Embracing the Intellectual and Spiritual Disciplines
by Dr. David Wesley Whitlock
As we begin a new academic year together, let me welcome you home to Bison Hill. We will complete our centennial celebration of Oklahoma Baptist University this year, and what a year it has been! Over the last year, we have been reminded of the remarkable vision of those who came to this very patch of earth 100 years ago and prayerfully founded a university-a place where serious investigation of facts and the reading of books would result in the pursuit of truth shaped by a worldview grounded on authority of Holy Scripture.
And lest you think that by coming to a Christian university you assume that we are afraid of ideas that run contrary to our theological foundations, you should refocus your efforts on a clearer vision of exactly what is meant by pursuing truth in the context of a faith community of scholars and students brought together by God's providence. Former University of Chicago professor, Allan Bloom wrote The Closing of the American Mind over twenty years ago. Perhaps one of his most telling statements about his experience in teaching comes when he discussed his own interactions with incoming freshman:
"The one thing a professor can be absolutely certain of [is]: almost every student entering the university believes, or says he believes, that truth is relative. That anyone should regard the proposition as not self-evident astonishes them, as though we were calling into question 2+2=4. The danger they have been taught to fear from absolution is not error but intolerance…" Bloom goes on to state, "The point is not to correct mistakes and really be right; rather it is not to think you are right at all."
Many in this room today agree with Professor Bloom's diagnosis-others perhaps not so much. But of this we can be sure: The notion of relativism is alive and well and evangelicals had best admit it and seek to remove it from their own ranks or they will be overrun by a tidal wave of sloppy thinking and imprecision regarding everything from algebra to biology to theology.
Perhaps my greatest fear today is that we as a community of learners might find ourselves unwilling to explore the hard questions and give ourselves fully to diligent study and long hours of work required in this age in which we live. Unless you are willing as students to explore all aspects of Euclid's Elements or the essentials of the Copernican revolution or the principles of Bacon's Novum Organum, and press your abilities against the wall of your own background, experiences, and personal limits, your time here will not prove profitable or prepare you for the future that awaits.
As faculty we must work to challenge those who are here to study with us in ways that may cause a bit of unease in their lives. To say the least, often the best professors know how to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. Yet we challenge our students in an environment of Christian nurture. We approach our mission of higher education with the awareness that a Christian liberal arts education is noble and good and distinct from our colleagues in the secular academy.
Bloom touched upon this as well, writing, "As it now stands, students have powerful images of what a perfect body is and pursue it incessantly. But deprived of literary guidance, they no longer have any image of a perfect soul, and hence do not long to have one. They do not even imagine that there is such a thing."
Another wise man once wrote: "To attempt to care for the religious and to disregard the intellectual all too often bring disastrous results. One who would follow such a course would necessarily become purely automatic in thinking, instead of investigative; credulous instead of rational; presumptive instead of maintaining an intelligent faith; and emotional rather than reverent in his attitude toward God. Man's intellectual body must be fed. On the other hand, if we ignore the religious element in the nature of man, and develop only the intellectual phase of his being we make of him a cold, heartless, calculating creature who deals primarily in externals and who brands as folly the acceptance of the finer sensibilities of life. Refusing to accept God in his thinking, he reasons himself into a meticulous machine. He sins against the refinement of the soul, and, in time, kills his highest nature. It is essential to man's well being that both his intellectual and his spiritual natures be satisfied." These words are as relevant in 2010 as when they were originally penned in 1935 by OBU President John Wesley Raley on the occasion of OBU's 25th anniversary.
Within the framework of truth provided for us by divine revelation, we operate in the world as students of both God's Word and God's world. We do not fear what cannot fully be explained, and we work to reconcile difficult intellectual problems through the work of others who have labored before us, trusting God to help us make a significant contribution to the various academic disciplines in which we study.
Some will argue erroneously that if Christian theology and a robust doctrine of Holy Scripture are emphasized too strongly, that academic rigor will be sacrificed on the altar of an overgrown youth camp experience. Let St. Augustine answer this conundrum for us. When Augustine first read the Bible, he found it downright boring and described it to "be unworthy in comparison with the dignity of Cicero." His reality check finally came when he recognized one critical fact about himself and wrote, "My inflated conceit shunned the Bible's restraint, my gaze never penetrated to its inwardness. Yet the Bible was composed in such a way that as beginners mature, its meaning grows with them. I disdained to be a little beginner. Puffed up with pride, I considered myself a mature adult. That is why I fell in with men proud of their slick talk, very earthly-minded and loquacious."
Pride is the primal sin of our race. We raise up ourselves against God in a myriad of ways most of which are not realized by us unless and until they are pointed out to us-until we are confronted with our own Nathan who would paint for us a picture of one caught and dulled by sin, and with love and courage look us in the eye and proclaim to us, "You are that man." Part of this responsibility resides in each of us as a community of learners and scholars committed to truth.
Students, the pride spoken of by Augustine, crouches at the door even as you devote yourself to the Great Commandment-to love the Lord with all your heart, soul, and mind. You seek to use your God given intellect, you dare to explore the depths of knowledge, yet even then the primal sin of pride will tempt you to fall in with men proud of their slick talk, very earthly-minded and loquacious. Herein is one of the struggles inherent in the process of doing research and thinking critically within a Christian worldview. How do we vigorously examine our disciplines, ask the tough questions required, and yet remain faithful to God's revealed truth in His Word?
