Echoing the apostle Paul and others, Maximus the Confessor wrote that “all the ages of time and the beings within those ages have received their beginning and end in Christ.”
In this post, we consider our current moment through the lens of Christian higher education, especially as it struggles with how it finds its life in Christ in all the myriad of decisions that administrators, faculty, staff and students face daily.
I’ve decided to enter this maelstrom through an interview with Aaron Kuecker, the Provost at Trinity Christian College (where I teach), who is also a deeply reflective theologian and leader. We discuss his vocation as provost, how Trinity has made its decisions about remote instruction this fall, and the college grapples with racial injustice. I pray it will be of use to you.
Aaron, could you say a little bit about yourself, and how you came to be the Provost at Trinity?
I grew up in a rural community in Northeast Iowa, a Lutheran family. I found my way to Central College – that’s really where I encountered the Reformed tradition through a local church. I pursued youth ministry at a church in West Michigan. My vocational journey took me through pastoral work, seminary and a Ph.D. in New Testament at St. Andrews.
In 2008, I started teaching at Trinity and quickly became interested in bigger questions about these institutions and the way that they can shape people. That interest opened me to work at a different institution in order to direct an honors college. The opportunity to come back to Trinity was a chance to come to a place I knew in order to ask questions about what these institutions can be.
“The way they can shape people.” Why did you want to come to Trinity in order to contribute to the way it shapes people?
Trinity has a proximity to Chicago. It has a faculty, staff and student community that is more diverse than most other institutions inside the Reformed tradition. It has the opportunity to be a place which works on group reconciliation and that helps students see their vocation as integrally connected to God’s life-bringing work in actual places. The smallness of Trinity helps have those conversations and challenges the institution to do that in a way that is always interpersonal.
What do you mean by “group reconciliation,” especially in relation to Trinity?
My work as a New Testament scholar has been about how the Holy Spirit is at work shaping identities that honor racial and ethnic difference in ways that allow for a profound kind of reconciliation. I take that to be a fundamental work of the Holy Spirit in the New Testament. I think Christian communities are called to that. I think Trinity, because of its history, population, and what is inside of its ethos, has a chance to do this. It has a chance at figuring out what a theologically informed approach to race could look like inside of a community.
Could you say more about how your vocation as a pastor, theologian and New Testament scholar affects how you approach this position.
I think of my vocation as a pastoral theologian of the New Testament. The questions that drive me in my office are questions about how the New Testament calls us to particular ways of life together. That’s the engine underneath the work for me.
You’ve started to talk about this, but could you say more about the ways of life that you are trying to help the college live?
I see the Spirit creating the possibility of radical generosity and a very persistent enemy love in communities. In the New Testament, the only way that communities work is if those two virtues are present. Those virtues are found in the cross and the resurrection and they take many forms in multiple contexts in the New Testament. A healthy Christian institution needs to embody a generosity that is not self-regarding and a deep account of how to love your enemy – central to which are practices of asking for, offering, and receiving forgiveness.
Let’s dive into the COVID-19 context. I’ll start here: How does COVID-19 challenge the financial model of higher education?
Christian liberal arts colleges create a context for powerful formation in the lives of students, faculty, and staff. We exist, like so many other institutions, with thin margins and incredible resourcefulness. Because of this, all decisions feel like risky decisions. It’s difficult to predict enrollment. COVID-19 presents challenges for proposing budgets. A quick glance at any of the higher education trade publications and their dire predictions for the “sector” amplifies this sense of risk.
Trinity announced last week that the college will be offering the bulk of its classes in a remote format and is curtailing the number of students who are living on campus. We will try to accommodate whoever needs to be on campus, but not all will be able to come. While some comparable institutions have made similar decisions, others have not. How did Trinity come to make this decision? What were the factors?
We decided in May that we were going to aim for an in-person semester. But things changed over the summer. Each day seemed to bring a significant new problem to solve. And our teams rose to the challenge.
One example of this was that our county instituted a quarantine recommendation that requires 25% of our residential students to quarantine in their room for two weeks upon arrival. So, we built out structures for quarantine care, meal delivery, laundry, and wellness checks.
We found that twenty percent of our students, for many good reasons, did not feel comfortable returning to in-person education. In response, we created structures for remote learning for students at a distance, while serving students in the classroom, too.
