It is a tradition that we open the academic year with Convocation, a more formal chapel service to mark the beginning of the semester. Faculty process in wearing their regalia, and the service is more ceremonial than an average chapel. We enjoy coming together as a university to commemorate the start of the year, and we were especially excited to hear from Dr. Dub Oliver at his first Convocation as president.
Please enjoy the photos from this event as well as the Convocation address delivered by Dr. Oliver.
Convocation – August 22, 2014
“Liberty and Integrity”
Our convocation is a formal gathering. It is a time for reflection, for resolution. We are at the beginning of the academic year. This is a good moment to think about where we are, what we intend to do, and why we intend to do it.
Allow me to say a little about where we find ourselves as a Christian university (and as a community) in this 21st century that races along.
What is the purpose of a university education? At one time institutions would speak of their graduates as a Harvard man or a Vassar woman. To say that would mean that the experience of education at those places must impart some qualities to the students. In our context, what does it mean to be a Union man or woman? A Unionite? Some things we have said to you up front in bold letters. Excellence-Driven, Christ-Centered, People-Focused, Future-Directed. At Union, we have an overriding desire for you to be a Christian, to have an active, vibrant, ever growing and ever deepening relationship with Jesus.
We hope that you have professional goals, family goals, and other kinds of things you want to do, but more than that we hope you will see yourself as someone who is actively engaged in the work of the Kingdom of God. What else might we say? Two themes occur to me as I think about what it means to be educated here. They are liberty and integrity.
I think of liberty because learning has to do with freedom. We are citizens, not subjects of a throne. We participate in our own government because we are free. A free man or a free woman should also strive to be knowledgeable and articulate. I think about integrity because liberty does not simply stand alone. Liberty can mean just being free from restraints. And that is important. But liberty can also mean being free to pursue certain goals.
Liberty can walk hand in hand with integrity. We don’t choose the times in which we live. It happens that this is an especially important time for Christians when it comes to matters such as liberty and integrity. The social arena has shifted in ways that put conviction on a collision course with political passion. For example, the nature of marriage was long taken for granted, but now is hotly disputed. Our society thinks differently than it did even when President Obama himself declared in 2008 that marriage is between a man and a woman. It may now be the case that a majority disagrees with that point of view, including that same president. Those of us who uphold the authority of Scripture find ourselves increasingly in the minority.
Marriage is not the only ground of controversy. By issuing the HHS mandate regarding employer-provided contraceptives, the U.S. government extended its reach in ways that seemed to many to be more intrusive and commanding than had previously been the norm. One of the consequences of these developments is that Christians have had to become much more aware of the issue of religious liberty. Generally speaking, we haven’t worried too much about our constitutional freedom because we could take it for granted. The big court cases tended to involve religious minorities such as the Amish, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Seventh Day Adventists, and practitioners of Native American religions. But with the HHS mandate and other issues percolating through the courts, we have seen government action impinging directly upon matters of Christian concern.
Specifically, we see citizens compelled to participate in activities they do not wish to endorse and organizations required to pay for products and services they view as contrary to their faith and conscience. Religious liberty has suddenly become the kind of thing to which serious Christians must address themselves. I had the opportunity to participate in a small way in one of the controversies I have mentioned. In my role as the president of East Texas Baptist University, I fought against the HHS mandate because it threatened our exercise of conscience and religious liberty. Dr. Ben Mitchell, now serving as Union’s provost, went to Washington, D.C. to testify against the mandate for similar reasons.
I am glad to tell you that Baptists have not just recently developed an interest in religious liberty. Putting an emphasis upon liberty of faith and conscience is part of what Baptists have always done. Baptists have championed religious freedom for centuries. Baptists have fought for the right of individuals to participate or not participate in the church because of our belief that the body should be regenerate in nature.
What does it mean to be regenerate? To be regenerate is to be spiritually reborn. Baptists wanted people to freely decide to join the church and to become part of the community of faith. It is a choice that must not be coerced. And just as Baptists have emphasized the liberty of the individual with regard to religion, we have also argued for the independence of the church from the state and vice versa. The pastors of the church shouldn’t be civil servants. Nor should they be paid with taxes. And the state should not tell the church what to believe or try to marginalize the church’s voice or keep it from participating in the life of the community. There was a time when this view of things was pretty radical.
Our history gives a lot of credit to people like Thomas Jefferson and James Madison for emphasizing religious freedom. As we sit here in the chapel of a Baptist university, I am happy to make the case that we should be thanking generations of Baptists before Jefferson and Madison whose same opinion sometimes brought persecution. I know that professors Ben Mitchell and Jim Patterson could tell us more about that. And there are others, too, I am sure.
