by Dr. David Wesley Whitlock
In the autumn of 1939 England was on the verge of collapse. German attacks—especially on London—had wearied the English people to the point that activities such as going to the university to study and learn seemed pointless. While danger loomed and England seemed to be on the precipice of falling before a mighty foe, C.S. Lewis stepped to the podium in the Church of St. Mary the Virgin on the campus of Oxford University and gave what has become one of the most definitive talks ever given on the purpose of the university.
His first sentence defined the very existence of the institution of which he was a part, “A University is a society for the pursuit of learning.” But Lewis continued by discussing
the great dilemma with which many at the university were struggling—what good is learning when the future seemed uncertain, when all around there were hints that things were on the very edge of collapse?
Lewis wondered at once about the seeming “frivolity” of learning and study of culture and poetry in a time of uncertainty on the one hand, and on the other hand about the unfortunate view of others that cultural activities were superior to those who labor with their backs and hands. He said:
“We are now in a position to answer the view that human culture is an inexcusable frivolity on the part of creatures loaded with such awful responsibilities as we. I reject at once an idea which lingers in the mind of some modern people that cultural activities are in their own right spiritual and meritorious -- as though scholars and poets were intrinsically more pleasing to God than scavengers and bootblacks. Let us clear [this notion] forever from our minds. The work of a Beethoven, and the work of a charwoman (that is in our day, a housecleaner or maid), become spiritual on precisely the same condition, that of being offered to God, of being done humbly "as to the Lord". This does not, of course, mean that it is for anyone a mere toss-up whether he should sweep rooms or compose symphonies. A mole must dig to the glory of God and a cock must crow. We are members of one body, but differentiated members, each with his own vocation. A man's upbringing, his talents, his circumstances, are usually a tolerable index of his vocation. If our parents have sent us to Oxford,” Lewis said, “if our country allows us to remain there, this is prima facie evidence that the life which we, at any rate, can best lead to the glory of God at present is the learned life.”
Fast forward some seventy years and we find ourselves assembled at a wonderful Christian liberal arts university during a time of great global uncertainty as our country is involved in wars across the globe—a personal reality for me as two of my sons have enlisted to serve our nation in her armed forces.
We stand on the verge of economic uncertainty, possibly collapse. Wall Street appears confused about the financial future of the United States. Predictions of our own government’s demise are openly suggested. Every indication is that we are a nation divided. Social indicators are discouraging.
Yet here we are together seeking to prepare ourselves for another academic year, another term of devotion to study and scholarship and preparation. We would be wise to listen to the Oxford don, though removed from us for many years, who spoke truths that echo for our own day:
“The war creates no absolutely new situation: it simply aggravates the permanent human situation so that we can no longer ignore it. Human life has always been lived on the edge of a precipice. Human culture has always had to exist under the shadow of something infinitely more important than itself. If men had postponed the search for knowledge and beauty until they were secure, the search would never have begun.” He went on to remind us that, “life has never been normal.”
So our first task together this morning, as a society in pursuit of learning, must be to resolve anew that one of the greatest duties of our lives is to learn. And more than just that, we are to learn well amidst difficulties, stress, and sorrow.
There is a crisis in learning today, and we must admit it lest we trick ourselves into thinking that mere activity is the same as transformational learning. It is not, and we must be careful to seek the latter. A 1985 study demonstrated how easily this can happen.
Two professors, Ibrahim Halloun and David Hestenes, published the results of their astonishing study in the American Journal of Physics. They designed and administered a simple test that would measure some general knowledge about the principles of Newtonian mechanics to undergraduates who were about to take introductory physics, and to a similar group who had successfully completed the course and made an acceptable grade.
The results were quite revealing. Most of the students who had taken the course gained very little understanding of the actual principles of physics, and what little they did grasp was learned independently of their teachers. The study landed like a bombshell in the physics community and news of it spread quickly across academic communities across the nation and the world.
Teaching a class and attending a class had little impact on either the teacher or the student. And I am afraid that so much of what passes today as instruction and learning falls into the category of the useless and unprofitable. What difference does it make if students come here and learn nothing? Such a situation is intolerable, and inconsistent with our purpose.
If you think universities aren’t being asked to define the reason for their existence you haven’t been listening to the news. Peter Theil, the man who gave Facebook their first major investment, actually paid some young people $100,000 not to go to college. He believed it a waste of time to learn meaningless facts disconnected to real life. Would you have taken the money if offered, or are you called to a life of learning?
While not everyone is called by God to the life of learning, exploration, and scholarship, I am haunted that many—even some of us—do not understand why we are here and just how important what we do here is for the future of our lives, our families, our communities, our churches, our nation, and our world.
We must get comfortable with the fact that what we do here is countercultural. By that I am not promoting some sort of sectarian practice that isolates us in a Baptist bubble disconnected from the real world. Far from it. What we do here is stare reality in the face and believe by God’s grace that we can change it. We wrestle with the weighty matters of life and believe that we can be in the world yet not of it. We dare believe that we can engage a world of epic challenges and make a difference as believers.
Just four years ago, Anthony Kronman, former dean of Yale University’s law school, published Education’s End: Why Our Colleges and Universities Have Given Up on the Meaning of Life. In his work he starkly reinforced his belief that the university was not simply a vocational school capable of preparing students for work. Rather, he saw the vocational preparation aspect as but a part of an overall educational experience designed to equip graduates with a heightened capacity to live well and serve others through knowledge obtained through their study.
