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The new school year has begun, and with it college students have flocked back to their colleges and universities to encounter the challenges, gifts, and opportunities that the life of scholarship entails.
But upon entering this field of labor, what ought Christians to consider and deliver in such a setting? What is the goal of university study, and what does sacred scholarship look like?
In Abraham Kuyper’s newly translated Scholarship, a collection of two convocation addresses given at the beginning of the school year at Vrije Universiteit (Free University), he offers some healthy reminders to kick off the school season:
At the start of the new year I wanted to put this question to you before the face of God: What should be the goal of university study and the goal of living and working in the sacred domain of scholarship? I wanted to see whether I might perhaps rouse in some of you a more sanctified passion.
To have the opportunity of studying is such an inestimable privilege, and to be allowed to leave the drudgery of society to enter the world of scholarship is such a gracious decree of our God. Nature out there (God’s Word says as a punishment for sin) is hard for 99 percent of the human race. Of the 1,400 million people who live on this earth [in 1889] there are at least 1,300 million who literally have to eat their bread “by the sweat of their brow”—on farm or factory, at lathe or anvil, in shop or office, forever occupied in wresting food, clothing, and shelter from nature by processing, shaping, shipping, or selling it. And the real man of science does not look upon this with contempt. On the contrary, he senses that to live such a life should really have been his lot too, and that he, bowing under God’s ordinances if that were his occupation, would have found happiness and honor in it. But God created, in addition to the world of nature with all its elements and forces and materials, a world of thoughts; for all of creation contains Λόγος [Logos]…
…You and I have received this great favor from our God. We belong to that specially privileged group. Thus, woe to you and shame on you if you do not hear God’s holy call in the field of scholarship and do not exult with gratitude and never-ending praise that it pleased God out of free grace to choose you as his instrument for this noble, uplifting, inspiring calling.
It is for God’s honor that there should be scholarship in the land. His thought, his Λόγος in the κόσμος [kosmos], must not remain unknown and unexamined. He created us as logical beings in order that we should trace his Λόγος, investigate it, publish it, personally wonder at it, and fill others with wonder.
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In his annual Christmas commentary, Rev. Robert A. Sirico examines the meaning of a season “prompted by the very Incarnation of God’s Love, a love that goes beyond words, but rather is a Word – the Logos – that became flesh.” A shorter version of this article was published on Dec. 21 in the Detroit News. Sign up for the free, weekly email newsletter Acton News & Commentary here.
The ‘Small’ God Who Brought Heaven Down to Earth
By Rev. Robert A. Sirico
Some years ago I found myself at a fashionable dinner party in Los Angeles where the lamb was roasted to perfection, and the deep, rich red Australian wine complimented it to a tee. The conversation around the dinner table was likewise high-minded and it did not take this largely secular gathering very long to turn their attention to the Christian sitting in their midst. With all the graciousness and condescension she could muster, my dining companion turned to me and said, “I am not a believer, of course, but I have long admired your Church’s care for the poor and suffering and the generosity and effectiveness of your social agencies who tend to human needs without regard to the belief or non-belief of the recipient.”
Had she stopped there I would have humbly received her acknowledgement and we might have moved on to the dessert in the same spirit of conviviality we had begun. It was when she smiled, drew a breath and said, “Yet — ” that I knew all had not been said that needed saying from her perspective.
“Yet,” she continued, “how is it that Christianity, whose priests invented the scientific method, and who built the institutions of the hospital and university, can hold to the idea of such a small God?”
The pugnacious New Yorker in me wanted to reply to the effect that, “Well even a small God is bigger than no god.” But I knew that would not go down well, and that the issue was not about “size” after all, but about meaning and, ultimately, Truth.
Feeling something like I imagined Flannery O’Connor did when confronted with collapsed-Catholic Mary McCarthy’s observation about the Eucharist as a impressive symbol, O’Connor retorted, “Well, if it’s just a symbol, I say to hell with it.”
Instead I swirled my shiraz and asked, “Whatever do you mean?”
She responded: “Well, all this stuff about God being born as a baby. This business about the ineffable inhabiting time and space. It just seems so small, so concrete, so … improbable.”
The lady had it right, or more precisely, she had it half right. The doctrine of the Incarnation is indeed a scandal, not to say improbable, to the modern mind that does not yet grasp the immensity of the concept or the enormity of its impact on all that would follow from it throughout history from that first Christmas to this one.
That the eternal God should deign to co-mingle in time and space with humanity does tell us something, not about the ‘smallness’ of God, but about the inestimable dignity of the human person who is created in the image of the Lord of History. Thus it tells us about the importance of human history to eternity; of the relation of the visible world to the invisible one; and of the way the mortal life we each live here and now determines our immortal destiny.
This season, which pulsates with nostalgia, memory, sadness as well as with a deep and abiding sense of profound joy and human meaning – and does it all at once – is a season prompted by the very Incarnation of God’s Love, a love that goes beyond words, but rather is a Word – the Logos – that became flesh.
It is for this very reason that the Christian faith which emerges from this proclamation about God’s entrance into the human condition, could build institutions and cultures aimed at concretely reverencing each and every human person from the very first moment of their existence in the womb, in all their vulnerability and potential, without regard to their ethnicity or some other accidental factor. It is the belief stipulated in that memorable passage from Ecclesiastes (3:11): “He has … set eternity in the human heart; yet no one can fathom what God has done from beginning to end.”
This idea can easily be dismissed by armchair sociologists and village atheists as the ranting of a Christian who presumes his message of the enfleshment of God to be true and therefore universally appealing.
But more than appealing it is compelling. As it was to my non-believing dinner companion who, in admiring the social consequences of institutional Christianity (from the university education she received that enabled her to articulate her critique in the first place, to the transforming of personal almsgiving into the massive worldwide network of social care and education, and even to the moral and justifiable denunciations against Christians for their failures to live up to the demands of the Gospel) she was in some inchoate way acknowledging the core idea of Christmas: that in the fullness of time, Heaven came down to earth to reveal man to himself and invite him to the simple, discrete yet world-changing concept of love.