Creation, Christ and the classroom focus of EMU conference

Story by Chris Edwards

At the fourth annual conference of Mennonite higher-education faculty – held this year for the first time at Eastern Mennonite University – two keynote speakers approached the theme, “Creation, Christ and the Classroom,” from opposite perspectives, theological and temporal.

They spoke Aug. 8-9 to about 45 faculty, plus several graduate students, from schools including Kansas’ Bethel and Hesston Colleges, Ohio’s Bluffton University, Indiana’s Goshen College; Canadian Mennonite University, Winnipeg; Conrad Grebel University in Waterloo, Ont., and Mennonite Education Agency.

“How the logos creates the world is really unanswerable,” said keynoter Willard Swartley, speaking on “The World via the Word.” Dr. Swartley, professor emeritus of New Testament and former dean at the Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary in Elkhart, Ind., was EMU’s 2004 alumnus of the year. Referencing John 1:1-18, he characterized the creation-vs.-evolution debate as irrelevant, declaring God “the enabler” who makes change possible.

Speaking, in turn, on “The Word via the World,” Doug Graber Neufeld promised, “My forays into theology will be brief and filled with trepidation.” Yet, Dr. Neufeld, who chairs EMU’s biology and chemistry departments, sees spiritual challenges in “what we’re doing to God’s created world.”

Having co-taught EMU’s “Green Design” course and served with Mennonite Central Committee in Cambodia, Neufeld recently received a National Science Foundation award for research on drinking water quality. While few minority students are entering scientific fields, he cited positive trends including “citizen science” and “creation care.”

It was the first annual conference, and first visit to EMU, for Bethel’s Lisa Janzen Scott and Kulsum Kapacee.

“The title got my attention,” said Kapacee, a nursing faculty member originally from Kenya. She hoped to “to learn from what is working” at other schools.

Scott, a teacher-educator, enjoyed linking faces to names of colleagues whose publications she’d read.

Ted Grimsrud, EMU professor of theology and peace studies, often talks with non-EMU colleagues in his disciplines, but appreciated meeting conferees from other fields.

Ryan Sensenig, who teaches biology at Goshen, hoped to find ways that “interdisciplinary faculty can work together in ecology and sustainability.”

Delivering one of the conference’s several short presentations, Sensenig, a 1992 EMU graduate, said he wants his teaching to reflect kenosis (receptiveness to God’s will). While he worked in Kenya with grassland ecosystems, Sensenig’s two five-year-olds enjoyed the diversity of plant life. Back in Kansas, he said they demonstrated kenosis by asking, “Hey, Dad, when can we let our grass grow nice and tall like that?” Sensenig has begun a similar project on the prairie.

Bluffton art professor Gregg Luginbuhl expresses Creation themes through images of mushrooms; masks; the dorsal fin of a fish becoming a headdress. Comparing God’s work to human-made art, he said, “God’s creation is dynamic. My art is static, although it sometimes gains life.”

Vi Dutcher, professor and chair of EMU’s language and literature department, described grappling for words to convey empathy. “I have never shared with my students the excruciating nature of writing,” she admitted during audience questioning. Dr. Dutcher recently submitted a children’s book for publication, titled “The Red Pop Beads” and based on her childhood reactions to the loss of a sister.

Following sabbatical at a French monastery, where each guest is welcomed as Jesus would be, Bethel professor William Eash attempted that treatment with his choral music students. He invited a student to give a talk on that student’s favorite poet: Walt Whitman. Moved by the young man’s eloquence, Eash reflected, “If we watch, maybe Christ will appear.”

The conference included “table group” discussions as well as musical entertainment: “Anabaptist Bestiary Project,” by Bluffton’s Trevor Bechtel. In the project, modeled on the Medieval bestiary tradition, Bechtel saims to celebrate God’s creation by exploring the ways in which God’s creatures reveal God’s will.

EMU president Loren Swartzendruber cited today’s campus challenges as increased parental involvement, declining biblical literacy, and society’s de-valuing the life of the mind. He told attendees that in the 1970s, while he was an admissions counselor at then-EMC, someone suggested that all faculty be ordained. Impractical as that may be, Swartzendruber said, teachers do as important work as pastors.

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