[Note: This post represents a peek into what I do in my role as Provost and Dean of the Faculty at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. Each year for Faculty Workshop, I write an essay which encapsulates the overall theme of the workshop. “How to Corrupt the Youth: 5 Imperatives for Shaping Students’ Hearts & Minds in Opposition to False Ideologies” is the essay for our August 2016 workshop. The blog format does not include the citations that were included in the original essay.]
The young men who follow me around of their own free will…take pleasure in hearing people questioned; they themselves often imitate me and try to question others. I think they find an abundance of men who believe they have some knowledge but know little or nothing. The result is that those whom they question are angry, not with themselves, but with me. They say, ‘That man Socrates is a pestilential fellow who corrupts the young.’ If one asks them what he does and what he teaches to corrupt them, they are silent, as they do not know.
Socrates: Corrupting the Youth by Exposing False Religion and Ideology
These are the words of Socrates, who at the age of 70, was brought to trial on charges of corrupting the youth. Throughout the course of his career as a philosopher, he had relentlessly questioned the religious figures, philosophers, and politicians of his day. As an interrogator, he followed a common procedure: he selected a basic concept and questioned his interlocutor about its essence. When the person answered, Socrates would cross-examine him until he exposed his ignorance and thereby aroused the interest of the audience. Over the course of his lifetime, Socrates repeatedly exposed the absurdity of the Greek pantheon of gods, revealed the incoherence of the philosophers, and brought to light the sophistry of the politicians.
Especially the young people of Athens were interested in listening to Socrates as he sought to expose the false gods and foolish ideologies of his day. Describing their interest, Socrates said, “Why then do some people enjoy spending considerable time in my company? . . . They enjoy hearing those being questioned who think they are wise, but are not. This is not unpleasant.” Pleasant it was to the ears of the youth, but pleasant it was not to those Athenians with cultural power who were complicit in the religious, political, and philosophical foolishness that Socrates exposed. For that reason, Socrates was condemned to die by poison.
Plato: Strengthening the Youth against Mob Pressure
Socrates’ successor, Plato, also worried about the idols and ideologies of his day, and especially about the power of the public to corrupt a young person’s thinking. In a memorable passage in The Republic, he warns that corruption takes place:
It does so, “whenever the populace crowds together at any public gathering, in the Assembly, the law-courts, the theater, or the camp, and sits there clamoring its approval and disapproval, both alike excessive, of whatever is being said or done; booing and clapping till the rocks ring and the whole palace redoubles the noise of their applause and outcries. In such a scene, what do you suppose will be a young man’s state of mind? What sort of private instruction will have given him the strength to hold out against the force of such a torrent, or will save him from being swept away down the stream, until he accepts all their notions of right and wrong, does as they do, and comes to be just such a man as they are.
Plato’s point is similar to Socrates in his concern about young people adopting bad ways of thinking and living. It is different, however, in Plato’s concern for the way a young man will wilt if the only thing he has to hold him steady is some sort of private instruction.
The Seminary: Equipping Students for Counter-Cultural Ministry in Pagan Contexts
Similar to Socrates, we as Christian seminary professors have a vested interest in exposing the false gods and ideologies that seduce young people in our own nation and era. Similar to Plato, we must also recognize that our young people need something more than private instruction if they will be able to live faithfully amidst the social and cultural pressures inherent to our own context. If our young people will remain steadfast in the faith, they will need to recognize the idols and ideologies of our day for what they are—false gods and ideologies—and learn to counter those idols and ideologies through apprenticeship in the Christian community. Indeed, the Christian community is God’s answer to Plato’s “crowd.” If young men and women will receive the church’s teaching and practices, they, by God’s grace, will be strengthened and made wise so that they can stand strong even in the face of the most seductive idol, the most alluring ideology, and the most persuasive peer influence.
Our seminary is a part of the Christian community, coming alongside of local churches to help equip ministry leaders to serve the church and fulfill the Great Commission. Together with the churches, we form the “crowd” or “cloud of witnesses” who bears witness to Christ in opposition to false gods and ideologies. Alongside of the churches, we help young ministry leaders cultivate knowledge of Christ and affection for him. As we continually hone our craft as professors—seeking to cultivate knowledge of Christ and affection for him—we are well served to learn from those teachers who have gone before us, especially those who served faithfully in cultural contexts are similar to our own.
