“Faith For The Future,” with SPU Professors
SPU Voices Podcast host Amanda Stubbert led a live recording of the podcast, where she chatted with SPU professors about what Christian faith means at SPU. Faculty on the panel included Professor of English Christine Chaney, Professor of New Testament Studies David Nienhuis, Assistant Professor of Psychology Jenny Vadich, and Professor of Business Ethics Kenman Wong.
Amanda Stubbert: Welcome to the SPU Voices podcast, where we tell personal stories with universal impact. My name is Amanda Stubbert, and I am your host, along with my producer, Kyle Brown. We have a panel of guests today for our Faith for the Future panel, which I’ve been looking forward to for such a long time. I love so many of the professors at SPU, and I know, of all of the alums that I talk to, I don’t think I have ever met an SPU alum that doesn’t have at least one “This professor changed my life” story. I have several myself, and if we have time, maybe I will tell one, so let me introduce our panelists. We have Chris Chaney, a professor of English and director of SPU’s Honors Program. She specializes in narrative theory and comparative history of ideas. You want to say hi, Chris?
Chris Chaney: Hello.
Amanda Stubbert: Now we have Dave Nienhuis. He’s a professor of New Testament studies. He teaches University Foundations courses and upper-division undergraduate courses in both New Testament and Christian reconciliation, along with several Bible courses for Seattle Pacific Seminary. Hi Dave.
Dave Nienhuis: Hi there. Good to see you.
Amanda Stubbert: Now we have Jenny Vaydich. She’s an assistant professor of psychology. She teaches both clinical and developmental psychology courses spanning childhood through adolescence. She also teaches a course focusing on child emotion regulation development. Boy, I wish I took that before I had kids. Hi Jenny.
Jenny Vaydich: Hi. Thanks for having me today.
Amanda Stubbert: And last, but certainly not least, we have Kenman Wong, a professor of business ethics. He teaches and researches the areas of business and ethics- and market-based methods to alleviate global poverty. Boy, do we need that! Also the creator and producer of our first season of Faith & Co. Welcome, Kenman.
Kenman Wong: Thanks, pleasure to be here.
Amanda Stubbert: So let’s dive in, shall we? All professors are passionate about their chosen subject of study, at least the vast majority, but not all professors are as passionate about working with college students, I have found. I’ve seen that passionate work in each of our panelists. So let’s start with, can you tell us why you love working with students? What drives you, Chris?
Chris Chaney: Yes. Thank you so much for being given the opportunity to say this and especially so that students or alums could potentially hear that. And that is, there’s kind of a story I always tell about, they didn’t prepare you in graduate school for the kind of soul work that being a teacher at SPU, being a professor at SPU is like, and so I have so many stories, but I think particularly in the honors program where we have intellectually ambitious, gifted students who are trying to reconcile that call of how God made them with how they understand faith, how faith for the future works when you’re in maybe an unusual giftedness or vocational calling around maybe medical school or doctoral work, a professional program.
So what I love doing and love being with students is coming alongside them as they’re uncovering that giftedness in a lot of different disciplines. So it tends to be cross campus. So I just love, love, love watching their souls, their vocation, their giftedness flower.
“I just love, love, love watching their souls, their vocation, their giftedness flower.” — Professor Chris Chaney
Amanda Stubbert: Thanks, Chris. Before we move on to Dave answering that question, just listening to you talk brought up in me a question that I think almost every human being has had to wrestle with. How can someone who is like me, serve God? And sometimes we see that as an easy answer with the faith around us and sometimes it’s a very difficult answer. And to have someone walk us through that question is just such a gift from God, isn’t it? All right Dave, can you answer that for us?
Dave Nienhuis: Yeah, I would really echo a lot of what Chris just said. Something I often think about is people that get advanced degrees, they do so just because they love learning and you can’t stop learning, which is why you get the next degree and the next degree and the next degree. And so then if you become a person who loves to teach, it’s really because you love that whole learning thing and you love to watch other people get into that process in all the joy of it, but also all the pain of it. It’s a very difficult thing to learn and grow. And I know all of us are at a school like SPU because of that kind of student contact you get. We get to actually walk with them while they’re going through that joy and pain. And it’s just a huge privilege.
