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The Archives: 2005 Convocation

ConvocationWhere Shall We Find Wisdom?

Tuesday, September 6, 2005

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Themes

Opening Convocation 2005 Program
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(PDF 254K)

Opening Convocation calls us together to dedicate a new academic year to God and inspire renewal in all things. This annual event is one of the rare opportunities during the academic year for the entire Calvin community to assemble for a time of worship, dedication, and renewal. All department and administrative offices will be closed during Convocation and the class schedule is modified so that all students, faculty, staff and other members of the community can participate.

In his book The Creative Word: Canon as a Model for Biblical Education, Walter Brueggemann suggests that the various approaches to teaching and learning that we find in Scripture can continue to inspire our teaching and learning within Christian community today. This year we are considering the Biblical model of Wisdom. The scripture passages for Convocation 2005 are Job 28: 12-28 and Colossians 2: 2-3, 9-12, and 3:1-4.

The Address

"Where Shall We Find Wisdom?"

Dr. Laura Smit, Dean of the Chapel
Calvin College
September 6, 2005

On September 11, 2001, the faculty at Calvin College met our classes. Perhaps that does not strike you as surprising, but I know that it did not feel entirely natural to go to class that day. Something so significant was happening, that it seemed as though everything else should stop. And of course for much of that day we did not know exactly what was happening, and there was some fear that there would be further attacks, that we had only witnessed the first wave of something larger. People were nervous, and holding class did not feel very natural. But I remember receiving an email sometime in the late morning from our provost instructing us on no account to cancel class but to carry on. He told the faculty that the best way to serve our students was to hold class. And we did.

Dr. Laura Smit, Dean of the ChapelI was teaching two afternoon classes that day, and I remember wondering how I was going to handle teaching when it felt as though all the normal rules of life had been suspended. In some ways, it was not a normal class time. We spent more time than usual in prayer. Some of us were near tears, and a few students — those with friends or family members in New York City — did not appear. But for the most part it was a normal class period. My notes tell me that I lectured on Paul’s 1st Epistle to the Corinthians as a paradigm for the interaction between Christianity and culture, which was the lecture I had scheduled for that day.

The fact that the provost had to direct us to meet our classes suggested to me that some people thought class was an inadequate or even an irrelevant way to respond to a crisis of such magnitude. This isn’t surprising. It doesn’t take much of a crisis for people to start suggesting that the academic life is irrelevant. What was unusual about September 11 was that so many of us were feeling the same thing at the same time because the crisis was shared. In normal life, our crises and distractions tend to be more particular, more personal. But the sense that our academic work is irrelevant, that there is no real point to doing what we do — that sense is not confined to moments of great national crisis. Perhaps someone in your family is very sick — or perhaps you are sick yourself, thinking with atypical immediacy about the inevitability of death. Perhaps you have had your heart broken by someone you love, or you have had a nasty fight with someone you thought was a good friend, or you are experiencing some financial worries, or you are going through a time of spiritual dryness and depression. Any of these experiences may lead an individual person to question the significance of what we do. I would guess that every faculty member here heard students offer such crises to explain erratic attendance or poor performance in a class, and I would guess that most faculty and staff also know what it is to struggle through a work day when in the midst of such a personal crisis.

It is natural that we find such experiences distracting, but I want to suggest to you this morning that the impression of irrelevance is an illusion, that the feelings we sometimes have — as if the crisis or the sickness or the heartbreak is somehow more real, more significant than the project of pursuing wisdom — that those feelings are not trustworthy. On that memorable afternoon, September 11, 2001, I brought an essay with me to class, and before launching into my lecture on the Corinthian paradigm I read some passages to my students. I found out later that all across the campus other faculty members were picking up the same essay: C. S. Lewis’ “Learning in War Time.” It’s a sermon, actually, preached in Oxford in 1939. Many of Lewis’ students were questioning the relevance of study while their country was at war, and this sermon was Lewis’ answer. His main point is that a crisis such as a war does not really introduce any new situation into our lives, since each of us is always living with the certainty of death, which must be followed by eternal judgment, leading either to heaven or to hell, a crisis next to which any war is small potatoes. Christian university students must always ask themselves, according to Lewis, “how it is right, or even psychologically possible, 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. If human culture can stand up to that,” — and Lewis very emphatically believes that it can — “it can stand up to anything. To admit that we can retain our interest in learning under the shadow of these eternal issues but not under the shadow of a European war would be to admit that our ears are closed to the voice of reason and very wide open to the voice of our nerves and our mass emotions.”1

If the knowledge that you’re going to die someday doesn’t prevent you from studying, then it is not reasonable to be deterred from study by any lesser crisis, no matter how dramatic it is. This is a typical Lewis maneuver. He knows that the conventional argument will be that it is not reasonable to spend time in school when there are much more practical and important things to be done, and so he seizes that argument for his own side, stating that reason supports study whereas only nervous emotion and mass hysteria could prompt us to give up on education.

Do you find that argument convincing? Many people talk about a college education as if it is an escape, a luxury that is hard to justify in the face of mass suffering and mass injustice. Certainly, full-time study is a great privilege that many people in the world would give anything to possess, but it does not follow that this privileged life is irrelevant, or trivial, or culpable, or unjust. People who think that it is irrelevant or trivial or culpable or unjust typically believe that only practical knowledge matters. So perhaps engineers could justify spending four years in college, since after all they will emerge with some skills and be more useful than they would have been otherwise, but a liberal arts education is clearly a selfish indulgence with no real practical payoff. In your heart of hearts some of you may believe just that.