Augustine: An Ancient Guide for our Modern Age
Augustine is one of those teachers. He taught, preached, and wrote in a social, cultural, and political milieu in which many persons with cultural power opposed his Christian beliefs. At the apex of his writings is the towering City of God, a book written in response to pagan intellectuals who considered Christianity a liability to the empire. Considering that American seminary professors also teach in an increasingly pagan context—one in which many Americans consider Christianity a liability to our own empire—City of God is particularly timely for those of us who teach in 21st century Western contexts. His authorship of City of God provides at least four lessons for us today:
1. Augustine took aim at his readers’ thoughts and affections.
On August 24, 410, Alaric had just led his ruthless band of Goths into Rome, sacking the city. For the Romans this devastating event demanded interpretation. What had weakened mighty Rome and brought her to her knees? Why was she now being dominated after centuries of being the dominator?
Volusianus and other pagan intellectuals speculated that Christianity was to blame. They pointed out that the Roman emperor Constantine had adopted Christianity just a century before, acting as both a confirmation of this growing faith and as an enormous catalyst for it. With Constantine’s official endorsement, Christianity experienced explosive growth, leading to the eventual outlawing of the pagan gods. Volusianus and other pagans saw this as a dangerous betrayal of Rome’s roots, and waged a public relations war against this pernicious “Hebrew” religion. Rome had been beaten to her knees, they argued, because the Romans had forsaken their gods, their founding political narrative, and their philosophers.
Roman Christians, including a respected Roman proconsul named Marcellinus, sought to counter this pagan narrative. Marcellinus wanted to win Volusianus over to the Christian perspective, but found himself insufficient for the task. So Marcellinus penned a letter to his friend Augustine, asking for his help in answering Volusianus and the pagans. Augustine happily obliged in a 1,000 page letter, now known as City of God.
At the center of Augustine’s strategy is his “Two City” argument. He divided humanity by showing that all humans have citizenship in one of two cities—the City of Man or the City of God. The two cities take center stage early on in the biblical narrative when Cain murders Abel. They provide the dramatic tension throughout the rest of Scripture. And they persist, Augustine argues, to the present day.
As Augustine argues, man is drawn toward what he truly loves—either toward God or toward idols—and his chosen love locates him in either the earthly City of Man or the heavenly City of God. Citizens of the earthly city seek their happiness in temporal things, while those in the heavenly city seek theirs in an eternal Kingdom. Citizens of the earthly city are destined for eternal death, while citizens of the heavenly city are destined for eternal life. In the end, the King of the heavenly city will return to decisively destroy the false rule of the Evil One over his earthly city.
2. Augustine exposed the incoherence of the pagan intellectuals’ narrative.
City of God is divided into five parts. In the first two parts, Augustine devotes himself to exposing the deep incoherence of the pagan narrative, especially as it regards religion, philosophy, and politics. In relation to the pagan gods, he shows that the Romans never could decide which deities were actually in control, and that the preeminent Roman historian of religion, Marcus Varro, didn’t really believe in the gods anyway. He surveys the Roman gods, exposing their immorality, injustice, and inability to save the Romans from disaster.
In relation to the pagan philosophers, Augustine finds common ground in his admiration for Plato and the Neo-Platonists. But he also exposes the tragic flaw in the Platonists—their pride—that kept them from even considering the incarnation and resurrection. Augustine provides a masterful and comprehensive survey of the history of Roman philosophy and concludes that the philosophers discovered many truths—but in the end failed to discover Truth.
In relation to Rome’s founding political narrative, Augustine finds common ground with the Roman pagans in admiring Virgil. But he points out that the mythical story of Romulus, Remus, and Rome’s founding (as told by Virgil) is actually a verdict against Rome. Whereas the pagan intellectuals viewed justice as the unique interpretive key to her glorious history, Augustine argues that Rome had never been just and that her pretention to justice was no more than a veil for her lust for power. As Curtis Chang writes, “Augustine…presents a political analysis that was stunningly original for its time and for centuries to come. He takes apart an entire civilization’s ideologies to reveal them as masks for raw power.”
