Scholarship as a Spiritual Discipline

Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will. -Romans 12:2

I recently finished reading Mike Higton’s A Theology of Higher Education, in which he takes upon himself the ambitious project of giving a theological account of the modern secular university as a community of virtue with the ends of forming saints for the kingdom of God. I say “ambitious” because of the many prominent critiques of contemporary universities coming from such luminary figures as Alasdair MacIntyre and Stanley Hauerwas suggesting that today’s universities, devoid of their historical commitment to the Church and her tradition, are for the most part incoherent and fail to inculcate the virtues proper to Christianity. This is leaving out even the many secular voices (consider, for instance, William Deresiewicz’s recent article on why elite universities are failing their goals).

Among the many myths Higton has to deconstruct in the course of making his argument is the conception that one’s ability to reason necessarily occurs in inverse proportion to one’s reliance on authoritative sources of the past. In doing so, he gives an account of the formation of the first university – at Paris – in a way that tries to draw out its continuities with the monastic disciplines of reading and meditation. The most important advance that sets the Parisian academics apart from monastic thinkers such as Anselm of Canterbury, Higton suggests, is that they externalize and socialize the process of internal deliberation and clarification of thoughts that Anselm conducts within himself.

Put another way, the Parisians took the practices of reading, meditation, and disputation that monks like Anselm would practice alone and turned it into a social activity in which individuals reading, meditation, and disputing together would create communities of mutual accountability in which each would aspire to clearer articulations of the commitments they understood themselves to have inherited from the fathers of the church and – ultimately – Jesus Christ himself.

To recap the rest of Higton’s argument would go beyond my intentions for this post, but suffice to say, his account continues with the intriguing suggestion that the German invention of the “research university” in the founding of the University of Berlin was not so much a radical departure from this basic Parisian ideal, but an attempted repair conducted from within the Christian tradition. What struck me the most, however, was his quite simple suggestion that the act of reading, of preparing to write, and of writing was a spiritual discipline of sorts that requires growth in character and has as its end the forming of saints.

It strikes me because it resonates very strongly with my own thesis-writing experience, in which I came to realize that very relational issues – inability to trust others – had very concrete effects on my ability to do research and to write. Midway through my thesis, I came to the realization that I was massively insecure about what I was saying and tended to hide behind my sources rather than engage them in the kind of conversation which, as we were taught in freshmen writing sem, exemplified academic writing. I would be afraid of stating a claim unless I had found that someone else (with more authority) had said something similar, confirming my analysis. I was constantly looking for more sources, for more support for my position, as if my own thoughts and convictions were not enough on their own. This ultimately meant that my thesis ended up having incredible vocational significance for me – not only in terms of the subject I was writing about (faith and reason) – but in the very reading, research, and writing process itself.

In order to write my thesis well, I was forced to better understand how Christ’s love for me overcame the emotional baggage I was carrying. I also found further confirmation for the vocational decisions I had made for my life after-thesis: delaying graduate school for at least a year so that I could return to rebuild relationships and deal with my childhood past. I had come to realize that my being a scholar was not simply a matter of sitting down and reading and writing books. It had everything to do with who I was as a person. If I was to become a good scholar, I would need to become more Christ-like. And, oddly enough, I could venture that the inverse was true as well: If I was to become more Christ-like, I would need to engage in more scholarship.

We inherit a lot of conceptions, habits, and commitments from those who have come before us. Part of the work of the scholar, I came to learn, is to better understand the sources that have formed you, to come to a greater understanding of oneself – what makes you tick, what makes you laugh, what makes you cry, and what you think is worth living for. A great many of these commitments may have a nebulous relationship in our minds before we sit down to reflect on them, and the process of reflection is a kind of sifting, a refining through fire that strives for the better, more precise expression of what it really means for me to be me. For me to be a Christian. An American. A Princetonian. “Rational”. Committed to the Church. And so on and so on. In our world we are constantly bombarded by a cacophony of voices and ideas, and just as the monastics of old would withdraw to the desert for prayer and meditation to try to discern the still small voice in the midst of a crowded world, so we scholars withdraw to our studies, not to escape the world, but to learn to inhabit it more fully and to listen more carefully.