At every turn, everyone was creative and committed. But as August neared, we paused and asked, what would the lived reality of our protocols – following CDC guidelines – look like for the students? Those guidelines would work for our safety, but we began to see not only how complex it would be to manage but – and more importantly – what it would mean for student experience.
For example, what would it do to students to be in their room by themselves for 14 days? That’s a lived experience, not just a health protocol. I myself was isolated for two weeks when I was sick this past spring, and it was very difficult for me. What would that do to our students? Could we create patterns in which those scenarios were less likely?
So we had to ask, what were we inviting students into? We can’t gather for corporate worship in large groups. Common spaces will be blocked off. Classrooms will be at half capacity. Classes will be taught at a distance.
At a certain point, you have to reckon with the vision of the good that you are driving toward. Is this actually good for students? Trinity is seeking to achieve certain social goods, and they didn’t seem possible with full residence halls in ways that they did seem more possible with reduced residence halls. We had to modify the shape of our life, but we think this allows our students the best chance to flourish.
Are individual students likely to find their life in danger from COVID-19? Probably not. But, given how our students are connected to each other and the wider community, a fully operational campus didn’t seem wise. For example, about 250 of our students are serving in contexts outside the college because every one of our programs requires an off-campus internship. We are a part of a broader community.
What are the social goods that a Trinity culture fosters, that we couldn’t achieve with these protocols?
You need some theological wherewithal to think about this on multiple levels simultaneously. On any college campus, the education is drenched in relational mutuality and transformation. We want to get back to that and do that in a Christian way together.
But in this moment, the opportunity is for formation of a greater good — for students to see themselves as participants in both their institutions and in the communities with which they are involved, and for students to seek to love their neighbors and be radically generous at some measure of self-sacrifice and self-giving. We have the opportunity to help students and our whole community to find ways of denying ourselves of the thing we most want to do, to follow the way of the cross for the sake of the greater community. We are allowing ourselves to die to our normal way of doing things so that others can live. It’s not an easy call. And, we will all experience some loss, but hopefully in service of a larger good.
Let’s move to another struggle going on in the culture, and consider how that fits into all of this. David Brooks has said recently that we have an “earthquake” of social division, and then the COVID-19 pandemic was a “hurricane” that poured water into the racial and economic divisions. Would you say that characterizes what’s happening at Trinity? More broadly, how are these two struggles impacting each other at Trinity?
I agree that what we are having to do with COVID-19 shines a magnifying glass on fissures that were already there. For example, a quick pivot to online learning privileges people with stable housing. That’s not necessarily about race, but because the histories of race in America have inequitable economic effects, there far too often exist overlapping factors surrounding race and economics. Our powerful re-awakening also helped us see more deeply how COVID-19 affects racial disparities and divisions. COVID-19 apocalyptically illuminates racial inequities, while looking down the pain of racial inequities allows us also to see the true impacts of COVID-19 more clearly.
Trinity is a small community. My fear is that in a time when it was so imperative to be together to talk about and work on these things, our primary mode of engagement was on social media. It is easy to demonize your conversation partners in that landscape. The way COVID-19 has impacted our social gathering has perhaps made it easier to miss a wide open door for action in response to the murder of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. So, we have a lot of work to do to overcome our inability to be in the same space for conversation. I don’t think we can do this stuff over Zoom in an effective way, without the rhythms of presence. If we can’t see each other as three-dimensional human beings, it will be very difficult to step into this work. I am looking forward to gathering for this work in more embodied ways.
Say more about what Trinity needs to do, and what the community intends to do about its racial divisions.
You have to ground this in Trinity’s history, just like every institution needs to ground their particular work in their particular histories. As we’ve been reminded by Mark Mulder, Trinity’s history starts with a Reformed white community whose ecclesiology didn’t stop them from leaving diversifying communities.
The institution has slowly become more diverse in ways that are a true gift from God, but Trinity needs to dig into its rootedness in its history and directly engage how its majority culture assumptions can drive the institution. We learn about how our students of color are wounded by unexamined assumptions of whiteness that are often seen as normal. We have to figure out what to do about that and talk about it more regularly.
I’m proud that our Board wants to spring into action about this, including how to hold themselves and our wider structures accountable. They want our written statements to speak to our moment and be even more theologically rooted. I also hope we can also enact some practices that are reparative and remediative. I don’t want us to stop with our words. I want us to have a more just life together. We have a beautiful opportunity before us.