August 17, 2020
Why should anyone go to college right now? Or seminary? The last six months have shown the world just how fragile our health and economies have become. Despite the elderly being most affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, news accounts regularly share stories of perfectly healthy young people succumbing to the effects of the pandemic. Even for those who are healthy, the economic realities of lost jobs due to quarantine—combined with the skyrocketing expense of higher education—have left many potential learners second-guessing their career goals.
Decades ago, C. S. Lewis addressed similar questions in his essay, “Learning in War-Time.” Writing during the second world war, Lewis asked how anyone could trifle with the thought of studying when young men were dying on the battlefield. Yet he pointed out that war does not increase our mortality rate—after all, everybody dies. The mortality rate is 100 percent, and that can’t go any higher. War simply makes us more aware of our mortality. War “aggravates the permanent human situation so that we can no longer ignore it. Human life has always been lived on the edge of a precipice.... If men had postponed the search for knowledge and beauty until they were secure, the search would never have begun.” Instead, Lewis argues that education is necessary even in dire times. The world will go on, despite the variety of calamities it regularly faces, and we must be prepared to respond. “If all the world were Christian, it might not matter if all the world were uneducated,” Lewis says. “But, as it is, a cultural life will exist outside the Church whether it exists inside or not. To be ignorant and simple now—not to be able to meet the enemies on their own ground—would be to throw down our weapons, and to 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.”
And so, even in times of pandemic, an education still has value. But Lewis’ educational world was far different from our own. In recent years, a consumerist mentality has warped the educational system so that education no longer means an opportunity to learn, but rather a degree to be obtained: Pay your tuition and get your degree! Claim the piece of paper that gives you access to better jobs and higher pay! Education has become a means to an end, rather than an end in and of itself.
Even within the church we see this attitude twisting the Gospel message: Explain four spiritual laws to unbelievers and rejoice when they say the prayer of salvation! But the life of discipleship? Where do the four spiritual laws explain the depth and riches and beauty of that? Discipleship is relegated to a footnote on the pamphlet. Instead, accepting Christ has become merely a matter of “fire insurance,” assuring people they won’t go to hell when they die. But the life of discipleship—a life of learning to imitate Christ and submit to the promptings of the Holy Spirit—this is the life worth living. Those who truly are in Christ “now ‘walk after the Spirit,’ both in their hearts and lives,” according to John Wesley. “They are taught of him to love God and their neighbour, with a love which is as ‘a well of water, springing up into everlasting life.’ And by him they are led into every holy desire, into every divine and heavenly temper, till every thought which arises in their heart is holiness unto the Lord” (Sermon on “The First Fruits of the Spirit”). The life of discipleship must come before any focus on eternity, not as a work to earn salvation, but as a response to salvation already received. If we turn the Gospel into a transaction rather than a life of transformation, we jump to the end of the story and offer a truncated Gospel that presents only a parody of God’s good design for human flourishing.
Similarly, Christian students entering higher education must resist this cultural urge to skip the process and jump to graduation. Although God may be calling a student to become a doctor or a teacher or a pastor, the fulfillment does not begin (or the learning end) when the degree is in hand or the competency exam has been passed. Rather, God is remaking each student now, through the calling to education. The daily choices, the lessons learned, the insights gained—these are all forming the student into a new creation, for better or for worse. Just as the life with Christ cannot be reduced to a transaction but must involve transformation, so too must a student take on the daily task of being transformed by his or her learning. For the Christian, this process is never merely secular, regardless of the subject. If Christ is truly Lord over our lives, then faith cannot be relegated to Sunday morning service alone. Instead, believers recognize that Christ is at work in all of the tasks laid before us—both mundane and profound. Education tends to involve more of the former, sprinkled with a bit of the latter.
Often it is difficult for a student to see how a particular class session or topic might influence the kind of professional that a student desires to become. Certainly it is incumbent upon professors and academic advisors to communicate better the importance of these topics. Whether in college or seminary, educational institutions often require a core set of courses (sometimes called “general education” or “core courses” or “foundations”), regardless of the specific major. A creative writing major may not understand why a math course is necessary, or an engineering major may lament the sociology requirement, or a pastoral ministry major may question the need to understand the intricacies of the synoptic problem. But these often unpopular requirements are designed to shape students in particular ways. Developing critical thinking skills through a philosophy course, or sparking creative imagination through a fine arts course, or promoting analytical acumen through a statistics course—these all help to develop mental agility that will prove invaluable to students in whatever profession they choose.
