Big Ideas Engaging the Culture, Changing the World
What It Means to Be a Christian University in the City
By Philip W. Eaton, President
I have always been proud that Seattle Pacific University is located in a major city. We are decidedly an urban university. We do our work as a Christian university right in the middle of one of the most dynamic and creative cities in the world, the home of Boeing, Microsoft, Starbucks, Amazon, Nordstrom, Costco, and many others. We use the energy of our city every day and in so many ways to make us a better university.
Through our city we learn how to be responsive to the needs of our world. We understand better the direction of our world. Like every one of these companies, we seek to reach out across the globe. Our city makes us better. It helps to define our purpose.
I remember speaking to a group of business leaders early on in my presidency. One participant asked the question, What is it that distinguishes Seattle Pacific among all other Christian colleges and universities in the country? Without hesitation I answered, Seattle. I have always believed that we must be faithful to God's call on our university for this time and in this very place — and our place is this dynamic city.
What is it about Seattle that has fostered such creativity and influence in the world? Why are cities generally the location of world-changing thought, cutting-edge products, and enormously productive energy? How does Seattle Pacific align itself with the expectations and possibilities and energy of a world-class city?
I must quickly add that all major cities are also places of debilitating poverty, ethnic conflict, deteriorating schools, the wandering homeless, and often violence in the streets. How does Seattle Pacific as well go about addressing these challenges in our own city and other cities across the world?
What does it mean to be a Christian university that is distinctively urban?
First of all, it means that we fully engage in the life of our own city. We must know what's going on in our city. We must also know that our world is now a world of cities. There is absolutely no room here for separatism from the pace and energy and turmoil of the city. Separatism is sometimes an easy indulgence, and we can have none of that.
To be distinctively urban we must be active in the cultural and intellectual life of our city. We must address the needs of our urban schools. We must train our graduates effectively to enter into the world of medicine, law, business, education, and ministry — in our city and in the cities across the world. We must equip our graduates to be truly urban.
"To be distinctively urban means that we announce our vision of human flourishing for our city and beyond. We have a story to tell, a story that is life-giving, a story of hope."
Second, for Seattle Pacific to be distinctively urban means that we define our identity as a Christian community with great care. While we prize our engagement with our city, we cannot lose our identity to our surrounding environment. The question becomes how to be fully Christian in the secular city. This is not always easy work in our day but exactly the challenge we face as an urban Christian university.
James Davison Hunter asks the right question: How can one be authentically Christian in circumstances that, by their very nature, undermine the credibility and coherence of faith? What is an authentically biblical way of existing within a pluralistic world in which Christianity will never be anything other than one culture among others? This is precisely our challenge as an urban Christian university, and what an exciting challenge it is.
Third, to be distinctively urban means that we announce our vision of human flourishing for our city and beyond. We have a story to tell, a story that is life-giving, a story of hope. We must learn to articulate that story in ways that are accessible, winsome, and compelling to our city. We must model Christian community as one of the most important ways of telling our story. We must demonstrate to our city that we can live and do our work in ways that are full of grace and trust and kindness.
The city is the future of our world. We must think hard about how to engage our city and contribute to its health and vitality. Grasping just these issues long ago, the great biblical poet Jeremiah says that God calls us to seek the welfare of any city to which I have exiled you.
This is exactly what we are trying to do at Seattle Pacific. We love our city and we care for our city. Our city must inevitably shape who we are and how we see our work. This interface with our city and the cities of the world must be vital and caring and open.
We must seek to define a new city commons, says Hunter. This requires of us a commitment as a community of faith to the highest ideals and practices of human flourishing. There is plenty of challenge here, no doubt about it, but clearly our mission as a Christian university calls us to be fully active and engaged in our city with a vision for human flourishing. This is why we prize so much our distinctive identity as an urban university for our time.