The End of School

On my desk sits a small relief of Rodin’s “Thinker”. We know the famous statue—the nude kneeling on his left leg in the contemplative pose—as the symbol of modern thinking and philosophy. The little statue came from a small gift shop in Paris on Rue de Bellechasse, not too far from the original, which sits in the garden of the Muse Rodin.

While the “Thinker” is universally known, what we don’t think about is what exactly it is that he is thinking about. This thought had rarely occurred to me before I stood before the massive statue with 20 college students and listened to one of our humanities professors, explain the significance of the masterpiece. Originally the statue was a small but important part of a larger door Rodin was creating for a museum. Around the frame of the massive bronze door were images of people falling into eternal damnation in the spirit of Dante’s inferno. At the top of the door was the original thinker. Perhaps a vision of Dante himself, the watchful thinker contemplates the eternal state of the damned.

The oft-used symbol of philosophy was originally created to capture a man thinking of eternal matters, specifically hell—a hell which, in the academy today, is dismissed as false at best.

The oft-used symbol of philosophy was originally created to capture a man thinking of eternal matters, specifically hell—a hell which, in the academy today, is dismissed as false at best. In fact, a theology of hell is the type of item Peter Enns referred to in his piece, “Can Evangelical Colleges and Seminaries Be Truly Academic Institutions?

The tone of the article is not pugilistic, and certainly the question needs to be asked. After all, if evangelicals are to carry out their mission, they truly should be in the larger conversations.

Enns establishes that we are having two different conversations working from two different sets of assumptions. Evangelical schools are working from a faith presupposition. “Purely” academic schools are either working from a different set of presuppositions or transcend them by being inherently more objective than evangelicals can be, given their disposition to believe Scripture in traditional ways.

The comments to the piece that followed were generally about philosophical presuppositions. However, the article is missing something critical, namely the end of Christian higher education.

When students come on to the campus of our small humanities college, situated within a Baptist seminary, I have an objective for them that transcend the goals of the academy; an end goal. I want them to fall in love with people whom Jesus loved. Jesus explained to those who are curious (Luke 15:1,2) that his ministry was dictated by his desire to seek lost sheep. Thus, I want them to be so motivated by the force of the love of Christ and the reality of hell that they get their education for altogether different reasons. They are not being educated to populate the work force with myopic dreams of ease baptized by a few dozen chapel services while catechized with the language of modern church. No, I want them to actually live like Jesus, which means to love like Jesus. To love those who have no other hope outside of Christ—this is the end of education.

To love those who have no other hope outside of Christ—this is the end of education.

To do this, our principle degree is a “great books” degree. We have them read the original thinkers of Western and Eastern thought. This is for the purposes of apologetics, yes, but it transcends apologetics. Let me be clear, the main reason we have them read works is not just to defend their faith. I am not just taking a student and having him read the Koran so that he can share the message of Jesus Christ with a Muslim. He may in fact do that, and we pray that he does. For example our students, armed with at least a working knowledge of the Analects of Confucius, along with some basic epistemology, have made tremendous progress with those of other faiths in foreign countries. While this is an immediate goal, we have another goal: we want them to read the great books because we want them to worship God with the life of the mind.

God is glorified when we worship him with the life of the mind. This includes reading brilliant works, by thoughtful people. And, it is difficult to have an understanding of the sweep of Western thought without grappling with these works. Ultimately, the existence of all people draws attention to Jesus, because He in fact is the reason that all things exist (Col. 1:15ff). So the reading of an influential work is, in this way, reading how someone is using the intellectual powers that Christ bestowed upon them; powers that he gave even to those who do not know Him. Thus, these authors in fact glorify God without knowing it. The greatest artists and thinkers may be unwitting exegetes of a God they will never know. And, we are not afraid of this truth.

The greatest artists and thinkers may be unwitting exegetes of a God they will never know.

So we read them; not about them, we read them. Our students think deeply about the implications of these truths. Are we afraid that some might walk away from the faith if they are exposed to these works? Of course we are. But the risk is worth the reward. It is so thrilling to talk to a 21-year-old who has so much confidence in the faith, so much love for God, and can think and interact on a critical level.

At the end of the day, perhaps the goal of Christian higher education is different than our secular counterparts. We have different objectives. The academy has both a pragmatic objective to produce doers, and a purist objective to produce thinkers. But when our evangelical thinkers think, they think in a way that leads them to give their lives for the advance of the Gospel.

As I write this, several of these students, and their professors, are on three different continents sharing the message of Jesus Christ. Away from the comforts of home during the holidays, and some even in remote bush areas temporarily removed from any communication from the world. Why? It’s not because they will be career missionaries. It’s because this is the end of their education. This is what we want: thinkers whose thinking has led them to doing. This is the end.