By exposing the inadequacy of their religion, philosophy, and politics, Augustine sought to “take the roof off” of the Roman worldview, allowing the realities of the external world to beat in upon the Romans as they stood naked and exposed before reality. He spent nearly half of City of God doing so because he knew the Romans had to recognize the severity of their situation before they would be open to a solution. They had to perceive the deep inadequacies of the Roman religious, philosophical, and political narrative so they would be existentially prepared to comprehend the adequacy of the biblical narrative. They knew something was wrong when Alaric was at the city gates; Augustine wanted to show them that something had gone wrong—fatally wrong—far earlier.
3. Augustine offered an alternative narrative, the biblical story, as the true story of the whole world.
In the last three Parts of City of God, Augustine traces the biblical narrative of creation, fall, and redemption, arguing that this narrative explains the world better than the pagan Roman narrative. The biblical narrative has more explanatory power; it alone makes sense of the world. Up to this point, Augustine had for the most part exposed the incoherence of the pagan narrative from within the framework of their own worldview, drawing upon the writings of their intellectuals, using their conceptual categories, and answering their questions. However, at this point in the book, he turns to the biblical narrative, providing a new framework for viewing the world. He draws upon the biblical writings, uses Christian categories, and poses a series of new questions provided by special revelation. He has finished cross-examining his opponent’s witnesses, and now clears his throat to make his own defense by expounding the Bible’s unfolding story of creation, fall, and redemption.
Augustine is not satisfied, however, to merely show the tragic flaws in the competing narratives and the superiority of the biblical narrative. He also wants to make abundantly clear that Christ and his church are not “part of” any other larger narrative. They are not actors on the stage of a grand Roman drama—not even the chief actors. The truth of the matter is exactly the opposite: Rome herself is only a minor character in the grand sweep of the history of Christ and his people. All of history centers on Christ and his people, rather than on Rome and her people. Despite all her grand conceptions of her worth, Rome was never as mighty as she believed. Her rise to power, her centuries of dominance, her precipitous downfall—all these were but peripheral scenes in a much greater story. Augustine invites his reader to believe in Christ, to follow the one who actually stands at the center of the greatest story ever told.
4. Augustine rose to the occasion.
Augustine had been born in Hippo (modern-day Algeria) in AD 354 to a Christian mother and a pagan father. At age 18 he discovered Cicero’s writings and started his quest as a philosopher. His search for truth moved through several stages before he was converted to the Christian faith at age 32. From this time onward, he was a tireless proponent of the gospel, laboring as a pastor, theologian, apologist, and philosopher.
Because Augustine had read widely in Greco-Roman philosophy, theology, and history, he was well-prepared to understand his cultural context and speak to it. In his writings, Augustine drew
upon Plato and Varro, Cicero and Virgil—easily and with authenticity, whenever he pleased. He employed Roman theological and philosophical vocabulary whenever it served his primary strategy of promoting Christ’s kingship and the common good. Having been a sincere pagan philosopher for years, he was fair-minded to his pagan opponents; he sought to describe their ideas fairly and accurately, and usually succeeded.
Because Augustine had labored in theological study, he knew the biblical writings well and was able to show the internal coherence and superior explanatory power of the biblical storyline. He was always able to answer Rome’s most pressing questions within linguistic and conceptual categories familiar to them, but he never stopped there. He also introduced his Roman opponents to special revelation and, in so doing, bequeathed to them a different set of questions, a fuller set of categories to help them understand themselves and the world.
Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary: A Modern Analogue to Augustine’s Ancient Context
1. We aim at our student’s thoughts and affections.
Augustine was right to aim not only for his reader’s reasoning processes, but also for their affections. The Bible portrays true religion as being affective, having to do with loving God and, subsequently, loving our neighbors. When a lawyer tested Jesus by asking him which commandment is the greatest, Jesus replied, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment” (Mt 22:37-38). He describes love for God as something involving the totality of our hearts, souls, and minds. The words heart (kardia), soul (psyche), and mind (nous) overlap each other significantly and are not used in a technically precise manner, so that the overall impression gained is that our love for God encompasses and affects all of who we are.
