker.

Say Anything opens with a graduation scene much like ours today.  The class speaker, Diane Court, opens by attempting a joke: “I have glimpsed our future, and all I can say is . . . go back.”

The joke falls flat, mostly because it isn’t funny.

But Diane’s line has always stuck with me.  I think of it whenever I reach the end of a chapter in my life when I don’t know exactly what comes next. Sometimes, when I’m honest with myself and see what lies ahead, I just want to go back.

For Christians, though, the counsel of Diane Court is exactly the wrong advice: we are called to go forward—not back—and to do so with confidence in the Gospel.  This morning, I’d like to share some brief thoughts with you about what it means to go forward in Gospel confidence into a world of difference, and how to find common ground with others in spite of that difference.

Many of you already know something of this from your time at Houghton. You have spent these past years building unexpected bridges with one another. You arrived here from across this nation and from around the world. From nearby Buffalo to as far away as Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, and Chengdu, China.  From San Diego, St. Petersburg, Hamilton, and Denham Springs.  Some of you follow a long line of Houghton graduates in your family, while others are the first in your family to know the privilege of a college education.  You come from different political perspectives.  You have different ethnic backgrounds.  And many of you have found common ground with one another across your differences.

Sometimes, this common ground has even led to community, a word I’m told you hear a lot around here. In those rare but real instances when your common ground became community, you caught a glimpse of the reconciliation to which we are all called.

And yet, in at least one sense, your experience of community across difference at Houghton was made easier by the purpose of this place.  Here you have shared a common language and mission.  Many of you will not have that luxury in the next phase of your journey.  You will encounter people and institutions whose purposes are not always clear.  In some cases, you will confront those whose purposes are antithetical to the Gospel.

The challenge to find common ground across these greater differences will be made even harder in the years to come with the rise of continued fake news, the entrenchment of echo chambers, and the lure of social media that feeds our worst impulses.

Stand above it, with your confidence in the Gospel.

Others will help to guide you.  Earlier this year, two faculty members from Bethel University published a book that surveys some of the challenges and opportunities from being part of a Christian college in an interfaith world.  It’s called From Bubble to Bridge, and I recommend it to you.   Because even if you haven’t found your Houghton experience to be a Bubble, we can all use a few more Bridges in our lives.

The authors emphasize that for Christians, loving our neighbors does not mean compromising our witness.  To the contrary, our confidence in the Gospel can embolden us toward more dialogue, deeper relationships, and a greater willingness to listen to others.  We can respond with confident engagement rather than with apathy or fear.  As Tim Keller and I wrote together last year, “The audacity of Christian hope is that Jesus Christ came into the world, and is reconciling all things to himself. He is the object of our confidence, and as generations of saints who have come before us have testified in word and in deed, he is sufficient. It is with that hope and that confidence that we engage in the world.”

How might we do this—how might you do this?  I don’t presume to have all of the answers, but let me share with you some of the ideas underlying what I call confident pluralism.  Confident pluralism seeks to find a modest unity with our neighbors by acknowledging the depth of our differences rather than attempting to paper over them.  Out of confidence in our own views and beliefs in the midst of deep difference, we can engage charitably with others.  Rather than lashing out or languishing in our echo chambers, we can pursue dialogue and coexistence even when — and perhaps especially when — we believe our views are in fact the better ones.

We can move toward confident pluralism through tolerance, humility, and patience.   Tolerance suggests that people are for the most part free to pursue their own beliefs and practices, even those we find morally objectionable.  Humility recognizes that some of our most important beliefs stem from contested premises.  Patience encourages efforts to listen, understand, and empathize.

This is not a call for relativism.  Tolerance, humility, and patience are postures we can assume toward those with whom we disagree—they do not mean accepting that which we find objectionable or misguided.

I was recently chatting with an atheist friend who seemed to relish our differences. He thought it a great thing that I like mint-chocolate chip ice cream and he prefers vanilla, that I like college basketball and he watches the NBA, that I believe in God and he does not.  All of these things made the world more interesting to him.

But his dismissal of God stopped me.

“Not all differences are good,” I told him.

As a Christian, I do not celebrate the differences that lead us to different conclusions about ultimate things.  Tolerance, humility, and patience can lead to greater empathy and understanding, but the goal is not to minimize the reality of our differences.

Still, even if we are unlikely to find agreement on all that divides us, we can begin to connect in other ways.  That starts with ordinary acts like sharing a meal or simply having a conversation. Sometimes it means focusing on common interests before delving into painful disagreements. My atheist friend and I both care about good writing, criminal justice reform, and cheap breakfasts.  We know these things about each other because even though we eventually arrived at our differences, we did not start with them.

As you navigate these choppy waters in your own lives, a bit of common sense can go a long way.  As you go forward into the world, into your new job or your new neighborhood, start with ordinary acts.  Instead of jumping into a heated debate with your new coworker or neighbor, take the time to discover shared interests and passions.  Rather than leading with politics or religion, start with something softer and less threatening, like your hobbies or favorite movies. You may be surprised at the kinds of bridges you can build.

Few people have lived and described these ideas better than one of your fellow Houghton alums, the former president of Fuller Seminary, Dr. Richard Mouw.  In his new book, Adventures in Evangelical Civility, Dr. Mouw writes: “in various encounters with people beyond the boundaries of evangelicalism, I kept sensing that my theological feet were actually finding real patches of common ground.”  We, too, can expect to find unanticipated but authentic patches if we’re looking for them.

We can also find common ground with others even when we do not agree on a common good.  Finding common ground does not mean endorsing every goal or every value of the people to whom we draw near.  But it does mean drawing near.  Dr. Mouw shares an example from his own life.  A few years ago on a visit to China, he met with some officials of the Communist Party.  They began to share concerns about trends in urban areas of China: the rising divorce rate, increasing intergenerational conflict, and a rise in the number of suicides.  The officials said they were not equipped to provide the necessary mental health services.  They asked whether Fuller Seminary could provide the training of faith based marriage and family counseling in China.

Dr. Mouw recalls: “Fuller took up the cause with much energy.  Given the political realities of China, there is no way that this kind of service can occur without Christians closely aligning themselves with the Chinese government.  This kind of cooperation is risky, but my inclination is to say, ‘so be it.’”

Dr. Mouw is right.  Seeking common ground is risky—it requires working with other people who aren’t like us.  And people can disappoint.  As the theologian Lesslie Newbigin has written in his lovely book, Proper Confidence, “Personal knowledge is impossible without risk; it cannot begin without an act of trust, and trust can be betrayed.”

Despite these risks, Christians can take the lead in pursuing common ground because our confidence lies ultimately in the Gospel.  We can enter into unknown spaces and untested partnerships, realizing that our willingness to trust others can sometimes disappoint but that we ultimately trust a God who is with us and who will not leave us.  This is the confidence in which we go forward to live faithfully in the world around us.

And so, members of the Class of 2017, let me say that, like Diane Court in the movie, Say Anything, I have glimpsed the future.  This is the future in which the lion will lie down with the lamb.  It is the future in which every tongue, tribe, and nation will join together to worship the King.  It is the future to which we are called and on which we stake our lives.

Having glimpsed that future, my charge to you is to go forward.  Go forward into those messy and risky spaces where you are called to be salt and light.  Go forward into your workplaces and neighborhoods.  Go forward in interfaith partnerships, and in partnerships with people of no faith.  Go forward in the confidence of the Gospel, for the sake of the church and the sake of the world.