“How can we justify reading books and studying when there are people out there who haven’t been saved?”
This question was posed by one of my students about 12 years ago, but it’s been asked in various forms for centuries. The early-church father Tertullian inquired, “What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?” In other words, what’s the relationship between Greek philosophy and Judeo-Christian faith?
Another way to put it is: What’s the relationship between schools and universities on the one hand, and local church congregations on the other?
C.S. Lewis posed a similar question to a group of Oxford students at the start of World War II:
How is it right for creatures who are every moment advancing either to Heaven or to hell to spend any fraction of the little time allowed them in this world on such comparative trivialities as literature or art, mathematics or biology. ... How can you be so frivolous and selfish as to think about anything but the salvation of human souls?
How would you respond to his question?
Lewis’ answer was based in a conviction that faith, rather than opposing reason, actually complements it as a means of pursuing truth. He thus avoided the notion that what God desires is not thoughtful discernment but blind devotion. In his classic book Mere Christianity, Lewis writes, “Faith, in the sense in which I am here using the word, is the art of holding on to things your reason has once accepted, in spite of your changing moods.” Notice that what Lewis pits against faith is not reason but “changing moods” brought on by attitudes like fear and insecurity.
In “Learing in War-Time,” Lewis directly responded to his own question: one way to love our neighbour is to cultivate discernment, through study, of false and dangerous habits of thinking and living. Without such discernment, we
betray our uneducated brethren who have, under God, no defence but us against the intellectual attacks of the heathen. Good philosophy must exist, if for no other reason, because bad philosophy needs to be answered.
Lewis also critiqued the idea that we should divide up life into “sacred” and “secular” activities, devoting ourselves only to the former. God created us not only with a spiritual dimension but also with an intellectual and aesthetic dimension; those dimensions reflect something about his own wisdom and beauty, and He wants them to be cultivated. As Lewis argues,
If you attempted ... to suspend your whole intellectual and aesthetic activity, you would only succeed in substituting a worse cultural life for a better. You are not, in fact, going to read nothing ... if you don’t read good books, you will read bad ones. If you don’t go on thinking rationally, you will think irrationally. If you reject aesthetic satisfactions, you will fall into sensual satisfactions.
Thus, although it sounds holy, Lewis insists that God did not intend for religion to “exclude any of the ordinary human activities.” Instead, God’s call is to engage in all the natural activities that constitute human flourishing, but to pursue them in a different spirit.
A friend once suggested the following thought experiment: “Imagine that the church’s outreach efforts were miraculously successful and every person on earth became a Christian next Tuesday. What would God want us to do on Wednesday?”
A worldview that limits “sacred” work to things like preaching, mission trips, and “saving souls” might have trouble answering this.
In contrast, Lewis’ answer is that God would want us to continue to engage in the same sort of activities He has called us to pursue now—growing crops, educating children, building bridges, creating music, cooking food, playing sports, and, yes, reading books and studying.
The answer is not to stop pursuing the learned life because God cares about other goods and goals. He created the intellect for a good purpose—He loves it! Rather, as Lewis declares, the answer is "whatsoever you do, do all things to the glory of God”—i.e. pursue education as a way of “advancing to the vision of God” ourselves and helping others do the same.
Athens and Jerusalem are not opposing destinations; educational institutions and churches should work together and support each other in the joint task of forming people and promoting shalom.
The Millis Institute Celebrates Its Official Launch!
On Monday the Millis Institute celebrated it's launch with a wonderful evening at Tattersall's Club in downtown Brisbane. We were honoured to have Dr. James K. A. Smith, noted author and professor at Calvin College in Michigan, as our keynote speaker. Smith told how his own daughter never would have discovered her present passion and pathway without the subjects to which she was introduced through her liberal arts education. We were also blessed to have several of our students speak at this event and to have good friends provide beautiful music. I would sincerely like to thank all those who attended this celebration and contributed to the cause!
Congratulations, Dr. Benson!
Today a very important member of the Millis Institute team receives his doctorate at the University of Queensland. Dr David Benson, who teaches philosophy at the Institute and assists with many Institute programs, such as the Witherspoon Fellowship and the Path to Wisdom, has successfully completed his dissertation in practical theology. His research focused on the role of Sacred Texts within the Australian public education curriculum. Kudos to Dr Benson on his special day!