Prepared remarks by Rev. Dr. Dennis N. Voskuil
Excerpted from the President’s Address, Pre-College Conference, August 23, 2018
My friends, I now invite you to join me in celebrating the Christian identity of Hope College.
Now, I realize that there are many other aspects of our institution that are worthy of celebration: our academic excellence; our outstanding faculty; our wonderful students; our dedicated staff; our superior collaborative research programs; a beautiful, well-tended campus; intercollegiate athletics; and many other fine extra-curricular opportunities.
While recognizing these notable strengths, I believe that our religious identity provides the foundation for our institutional character. And if there is a single adjective which best describes our Christian identity, it is the term “aspirational.” Oh, yes, there are other adjectives that might be employed — “welcoming,” “hospitable,” “invitational,” “inclusive”— but I prefer “aspirational.”
When you arrived today, you received a short statement regarding our Christian identity, which was recently affirmed by our Board of Trustees. A number of you already have seen an earlier version of this statement, including the Deans’ Council, Administrative Council and their direct reports, and various other teams from across campus. The board asked for your comments and suggestions, and some of these were incorporated into the statement you have before you. I am sure that discussions about our identity will continue as we move forward.
Before delving into this statement, I’d like to take a few steps back into the college’s history. As an unrepentant historian, I am driven to distilling the past to better understand the present as we move into the future. My point here is that Hope College has always been an aspirational Christian college — it is part of our institutional DNA!
Like nearly all liberal arts colleges, especially in the Midwest, Hope was birthed as a tiny denominational liberal arts college. It was intended to serve the second wave of Dutch Reformed immigrants who came during the middle and later part of the 19th century and settled in Michigan, Illinois, Wisconsin and Iowa. The first wave, of course, arrived during the 17th century and settled in New York and New Jersey.
When the Hope Academy matured into Hope College between 1862 and 1866, it was under the leadership of Holland’s founder, A.C. Van Raalte, and President Philip Phelps, a Reformed Church pastor from New York. President Phelps helped shape the curriculum with which we began, and he was instrumental in making Hope a liberal arts college.
Without the aid of the eastern Reformed Church, established during the early 17th century, Hope College would not have survived. Eastern money and eastern personnel essentially made it possible for this nascent college to get off the ground. Despite considerable denominational support, Hope College remained a rather small, unheralded institution until after World War II. The college struggled with modest enrollments, mostly students from Dutch Reformed, Presbyterian and other Protestant churches in the Midwest. Most of the professors were drawn from the same profiles. The Christian identity of the college was generally taken for granted, and the basic mission of the college was to prepare pastors, missionaries, teachers and other leaders for local communities.
During the 1960s and 1970s — a time of cultural and religious change in the United States — the student enrollment diversified, as did the make-up of the faculty. It was a time in which Hope moved from being a denominational college to a Christian college with a Reformed heritage.
During the 1980s, while Dr. Gordon Van Wylen was president, he was asked by the chair of the Board of Trustees to write, in one sentence, a mission statement for the college. He took this task seriously, and within a few months, President Van Wylen drafted the mission statement which, though revised, remains the foundation for the mission statement we use today:
“The mission of Hope College is to offer with recognized excellence academic programs in the liberal arts, in the setting of an undergraduate, residential, co-educational college in the context of the Christian faith.”
Later, with respect to Christian identity, the word “historic” was employed to qualify the nature of the Christian faith — “in the context of the historic Christian faith.” Dr. Van Wylen later indicated that he preferred to employ the qualifying term “historic” because it suggested “identification with the historic affirmations of the church, which are rooted in the Bible and summarized in the Apostles’ Creed.” He believed emphasis should be on the ancient and ecumenical tenets of the faith. Quoting Van Wylen:
“We are not denominational in our emphasis, nor sectarian or parochial in our approach, but rather we identify with the church as it has developed through the centuries.”
Hope was a Christian college that embraced a community of Christians who sought to fulfill an educational mission while taking seriously their individual and corporate responsibilities as Christians. According to Dr. Van Wylen: “Such a community can welcome all persons, including seekers and those on their way to faith who wish to be part of the mission.” The vision of Gordon Van Wylen was that Hope College be an aspirational Christian college united by — and anchored in — the historic Christian faith. The phrase “in the context of the historic Christian faith” became a focal point for vigorous discussions about the nature of the religious character of Hope College.
