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The Archives: 2003 Convocation

ConvovcationIntellectual Courage

September 8th, 2003

Dr. Gaylen J. Byker, President
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Bonus: Time-lapse movie

Education is a lifelong endeavor, and anyone who wishes to flourish in it, observed John Henry Cardinal Newman, must cultivate certain "habits of the mind." In 1995, President Byker introduced the Calvin community to eight of these habits, drawing them from Newman's The Idea of a University. Since then, he and the former Dean of the Chapel, Neal Plantinga, have turned that single address into a ten-part series for the sake of exploring these habits further, one each year. Seven habits have already been explored: to love God with all our mind; to live in humility; to love our neighbors as ourselves; to embrace our duty as a gift for Kingdom service; to practice truthfulness; to ask worldview questions; and to take time for reflection. Today we take up an eighth—intellectual courage.

The scripture passage for this series is Romans 12:1-3:

Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God's mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God—this is your spiritual act of worship. Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God's will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.

The Address

Students, faculty, staff and friends of Calvin College: I’m delighted to be able to address you at the beginning of an academic year that promises so much. At my first convocation in 1995, I proposed eight habits of the mind that ought to characterize an exemplary Christian college community. I adapted these habits from the discourses of John Henry Newman on The Idea of a University as a way of sketching the “idea of Calvin College.”

Dr. Gaylen J. Byker, President address the future class of 2007Since then, Dr. Neal Plantinga, former Dean of the Chapel, and I have been alternating addresses each year, looking at individual habits of Christian minds that have been, as Paul urged in Romans 12, “transformed.” This year’s habit, Intellectual Courage, is the final one of the series.

Intellectual Courage is a particularly appropriate habit to examine in the context of Newman’s legacy because he was engaged in the founding of a Christian university in Ireland. He wanted to build an institution that was very different from what Oxford, Cambridge, and the officially recognized universities in Ireland had become. It took great courage for Newman to challenge the educational establishment of his day, to insist that the ideal university should be thoroughly Christian, and that it was essential to relate faith and theology to all academic disciplines. The historical theologian Jaroslav Pelikan describes Newman’s discourses as “the most important treatise on the idea of a university ever written in any language.” It is ironic that the discourses are now remembered and referred to primarily for their advocacy of liberal arts education, while their intellectually courageous basic premise about the Christian character of the ideal college education is largely ignored.

What is the nature of courage in general and intellectual courage in particular, what are its sources, how does it become a habit, and how should it function at Calvin College today?

Courage has been a topic of stories, traditions, moral teachings, and writings since ancient times when its prime examples came from elite male warrior culture. Old Testament heroes like Joshua and David and the warriors of Greek and Roman mythology demonstrated the quality of heart and mind that led them to persist in the face of opposition, danger, or hardship. The root of the word “courage” comes from “cor,” the Latin word for heart. It means literally to have the heart, the intestinal fortitude, to overcome fear and act on one’s convictions. John Wayne illustrated this classical physical concept of courage with the statement, “Courage is being scared to death – and saddling up anyway.”

But, what sorts of bold or heroic action should count as virtuous? Acting in the face of fear and opposition can lead to rash and foolhardy behavior, and boldness can serve evil purposes like those of a Lady Macbeth or a mafia hit man. Timothy McVeigh had firmly held convictions, and based on them he took great risks to blow up the Oklahoma City Federal Building and endured execution as a result. But that made him a tragic villain, not a hero.

In contrast, courage cannot be called a virtue unless it serves a just cause. It presupposes an understanding about what is true and good and the will to act to advance such goals. St. Ambrose maintained that only someone who is just and prudent, or wise, can also be brave. In other words, an action is only courageous if it is both unselfish—considering what is due to everyone involved, not just myself—and informed by a right understanding of God’s will. The heroes of faith – Abraham, Moses, Paul, the martyrs of the early Christian church and the European Christian resistors, who assisted Jews and hid them from Nazi German forces, had the courage of their convictions and were willing to risk and suffer injury and death for a righteous cause. Jesus prepared his disciples for this in the passage we just heard from John 14. He urged them not to let their hearts be troubled, in other words, to have courage, because he had given them inner support and a peace that was different than the peace the world gives.

