Crossing the bridge

Crossing the bridge

Northwest Nazarene University
Jul 23, 2019

By Vice President of Academic Affairs, Brad Kurtz-Shaw

When I hear employers tell me that they love NNU graduates because of their high integrity, I think I know what they mean: An NNU grad develops habits of heart that set her apart from other potential employees. NNU grads have cultivated characters marked by honesty and trustworthy behavior, and these are valuable commodities in an economic world where the pressure to return short-term gains becomes dangerously combustible when paired with young employees who lack a moral compass. But over time I’ve come to believe that what employers easily recognize and name as honesty really points to a deeper and broader understanding of the integrity of an NNU graduate.

There’s an old story from 19th-century railroad building that may be more folklore than fact, but it helps to illustrate this deeper understanding of our graduates’ integrity. When engineers were first faced with the monumental task of linking the United States together via railway lines, they were forced to innovate and develop new bridge designs to cross the amazing canyons, ravines, mountains and waterways of our varied American landscape. As is often the case, this innovation involved risk, and many of these new structures failed when put to the test of carrying a locomotive entrained with a massive load of freight cars.

After one such catastrophic bridge failure, the new project engineer volunteered himself and his family as passengers in the first railcar to cross the redesigned bridge. The promise embedded in this act was that the engineer’s life was a personal guarantee of the bridge’s sound design and construction. As the engineer bet his and his family’s lives, his personal integrity convinced others of the trustworthiness of his ideas and the execution of his design—in other words, he had integrity of the highest order. At NNU we don’t typically ask our students to risk their lives during a senior internship in order to secure employment upon graduation, but we do try to instill habits of heart that resonate with deep personal integrity and trustworthiness. We want our students to bet their lives on this more excellent way.

At the same time, NNU is committed to a kind of education that addresses an underlying meaning of integrity that is also obvious in this 19th-century bridge building story. It wasn’t just that the engineer had integrity—it was also essential that his bridge design, the execution of that design, and the actual bridge had integrity. The root meaning of this word denotes how something holds together; how it resists fragmentation; how it maintains its singular wholeness when everything around it—gravity, load, vibration, wind, rain and river—are all threatening to pull it apart.

NNU has deep faith in an educational philosophy in which all things hold together. Sometimes we use words like “integrative” or “holistic” to describe what we’re up to. It’s not a newfangled theory for us. We believe our integrative education is rooted in a strong theological foundation of biblical wholism:

“He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together... For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross” (Colossians 1:15-20).

An NNU education is deeply shaped by foundational theological assumptions that begin with the God who created the universe in which we live, move, dwell and have our being. When God calls that creation good multiple times as Genesis opens, we are given a mandate to discover everything we can about the nature and scope of this creation. These are good foundational ideas on which to build a Christian university.

Because we are building an education shaped by the foundational ideas that we 1) try to love the things that God calls “good,” and 2) understand this good creation primarily through the “firstborn of all creation” who “holds together all things,” at NNU we are interested in both the goodness and the unity of this created order.

We don’t ask students to engage a wide array of general education courses in the arts, humanities and sciences because we want them to be successful at trivia competitions later in life. We aren’t interested in producing superficially well-rounded students who know a little bit about everything. Rather, we want our students to be shaped by a vision of the wholeness and holiness of the world around them. We want them to weep for the brokenness and bentness that distorts the beauty of God’s good creation, and we want them to be creative and redemptive agents who are working with Christ Jesus to reconcile all things back to God. Reading a poem well, crafting a film, and understanding the structure of a cell or a symphony are all acts of love and worship that value the goodness and the wholeness of God’s world.

This vision for holistic education not only shapes our liberal arts curriculum that asks students to come further in and further up, but it also helps students to fundamentally reimagine their college education as critical to their life calling. That is, NNU transforms the limited (and limiting) cultural notion that college is simply a necessary weigh station on the path to a well-paying job, and we ask students to reclaim the root notion of vocational education—a preparation for a calling. In an incongruous world in which most people claim work as singularly important but at the same time report high dissatisfaction with their jobs, NNU wants both to prepare students exceptionally well for entering their professional guild and also to help students hear God’s calling to work as a chance for them to give meaning, purpose and wholeness to those they serve. Work is part of God’s good creation, and our vocations, rightly understood, call us from the fallen world of painful toil to Christ’s work of reconciling all things.

Wholeness, holiness, and healthiness are all variations of the same old English word. NNU asks students to come further in and further up in the breadth and depth of their college education, because we believe it will shape them into people who have habits of heart, mind, soul and body that will help the world around them to thrive. To add some Hebrew to our Anglo-Saxon, we believe a holistic education helps our students to contribute the shalom that God intended for this world—that state of thriving in which the world finds the peace, balance and harmony that reflects God’s holiness.

That’s why our holistic vision for this integrated education is not limited to classrooms and laboratories. An integrated view of the world, in which God in Christ Jesus is reconciling all things to Himself, sees God at play on our lacrosse field and our basketball court, feels God crying with us as we weep over an exceptional production of the play Doubt, hears God’s voice in an oboe solo during a University Choir & Orchestra concert, and recognizes God’s joy in the laughter of good friends around a meal in the Dex.

At the end of their NNU education, we want our students to be able to hear echoes of Abraham Kuyper in all things that they engage: “There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry, Mine!”

As limited and finite humans, most of our systems of higher education have moved toward increased specialization and fragmentation. Other universities keep getting better and better at dividing the world up into smaller and smaller pieces; they get better and better at understanding pieces of the world, but because they lack a Christian vision for purpose and wholeness, our friends often live fragmented lives and accept a distorted and bent version of the world.

At NNU we’re committed to a holistic education that helps students capture an integrated vision of God’s beautiful spider-web of a world. While we know that it’s important as human creatures to understand one cell of that spider-web of creation as chemistry and another cell as psychology and another as kinesiology, we embrace the connectedness of that world and recognize that when we shake one cell of God’s spider-web it sends vibrations across all the other cells.

The next time you see an old train trestle spectacularly snaking its way across a deep mountain gorge, don’t be surprised that it echoes the delicate beauty of a spider-web; and—because you are a person of deep integrity shaped by a holistic education that asked you to come further in and further up—smile.