Dr. Heath A. Thomas delivered this address during his Inauguration Ceremony in March 2021.
The Promise of Christian Higher Education
We come not to inaugurate a president; we come to celebrate a sustained promise made long ago. It is the great promise of Christian higher education.
I have hope today. I have hope for higher education. Higher education is, after all, a public good for the public square. Our communities need individuals who are equipped to add great value, depth of character, and service in our world. That, at root, is the promise of higher education.
OBU embodies that promise. But it does so with a distinctive and resonant note that governs our voice in the chorus of higher education. Ours is the promise of a distinctively Christian higher education.
Over 110 years ago, our forebears determined the great need of their day was distinctively Christian education that shaped the hearts and minds of the next generation so they might serve their communities, strengthen their churches, and lead in our world. As a result, The Baptist University of Oklahoma was founded in 1910.
Christ was the organizing principle that gave rise to our university on the eve of Oklahoma’s statehood. Pastors, churches, and founders looked out at the great possibilities of a new state, and in 1907, they stated:
“We are overwhelmed with the vast opportunities which are open to us as we are now on the very eve of statehood. All the responsibilities of government, moral and civil, will be thrown upon us as a state. […] We all know that good citizenship is not a creature of accident, but the product of strenuous effort on the part of the children of God in planting the teaching of the lowly Nazarene in the hearts of all the people.”1
Our pioneers of the future invested in this university to equip, inspire and empower the next generation of men and women under the Lordship of Jesus Christ. These visionaries saw men and women equipped in “all the branches of advanced learning”: literature, law, medicine, music, technology, theology, the various branches of science, fine arts, and various branches of professional and technical education.2
These future-shapers were forward-thinking prophets who recognized the uncompromising necessity for Christian education that would raise up the next generations of leaders for the glory of God and the good of the world.
OBU’s voice in the chorus of higher education will ring out, but it will ring out with the organizing principle of Christ, and the promise of Christian higher education for the glory of Christ and the good of our world.
Christ, the Center
This makes good sense. After all, our university was birthed from the womb of the Church. Our origin is there, and our future still resides in the bosom of Christ’s Church.
Some may perceive Christian education to be a kind of indoctrination, a diminution of robust education. I say no. We believe the centrality of Jesus in all of life opens up our perception to the fullness of the created world. We believe Christ is the center, the great clue who opens up our world to us; as we follow the clue with all the strength we can muster, we find new ways, new roads, and deep wisdom. The love of Jesus drives us to love our neighbor. The love of Christ drives us to serve. The love of Christ compels us to go make a difference in the lives of others. The love of Christ compels us to better our world.
Our forebears believed this. They embraced the centrality of Christ enlivening the full capacity of human imagination, governance, hope, teaching, and virtue. Without the life that comes from Christ, the life-giving capacity of our education would fade to non-existence. Let me repeat the words of our forebears in 1907:
“We all know that good citizenship is not a creature of accident, but the product of strenuous effort on the part of the children of God in planting the teaching of the lowly Nazarene in the hearts of all the people.”3
The “lowly Nazarene” is Christ, and his teaching opens for us the entirety of the world. Moreover, the excellence of Christ drives us to unrivaled academic rigor, unparalleled flights of imagination and creativity, and uncompromising commitment to ethical responsibility for the good of our world.
Challenges and Hope
But what has this education to say to our world today? I believe much: Christian higher education is an invitation to hope, a beacon to inhabit the house of God’s wisdom. I look across this great expanse of faces, and I share with you the pain of the past year. I am reminded of a work of fiction set in another time of turbulence: Gabriel Garcia Marquez’ Love in the Time of Cholera. As in that great work, we seek love and connection in our time of pandemic.
OBU has not been immune to the ravages of the pandemic. We have been touched by the dark hand of sickness and death. And challenges lay before us.
But we hold to the hope of our anchor, who is Christ.
We look to the past and know our university has weathered storm before, and under Christ, bound in the unity of common purpose for the common good, we will weather this storm as well. I hold great hope for our university…indeed, for our world today.
That hope springs eternal, and the dark clouds that threaten need not crush us.
I am reminded of one of my teachers of hope while an English major at OBU, that great poet Emily Dickenson:
“Hope” is the thing with feathers – (314)
“Hope” is the thing with feathers –
That perches in the soul –
And sings the tune without the words –
And never stops – at all –
And sweetest – in the Gale – is heard –
And sore must be the storm –
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm –
I’ve heard it in the chillest land –
And on the strangest Sea –
Yet – never – in Extremity,
It asked a crumb – of me.4
Hope emerges in the darkest storm. And it springs eternal in those who will listen to its song. I have hope today. I ask you to join me in listening to the song of hope for OBU. Hope lay in the distinctive shape of our education: our world needs wise leaders with worthy skills.
Ours is a sacred task: to equip future shapers who will go into their world and, in the words of that Saint, Mother Teresa, “do something beautiful for God.” I would simply add this to her sage words: God has called us to do something beautiful for God…all of life, all for Jesus, in all the world.
I hold hope that we, as a university, can arise in the strength of God and meet the crying need of our world by making ample provision of embodied Christian education. As we do so, we commit to deliver on the promise of Christian higher education given by our forebears.
President Raley, the longest-serving president of OBU, embraced the hope amid the challenges of life. He saw the future of OBU and the promise that lay before us. He stated it boldly in 1938:
“We propose Christian education as the only hope for satisfactory integration of knowledge and spirit, technical skill, and social progress. […] It is an operative principle of life, and it is centered in the philosophy of the Cross, both at Calvary and at Olivet.”
We have hope today. Embrace the promise. Our hope is in the center, Jesus Christ. Our hope as a university lay “centered in the philosophy of the Cross.” May it be so.
1 Convention annual, 1907, pp. 54-57, cited in Uncle Jimmy Owens, Annals of O.B.U. (Shawnee, OK: The Bison Press, 1956), 17.
2 Uncle Jimmy Owens, The Annals of O.B.U. (Shawnee, OK: The Bison Press/Historical Commission of the Baptist General Convention of Oklahoma, 1956), p. 33.
3 Convention annual, 1907, pp. 54-57, cited in Uncle Jimmy Owens, Annals of O.B.U. (Shawnee, OK: The Bison Press, 1956), 17.
4 Emily Dickinson, “‘Hope’ is the Thing with Feathers” from The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson, edited by Thomas H. Johnson, ed., Cambridge, Mass.: The Belknap Press of Harvard University press, 1951).