June 24, 2015 / Theology
How a documentary film that simulates an encounter with an alien life form may be challenging to our theological sensibilities.
September 18, 2008
When I was pressed a couple of months ago to submit a title for this commencement address,1 I anticipated taking note of the changes that have occurred in society, culture, and the academy over these past several years, and then saying something about the challenges that face you and me as Christian scholars in this new situation, for the changes have been enormous. In fact, the challenges that face us as Christians trying to live faithfully in this present social world and that face us as Christian scholars trying to live faithfully in the academy are profoundly different from what they were just a few years ago.
So when I sat down to compose this address a couple of weeks ago, that is what I expected to talk about—changes and challenges. But soon it began to feel too conventional, too stereotypical. It is expected of speakers on such occasions that they will describe the changes that have occurred in recent years, outline the challenges that confront us in the new situation, and conclude with some cautious words of prophecy about the future. Now it is not a policy of mine to take note of what people expect and then proceed to disappoint those expectations, but on this occasion, that is what I am going to do. Instead of talking about changes and challenges, I am going to talk about love and learning—or more precisely, about the love of learning.
The Neo-Calvinist Contribution to Christian Scholarship
The specific line of Christian scholarship that I will be reflecting upon is the one that locates itself within the neo-Calvinist tradition that originated in the Netherlands in the nineteenth century, with Abraham Kuyper as its great formative figure. Kuyper and those who followed him had important and innovative things to say about the nature of Christian learning, and distinctive things to say about the rationale for Christian learning. On this occasion, I want to focus on the rationale. What is the point of Christian studies? What is the mission of an institute for Christian studies? What bang do its supporters get for their bucks?
Kuyper’s answer went along the following lines: In opposition to pietist forms of Christianity that saw human beings as sojourners in this world until, hopefully, they were transported to heaven, Kuyper insisted that at creation God issued to humankind a “cultural mandate”—a mandate to develop human culture in all its pluriformity. Kuyper was fond of describing this as a mandate to actualize the in-created potentials of things, “the powers which, by virtue of the ordinances of creation, are innate in nature itself.” Art, he said, is “the natural productivity of the potencies of our imagination,” theoretical learning is “the application to the cosmos of the powers of investigation and thought created with us,” and so forth.
God’s mandate to develop culture was not the mandate to develop culture in any old way we wish, however. As Kuyper would argue, there are right ways and wrong ways of developing culture, good ways and bad ways, ways that conform to God’s ordinances and ways that violate God’s ordinances. Given our human fallenness and finitude, the ways in which culture has in fact been developed have all too often been out of accord with God’s ordinances. Thus it is that the Christian’s engagement with culture is always a critical engagement that seeks to discern when to say “Yes” and when to say “No,” and when it discerns that a “No” must be said, it is an engagement that does not rest content with saying “No” but patiently looks for a better way to go, and when it finds a better way, it pursues it. Thus, Christian engagement in culture often has a redemptive quality.
Apart from the fact that I judge that it was a blessing rather than a mandate that God spoke over humankind at creation, my own way of thinking about these matters goes very much along Kuyperian lines. But on this occasion, I want to move from that familiar big picture down to the person. Down at the level of the person, that big picture of commands and obedience to commands proves not to be of much help.
The Love of God and the Love of Learning
Over the years I have had many students come into my office to discuss career choices. Should they set their sights on becoming a professor or should they go into some other line of work? And if they set their sights on becoming a professor, should they go into philosophy or into some other discipline? Rather late in my career I took to putting three questions to students contemplating some particular career choice: Do you love it? Are you good at it? And is it worthwhile? I always made a point of adding that they might not find a position that satisfied all three criteria, but that is what they should look for nevertheless.
I did not suggest that they ask whether they felt obligated to go into the career they were considering, for I learned over the years that almost always when a student felt obligated to go into some career, it was because the student’s parents had made him or her feel obligated. And never once in my entire career have I suggested that they ask whether the career was likely to yield fame or fortune. I suggested that they ask whether they loved it—and if they did love it, whether it also fit their talents and was worthwhile.
Now I know that there are people in the academy who do not love learning—or do not love that particular branch of learning in which they find themselves. But that is not how it should be. What should be is that we are in it for the love of it. From the first half hour of my first college philosophy course, I found myself in love with philosophy. I remember saying to myself that I had no idea whether I would be any good at it, but if I did prove to be good at it, this was it. That first love has never grown cold.
What kind of love was that, the love of philosophy that I experienced in that first half hour? Love comes in different forms. What sort of love is love of learning? And what is it about learning that leads some of us to love it?
