What follows are observations, aspirations and hopes gleaned from thirty-five years of teaching theology and interdisciplinary studies at the same college (half of those as an ordained priest). This means that what I am offering comes from a very particular perspective. My experiences, formed by my field of study and my calling, make me concerned for both the intellectual and spiritual formation of my students. That concern has deepened and broadened in light of the events of the past eighteen months. It has sharpened my attentiveness to the ways in which I am being called to provide care for the souls of my students in the midst of their intellectual formation. So, this is my take on how you as a student entering, or continuing in, Christian undergraduate education might best face the challenges that lay before you this year.
My first hope for you this year is that you will be disoriented. This is a crucial and necessary part of all education, particularly education that purports to submit itself to the claims of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. As Flannery O’Connor’s Misfit exclaims in “A Good Man is Hard to Find”, “He thown [sic] everything off balance. If He did what He said, then it’s nothing for you to do but throw away everything and follow Him. . .”. The Gospel of God’s kingdom is intended to throw us “off balance”, but that is only half of its effect because that same movement of disorientation requires a life-altering reorientation, involving what the Apostle Paul calls in Romans 12, “the renewing of your mind”.
I think the most challenging reorientation that lays before professors and students this academic year is the turning from fear toward love. Our culture is frequently driven by fear and, from what I can observe, our Christian community has not been exempt. The extreme ends of response to the current pandemic play on our fears to solicit our support.
However, for Christians, fear can never be the polestar. Even a cursory read through both Old and New Testaments (Ps. 27; Isa 12:2; Isa 41:10; Lk 12:32; Jn 14:27; Heb 13:6) reveals a consistent response to fear: our security and peace lie only in our willingness to trust in God. One of the important ways the Gospel throws us off balance and reorients us concerns the way we approach adverse circumstances. The question we need to be asking as Christians is not “What is the quickest way around adversity?” but rather “What is the best way through adversity?” We must learn to turn from being driven by fear and instead be drawn by love.
Here are three particular fears that I have observed driving my students, my colleagues, and me: 1) The fear that we are not in control; 2) The fear that our world is unsafe; 3) the fear that we are vulnerable to the outcomes of the previous two fears.
The fear that we are not in control
First, the fear that we are not in control. I want you to understand that this is true: we are not in control. I would like to disorient you from a culture that is ruled by scientism, technicism, and economism; a culture that mistakenly believes that these three idols will afford humanity the control necessary to bring about human flourishing. They will not, because they cannot, and pursuing them diminishes our humanness. These three things rule us harshly and transform us into something sub-human: consumers in economic systems, users in technological systems, or data pools for statistical/scientific systems.
In contrast, I want to turn you toward the reality that to be truly human is to relinquish control to the one who has made us, loved us, and given himself wholly for us. For we are not initiators, we are responders. Our existence is contingent upon God’s love for us and is best approached as both gift and calling.
The fear that our world is unsafe
Second, I want to disorient you from a culture that measures much of its success and happiness in term of “health” and “safety”. While I think that our latest “health” crisis has exacerbated this misapprehension, we have been moving in this direction for decades. We are a culture afraid of suffering and dying. Unable to face our inability to control everything, suffering and death become “unnatural”, the central enemy of our lack of control. I want rather to turn you toward the reality that suffering and death are part of the present human condition. While they will be ultimately defeated when the Lord returns in the glory of his consummated kingdom, they presently accompany us on this earthly journey. We need to find redemptive ways to approach death and suffering, for they do not have the last word.
The fear of fragility
Third, I want to disorient you from a culture that, building on the two fears expressed above, would have you believe that you are a vulnerable and fragile victim who is easily crushed. I want rather to turn you toward a life marked by resilience, perseverance, and hope. The Lord’s words to Joshua after the death of Moses and preceding the crossing of the Jordan into the Promised land are words that we need to hear afresh “I hereby command you: Be strong and courageous; do not be frightened or dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.” (Josh 1:9) And Jesus’ own words echo this confidence: “Do not be afraid little flock, for it is your father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom” (Lk 12:32) and “Peace I leave with you, my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not let them be afraid. (Jn 14:27) Again, our resilience, perseverance, and hope do not spring from our own strength or bravado—we are not the initiators—they are provided to us by the Lord as we respond to him in trust and obedience.
So how do we begin these turnings? How, in the midst of being shaped intellectually, do we pay attention to the gift and call of God’s kingdom within each of us? Well, I think it takes us back to the trajectory of the journey from fear to love. You and I often begin in a state of fear, but we are made for love, and we need to find ways this year to pursue our love for God and for each other in our academic communities. That pursuit will look different for each of us but the telos—the end, the goal—will be the same. A good place to start is to ask the Lord how he wants to steward your gifts and calling this year. When I asked the Lord that question earlier this summer, I received an interesting response. The call that I felt was being placed on me was the call to approach my teaching this year as friendship. I am being called to be a friend to my students. Hear me carefully though, I am not being called to be their “buddy” or their “bro”. I am called to be their friend in the Old English sense of the word, “the loving one”. Of course, when we turn to other languages like Latin (amicus), Italian (amico), French (ami), or Spanish (amigo) the connection between love and friendship is much easier to trace. And even in John 15:15 when Jesus tells his disciples that he no longer sees them as “servants” but as “friends” the Greek word is philous, “loved ones”. So, the challenge for me personally this year will be to find ways in the midst of the uncertainties of our current situation to love my students, to make my classroom a place of welcome and hospitality that fosters mutual learning. I have some ideas about how that might be accomplished, but if I am really honest, much of what lies ahead is still a mystery that will only be fleshed out in the day-to-day moments with my students. This will mean that I cannot just turn once toward love and expect that my trajectory will never change. In my own brokenness, I will have to turn and return throughout this coming year. I will have pay close attention to the movements of God’s Spirit in me and in my students. I will have to learn in new ways what it means to trust in the Lord and find peace in Him.
So, let me encourage you to ask that same question as this year gets underway: “Lord, how do you want me to steward my gifts and my calling this coming year?” And, if you haven’t yet wrestled with what your particular gifts and calling are, don’t be afraid to ask the Lord to show you, even in the day-to-day details of your life as a student, what you have been given and what you are being called to do with those gifts.
As you set out this year, I offer you this priestly benediction: “The Lord bless you and keep you; the Lord make his face to shine upon you, and be gracious to you; the Lord lift up his countenance upon you, and give you peace.”