In his book Shantung Compound, Langdon Gilkey tells of the experience of living in a prison camp in China during the Japanese occupation. The Japanese rounded up all the foreigners living in China and placed them in camps, where they were largely left to their own governance. The conditions were primitive, but what Gilkey found was that people made things worse, not better, by their selfishness. When Gilkey first went to the camp, he was a pragmatist. He thought that the only people who were really valuable within this new society were the ones with some practical skill — the plumbers, and bakers, and engineers. He thought that the camp experience demonstrated conclusively the worthlessness of a liberal arts education, such as his own. But after some time in the camp, Gilkey changed his mind. Practical skills could only help make the camp run more efficiently if the people in the camp were willing to behave decently to one another, to put the good of the community above their own personal privilege, to sacrifice and to care for each other. And the tools to inspire them to do such things — to become people of character — were not practical tools, but the tools of a liberal arts education, specifically a religious liberal arts education. Gilkey concluded that the only hope for a truly “civilized” society was a shared religious faith that had been internalized and allowed to shape people’s character, their patterns of thinking and acting.

Dr. Laura Smit speaking to first-year students.When it comes to that ultimate test, facing God’s judgment, it will not matter so much what you have done, but it will matter eternally what you have become, what sort of person you are, whether you have the mind of Christ, whether your character has been shaped to be like his. That process of character formation requires meditating on God’s law — which doesn’t just mean the ten commandments, but — much more significantly — God’s whole design for the world, God’s design for you. You cannot be a person who lives in harmony with God’s design until you have meditated on that design. Such meditating — that is to say, such loving contemplation — on the structure of the world is precisely what happens in a Christian liberal arts education.

Of course, there are people who would agree that it is important to meditate on God’s design for the world, but who would nonetheless think that education is a waste of time, since — they would say — we can very well meditate on our own without any help. In fact, really loving contemplation of the structure of the world is a matter of personal experience, such people would suggest, and the abstract study of a discipline is irrelevant, because only the concrete, the particular, and the personal is real. This seems to be the mindset of many of those people who are now refusing to leave New Orleans. Their long experience of living in that city tells them that hurricanes are survivable, that everything will be back to normal soon, and they are choosing to trust their personal experience rather than listen to the abstract theory of the army corps of engineers.

In Mere Christianity C. S. Lewis tells the story of a man who didn’t think he should have to bother learning theology because he’d had some powerful personal experiences of God. Lewis acknowledges that such experiences may have profound value. Such a person, he says, may claim to know God the way someone who spends a lot of time at the beach may claim to know the ocean. But if you want to cross the ocean, a map would be more helpful than your personal memories of the beach, and if you want to journey toward a deeper knowledge of God, theology is a sort of map that will help you more than personal experience alone. Then Lewis makes the point that a map of the ocean is not opposed to experience but is rather based on the composite experience of hundreds of people, and Christian theology is not opposed to experience but is rather based on the composite experience of thousands of people. In the same way, the academic life builds on the experience of tens of thousands of people who have gone before us in any given discipline — people who have thought and written and experimented. We don’t withdraw from experience when we step into the academic world, but we do draw back into a broader view, so that we see not just our own perspective but the perspective of many thinking people all at once.

We look around us and it appears that the world is falling apart, but even so it is good for us to be here starting another academic year. In a recent editorial, political columnist David Brooks observed, “Americans have had to acknowledge dark realities that it is not in our nature to readily acknowledge: the thin veneer of civilization, the elemental violence in human nature, the lurking ferocity of the environment, the limitations on what we can plan and know, the cumbersome reactions of bureaucracies, the uncertain progress good makes over evil.”

When I read such things I’m grateful to be a Calvinist. That pessimistic list contains no surprises for me. Furthermore, I know that this is the way things always are — not just at a moment of national emergency, but always. The veneer of civilization is always thin. Human nature is always prone to violence. The natural world is never under our control. The only reason that we have to trust in the ultimate triumph of good over evil is that there’s been an external intervention into the messed up system of human society.

So when Job asks, “Where shall wisdom be found?” the answer is that wisdom originates outside this system. Wisdom isn’t something we control or construct. It’s something we receive and discover. I started this lecture with the question: What’s the point of academic life in the midst of crisis? The book of Job says that such questions can only be answered from a place of humility. The way of knowing that is represented in Job — and in all the wisdom books, which we’ll be focusing on in chapel this year — is the way of encountering mystery rather than solving problems. The wisdom tradition tells us to erect a frame of humility around our exploration, for from the very beginning we acknowledge our limits. Only God holds absolute wisdom, and our understanding is always qualified, always small compared to his.

On September 11, 2001, the community of Calvin College also gathered for worship — not once, but twice. We had our regular 10 o’clock chapel, which is where many of us heard about the attacks for the first time. And then we gathered again in the late afternoon, after our classes were finished, filling the chapel with faculty, staff, and students, all gathered for a time of prayer. Our passage from Job tells us that wisdom is framed by humility, but it is also grounded in worship, in the fear of the Lord, which is the starting point for all true knowledge. That’s why we have daily worship here at Calvin College, because apart from shared worship, there is no shared wisdom.

Many of you probably saw pictures on the news of a church along the gulf coast that had been completely demolished except for the concrete slab that was its foundation, and this past Sunday the congregation gathered on that slab for their weekly worship service. I can promise you that if a tornado were to sweep through Western Michigan tomorrow and demolish this campus, as soon as it was safe we would be gathered in the rubble to worship together. And then we would have class. Because no matter what disasters shake the world, wisdom is worth pursuing.

1. “Learning in War-Time,” The Weight of Glory (NY: Collier, 1975), p. 21.