Spring 2010 Chapel - January 13th
Spring 2010 Chapel Message - 01/13/10
Listen to the recorded version here:
Of Kingdoms, Castles and Compartments
Dr. David Alexander
January 13, 2010
Welcome to the Northwest Nazarene University Spring Semester 2010. I hope you had a restful, invigorating and rewarding Christmas break. I want you to know we have been praying for you and we wish you the happiest of New Years and a challenging and fulfilling spring term.
Would you join me in welcoming the new students who have joined us this semester?
I want to begin my remarks this day by sharing some vacation photos with you. In the summer of 2007, my wife Sandy and I traveled to England and Scotland to celebrate our 30th wedding anniversary.
We had a great time! We traveled with our college roommates; my roommate, Dan, married Sandy’s roommate, Vicki. That was a picture of us having 30th anniversary dinner in St. Andrew’s, Scotland (the home of golf, on the 18th hole of the Old Course).
While in England we did what all educators and preachers do – we visited
universities and churches. Here we are in London, in front of a statue of John Wesley at Epworth Chapel. And here, in Wesley’s home, is the writing desk of his brother, Charles Wesley.
From London, we rented a car and drove up to Oxford University. Oxford University is the oldest university in the English-speaking world, established in 1096. The university is made up of 38 different colleges. Oxford is a remarkable city, filled with all sorts of history and fun nooks and crannies. Here’s the Eagle and Child pub (known to locals as the Bird and the Brat) where the Inklings (C.S. Lewis, J.R. Tolkien and friends) used to meet.
Of particular interest to me at Oxford was Christ Church College. You may recognize it from this picture of Tom Quad, where the race around the quad was shot for the movie “Chariots of Fire”. Or, you may recognize its famous dining hall (if it looks like the dining hall at Hogwart’s there’s a reason).
Of particular significance for me was this tile in the floor of Christ Church Chapel, noting two of its distinguished alumni, brothers John and Charles Wesley.
These two brothers, who were so mightily used by God to turn the tide of industrial- age England, rescuing the poor, proclaiming the gospel and literally changing the course of a nation for God, are our spiritual forefathers.
While in Oxford, we combed the old streets and side shops and in one shop I made a purchase of two 19th century prints.
The Christ Church Chapel
The Christ Church Library
I had these two prints mounted together and they hang in my office.
They represent what I want to talk to you about today. The symbolism of those two prints is directly linked to words on the wall of the NNU chapel.
Those of you who were students here last spring may remember that in the first chapel of the second semester I spoke about the words on that side of the wall, the NNU motto, Seek Ye First the Kingdom of God, Matthew 6:33.
Today I want to speak about and reflect upon the words on this wall:
United the pair so long disjoined,
Knowledge and vital piety.
These words are actually lifted out of a stanza of a hymn written by Charles Wesley entitled, “Sanctified Knowledge”. For us, the words were a favorite of Dr. John Riley, the 7th President of Northwest Nazarene University.
The words on the wall, and the two prints I want you to consider represent either (A) two parts of one world—the realm of faith and the realm of reason; or (B) they represent two different and distinct worlds—the independent world of knowledge and the separate world of Christian belief and life.
Charles Wesley penned this prayer-like lyric to indicate that he believed these two realms belong together. The life of the mind and the life of faith are not to be separated; they are part of a greater whole. Yet the very fact that Wesley felt compelled to pen this prayer implies that in his day and age, the 1700’s, there was a sense of separation, a disjunction between what occurs in the chapel and what occurs in the library.
This is what I want to address today. Why are these words on the wall? What is their history and context in the scope of Christendom? What implications do they have for us as a university and you as an individual?
Let’s go back to first things. Allow me to make broad brush strokes and general observations.
God creates the heavens and the earth and all living things.
God creates humankind.
God sets apart a people.
God reveals Himself in signs and wonders and covenant.
And in the fullness of time, God reveals Himself in the person of His Son Jesus Christ, establishing the new covenant.
