I imagine setting up a table in the student union with a sign that just asks “Why?” Part of the mission of Geneva Campus Ministry at the University of Iowa is to help students explore this question. The university gives the students knowledge and helps them develop skills but often ignores the fundamental question of meaning, “Why?” We want students to imagine a bigger picture and practice.
Why should I live?
We are teleological beings; that is, we live out of a sense of meaning and purpose. This was reinforced in a Multi-Faith lecture by Dr. Varun Soni, the Dean of Religious Life at the University of Southern California. He stated that when he started student ministry the primary question students asked was “How should I live?” – a moral question. Now the question is “Why should I live?” – a more deeply existential and often more troubling question.
Dr. Soni described the crises students are facing today as crises of belonging, of faith traditions, and of meaning. Students often lack a context, picture or story for their lives. The family has broken or is disconnected. Ethnic, racial and gender identities are conflicted. Church might or might not have been important in their lives, but now they are apart from that community, and church is less and less significant in culture because it is defining itself in terms of whom to exclude more than whom to invite. University life challenges the moralisms of the church, and the students need more than the old rules. They often feel alone and lost. They are vulnerable to the cult of the Western culture of individualistic, materialistic, unimaginative living.
In the light of these “why’s,” how should we live? Jesus said to seek first God’s kingdom and God’s righteousness and all we need will be given to us (Matt. 6:13). Here is the why of the Kingdom of God. What is that and how do we seek it? Jesus said this in his Sermon on the Mount. He might answer, “Listen.” Matthew writes this in his Gospel, and he might answer, “Read.” Imagine the kingdom.
See yourself as part of a story, God’s story. The simple summary is that God’s good creation is corrupted by human betrayal, recalled by God starting in Abram and Sarai, restored by God starting in Jesus Christ, and renewed by God through his Spirit, culminating in a full union of heaven and earth. Living this requires complex imagination because God continues to work with broken people. As with all wisdom, we need both to simplify the complicated and complicate the simple. The story needs to be an honest, complicated, developing story.
I am writing on a strange Maundy Thursday. COVID has restricted our experiences of worship and ritual. We will not eat together nor wash each other’s feet, but the Maundy command remains, “My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you” (John 15:12).
Maundy Thursday helps us experience and express the great triad of faith, hope and love. The Supper expresses our faith and connects us to the story, as Passover does for the Jews. It gives our lives a narrative context. The command connects us to a community. We belong to God and his family. It gives us a present context defined by love, not law or moral rules. The foot washing, although not often literally practiced, connects us to service, to a mission, to the future. “Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet” (John 13:14). Imagine what that looks like today.
How and Why
How only makes sense in the context of why. Dr. Soni answered how to serve students today with individual friendship, small communities, exploration of individual purpose, and a vision of justice. This is what campus ministry seeks to do: story, community and service. This is what the church is to be because of Jesus. That’s why.