Amanda Stubbert: Thanks, Dave. Jenny?
Jenny Vaydich: Yeah, I would agree with what both have said. I teach because of the relationships that we get to develop and certainly love talking about the course content and walking with students as they’re figuring out their sense of vocation, but also opportunities to work with students and develop relationships that allow them to see themselves in a new or a different way. So many times I have students in my classroom or in my office who wonder and ask out loud, “Do I belong here? Can I do this? Is school a place for me?” And so I’ve learned that as much as I love the course content, sometimes we’re working on personal development before we can ever get to the content and addressing some of those messages they’ve received before, messages they’ve told themselves about who they are and whether or not they’re capable and competent and worthy. And that happens through our relationships and conversations with one another. And that’s one of the many ways that students get to experience and see God’s love, right? It’s through those relationships and conversations we have.
Amanda Stubbert: And I know when some of those students become alumni, they’re going to be telling me how Jenny Vaydich changed their life. Kenman?
Kenman Wong: Yeah. So I certainly concur with what’s been said, but I’m a product of a school like SPU. So I grew up in Southern California. I was a very mediocre, at best, high school student, public high school, bored out of my mind. And I went to a school a lot like SPU and it was there that I really felt like I blossomed academically, spiritually, emotionally, really developed a sense of vocational call. And largely because a small private Christian universities like SPU are really built for the students. And so at the end of the day, faculty, staff, all the programming is really aimed toward developing students to be really who God has called them to be.
And so a couple of professors really saw me and invested in me, and I’m in this profession because one of them, my department chair at the time, pulled me aside my junior or senior year and said, “I think given who you are, I think you’d be a great fit to be a college professor.” And those words really sunk in. And so when I decided to pursue a faculty career, I almost went into the student life side of university, the work by the way. But then I went into the academic side and my goal was always to return to a small Christian liberal arts university. And so I wound up at SPU really to help develop students and pass along the blessings that I received at a school just like this.
“I wound up at SPU really to help develop students and pass along the blessings that I received at a school just like this.” — Professor Kenman Wong
Amanda Stubbert: And we’re so glad that you did.
Kenman Wong: Thank you.
Amanda Stubbert: The world around us is changing to say the least, right? We’re experiencing exponential change like no human beings have seen before. And as we try and learn as we grow, as we build the plane, while we’re flying it, trying to help students prepare for a world that will continue to change even faster, how do we even approach that? And I’m reminded of a quote, “Faith is not a noun but a verb.” And I know each of you live by that and teach by that. Who wants to jump in first on what that means between you and your students?
Chris Chaney: Well, I’ll just say very briefly. I’ve had to wrestle with that at a curricular level. So that’s the other part of being a teacher and a faculty member. We just completely revamped for the first time in 50 years, the entire honors curriculum. And we had to think differently about how faith is a noun, not a verb, in an era of so much dramatic change. And so we ended up emphasizing that because God and love is an unfolding process and faith is that verb then the curriculum itself should move like a river alongside it. So focusing on how knowledge is constructed in an age where we’re not sure if we can even trust anything and how we bring faith into academic conversations or rigorous kind of idea hashing out. So faith interwoven with the academic side feels to me like the living the verb form of it in a Christian university like SPU.
Dave Nienhuis: Yeah, being a theologian, I’m forced to say things like, well it’s not that it’s not a noun, right? It’s both noun and verb. And to me the really interesting thing is how do those two relate? What’s going on between, in the interaction there? And I have a lot of friends who study religions broadly, not just Christianity. And one thing that’s widely accepted these days is that religions in general are our first and foremost habits of being, ways of being in the world. And then secondarily they are systems of belief. And so Christian faith is really primarily about prayer and worship and love of God and love of neighbor and these sort of daily habits and practices that become a life.
