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The Archives: 2002 Convocation

ConvocationCelebrating the New Year

September 9th, 2002


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. Six 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 fro Kingdom service; to practice truthfulness; and asking worldview questions. Today we take up the seventh—the habit of reflection.

The scripture passage for this series is Roman 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

The Habit of Reflection

By Dr. Cornelius Plantinga, Jr.
Calvin Theological Seminary

President Byker, students, staff, faculty, alums, members of the Board, and other friends of Calvin College: Thank you for inviting me to address you on this warm morning in September. It's wonderful to be back with you at my alma mater.

For all of us it's a fresh start, and especially for you first-year students. May I say to you that your next four years in this terrific Christian college are going to be so full of good learning, good friends, good music, good sports, good worship of God—I say these years will be so full of good things that when you come back to this building for Commencement in 2006 you will want to graduate, but you may not want to leave. God shines in all that's fair, and God's light does shine across this campus.

Cornelius Plantinga, Jr. - Click image to enlarge viewMy assigned topic in the sequence [from Cardinal Newman, The Idea of a University] that President Byker and I have been following for years now is "The Habit of Reflection." [Aside to President Byker: Why am I still doing this? I don't even work here any more!] As you know, reflection is the habit of taking time to ponder things in life, to meditate on them. If you have this habit, maybe you like to lie on the Commons lawn, and chew a blade or two of grass while you sort of think everything over.

The habit of reflection. To get ready to speak on this habit, I read some articles and essays. I e-mailed a number of colleagues here and asked for their wisdom. I went on-line and did a Google search. One afternoon, I grappled with whole stacks of books in the library. To tell you the truth, I worked up quite a lather over the Habit of Reflection and here's my conclusion.

There isn't any such thing. It's gone. People don't do reflection any more. They used to reflect on stuff back in the nineteenth century when Cardinal Newman was writing, but that was before pop tarts and e-mail. That was before we had "all news, all the time." Nobody was open 24/7 in those days and nobody would have even understood that abbreviation. Put it like this: In the old days, no accidents were caused by men who were trying to shave, drink coffee, close a business deal, and drive their Beemer all at the same time.

Life was slower, and people had time to reflect on it. Now they don't, and I'm afraid there's not much to talk about here.

And so, drawing to a close, I'd like to thank you again for inviting me to speak. But next time, please don't give me one of these bogus topics like The Habit of Reflection.

And yet . . . . there must be something to it. There must be something to this habit. I know that TV forms us in so many ways, and that TV doesn't like to show people thinking. TV isn't like the great philosopher Plato. When Plato tells us about his mentor Socrates, he sometimes writes five simple words: "Here Socrates stopped to think."

TV doesn't do much of that because it's boring to watch a person think. In fact, if Bill O'Reilly stopped to think before he talked, he wouldn't be number 1 in talk-show TV.

But even on TV there are exceptions. If you've seen re-runs of the old Columbo series on NBC—you know, the one where Peter Falk plays Liutenant Columbo, the most persistent and dilapidated homicide detective on TV—if you recall, there is usually one very revealing head shot in each episode. The camera zooms in as Falk touches the side of his face with a hand that also holds a dead cigar. He touches his face for a little while, and then something in the actor's eye tells us he's got it. He's got it. He knows how the killer did it. It's a turning point in the episode, and the director sharpens it by showing that "Here Lieutenant Columbo stopped to think."

Contemporary North American culture does value speed and snap judgments. And yet, for days now we've paused to think about what happened a year ago in New York and Washington and Pennsylvania. What really happened to the world on 9/11? How has life changed? What have we learned and what do we stubbornly refuse to learn? TV and print journalism these days are full of thoughtful commentary on such issues.. The day-after-tomorrow, at around 8:45, people will stop to think, and many will stop to pray. We ourselves will gather in the chapel twice on Wednesday to do the same.

As a matter of fact, authentic human life, even in these fast times, is still built on the habit of reflection. Scientists still review their findings. Artists still step back from their work and think about it. Politicians still spend hours figuring out why they lost the last election. It's perfectly human to mull things over, and people do it all the time in sports, in education, in business, and elsewhere.