Courage is based on convictions and hope. Courageous character and actions depend on belief in what is right and the hope that staying the course will produce a better future. Conversely, if someone loses hope we say the person has become “discouraged” – she is deprived of courage, she loses heart.

Discouragement, like the vices of timidity, cowardice, and passivity are opposites of courage.

Patience and perseverance are important aspects of courageous character and actions. Thomas Aquinas emphasized that endurance or “staying power” or steadfastness are essential qualities of a courageous person. Courage is often associated with the patience and resourcefulness of the women in Shakespeare’s plays – Viola in Twelfth Night, Rosalind in As You Like It. The moral of an old Norse fable about a boy who fights to maintain his grip on his friend who has fallen through the ice until help arrives concludes that, “Heroism consists in hanging on just one minute longer.”

What distinguishes intellectual courage from physical and other types of moral courage is its focus on intellectual tasks and intellectual risks and challenges—the types of tasks, risks, and challenges Paul faced in Athens in the passage we heard from Acts 17. In a forthcoming book on intellectual virtues, philosophers Bob Roberts and Jay Wood maintain that intellectual virtues are included in the category of moral virtues. As with other moral virtues, intellectual courage requires both mental aptitude—that is, well-trained intellectual powers—and the will or drive to act courageously in our thinking, reading, speaking, and writing. The dangers and difficulties the intellectually courageous person must face include loss of reputation or status, loss of home or friends, and loss of employment or other opportunities. In the context of repressive political regimes the threats may also include harm to oneself or one’s family and loss of life. In anti-religious contexts, such as many present-day universities or scientific settings, the threats may be ridicule, ostracism, and loss of promotion or employment. For students, the risks and challenges of intellectually courageous behavior may be the likelihood of feeling or looking foolish, of not fitting in with or being accepted by classmates and friends or being looked down upon because they ask for help.

Intellectual courage then, is the willingness to conceive, examine, hold, and advocate alternatives to popularly held beliefs or to beliefs held by those in power. Having intellectual courage means speaking honestly and forthrightly—telling the truth even though it will cost you dearly. Intellectual courage also involves the hope, patience, and perseverance to face opposition and stay the course. Virtuous intellectual courage is the willingness to do these things in the service of justice and truth.

It takes intellectual courage to be an “innovator,” to develop and advocate theories or policies that call for change when the majority or the powerful are committed to the status quo. Galileo, who argued that the earth and other planets revolved around the sun, demonstrated this kind of intellectual courage. So did the signers of the U.S. Declaration of Independence and members of the Solidarity Movement who brought about the fall of Communism in Poland.

But it also takes intellectual courage to be a “defender,” to hold to and advocate beliefs and traditions that the majority or the powerful believe are outmoded or wrong. St. Augustine demonstrated this kind of intellectual courage in arguing for a traditional, orthodox understanding of Christian faith and theology. John Henry Newman embodied such courage in his advocacy of a thoroughly Christian philosophy and curriculum for university education. The women who blew the whistles at Enron and WorldCom had the intellectual courage to bring the truth to light in the face of opposition and threats from their executives, accountants, and lawyers.

C.S. Lewis wrote in The Screwtape Letters that, “Courage is not simply one of the virtues, but the form of every virtue at the testing point.” How can we cultivate this habit, as individuals and as a community so that we can stand firm when we are tested? What are the sources of intellectual courage? Aquinas argued that the ultimate source of our willingness and ability to be intellectually courageous comes from God. It takes inner strength to accept that there is no real human security and to submit to and trust in the providence of God. The Christian who submits to God’s will and God’s truth is thus connected to a transcendent reserve of strength in his struggle for good. In John 14 Jesus tells his disciples that this will happen. He urges them to have courage and promises that he will send the Spirit of truth to enable them to be at peace in the face of testing. The Spirit will be a transcendent source of encouragement. The spirit will be sent to encourage them – it will help them “take heart.”

