Knowing What's Good for You
Growing up I often heard my father say, “You’ll listen to me if you know what’s good for you.” This parental cliché went along with his default-mode justification, “because I’m your father and I said so.” The former following logically after the latter like a caboose trails a locomotive. I dismissed these last-ditch authoritarian appeals by questioning his credibility. Lubricated by a rebellious attitude, they slipped unimpeded in one ear, through my vacuous teenage head, and out the other.
The heed paid to my heavenly Father in those days was no greater. Otherwise, I may have appreciated the similarities and differences between what the two were claiming. Our Heavenly Father says:
I have given you an example, that you also should do just as I have done to you. Truly, truly, I say to you, a servant is not greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them.
God the Father, and Lloyd the father, were expressing concern that human beings live good and fulfilling lives. Both associated knowledge with one’s ability to live such a life. They seemed to have in mind knowledge that is held individually as well as in community. So, just what kind of knowledge does one, or one’s community, need in order to live a blessed life?
At my local church many will answer, “knowledge of God’s law” or “knowledge that comes through a personal relationship with the Lord Jesus.” They might say, “we read our Bibles to know God better and to learn what he says.” These answers are good and vitally important. Though I become concerned when they are accompanied by an attitude that the only requirements for this sort of knowing are “me, my Bible, and the Holy Spirit”. Giving pride of place to “the revealed knowledge of Scripture” encourages some folks to marginalize other kinds of knowledge and ways of knowing. At the extreme, so-called human knowledge is treated with suspicion because it is perceived as leading toward worldly wisdom and pride.
Compare that unfavorable take on human knowledge with the tale of the carpenter found in Isaiah 44.
The carpenter … chooses a cypress tree or an oak and lets it grow strong among the trees of the forest … Half of it he burns in the fire. Over the half he eats meat; he roasts it and is satisfied. Also he warms himself and says, “Aha, I am warm, I have seen the fire!” And the rest of it he makes into a god, his idol, and falls down to it and worships it. He prays to it and says, “Deliver me, for you are my god!”
Are we to conclude that human knowledge is messed up because the carpenter is depicted in a negative light? Not at all. The point is that we should worship God alone. It is folly for a human to put a self-made god at the center of the universe. To understand Isaiah’s meaning, we must know something about God, about ourselves, and about wood. Armed with basic understandings about these three things, we can comprehend relational truths. Relational truths establish the carpenter’s proper place within the framework of reality. We expect him to determine the proper course of action for a life well-lived based on that comprehension. God’s act in sharing this account presupposes the general reliability of each required human cognitive function. We may confidently conclude that knowledge about persons and things, relational knowledge, and moral knowledge are inextricably intertwined.
In the opening paragraphs of Institutes of the Christian Religion, John Calvin writes that knowledge of God and of man are so intertwined that he cannot tell which comes first. He means that we cannot know ourselves apart from knowledge of God. As we begin to understand God’s attributes, we understand our own more fully. Knowing about myself and knowing about God go together. Calvin also means that God is only accessible to us through the capacities of our humanity. He teaches us things that stand outside the realm of our experience by way of analogy. The parables of Jesus are exemplars of communication through the idioms of a particular time and place. They make timeless lessons about God’s kingdom understood in a culturally and historically particular manner. In knowing through my personal self, I can grow into a fuller relationship with the persons of the Godhead.
The Book of Colossians tells us that all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge are hidden in Christ. Is that a reference to the Christ who is fully divine or the one that is fully human? Jesus gave us an exact representation of the invisible God the Father when he came to earth. When we have seen Him, we have seen the Father. Jesus also made eternal and abundant life accessible to human beings by taking on our likeness. The true and full potentiality of human beings is perfectly pictured in the resurrected Christ. He is man (Adam, Anthropos, humankind) made manifest as God always intended us to be. The Bible is as much a story about creation and humankind as it is about God. And the glorified Word incarnate knows whatever there is to be known about each of them. Putting Christ back at the center of our understanding of knowledge is something Christians desperately need to do at this moment in history.