And then when we stop to think what are we doing this for? Then we do that secondary reflection and it becomes belief system. And so teaching that interaction to students is actually quite important because many of them think, oh I’m a Christian, because I’ve got this belief system, but they don’t actually have the verb part of it. And so to me, teaching them how to pray, how to breathe, which is something we all have to learn how to do is all very much a part of it. And so understanding Christianity as a primary practice, that is secondarily a noun, a belief system, is really important in my own work.
“Understanding Christianity as a primary practice, that is secondarily a noun, a belief system, is really important in my own work.” — Professor Dave Nienhuis
Amanda Stubbert: I feel like that was an amazing way of shaping “faith without works is dead.” And I’m going to go back and listen to that again later because I would like to be able to get that same explanation to people. Kenman, you were going to say something?
Kenman Wong: Yeah. Just want to add something maybe a little more practical. So I teach a class in business ethics and I also was involved in producing a digital media project film series called Faith & Co. here at SPU. And what both have in common is the telling of stories. And so stories really form us. And in teaching business ethics, there are a lot of negative stories about what not to do in business. But what we found is there were not as many stories told. I think there are plenty of stories out there; they just weren’t told, about how people are living out their faith in business, doing business right. And so one of the things we did with Faith & Co. is find and film a bunch of stories. And I think one of the best stories about businesspeople living out faith as a verb, meaning belief in things unseen, is a small technology company in San Francisco, California, called Dayspring Technologies.
And Dayspring was founded by a bunch of Stanford and Berkeley grads that could have gone on to spectacularly wealthy lives working in the Silicon Valley. But instead they formed a small tech company and they moved it to Bayview, which is a low-income part of San Francisco. In order to be present in what God is doing in a neighborhood. And the way they exercise faith isn’t only to move to a place where you think a technology company would never dare venture, but they have some pretty radical policies, so for example, they have a three-to-one CEO-to-janitor pay ratio. Now, they wouldn’t say every company needs to do this or this is the only way to do it, but they do this to honor people with lower incomes because San Francisco is a very expensive place to live. They’ve decided to work 40-hour work weeks to tell their staff this is that.
We work 40 hours so that you can practice Sabbath and have a life with your family. They keep three months of cash reserves, which everybody would say is crazy if you run a business and they do that because they have to trust that God will bring the next clients to them and so they do this, again against really the grain of technology companies in the Silicon Valley and the Bay area. They’ve been around for 20 years, but they exercise real faith in the way they operate their business. And that’s just one example of the kind of story that we made at Faith & Co., but that we also try to tell our students.
Jenny Vaydich: I’ve increasingly been thinking about faith as action and faith as the way or sorry action as the way that we live out our faith on a daily basis. And so for a long time I’ve encouraged students to connect what we’re thinking about, what we’re talking about, reading about in the classroom to themselves as individuals or to how they think we may reconsider doing things as a society. But lately I’ve also been emphasizing this gap that can sometimes occur between our espoused values, what we will we say that is important to us, and then what we do, especially if it’s inconvenient, especially if it’s going to require a sacrifice of our time, our energy, maybe our money. And that’s where things become difficult, right? And so that’s where I’m increasingly moving our class discussions and assignments to. Great, we think this, we value this, we believe it, it’s important to our faith, and then what are we going to do and what are we going to do when it becomes hard, what are we going to do when something is required or asked of us?
“For a long time I’ve encouraged students to connect what we’re thinking about, what we’re talking about, reading about in the classroom to themselves as individuals or to how they think we may reconsider doing things as a society.” — Professor Jenny Vaydich
Amanda Stubbert: So true. And I don’t think those questions ever stop. Right? This is the kind of thing that we’re trying to teach our students to live out so that they can take that again into their future. When I was getting ready for this panel, a number of people wanted me to ask, SPU is very ecumenical; we are open to all students of all faiths or no faith, although everyone who works here does profess very much so a Christian faith. Tell us some of the stories of students expressing those doubts and those questions within the classroom and within your relationships.
