This talk was the opening keynote for the Veritas Weekend 2023 sponsored by the Veritas Forum. The Emerging Scholars Network thanks James K. A. Smith for sharing the text of that talk for our blog readers.
Our theme for this weekend is Loving the University. This framing of our time together is specific and intentional. We are considering how to love the university. Not just love for university students (though of course that’s included!) but loving the university as an institution.
Loving the university is loving this beautiful-if-broken bundle of disciplines and endeavors that, in the contingencies of history and the providence of God, has congealed as a powerful cultural engine of exploration and education. The university realizes possibilities that were folded into creation itself; so to inhabit this institution as a citizen—whether student or scholar—is to be caught up in something that is meaningful and significant because it is realizing possibilities God implanted in creation itself. Universities are one of the ways that we are trying to realize the humanity we were made for.
So when we talk about “loving the university” what we mean is loving what the university loves—the thrill of asking hard questions, the verve of carrying on a conversation across millennia, a passion for trying to understand human nature, the exhilarating perplexity of grappling with the mysteries of the cosmos.
When we talk about loving the university, we are asking how Christians can be part of helping the university to be what it needs to be. Loving the university means that, as Christian inhabitants of this little world we call academia, we are trying to give gifts—be gifts—to the university.
I once had an inspiring conversation with one of my mentors and exemplars, the philosopher Nicholas Wolterstorff. Nick taught for 30 years at Calvin, my institution, before then taking up an influential post at Yale for another 20. Along with others, Nick’s generation blazed a path for folks like me to inhabit the mainstream of the academy as Christians. So I once asked him how he managed to be such an unapologetically Christian philosopher who could also become President of the American Philosophical Association. Here’s what he told me:
I was not trained to think of my role, as a Christian philosopher, mainly as a combatant.
Instead, he said, he recognized that philosophy, his discipline, was a human enterprise. It wasn’t a narrowly “Christian” endeavor, nor an inherently “secular” or “humanist” endeavor. “It’s a human enterprise,” he said. And the reason Nick could play the role he did in the wider academy is because he joined that shared enterprise. Of course, he joined the conversation as a Christian, “from my own worldview,” as he put it; but he shared that “it was this sense of being a participant in a shared enterprise, rather than a combatant against this enterprise, that was crucial.”
That is what it means to love the university: to join our neighbors, as Christians, in a shared, human enterprise.
But to what end? What do we have to offer? Will our participation be welcome? What are the challenges to following Nick on this path?
I want to suggest a slight reconnoitering of how we think about the challenges we face at the university. Instead of asking, “What are the challenges Christian face at the university?,” let’s ask a different question:
What challenges does the university face and how can Christians help?
Can you feel the difference in that question?
I don’t mean that Christians don’t face challenges at the university. I only mean to suggest that we will best love the university if we don’t start or settle for that question. That form of the question tends to suck Christians into the “combatant” paradigm that Wolterstorff warned us about. Your persecution complex is not a gift to your neighbors.
So instead of imagining ourselves with wagons circled, trying to identify how “the university” out there is a challenge or threat, let’s instead see ourselves alongside our fellow inhabitants of the university and ask: What challenges are we facing?
They are Legion. Let me highlight just two examples, and suggest how Christians might come alongside the university and offer a different path forward. For each challenge we can identify, I want us to contemplate the gift Christians can offer the university. How can we, shoulder to shoulder with our neighbors in the university, bear witness to a better way given our Christian faith?
Truth-Tracking : Wonder
To walk the campuses of the Ivy League can be like an architectural tour in theology. On historic buildings, inscribed in stone, are mottos that animated their founders. Veritas [!] “Truth” at Harvard. Lux et veritas “Light and Truth” at Yale. “In Thy Light We See Light” at Columbia (also inscribed in the chapel at Calvin University!).
Now, I am not pointing this out so we can wallow in nostalgia for what the university used to be. When we talk about loving the university, I mean love the university you’re in, not “romanticize the university of the past.” If you’re inclined to pine for the university of old that was supposedly more open to Christian faith, please remember this: more than half of us weren’t welcome in it. Loving the university is not the same as trying to turn back the clock.
We are called to love the university we’re in now. This is why I think the hard work of discernment is critical to our calling. We need to learn to “read” the university in which we find ourselves in order to discern what faithfulness looks like now.
That said, it is not necessarily nostalgic to recognize that the pursuit of truth at the university seems to be derailed in different ways and for various reasons. Philosophers sometimes talk about habits or practices that are “truth-tracking”—they are dispositions of the mind that are looking for insight into reality. To track the truth is to want to understand how things are, not merely foist our preferences or narratives onto reality.
In this respect, I think we could worry that truth-tracking does not always seem to be the governing principle of the contemporary university. There are all kinds of other forces creeping into the institution that threaten to commandeer the university’s pursuit of truth and understanding. Instead of trying to track the truth, we let academic debate be governed by the dynamics of power; or we confuse scholarship with advocacy; we let the crucial project of education and formation be coopted by credentialing and commodification. There are all kinds of ways that the university is tempted to veer from the pursuit of light and truth.
How to respond to this challenge? If the university’s truth-tracking is derailed, what gift do Christians have to offer the university?
This will sound strange, but the answer to that question is not “The Truth.” Or at least that should not be our first answer.
In fact, I would suggest that the “answer” to the question, What gift do Christian have to offer a university that’s lost it’s truth-tracking capacity?, is not primarily an answer to be given; it is a posture to be demonstrated.
What if we imagined our participation in the university, even our encounter with those who disagree, not primarily as an argument to be won but healing to be offered?