I say this based on 39 years of experience as a professor in a public land grant university. Near the end of my career, I was asked to read a stack of papers for another professor’s class. The assignment required students to research a professional practice scenario in which local stakeholders had taken up sides. They were supposed to identify one or more ethical issues evident in the case study and defend the course of action they would follow. I was saddened, though not entirely surprised, that none of them could differentiate a legal issue from an ethical one. None cited a recognized ethical framework that guided their proposed actions. Few could sustain a logical argument on the subject. My point is not to criticize these students. Rather, to illustrate the degree to which “knowing what’s good for you” has been drained out of higher education. I can just as readily point to changes in university policies, course syllabi across the range of disciplines that address human issues, or observations gathered during accreditation visits to universities across the United States. Moreover, it is not only me who is acknowledging this phenomenon. The bookshelf above my desk is filled with volumes by secular and Christian authors who make much the same observation. In Excellence Without a Soul for example, Harry Lewis the former Dean of Harvard College writes:
The greater the university, the more intent it is on competitive success in the marketplace of faculty, students, and research money. And the less likely it is to talk to students about developing into people of good character who will know that they owe something to society for the privileged education they have received.
The American Protestant establishment stepped away from its commitment to the life of the mind during the same era that public land grant universities were established. The secular humanist professors who initially stepped in to carry liberal education forward believed in natural law. That belief would not last long without Christ in the picture. Public schools and universities have been filling the hole left by transcendent sociocultural norms since the 1920’s. Goodness, truth, and beauty have been supplanted by egoism, cynicism, and aimlessness. My father’s admonition, or Jesus’ words in John 13, would be thoroughly deconstructed in a university social science or humanities classroom today.
• In the post-postmodern accounting of reality, things have no nature or essence. There is no real difference between worshipping an infinite personal God or a block of wood.
• There is nothing to be known – especially in the immaterial realm. We have only ‘values’ that each people-group attribute to things. Our choices are unimportant because no matter what you order from the menu you get the same ‘empty dish’.
• Speaking and listening are meaningless activities because words cannot relate in a referential way to things that have no properties. We ‘say’ and ‘hear’ only the subjective impressions of meaning conveyed by this or that culturally generated and delimited word cloud.
• Every social transaction is a power struggle. Since worshipping a ‘God’ or a ‘Dog’ are no different, it is not possible for a father, earthly or heavenly, to desire that I prosper in life. Instead, (s)H(h)e is using word games to exercise authority over me for some personal advantage.
I am also concerned about the prospects that will confront today’s students over the course of their careers. The global population is exploding during the opening decades of this century. Most of the planet’s new citizens will reside in the southern hemisphere in one of several emerging ‘mongrel’ megacities. Scholars dub them mongrel because they have no cultural pedigree. Vernacular cityscapes are being overwhelmed by the massive infrastructures of the global technical economy. Indigenous cultural groups that once occupied them are displaced by a multicultural cast of highly mobile and digitally dis-connected transients. Traditional social roles and life expectations disintegrate where multiple paradigms are present. A cultural production like the altarpiece in the cathedral of Toledo, Spain - carved by members of a single family over more than four centuries – is now impossible to fathom. Handing down time-honored stories from generation to generation is also passe. Christian scholars say that along with this “post-modern homelessness” comes a “heretical imperative.” Each person is compelled to create their own philosophy of life.
In response university administrators across the country are providing ‘student learning’ communities. Within such communities, students are expected to envision themselves. Together, at a robust age of 18 to 22, they are charged with a collective social outcome - to “invent the future” as it were. No one is equipping students to make these momentous life choices. Instead, the view of humanity presented in classrooms relativizes and devalues the options. Meanwhile, most students are striving to succeed in academic majors preparing them to act as rational agents in a real world. No wonder so many are unhappy, mental health problems and substance abuse abound, and suicide rates are high.
How is it possible that gifted students, including Christians, with four years of higher education are unprepared to respond to a practical ethical scenario at a minimum level of competency? Why is it that many Christian professors cannot articulate the relationship between their faith and work in the academy? Because there is virtually no connective tissue between the Bible lessons and pietistic admonitions we are exposed to in Christian gatherings and the highly specialized and technical focus of most university curricula. Dr. Michael Kruger, now President of Reformed Theological Seminary, said of his own tumultuous experience as an undergraduate:
The manner in which I was prepped for my university experiences was not at all what I needed to hear to prep me for my university experience… I was prepped to deal with my university experience on a moral level … there is nothing inappropriate about that ... however, I got to a university environment and I had no intellectual preparation at all for what I was getting ready to be hit with.
Students have not been adequately prepared to enter a public university because their parents are generally ill-equipped to do so. Parents are ill-equipped because schools did not teach them. And churches, it seems, assumed that schools were fulfilling this role. For decades we have been sending woefully underequipped Christian teenagers to square-off with professors who are practiced and powerfully positioned in the arts, humanities and social sciences. Instead of emerging from higher education equipped to be leaders in society and ambassadors for the Kingdom, two thirds of today’s students will leave their faith behind before graduating. Those who remain in the Church, like their peers, are often clinging to a ‘faith’ consisting of hopeful emotion.