I suggest that love of learning comes in two forms. Start by noticing how often those of us engaged in scholarship use the language of doing and making. We speak of gathering evidence, of constructing theories, of developing arguments, of conducting research, of writing books—all highly activistic language. This is the side of learning that Kuyper had his eye on when he placed learning under the rubric of production of culture. Love of learning, when it takes this form, is the love of producing something of worth—a well-crafted essay, a new theory. It is like the woodworker’s love of crafting a fine cabinet and like the poet’s love of composing a fine poem. It is an image of the love manifested in God’s work of creation.
But this was not the love of learning that I experienced in that first half hour of philosophy, because producing philosophical essays was still well in the future for me. Nor was this the love of learning that I discerned in my father, in my grandfather, and in some of my aunts and uncles.
My grandfather was a farmer on the prairies of southwest Minnesota. But he did not love farming; he disliked it, maybe even hated it. What he loved was reading theology—Kuyper and Bavinck and Brakel. As much as possible he neglected farming and gratified his love of learning. But his love of learning did not eventuate in any works of theology—though he certainly talked a lot of it. So love of learning takes a form in addition to the love of producing worthy pieces of scholarship. Fifty-eight years after that first philosophy course, this other love of philosophy remains alive in me. What is this other love of learning?
It is the love of understanding. Previously one was baffled, bewildered, perplexed, or just ignorant; now one understands. Some of us love that, love gaining understanding. In fact, I think all of us love it, though some do not like putting much effort into it.
It is my view that this second form of love of learning, the love of understanding, is not merely in addition to, or alongside of, the love of producing worthy pieces of scholarship. Understanding is the point of the enterprise. Scholarship is for the sake of understanding. We produce works of scholarship in order to articulate, record, and communicate what we have understood.
When I listen to deconstructionists and postmodernists, I sometimes get the impression that they never think in terms of gaining understanding; for them, the academic enterprise consists entirely of producing essays that others will find interesting and provocative. Some take the radical next step of insisting that there is nothing there to be understood; production is all there ever is—though it is worth noting that even they tend to get upset when they find that they themselves have been misunderstood!
My position is that it is the love of understanding that keeps learning alive; if that love were extinguished, learning would die out. What would be the point?
And why do we human beings long for understanding when we do not have it? Why do we love it when we do have it? The only way of answering these questions available to the secularist is to identify or postulate some desire within the psychological makeup of human beings that explains this love—a desire whose manifestations are shaped by culture but which is itself innate. For an answer of a very different sort, an answer that points away from the self, I invite you to turn with me to the wisdom literature of the Old Testament.
“How great are your works, O Lord,” exclaims Israel’s songwriter, “Your thoughts are very deep” (Ps. 92).
How manifold are your works!
In wisdom you have made them all;
the earth is full of your creatures. (Ps. 104)
Over and over the theme is sounded. The cosmos in which we find ourselves is not just here somehow, nor are we just here; both the cosmos and we were made. We are works, works of God, made with wisdom.
The Lord by wisdom founded the earth,
by understanding he established the heavens;
by his knowledge the deeps broke open,
and the clouds drop down the dew. (Prov. 3:19-20)
The response of the psalmist to this vision of the cosmos and ourselves as works, works of God, made with wisdom, is to meditate reverentially on these awesome manifestations of divine wisdom and to praise the One by whose wisdom they were made:
On the glorious splendor of your majesty,
and on your wondrous works, I will meditate. (Ps. 145)
I will sing to the Lord as long as I live,
I will sing praise to my God while I have being. (Ps. 82)
Not only are we and the cosmos works of divine wisdom; so also is Torah, God’s guide for Israel’s life. It too is a work of divine wisdom.
The Torah of the Lord is perfect, reviving the soul,
the decrees of the Lord are sure, making wise the simple;
the precepts of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart;
the commandment of the Lord is clear, enlightening the eyes. (Ps. 19)
The response of the devout Jew to this vision of divine wisdom embodied in Torah was to meditate with delight on Torah so as to discern the wisdom embodied therein: “Happy are those [whose] delight is in the Torah of the Lord; on his Torah they meditate day and night” (Ps. 1).
Oh, how I love your Torah!
it is my meditation all day long.
Your commandment makes me wiser than my enemies,
for it is always with me.
I have more understanding than all my teachers,
for your decrees are my meditation. (Ps. 119:97–99)
The orientation that I have all too briefly been describing, of meditating with awed and reverential delight on God’s works of creation and redemption, of seeking to discern the wisdom embodied therein, has virtually disappeared from the modern world—rejected by secularists and neglected by Christians who have turned it into one among many other religious beliefs that they hold.