As Jesus began to train his disciples, he often taught lessons that didn’t make sense at the time. When Jesus spoke to a Samaritan woman by a well, the disciples were surprised that Jesus had deigned to engage her in conversation (Jn. 4:27). Social conventions simply didn’t permit such intermingling. But Jesus was training his disciples to consider new possibilities, to look beyond the norms of the day and discover how God might be moving in a new direction. When Jesus chose to include both a tax collector and a Zealot among his closest followers, he taught his disciples not to let political allegiances get in the way of true allegiance to the Kingdom of God. When Jesus taught from the Torah (“you have heard it said...”) and then responded, “but I say unto you...,” he urged his disciples to develop critical thinking skills to analyze God’s commands carefully and not simply accept the popular reading of a text. At times, his students were resistant. When Jesus began to share what kind of messiah he would be—that he would suffer and die—Peter rebuked him (Mt. 16:22). But Jesus continued to teach the unpopular topic, because the truth was too important to set aside.
Getting an education is often tedious, confusing, and difficult. It may be tempting to take shortcuts, whether by skipping classes or googling answers, or simply not applying oneself fully to the assignment at hand. In the movie Karate Kid, Daniel did not understand why Mr. Miyagi assigned Daniel to perform household chores when he was supposed to be learning karate. Sand the floor, wax on, wax off, paint the fence. Daniel was exhausted, angry, and ready to quit. But then Mr. Miyagi demonstrated that these tedious motions provided a powerful means of blocking kicks and punches. Daniel’s outlook changed to fascination and perseverance.
Most students will not have this kind of sudden conversion experience from confusion to understanding. Rather, they will be like the servants at the wedding in Cana who took the long walk across the banquet floor to the chief steward (Jn. 2:8). They knew they had filled their jars with simple water, yet they followed Jesus’ instructions. Did they worry they would be chastised by the steward for bringing merely a cup of water for him to taste? Yet by the time they reached the steward, the cup that had been filled from those same jars had turned into the finest of wines. Transformation occurred somewhere along the way. When God calls people to education, God is not asking them to make themselves into the finest of wines on day one. Rather, God is asking students to apply themselves faithfully to the task at hand so that God has the opportunity to change the water into wine.
Peter ultimately succeeded in the classroom of Jesus, not because he understood the lesson immediately (he often didn’t), nor because he walked with Jesus for more than three years. Judas did that, too, and he clearly failed. Simply attending class is not enough. In fact, many people experienced the great teachings of Jesus but did not comprehend the fullness of the lessons. When Jairus asked Jesus to go to his house and heal his daughter, many people were in the crowd that day, trying to draw close to the Master. But it was the woman who had been hemorrhaging for 12 years who received miraculous healing. When Jesus stopped and noted that someone had touched him, Peter rather impatiently responded that everyone was pressing in on Jesus (Lk. 8:45). Yet power had gone out from Jesus to only one person in the crowd—the one who had reached out in faith, desiring nothing else. The terrifying aspect of this story is that it is possible to come into the very presence of Jesus and not receive what he is so willing to give. For the bleeding woman, however, attitude and attention to the goal made all the difference. She found the source of life when others could not receive what was right in front of them.
Even though Peter did not always understand the lessons of the day, he continued to strive after truth. Time and again, after he failed, Peter returned to Jesus to be shaped and formed once more. When Peter slipped under the waters after walking on the Sea of Galilee, when he misunderstood the meaning of messiah, when he denied knowing the Lord to whom he had just pledged undying loyalty, when he experienced profound confusion after witnessing Jesus die on the cross, Peter had ample opportunity to give up and accept failure as his defining narrative. But these profound disappointments provided the necessary breeding ground for new revelations. Time and again Peter discovered a Lord who drew Peter to him in grace and love. Transformation so often occurs in the milieu of failure.
Those who experience the call to higher education must remember that Christ’s call upon their lives is never about jumping through hoops to get to the next level. Rather, Christ’s call is always about transformation. It is a process often fraught with missteps and misunderstandings, as well as the joy of discovery. But as students faithfully commit themselves to follow Christ in their education, they will discover that their bland water is being transformed into the best of wines. If we are the same person when we boldly don our graduation robes as we were when we stepped into new student orientation, then we have missed the point. The call to study is not so much about learning facts as it is about learning new ways of thinking, so that God may be more fully glorified in our lives and professions in the days to come.
Dr. Suzanne Nicholson is Professor of New Testament at Asbury University in Wilmore, Kentucky. She is a Deacon in the United Methodist Church and serves as Assistant Lead Editor of Firebrand.
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