posted May 4, 2008

Graduates Challenged to Keep Asking Big Questions

As undergraduates, Commencement speaker Dr. Steven D. Hoogerwerf noted, the members of Hope College's Class of 2008 had been asked questions. Their diplomas, he said, show that they're ready to ask and answer the questions on their own.

"I think my colleagues would agree with me that education is not really about what WE think," he said. "It's about gaining the information, the tools, and the experiences that you need to learn to think for yourselves."

Hoogerwerf, an associate professor of religion, presented his address, titled "Living with Questions (...but are you going to tell us what you really think?)," during the college's 143rd Commencement exercises, held on Sunday, May 4, at Holland Municipal Stadium.

More than 660 graduating seniors participated in the ceremony. The class consisted of students from throughout the United States as well as nations including Brazil, China, Denmark, France, Japan, Kenya, Kuwait, Nepal, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Trinidad and Tobago, Uganda, and the United Kingdom.

With the graduates' Hope education nearly complete, Hoogerwerf posed one final set of questions for them to consider in the years ahead. "Education... is it about asking questions... or is it about learning the answers? Or is it about learning which questions are worth struggling to answer?," he asked. "I believe it's important to ask big questions, the kind that get inside you and make you squirm and wonder; the kind that challenge our ways of thinking and interrogate our ways of living in the world."

The process, he noted, isn't easy, since answers can be long in coming.

"While I was thinking about what to say today, I read these words in a student's paper: 'I find that this class does not actually help me find many answers but rather helps me ask more questions. At times this frustrates me, because I want the world to be less complex than it really is... But I suppose it is better to ask the questions than to live in ignorance.'"

Hoogerwerf noted that much of his teaching has focused on four questions in particular: "What really matters?"; "In a world plagued by atrocities, why is religion sometimes a causal factor?"; "What does it mean to be called by God to live out my vocation in the world?"; and "If love is central to the Christian life, what does love really look like in all the contexts of our lives?" He suggested tactics for approaching each.

To sort out priorities, he suggested making a list as a guide. "It could be your last assignment... just a list of the five or 10 things that really matter to you," he said. "What do you want to devote your life to, spend your time on, nurture and care for?"

In confronting atrocities, he encouraged the graduates to focus on their personal response by asking themselves "'In a world where God's goodness and human tragedy are all mixed up in ways that don't make much sense, how can I respond in a way that is somehow true to the way things are supposed to be?'" He noted, "That question does not ask for an explanation, but for an active response that we can live."

As they consider their vocational calling, Hoogerwerf asked the graduates to reflect on how they might use the privileges that they have enjoyed - such as their education - to help others. "If we love God and neighbor and honor God in all we do, we are answering God's call," he said. "If we discern how our privileges can be shaped into a life of service and meaning and purpose, then we are answering the call that binds our deep joy to the world's deep need."

Love, he said, is the answer to brokenness in relationships and the key to building community, even when the magnitude of pain and conflicts can seem overwhelming. "I believe that even though we make ourselves vulnerable and risk deep hurt when we love anything or anyone, it's worth living our lives as if love always wins," he said. "Perhaps it's easier to say that if you believe that in Jesus, love redeems the world, even though it doesn't always look that way."

"It's a confession of faith," he said. "And sometimes, when questions are really hard, that's the only way to approach them: to live hopefully, as if it's true, even if we cannot always see how."

Earlier in the day, Dr. Dennis Voskuil and Betty Voskuil presented the college's Baccalaureate sermon, "Signs of Hope." Dennis Voskuil, a former member of the Hope religion faculty, is retiring this year as president of Western Theological Seminary, and Betty Voskuil is a long-time Reformed Church in America staff member and volunteer leader locally and internationally. They also received honorary degrees from the college during the 9:30 a.m. service.

They discussed finding through faith reason to be hopeful about the future even during times marked by conflict and uncertainty, and challenged the graduates to be agents of change for the better. They based their text on Psalm 146:5: "Happy are those whose help is in the God of Jacob, whose hope is in the Lord their God."

"In this world of endless violence, frightening terrorism, economic crisis, social divisions and cultural conflicts, we would have to be utterly naïve not to be anxious about the future," Dennis Voskuil said. "And yet, and yet, in the face of all of this, we are not people of despair. We are people of hope."

"We are people of hope, because we are a people of God," he said. "And there are signs of hope wherever we recognize the activity of God in the world."

Betty Voskuil shared examples of people of faith working to make a difference. "I have had the privilege of witnessing some encouraging signs of hope during my work as director of Reformed Church World Service," she said.

When flooding killed the goats on which the pastoralist Orma people of Kenya depended, thousands of people across a decade donated money to provide new livestock. A family in Nicaragua was grateful for the home volunteers built for them after Hurricane Mitch had left them homeless in 1998. Projects designed by Church World Service have helped people in war-torn Afghanistan rebuild their lives.

As they live the future for which Hope helped prepare them, Dennis Voskuil asked the graduates to find their own way to make a difference.

"There are signs of hope all around us. There are signs of hope wherever you recognize the activity of God," he said. "Do not succumb to a culture of despair. Be a person of hope - a person of audacious hope. Indeed, be an ambassador of hope as you participate in the grand plan of restoration and redemption in our world."