Dave Nienhuis: Well, I teach theology courses and so it’s not too inaccurate to divide all my students into three groups. So there’s the group that is excited to be there, there’s the group that is bewildered as to why they have to be there, and then there’s the group that’s angry that they have to be there. And what’s fun is to do that work very early on in the quarter to get everybody on the same page to get excited about this topic. And I know for myself it really is about awakening wonder, and that doesn’t matter whether they are secure in their faith, they have a people of no faith or faith in some other thing to help them to kind of recognize, wow, these are crucial life issues and what are we here for? Right? All of a sudden you can get everybody on that same page. And so to kind of create a hospitable place where they begin to realize these questions that Christians ask particularly are actually questions that everybody asks, and everybody needs to be asking, is a way of inviting everybody in.
Amanda Stubbert: Which before we move on, I’m sure others want to jump in on that question, but there’s another quote of yours, which I love about faith. I think it’s yours. “Faith is not a fence, but a table. We invite to the table. We don’t put up a fence.”
Dave Nienhuis: Yeah, I mean there’s a reason why Jesus put a table at the center of our faith practice, right? It’s a way of signifying that we’re all guests and if we’re all guests, that means it’s the host’s job. It’s the owner of the table to create the fences, right? I mean we’re the ones who are all strangers being invited to the table. And so to create that sense of welcome because we have been welcomed is I think really quite crucial.
Chris Chaney: And we use the term, just to build off what you just said, Dave, “intellectual hospitality” in the program, especially in the new honors program. And in that same way, so that the idea that we as people of faith, we host and welcome, we welcome ideas, we welcome the other, we have Muslim students involved, we have students who have no faith and frankly students raised in Christian families who, in college, as we all know, are encountering their own questions and doubts. And so this is by being a table and hosting, even intellectually, hospitality sort of, okay, let’s talk about that. Or what does that mean? Or what are the implications of that? Or how are we welcoming and holding with inclusion and embrace? Let’s just say ideas that could maybe be dangerous in your church setting or family setting.
But as a community of a hospitable community of faith here in the university, this is an idea place. It’s an idea table. So we welcome, we host, we love while they sort of hash out maybe the intellectual questions of who Jesus is or the Bible or how do they come to that on their own terms. So I feel like that’s sort of another wonderful way even outside of theology that we try to be theologians, let’s just say in all the classes.
Jenny Vaydich: And you know, as we’re creating this hospitable environment, I think it means that we model that we are open to listening to all of our students’ perspectives and experiences and worldviews, that we’re open to sharing our values, our perspectives, but also being radically transformed by other people, regardless of their background, their experiences. And that’s part of creating an intellectual and a hospitable environment that we can contribute to other people’s development and their journeys. And they can also contribute to ours whether or not they have a Christian faith practice or background that their questions, their experiences can further strengthen our own faith and our own journeys.
“As we’re creating this hospitable environment, I think it means that we model that we are open to listening to all of our students’ perspectives and experiences and worldviews.” — Professor Jenny Vaydich
Amanda Stubbert: Chris, I think you have a story that maybe you want to share about a student coming to terms with a very similar situation.
Chris Chaney: Yes. And it was in the context we had talked earlier about almost the opposite position of a deeply faithful, deeply Christian young man from a very evangelical family who had to wrestle with sort of what I referred to earlier, this marketplace of ideas. It seems dangerous. He came from a tradition where you don’t question anything. That’s actually where the fence is. It’s kind of nuclear to even ask questions, so he really wrestled somewhat unbeknownst to me; I was not director of honors then; I was just one of the honors faculty members. But it happened to have a profound moment where this very sweet and very brilliant young man stood up and we realized he was weeping and he wanted to tell all 30 of us in this classroom that was working on honors projects that he wanted us to forgive him.