So I invite you to do some imagining. Imagine that we have recovered this vision and that for us it truly is an orientation toward reality rather than one religious belief among others. Then we would see it as the point of the natural and human sciences not just to produce theoretical constructs worthy of admiration, but to enhance our understanding. And we would regard the object of our understanding not as something that is just there, but as a work of God, infused with divine wisdom. Love of learning, so understood, would lead us to revere these works of divine wisdom and to praise their maker, some of whose wisdom we had now glimpsed.
For example, cell biology of the past fifty years is an extraordinary scientific construct—admirable both for its intrinsic worth and for its technological utility. But more than that, it has revealed to us some of the astounding intricacy of the divine wisdom embedded in creation.
When I first mentioned that I was going to reflect upon the love of learning, there were perhaps a few of you who were reminded of the title that a Belgian author, Jean Leclercq, gave to his book about learning in the medieval monasteries, The Love of Learning and the Desire for God. It is a wonderful book; I strongly recommend it. What I have been trying to do thus far is to call your attention to one way in which the love of learning and the desire for God unite. The wise person of the Old Testament is guided in daily life by God’s wise directives. But the wise person also turns around from following the guidance of divine wisdom in daily life to discern and reflect on the wisdom embodied in God’s creation. Such turning around is almost the same as the turning around that one executes when one interrupts one’s faithful daily work for a time in order to worship the One for whom one was faithfully working.
Some of you will have been asking yourselves whether the orientation that I have been describing and commending is relevant to the humanities, those disciplines in which we study not what God has made but what our fellow human beings have made—works of literature, of visual art, of music, of philosophy, and so forth. I have asked myself the same question. Let me offer a suggestion.
There were powerful currents of thought in the twentieth century that urged us to treat texts and works of art autonomously, urged us to ask not what Milton said by way of the poem but what the poem says, and urged us to ask not what Rembrandt represented by way of the painting but what the painting represents. Instead of regarding oneself as engaged with Milton when reading Paradise Lost, one is to regard oneself as engaged with that impersonal artifact that is the text called Paradise Lost; instead of regarding oneself as engaged with Augustine when reading the Confessions, one is to regard oneself as engaged with the text called the Confessions—powerful movements, in short, toward removing authors and artists from the scene of the humanities. Such a removal of the person from the scene, such a depersonalizing of the humanities, has gone hand in hand with the emergence in psychology and sociology of ever new reductionist accounts of being human. Currently the hottest form of such reductionism is the truly wacky outpourings of evolutionary psychologists.
Here, then, is my suggestion. If one sees the cosmos not as something that is just there but as a work of God, made in wisdom, then one will naturally also see poems, symphonies, bridges, churches, and the like, not as found objects, but as works, made by persons with one and another degree of wisdom and imagination, made because the maker loved and cared. To remove the person is an act of dishonor. Bach’s Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin are abstract sound patterns. But they are more than that. They are musical intelligence and imagination of an extraordinary level embedded in sound. To listen to them is to engage J. S. Bach. To insist on removing Bach from the scene is to treat Bach with dishonor.
We in the Reformed tradition talk easily about duties, mandates, obligations, laws, obedience, and the like; we don’t talk easily about love. So I have taken this occasion to talk about what we do not talk easily about—love, specifically, love of learning. When learning goes well, the scholar does it for the love of it—just as the farmer farms for the love of it and the woodworker works wood for the love of it. I have suggested that love of learning takes two forms, the love of producing worthy works of scholarship and the love of understanding, with the latter being the point of the former. And I have set before you a vision of love of understanding as being a love of discerning the intelligence, the imagination, and the love that are manifested in what God and one’s fellow human beings have made.
If within the neo-Calvinist line of Christian scholarship learning is for the love of it, if the love of it is for the love of understanding, and if the love of understanding is united with the desire for God and the honoring of one’s fellows, then, so I predict, the neo-Calvinist tradition will continue to make a significant difference to Christian scholarship and to scholarship in general in the years to come.
Nicholas Wolterstorff (PhD, Harvard University) is Noah Porter Professor Emeritus of Philosophical Theology at Yale University, Fellow of Berkeley College at Yale University, and Senior Fellow in the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture at the University of Virginia. Wolterstorff is the author of many books, including Reason Within the Bounds of Religion, Until Justice and Peace Embrace, Educating for Shalom: Essays on Christian Higher Education, and most recently, Justice: Rights and Wrongs (Princeton University Press, 2007), which will be followed by a companion volume called Justice and Love. Wolterstorff has also been president of the American Philosophical Association (Central Division) and the Society of Christian Philosophers.