Take, for example, the biblical conception of man’s heart. Scripture refers to the heart over 800 times in the Old and New Testaments. It portrays true religion as being centered in the heart, which is the response-location of our covenantal relationship with God. Gordon Spykman puts it well when he writes:
The heart represents the unifying center of man’s entire existence, the spiritual concentration point of our total selfhood, the inner reflective core which sets the direction for all of our life relationships. It is the wellspring of all our willing, thinking, feeling, acting, and every other life utterance. It is the fountainhead from which flows every movement of man’s intellect, emotions, and will, as well as any other ‘faculty’ or mode of our existence. In short the heart is the ‘mini-me.’
Heartfelt religion is comprehensive and relates to the whole person, but it zeros in on the affections. As seminary professors, therefore, we aim to cultivate in our students a love for God. We do this primarily through didactic oral teaching. We “indoctrinate” our students by teaching them the Scriptures, teaching them to reason from the Scriptures, teaching them to apply the Scriptures to their lives.
But we also do this through warm relationships and embodied practices. Granted, higher education focuses on developing higher-level thinking, teaching students to analyze, evaluate, and create. Yet, a focus on cognition does not preclude an emphasis on affection. Unlike public universities, we can and should acknowledge that we seek to shape our students’ thoughts and affection. We want our student’s increase in knowledge of God to be matched by an increase in love for God. We must continue to craft a seminary experience that encompasses both emphases.
2. We expose idols and ideologies, counterfeit gods and false narratives.
From Augustine, we learn the value of deep cultural exegesis. Augustine was only able to counter the Roman pagan narrative because he knew it intimately—better than most of his opponents. As professors, we are likewise well-served to gain understanding of our students’ future ministry contexts. Through doing so, we will be able to equip our students to speak the gospel with prescience and contribute to the common good.
Students in the United States must grapple with secularism and its implications for gospel ministry. The dangers of secularism are noted in an especially poignant manner by the Jewish sociologist Philip Rieff in a trilogy published at the end of his career. Rieff argues with keen insight the especial importance of cultural exegesis for contemporary Americans. He begins by locating the concept of “culture,” arguing that for every society, culture serves as the mediator between sacred order and social order. In other words, culture serves as a middleman between the sacred and the social, drawing upon the authority and power of sacred ideas in order to shape and uphold social order.
The trick, however, is that culture doesn’t always do its job. Sometimes, instead of upholding the social order, culture undermines it. Instead of giving life to society, it brings death and decay. In such situations works of culture become deathworks. Rieff goes on to demonstrate that the West in the midst of just such a situation. We are experiencing an unprecedented attempt to rip sacred order out from underneath social order, leaving social order to float on its own. Without sacred order informing and shaping our great cultural institutions and works, Rieff avers, those institutions and works will cause death rather than life.
In such a situation, many persons with cultural power seek to disenchant and demythologize our world, to purge its culture of any stains of the sacred. But they cannot do so, because humans are worshipers. Our hearts are always and necessarily oriented toward God or idols, or both. Society is no different. Societies are composed of worshipers, and of cultural institutions and works that reflect society’s worship in complex and multi-faceted ways.
So we must help our students understand the unique and powerful idols of our own age so that they can understand the world in which we minister. But we must also expose the idols and false narratives of our day because our students may unwittingly be more captivated by a false narrative, or a combination of false narratives, than they are by the biblical narrative. Their heart’s affections may be more attached to idols than to the one true and living God. In other words, they may not love what they think they love. Finally, we must expose idols and false narratives so that we can examine our own hearts, allowing the Lord to once again reorient our affections and reform our thoughts. Just as Isaiah mocked the literal idols of his day (idols sitting on shelves, with both the shelves and idols being made by human hands), we must expose the figurative idols of our own day, idols whose false salvation is fabricated by human minds, articulated by human tongues, and reinforced by human practices).