In creating humankind, God gives us, women and men, certain capacities, not the least of these is the capacity to think. To reason. Aristotle said, “all human beings desire to know.” Pope John Paul II identifies our questioning, wondering, thinking nature when he writes: “The truth comes initially to the human being as a question: Does life have a meaning? Where is it going?. . . the first absolutely certain truth of our life, beyond the fact that we exist, is the inevitability of our death. Given this unsettling fact, the search fo a full answer is inescapable. Each of us has both the desire and the duty to know the truth of our own destiny. We want to know if death will be the definitive end of our life or if there is something beyond—if it is possible to hope for an after-life or not. (Fides et Ratio, John Paul II).
As we consider these things we come to wonder, “Is there more to life than the mere physical, biological, psychological and cultural domains? Are there non-material things that are in their own way real, spiritual domains; is this spiritual domain part of what it means to bear the imago Dei, the image of God?”
As John Locke, an English philosopher who preceded the Wesleys submits, humankind reasons in such a way that “we are capable of knowing certainly that there is a God.” (An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, John Locke). God has provided us the mental means to consider Him. To know there is something, someone ‘other’, different than us. Unlike we who cannot produce that which does not exist, there must be an uncaused cause, somehow responsible for creating material things—some animate, some inanimate—out of nothing (ex nihilio).
As humankind reflected upon all these matters it became apparent to some that they came to believe in that which they could not fully know or comprehend, and yet in their hearts they knew it to be true, so they took the leap that is faith. In the hindsight of human history this makes sense to we who call ourselves Christian for, “The word of God refers constantly to things which transcend human experience and even human thought.” As the late Pope John Paul II so eloquently chronicles the dance of faith and reason in the encyclical Fides et Ratio, “faith liberates reason in so far as it allows reason to attain correctly what it seeks to know and to place it within the ultimate order of things, in which everything acquires true meaning. In brief, human beings attain truth by way of reason because, enlightened by faith, they discover the deeper meaning of all things and most especially of their own existence.” ( Fides et Ratio, John Paul II).
When, in the fullness of time, God sent His Son to this world, everything changed. We were now free to become what we were intended to be, the righteous Children of God, made possible by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The freedom that Jesus offers us is the chance to be free indeed. “True human freedom is emancipation from whatever constrains us from living the life of rational virtue, or from experiencing the full fruition of our nature; [freedom from] the things that constrain us, our unfettered passions, our willful surrender to momentary impulses, our own foolish or wicked choices.” (Atheist Delusions, David Bentley Hart). We are free to choose well, to choose Him. To come to know ourselves and to choose to know God.
Consequently, these new Christ-ones, these people saved from the kingdom of this world, and given citizenship in the Kingdom of our Lord, learned to live in His way. The early Christians lived out the example they saw in their God of self-outpouring love. As David Bentley Hart points out in his refreshing work, Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies, it is important to remember the impact of the early Christians on their world, “how enormous a transformation of thought, sensibility, culture, morality and spiritual imagination Christianity constituted in the age of pagan Rome; The liberation it offered from fatalism, cosmic despair, and the terror of occult…; the immense dignity it conferred upon the human person; its subversion of the cruelest aspects of pagan society; its…demystification of political power; its ability to create moral community where none had existed before; and its elevation of active charity above all other virtues.“ (Atheist Delusions, David Bentley Hart, xi). Indeed, the effect of Christianity on the development of western civilization has been truly remarkable.
Christianity, several centuries after the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, had, by the active grace of God, transformed the pagan Roman world. All of this occurred while and because those who believed also thought and acted. Knowledge and Christian belief and lifestyle were in harmony. God’s revealed truth was explored through reasoned reflection and appropriate action.
Yet in time, this balance, this harmony of faith and reason was undermined. Once, revealed truth was accepted. In time, truth was only accepted if validated by observable, verifiable methods. Reason became the source of truth. As these “enlightened” times arrived, we entered what some have called modernity. In these times, the authority of the Church declined so significantly that it was no longer central. Bentley Hart writes, “Modernity is what comes ‘after Christendom’, when Christianity has been displaced from the center of a culture and deprived of any power explicitly to shape laws and customs, and has cause to be regarded as the source of a society’s highest values or of a government’s legitimacy, and has ceased even to hold preeminent sway over a people’s collective imagination. . . . [Modernity] is the state of a society that has been specifically a Christian society but has ‘lost the faith’.” (Atheist Delusions, David Bentley Hart, 32).