Saint Anselm wrote his Monologion as an attempt to make sense of what he was reading in Saint Augustine’s De Trinitate, to show how all the things that were said could actually be re articulated in a way that would fit together coherently. The more I think back on my senior thesis, the more I realize how much my own efforts were a kind of meditation on the life and work of the Christian philosopher Nicholas Wolterstorff, and an attempt to make sense of how his writings on epistemology and politics – at first blush, seemingly unrelated topics – fit together. And I could only find a way to do so by drawing from the writings of another Christian thinker, the 19th c. German theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher, who gave me a way of seeing how any a Christian ethics of belief (usually discussed under the heading of “rationality”) might be inextricably tied to the unity and holiness of the Church of God.

I had begun with a vague sense of the importance of ideas such as “faith”, “rationality”, “Christian”, “church”, and “liberal democracy”, and come out with a synthesis of these terms that allowed me to make better sense of each of them, their interrelations with one another, and some concrete material implications – both for my own life and, perhaps, for those beyond myself as well. I understand many of these implications not as a matter of idle speculation, but attempts to understand what it might mean to be faithful to Jesus Christ in our own day and age.

For those of you who might not know, I have since returned to Princeton to pursue a Masters of Divinity at Princeton Theological Seminary. As I delve once again in the world of academia, I am increasingly aware of the great blessing and privilege it is to seek spiritual maturity and growth through the classes I will take, the lectures I will sit through, the papers I will write, and the conversations I will have. Study is a formative practice, much like prayer and worship are formative practices. Though I may not have gone through Princeton explicitly aware of such a way of approaching academic life, I am thankful to have the opportunity for (at least) three more years to grow in Christ as a student and aspiring scholar.

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A Gospel Recap

This summer has been one marked with many personal transitions and new beginnings.  In chronological order, I graduated business school, moved back to NY, began the membership process at our local church, married my beautiful wife, moved into our first apartment, was baptized, and next week will terminate my stay-at-home husband status and start working again.

I’d like to write posts on topics related to the above in the future.  For my first post, I’ll reflect on:

What is the gospel?  

Two Sundays ago, I got baptized in Long Beach, NY.  My wife and I, along with around 15 others from our church and a nearby church plant, shared brief accounts of Christ’s work in our lives.  The backgrounds varied widely, but it was the same gospel that had markedly transformed our lives.  As these stories repeatedly pointed me to the gospel, I remembered the joy and healthiness of coming back to the gospel often.

For I know that my heart is prone to wander.  I’m quick to forget where my identity lies and who purchased it.  It’s easier for me to think about how to live a Christian life rather than to be in awe of and give thanks to the one who has shown me ultimate grace.

As a Christian, I have turned from sin, a life of worship of my idols, and turned to Christ as my lord.  In this new life, I’m called to honor Christ in all things (Philippians 1:20-21).  However, I’m unable to do this if Christ drifts to the recesses of my thoughts.  I must regularly come back to the “Author of life, whom God raised from the dead” (Acts 3:15) so that I remember to who I am to bring glory and why.

We see an example of this in 1 Corinthians 15.  Here, Paul brings the Corinthian church back to the gospel, reminding them of what he preached to them.  I recently listened to an old sermon in which John Piper preaches on the first few verses of this chapter.  I’ll attempt now to recap Piper’s recap of Paul’s recap of the gospel.

1) The gospel is a plan according to the Scriptures.

The gospel events were foretold in the Old Testament and occurred “in accordance with the Scriptures” (v3 and v4), reflecting God’s sovereignty.  For example, Isaiah 53:10 prophesies Christ’s death and resurrection: “Yet it was the will of the LORD to crush him; he has put him to grief; when his soul makes an offering for guilt, he shall see his offspring; he shall prolong his days; the will of the LORD shall prosper in his hand.”

2) The gospel is an event in history.

The gospel is an actual occurrence of a death and resurrection – “He was buried” and “he was raised on the third day” (v4).  Paul further emphasizes this by recalling the eyewitnesses that attest to these events – Peter, the disciples, Jesus’ brother James, more than 500 others, and Paul himself (v5-8).  This recollection reminds us that the gospel is not a hypothetical occurrence.  It is not a fairy tale to bring us false comfort.  In fact, if Christ did not really die and then rise, Christian faith and life would be meaningless and to be pitied (v19).

3) The gospel is an accomplishment.  

There was a purpose of these real events – “Christ died for our sins” (v3).  All people have sinned (Romans 3:23), and the “wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23).  We have merited death, no matter how relatively good we may think we are.

