Reflections on a Study Leave
Rediscovering the gospel’s encounter with contemporary culture
I feel like I have died and gone to heaven.
I am on what we call a “study leave” for a
few months. After 10 years of serving
Seattle Pacific University as its president,
I was encouraged by the Board of Trustees
to step back a bit, to take some time for rest
and recharging for the next chapter, but perhaps
more importantly, to take time to write
and reflect and study in ways not possible in
my normal, daily swirl. The day I began this
whole venture, I got off the plane and automatically
pulled out my phone only to read
these exhilarating words: “no appointments.”
I was startled. I suspect that is the first time
in all of these rich and busy 10 years I had
ever seen that particular message. That felt
like heaven for a season.
Some theologians imagine that heaven will
be the fulfillment of one’s deepest sense of
calling. No hanging out on the clouds here,
but rather the actual doing of the good and
meaningful work we always wanted to get
done. I am not talking about finishing a to-do
list. No, I am talking about the time and the
space to pursue our heart’s deepest yearning,
hoping to discover all the while that our desire
lines up with God’s desire for us. Alignment is
a key, and I hope that’s something of what’s
happening on this leave.
You mean I get to take some precious,
extended time to think and read and write
about the deeper mission and purpose of Christian
higher education? All day, if I want? You
mean I get to think about how Seattle Pacific
University might actually change the world,
digging down, perhaps into some levels that are
deeper and more nuanced than before?
I get up every morning and make a Starbucks
run and then study and pray and write.
Now, I know many people, perhaps most,
would not consider that fun. I come from a
family of business people, and something like a study leave was not in the vocabulary of my
father. I can imagine he is looking down and
shouting so that I might hear: “Say what?
You’re doing what? You mean you are not
going into the office every day?” I come from a
long line of English Puritans, and my work
ethic is so strong that I am required to feel
guilty when I am having this much fun.
And what am I discovering in all of this
idyllic time of reflection and study? I am discovering
how grateful I am for the work I get to
do year after year in one of the finest Christian
universities in the country. Stepping back from
it all makes me even more grateful for this
good place, its clear vision, and for the truly
good people who make it all happen. I am
grateful to be doing what I hope is meaningful
work, this thinking and envisioning, work that
might in the end bring meaning to others, on
our campus and beyond, perhaps some small
contribution to make the world a better place.
I am grateful as well to the people who support
me in these efforts, for the Board of Trustees,
for my Cabinet officers, for Vice President
Marj Johnson who became point person in my
absence, for Karen Jacobson and Mindy Galbreath
Worthington and their able management
of the President’s Office, for leaders all
across the campus. I am grateful to the faculty
and staff of Seattle Pacific for carrying on with
such distinction and competence and deep
commitment. I am grateful to the most wonderful
students in the world, who have shown
their support for me during this leave. I am
grateful for phones and email and the Internet
and overnight mail, so I can keep my fingers in
the pie. I am grateful to my wife, Sharon, for
cheerfully giving me solitude and for being
willing to listen, patiently, when I step out of
my study. We’re going to movies and out to
dinner and talking a lot, and I am grateful.
I have also discovered that genuine community
is the mark of a great institution, that
learning and discovery require a common
purpose, that our long-held commitment to
grace-filled community is absolutely essential
if we expect to change the world. I have discovered
further and deeper theological underpinnings
for this commitment, and I pledge to
nurture this core of SPU even more.
I have discovered in deeper ways the
extraordinary work of people such as N.T.
Wright, Richard Hays, Lesslie Newbigin,
Hannah Arendt, Alasdair MacIntyre, John
Henry Newman, William Butler Yeats, T.S.
Eliot, Matthew Arnold, James Davidson
Hunter, Christopher Smith, Stanley Fish, Ian
McEwan, Cormac McCarthy, Jaroslav Pelikan,
Pope John Paul II, and, yes, even Friedrich
Nietzsche. Most all of this was rereading and
rediscovery for me, but I think I have new
handles on the encounter between the gospel
and contemporary culture with the help of all
of these amazing people. I will be passing on
my thoughts about this reading list over time.
I am also studying in depth the book of
Psalms, Acts (with a commentary by our own
Professor Rob Wall), 1 Corinthians (my centerpiece
text), 2 Corinthians, and Romans.
As you can see, I am hot on the trail of Paul’s
astounding vision for a world transformed by
the gospel. I have lots of new thoughts, by the
way, about Paul as a leader and a visionary.
I come out of all of this study and reflection
and rest and renewal embracing the
Christian story in ways that have penetrated
my heart more profoundly than ever before.
And for that I am deeply grateful.
Well, that’s something about my study
leave. Now, it’s back to the way Nietzsche
shaped a culture of denial and suspicion and
what a gospel-shaped university might have
to say about that.
— BY Philip W. Eaton
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