3. We must help them to understand, and be captivated by, God and his revealed narrative.
Augustine reminds us again of the significance of the Bible’s master narrative for our professorial interactions. The biblical narrative frames reality, putting all other stories in proper perspective. As Craig Bartholomew and Michael Goheen write, “If we really want to recover the authority of Scripture in our lives, then we urgently need to recover the Bible as a grand story that tells us of God’s ways with the world from creation to re-creation, from the garden of Eden to the new Jerusalem. Only thus will we see our way clear to indwell God’s story and relate it to all of life today.” Many of our students enter seminary without an understanding of the biblical story, and we cannot let them down by allowing them to graduate without comprehending that narrative and being captivated by it.
In expounding the Bible’s teaching, we have a tremendous opportunity to counter the idols and ideologies, the counterfeit gods and false narratives, to which we and our society are tempted to succumb.
Consider consumerism as it manifests itself in personal lifestyles. As an ideology, it offers a false god and a false salvation, and is so pervasive in our society that we usually do not recognize its hold over our hearts. In Desiring the Kingdom, James K. A. Smith refers to this phenomenon when he speaks of “worship at the mall,” with the mall being symbolic of a wider web of rituals and practices associated with consumerism. In the mall, we encounter advertisements of people who are independent, carefree, clean, sexy, perky, happy and seemingly perfect. Implicit in these advertisements is the piercing recognition, “but that’s not me” and the message, “the difference between my ordinary life and their perfect and happy life is that they own nice things.” As redemption, therefore, we shop. We acquire goods and services that we do not need but that we hope will make us happy. As the years pass by, however the goods and services change. What offers itself as redemptive and therapeutic this year does not even exist the next year, and so the cycle repeats itself.
We, our students, and those persons to whom our students will minister must resist the allure of consumerism. In response to consumerism, we offer Christ’s redemption which is the same yesterday, today, and forever, and which brings joy everlasting.
Similarly, individualism as it manifests itself in political progressivism. As an ideology, individualism absolutizes individual freedom and autonomy, conferring upon them the type of ultimacy that God alone possesses. Individualism is at the heart of most versions of political liberalism, and when combined with social progressivism, is ruinous to society. In modern progressivism, when individual autonomy is made the chief moral arbiter, norms are liable to constant change. Society’s vision can be captured in the cliché, “Follow your heart,” which is another way of saying, “I have the right to do whatever I please.” The deleterious fruits of such an attitude—elective (and frequent) abortion, embarrassingly high divorce rates, nearly complete disregard for biblical sexual mores—are legion.
Ironically, this sort of progressivism (which grew out of a desire for government to stay out of its way) increasingly turns to the government to accommodate their personal desires, and to accommodate them in a religiously and morally neutral manner. More to the point, it expects the government never to cast moral judgments on their desires. Thus when their poor judgment or immoral choices cause negative consequences, the liberal populace expects the government to ameliorate those consequences (e.g. “Have you had five babies out of wedlock? The government will be happy to marry you in order to take care of those babies. Or even happier to kill them in the womb beforehand.”)
We inherit students whose educational and social formation likely was forged in pervasively individualist environments. They probably do not understand how to relate to authority (e.g. professorial authority) and most likely are inclined to mistrust and even resent those who have authority over them. They might be more likely to view deviant sexuality or gender dysphoria as forms of self-expression that are “not that big of a deal.” In response to individualism, therefore, we must find ways of showing that heteronomous authority is not the evil from which we need to be saved. In fact God is the ultimate heteronomous authority; rather than being evil, he is the one and only true God. He saves us from our evil inclinations and for a life of normed liberty in submission to his gracious word.
Any number of other false ideologies must be countered. One thinks of scientism (“faith that science will redeem the world by breaking down boundaries of superstition and gradually setting up a human community in the truth, a faith that conflicts with what Scripture reveals about how Christ will establish His Kingdom of Truth”), pragmatism (faith that efficiency and convenience will redeem the world by breaking down barriers of tradition and ideology), social conservatism (in its pure form, it is faith that the conservation of an idealized past will redeem our nation from the negative consequences of social reform), social progressivism (in its pure form, it is faith that social reform will redeem the world from the evils of the past and will guide us into a golden age in the future), nationalism (in its pure form, it is faith that “the nation” will redeem the world from the evil of being governed by persons who are different from them), and professionalism (faith that professional excellence and efficiency, rather than faithfulness, holds the key to redeeming us as ministers and the church as a ministering community).
