You Can't Stand Up All by Yourself
Two things I’m sure I’ve thought a lot about are you and church-related higher education (though the former has kept me awake late at night much more than the latter). I’m glad to have this opportunity to think about these two together, now, as you begin to seriously explore your college options.
The last couple of years we’ve noticed how few of your friends from school and from church youth group head off to church-related colleges, and of those who do, how few of them go to a church-related university because it’s church-related rather than, say, because it’s a school with Division III swimming, or it’s a university with a really good graphics arts program, or, duh, it’s Notre Dame.
And we’ve heard your initial view of church-related colleges—You think it is important to be exposed in college to the sorts of people and the sorts of things you are going to be exposed to after college; you think you’ve been in a protected nest all your life, and now you need to move out and deal with life without the protections. Church-related colleges, as you understand them, are really about protecting young adults from the real world, and that doesn’t sit well with you.
I tend to think about these things a bit differently, and I want to try to explain that here. But first of all, as an over-simplification of things, let me say a little about higher education. There are basically three types of colleges and universities: (1) the publics—large or small state universities, (under)-funded by public taxes—think Indiana University, the College of William and Mary, and Ball State University; (2) the secular privates, most of which were originally founded as church-related colleges—think Princeton, Yale, Oberlin, and Carleton; and (3) the spectrum of church-related and Christian colleges and universities, some at which you might go to school for four years and never know you weren’t at a secular private, others of which will have you in the chapel for hours on your first day on campus.
As you know, I have degrees from a widely recognized category 3 and a fairly prestigious 1, and I’ve taught at several 3’s as well as a third-tier 1. The first thing you should know is that you can get a decent education—what I would consider a decent education, not what the schools themselves might think counts as one—at colleges of each of these types of schools. Each of these types of schools has smart students and smart professors. Each of these types of schools has faculty who care deeply about their academic discipline and their students. And none of these types of schools has a corner on good values (“Values” rhetoric is big at all institutions these days, and your skepticism about a school should be proportionate to how frequently “values” are mentioned during your campus visit.). Furthermore, religion will often be more prevalent and religious talk more tolerated at a public than at a private, even some church-related privates. My experience has been that church-related faculty are at least as ready to find students parochial and in need of re-formation as are public university faculty (and a bit more ready to think this, in fact, is their special vocation). Often, the differences between colleges and universities of types 1, 2, and 3 are more a matter of size and location than the type of schools they are. Still, I think you (as well as many of your peers from church youth group) really do belong at a church-related college. Let me try to explain why with several brief theses:
1. God and God’s creation long for the activity of free beings who order their freedom by goodness. Genuine freedom is not random choice, but is willed activity normed by the Good (which we know as God) and the wellbeing of others. A church-related college should be more likely to recognize you as a member of a community journeying towards the Good and hold you accountable for a wider range of actions. Part of the appeal of going away to college is that you have an opportunity to start anew, to define yourself as whoever you would like to be. Taking charge of your identity is a good thing (though you’ll never have as much control over who you are as you’d like), but you and I believe that there are wrong choices and that it is all too easy for folks like us to make the wrong choices. At a church-related college you are more likely to find yourself surrounded by those who understand the Good more or less as you do and who will frown upon behaviors incompatible with your journey towards goodness while they expect you to advance on your journey. These others will mostly be students, I think, but some faculty, too, and some residential life personnel as well as the university’s chaplain.
Of course some colleges have too many rules. Of course some universities have rules about silly things. But you and I agree on the importance of being a well-integrated self, of having your act together. That integration and the real freedom that accompanies it is achieved in a comprehensive, rather than a selective, obedience to the Good. “Goodness don’t allow no picking and choosin’.” In other words, you will better become the person you want to be if you are surrounded by folks who agree with you on what sort of person it is important to be and who, like you, are trying to discipline themselves to become good not merely in one or two admittedly important aspects of life but in life as a whole, people who will help you as you struggle not to care too much about money and to care enough about the poor and needy, people who honor but do not idolize the human body, people who, like you, are trying to love God better, and to love their neighbors as themselves, and to love God’s creation. College is a place for you to explore freedom, real freedom, a freedom that is realized only with the help of others.