How might Christians invite the university to the call to truth? By modeling it. If we worry that the university is losing its truth-tracking discipline and desire, we won’t restore that by confidently announcing, “Here’s the Truth.” Instead, we should show the university what it looks like to search for the truth.
What is the gift we have to offer the university facing this challenge? Wonder. The posture of recognizing our not-knowing and our hunger to understand. Our willingness to ask hard questions, to face the evidence that haunts us. Let our neighbors see us wondering about the causes of climate change and let’s look with them through the James Webb Telescope to inquire into the origins of our galaxy. Let them see us grappling with the psychology of addiction and trying, as sociologists and economists, to understand the complexities of human behavior.
When we wonder with a desire to pursue truth, we will be committed to rigor and accountably. We will explore these questions with both fearlessness and humility. We are seeking because we don’t have all the answers in advance. It is this posture of exploration that animates the university at its best. We, as Christians, can be a community within this community that models how, and we can invite our neighbors in the academy to join us.
And when you are criticized for bringing a Christian perspective to the conversation, be curious about the criticisms. Wonder about them. Don’t let defense be your first impulse. Try to be a non-anxious presence amidst the ideological anxiety of the university, not because you are so confident that you have the corner on the truth, but because you know you are beloved—that your intellectual exploration is rooted in a sense, not of knowing the answers in advance, but in your being known by the Creator of the universe revealed in a rabbi from Nazareth.
Let me suggest that this challenge with respect to truth is actually rooted in a more fundamental challenge facing all of us in the university: despair.
I could be wrong, but I wonder whether the university’s giving up on truth is not primarily due to arrogance but because of despair. Perhaps it’s not so much that the university is defiantly opposed to the truth as it has given up on the quest. And it has given up on the quest because we despair that it can be found. Our cynicism about truth reflects not merely pride or secularism or naturalism or what have you (even if those might be factors); our cynicism about truth is the fruit of hopelessness.
In Renaissance paintings, the “three graces” or three theological virtues, Faith, Hope, and Love, are often pictured as three sisters engaged in a dance. The French poet Charles Péguy once said that in the dance of Faith, Hope, and Charity, it is Hope that leads them. This is why St. Thomas Aquinas argued that despair—the antithesis of hope—is the most grievous sin: because it robs us of our ability to live into the future.
What gift can we, as Christians, offer a university that is bereft and despairing?
Do we have insight from God’s revelation about the nature of the world and the human person? Yes, absolutely, and that insight can fund and fuel our exploration. However, to even look—to even inquire—is to undertake something in expectation. It is to be oriented to the future in a fundamental mode of trust. We can search because we hope and we hope because we trust that this cosmos is made by a Father who, when asked for bread, would never give us a stone.
I know we are here because we love thinking and knowledge and experimentation and understanding. We love the university because we love the life of the mind. Here is the place for us to wonder and explore.
But I want us to appreciate that such an endeavor feeds off something that might not “look” intellectual and academic: the entire endeavor needs to be sustained by hope. Perhaps we can love the university precisely by being scholars and students who are sustained by hope.
Whence that hope? I come back to my earlier suggestion, which I worry might sound mushy or sentimental but I’m not sure how else to say it: The ground of our hope is being beloved. We might think that it is our faith that distinguishes us as Christians, but what if, today, it is our hope. And what if that hope is rooted in our being beloved by God?
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. often quoted a line from Arnold Toynbee: “the first hope in our inventory must be the hope that love is going to have the last word.” And being loved by the God we know in Christ is the first word that animates our fearless exploration of God’s world.
A favorite poem of mine speaks to this hope.
We Used to Grade God’s Sunsets from the Lost Valley Beach
By Rod Jellema
Why we really watched we never said.
The play of spectral light, but maybe also
the coming dark, and the need to trust
that the fire dying down before us
into Lake Michigan’s cold waves
would rise again behind us.
Our arch and witty critiques
covered our failures to say what we saw.
The madcap mockery of grading God as though
He were a struggling student artist
(Cut loose, strip it down, study Matisse
and risk something, something unseen—
C-plus, keep trying—that sort of thing)
only hid our fear of His weather
howling through the galaxies. We humored
a terrible truth: that nature gives us hope
only in flashes, split seconds, one
at a time, fired in a blaze of beauty.
Picking apart those merely actual sunsets,
we stumbled into knowing the artist’s job:
to sort out, then to seize and work an insight
until it’s transformed into permanence.
And God, brushing in for us the business
of clouds and sky, really is a hawker
of clichés, a sentimental hack as a painter.
He means to be. He leaves it to us
to catch and revise, to find the forms
of how and who in this world we really are
and would be, to see how much promise there is
on a hurtling planet, swung from a thread
of light and saved by nothing but grace.
“He leaves it to us / to catch and revise, to find the forms / of how and who in this world we really are.” In so many ways, the university is staked on this. The university was built to look for the same—to find the forms, to understand who we are and how to be. Let us listen to our neighbors’ big questions to hear these hungers and desires and find in them our shared human longings.
The gift we as Christians might be able to offer is to help them “see how much promise there is”—not because of anything in us, but because we have seen the Son, God’s Son, Love incarnate. We are not a people with the corner on the truth; we are a people acquainted with grace, and we have learned that though this world hangs on a vulnerable thread of light, the God who holds it is also the Love that fires the cosmos.
 In Rod Jellema, A Slender Grace: Poems (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004), 33.
About the author:
James K.A. Smith is professor of philosophy at Calvin University in Grand Rapids, MI. He also serves as editor in chief of Image, a quarterly journal at the intersection of art, faith, and mystery. He is the author of a number of books including Desiring the Kingdom, You Are What You Love, and most recently, How to Inhabit Time.
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