Meeting God in the Classroom
Before I arrived at Penn, I had grand ideas of how I would serve God for the next four years, loving Him with all my “heart, soul, strength and mind”. I imagined participating in service trips, mentorship opportunities, and a Christian fellowship. I had the right intentions, but I was missing a vital component for strengthening my relationship with God. In fact, I overlooked the place in which I spend most of my time: school itself.
In my first semester at Penn, I read The Outrageous Idea of Academic Faithfulness by Donald Opitz and Derek Melleby. I was bemused when the authors said, “Learning ought to be a way to love God and neighbor, a way to care for the creation.” We should show our love through learning? Surely this was simply a sappy catchphrase heard in Sunday school without any real meaning. But with more rumination I realized that the authors were absolutely right.
St. Augustine encouraged us to understand that all truth belongs to God. Similarly, all goodness and beauty stem from God. Developing our minds to love God, consequently, doesn’t stop at seeing the best in people or thinking about Jesus for ten minutes each day. Instead, it requires us to pursue a deeper understanding of the truths, goodness and beauty that God has breathed into the very fabric of creation. While found in textbooks, the ideas and information surrounding us originate from God Himself. In history classes, we get glimpses into the lives of people whom God loved as He loves us. We can learn to foster the principles and actions that helped to develop loving communities, and we can learn to avoid the mistakes that drove people further away from each other and from God. Imagine our society’s misdirection if we neglected to take heed of our capacity for wickedness (displayed in genocides and wars) or learn of our collective ability to overcome the atrocities that diminish the dignity of God’s children (seen in the civil rights movement). In the sciences, we can understand how God made humans, our world and the entire universe function—illuminating how God participates in our physical lives. Think of how joyful God was when we discovered the properties of DNA, carbon dioxide or gravity. God has stamped His identity into the world through the sciences, giving us the ability to both discover the incredible depths of His work and improve society with them. In literature, we can see the incredible ideas that God gave others the potential to develop, and how He has acted in the intellectual processes of authors. By reading A Tale of Two Cities, 1984, or Othello, (to name only a few) we increase our capacities for both empathy and insight into human nature. These fields of study are only a few of many that God has given us to pursue. In the world of learning, there is no reason to doze off or lose interest. God’s hand has guided everything we learn about, and it is time to admire His work through academia.
It struck me that class readings (of which I too often read the Spark Notes version) and lectures (which are often overshadowed by my daydreams of meeting Eva Green) are nothing less than gifts from God—gifts I too often take for granted. (I do not, however, take for granted the fact that Eva Green is also a gift from God.) Every day God offers me a chance to deepen my insight into both the ideas of my professors and the parts of the world that I have yet to examine. How do I respond to this expression of God’s love? I often decide that it’s not worth my time to pay attention. Although it seems simple enough to engage intellectually with God’s creation, I have missed the mark on numerous occasions. The commitment required to show our love through scholarly pursuits will require many of us to change our lifestyles.
For instance, some of us are plain lazy. Regardless of our intelligence, we can still find it difficult to pause a show on Netflix or get out of bed before 10 a.m. in order to develop a solid work ethic—a necessity for one who wants to fervently act upon a love for learning. We need to ask ourselves if our current daily habits really glorify God as fully as they should, or whether we need to devote more of our time and energy to the classes we have decided to take. If we receive a sobering answer, maybe we need to pray for the determination to be diligent at our desks and concentrate more in class. Some of us are burdened by busyness. At Penn, it is easy to feel overwhelmed by the workload and extracurricular activities that diminish our free time. We thus have a tendency to designate a small portion of their overall attention to each task, hoping to scrape by in all areas with the least possible effort. If we constantly sign up for more than we can handle, we will sacrifice the joy of digging deeply into our education. Before we sign up for another club or an extra course, we should consider the impact it will have on our overall learning experience.
A career-oriented approach to education can also hinder students’ academic exploration. One of my friends would give anything to study philosophy, but he feels the need to become a doctor so he can ‘do something with his life.’ Although many people have similar admirable goals, they plan out their entire lives without considering God’s plans. God takes delight when we take delight in His creation; if we would prefer to study philosophy instead of medicine, Caribbean wildlife instead of law, or Slavic poetry instead of business, we should ask ourselves if that desire comes from God. If it does, maybe He gave us that desire for a reason.
Finally, some of us are afraid that certain knowledge will contradict our faith in God. I know some who wish to simply reject studying the theory of evolution in order to avoid any challenge to their present beliefs. Although we may think we are honoring God by shying away from confrontation with viewpoints that “attack” God, too often this intellectual practice stems from the desire to dictate God’s actions rather than explore the mysterious ways in which God works. Remember, all truth belongs to God. Nothing we encounter, including evidence for “blasphemous” theories, could exist without God’s guiding hand. With this comfort, we are free to splash around in any intellectual field. We can show our love for God not only by appreciating His creation but also by creating as He did. In order to love God with all our mind, we must try to uncover the intellectual gifts and wisdom that God has instilled in us. Simply put, that requires hard work. At the beginning and end of his musical masterpieces, J.S. Bach wrote S.D.G., standing for “Soli Deo Gloria” and translating to “Glory to God Alone”. Following Bach’s example, we should be able to commit to glorifying God in both the arduous intellectual process and the final result when we work on academic assignments. Furthermore, we are called to enjoy our projects, knowing that God has given us the intellectual freedom to create unique, captivating and inspiring works.
I have too often failed to appreciate the wonder of God’s world and to fully use the gifts God has given me. Because of this, I miss the opportunity to care for and engage with all God’s creation, and thus with God Himself. God is present when our professors speak, when we read our books and when we work on assignments. To bring us one step closer to loving God with all our heart, soul, strength and mind, we must glorify and appreciate Him in the aspect of our lives we too often overlook. Before we run off to our other God-serving activities, let’s meet with our King in the classroom.
1. Luke 10:27.
2. Donald Opitz and Derek Melleby, The Outrageous Idea of Academic Faithfulness (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2007), 86.