2. A grasp of truths about God and God’s created order is an essential part of love for God and all that he has created. A task for educated Christians is to learn to love God better by seeing all things in God and learn to love our neighbors better by understanding the neighbor as an imago dei, and learn to love God’s creation better by understanding its riches as having been created by God. A college education ought to provide you with the requisite skills for flourishing after college, to be sure, but the goal of education is a love-formed knowledge (or, perhaps it is a knowledge-shaped love). Knowledge is a good thing, but Christians believe knowledge is good because, in some way, everything that can be known is about the God we know as love, In many cases and at many levels the connection between God and what we know is not very interesting—what does the truth that all triangles have three sides have to do with God? Why are there flies?—So in some disciplines much of the love of God will consist of simply excelling in the discipline; love of God not only motivates the scholarly activity, the scholarly activity is a way of loving God even though no reference is made to him. Still, if the discipline achieves knowledge (or even warranted belief) the object of that knowledge or belief is somehow related to the Creator and Redeemer of the universe and achieving that knowledge can be a part of one’s love for God.
Some colleges do a better job of teaching one to love God, one’s neighbors, and the creation than to know and love God and all things in God. Other colleges are better at discovering truths about the creation and creation’s God than in fostering the love of God and all things in God. But church-related colleges and universities should do better than their secular counterparts, private and public, in recognizing that the goal of learning is, ultimately, God and God’s creation, and in their insistence that every effort be made to tie things together, not to let stand divided what God has created united.
3. God, our neighbors, and even the creation itself long for beauty and the excellent production of human hearts and hands. A distinctive calling of the church-related college and university is to be a place that knows and teaches the value of beauty and excellence and encourages all members of the community to value beauty and excellence appropriately. Human beings are makers and doers and all that we make and do can be done poorly or well, shabbily or excellently. We and our neighbors and God’s creation are better off when we learn to pursue beauty rather than mere utility. But our culture tends to prefer utility to beauty and excellence, tends to encourage opulence for a few or efficiency for the privileged rather than a beauty that serves our neighbor and honors God. A church-related college or university ought to be a place where one learns to love beauty and excellence.
In a nutshell, Ian, I’ve suggested that you are called to know and love and live in imitation of God, who is Goodness, Truth, and Beauty. You will flourish, you will be who you are meant to be, as you grow in the knowledge and love of Goodness, Truth, and Beauty. And, secondly, I’ve claimed that the knowledge and love of Goodness, Truth, and Beauty is hard to achieve. There are so many things pulling us in other directions, teasing us into a longing for things that do not last. And those pullings will only increase with the freedom in your college years.
You are one of the world’s lucky few who can spend four years of your life on the quest to better know and more fittingly love Goodness, Truth, and Beauty. That quest is more likely to go well for you and, hence, for the world, if you are part of a company on that quest, part of a community of those who, like you, want to freely be who they really are, who want to know and love well and rightly, who long for beauty and excellence. No church-related college will aid and accompany you on this journey as well as it might but, even so, you will be better for the journey with them, even as I am better for our journey together.
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A journey of sorts of my own comes now to an end. After three years of editorship, it is time for me to return to the philosophy classroom. I have deeply enjoyed the good thing that we have done with The Cresset and I thank you, the reader, for your support these years. The Cresset has never been a one person operation and that remains so to this day. I remain deeply grateful to my friend, Gail, who believed I could do this work, to the publisher who entrusted me with this charge, and for the many writers, especially our regular columnists, who have made this work so much fun and so rewarding. A special word of appreciation goes to my friend A.P. who has written in each of my issues save one. I would remind him that although my words are never as winsome or warm as his, I can still smoke him on the basketball court despite my tired legs. Three others deserve special mention for their service: John Ruff, whose only vice as poetry editor has been his unwillingness to include more of his own poetry in these pages, Jenna Hammang, who has really done all the work while I had all the fun for the past three years, and Josh Messner whose loyalty to The Cresset is that loyalty than which none greater can be conceived, and whose continuing friendship and encouragement have made light many a heavy load. I will be succeeded my James Old, to whom I extend best wishes on his new calling.