Am I claiming that education is the key to addressing these troubling circumstances? No, and yes. The answer to lostness is always the gospel. The Bible contains truths that are only spiritually discerned. A spiritual rebirth is essential for a human to be transformed into the full-fledged humanity made manifest in Christ. However, the gospel always involves the mind. A disciple is a learner. Repentance (metanoia) is literally a transformation of the mind. And our spiritual worship requires us to offer living bodies in sacrificial service that accords with our renewed minds. To become individuals whose faith can withstand adversity, and to collectively constitute a sustainable community of faith, Christians need to learn.
There is another reason for Christians to learn. The world prescribed by unrelenting technological advancement and politically correct dogma is unlivable. People in today’s secular society are told that everything is imminent - here, now, and meaningless. Meanwhile, the greatness invested in each of them by the Creator seeks something beyond. They are experiencing what philosopher Charles Taylor calls “cross- pressure.” Existentially, people are struggling to attain a grip on reality, achieve personal fulfillment, and make the world a better place. The Church once sent delegates called missionaries to engage such people. Their task was to transpose the gospel of Christ into terms understood by the indigenous culture. But now we live in a placeless age, a global village. That renders every practicing orthodox Christian a multi-cultural missionary – or not. Where cultural identities have faded, the common denominator that makes people approachable is the human self. We may be ready to share our personal spiritual experiences, and we should, but so is everyone else. Are we also prepared to speak convincingly and at a level of depth about the actual foundations of our humanity?
For the building up of saints and the sake of our work in the world, the 21st century Church must reinvigorate its commitment to the life of the mind. An early step will be to recognize that all knowledge is revealed knowledge. We must tear down the artificial barriers that have been erected between kinds of knowledge and ways of knowing. We need a new breed of Christian scholars who are developing disciplinary theories grounded in biblical perspectives on reality. Christians must also recommit to the task of unifying the entire body of knowledge (university.) This huge task will require the entire community of faith working in concert. Accordingly, I mean to suggest possibilities rather than lay out ‘the plan’.
Intellectual adaptability is important. We are all at different points on our spiritual journey. Some are more emotionally driven, others more rationally driven. Our experiences, education, gifts and callings are diverse. These are good reasons to teach people to fish rather than handing out gift cards to Long John Silvers. In addition to teaching how to learn (discipling), we need a more deliberate, rigorous, and extended catechism in our churches. The gospel is simple enough to be understood by a child but everything we need to know is not. Christians should not be eating the same fast-food fish every Sunday, let alone Cream of Wheat watered down by decades of low expectations. Learning must become embodied – be held as a collective priority within the body of Christ - once again. Embracing the life of the mind anew will require both attitudinal and behavioral adjustments. The physical, organizational and programmatic infrastructure of our churches will probably need rethinking to accommodate such change.
My guess is that a renewed catechism would begin with training in biblical and systematic theology and be rounded out with biblical anthropology, church history, and practical theology. Biblical anthropology would explore in depth what it means to be created in the image of God. Four areas of inquiry that are classic, and would be valuable for responding to post post-modern malaise, are:
Ontology – what is a human being and how are we constituted?
Epistemology – how do we know things, and how do we know we know them?
Ethics – how do we know moral truths, and how should we use what we know
Worldviews – what other views will people hold? how do they compare with mine?
Time permitting, one might add lessons in basic philosophy to teach principles of thinking well. Lessons in what Os Guinness terms “the art of Christian persuasion” (a.k.a. rhetoric) would also be useful. Adding some study of classic Christian writings would show us how low our intellectual and spiritual expectations have become. We might recognize the many things they knew that have since been forgotten. This might whet our appetites to follow any number of extended pathways into theological studies or the history of human thought and cultural production. Outlining a catechism is now starting to sound like a commitment to learning over a lifetime. That is precisely the point.
The purposes of human existence are to worship God and exercise caring co-rule over His creation. Edification is building up the community of saints toward these ends. It entails learning about God, our humanity, and His creation. We Christians have been willing and full-fledged participants in modern technoscientific advancement and economic expansion. Along the way it became convenient to think of our faith as residing outside this world and the present moment. In other words, we were complicit in pushing the purposes of all human endeavor into obscurity. The result is substantially disabled Christians who lack the knowledge and skills to effectively connect their faith to their life calling. Our biblical mandates demand that we become better equipped to speak winsomely about the essence of our humanity, how we know about it, and therefore, how we know and can do what’s good for us.