The good news is that “God put forward [Christ] as propitiation” for our sins (Romans 3:25, Hebrews 2:17).  Christ was a sacrifice for us, paying the penalty for our sins, and taking on God’s wrath (Romans 5:9).  The “record of debt” that we owed because of our sins was “[nailed] to the cross” (Colossians 2:14).

4) The gospel is a free offer.

Paul reminds that accepting the gospel is a matter of “belief” (v2).  It is not an invitation to a self-help guide of how to gain salvation by obeying certain steps.  Rather, it is a free offer to believe – “if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved” (Romans 10:9).

5) The gospel is an application of what Christ accomplished.

The accomplishment of Christ is applied to those who believe, allowing Christians to “stand” and be “saved” (v1).  The believer’s sins were imputed to the sinless Christ (2 Corinthians 5:21), and Christ died for those sins (v3).  From this application, believers gain much:

  • Forgiveness  – “…all the prophets bear witness that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name” (Acts 10:43)
  • Righteousness – “And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness” (Romans 4:5)
  • Reconciliation – “More than that, we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation.” (Romans 5:11)
  • Adoption – “For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons” (Romans 8:15)
  • Sanctification – “But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves of God, the fruit you get leads to sanctification and its end, eternal life.” (Romans 6:22)

It is in this good news (‘the news that changes everything’) that Christians base faith.  As Christian faith is marked not just by believing but also by a turn to Christ in repentance, a Christian life is one of living to serve God in praise of his glorious and gracious work.  For this reason, Paul encourages the Corinthians in their work: “Therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain” (v58).  In the same manner, contemporary Christians aim to live out the gospel in all areas of life, aiming to honor Christ through developing and engaging a gospel worldview.

 

 

The House of God

The physical church is a matter that’s spoken very little of. Whether it was back in the time of Jesus’ ministry or now, the ‘where’ of a church does not seem to matter so much as the ‘what’ and ‘how’. Jesus did not cherry pick the location to deliver his message, preaching outdoors, in people’s homes, and in temples; wherever people sought to hear his voice, he was there. The same lack of pickiness can be said of modern followers of Christ, who gather in churches of all shapes and sizes, ranging from mega-churches to underground churches. Some churches even rent buildings, reserving the space only on Sundays or whenever else it is needed.

This last part is what I want to talk about in today’s blog post: the practice of churches’ permanent renting. Now, I understand that there are several very reasonable points that might be raised in support of renting church spaces. There is obviously the fact that for some churches, renting is the best means of providing a space for worship under their financial state. Not every church has the financial bulwark of a mega-church, and can afford to have the luxury of building a church from ground up. Others might defend the lack of a structure entirely dedicated to the congregation when the church’s money has been used for other worthy purposes, such as supporting missionaries or funding outreach programs. Lastly, there is the fact that worship should be possible and powerful regardless of the condition of the environment—underground churches are evidence of that.

These arguments propose that members of a congregation can feel that their relationship with one another or with God has little if anything to do with the physical church. In other words, the church building is just a place they enter and leave within the two or three hour span of worship then fellowship. There is no significance as to where we end up worshipping; any place can become a house of God if His people gather in it.

But what I want to believe is that God wants us to be grounded in a physical place among our brothers and sisters in Christ. The Bible shows that God yearns for His people to be attached to a place (the Promised Land) and for Himself to be a physical presence in the land. In 2 Samuel 7:4, God asks of David, “would you build me a house to dwell in?” a prophecy fulfilled through Solomon in 1 Kings chapters 7 and 8. In this passage, Solomon lifts up a prayer to the Lord upon completion of the temple, knowing very well that the temple was not something necessary or worthy to God. Nevertheless, Solomon prays that the temple may be the place that God watches over His people, turning His eyes and ears toward it when His people gather to cry out to Him. In Ezra, the Israelites return from their exile in Babylon and begin the reconstruction of the temple. When the builders lay the foundation of the temple again, the people as one cheer for the return to the Promised Land and the restoration of His temple.

There’s something powerful in that. For one, the fact that God would not only seek to find a place in our hearts and minds but also in our physical world. Second, the fact that God’s people as one could feel such great joy upon having a space to dedicate fully to God.

Because of this, I believe that there is a unique type of solidarity found in a congregation that yearns for and eventually build a permanent place of worship together. Here, when one enters, it’s not just into another building that the pastor and deacons rented with church funding, or a building that will soon transform back into an office or other type of space when Sunday is over. Here, he steps into a church built for God, by God’s will, through His people. A church that’s more than just building, but one that is His and ours.