On my very first day of graduate school, my very first class was taught by Stanley Hauerwas. I came home and said to my wife, “I want you to stand outside the window of the next class and listen to him teach” (which she did!). Several years later Time Magazine named him “America’s Best Theologian.” Hauerwas has a reputation for—among other things—helping students think differently about key aspects of the Christian faith.
Last Monday, on the first day of class at the Millis Institute, I had my students read an article by Hauerwas. It took the form of a letter to Christian students who are, appropriately enough, beginning their university studies.
Hauerwas makes a fundamental assertion to these students: the church needs you to do well in school.
How often do we hear that message from our churches? How frequently do we tell students that they’re called to serve their congregation through rigorous academic study? Despite the fact that the Apostle Paul names “wisdom” and “knowledge” as gifts for promoting the common good (1 Cor. 12:7-11)--and that we're directed in Luke to love the Lord with our minds--how many of us have been taught that the Church’s larger mission requires good intellectual work?
There’s a temptation to view the “Christian” part of going to uni as having only to do with spiritual-sounding activities, such as witnessing to friends, attending chapel services, or taking part in Bible studies or on-campus prayer meetings. But Hauerwas insists that the Church also has good reason to be interested in what takes place inside the literature seminar and science lab.
Christ is written everywhere, not only in the prophecies of the Old Testament but also in the pages of history and in the book of nature. … Physics, sociology, French literary theory: All these and more—in fact, everything you study in college—is bathed in the light of Christ. It takes the eyes of faith to see that light, and it takes an educated mind to understand and articulate it. … It takes an educated mind to do the Church’s work of thinking about and interpreting the world in light of Christ.
To be a student, therefore, is a serious calling.
You may well be thinking, ‘What is he thinking? I’m just beginning my [first] year. I’m not being called to be a student. None of my peers thinks he or she is called to be a student. They’re going to college because it prepares you for life. I’m going to college so I can get a better job and have a better life than I’d have if I didn’t go to college. It’s not a calling.’
But you are a Christian. This means you cannot go to college just to get a better job.
We asked our students on day one to wrestle with these claims and examine their own assumptions about university. Are they at the Millis Institute primarily for job training or to “think about and interpret the world in the light of Christ”? And what does the latter option even mean, and why is it so important?
Hauerwas invites students to conceive their education as a calling to serve not primarily themselves but “the Church and the world.”
What if Christians became known for their thoughtfulness? What if they acquired a reputation in our culture for their deep insight, logical precision and creative thinking? What if they stood out for their joy in exploring math and science, or for the reasonableness of their political discourse, or for the compelling defense of their faith and hope? What if they became branded as people who not only love and care about learning but also were able to love and care for neighbours more effectively because of it? Would the gospel and church not be served?
Of course, Hauerwas acknowledges that there are other gifts through which people are called to minister:
By all means honor those who are serving the Church in the ordained ministry, or through social action, or through spiritual direction. But remember: You are about to become a student … Whatever you end up doing with your life, now is the time when you develop the intellectual skills the Church needs for the sake of building up the Body of Christ.
You do not need to be educated to be a Christian. … But the Church needs some Christians to be educated.
Last week the Millis Institute launched its first cohort of students on the journey of higher education in service to something bigger than themselves. We join Hauerwas in calling for churches to recognise and promote the importance of higher education, and for Christian students to approach their studies as a calling.