He wanted us to understand that a particular book he had to read, it was the wonderful Mark Knoll book, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, had given him language to really wrestle with the fact that questioning seemed to be part of how God made him. And he wanted to be someone who questioned in a context of faith, but had no family background and no church background. In fact, quite the opposite. He asked for forgiveness because this church laid hands on him to protect him from all of us professors at SPU. And I mean that with love. I told him, “Oh, I hear that all the time, it’s fine. And I don’t feel threatened. And I know that comes from a place of love, intense love for you and for Christ.” So it’s just a different way of understanding maybe that it doesn’t have to be a fearful experience to ask questions in the context of faith.
But that can be a very new experience for sort of people who come from a particular Christian tradition. And Sam just felt that he wanted to tell the story and he wanted to tell all of us and wanted us all really to know how much his faith had been strengthened. You know, almost the opposite of the fear of his family background by the fact that it was such a bigger story and such a bigger table and that God himself isn’t threatened by the kind of questions and the things that he wanted to bore into. And now I think he’s finishing his PhD, JD at Duke, intends to become a law professor and is a man of deep, deep faith in academe. So we now another kind of Christian scholar out in the world. So I just find his story particularly wonderful and it was definitely a moment for me in my career here at SPU too.
Amanda Stubbert: Kenman, I’m sure you deal with a lot of that wrestling as well with students going into business and saying, can I bring my faith with me? Can I be successful and be ethical at the same time? This must be what you wrestle with again and again and again within the subjects that you teach.
Kenman Wong: I don’t think my experience is too different from what’s been shared in terms of having students in various places of faith as college students. Some are coming into belief, some are leaving their families’ belief systems, or at least struggling with them. I’d have to say in a more general sense, I try to encourage those students to say that any faith that’s going to last is one that’s been tested. And so I really try to encourage them that this is a good place to be and not to feel bad that you’re having questions about what you believe or thought you believed.
And what I find is I think a lot of students really aren’t leaving the faith. They’re leaving a faith that’s been associated perhaps with certain sets of political beliefs. And I don’t mean to be partisan or political here in any way that could be left or right, but I think what we try to do is enlarge their appreciation of the gospel and ask them, is the gospel you’ve been taught, one that’s really the gospel or one that’s just simply been assimilated by consumerism or political partisanship or something else?
And as far as business goes, really, I think there are people that tried to link faith in business in kind of a magical way. And in fact there are business groups out there that say, come meet with us and we have secrets in the Bible that if you practice these five things, you’re going to get wealthy overnight. And here’s a testimonial. I literally encountered that online just a month ago. And that’s not real. And it’s going to set people up for failure and more doubt, right? And so we try to be very real with the kinds of tensions and the compromises of living in a broken world and working toward reconciliation. That’s not easy. There’s going to be bumps in the road, sometimes you’ll have to give up being successful or profitable in worldly terms to do what’s right. So yeah, students ask good hard questions about that and I encourage them to ask harder ones. Sometimes I say things, I think undergrads are intimidated. I’ll say something and I’m surprised that the lack of resistance to what I just said. So probably not unusual.
“We try to be very real with the kinds of tensions and the compromises of living in a broken world and working toward reconciliation.” — Professor Kenman Wong
Amanda Stubbert: Jenny, I promised I wouldn’t throw you any curveballs. And now I want to ask you a question that we didn’t talk about ahead of time. Developmentally, why is college age such a rich, deep, dangerous time with our faith?
Jenny Vaydich: So a lot of our students here are late teens, early mid, some late 20s certainly we have students who are coming back later in life or they’re getting a second degree, third degree. But a lot of our students are in this late teen early to mid-20s period where developmental psychology would say they’re in that period of life where they’re forming their identity. They’re asking the big questions like, who am I? What kind of person am I becoming? What is my purpose in life? How should I be living my life? So they’re asking these big questions about how they want to be in the world and so this is contributing to them questioning what they might’ve been taught at home in their church, their whole lives, even questions about who they are that they might’ve been told by their families. Right? Like you’re an athlete or you’re a musician. Well, wait a second, am I? Maybe I am, but maybe I’m also something else. Right?
