Hope’s Aspirational Faith
For the first time in more than 150 years, Hope College has adopted a formal statement of its Christian character. Why now? And what does the college expect to do with it, anyway?
To be fair, for the first 100 years, Hope had no need for such a statement. As a denominational school of the Reformed Church in America (RCA), the college’s Christian identity was inextricably wrapped up in the confessions and creeds of its parent denomination.
But when the RCA’s General Synod ceded the governance of Hope College to the Board of Trustees in 1967, Hope never formally articulated a statement of faith.
Even without such a statement, though, Hope’s Christian commitment remains strong. The college’s Christian roots run deep, and it has been undeniably shaped by the Christian practice, piety and witness that ring throughout campus like the bells of Dimnent Memorial Chapel.
Which leads again to the question: If Hope has gotten along just fine without it for so long, why does the school need one now?
The statement of Christian aspirations helps the campus community to articulate what, at its best, Hope has always been, what it tries to be today, and what it aspires to be in the future.
Now is the Time
For the past four decades, Hope has been guided by a tantalizingly brief phrase in the college’s mission statement: “in the context of the historic Christian faith.” This language is also central to the college’s strategic plan, adopted in 2015, which speaks confidently of providing “Christ-centered higher education.” One of the plan’s six overarching goals reads:
“Hope College will be an ecumenical Christian community, welcoming students, faculty and staff into a vibrant experience of faith formation and intellectual engagement with the historic Christian faith.”
As Hope has become increasingly — and deliberately — more ecumenical across the past few decades, however, it has also become increasingly apparent, both in conversations with people outside of Hope and within its own community, that Hope can no longer assume a shared understanding of what that phrase means.
“We weren’t clear on what we meant when we said, ‘the historic Christian faith,’” said the Rev. Scott Van Oostendorp ’75. “There’s always been this assumption, ‘Well, everybody knows.’”
“It became pretty clear that we did not have common language, even within our board, that worked for us,” said the Rev. Dr. Ken Eriks ’69.
Van Oostendorp and Eriks co-chair the board’s Christian Faith and Formation committee, which was tasked in 2015 with bringing a statement to the full board for approval. Eriks is director of special projects for the Reformed Church in America, and Van Oostendorp is a retired pastor who is currently serving part time at a West Michigan congregation.
Trustees on the committee spent more than two years crafting and revising the Christian aspirations statement, gaining input from members of the Administrative Council, others in the extended Hope family and constituents throughout campus. The board affirmed the final statement unanimously on May 2, and President Dennis Voskuil presented it to campus during his annual President’s Address on Aug. 23.
How it will be used
In articulating what the college means by “the historic Christian faith,” the statement reaches long before the Protestant Reformation to, in the document’s words, “the ecumenical creeds of the ancient church, especially the Nicene and Apostles’ creeds.”
These creeds give the defining form to the college’s Christian commitment, clarifying the substance of a religious identity that “provides the foundation for our institutional character,” Voskuil said. But the identity statement doesn’t stop there.
“Having stated who we are and what the historic faith is, it then goes on to say what we aspire to be. The word aspire is the task we place before the Hope community,” said Dr. Gerald Pillay, a Hope trustee who served on the committee and is vice chancellor and rector of Liverpool Hope University. “One may believe the creed, but one has to define it by the way one lives.”
In that regard, the statement is a call to action. It identifies the destination — Hope wants to be this sort of college — and charges the campus community to live together into the fullness of its Christian commitment.
“Those who become part of the Hope community are invited to help us deepen this apostolic commitment. Even if people come from other religions, we’d like them to be in conversation with us about the values we hold dear,” he said.
Crucially, every person in every part of the college — from the classroom to center court, from the studio to the Student Center — is invited to contribute to this process of living into Hope’s Christian character.
“This is an invitation to all on campus, whatever their role or station,” Pillay said. “I’m convinced that the formation of our graduates cannot be achieved by the faculty alone. That formation happens also in the dining halls; it happens in the places students live; it happens in the places they meet and play.”
Van Oostendorp echoes this invitation to conversation, saying that the statement “opens up the possibility of dialogue. It allows for conversation, and what can be bad about talking about our Christian identity? Out of dialogue comes vitality and health and a sense of calling, a sense of purpose and direction.”