We must be aware of these and myriad other idolatrous ideologies that unconsciously shape us and our students, tarnishing the purity of the Word’s hold on our hearts. We must hold these ideologies up for inspection in front of our students, showing the false redemption being offered, the subtle ways we might already be captive to these false redemptions, and the manner in which God’s power provides a powerful counternarrative that depicts the great salvation that only Christ can provide.
4. We must offer our students not only didactic oral teaching but embodied practices.
Embedded in every narrative is a set of beliefs and practices. The consumerist narrative of the world locates evil in material inequality and looks for salvation through the acquisition of goods and services. Accompanying that set of beliefs is the practice of shopping, of acquiring goods and services as a sort of therapy or healing for the ills of life. Similarly, the individualist narrative of the world locates evil in heteronomous authority and looks for salvation through liberation from economic authority. Accompanying that set of beliefs is a set of practices: approaching everything in life as a matter of individual preference, unfettered choice, and self-expression.
Embedded in the Christian narrative, and the worldview arising out of it, is a set of beliefs and practices. Although evangelicals may focus on beliefs, we should not forget the value and significance of practices. The Bible outlines certain practices that characterize the gathering of the church, including greetings and benedictions (Rom 1:7; 15:33), prayer (1 Tim 2:1-2), song (Col 3:16), Scripture reading (Acts 15:21), preaching and teaching (1 Tim 4:6), baptism and the Lord’s Supper (1 Cor 11:17-34; 12:13), discipline (Mt 18:15-20), and expressions of fellowship (1 Cor 11:20-22). The Bible also calls us to practices outside of the church gathering, including sharing the gospel with unbelievers, being ready to give a defense of the gospel, and bearing one another’s burdens.
The seminary community, like the local church, is characterized by a one-two rhythm of didactic oral teaching, warm relationships with embodied practices. As an institution of higher education, our classroom instruction rightly emphasizes didactic oral teaching. However, in our focus on didactic oral teaching, we cannot forget the value and significance of warm relationships and embodied practices. Those relationships and practices will take shape differently in online courses than in on-campus courses, but take shape they must.
In You Are What You Love, James K. A. Smith notes that Christian families should be concerned not only with didactic teaching but with embodied practices. He writes, “[We] should be concerned about the ethos of our households—the unspoken ‘vibe’ carried in our daily rituals. Every household has a ‘hum,’ and that hum has a tune that is attuned to some end, some telos. We need to tune our homes, and thus our hearts, to sing his grace.” Indeed, as it is with families, so it is with seminaries. Each seminary has a vibe, a hum, that is attuned to some telos.
At Southeastern Seminary, we sing his grace by reminding ourselves regularly that we exist to “to glorify the Lord Jesus Christ by equipping students to serve the church and fulfill the Great Commission.” We do so not only through didactic teaching, but also through embodied practices at the macro- and micro-levels. Our macro-practices include the major moments of the school’s annual calendar, such as New Student Orientation, Commencement, chapel, mission trips, and graduation. Each of these moment offers a wonderful opportunity to shape our students.
Consider graduation as one such macro-practice. During graduation, faculty members dress in their regalia, as a reminder to students of the solemnity of the occasion, of the privilege and responsibility associated with the professorial office, and of the significance of the student’s achievement. We honor spouses, parents, and professors, not only as a way of thanking those persons but as a way of reminding students that they achieved this degree by God’s grace through the assistance of other persons. We listen to a sermon that reminds students of their high calling in Christ and to an invitation that calls sinners to repent. We confer upon the students their degrees as a way of thanking them for their work and reminding them of their responsibility to honor the Lord Jesus Christ. We conclude by singing the seminary hymn, “For the Cause,” the chorus of which repeats, “Christ we proclaim, the Name above every name, for all creation, every nation, God’s salvation through the Son.” Each of these moments serves as a powerful reminder of our institutional telos and of the student’s high calling in Christ.