Speaking of Harvard’s founding vision he wrote: “The founders of Harvard did not think that Harvard’s task was merely to impart certain useful knowledge, which its students were then free to exploit as they chose.” Harvard’s job, he wrote, was to make its students into people with distinctive attitudes and dispositions, with specific cares and concerns.
Harry R. Lewis, former dean of Harvard College, called for a critical evaluation of the corporate culture of the university in his 2006 work, Excellence Without A Soul. In the book, he was critical of the way Harvard had seemingly lost its purpose and had morphed into some sort of corporate engine void of truth. Lewis called for ideas and a renewed idealism expanding through the medium of technology to lead others toward a renaissance of learning, values, and ethics.
Many in the secular academy have not caught Dean Lewis’ vision and seem fixated on research divorced from meaning and lacking in purpose. While university leaders from all over the nation struggle to define their purpose, by God’s grace, we do not have that problem here. We exist ultimately for the glory of God for the advancement of His kingdom, celebrating a renaissance of learning, values and ethics and loving the Lord with all our hearts, souls and minds.
The great privilege of teaching, research, and discovery in the distinctively Christian academy, however, is our ability—our expectation—to find truth, declare it, and build upon it. We teach truth. We research to discover truth. Therefore, our scholarship is of innate value and purpose.
Our calling and mission to study and scholarship is for us a divine duty. And our duty is the work of kings; our calling is the task of royalty. Proverbs 25:2 states, “It is the glory of God to conceal a matter; to search out a matter is the glory of kings.”
To search out a matter is our duty and a marvelous privilege. What we do at Oklahoma Baptist University is important. What we do matters.
As a Christian liberal arts university, OBU transforms lives by equipping students to pursue academic excellence, integrate faith with all areas of knowledge, engage a diverse world, and live worthy of the high calling of God in Christ.
So we stand today in the path of the ages, where stood great men and women, where stood those who have dared to work hard, to learn and push past the easy and the comfortable, and obtain what few receive – a renewed mind, capable of sustaining itself through the years. Because learning is understood as a duty that never ends, either on this side of heaven, or in glory itself.
Let us begin this new season of our lives together with renewed purpose and renewed understanding of who we are and what is our divine privilege of learning, scholarship, and searching out a matter.
Let us resolve to not allow our classes here to be like the physics study that showed how little the time spent together actually accomplished.
Let us resolve, even in the midst of worldwide uncertainty of wars and tragedies, and of great turmoil, that it is right for us to pursue learning and culture, that it is good for us to devote ourselves to learning and the renewing of our minds. Let us determine, as C. S. Lewis encouraged his own university amidst a great world war, that if our parents have sent us to OBU and our country allows us to remain here, “this is prima facie evidence that the life which we, at any rate, can best lead to the glory of God at present is the learned life.”
After all, I believe, in our own day, that it is right and good for the soldier to defend a nation and fight in a just cause because God demands justice. It is right and good for the architect to design and the carpenter to build because God is the Grand Architect and the Master Builder.
It is right and good for the scholar to prepare for the task that God has equipped her to accomplish. It is right and good to devote ourselves to the study of science and mathematics because God is the Creator of order and logic.
It is right and good to study poetry and literature, music, art and theater because God is the Divine Poet, the Master Storyteller, the Master Musician, the Chief Proponent of Beauty, and a God of cosmic drama.
It is right and good to study philosophy because God is the Supreme Philosopher and ultimate source of meaning. It is right and good to study history because it is, after all, His Story.
We are called to be at Oklahoma Baptist University to prepare, to learn, to devote ourselves to scholarship, to love the Lord our God with all our hearts, all our souls, and all our minds.
In so doing, we can also identify that our calling to the life of learning during such tumultuous times is a call to come to grips with the realities of life. We can conclude along with C. S. Lewis, who in his address stated:
“We see unmistakable the sort of universe in which we have all along been living, and must come to terms with it. If we had foolish un-Christian hopes about human culture, they are now shattered. If we thought we were building up a heaven on earth, if we looked for something that would turn the present world from a place of pilgrimage into a permanent city satisfying the soul of man, we are disillusioned, and not a moment too soon. But if we thought that for some souls, and at some times, the life of learning, humbly offered to God, was, in its own small way, one of the appointed approaches to the Divine reality and the Divine beauty which we hope to enjoy hereafter, we can think so still.”
To every student here today, work hard. Lean into your classes with everything you’ve got. Realize the privilege afforded you here to study with some of the finest professors in the world. Learn well. Learn to learn so that a renewed mind might be your own legacy here on Bison Hill. What you do matters here.
To every faculty member I implore you to teach as if our lives depend on it and as if our student’s lives depend upon it. Your life and calling, your faithfulness to the task ahead is critical to the lives of your students that no technological discovery could ever replace. What you do matters here.
To our staff, carry out your responsibilities and tasks with the sense of divine appointment. Your assignment is critical to the fulfillment of our mission of transforming lives. We cannot accomplish our university’s task unless each of us is faithful to our assignment. To a person, what you do matters here.
To our Board of Trustees, alumni, and friends, pray for us, help us, support us. When you embrace the mission of this place you touch the future in ways that the present day will never know. What you do matters here.
Now, may the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with us all, both now and forevermore. Amen.