He’s quick to stress that this sense of purpose and direction isn’t new. The statement isn’t redefining Hope College, he said, “it just preserves who we have been and who we are becoming by articulating what we mean.”
“It was done in a way that was trying not to impose something on the college but to collaboratively unearth what was already there and give good words to it,” Eriks said. It helps the campus community to articulate what, at its best, Hope has always been, what it tries to be today, and what it aspires to be in the future.
Importantly, it helps the campus articulate its identity in a positive way. In his Presidential Address, Voskuil observed that people had become accustomed to talking about Hope in terms of what it’s not — “we are not like Wheaton College or Calvin College, Oberlin College or Kalamazoo College. We define ourselves over against others.”
“We finally have something here that states in a very positive, aspirational way who Hope is and aspires to be going in the future,” Eriks said. “Hopefully that helps everybody to have a better idea of what it means to come to Hope College.”
By providing a clearer understanding of what sort of place Hope is, the statement will allow all sorts of prospectives — students, their parents, faculty, staff, trustees, even presidents — to orient themselves to the college’s Christian character and self-assess whether it will be a suitable fit for them.
Everyone is Welcome
If there’s one thing that the board particularly intends for the statement, it’s that Hope is for everyone. “This is not a basis to exclude people,” Pillay said. “It should be remembered that from the very beginning, Hope College was intended for all people.”
The statement of Christian aspirations is not a litmus test, and it’s not a prescriptive statement of what everyone in the Hope community must believe. There’s no dotted line on which to sign.
The document places a special emphasis on students and the college’s invitational approach to their faith development when it says, “Students of all faiths — or no faith at all — are welcomed at Hope.”
“I want students to always know that you are welcome at Hope College no matter who you are, no matter what you bring, whether you come with faith or no faith at all,” Eriks said. “We want you to be a part of our community. If you leave here and you still have not in any way embraced the good news of Jesus Christ, you are loved and welcome just the same.”
The importance of such a welcome is clear from the statement’s opening sentence, in which the college spells out what exactly it is inviting all people to: “a holistic and robust engagement with the historic Christian faith and a personal encounter with the living Christ through the Holy Spirit.”
“This document is an invitation to journey toward and with Christ. It says, ‘Everybody’s welcome here, there’s room at the table for everybody,’ and then it gives us our identity as a family,” Van Oostendorp said. “Come! Come to the table. This is who we are; this is the banquet we’re inviting you to. Eat well.”
The following affirmation of Hope College’s Christian identity was approved by the Board of Trustees on May 2, 2018.
HOPE’S CHRISTIAN ASPIRATIONS
Hope College is a Christian community that invites all its members into a holistic and robust engagement with the historic Christian faith and a personal encounter with the living Christ through the Holy Spirit. Our Christian identity is described by the following three aspirations:
HOPE ASPIRES TO BE FAITHFUL
The college’s board, faculty, administration and staff are committed to the historic Christian faith as expressed in the ecumenical creeds of the ancient church, especially the Nicene and Apostles’ creeds, which Protestants, Catholics and Orthodox hold in common. The variety of expressions of the Christian faith we hold in common contributes to the vitality of Hope College.
HOPE ASPIRES TO BE WELCOMING
Hospitality is a hallmark of the Christian faith. Hope seeks to be a community that affirms the dignity of all persons as bearers of God’s image. We are a community where all come together to offer their gifts of understanding to one another. Students of all faiths — or no faith at all — are welcomed at Hope. We invite our students to join a vibrant, caring academic community where the Christian faith and the pursuit of knowledge intersect and where the full humanity of all may flourish. All at Hope are invited to experience the love and good news of God’s forgiveness found in Jesus Christ.
HOPE ASPIRES TO BE TRANSFORMATIONAL
Hope was established as a college in the Reformed tradition, which affirms the centrality of Scripture and the importance of learning. We are 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. We also affirm that knowledge is not an end in itself. Scripture urges us to “be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God — what is good and acceptable and perfect” (Romans 12:2). The whole Hope community is encouraged in a life-long commitment to grow in God’s grace and to pursue vocations through which the world so loved by God is renewed.