A chapel talk given on Thursday, Nov. 13, 1997
Once upon a time, when the winters were warmer, and the summers less humid, when my hair was shorter, and my stomach less expansive, I drove my 1976 used Vega coupe into the main street of Princeton University for the first time. I was awe-struck. I came close to having two accidents driving slowly down the street craning my neck around the luggage to look at the gothic spires of the university where Einstein had taught. And not only Einstein, but John Darley, Solomon Asch, Ned Jones, and Joel Cooper. I know, you don't know this particular pantheon, but these were the demigods -- and at least one acknowledged deity -- of social psychology; and they were all teaching at Princeton University were I was going.
I soon discovered one thing all my fellow students and I had in common, we were driven. I didn't know that at first, but I heard that so and so was driven, and she was surely going to be famous, and I quickly gathered that being driven was a good thing. Driven! Driven to succeed, driven to study, to work late nights, to be more critical and more insightful and more productive and more -- well -- driven than the other grad students, since surely being driven was a good thing. And being driven was what would make me -- uh -- famous. Princeton, after all turned out famous psychologists.
I was hooked on the sharp steel of success. I didn't realize how sharp and how unmerciful that steel was until one day after several martinis one of my mentors worried out loud that he had not published anything truly remarkable in the last two years. Now this fellow was one of the Deans of social psychology, an acclaimed deity -- all 8 of the people at my only conference presentation that year knew his name and envied the fact that I worked with him, -- HE was famous. But out of the 20 publications he had had in the last two years, not one had made a splash. Not a single one had taken off and generated an entire new subdiscipline and cottage industry of research in social psychology, or even in sociology. This, for my mentor, was abject failure. Then I saw that even he was still driven.
I have a cat named Mr. Cat. In the evening, every evening, as I go up the stairs to bed, he prepares to receive me at the top of the stairs. It is there that I reach into the box that he has not yet figured out how to open and I give him cat treats. Treats! Fresh chicken gizzards, live scurrying mouses pale in comparison to treats. Now Mr. Cat is pretty bright for a cat, and I have decided that he can count to more: More? More? No more.
Trust me, we're getting somewhere here -- my mentor's attachment to his own success had made him like my cat. He could count to more. If you would like another hint about my opinion on this issue, the best thing I can do is quote another mentor of mine, the recently retired Wes Brown, who mailed me this bit of wisdom last week: "You can never get enough of what you don't really need."
A few years ago, Mark Schwehn -- yet another famous person, this one from Valparaiso University -- was talking at Augsburg College about what it meant to be a College of the Church. After his short talk on his recent well-received book, I asked Mark in the question session what I thought was a trap question. "What really was distinctive about Christian higher education? What sets it apart?" Mark neatly side stepped my question and gave me an answer I want to share with you today. "It's not about being distinctive," said he, "It's about being faithful."
Since Pastor Benson has assured me I have 12 minutes, let me elaborate. For a college of the church, it's not distinctiveness, its not enrollment, its not national rankings, its not a fine endowment, its not fame that counts. It's about faithfulness. For student in the church, its not a high GPA, its not a professor's praise or a companion's esteem, or the number of prayers or Bible readings, or the number of service occasions, or the number of social occasions, or even the number of socialist occasions in a week. It's about faithfulness. For a faculty member in the church, it's not about the number of students taught, or counseled. Nor is it about the number of publications, or national boards or local committee positions, or even whether the Dean likes you. It's about faithfulness.
All these fine things I have been mentioning are ways of being faithful. Their mere performance does not guarantee it, though it often substitutes for it. What is this faithfulness thing, then? If you want that answer from me, you will have to give me more than 12 minutes. But here at least are three hints.
When I was a student at Bob Jones University, every Saturday evening we would get on a bus, drive singing to Spartanburg SC, and fan out on the downtown street witnessing. The methods I was taught were certainly crude, but I covered for them with a certain measure of sincerity. Still, I offended many people. This, I was told, was evidence that I was doing God's will. I've heard this odd logic even here. Surely we will never be a nationally ranked college since "they" would never let a Christian school in those ranks. And thus not being in those ranks becomes evidence for our faithfulness. Here's my first hint: Bad work is unlikely to be evidence of faithfulness, though good work might be. If we choose the criteria, rather than letting US News and World Report choose them, and if we then apply them rigorously to our own programs and plans, then we can begin to ask ourselves if we are being faithful.
Here's my second hint. Remember that we are free in Christ and are no longer slaves to fear. As scholars and students, we need not fear the truth. We can then, in a minor paraphrase of Luther, "Think Boldly." We can ask audacious questions. We can use the tools of the humanities to question the scriptures and the creeds. We can use the ideas of the sciences to question the humanities. We can use the resources of our faith to question the sciences. We can use all of these to ask audacious questions about the purpose of higher education; we can ask about the purpose of higher education at this institution; you can ask about the purpose of your higher education. And as we do this, we can begin to ask ourselves if we are being faithful.
And now for the final hint. The standard of faithfulness is a difficult one, a straight and narrow road, hard to pick out among the rocks and false trails, and the broad paved highways of our culture. But I did learn one useful thing at Bob Jones University. God's grace is sufficient, and our job is to rest in it. It would be a mistake to be driven to be faithful. It would miss the entire point.