Similarly, professors have the opportunity to reinforce that telos and to shape our students through micro-practices. Each professor leads his students in a unique set of practices; it would be unlikely for one professor’s practices to be exactly the same as another’s. At our own seminary, Old Testament professor Chip McDaniel leads his students in singing a hymn or Psalm before lectures. Missiologist and historian Al James spends hours talking via Skype with his online students, many of whom reside on other continents. English professor Matt Mullins reads a psalm aloud with his students at the beginning of each class, and asks his students to sit with him in chapel one day each week. Theologian John Hammett meets with each of his students individually each semester in order to get to know them. Evangelist Alvin Reid requires his students to share the gospel with somebody each week. New Testament professor David Alan Black leaves his office door open so that students can walk in for counsel or prayer at any time of the day. Preaching professor Jim Shaddix invites his classes regularly to his house for dinner or coffee. Finance instructor Ryan Hutchinson talks with each student by Skype three times per semester. Ethicist Mark Liederbach invites his students to spend a half day at his house at the end of the semester. Historian Stephen Eccher engages his online students weekly with a group email, talking about anything from current events to chapel messages.
These professorial practices, in combination with didactic oral teaching and with the seminary’s macro-practices, can coalesce to make a powerful impression on the student. When warmed with Christian love, these teachings and practices offer the student the opportunity to have their minds renewed and reformed by Christ’s living word and their affections reoriented and recalibrated by the same.
5. We must rise to the occasion.
From the story behind Augustine’s motivation for writing City of God, we learn the value of being prepared, when the time arises, to speak a timely word for the common good. Augustine was not expecting Rome to be sacked, but when it was sacked and when its demise was blamed on Christianity, Augustine stood ready to respond.
Similarly, we must stand ready to give a defense for the hope within us. There are those who, like Volusianus in Augustine’s day, continue to maintain that Christianity is pernicious, especially as it relates to public life. Contrary to these cultured despisers, we know that Christianity is not a liability to society. Christianity is not a societal curse, but its greatest boon. By its very essence, Christianity safeguards society and enables human flourishing.
Sadly, too few of the young men and women in our churches are equipped to apply their Christianity broadly. As seminary professors, we must be the “Augustine” in their midst. We have the opportunity to instruct our students and to lead them in practices that enable them to see the value of the Christian faith, to stand strong in the midst of attack, and to speak a compelling word to the world on behalf of Christ and the gospel.
Like Augustine, we must rise to the occasion. We are a nation characterized by increasing secularization, radical individualism, pervasive pragmatism and scientism, moral relativism, political polarization, racial unrest, and captivity to consumerism. More to the point, our nation is characterized by increasing hostility toward evangelicals. This era of American history is the one in which we now teach and write, and in which our students will learn and minister. This is when the Lord determined would be best for us to serve him. For that reason, we must engage in higher education with an ever-renewed sense of purpose, praying for wisdom and courage to speak faithfully in our own era, just as Augustine did in his.
Like Socrates, seminary professors wish to call young people’s attention to the false idols and ideologies that subversively shape their thinking and orient their affections. Like Plato, we recognize that no amount of private teaching will likely fortify our young people for the flash mobs of citizens who oppose our beliefs and values. Like Augustine, we wish to seize the moment by exposing contemporary idols, ideologies, articulating a compelling case for Christianity, seeking to shape our student’s thoughts and affections, and doing so through didactic teaching and embodied practices.
Our didactic teaching and embodied practices may not take hold immediately, but over the long run we may be blessed to see their positive effect on our students. Hans Urs von Balthasar gives a beautiful analogy that shows how God initiates relationship with himself and how parents can initiate faith in their children. “After a mother has smiled at her child for many days and weeks, she finally receives her child’s smile in response. She has awakened love in the heart of her child, and as the child awakens to love, it also awakens to knowledge.” Balthasar’s analogy is instructive for the seminary also. As professors, may we “smile” at our students for many days and weeks through consistent didactic teaching and gospel-centered practices. If God so grants it, perhaps our smile will play a role in reawakening their love for God and reorienting their mind toward God.