This tipping point in the history of western civilization has had tremendous long-term implications for our culture. Humanity thought it could optimistically and endlessly improve itself without God. It regularly sowed seeds of doubt where certainty once grew. And grow it has. Nietzsche identified the fact that, as Christian faith and Christian morality declined, there would be change. “The disappearance of the cultural values of Christianity would gradually but inevitably lead to a new set of values, the nature of which has yet to be decided.” (Hart, 6).
We now live in the fruit of this folly. It was folly to believe that humans, by themselves, could and would naturally change things for the better. Yet this is the struggle afoot today. The Christian faith continues to be privatized and marginalized in western culture. Robert George in The Clash of Orthodoxies says it this way, “Secularism aims to privatize religion altogether, to render religiously informed moral judgment irrelevant to public affairs and public life, and to establish itself, secularist ideology, as the nation’s public ideology.” (The Clash of Orthodoxies, Robert George, 6).
Our faithless reason has led society astray. Just because humankind has been gifted with the power to choose doesn’t mean it will naturally choose well. Too often in the post-Christian desert, people value choice as an end in itself, rather than choosing what is good or true. At best, in the kingdom of this world, we are amoral; at worst, we are unknowingly preparing ourselves to be governed by god-less men, each of them choosing their own way, separated from a faith in anything greater than themselves. The individual and his power to choose has now become god.
You may ask, where is higher education in all of this? Answer: fragmented, overly specialized and without a guiding center. Quickly consider two preeminent schools. In her book, Finding God Beyond Harvard, Kelly Monroe Kullberg relates this story: “Billy Graham asked a recent Harvard president, ‘What is the biggest problem of college students today?’ The president answered with one word: ‘emptiness’. How did our universities become places of emptiness? Harvard’s initial mission was articulated ‘For Christ’s glory’; the Harvard seal was later changed to ‘Truth, for Christ and the Church.’ (veritas, christo et ecclesia)
Over time the seal has changed. Now Veritas stands alone, separated from Christ and the church. Ironically, “The Harvard College bylaws read, ‘Let every student be earnestly pressed to consider well that the main end of his life and studies is to know God and Jesus Christ who is eternal life (John 17:3) and therefore to lay Christ in the bottom, as the only foundation of all sound knowledge and learning...seeking Him for wisdom.” (Sounds like the words on our wall doesn’t it?)
Lest you think I’m singling out Harvard, take Duke University as another example. Its founders were so taken by the sentiment of Charles Wesley’s words, “knowledge and vital piety” that they chose for their seal to read Eruditio et Religio, Education and Faith.
Yet to read of Duke’s current emphases, these words are now ignored by all except their School of Theology. What was once a place where the interchange of theology and philosophy, faith and reason, believing and thinking, has now become a place where a smorgasbord of ideas and values, all of equal, limited worth is the order of the day, each individual is left to aimlessly choose for themselves, absent a believing community of faith and action.
So, where is Northwest Nazarene University in all of this? What do the words on the wall mean to this place, our faculty and our students? For us, these words imply a call to be like Christ, to live vital lives of faith, to utilize our capacity to reason and explore so that we might know Him more fully and serve Him more ably. The quote is a reminder to keep united, that which is so easily separated by fallen man.
We want to be a people of wonder who delight in considering our God, His creation and our place in it. We want to be good stewards of the gift of reason via our pursuit of truth. We seek to live lives of reason and virtue. To in effect, with God’s grace and help, become virtuous people. We intend to be a community of faith and reason, pursuing the life designed by and for God. At our best, your faculty is seeking to live lives that are examples of life as it is to be lived. We have made commitments to exercise our minds for Christ and to have the mind of Christ.
Furthermore, we believe and behave as if all truth is God’s truth and it coheres in the person of Jesus Christ, His Son. This is what draws us together as your faculty; it is our common purpose. As Robert Jensen suggests in “The Triunity of Truth”, “if colleges and universities are not concerned with the unity of truth, they will not be communally concerned with anything else.” (Essays in Theology of Culture, Robert Jensen).