Of course, we haven't gotten to a state of "all reflection, all the time," but some of the time is good enough, and you can see reflection happening all around you. In athletics, great team defense works in part because some smart coach sat and thought about it. Great teaching in Calvin College happens because most profs review class sessions to figure out what worked and what didn't, and the best ones get their students to help them. A third example: The business leader Max DePree told a number of us one day that leadership includes things like choosing gifts very carefully. Good leaders don't necessarily choose expensive gifts, mind you. They choose gifts that say to the recipient: You matter enough to me that I've spent time thinking about how to please you.

I want to say that the habit of reflection is perfectly human! God has endowed us with certain unalienable capacities, and reflection is one of the most illustrious of them. Even sixth-month-old babies sometimes adopt a contemplative look. Yes, they drool a good deal, but it's only because they're thinking about something delicious.

One of our good colleagues here at Calvin College wrote to me that her two-year-old recently asked her how you put underwear on lions. Imagine, writes our colleague-imagine how much time a child must spend wondering about the world, and trying almost desperately to make connections between things no adult had ever thought of connecting.

The habit of reflection is one of the glories of our humanity, and on this Christian campus we naturally respect a person who shows a little of this glory. This is a person who thinks before she replies. This is a person who won't jump to conclusions. This is a person who absorbs knowledge instead of trying to cram it in. A reflective person notices details that elude the rest of us. A reflective person treats history not as a dead subject, but as a living teacher. A reflective person-get this-a reflective person periodically looks up from a book or a screen and simply thinks about what he has encountered there.

These are excellent habits, and the terrible truth is that some very bad people have them. People sometimes use reflection—this powerful human capacity, this great engine of science and art and worship and hospitality and so much else-people sometimes use it to cheat, to humiliate, or even to exterminate other human beings.

A lot of the Enron guys had college degrees, and they used their education to perpetrate a fraud that was disastrous in part because it was so thoughtful. In ordinary life, a humiliating remark hits you where it hurts because somebody stopped to think about where you are vulnerable. The health experts who worry about chemical and biological attacks spend a lot of time reflecting on previous deployment of these weapons, but so do the criminals who are making new ones.

To paraphrase David Jeffrey [from a recent editorial in Books & Culture], the habit of reflection doesn't keep anybody from evil, and may even contribute to it. Thoughtful people can be especially dangerous people. As we recall, 9/11 was meticulously planned.

So here is where we need a word from the Lord. Proverbs 8 reminds us, I believe, what the habit of reflection is for. My friend Raymond Van Leeuwen has been clueing me in to this marvelous and mysterious chapter. Proverbs 8 introduces us to Dame Wisdom, who is, so to speak, God's "architectural associate" as God fits together the deep structures of reality. Wisdom is a woman in Proverbs 8. The world has firm footings, green trees, blue skies, and dynamic processes because when it came time to design them God thought the best man for the job was a woman.

Even God doesn't create without consulting his wisdom! And the reason is that from creation till now, God is out to generate life. God wants things to flourish. The whole idea in heaven and in the kingdom of heaven is to flourish by causing others to flourish, and this above all is what the wise woman and the wise man understand.

The habit of reflection is one of wisdom's children, and we want it because it helps us fit ourselves into God's world, to discover it, to learn from it, to delight in its joys and lament its curses. We want the habit of reflection in order to find God's purposes in the world and make them our own. In short, we ourselves want to flourish by helping all creation to flourish.

This means we will want the mind of Jesus Christ, who emptied himself and took on the form of a servant. To follow him, we will have to be ready to accept the pain of getting out of ourselves to reflect on the world, on history, on nature and her dynamic processes. We'll need tom get out of our little cocoons to reflect on others, on their lives, on how to help them to thrive. I know that it's painful to get out of ourselves in these ways. It's painful to struggle to understand the world in all of its beauty and all of its tragedy. In fact, it's sometimes mortifying to do it.

But these death pangs are also birth pangs that bring life wherever we accept them. And those who are wise cherish life. In fact, wherever they go, things spring to life.

So let there be life on this campus this year, caused by people who are thoughtful in both senses of the world. Let there be a market surge in wisdom, and in the good habit of reflection.

God bless you on the way this year.