I have always had a love-hate relationship with academia. Don’t get me wrong. I am looking at it as a whole and not at the individual parts. I am friends with and look up to and learn from a number of academics. You might even call me an academic to some degree (I know some academics who might strongly contend with that). I love reading and studying and learning more. But I never have really cared about getting published in academic journals. I might be interested in getting a doctorate some day. But not because I care about the credentials. I would do it for the rigorous scrutiny. That being said, a pastor is not first an academic, but a servant of Christ, or as Paul says, a slave of Jesus Christ.
I want to demonstrate in this post, what is the failure in much of modern academia and how this failure stems back to their rejection of Christian and Biblical principles for education.
In my third year of college, I was particularly fed up with academics. That is, not the people, but the pursuit. Maybe it was because I was studying the philosophy of math and I had a really good professor who was trying to make us think deeply about reality. This lead me into the Book of Ecclesiastes, and I ended up writing a paper on Ecclesiastes for theology while studying the philosophy of math and other classes like the history of western philosophy and art. One verse caught my attention: “The words of the wise are like goads, and like nails firmly fixed are the collected sayings; they are given by one Shepherd. My son, beware of anything beyond these. Of making many books there is no end, and much study is a weariness of the flesh.” (Ecc. 12:11-12)
If you look through some of my philosophy of math books from that year, I wrote a number of comments about the vanity of life in the margins. Weirdly, Ecclesiastes never led me to stop reading and studying, but led me to do it more…
One of the central ideas of Ecclesiastes is that vanity looks like a shepherd trying to shepherd the wind. The Preacher applies this to academia as well in the first chapters. Over the last couple months as I watch leaders who have been trained in 20th and 21st century academia try to respond to the current crisis, it looks a lot like shepherds trying to shepherd the wind, to corral it, to tame it. I appreciate many of their efforts. I am sure there have been things learned. But I also hope that we have spent some time seeking to analyze academia itself, what it is based on and where it is heading.
I often think of Ecclesiastes as presenting a holistic view of life and even education. In Ecclesiastes 5 we are brought into the temple, to consider God’s sovereignty over all things. Before, the preacher pursued knowledge in a segregated universe, that had no unifying factor. But then as he grows in His understanding of the sovereignty of God, he also steadily develops a greater appreciation for how everything fits together in the world. He redevelops a childlike love and wonder for all the moving parts in God’s creation. He recognizes that this world is sinful and broken, but that God is sovereign over all that sin and brokenness.
And here is where I put in a plug for New Saint Andrew’s College, a liberal arts college in Moscow Idaho (https://www.nsa.edu/). In the last couple months I have seen a huge amount of flux in academia. The conflicts over whether or not UofT psychology prof, Jordan Peterson, would use people’s preferred pronouns, heralded a coming confusion. As I write this, universities and colleges are suspending departments and laying off staff for the year of 2020-2021. Gender has finally been redefined in the supreme courts of the USA. Scientists are presenting conflicting reports about viruses. Church leaders are butting heads over the appropriate responses. Academic Institutions are wracking up debt and struggling with conflicting reports from their beloved scientists about how to proceed in the coming school year. It all feels so much like vanity and grasping after wind. Meanwhile, I have been watching the most recent series of promotional videos coming from NSA. They are willing to state obvious truths as riots rip through the States and as governments oppose and contradict one another. They may be one of the few liberal arts programs that thrive. Marxism doesn’t work. Scientism doesn’t work. And they have not just stated these things privately. They have openly challenged the rippling fear with the truth that God is Creator and the truth that He is sovereign.
There are certain truths that should be axiomatic to all of education. God is sovereign and man is not. In Christ, all things hold together (including science and theology). While all universities should start with these truths, yet, one can still hold to these truths even if a university rejects them. My wife received two art and graphic design degrees at two secular universities in BC Canada. Even though I went to a private Christian liberal arts college in the States and she went to two secular universities in Canada, it is important and I would dare say even crucial, that we agree on these axiomatic truths. These truths bring all of our unique studies together in a beautiful harmony that operates under the sovereignty of God and the Lordship of Jesus Christ.
I believe that there is a failure in much of modern academia and this failure stems back to their rejection of Christian and Biblical principles for education. Even much of modern seminary education struggles to speak with authority into modern academia because at root their is a deep antagonism between the mind-set of modern academia and basic Biblical principles. Even in modern orthodox and conservative seminaries there is a struggle with how to use or not to use text-critical methodologies. This is not to say that we cannot learn from modern methodologies. But we should be incredibly careful. We may want to be accepted. But it is this caution that brings about the antithesis. And it is this antithesis is crucial.
Christian education should not be used as an excuse to check out of modern debates and discussions. But if we do not begin with the sovereignty of God and the Lordship of Christ in both word and action, then it too will become a vanity and a grasping and a shepherding of the vapor.
Listen to the most excellent wisdom of the preacher in Jerusalem: “Guard your steps when you go to the house of God. To draw near to listen is better than to offer the sacrifice of fools, for they do not know that they are doing evil. Be not rash with your mouth, nor let your heart be hasty to utter a word before God, for God is in heaven and you are on earth. Therefore let your words be few. For a dream comes with much business, and a fool’s voice with many words.” (Ecc. 5:1-3) Good academics begins with a deep and profound humility. And the primary expression of this humility is when an academic stands before his Creator and listens to Him speak.