Grace, Vocation, and Leaving the School that I Loved

Part of a series of autobiographical reflections written by Richard T. Hughes.

It was 1970, the year before my doctoral graduation. The job market for professors was tight, so tight that I sent letters of inquiry to 140 schools scattered all over the country—large schools and small schools, state schools and private schools, colleges and seminaries. The constraints of the job market had left me desperate. It didn’t much matter to me where I taught. I just wanted a job.

Of those 140 letters, only 60 institutions saw fit to reply, and the letters I received were amazingly uniform. In fact, I could hold each envelope up to the light and count the paragraphs. There were always three: Paragraph #1: Thank you for your inquiry. Paragraph #2: Unfortunately, we have no openings. Paragraph #3: But we will be happy to keep your letter on file. I knew that the “file” that each letter referenced was the large round “file” that sits on the floor. To say I was discouraged is an understatement.

And then grace appeared in the form of a telephone call from the provost of Pepperdine’s new Malibu campus which would open in 1972. He had gotten my name, he said, from a friend, and would I be willing to fly out for an interview? After the discouraging responses (and the non-responses) to my 160 letters, the invitation to interview at Pepperdine—an invitation that essentially came out of the blue—struck me as a God-send, an act of unmerited grace. Yet, I quickly discovered that embedded within that grace was a note of deep ambiguity. 

The provost picked me up at Los Angeles International Airport, took me for coffee and pie, and gave me some strict instructions. “If while on campus you see this professor or that professor,” he counseled, “go the other way. At most, talk about the weather. Nothing more. Nothing less.”

That counsel left me dumbfounded, but what I could not have known at that early date was that Pepperdine’s move from its thirty-plus-year home in South Central Los Angeles to its new home in Malibu had occasioned a struggle for the institution’s soul, a battle to define its vocation. That struggle reflected the larger struggle for the soul of the nation that played itself out in the post-1960s era, but in Pepperdine’s case, it was especially triggered by the transition from Los Angeles to the new Malibu campus.

The battle that ensued—and “battle” is not too strong a word—pitted many of the older faculty, shaped by the complacent America of the 1950s, against many of the younger faculty, shaped by the revolutionary America of the 1960s. It pitted faculty who still believed in the myth of the one true church—and who thought that myth should define the institution—against faculty who had abandoned that myth long ago. It pitted liberals against conservatives, Democrats against Republicans, and those committed to objective scholarship against those who saw Pepperdine as an arm of the Church of Christ.

Ronald Reagan played an important role in the campus moving to Malibu.

For more, see Abby Gibson, “Was it caused by God or Reagan?” in The Pepperdine Graphic (March 14, 2017).

Photo: Pepperdine University archives.

I accepted the position the provost offered, but the internal battles were so ferocious and so emotionally draining that we left after only six years for a post at Southwest Missouri State University.

Still, both Jan and I left a large part of our hearts at Pepperdine. It was, after all, a school deeply connected to our faith tradition, the Churches of Christ. Moreover, over the course of those six years, I had become deeply invested in the struggle for Pepperdine’s soul, the struggle to define its vocation. So after twelve years in self-imposed exile, I returned to the school that still claimed my heart.

I should have known—but naively did not—that the battle for Pepperdine’s soul was essentially over long before I returned. While dissenters abounded to be sure, the victors grounded the school in a vision common in conservative Christian America—a potent mix of Christian faith, Republican politics, and American capitalism. For eighteen years I was among the constructive dissenters. Along with others, I helped to lead a faith/learning initiative for Pepperdine’s faculty, directed a Lilly Endowment grant that helped support that initiative, and hoped the day would come when Pepperdine would actively encourage a robust critique of the dominant culture by the standards of the Christian faith.

What gave me hope was the ambiguity the school embraced when presenting itself to its two core sets of constituents. To its donors, most of whom had no connection to Churches of Christ, it described itself as a “values-centered institution.” But to members of Churches of Christ, it proclaimed itself “a Christian institution.” That second proclamation reflected genuine intent and a significant level of reality, and it was that proclamation that gave me hope.

And then came September 11, 2001. In the weeks after American forces invaded Iraq, a huge banner appeared on an exterior wall of Pepperdine’s Firestone Fieldhouse, a banner that proclaimed, “United We Stand.” I understood how horrible the 9/11 atrocities had been, and I stood shoulder to shoulder with every other American who grieved those tragic events. Yet, when I saw that banner—and I saw it almost every day—I could not help but recall Jesus’ counsel to “love your enemies.”

I wrote a letter to the president stating my conviction that a banner like that was out of place on the campus of a Christian university. The president sent me a kind and gentle response, but the banner remained.

In those days, when people throughout the world could almost taste and feel the blood that had been shed on 9/11, the nation heard much about “heroes,” those civil servants who had risked their lives and given their lives, in the dangerous work of saving others. But one day I spoke in chapel on the topic, “Other Heroes.” 

