If you want to evangelise a neighbourhood you plant a church; if you want to evangelise a culture you start a university. That is the vision that brought CHC into being. It is the vision that brought me here as a student 20 years ago, and that has brought me back today as the new director of the Millis Institute.
Looking for the Millis Institute
I was almost fresh from high school when I first came to CHC. I didn’t really know what I wanted to do with my life. But I loved books and ideas and God – and I loved discussing those things with other people. I was 19 years old and I wanted to study literature, philosophy, theology, the history of ideas. I wanted to go deeper and to put it all together somehow. I wasn’t looking for a job; I was looking for foundations for my life. I was looking for the Millis Institute – though it did not exist yet.
So I did my Bachelor of Arts and went on to do further studies at James Cook University, followed by a postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Queensland and a visiting fellowship in Princeton. Then I moved to Sydney where for the past decade I have been teaching theology and the history of Christian thought at Charles Sturt University.
But the vision that first brought me to CHC has never left me. So when Ryan Messmore told me he would be taking up a new position in the United States, I eagerly seized the opportunity to return to Brisbane and to continue Dr Messmore’s pioneering work at the Millis Institute.
The Millis Institute is about the study of culture and the shaping of culture. Our culture is our collective spiritual life. It includes how we think, what we value, how we make meaning, how we use symbols and imagination, the things we love and strive for – that whole bundle of things that Charles Taylor refers to as the “social imaginary.”
The evangelisation of culture does not mean that every individual in a society becomes a Christian. It means instead that the culture itself begins to yield to the reforming and revitalising influence of the gospel. There have been societies in which virtually everyone was a member of the Christian church, yet collectively their cultural life was opposed to the gospel. That happened in Nazi Germany, where millions of respectable church-going citizens embraced a demonic ideology. Individually they were Christians, but their culture – and with it the whole of European culture – descended into spiritual darkness and material ruin.
By contrast, there are societies in which Christians form only a minority, but that “little platoon” (as Edmund Burke called it) exerts a disproportionate influence on the wider cultural imagination. Where that happens, the laws of a society will be measured against the perfect standard of God’s justice. Politics will prize the search for truth more highly than naked power and self-interest. Education will take seriously both the dignity and the disorder of human nature. Art and music will point beyond themselves to an eternal weight of glory.
An Ongoing Task
The evangelisation of culture cannot happen in one instant. True conversion takes a lifetime. Five hundred years ago Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the church door in Wittenberg. In that epoch-making document, Luther reminded the church that conversion to Christ must extend across the whole course of life:
“When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ
said to repent, he willed that the whole life of
believers should be one of repentance.”
It is the same with the conversion of culture. The evangelisation of culture is an ongoing task that demands a long-range vision. It requires institutions with deep roots. It requires education that nourishes the whole person. It requires generations of leaders and thinkers and policy-makers who can engage critically and creatively with their own cultural moment.
All of us participate in culture. But often that participation is passive and unreflective. We share the values, yearnings, and aspirations of our culture without really knowing why. The Millis Institute equips future leaders with the capacity to engage deliberately and reflectively with their culture. The study of the liberal arts equips students to be shapers, not just consumers, of culture. It frees our minds from the tyranny of the present. Immersion in the larger traditions of Western civilisation gives us a critical perspective on ourselves and our culture. We read the great books because through them we discover ourselves – our prejudices and blind spots as well as our distinctive virtues and possibilities.
This Year at Millis
I’m excited to be taking on this role at the Millis Institute. And I’m excited about our many initiatives this year. We’ve just launched our revamped website with fresh content about our teaching faculty and publications. We’re now commencing our Graduate Diploma in Liberal Arts, a one-year (full-time) or two-year (part-time) degree featuring philosophy, literature, theology, geometry, mathematics, rhetoric, and more.
This semester a number of our students will be heading off to Oxford University where they will engage in intensive study in the Oxford Summer Program. And we will be launching a generous new scholarship scheme to support Millis students who plan to attend the Oxford Summer Program as part of their degree.
Students in our Bachelor of Arts program this year will be reading and discussing some of the most powerful and influential books of Western culture – Plato’s Republic, Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, Augustine’s City of God, Dante’s Divine Comedy, Milton’s Paradise Lost, Hobbes’s Leviathan, Pascal’s Pensées – alongside modern authors like C. S. Lewis, Dorothy Sayers, T. S. Eliot, and Simone Weil. Our Socratic seminars will explore the biggest ideas of Western culture, from love and justice to ethics and education, from astronomy and anatomy to democracy and the doctrine of the Trinity.
In June we will be hosting the Future Leaders Fellowship (formerly the Witherspoon Fellowship), a two-day program in which a select group of high school students gets to experience an immersion in the culture of Socratic dialogue and liberal arts education.
In April we’ll be hosting our next Café Conversation, a public dialogue at Rivers Café exploring issues in contemporary culture. And in May the Millis Institute will be launching a new book, The Apostles’ Creed: A Guide to the Ancient Catechism – one of many books by our faculty.
It will be an exciting year and I look forward to engaging with our students and with the whole Millis community as together we strive to become shapers of culture to the glory of God.
Dr Ben Myers
Director, The Millis Institute