Illustration by Sam Kalda depicting a student walking between two tall trees towards Alexander and Adelaide Hall

ILLUSTRATION BY SAM KALDA

When I was teaching history at Westmont College, I facilitated a mini class for alumni gathered for homecoming. At the end of class, one of my former students said, “Professor Mullen, I don’t fit anywhere in my world since I graduated. When I go to classes at church, they think I am liberal and heretical because I ask too many difficult questions. When I am at work, they think I am a fundamentalist because I take my Christian faith seriously.”

I told my former student, “This ‘not quite fitting’ is your gift to the world. When you get a Christian liberal arts education, you will not be able to be jammed into the boxes the world or the church will want you to fit in. Your first job is to complicate the stereotypes of Christianity, both inside and outside the church. Surprise people with questions they have not asked. Be a docent, showing them the world from angles they have not previously seen.”

This is what I’ve come to call the “courageous middle.”

This notion of “Wesleyan middle space” came to me unexpectedly as I was writing constituents as the president of Houghton College. As I surveyed the issues preoccupying public dialogue, I realized Wesleyans did not fit neatly into either the cultural left or right. As an institution in a covenant relationship with the Free Methodist Church, Seattle Pacific University also sits in this Wesleyan middle space.

Our convictions about sexual morality, the existence of objective truth, and the ultimate value of human beings pull us toward the right. Our historical Wesleyan convictions about race relations, women’s rights, immigration, creation care, poverty, and other matters of justice and social concern draw us toward the left.

Our society believes the only place of moral courage is at the poles — the right or the left — of any issue. The middle is too often associated with moral weakness, intellectual laziness, or an unwillingness to take a stand. Sometimes it is just that. But it need not be. And it must not be, if our society is ever to move beyond the increasingly insulated and hardened gatherings at the edges.

In this moment of paralyzing cultural polarization, places like Seattle Pacific University are distinctively prepared by their Christian faith and Wesleyan heritage to host a sustaining “middle space,” where individuals from across the political spectrum can come together for creative, imaginative problem solving.

Graduates of Christian higher education — especially those grounded in the content and philosophy of the liberal arts — are prepared to be “Bilingual” in our culture. These graduates understand the language of science as well as the language of faith and theology.These alumni have been trained to view situations from a range of perspectives and through the lens of multiple disciplines. These are people who have learned — whether through literature, internships, or travel — how to stand in someone else’s shoes and see what the world looks like from another’s perspective.

Christian higher education is facing more challenges than ever before, but it is more needed than ever in our world today. SPU’s faith tradition is intentionally organized for the development of whole people, putting them on a trajectory of growth over the course of a lifetime. This education offers such a rich opportunity for interdisciplinary problem solving — including those human challenges that benefit from the integration of moral and theological reflection.

But most relevant in this moment is the capacity of Christian higher education — especially those institutions of the Wesleyan tradition — to prepare graduates to serve as gracious, activist hosts of that
“middle space,” convening others from across the political spectrum and empowering them to work together for an enlarged vision of the Truth.

There is a long and familiar list of criticisms aimed at higher education today: its high cost, the burden of student debt, political indoctrination, lack of relevant job preparation, and a dearth of innovation,to name a few. Higher education cannot ignore these charges. The concerns are real. Christian colleges and universities need to address these in concert with the larger world of higher education but also in ways that highlight the distinctive contribution our Wesleyan tradition provides to the church and to the world.

Along with the larger world of higher education,Christian colleges and universities face the requirements of accreditation and the ever-increasing, double-edged involvement of local, state, and federal government.

We also share a responsibility to educate students to be citizens of democracy as articulated in What Universities Owe Democracy by Ronald Daniels, president of Johns Hopkins University. We want to help create the conditions for social mobility.We want our students to become engaged citizens who participate in complex and civil discourse in a pluralist society. And we educate students to understand the criteria for sound scholarship and reasoned arguments.

We share the burden of parental and employer expectations to prepare students so that they can earn a living and contribute to the economy upon graduation.

But, for Christian colleges and universities in the Wesleyan tradition, these shared obligations with the world of higher education are only the beginning. We are called to exceed the cultural standard of higher education in the name of the gospel. Just as the church in the late 19th century saw a need in the world that only Christian higher education could meet and founded Seattle Seminary (now Seattle Pacific University), today’s church is called to see a world that needs what this tradition of Christian higher education can offer.

Our Wesleyan tradition offers an education that will prepare people to flourish economically, spiritually, intellectually, and emotionally over the course of a lifetime in the midst of a world that is changing at an increasingly accelerated pace.

We prepare students to be productive members of communities and churches, to be faithful members of
families, nourishing friends, as well as participants in the economy. Furthermore, Christian colleges are the only institutions intentionally designed to offer students an intellectual preparation integrated with their personal development and grounded deeply in their most fundamental moral and spiritual
convictions.

We invite them on a personal and spiritual journey commensurate with the depth and richness of their intellectual preparation — in short, an education large enough to sustain and empower them through both the expected and unexpected circumstances of their entire lives.

Institutions like SPU are also uniquely positioned to engage imaginatively and deeply in society’s moral and ethical concerns. There are long-term concerns such as poverty and human rights, but also emerging concerns such as the implications of AI or machine learning. As interdisciplinary learning communities that facilitate the daily interaction of theology, arts and humanities, and natural and behavioral sciences, Christian colleges and universities have the capacity to think holistically about
the challenges to human flourishing.

Furthermore, we are the stewards of a vision of human dignity and value that extends well beyond any that is protected by legal frameworks or legislative or judicial rulings. We are heirs to a view of human beings who are created in God’s image and participants in God’s eternal purposes. We have the opportunity and indeed, the obligation, to cultivate this understanding in a world increasingly forgetful of this reality.

The Wesleyan journey is not for the faint of heart or mind. It is not a formulaic approach to faith nor one that allows any slippage into the comfortable rigidity of legalism. At its core, it is a journey that requires the courage of humility, a willingness to wrestle with complexity, and in some cases to rest in mystery. And it is our Wesleyan tradition of Christian faith that provides us a means to host —and to prepare graduates to host — the convening and creative conversations of a courageous middle space for which our polarized society is in such desperate need.


Shirley Mullen

Shirley A. Mullen is president emerita of Houghton University. Dr. Mullen spoke at President Porterfield’s Inauguration Symposium on “Navigating Differences in a Polarized World.” Mullen’s book, Claiming the Courageous Middle: Daring to Live and Work Together for a More Hopeful Future, was published in April 2024.

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