Those who had risked their lives for the sake of others were heroes, indeed, I said. But there were other heroes, unsung heroes, heroes who worked for peace and refused to take up the sword, even in response to unthinkable atrocities.

I mentioned Jesus and Paul, both of whom told us to love our enemies.  I mentioned the early Christians who, in the face of unthinkably vicious persecutions, refused to respond in kind. I mentioned Menno Simons, the Anabaptist leader in the sixteenth century, and George Fox, the founder of the Quakers in the seventeenth century. And finally, I mentioned Barton Stone, David Lipscomb, and others in the history of Churches of Christ who had committed their lives to the principles of the Prince of Peace.

Following my speech that day, the student body president seemed in shock. “Dr. Hughes,” she said, “I have been in church all my life, but I have never heard anything even remotely comparable to what I heard you say today.” Unwittingly, she spoke for the victors in the struggle for Pepperdine’s soul.

Two years later, in 2003, I began to realize how completely the victors had won. Founder’s Day of that year featured a film, “Our Heritage of Faith.” The first image that appeared on the screen as the film began was an American flag blowing proudly in the wind, and I quickly realized that this film was not about the Christian faith at all, but about the American founding, American values, and American patriotism.

I didn’t object to the values the film portrayed. In fact, I affirmed them. But I did object to American values masquerading as the Christian faith, and some months later I wrote to the president, expressing my dismay. By then, he had grown weary of me and weary of what must have seemed like my constant objections to university policy with respect to the Christian faith, the American nation, and the war in Iraq. He finally wrote me a note that said, in effect, that I should mind my own business.

And that’s when I knew that my own sense of vocation now stood hopelessly at odds with the vocation of the institution that employed me. After twenty-four years in Camelot, this Eden on the Pacific, we acted on that realization and moved from coast to coast—to Messiah College in Grantham, Pennsylvania.

And that’s when I knew that my own sense of vocation now stood hopelessly at odds with the vocation of the institution that employed me.

That move had everything to do with our own sense of vocation, both mine and Jan’s. And yet, as I reflect on those events from the vantage point of a seventy-seven-year-old man, I realize that, in at least two respects, our decision to leave Pepperdine may well have been flawed.

First, Pepperdine’s embrace in 2003 of the virtues of the American nation as “our heritage of faith” was rooted in the tragic and deeply polarizing events of September 11, 2001. As time went on, the president who, in essence, told me to “mind my own business” became far more conciliatory and mellow, even bridging the earlier polarization between “victors” and “dissenters.” I hope I have mellowed as well.

And second, earlier in this post I wrote that when professorial positions were so incredibly tight in the early 1970s, the completely unexpected invitation to teach at Pepperdine was “an act of unmerited grace. Yet, embedded within that grace was a note of deep ambiguity.”

What I should have known, what I should have recalled, was that grace presupposes ambiguity.

My professor at the University of Iowa, George Forell, in a course on “The Theology of Martin Luther,” used to speak eloquently of “the inevitable ambiguity of the human situation.” I understood the truth of that phrase intellectually, but I failed to grasp it experientially, and as a result, I was a purist, wanting perfection for the institution I loved.

I still understand vocation as the call to follow Jesus. But Christian vocation has a second dimension—that we must live our vocation in a broken and fallen world. I still would quarrel with the Christian America vision that, at that time at least, informed Pepperdine’s sense of itself. But a robust vision of Christian vocation requires that we embody the teachings of Jesus, not in a perfect world but in the context of ambiguity, even in the context of a Christian school that inevitably straddles a fallen world and the world of Christian faith.

In time, Pepperdine came to define itself forthrightly as a Christian institution and emerged as a leader in the crucial work of faith/learning integration. In the meantime, what I know is this—that Christian vocation requires that, even as we receive unmerited grace, we must also extend unmerited grace. In fact, that principle is embodied in Pepperdine’s motto: “Freely ye received; freely give.” (Mt. 10:8) I happily received Pepperdine’s grace in 1970, but in the polarized climate created by 9/11, I was a purist, unable to extend that same level of grace to the institution that I loved.

But that was long ago. I have learned from that experience and today I seek to embody Christian vocation in its fullest measure, extending grace to others even as God—and many of God’s children—forgive my faults and extend grace to me. 

For more of Richard Hughes’ autobiographical reflections, see “Called by a Book,” “The Grace of Troubling Questions” and “Finding Vocation in Suffering, Loss, and Death,” See also “Wrestling with White Supremacy” on his scholarly work.

Richard T. Hughes is professor emeritus at both Pepperdine University and Messiah College and teaches at Lipscomb University in Nashville, Tennessee. He is author, co-author, or editor of over a dozen books including Myths America Lives By: White Supremacy and the Stories that Give Us Meaning (University of Illinois, 2018) and The Vocation of a Christian Scholar: How Christian Faith Can Sustain the Life of the Mind (Eerdmans, 2005).

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