As we approach the start of a new academic year, I’ve returned to the Maritimes after a summer at home in North Vancouver to take up my duties again at Crandall University. In two weeks I’ll mark the one-year anniversary of my installation in the new Samuel J. Mikolaski Chair of Religious Studies, so perhaps some will be interested in the address I gave on that occasion:
Sanctifying Culture, Cultivating Saints
What am I doing here?
What are we doing here?
As we begin a new academic year, and as many of us begin our time at Crandall University, we might take a few moments to reorient ourselves and refocus our attention on what truly matters in the enterprise of a Christian university.
A university clearly has something to do with culture—with studying culture, passing culture along, and even contributing something to culture. And a Christian institution obviously has something to do with the worship and service of Jesus Christ.
At what more precisely, however, ought we to be aiming as we begin again the truly massive expenditure of hours and words and images and assignments and relationships and experiences that constitute university life?
Columnist Mark Steyn has warned his fellow conservatives about how their liberal counterparts have more fully grasped the realities of social change: “Conservatives aim to elect politicians every few years while liberals aim to shift the culture day by day by day.”
Adam Gopnik, writing in The New Yorker, more generally advises those who wish to see society embrace their chief concern not to force something onto other people’s agenda, but to make that concern—currently unthinkable—to be merely plausible. From there, he said, people can opt for it without compulsion…and in a large and diverse society, likely lots of people will.
Compare, alas, these prudent observations with the typical “all-or-nothing” approach of the culture wars fought by too many Christians south of our border. Even sociologist James Davison Hunter, who helped popularize the very phase “culture wars,” has since pulled back into recommending a kind of Stanley Hauerwasian “faithful presence”—albeit without the characteristic Hauerwasian prophetic confrontation.
Meanwhile, far too much discourse in American public life today, even among the sophisticated, seems aimed at rallying the troops and impressing the choirs, rather than actually changing anyone’s mind.
Returning above the 49th parallel, we confront Canadian diffidence about such political polarization. Such reluctance to press too hard can be cowardly, yes. But it also can stem from a deeply ingrained reflex against pressing too hard on points of difference, and especially emotionally and politically fraught points, such as religious differences, for fear of jeopardizing our hard-won and fragile confederation of deeply different peoples.
The Bible tells us Christians that we are in a war—but there are different kinds of wars, against different kinds of enemies, involving different kinds of people, and thus requiring different kinds of strategies and tactics. Brute force hammering down on a demonic enemy is not the only, or even the best, way to respond to the challenges of our time. Some wars, and some parts of some wars, need to be battles for hearts and minds, fought and won through intelligence and research and creativity. Our challenge as North American Christians is to discern precisely what sort of struggle we are in, at any particular moment, and then to decide how to respond with faithful effectiveness.
We must also beware the power of metaphors and make sure we do not conduct our lives solely in the martial vein. For we are not only in a war, but on a fishing expedition, and on a rescue mission, and on a pilgrimage, and in a family, and in a garden.
Indeed, it was in the first garden that we got our first commandment from God: to make shalom. And it was overlooking a city that we got our great commission: to make disciples. A Christian university, a centre of Christian thought and education, a centre of culture and discipleship, pursues both goals simultaneously.
We study culture and train in cultural work so that we may make culture, and correct culture, and improve culture to conform better with God’s standards. In short, we want to make culture more dedicated to him, to make it more holy: to sanctify it.
We also study discipleship and train in discipleship so that we may ourselves conform better with God’s high standards. In short, we want to make ourselves and each other, and to be made by God’s Holy Spirit, into people more dedicated to him, to be more holy: to be saints.
Thus a Christian university does not need to justify its actions to the church in terms only of disciple-making. On any given day, a physics experiment, a psychological test, or a philosophical conversation may not mention Jesus and may not draw anyone closer to Christ. But if the work is good work, studying culture or training in cultural work so as to contribute to the flourishing of the world—not merely tikkun olam, the repair of the world to some primeval beauty, but to cultivate the world to some as-yet-unrealized glory—then the Christian university is doing its job.
