Christian Colleges on the Mind: Part Two: Ethics and Vocation

Those who knew me back at The Ooze will likely be rolling their eyes not too far into this part of my essay; I’ve been talking about vocation and profession for some time now, and my basic analogies (themselves derived from Plato) have not changed much. That said, I think that in a technological age (I’ll explain that in a bit), the Christian ethos of prayer and Spiritual fruit stands to provide a real alternative, and the Christian college is an ideal place to articulate and embody that alternative.

A Lamp Under a Basket

Jesus warns in the Sermon on the Mount that salt can lose its flavor and thus its role in the kitchen (Matthew 5:13). The metaphor has been fodder for so many sermons that I do not presume to give the definitive reading of it. Here I simply start by saying that vocation has at least three meanings for a Christian: any given Christian might hear a call to some particular place or opportunity or way of life, and to those moments I hesitate to speak; the Spirit being what the Spirit is, to attempt to anticipate the contents of those calls with any precision can only lead to error. (A reading of the book of Acts should make that clear.) On the other hand, the Christian life itself stands as a calling, a vocation. Such cannot and must not be the exclusive property of Christian academics lest the Body forget that not every part of the body is a hand and that not every Christian needs to be a reader of hard books.

A third sense of calling, the one that will inform this part of the series, refers not to miraculous trips to Macedonia but to the mundane, centuries-long practice of doing what I will call (following Augustine) Christian philosophy. This kind of calling is as old as 1 Corinthians 15 and has looked different in different ages, at one time and place calling those bishops whom in retrospect we call Church Fathers, in another monks and nuns, in another perhaps professors in Christian colleges. Broadly conceived, this Christian philosophy is bringing to bear as full a range of human texts and fields of knowledge to bear on a certain set of practices, those that reflect upon, critique, and offer guidance to the life of the Church.

Plato’s Moral Medicine

In Republic, Plato calls into question the democratic ethos that has come to dominate not only the political life proper of Athens but also its arts, its military establishment, and its moral life. In Plato’s mind, the great crime of democracy is that by making everyone identical, it ignores the actual giftedness (I imported a Christian theological word there) of each person. Athens’s problems, Plato holds forth, arise from misplacement of people according to their abilities. Everyone, in Plato’s mind, is good at something, and when people devote their lives to what they’re best at, justice ensues. But when people who should be farmers become soldiers, armies break ranks when the fighting turns sour. When soldiers become carpenters, fights between neighbors break out. When those who want to make money become soldiers, one gets mercenaries and pirates. And worst of all, when everyone, irrespective of goodness or badness, has an equal say in the common life, the lack of wisdom that characterizes the masses overruns and overrides the justice that the just could bring to bear if only the people would let the just rule.

The point of this essay is not to denigrate American-style democracy (I read as much Hamilton and Franklin and Jefferson as I read Plato, after all) but to note Plato’s more central insight, that justice and military prowess and agriculture all have in common two needs for good practice, namely natural (in the classical sense) ability and discipline (also in the classical sense). If we think of Christians not as people in general but as a certain, called-out (the root meaning of ekklesia) people, then service as intellectuals inside of that ekklesia also requires a certain given ability (whether natural or supernatural) and a disciplined life (in the sense that Christian philosophers ought to be disciples, or students).

Where College Comes In

What nobody will read me arguing is that every member of every congregation needs to attend college, much less a Christian college. Christian discipline (in the student sense) ought to come to congregations mainly in the acts of worship and common study, practices that persist through months and years and which involve members from all kinds of educational backgrounds. Moreover, Christian philosophers

That said, I do wish to make a case for a place where some members of congregations (the Christian philosophers I am imagining) can live lives of intensive study for a small number of years. Such training would not be unlike the brief but intensive training that other vocations receive, and it would not exclude those kinds of training. Just as a soldier engages in basic training for a season, physicians medical school, judges law school, and pianists conservatory, so Christian philosophers ought to spend four years or so in intensive study.

When these newly trained philosophers come out of this training, they likely will be as medical residents, new law school grads, and inexperienced musicians–they will need years to grow into the tradition into which the period of intensive study initiates them. Nonetheless, gathering together disciples of like calling, pushing them intellectually into questions and inquiries that otherwise they likely would not have ventured, and doing so in the company of dedicated teachers should be no less important to those called to be intellectuals within the Church than those called to be those intellectuals we call physicians and lawyers.

The parallel might seem too distant to be analogous, but the professions of law and Christian philosophy are not dissimilar. Just as everyone in a jurisdiction should know the law well enough to be a good citizen but some receive training to deal with the complex borderlands of the legal system, so every Christian should know Trinity and Scripture and Salvation from being a part of a congregation for any span of time, but some should receive training to negotiate what such things might mean in realms such as academic philosophy, the hard sciences, and psychology. Just as people should know enough about the human body to check an overreaching physician, so those not privileged to receive formal training should have enough theology from common study to put a stop to squirrelly teaching. But in both cases the goods that the well-trained and ethically-minded specialists bring to the community at large justify, I think, the risks of potential overreaching.

To put one more touch on this, the Christian philosophers I imagine would include pastors but would not be limited to the same. Especially among us low-church Protestants (I am one too), folks ordained as elders and deacons as well as other non-preacherly teachers bear immense influence in congregational life, and institutions that can train schoolteachers who are also Christian philosophers and accountants who are also Christian philosophers and physicians who are also Christian philosophers stand to influence congregations’ intellectual lives as much as seminaries do.

As I wrap up this segment and prepare to write the section on what truth might mean in a Christian college setting, I once again invite my readers to offer critiques and alternatives to what I write here. I approach this topic with fear and trembling, knowing full well that I’m feeling my way along and trying to systematize the bits that I’ve read here and there. If you can help me to do that, so much the better.


About Nathan Gilmour

Nathan P. Gilmour is a Christian, a husband, a father, and a college English teacher. He tries to do all of that and write something worthwhile on occasion.


One thought on “Christian Colleges on the Mind: Part Two: Ethics and Vocation

  1. >Alright! We got a triple-header today. 😉

    Posted by Jeff Wright | February 23, 2008, 12:17 am

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