Serving as a professor at a state university when I came to faith in Jesus, this struggle is one that I know personally, both as a member of Christ's church, and as a member of the academy. Although my studies had been concentrated in educational leadership, and business administration at the graduate level, my undergraduate study was in pursuit of my degree in chemistry with minors in biology and interdisciplinary studies exploring the liberal arts. After I became a believer, I began to wrestle with issues of faith and science, as well as faith and economics. I discovered that I could not fully reconcile to my own satisfaction some aspects of my education and my faith. Such a realization was uncomfortable and I was tempted to simply walk away-not from educational pursuit of knowledge, and not from faith-but from the struggle to think, write, and teach from a precommitment to Christ and Scripture. Let's be honest, a commitment to Jesus and God's Word as we grow in the knowledge of our disciplines and the discipline of our minds, provides challenges that tempt us to separate them artificially and to create a false dichotomy of knowledge and physical reality on the one hand and faith on the other.
Yet such a struggle is worthwhile and healthy as we seek consistency between our faith and learning. I believe such wrestling is God-honoring and consistent with Christ's command to love the Lord with all our heart, soul, and mind, and I found that honest and open inquiry of my disciplines actually bolstered my faith. Such wrestling led to my own discovery that the evidence in chemistry and biology, in economic theory and in history, archeology, and other disciplines indeed provided the evidence for my faith in Christ and for my confidence in God's Word. I discovered that my faith is not a blind faith, but an informed faith-a faith backed up by proof.
What a revelation. My faith is not contradicted but supported by the data; my biblical worldview is strengthened as new facts are revealed. Far from being fearful in our pursuit of academic excellence, as Christians we are created and expected to explore boldly the world around us. As believers we need not be afraid of testing the truth of Scripture, for God's Word can withstand whatever questions are posed against it in a genuine search for truth. This is one of the unique challenges and privileges afforded in distinctively Christian higher education.
Although secular colleges set the truths of their disciplines up and against the truth of Scripture or attempt to present faith and knowledge as separate spheres, you study at a university unafraid of exploring both as a single harmonious sphere. Avoid inflated conceit as confessed by Augustine. Instead, embrace the Bible's restraint; let your gaze penetrate to its inwardness. As you mature, you will discover that God's Word and its meaning grows with you. Do not be puffed up with pride and consider yourself already a mature adult, but recognize you have much yet to learn. In this realization, guard against falling in with men proud of their slick talk, very earthly-minded and loquacious.
In other words, never be afraid to search out the truth and search out the Scripture and ask tough questions. Never be afraid to devote yourself fully to understand and delve deep into the subjects you study. Never shy away from learning and a devotion to your education. Yet students, never become so devoted to your own discipline that you relegate the truth of Scripture and the reality of the person and work of Jesus Christ to be subordinated to your academic field of expertise.
Those of us who teach and lead at OBU should periodically ask ourselves: Is my loyalty, love, devotion, and commitment to my discipline greater than my loyalty, love, devotion, and commitment to Jesus? Are my loyalties to the creeds of my academic societies and the standards of my field of study greater than my loyalties to the Word of God and the call of Christ on my life? As members of the academy and as members of the Church of Jesus Christ, we must honestly ask: Is our primary cause in life the advancement of our own discipline for the sake of the discipline? Or is our primary cause in life to serve Christ and use our discipline and academic preparation as a means to that end?
Our purpose as a Christian community of learners and scholars-as academicians-is to bring all knowledge and every thought into captivity to the obedience of Christ. Since all truth is God's truth, it will be necessarily coherent and consistent. The Christian academician begins with the a priori commitment to the truth of Scripture and the ultimate authority of Christ; therefore she will have no higher loyalty than her loyalty to Christ and His Word.
Students, your generation is poised to have a most profound impact upon the world and upon history. Our time demands that we be about our business with a sense of urgency. Our nation's economy teeters on the brink of collapse. The church of Jesus Christ in our own nation is weak and needs renewal and revival. The academy stands in need of a renewed sense of purpose and vision to provide both to this campus and to our community a revitalized engagement with our culture. You are here-each and every one of you-for such a time as this.
Each of us is called to be faithful to the task that awaits us. And so we begin. Today marks a new season in our life together, and we search for meaning in our study and in our life by establishing as our foundation the foundation that stands above the wrecks of time. Christ remains that sure foundation, and we rejoice to pursue our callings in the power granted to us by the grace of God.
For every student here, study as if your life depended upon it-because it does. The futures you will face demand that you be prepared. Resolve today to be about your work in light of eternity to the glory of Christ. For my fellow members of the academy, invest your life in the future that is before you day after day. Send a message to a time you will not see, that by God's grace you labored as unto the Lord Jesus Christ by discharging your duties well. Lead. Teach. Help and push one another as iron sharpens iron. And above all, love one another. For the staff, we need you and can't do this without you. Your lives and service provide the building blocks on which our students depend. No job is insignificant in this worthy task to which we put our hands. Everyone and everything matters. Serve one another in love. To our donors and friends, pray for us. Support our work and know of our deepest gratitude for you because without you we will be unable to continue on the road toward excellence. Thank you for believing in us and standing with us every step of the way.
OBU family, what we do here on Bison Hill matters. We are shaping the future. 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.
May we pursue this mission together, and in love may we serve one another praying that God would be glorified through our lives. May the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ and the love of the Father and the fellowship of the Holy Sprit be with us all now and forevermore.