I’ve given short and long versions of this talk over the years, most recently by invitation to a group of Christian scholars at another school in 2013. Perhaps it will not be out of place in this blog.
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In his letter to the Colossians, St. Paul says that whatever we do, we should do from the heart, “as unto the Lord” and not men, because it is Him whom we are serving.
Whatever you do, Paul says. That includes our scholarship. Scholarship is no more special than anything else we might do that pleases Christ. But whether we prove theorems, sweep floors, write articles, dig wells, design circuits, or lay bricks, we should do it for Him.
What does it mean to practice scholarship "as unto the Lord"? Does it mean just working hard? No, a Christian professor of English literature is something more than a hard working professor of English literature. Nor does scholarship "as unto the Lord" mean merely working with a nicer attitude. An electrical engineering professor who has long office hours and remembers to thank the secretary has not thereby done everything that being a Christian scholar of electrical engineering requires. To be a Christian scholar is to work with a radically different purpose, a radically different orientation, and even a radically different approach to truth. In our time, under the dictatorship of relativism, the very conviction that there is a truth sets us apart from a great many of our colleagues.
Now a mathematician must learn how to prove theorems, and a scholar of history must learn how to scrutinize documentary evidence. So too, there are prerequisites for doing our scholarship in such fashion that it can be offered unto Christ. I count at least four of them.
The first such prerequisite is commitment to Christ’s lordship. We may understand quite well that God wants our friendships, our spouses, our children, our entertainment, and so forth. Do we always understand that He wants our scholarship, that He wants what we do for a living?
The second prerequisite is the practice of the virtues. When you applied for your academic position, probably no one asked about your moral character, but everything depends on it. I’m not just talking about honesty, but about the whole range of virtues. Every unrepented vice requires lies. Eventually, therefore, every unrepented vice metastasizes into the intellect. If I don’t live right, pretty soon I can't think straight. But thinking straight is a scholar's job.
The third prerequisite for scholarship "as unto the Lord" is a Christian view of one’s own discipline. Consider philosophy. Two generations ago, perhaps most American philosophers were atheists; today, most are theists, largely because of the work of Christian thinkers. What would it mean to rethink the other disciplines in a Christian way? How about economics? Political science? Mathematics? Surely not mathematics, you say. Isn’t "Two plus two is four" just as true for atheists as for Christians? Yes, it is, but don't draw from this fact the false conclusion that mathematics has nothing to do with theology. For example, some mathematicians accept the ancient pagan idea that the ultimate ground of all reality is not God, but mathematics itself. This particular idolatry has been around for a long time. One of the books on my shelf includes a Pythagorean prayer to the number ten. Oftentimes such idolatries affect the way we do our work, but in ways that escape our notice. We should make it our business to notice them.
The fourth and final prerequisite of scholarship "as unto the Lord" is discerning that scholarship is one of the ways of life permissible for you. For many of us, perhaps most of us, more than one use of our gifts may be pleasing to God. Yet from the fact that more than one way to use your gifts may please Him, it does not follow that every way of using them will do so. Many of my students enter scholarship just because they like their field, or because the life of a scholar appeals to them, or because some teacher told them they had promise. These things are well and good, but they do not add up to serving God. I should not wish to be misunderstood, for it would be surprising if Christ wanted you to something for which you did not have promise, and something would probably be wrong if you disliked your field. But your feelings are not the final measure of His guidance.
If you have done your best to discern what He wills for you but still cannot tell, then do not be unduly concerned. As John Henry Newman remarks, even our perplexity may serve Him. We must just make sure that our perplexity does not result from not wanting to know His will. In the meantime, we should keep the commandments, and do the work before us as well as we can. When the time comes, what He needs us to know, we will know.
Having spoken of the prerequisites for scholarship “as unto the Lord,” let me now speak of the snares. By my count there are at least five.
One snare is intellectual pride, our tendency to take personal credit for our intellectual gifts. I have never met a scholar who didn't suffer this tendency to some degree. For some reason, scholars are more inclined to pride in their intellectual gifts than plumbers to pride in their technical gifts. Like me, do you find this fact rather terrifying? God gives us our gifts for His kingdom. In the next life, we will not have the pleasure of those gifts which we have refused to offer to His service during this one.
The second snare is intellectual selfishness, the tendency to do the scholarly work we prefer rather than the scholarly work which most pleases God. We may prefer it because we find it easier, because it is more familiar, because it is more interesting, or because it earns the greatest worldly recognition. If it is not work that glorifies Him, none of this matters.
Snare three is intellectual clubbishness, the urge to conform ourselves to the prevailing views of other intellectuals. As the historian Paul Johnson has suggested, intellectuals “are often ultra-conformist within the circles formed by those whose approval they seek and value.” God does not intend us to stop being social creatures, or to refuse to learn from others, but He does intend us to think outside of the prevailing secular orthodoxies. Clubbishness should have no power over us.
Snare four is intellectual cowardice, the tendency to hold back from speaking our minds even when we do think outside of the prevailing secular orthodoxies, for fear of disapproval and penalty. Of course we have to exercise discernment. There are times not to speak of certain things. But there are certainly times to speak of them, and sometimes to speak of them loudly. In general, the time to speak loudest is just when we are running into the greatest opposition just for being Christians.
The fifth and final snare is intellectual sloth. Sloth is the failure to love the good with the ardor that it deserves. The essence of intellectual sloth, the kind of sloth that tempts us as scholars, is loving the intellectual life more than the intellectual goods which this life is ordained to seek. I mean especially the good of truth. Do we suppose that it is enough to love the truth? It is not enough to love the truth. We must love the truth more than the pursuit of truth. We must also love it more than the pleasures of the scholarly life. If I love truth less than I love the smell of a book in which truth might be written -- if I love it less than the fact that the book belongs to me -- if I love it less than the fact that I wrote the book myself -- then I am no friend of God. If I love truth less than the privilege of controlling my schedule -- less than the pleasure of going to conferences -- less than the petty thrill of being thought smart, or even truthful -- then I am in peril of hell.
If you think Christ has nothing special for you to do with your scholarship, you aren't listening to Him. He does have something for you to do. Listen; He is telling you now. Perhaps it is something that others have done. Then again it may be something that no one has done. It may even be something that no one else can do. You must be willing to be small, because it may be a small thing. It may be a single small insight, a single species of fact. How large it is does not matter. The point is that whatever it is, it is committed to your stewardship. Find the stone. Mortar it carefully into the ramparts of the palace of knowledge, for the glory of God, King and Architect.
I began with a quotation from St. Paul, and I close with another. He urges us in the letter to the Romans, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind.” Although this passage is directed to the whole Church, I think it applies in a particular way to Christian scholars. After all, it concerns the formation of the mind. It could serve as our intellectual charter.
So may we be, not Christians who happen to be scholars, but Christian scholars: Servants of the Lord Jesus Christ, who rules not only matter, but the mind.