Things Worthy to Be Loved

“It is not the whip that makes men, but the lure of things worthy to be loved.”1

Woodrow Wilson made such a remark in instituting precepts at Princeton.  These small discussion groups were intended to do two things: foster intimacy between pupil and teacher and inspire students to grapple with their coursework, to encourage “their right of private judgment.”2 Precepts today might differ from what president Wilson envisioned, but the hopes remain the same: for students to engage actively in their learning process.

This objective raises a curious point. What motivates us anyway? Why ought we to take ownership of our education, speaking up in precepts or what have you, and explore these “things worthy to be loved”? What have we to gain from all this? These are million-​​dollar questions that beg for answers, given that inordinate sums of money and time are spent at Princeton and every other institution of higher learning.

We might be genuinely enthralled by the classes in which we enroll. Our overflowing curiosity may just naturally translate into raised hands, engaged conversations, and papers that seem to write themselves. (And I imagine that precepts in the humanities better lend themselves for students to speak up or form opinions.) Or our approach to taking classes at Princeton might be oriented towards function. That is, we are more concerned with fulfilling requirements or getting the grades necessary to bring us to the next milestone in our lives – professional school, graduate school, industry, etc. And we might opt for courses like the one dubbed “Clapping for Credit”, which is really called “Introduction to Music”. Or perhaps we’d like to get our feet wet in some alien subject, like “Metaphysics and Epistemology” and, rather than P/​D/​F it for safety measures, we’d like to fight the good fight.

I think that all these outlooks are valid. Most of us probably take on all of them in our time here. But I can’t help but think that president Wilson’s proverb has more substance to it than just this ideal of self-​​attainment. That is, at the remarkable cradle of human knowledge that is the modern university, there might be some greater end that both gives meaning to what we learn and fuels our learning – apart from our agreeably wholesome incentives to learn for learning’s sake, our career’s sake, or for the sake of quenching our thirst for treading unfamiliar academic territories.

C.S. Lewis once said of the Christian faith that “if false, [it] is of no importance, and if true, of infinite importance.”3 Just as we can tell that the sun has risen by seeing everything by it, the Christian faith must similarly shape the entirety of our life experiences. Indeed, there is an immeasurable distinction between falling head over heels in love with someone in first-​​person and identifying this experience as a series of biological stimuli in third-​​person. That we may see the world anew by dwelling on the life, death, and supposed resurrection of a man named Jesus Christ—and the implications of all this—was well put by Dutch theologian and politician, Abraham Kuyper: “Oh, no single piece of our mental world is to be hermetically sealed off from the rest, and there is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry: ‘Mine!’”4

Okay, so Christians might see everything differently. What does that have to do with learning and finding meaning in what we learn? Affirming one’s faith in God (as the Creator, the one who dwelt among us in Christ, and works in us through the Holy Spirit), plugging oneself into the church, and accepting the scriptures as crucial to our lives – these must shape, as with other aspects of one’s life experience, how one learns. What God had ordained for man and woman to do as part of their meaningful existence, as told in Genesis 1:28, is not only to “be fruitful and multiply” but also to rule over His creation and cultivate it, to explore the endless arrays of potential – for creativity, pleasure, meaning – and glorifying Him in doing so. And so if there is any higher purpose in learning, as in everything else, it is for us to acknowledge God in relishing the goodness He instilled in them. As Ben Stuart, pastor at Breakaway Ministries, points out, “Education is for exaltation!”5

Christian learning is a gesture. It is how one can be grateful for God’s deliberate work and respond accordingly. And while one’s education may serve more immediate or profitable roles, it is also the means to answer God in gratitude, sincerity, or burden. Christian philosopher Nicholas Wolterstorff calls it both a eucharistic and eirenic act – the “scholarly exploration of that richness” of His creation and our “contribut[ing] to our human flourishing” in all dimensions.6  It helps us to both positively interpret reality and alter it. So all disciplines, with their varying degrees of utility and other merits, help us to know the creator and enjoy Him as one may derive pleasure from studying art, marveling at not only the art but the artist who envisioned it. And the knowledge that comes from God helps us affect positive change, as followers of Christ and as salt and light of the world.7 It is not beyond the realm of possibility that God will press something on one’s heart and burden one with it to help recognize one’s calling in one’s relatively short time here.

The Apostle Paul could not help but exclaim, “Oh the depths of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God!”8 He wasn’t one to shortchange God of His unknowable particulars. We certainly ought to be humble in our learning and seek to attain “learned ignorance”.9 Paul also said, however: “What can be known about God is plain to [us], because God has shown it to [us]. For his invisible attributes… have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So [we] are without excuse.”10 That we may discover God’s ineffable qualities in His creation and study them, knowing that they were made by Him and for Him, is a blessing indeed. All disciplines – even those that study the humanly distortions of His creation, such as the economics of crime or sociology of deviance – are under Jesus’s work on the cross and is “affected by the true knowledge of God through redemption in Christ.”11 All knowledge can be redeemed and used for His glory. And rather than having hubris in human reason or shortchange it as vain, we can thank Him for giving us the full extent of our understanding, the scope of everything that we can perceive or know, and the wonderful depth and breadth of detail therein to survey.

Certainly, then, it is not the whip that makes men, but the lure of things worthy to be loved. As many other motivations behind pursuing academic degrees as there might be – to prepare ourselves for our future livelihoods, to glean knowledge worth gleaning – the foundational reason for learning is to know God, discover our identity in Him, and enjoy Him. And as many other obligations we might have at Princeton, we can be assured that God will meet our needs.12 College is a great place to be for knowing God by savoring what we learn—whatever it may be—and do it with joy.

  1. []
  2. Ibid. []
  3. Lewis, C.S. “Christian Apologetics,” God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994). []
  4. Kuyper, Abraham. “Sphere Sovereignty ‚” Abraham Kuyper, A Centennial Reader, ed. James D. Bratt (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998). []
  5. Stuart, Ben. “Why College?” Breakaway Ministries, Web. []
  6. Wolterstorff, Nicholas. “Christian Learning in and for a Pluralistic Society,” Educating for Shalom: Essays on Christian Higher Education, ed. Clarence W. Joldersma (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004). []
  7. Matthew 5:13–16. []
  8. Romans 11:33. (NIV) []
  9. See: De docta ignorantia by Nicholas de Cusa, the German cardinal and polymath that coined the term. []
  10. Romans 1:19–20. (ESV) []
  11. Frey, Bradshaw. All of Life Redeemed: Biblical Insight for Daily Obedience (Jordan Station: Paideia Press, 1983). []
  12. Matthew 6:25–34. []

Thumbnail image by Elnavegante from Stock Free Images.

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