In her book, The Peaceable Classroom, Mary Rose O’Reilly tells the story of an encounter she had at a conference on higher education:
Recently at a East Coast Conference, a young graduate student told me that, really, all of this theorizing about teaching is just a game. “It gives us something to talk about,” he said. “None of it means anything.” I laughed, mostly out of nervous pique. “Excuse me,” I thought, too shy to speak, “but I think this game is a matter of life and death” (39).
O’Reilly is right. Higher education is a matter of profound spiritual, moral, and intellectual consequence, especially in our 21st century Western context in which the historic Christian faith has been decentered. That is why, in upcoming months and years, I will be asking a number of higher ed leaders to write for this website. The first leader I approached is Nathan Finn, dean of the School of Theology and Missions and professor of Christian thought and tradition at Union University in Jackson, TN. The post below is adapted from a devotional reflection he offered to participants in the Baylor University Seminar for Academic Leadership, Waco, TX, May 16, 2016, entitled, “Christian Higher Education is for Lovers: Toward a Great Commandment Education.”
Christian Higher Education is for Lovers: Toward a Great Commandment Education
But when the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together. And one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.” (Matt. 22:34–40, ESV)
The Great Commandment in the Law
This is a familiar passage from the life of Jesus. He has just shut down the Sadducees, who had asked a “gotcha” question about the resurrected life. Now the Pharisees want to offer their own “gotcha” question about the law. They send a lawyer to do their dirty work. The lawyer wants to know which of the law’s commandments is the greatest. We know that these sorts of questions about weightier versus lesser aspects of God’s law captivated first-century rabbis, including many Pharisees.
Rather than engaging in a tit-for-tat over the finer points of Torah, Jesus cuts straight to the heart of the matter. Referencing the Shema in Deuteronomy 6, he calls for a comprehensive, undivided, whole-life love of God—this is the greatest commandment. Jesus then adds to it a second greatest commandment. With a nod to Leviticus 19, he calls for love of neighbors. And as the Parable of the Good Samaritan makes clear in Luke 10, in Jesus’ economy neighbor includes everyone—including those whom we might sometimes wish weren’t included. The implication of Matthew 22:34–40 is that those who love God in the way Jesus is calling for will also love others out of the overflow of their love of God.
The aforementioned verses raise a crucial question for Christian higher education: what sort of university forms students who love in that way?
The Great Commandment and Christian Higher Education
As a historian of Christianity and academic administrator, I love to draw upon the Christian Intellectual Tradition and bring it to bear on contemporary questions about Christian higher education. Playing off this passage in part, Augustine of Hippo developed a theology of the Christian life that was characterized by the right sort of loving. Augustine would say sin has disordered our loves so that we no longer naturally love God or appropriately love others. Part of what it means to have new life in Christ is to have our loves redirected Godward and “neighbor-ward.”
Several theologians in Christian history develop this theme further, including Richard of St. Victor, Thomas Aquinas, and Jonathan Edwards. More recently, Calvin College philosopher James K.A. Smith has followed suit in three books that argue human beings are inherently worshipers, lovers, creatures of desire. Understanding this insight about humanity has implications for how we think about forming Christ-followers in families, in churches, and in distinctively Christian colleges and universities.
As Christian educators, we are called to form our students into the sorts of women and men who leave our institutions with a deeper love of God and others. We are called to foster campus cultures where believing students choose majors and pursue careers first and foremost because of love of God and love of neighbor. Admittedly, what I’m suggesting is countercultural. It runs against the grain of American culture, even among many evangelicals.
My fear is that too many of our students, even the devout ones, arrive at our schools conditioned to the same disordered loves that characterize the wider culture: money, power, and success (among others). This makes it all the more important that faculty, staff, and administrators be first and foremost the right sort of lovers. Christian higher education is for lovers.
We can’t embrace worldly love and offer Christ-centered education at the same time. Disordered loves deform our spirituality, our doctrine, and our ethics—indeed, even our teaching, our scholarship, and our service. We owe our students, and, more important, we owe our Lord a vision of education that is not just informative but is “cruciformative.” This is the ultimate task of Christian higher education.
Key Questions that Lovers Ask
I want to close with some key questions for us to prayerfully consider. These queries are intended to stir the hearts (and minds!) of lovers who are engaged in the calling of Christian higher education.
• What sort of core curriculum cultivates rightly ordered loves among our students?
• What does it look like when faith-and-learning integration is understood at least in part as reconceiving our respective academic disciplines as spheres of love?
• What sorts of student life and spiritual life priorities help our students to become properly formed lovers?
• What sorts of loves are we looking for in prospective faculty and staff and administrators and how do we measure “growth in love” as a key aspect of faculty development?
• What does it look like to approach teaching, scholarship, and service as acts of love that are ultimately directed toward God and toward others?
We face many challenges in Christian higher education. Let’s commit ourselves to face them as lovers of God and neighbor who pass on this vision of authentic Christian loving to the students with whom we are entrusted.