As your faculty, we share something—a common faith in and relationship with Jesus Christ. Consequently, all our otherwise specialized and compartmentalized areas of study are connected, all facets in and of God’s wonderful creative order.
As scholars and believers in the Wesleyan-holiness tradition we believe we are called to encourage the exercise of both faith and reason. As we look at the life and ministry of Jesus Christ we see time and again when he welcomed and responded to the earnest questions of people seeking meaning, understanding and confirmation of their beliefs. Whether it’s Nicodemus in the night, a young lawyer’s exploration, or a centurion’s faith, Jesus never turned aside those who sought to find meaning or test Him or their beliefs.
Consequently, you may notice us employing a particular manner and method of belief and discourse our tradition calls the Wesleyan quadrilateral. It informs and shapes our faith, thinking and inquiry. First and foremost, we seek to foster a learning and living environment where Christ is at the center of all things and His way is shown through study and understanding of the Scriptures. We seek to know His Word, the place where the revealed, absolute truths of God are recorded and remembered.
We further shape our faith and thinking via the tradition of God’s people across the ages. That great cloud of witnesses who have gone before and through their labors and creeds have provided us with an understanding of the essentials of the Christian faith and how it applies to belief and action, both private and public.
We live out the words on the wall by exercising our gifts of reason and helping you utilize yours. In each and every discipline each professor seeks to consider the place and presence of God’s fingerprints, to use our mental capacities to know and understand life as He intends it to be, in our areas of expertise and in the world in which we live.
Lastly, we reflect upon our own personal experience to determine if indeed we too have come to know and experience the person of Jesus Christ and the life-change found in the pursuit of a life of “vital piety”.
All that to get to this point, to ask, what about you? What do you intend to do with these words on the wall? Are they an antiquated quote, too easily ignored? Or do you get it? Do you understand the temptations and tendencies represented by our human inclination to doubt and question and separate thought from faith?
Will you be willing to accept that truth lives in and is not threatened by the conversations of constructive discussion and debate? Will you join us in believing that Christian learning exists to cause Christendom to thrive, not to undermine its health? Or will you run away with your faith? Separate your belief from your brain? Will you leave here to become someone who helps people in your church wrestle with and understand life’s intellectual challenges? Or will you build a compartmentalized life where faith matters are kept private, and other matters public? Will you seek to live in a castle of faith, a walled off, artificial kingdom, where you protect you and yours by being wholly separate from the hurting world? Or will you take God’s Kingdom out into the streets of this hurting world?
You need to know that I place great hope in you. I am haunted by the words of David Bentley Hart when he says, “in one sense, Christianity permeates everything we are, but in another, it is disappearing, and we are changing as a result; and something new is in the centuries-long process of being born.” (Hart, 239).
I fear we may be descending into a barbaric, pagan age in western society. God needs you to make a difference. Hear the words of Paul: “I urge you therefore, brothers [and sisters], by the mercies of God, to present your bodies a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God which is your spiritual service of worship. And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect.” Romans 12:1, 2.
God calls us to pursue Him with both our heart and our mind. To exercise faith and reason to choose to genuinely believe in Him and then in sincerity of action to follow Him. I pray that while at NNU you come to understand His ways, to in effect, “have the mind of Christ”. So that each of us, professor and student alike and the staff who support us, might step forward and become salt and light and leaven in this world, a world pretending to be sufficiently in charge of itself, but a world in reality that is desperately in need of a Savior—Jesus Christ our Lord, whose Kingdom and righteousness we seek!
May God bless you this term as you seek Him with all of your being—heart, soul, mind and strength!
Resources and Recommended Reading:
Robert George. The Clash of Orthodoxies. Wilmington, DE: ISI Books. 2001.
David Bentley Hart. Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and its Fashionable Enemies. New Haven: Yale University Press. 2009
John Locke. An Essay Concerning Human Understanding. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books. 1693: 1995.
Mark Noll and James Turner. The Future of Christian Learning: An Evangelical and Catholic Dialogue. Grand Rapids: Brazos Press. 2008.
Mark Noll. The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994.
Robert Jensen. Essays in Theology of Culture. “The Triunity of Truth”. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans. 1995.
John Paul II. Fides et Ratio—Encyclical Letter. Vatican. 1998.