The interesting thing about religious freedom is that it works in a counterintuitive fashion. Many thought the church needed to be supported by tax money and granted a monopoly over the allegiances of citizens. The Europeans persisted in the state church model well after we largely gave it up. But all you have to do is to look at the state of the Christian churches in Europe relative to those in America to see which model helps the Gospel flourish. While we certainly face our challenges here, the church is far more vital where it has been a free church.
While Baptists pursued religious liberty for the believer and the unbeliever alike, they weren’t motivated by a desire just to be left alone. The freedom they wanted (and that we want) is a freedom “for” rather than a freedom “from.” This freedom “for” is a freedom for faithfulness. It is a freedom to believe and a freedom to live out those beliefs as long as they don’t threaten the basic peace and safety of the community.
As the debate over religious liberty has developed in the past few years, there have been those who would whittle down freedom of faith and conscience to a more modest freedom of worship. With this smaller freedom the church would be able to count on the government not monitoring church services or trying to mandate the rituals, the music, and the content of the sermon. That is not a small thing, but it is simply not enough. The freedom to live out one’s beliefs has to do with integrity.
To have integrity means to be honest and to be true to one’s principles. Another definition of the word really drives the point home. To have integrity is to be undivided. It is to be a whole rather than a collection of parts. “Freedom of worship” doesn’t take adequate account of the requirements of integrity.
If you want to know why various Christian organizations and businesses have drawn unwelcome attention to themselves by resisting government regulations, the answer goes back to integrity. Nobody really wants a big hassle with the federal government, especially with an enormous and powerful agency like the Department of Health and Human Services. We aren’t looking for a fight. If we have integrity, we don’t choose our conflicts in an opportunistic or calculating way. We resist when we think we have to do so. We resist out of the courage of our convictions, not on the convenience of our complaints. These moments are Acts 5:29 moments when we declare, like Peter and the other apostles, that we must obey God rather than men.
People who are involved with Christian higher education as faculty, as staff, as students, as parents of students…Almost all of these people over the years have heard a lot of discussion about integration. You could hardly have spent any time at a serious Christian college during the past two decades without hearing people talk about “the integration of faith and learning.” As you hear the word “integration” you might notice the similarity of it to the word we have been talking about. To have integrity is to be an undivided whole. To have integrity is to be integrated. This conversation about integration is very familiar to me.
During my years at Baylor, there was a lot of soul searching about the integration of faith and learning. There were some professors who resisted the idea, but there were many others who welcomed it. Some very fine academics, world class in their fields, came to Baylor because they were Christians and they liked the idea of fulfilling their vocations as teachers and scholars in a way that is undivided. They wanted to be whole instead of two halves. Our professors here at Union feel the same way.
But integration is not just for college professors. Nor is it just for faith and learning. I believe that every Christian is called to have an undivided life. While you are here at Union, I hope that you will have an experience that is undivided in nature. I want you to experience integration of faith and learning as you move across campus, as you sit with your professors, as you participate in student life activities, as you eat together in Cobo, as you study together in Barefoots or in the library. At no point should you feel that the things you do are disconnected from your faith and your core convictions. Your mind, your will, your body and the different uses to which you put them…they should all be submitted to the lordship of Jesus Christ in an undivided way.
This process of living in an undivided way is something that works best within a community. The Christian church is a community. Union University is a community. In strong and committed Christian communities, iron sharpens iron. People hold one another accountable. The stakes are high for us. We can no longer just rest easy in a nation that largely defers to Christian sensibilities. We cannot just live on autopilot. We have to choose our words and actions carefully. That has always been true, but it is much more obvious now.
We are looking at life and after life. We live among people with eternal destinies. We submit to the discipline of the Christian faith in the way we study and in the way we treat each other. We urge one another forward to press on to the prize. We support each other in trials. We pursue holiness together, both so we can be sanctified and so that we can spread the blessing of faith in Jesus Christ.
My hope for you as you embark upon the journey of this year is that your life becomes ever more integrated as a faithful follower of Christ. As you develop in this way, as we all develop in this way, you will find that it becomes difficult to be a cultural chameleon. There is a real cost to that. You may have to resist social tides and sometimes draw unwelcome attention even as you try to follow Christ in humility and love. But perhaps we can learn together to be the kind of witness who helps people to think about instead of just rejecting and dismissing what we have to say. Perhaps we can learn together how to avoid the easy “cheap grace” that Dietrich Bonhoeffer so earnestly rejected.
It is a good freedom that we seek for ourselves and for others. Let us defend it and make use of it while there is still day and we have the benefit of the light.
But in all cases, whether we have the blessings of freedom in partnership with our earthly citizenship or not, let us always be found faithful. Let us always be found undivided.
May the favor of the Lord our God rest upon us.
– Dub Oliver