Likewise, however, a Christian university does not need to justify its actions to the secular academy in terms only of cultural study and production. On any given day, a chapel service, a prayer meeting, or a private talk may not produce any obvious cultural improvement, but if someone is drawn closer to Jesus and upward into greater Christ-likeness, then the Christian university is doing its job.
These two agenda, furthermore, are not mutually exclusive, nor even organically separate. For the whole point of making disciples is to help people reconnect with God, through Christ, in the Holy Spirit; to reconnect with the people of God; and to reconnect properly with the rest of God’s creation. We become Christians, and we help others become Christians, in order to become optimally functioning human beings exercising dominion over the world in order to help it flourish. We cultivate saints in order to love God and love our neighbours, yes, but also to sanctify culture.
Saints are not supposed to gradually withdraw from cultural work into a spiritual twilight zone or leave the earth behind to mount up to a transcendent heaven. Biblical saints—the ones you find at the end of the Bible—live on a renewed planet, in a renewed city, in fellowship with God, each other, and all other creatures.
All we do at a Christian university, therefore—from biology to Bible study, from sports to music, from dorm life to final exams—is in obedience to God’s great command to cooperate with him and each other to help the world flourish. And in a fallen world in which much must be corralled and corrected as well as invented or improved, we must sanctify culture and cultivate disciples.
Those sound like grand objectives. Are they too grand for a small Baptist university? Are they perhaps even arrogant and unseemly for a nice little school in the modest Maritimes?
Previous university president Samuel J. Mikolaski didn’t like to think provincially, and so he got the best education he could—completing it with a doctorate at Oxford University. (This, I suggest, is a pretty good choice if one cannot somehow enroll at the University of Chicago.)
Let’s appreciate that Dr. Mikolaski did not, on the one hand, let Oxford swell his head such that he despised small things—such as Atlantic Baptist College (as Crandall was previously known). He came here, rolled up his sleeves, and contributed what he could with evident gusto. Nor did he, on the other hand, rest content with ABC as it was at the time. Instead, he worked tirelessly with the other leaders of the day to promote the school into the ranks of Canadian universities.
We who have devoted our lives to a Galilean peasant rabbi who commissioned a small group of rag-tag followers to go win the world dare not despise small things, either. The next viral video will, almost certainly, start small. The next great cultural leader may come from Manhattan or Hollywood or Silicon Valley or London, but he or she is at least as likely to come from a suburb of Mumbai, or a tower block in Seoul, or a small town in Atlantic Canada.
A Christian university such as ours, therefore, must exist in a tension—a difficult tension, but a creative one. We humbly receive God’s commands to engage in culture and empower disciples, no matter whether we are big or small, prestigious or unknown. We also boldly rise to the challenge to make things better. And to rise to that challenge will require more creativity, yes, and more industry, yes, but also (and here I pause with the gravity appropriate to the sacredness of the subject) more money.
We are, yes, going to have to put our money where our mouth is, to relocate our treasure from what amuses us to what advances the Kingdom, and thus to pay the price necessary to be truly influential…to move the cultural needle…to send out a fresh signal of truth, love, and beauty…and thereby to offer a plausible alternative to a Canadian culture that currently expects from evangelical Christians only the third-rate and the closed-minded.
I have not come to Crandall to coast, and certainly not to retire. I have not taken up a chair named for a scholar and president known for his godly ambition in order to relax.
I have come to a place that Samuel J. Mikolaski helped get renamed a university, and that the current president, with the support of Crandall’s wide range of constituents, is determined to lead to genuine effectiveness…even—to use a hackneyed term that yet should give us both pause and excitement—to excellence.
I look forward to giving all I have got to this noble and demanding calling from God. I hope to find you—each of you, and all of you together—committed to that calling, day by day, with Mikolaski-like enthusiasm.