God develops this habit in us gradually as we grow in spiritual and intellectual maturity. And, he often uses others to teach us courage by their examples. These are human sources of encouragement. We observe courageous people in action either in real life or through stories, biographies, sermons, and films. As young people imitate intellectually courageous people and actions they learn how to be intellectually courageous themselves. In a chapter poignantly entitled “Guts is a Habit,” Harvard Research Associate, Katherine Platt, says the practice of courage is the end result of a complex internal process. She goes on to argue that courage as a practice or habit requires inner honesty, a vision of courageous action, and conscious choice. In these respects the habit of intellectual courage is a performing art, like learning to play the cello well or developing into a great basketball player. It requires coaching, role models, mastery of the fundamentals, and lots of practice. Jonathan Edwards described this process as the honing of religious affections until the automatic response is to say an enthusiastic “yes” to the Gospel and its power to transform, and an emphatic “no” to wrong and evil.

Trusting God for strength and practicing courage with the help of role models are best learned in community—from parents, peers, teachers, witnesses, pastors, books, and films. A community that has intellectual courage also holds itself and its members accountable, thus developing habits and expectations of courageous character and action.

How can Calvin be a community that encourages intellectual courage? How should this virtue shape the actions of the individuals and community that comprise the College? To begin, we need to understand and draw upon the sources of encouragement; the transcendent truth, hope and strength that we receive from God, and the human role modeling of others. This will mean that our understanding and practice of intellectual courage will differ significantly from the understanding and practice of the culture we live in.

We must be an encouraging community, a community where asking and answering hard questions is expected and commonplace, but where we can also face challenges and fears together. We must have patience and perseverance, and as a community, hold ourselves accountable for modeling the habit of intellectual courage. We must also avoid discouraging attitudes and behaviors and counter the tendencies toward timidity, cowardice, and passivity.

Calvin should be a community of innovators that can show leadership and embrace change when it is necessary. We should also be a community of defenders that “sticks to its guns when conviction demands tenacity,” as the Purpose Statement of the Core Curriculum says in its description of the virtue of courage.

I would like to conclude by offering a role model for each of these types of intellectual courage. The first is the life’s work of Dr. Martin Luther King, an innovator, who advocated and organized patiently and persistently for changes in race relations and civil rights. Dr. King acknowledged and relied upon the Gospel message as the transcendent source of his courage, as well as upon the human sources of encouragement he experienced in the communities of which he was a part. His inner honesty, his vision of courageous action, and his conscious choice to persist in the face of difficulties, threats, and eventual assassination grew out of his hope for a just, integrated multiracial society modeled after the church at Pentecost. He strongly resisted the easier solution of a divided society that would resemble the City of Babel. Dr. King’s life and work provide us much to study and emulate as we seek to make Calvin an intellectually courageous community that is willing to challenge evils or errors in the status quo.

The example of intellectual courage in defending well-grounded convictions with tenacity comes from closer to home. Dr. Alvin Plantinga, who taught philosophy at Calvin for many years before moving to the University of Notre Dame, has dedicated his work to defending traditional Christian beliefs in the world of philosophy in the face of considerable opposition. In a recent article in Christianity Today, Dr. Plantinga is described as “arguably the greatest philosopher of the twentieth century,” who “has helped preserve a space for intellectually respectable Christian belief.” He has argued convincingly that Christians are warranted in believing in the objective truth of the Biblical narrative: that the world was created by a perfectly good personal God, that sin entered the world through human action, that human beings require salvation, and that God has provided a unique way of salvation through the incarnation, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Dr. Plantinga has been swimming against the tide in the academy, where there is great pressure to conform, and where his efforts are often met with contempt and ridicule. He has acted with patient, creative intellectual courage in the seemingly overwhelming tides of relativism, naturalism, and postmodernism because he sees that his intellectual integrity is at stake. Dr. Plantinga consistently describes the role of the Holy Spirit in giving Christians knowledge of the truth and the courage to articulate it. And he frequently cites the Calvin College community and the Society of Christian Philosophers as important human sources of encouragement.

Dr. Martin Luther King and Dr. Alvin Plantinga provide two impressive role models for the Calvin community to study and emulate as we work to become consistently more intellectually courageous.

Our charge, as a Christian college community, is the same as the one Joshua received: “Be strong and courageous, do not be frightened, do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.” (Joshua 1:9)

Amen!