University Values and Professorial Roles
I was recently asked to reflect on potential core values of the university at which I teach. The exercise prompted me also to ponder my role as professor.
A strong university should have several values at its core. As I reflected on possible values to include among the most important, I focused on one that resides both at the core of the Christian faith and at the core of what I think a great university should be. That value is love.
We best understand love in terms of promoting overall well-being. “Well-being” is another way to talk about the abundant life that Jesus gives, being a blessing, shalom/peace, eudemonia, flourishing, true happiness, wholeness/healing, etc. Well-being and “salvation” come from the same root word. Promoting well-being includes a vast array of actions.
In my view, all Christian institutions, churches, and groups should take love as one of their core values. As I reflected on my situation, however, I found myself concentrating on a particular expression of love. Jesus emphasizes this expression when he says we should love God with our minds. Christian educational institutions should encourage students to love — to promote well-being — by developing the life of the mind.
Loving with Our Minds
Loving with our minds can mean many things. Sometimes it means memorizing facts, figures, ideas, or theories. I sometimes call this “Trivia Pursuit” education. Memorizing facts and theories can be important, but I don’t think memorization is usually the most important way we love with our minds.
Loving with our minds can also mean developing skills. I sometimes call this “technique” education. Having skills is important, because skills help students get jobs, make money, and contribute to a profession. I don’t think, however, that learning techniques is usually the most important way we love with our minds.
A third way of loving God with our minds is what Old Testament writers called becoming wise. The Apostle Paul said wisdom entails being transformed by the renewing of our minds. Those who love wisely build their houses on a solid rock instead of shifting sand, said Jesus. We might call this third way, “The transformation of the mind in the pursuit of wisdom.”
Love Sometimes Means Risk
Loving God with our minds is risky business. Loving in this way is often unsettling. It means changes in our worldviews. It involves what New Testament writers called “metanoia.”
My university chemistry colleague, Jennifer Chase, compares the way she teaches chemistry to the way I teach theology. On the first day of chemistry class, Jennifer says to students, “Everything you learned in High School chemistry is wrong!”
Jennifer’s students generally listen and, with little or no objection, plunge ahead to learn chemistry anew. In reality, of course, much of what they learned in High School remains helpful and true. Jennifer’s point is that students need to think differently than they have in the past.
Jennifer likes to say that theology professors like me would be banned from the university if we were to stand and say, “Everything you learned in Sunday School is wrong!” Students, parents, and pastors would be in an uproar.
Of course, I don’t think everything students learn about God before coming to my class is wrong. But I do know that students come to theology classes with particular expectations. And because views about God are central to their lives – more central than views of chemistry – my proposing new ways of thinking about God can be threatening.
Many students assume I will ask them to memorize the names of theologians, learn dates in Church history, and memorize doctrines. They expect to be better at Bible or theology trivia when they complete my course. When I challenge them to think about God, life, and the world in new ways, they can feel threatened.
Love Sometimes Causes Conflict
1) love is among my university’s core values,
2) loving God with our minds is something Christian universities especially promote,
3) and we value highly the transformation that comes from seeking wisdom,
then universities like mine should expect conflicts to arise from time to time. While we should not provoke unnecessary conflict, transforming minds in the pursuit of wisdom is threatening business — especially at institutions of Christian higher education. A great deal is at stake!
I experienced my own changes of mind as a college student. I was fortunate, however to have supportive and understanding mentors. Parents, pastors, and professors became my moral authorities and fostered – often indirectly – my mental and spiritual development.
The Responsibility of the Professor
These days, I am keenly aware of the role I play in shaping the lives and minds of young people. It’s a huge responsibility. I occasionally think about Jesus’ words that what we bind on earth will be bound in heaven and what we loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. What I do as professor really matters.
A couple years ago, a student named Brian Mackey gave me a small glass container. In it was a Jello-like substance called “Gack.” Brian walked into my office, plunked the Gack on my desk, and said, “Oord, you’ve stolen my soul!” This was his way of saying I had convinced him to think in ways better than he had previously.
I keep Brian’s gift on my office bookshelf. It reminds me I am in the ministry of shaping souls, although I don’t steal them!
In Medieval times, pastors were expected to devote years of study to the ministry before entering it. Clergy were thought of as “doctors of the soul.” In my mind, the healing business in which I engage can be of greater consequence than the healing business of the medical doctor down the street. I play a significant role in presenting the salvation God wants to provide my students.
When I think about the crucial role professors like me play in encouraging students to be transformed as they love with their minds, I admit I sometimes worry. After all, professors are far from perfect.
Professors Like Me Need Prayer
I know I’m far from perfect. Despite having a Ph.D., reading widely, having lectured on six of the seven continents, writing and researching extensively, etc., there is so much I don’t know. The Apostle Paul was right when he wrote that we see through a glass darkly. I know in part.
Not only do I know in part, I also make mistakes. I don’t always say the right word. I’m sometimes not as kind as I ought to be. I’m a flawed person and a work in progress. I need prayer!
But I’m also reminded of the final words in 1 Corinthians 13 and first words in the next chapter. Paul says that faith, hope, and love remain. And the greatest of these three is love.
In what I think was one of the biggest blunders in biblical notation history, someone centuries ago decided to split the first part of 1 Corinthians 14 from the end of 1 Corinthians 13. The original Greek manuscripts don’t require this break.
Universities Should Pursue Love
After Paul says that love is the greatest, he instructs his readers in what we think of as the first verse of chapter 14 with these words: “Pursue love.”
It’s not just enough to know love as a core value. We also must pursue love. We must act in love. If we know all things but do not love, says Paul, we are nothing. We are like clanging gongs and clashing symbols.
I like the way Eugene Peterson, author of The Message translation of the Bible, puts the first verse of Corinthians 14. Instead of just writing, “Pursue love,” Peterson translates the verse: “Go after a life of love as if your life depended on it. Because it does.”
As I think of the core values of my educational institution, I think a variation of Peterson’s words seems appropriate. My university should “go after a university life of love — especially developing the life of the transformed mind — as if its life depended on it.” In my view, my university’s life really does depend on love: God’s love for us and our responses of love for God, others, and ourselves.