by Dr. David Wesley Whitlock
As we formally being a new academic year on the campus of Oklahoma Baptist University, we do so in celebration of the lives that God has assembled here for such a time as this—faculty, staff, and students from all over the world—having joined the OBU community for the purpose of transforming lives.
We gather to pursue academic excellence, to integrate faith with all areas of knowledge, to engage a diverse world, and to live worthy of the high calling of God in Christ.
This shared mission is a sacred trust, born of the University’s founders, maintained through 102 years of diligent sacrifice and toil of faculty and staff, and made possible by the One in whom all things hold together.
Our founders envisioned a coeducational institution in an environment where many denominations and leaders only saw value in the education of young men. Our founders envisioned a Christian liberal arts curriculum preparing Christian catalysts in education, science, commerce, arts, ministry, and all areas of society and culture, where others only dreamed of preparing graduates for careers in the pulpit.
Our founders dreamed of a university built upon the Christian intellectual tradition integrating mind, body and soul, as opposed to secular models, which provided education devoid of the great answers found in a personal relationship with Jesus the Creator and Author of all truth and all knowledge.
That vision was not then and is not now embraced by the world apart from Christ. As Gene Fant has written, “The Christian intellectual tradition is not always recognized with the respect it deserves in today’s academic culture. Christian thought and principles are not always held in the highest esteem. Christian voices are not always welcomed at the table of ideas…Contemporary culture is increasingly hostile toward persons of faith.”[i]
Yet Fant urges us to let excellence be our protest, writing, “When we allow excellence to be our protest, we will be gracious even to those who treat us unfairly. When we allow excellence to be our protest, we will work harder than anyone else. When we allow excellence to be our protest, we will rely on God to open doors for us, trusting him to vindicate us, even if that vindication does not come in this life. How can we not be excellent when we serve the God of the universe?”[ii]
Our purpose in higher education at a distinctively Christian university is to reach higher, to settle for no less than excellence. Advancing our mission, be it our role as faculty or students, is to embrace Christ’s commandment to love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength.
David Dockery and Timothy George make this argument well writing, “An attempt to apply and advance the Christian intellectual tradition invites those involved in Christian higher education to be unapologetically Christian and rigorously academic. It means developing resources for serious Christian thinking and scholarship in all disciplines, not just theology, biblical studies, philosophy, and history.[iii]
Dockery and George warn us however, that we should avoid the pitfalls of several movements including:
“(1) popular Christianity, with its imbalanced emphasis on activism and its suspicion of the intellectual; (2)liberalism, with its misguided redefinitions of the Christian faith; (3) pietism, with its separation of ‘head’ from ‘heart’; and (4) fundamentalism, with its separatistic and legalistic strictures. These four responses are incomplete,” Dockery and George argue, “imbalanced, and at times distorted and incoherent. What is needed is a renewed understanding and appreciation of the depth and breadth of the Christian intellectual tradition, with its commitments to the church’s historic confession of the Trinitarian God, and an understanding of the world and all subject matter as fully understandable only in relation to this Trinitarian God.”[iv]
At the thirtieth anniversary of OBU’s founding, one of the pivotal leaders in Shawnee, businessman, George McKinnis, who labored with J. Lloyd Ford and others to establish OBU here on Bison Hill, delivered an address in which he spoke of challenges that could have easily been included in the contemporary works of Dockery, George, and Fant, suggesting that at OBU we devote our time to studying the “great human problems and issues that are now before us and that we see either as streaks of dawn or forebodings of darkness in the days ahead.”
He petitioned OBU students to “wield a powerful influence upon our social order in a manner in harmony with a positive and constructive Christian view of life, the heart of which is always putting persons before property, souls before soils, minds before material things, health before wealth.”[v]
Over the past several years I have become increasingly familiar with and a more and more frequent reader of the works of our longest serving president, Dr. John Wesley Raley, Sr. He was ahead of his time writing about and promoting the great Christian intellectual tradition.
However, it was in an address on the occasion of the 25th anniversary of OBU’s founding that Dr. Raley appealed to the great hope of Christian education, based not on some detached ideal but instead on a personal level. In 1935 Dr. Raley appealed to his dream for his own son’s distinctively Christian education at OBU, his dream for his own son’s education within the Christian intellectual tradition.
“I want my boy to study science with the test tube, the telescope, the microscope; to make every particle of investigation possible in a university laboratory, but when he makes such investigation, I want his teacher to say to him, ‘Young man, God created the heavens and the earth and all that in them is.’ I want my boy, when he has completed all of his investigations, to bow his head and say, “oh, wondrous Creator, Thy ways are past finding out.’ I want him to do that.
“I want my boy to study literature—to revel in the literary creations of the past—but when he does, I want him to know that life’s superb literature springs from the heart of God, and is in that Blessed Book which you and I love. I want him to know that.
“I want him to interpret the progress of the race of man, but I want him to learn that history is not a series of accidents, but that history is a plan culminating in the return of Christ, and the incoming of the Kingdom of God. I want him to know that.
“I want my boy to learn music, but I want him to have the harmony of God in his soul, and to interpret music in keeping with heavenly harmony.
“I want him to appreciate art, but I want him to know when he sees Turner’s Landscapes, or Rembrandt’s Portraits or any of the rest of the masterpieces, that it is the hand of God that paints the sunset and colors the rose.”[vi]
Dr. Raley understood our mission well. OBU has as its noble calling the responsibility to transform lives through the great Christian intellectual tradition—to teach and learn and investigate, to understand and appreciate the world around us.
Our duty is to study, learn, to dig deep into our disciplines. We need to steward the gifts of our intellect in humility and in a manner worthy of the Lord who is Architect, Founder of Science, Artist, Dramatist, the Master Teacher, Great Physician, Counselor all clothed in the garb of Carpenter willing to sweat and work and carry on His assignment.
So faculty, challenge our students to be their best, to give their utmost in their responsibility to love the Lord with their minds. And students, dare to ask the tough questions of your faculty. They can handle it. Probe their minds, their intellects, their knowledge and wisdom. They are not afraid of the tough questions that inevitably come in a pursuit of answers, knowledge, wisdom, and truth.
As we begin a new season together, my prayer is that we march in unison as to our mission.
My prayer is that we live up to the high ideals set forth in our core values.
My prayer is that we grow in community, mutual respect, and genuine concern for each other.
My prayer is that we steward well the gifts our God has given us.
My prayer is that we strive to learn together.
My prayer is that we fulfill our founders’ purpose and dreams.
My prayer is that we embrace our commonalities and seek to understand our differences, that we celebrate our diversity while we yet cling to and never let go of our university—our unifying distinctive, the One in whom all things hold together, the One for whom all things are made and to whom all of creation is destined. For OBU exists not simply for the beauty of learning and making a life, but ultimately for glorifying the One in whom all life is found.
My prayer is that we be found faithful to our charge, as learners, teachers, brothers, sisters, and followers of the One named Jesus.
My prayer is that we find in our labor, a sense of God’s higher purpose in our lives.
My prayer is that we renew ourselves to this worthy calling of the great Christian intellectual tradition.
My prayer is that God bless our time and efforts this year and always and that this year be our best so far.
[i] Gene Fant, Reclaiming the Christian Intellectual Tradition; The Liberal Arts, a Student’s Guide,” p. 108.
[iii] David Dockery, Timothy George, Reclaiming the Christian Intellectual Tradition; The Great Tradition of Christian Thinking, a Student’s Guide,” p. 92.
[iv] Ibid., p. 94
[v] George McKinnis, A Founder’s Faith, February 23, 1940
[vi] John Wesley Raley, Sr. Christian Education: A Symposium, 1935