And neuroscience also tells us that there’s a spinal burst of prefrontal cortex development that’s happening that goes from adolescence through around the mid-20s that contributes to students’ thinking in the abstract, thinking in the hypothetical about themselves and about the possibilities for themselves in the world and the possibilities for the world. So lots of things going on developmentally contribute to students thinking about some of these big tough questions.
Dave Nienhuis: And if I could just add, I mean one of the things that I noticed as SPU grows in prestige and reputation and we have more and more students coming who are coming here, not because it’s a Christian school, but because they’re excited about a particular program we offer. We’re getting more Christians of no faith background. And it’s not as though it’s the Christian kids who have the problem questioning or dealing with, I mean this is what everybody does at this age, right? And so to find that the non-Christian kid or the kid with no religion whatsoever is going through the same sort of struggles with rigidity or worrying about, is it okay to think about these things? They can all come in with a very black and white perspective regardless of their religious perspective. And that’s one of the great levelings that I think occurs in the classroom as well as everybody is going through the same process. Right?
Amanda Stubbert: And yet how much more important for our students to have this holistic approach? Because as you said, it doesn’t matter whether they’re at a small Christian private university or a giant state university, they still have the same questions. They’re still going through the same development. So praise God for the places where students have really that safe place to sit at the table and bring their ideas. Well, the last question I like to ask everyone I interview is, from your unique perspective. If everyone in our area could wake up tomorrow and do one thing differently that’s going to make this world a better place, what would you have them do?
Dave Nienhuis: Learn how to listen and ask good questions. No question in my mind, I do think that talking about all the questions stuff, it’s sometimes the case that for people that have religious backgrounds that they question or doubt is somehow antithetical to faith and belief. And of course we try to teach, well that’s not the case, but simply learning how to listen to somebody else’s story without feeling that threat that this is somehow going to infect me or something that it’s okay to listen to somebody else’s story.
And even if we disagree, what does it look like to disagree and yet still welcome and be hospitable and still be able to love as God loves despite disagreement? Because this is the thing that separates us of course, is, we think we can’t embrace because we disagree. I think that’s one of the things we offer students here at SPU is, we don’t try to say it’s not right to think the way you think. It’s, why does that other person think the way they think, and what would it look like to find out about why they’re committed to that, and how might that change the conversation?
Chris Chaney: And I think I would say something much more simplistic sounding, but hopefully there’s some profundity to it too. And that is to tend a garden. And I don’t mean, you know, you might have a pot on your window sill, but there’s a way in which caring and nurturing for a small living thing certainly taught me patience. And the idea of hanging in sort of persistence, I think I learned long ago from Earl Palmer that there’s a term like, I think it’s Oupa Menno [hupomeno] or some Greek term. I’m looking at David Nienhuis checking in on that. But the idea of hang on, hang in, persist. And you know, we talk about grit and persistence and all those things, which is fine, but for me that means nurturing something and something that’s of creation, that’s of the earth. It’s the Celtic Christian in me, but God speaks and the way the earth speaks, that’s maybe one of his first languages.
And there’s a way in which following the dark time, when the seed’s just under the ground and nothing’s happening and small shoots begin to grow, it’s to follow the way the kingdom works, the way God works, the way things come to fruition. They flower. But only because you tended it when it seemed like there was nothing and to hold on and persist. So I think that would be my small way to think about if everybody could do that. There’s a way that I think God would speak even in a maybe a little plant in a window sill.
Amanda Stubbert: Which almost inherently forces you to slow down a little bit, does it not?
Chris Chaney: Yes. Right.
Amanda Stubbert: Yes. Which we all need.
Kenman Wong: On that note, I was actually going to say, slow down. Stop, seize, Sabbath, right? Limit our phones, pause. Notice what’s happening around you. And I think I’m saying that confessionally because I need it more than anybody.
Jenny Vaydich: I think I would add responding with compassion. There could sometimes be a tendency to assume the worst of someone, and we don’t necessarily know the context of their day or their life or what’s going on. And so just responding with compassion.
Amanda Stubbert: Thank you. Thank you so much.