Robert Oppenheimer was one of the scientists who worked on the production of the first atomic bomb. During my doctoral work on the campus of The University of Chicago in Hyde Park, I walked past the building each day that he and his team of physicists worked in. In his reflection on their work, he wrote this:
“I have felt it myself. The glitter of nuclear weapons. It is irresistible if you come to them as a scientist. To feel it’s there in your hands— to release the energy that fuels the stars. To let it do your bidding. To perform these miracles—to lift a million tons of rock into the sky. It is something that gives people the illusion of illimitable power and it is, in some ways, responsible for all our troubles. This is what you might call technical arrogance that overcomes people when they see what they can do with their minds.” (The Day after Trinity, p. 30)
When we want to know without accountability, responsibility and community—without God—we can blow up the world.
Parker Palmer has always been one of my favorite authors. I reread his book To Know as We Are Known: Education as a Spiritual Journey this summer. In it, he wrote: “We are well-educated people who have been schooled in a way of knowing that treats the world as an object to be dissected and manipulated, a way of knowing that gives us power over the world … In my own way, I have used my knowledge to rearrange the world to satisfy my drive for power, distorting and deranging life rather than loving it for the gift it is.” (p. 2)
Like Adam and Eve in the garden, we pursue knowledge as power, knowledge without responsibility for each other, knowledge that is ours, not a gift received from God. When knowledge becomes nothing more than objective, cold, hard fact, it slips beyond the vibrant connection to our Creator.
For, you see, knowledge is truth that is more than a formula or a verbal construct. Knowledge is flesh and blood, embodied in the Christ who said, “I am the way, the truth, the life.” For Christian higher education, then, knowledge is embodied, incarnated, shared, humbly received, and responsibly used—all for restoring a broken world.
Our educational enterprise is distinctively different precisely because we are Christians. We engage our students in knowing because God has graciously engaged us in knowing. We love them because we are loved by God. We lay down our lives in service to them because Christ laid down His life for us. We engage them in redeeming the world because this is what God has called us to.
And to teach students, we must love them.
And what might this love look like? It’s definitely not a don’t-worry-about-your-grades, kum-ba-yah, slop-excusing, buddy/buddy, easy-grade, cheap diploma factory. That is the antithesis of love.
Love looks more like a faculty research symposium, a faculty-led research project, writing a grant application, restoring an Honor Society or Phi Delta Lambda tradition, a student research symposium, The Cumberland River Review, balloon launches, beekeeping, 3-D printers, a documentary film in Israel, a student-composed opera, Trevecca around the Globe, mission trips, an undocumented student testifying before political leaders, iWork, Trevecca Authors Celebration, the openness of a professor to notice depression or a sudden disinterest, the mentoring of academic support personnel to relieve testing anxiety! It looks like residence directors, University employees, Plant Ops personnel, and others engaging students in life lessons. It looks like an admissions team raising the entrance standards as a truth-telling act. Rather than taking anyone’s money, we honestly confront them with their capacity for college work. It looks like the School of Graduate and Continuing Studies recognizing the learning differences of the 35-year-old mom with two kids working full time while trying to finish college.
We do this, not just for ourselves, and not just for our students, but for the sake of the world. Think of the educational possibilities that exist in the coming 12 months. As Christian educators, we will engage our students around world-altering issues such as the upcoming U.S. presidential election, immigration and the future of our undocumented neighbors, minority issues and the proper use of police force, ISIS and terrorism, cancer research, global warming, urban food production, a collapsing music industry model and the refugee crisis.
Can we as Christian educators keep going to class day after day in a world like this with 10-year-old notes and not educate students to live responsibly in this world, loving God, serving humankind? Academic excellence calls us to hard work in order to love our students as God loves us— so that we participate in the redemption of the world.
David Brooks, the NY Times columnist, spoke eloquently at the January CCCU Presidents’ Forum. His words encapsulate what I’m trying to say.
“Some Christian institutions adopt an adversarial posture toward the mainstream culture because things seem to be going against them. From my vantage point, it’s the exact opposite for you (CCCU institutions). You guys are the avant-garde of 21st century culture. You have what everybody else is desperate to have: a way of talking about and educating the human person in a way that integrates faith, emotion, and intellect. You have a recipe to nurture human beings who have a devoted heart, a courageous mind, and a purposeful soul. …
“For Christian universities, this holistic development is your bread and butter. This is the curriculum. This is the chapel service. This is the conversation students are having late at night. It’s lived out. Now, you in this room, have the Gospel. You have the example of Jesus Christ. You have the beatitudes; the fire of the Holy Spirit; you believe in a personal God who is still redeeming the world.
“Carrying the Gospel is your central mission to your students, but that’s not all you have. You have a way of being that is not all about self. You have a counterculture to the excessive individualism of our age. You offer an ideal more fulfilling and more true and higher than the ideal of individual autonomy. You offer lessons in the art of commitment.
“… A commitment is falling in love with something and then building a structure of behavior around it for those moments when love falters. It arises as a deep sensation of certainty, a moral and spiritual sensation that something is right, that you’ve been called to something.” (David Brooks, “The Cultural Value of Christian Higher Education,” Advance Magazine, CCCU)