In a culture that has become increasingly indifferent and even hostile to Christianity, and when Christians tend to understand less and less about the history of faith, it is understandable that the term “historic” would beg some clarification. Aware that the Hope community would benefit from some clarity regarding the meaning of the “historic Christian faith,” in 2015 President John Knapp asked the Board of Trustees’ Christian Faith and Formation Committee to produce a statement which grounded Hope’s Christian identity and defined the phrase “historic Christian faith.” Following more than two years of edits and revisions, last May the Board of Trustees approved the statement that you received this morning.
I believe that it underscores the character of this college, which I have come to cherish and support so much, and want my grandchildren to attend.
I believe this statement represents Hope College at its best.
Now that we have examined the development of statements regarding Hope’s Christian identity, let’s look more closely at the short document that was affirmed by the Board of Trustees this past May.
While no statement can adequately capture the soul of an institution, I find this identity statement to be compelling. Why do I find it compelling? Because it describes our Christian identity in aspirational terms: Hope aspires to be faithful; Hope aspires to be welcoming; Hope aspires to be transformational.
When we say that we aspire to be faithful, welcoming and transformational, we are confessing a certain level of humility and honesty. We confess that we hold to ideals that we have not fully lived into. We are not there yet. We are in process. And in doing so, we are living out one of the aspirations of our Reformed heritage: that of “being reformed and ever reforming according to the Word of God.”
Moreover, a declaration of aspiration is a declaration of hope. As a community of Hope College, we look forward — together — to where we are going — together. This statement articulates that spirit of aspiration that characterizes the very name our college bears.
I. Hope aspires to be FAITHFUL
Notice that the first aspiration “to be faithful” is anchored in a commitment to the Christian faith which was expressed in ecumenical creeds of the ancient church. The Nicene and Apostles’ Creeds in particular are cited. These creeds were developed during the early centuries of the Christian church to counter those who were questioning the Apostolic “orthodoxy” of doctrines of the deity of Christ, the Incarnation, the Resurrection and the Trinity. These creeds focus on the nature and person of Jesus Christ. They are ecumenical creeds because they were, and continue to be, embraced by a very broad array of Christian traditions across the world — Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic and, later, Protestants. These are the creeds through which the basic, unifying Christian beliefs were affirmed.
Hope College does not draw its essential identity from narrow or sectarian streams but from the wide river of universal Christian confessions. While Reformed theological perspectives have been held in high esteem at Hope College, we acknowledge that we belong to the united body of Christians. A global body of Christians. A united body of Christians.
II. Hope aspires to be WELCOMING
As a college that anchors its Christian identity in the ecumenical creeds and the universal church, it follows that Hope should be a school that invites people of various races, ethnicities, nationalities and theological traditions to join our community of faith and learning.
Today the Hope College community includes a remarkably wide range of Christian communions. And like a grand symphony orchestra, each tradition is a different instrument which brings a beautiful ecumenical sound of Christian beliefs and practices. We have the liturgical beauty of the Episcopalians and the Orthodox, the sacramental taste of the Roman Catholics, the spiritual passion of Pentecostals, the evangelistic impulses of the Baptists, and the proclivity for the Word proclaimed from Lutherans, Reformed and Presbyterians. And there are so many other traditions that add resonance to our symphonic music.
It is also important to note that, from our inception, Hope College has embraced a global understanding of its mission, welcoming students from all parts of the world. Philip Phelps, our founding president, invited Japanese students to enroll at Hope College early on, beginning a long tradition of a Japanese and Hope College connection. For years, we have maintained a strong partnership with Meiji Gakuin University. We are engaged in a wide array of programs of international education, which include Africa, Asia, Central and South America, and Europe. As the world is growing smaller and smaller because of technological advances and social interactions, and as international politics and economies change, it is essential that Hope has a global reach. We need to increase that global reach. We fail our students when we fail to prepare them for global understanding.
Moreover, we are in a time in Christian history when we are experiencing a global shift, with the church exploding in Asia, Africa and South America while declining in Europe and North America. Thus, we are even more compelled to prepare our students for faithful, global leadership and service, with a particular appreciation for God’s gift of diversity.
