Back to school: on loving God with my mind

It’s back-to-school time, and there’s almost no time of year I love more: new pens in different colors; fresh, unmarked notebooks; new clothes and haircuts; sharp, yellow pencils; the promise of fall weather; new classes and challenges — it makes me giddy at every August’s end. My crazy enjoyment of the back-to-school season was a huge motivation for me to start working on my doctorate; being a professor means getting paid to read and write and talk about the things I read and write. (Plus, I never have to stop buying new pens and notebooks.)

You know that part of You’ve Got Mail where Tom Hanks talks about sending Meg Ryan a bouquet of sharpened pencils? It’s completely swoon-worthy for a girl like me.

As a Christian, though, higher education can have its pitfalls. Sadly, Christians in America aren’t exactly known for valuing the intellect. I’ve been in many a class where I felt embarrassed by a fellow Christian classmate who, rather than seeking to understand a political or scientific conversation, simply spouted some Fox news sound bites, or who refused to analyze a piece of literature with care because something in it offended their moral sensibilities. Christians aren’t the only ones guilty of these crimes, of course, but since Christians already get judged (sometimes unfairly) for being anti-intellectual, it cuts a little deeper to see my fellow Christians displaying a lack of intellectual rigor.

Christians at Christian schools aren’t off the hook either, of course. It can be quite tempting to replace actual understanding, logic, and analysis with what amounts to a Sunday school lesson or a moral. Sometimes academic inquiries do lead to discussions about God and morality, but it is important not to jump to those conclusions without first offering a sound analysis of the material at hand.

Christians are called to love God with heart, soul, and strength, yes, but also with the mind. I’m not as good at it as I need to be, but, having been a student almost continuously for the last 24 years of my life, I’ve done lots of self-examination and thinking about what it means for me to love God with my mind as it applies specifically to my studies. Here is a non-exhaustive list: 

Study diligently
I remember once hearing a classmate at the Christian college I attended bragging about how, though he needed to study, he had gone to do some street evangelism instead, so he hoped that, in light of that more “spiritual” decision, God would help him out on the upcoming test. Not okay. The most horrible part for me is that evangelism was seen as more spiritual than studying, when using our minds to honor God is part of how we follow the directive to love Him. What’s more spiritual than seeking to love and know God through the development of His gift to us of a good mind?

Seek to understand the texts I read before judging them
The examples at the beginning of this article are good representatives of this need. Instead of jumping to conclusions about, for example, the Epic of Gilgamesh, and getting huffy and defensive because it, too has a flood story and its similarities to the Genesis flood story make us feel uncomfortable, we should read first to understand and appreciate. The same goes for texts that may seem morally suspect. Just because it may offend some Christians doesn’t mean it’s not worthy as a piece of literature. My examples are all from literature because that’s my thing, but I’m sure we could find some comparable examples from History, Science (Darwin, anyone?), Philosophy, and so on. Simply put: understand first, judge later.

Promote logic with love in class discussions
This is something I try to implement both in classes I attend and teach. What I mean is that logic is something of a lost art. It’s good to promote logical thinking in class discussions. On the other hand, when logic is used, it can sometimes be a tool of abuse toward those who are seeking to express something emotional, mysterious, or ineffable. Logic should not be used as a battering ram. Remember the rule about seeking to understand texts before judging them? The same rule applies to those who may seem to be sacrificing logic to something else. Math is not my subject, but here’s a little equation: Logic+Love=productive class discussions.

Work to figure things out instead of checking out mentally when things get hard
This one’s kind of self-explanatory, but I have to remind myself of it all the time, so here it is. I think, for Christians, we can take some of the Biblical examples of perseverance as a model.

No plagiarizing. Ever. Even if it means lots of extra work to properly research and cite.
Again, this is self-explanatory, but really, really important. Most plagiarism happens by “accident” — which is code for laziness. If you don’t know how to give proper credit to the authors of the research you use in your work, go look it up. And, here’s a tip: leave yourself time for this, because it might not happen the night before the paper’s due.

In truth, this is a good list for anyone, Christian or not, to follow, but for Christians trying to do everything as unto the Lord and trying to fight against the stereotypes of Christian anti-intellectualism, these actions have added resonance. 

Now, go buy yourself some new notebooks and maybe some gel pens in different colors and have a wonderful new school year!

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