We are a hospitable college and we welcome all students to join our vibrant community where the pursuit of knowledge intersects with the Christian faith. All are invited to examine and experience the love and good news found in the Gospel.
III. Hope Aspires to be TRANSFORMATIONAL
Established in the Reformed tradition, Hope College has affirmed both the centrality of scripture and the importance of learning. Quoting from our identity statement, “We are thereto committed to freedom of inquiry in the pursuit of truth and knowledge in every field of study, confident that all truth is God’s truth.” This liberating conviction has allowed Hope College to develop outstanding natural science programs in which research is fostered, and students across the board are exposed to intellectual challenges.
Yet, despite the zest for research and learning, our Christian connection leads us to understand that knowledge is also a means to discern the will of God — what is good and acceptable and perfect — for the purposes of transforming ourselves and the world around us.
Now that we have examined the three aspirations of the Christian identity statement, allow me to make some additional observations about the statement.
First, it is positive, not prescriptive.
It reflects the DNA of Hope College in that it is not a statement meant to exclude or divide, but to provide grounding for our aspirations. It is not a litmus test.
As one member of our community has written, it is a “flashlight in the dark, a way to see forward to where we are going together.” It is a declaration of hope. It is meant to be our servant and not our master.
It is positive in another way: It helps us to define ourselves by what we are for and not against.
I don’t know about you, but when I am asked about the character or identity of Hope College, I sometimes respond by saying we are not like Wheaton College or Calvin College, Oberlin College or Kalamazoo College. Perhaps you do the same. We define ourselves over against others.
We should respond instead from a positive perspective: We are rooted in the historic Christian faith. We raise tough questions. We have difficult conversations. We are open and hospitable. We do not claim to have easy answers. We will not be defined by a stance on a particular social or political issue, but by our commitment to the essential truths of the Gospel as framed by the ecumenical creeds.
Second, it will not eliminate all the tensions that have marked discussions around our identity, nor will it eliminate the discussions.
Nor do I think it should!
One of the things that I have noticed during my 40 years of connection to Hope College is that there has been an ongoing discussion, and sometimes debate, about what it means to be a Christian college. In fact, I find it to be healthy and helpful that faculty, staff, students and alumni consider this question. When such discussions dwindle away (and they haven’t — not yet), I fear that no one will really care about the issue, that we will have become static and indifferent. No, I expect this statement will continue to raise discussions, and I think that’s important.
But the manner in which this discussion occurs is important as well. I remind you of the five virtues of civil discourse, which I spoke about last year: humility; hospitality; patience; courage; and honesty. These virtues assist us to have fruitful and meaningful discussions, and I have been thrilled to see them used and touted in various organizations across the campus.
Third, it shapes our values and stirs us to live them out.
Ultimately, the measure of our faithfulness is our willingness to put faith into action. Remember, our faith statement aspires to be transformational.
Hope College affirms the dignity of all persons, and the respect that they as bearers of God’s image deserve.
The whole Hope community is encouraged in the lifelong pursuit of justice and peace for all, in a world so loved by God.
Wow! These are remarkable aspirations! And ones that so easily elude us. But let’s not flinch from the challenge. It has enormous implications for the mission of the college and for our students — and for us. It means that we must continue to commit ourselves to be an institution devoted to inclusive excellence. That we fight against racism and ethnocentrism. That we continue our efforts to reduce discrimination based upon gender or sexual identity.
It also means that we encourage students to give themselves as servants to others on campus, and elsewhere once they graduate. That we inspire students to choose careers that match their gifts, and employ these gifts in service of individuals and institutions that are struggling economically, emotionally, academically or spiritually.
It means that we inspire our students to follow Jesus into radical discipleship, to buckle down for the long haul in working to make theirs a better world for successive generations. That they are working toward a more just, peaceful and environmentally sustainable world, as all humans — all humans — are image-bearers of God.
My friends, as we celebrate the beginning of another academic year, we will certainly face significant challenges and anxieties.
We are in the midst of a search for a new president. There are issues related to personnel. There are the annual challenges of finance, fundraising, recruiting and retention. You are also aware of particular challenges in your departments or divisions. Despite all of this, I am confident about the future of Hope College.
I am confident because we are rooted in, grounded in, a Christian identity, in the good news of Jesus Christ, and in a God of grace. Abundant, overflowing grace.