Editor’s Note: In honor of our graduating students, we are posting a devotional reflection from a Baylor graduate student, Casey Spinks, offered during a retreat for a special program we sponsor to help graduate students think about faith and learning.
At the end of his life, the philosopher Eric Voegelin asked for two New Testament passages to be read at his funeral. The first, “Verily, verily, I say unto you, except a grain of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone: but if it die, it bring forth much fruit.”1 The second, “Love not the world, neither the things that are in the world. If any man love the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh, and the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life, is not of the Father, but is of the world. And the world passeth away, and the lust thereof: but he that doeth the will of God abideth forever.”2
When his wife, Lissy, asked him why he wanted the second passage read, it’s said that he answered, “for repentance.”3
As we study how to integrate our faith and learning, I think it’s important to recognize our place in God’s story. Our place as scholars is not necessary for the kingdom of God to come, nor is it even necessarily important enough to rank second- or third-tier. If we were to live our lives only saying, “thank you Father” and “save me Jesus,” that would be enough. We would line up with most of the rest of Christians throughout all of history who, though they had little learning or even literacy, still fulfilled their callings as Christians just as well. They may even prove to have done better. For this passage tells us not to love the world or the things that are in the world but to love God. The work of a scholar, who so loves and delights in all the things of this world, may very well be antithetical to Christianity. We shouldn’t brush the possibility aside. We may very well end up like Eric Voegelin after our life of very good and very important work: asking God for repentance. I worry about this, at least.
The truth is, no matter what good work we would find ourselves to do, we would still end our lives with some regret, needing some repentance. For we are flimsy and fickle human beings. And if we tried to measure our work by God’s perfect measure, we would destroy ourselves or beg God to depart from us, for we are indeed sinful people. But we are Christians, so we want God nonetheless, so we would let ourselves be destroyed rather than have God depart from us.
This leads us back to the first verse: “Verily I say unto you, except a grain of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone: but if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit.” It is a paradox of Christianity that only as we die can we live. Only as we die to ourselves, only as we put to death what is worldly within us, do we reach life, do we reach a true world. This truth offends our ears and our many loves, the ones we hold so dear and the gifts of life we cannot let go. So, we build barns to bear against the time to come. But we should remember that, as Jesus tells us, it is no great unnatural paradox, but rather the truth of creation. Christianity is like your everyday seed going into the ground to bear fruit. Christ’s death and resurrection, our death and resurrection, are not so different from the turning of time, the turning of seasons: birth, death, and renewal. In fact, he declares to us that all those barns we built as bulwarks against time, against loss and death, are really what is unnatural, what is keeping us from true life. Only as we die do we live.
What does this process have to do with us? We are scholars, and we should see the clear wisdom. But as the wise of the world, we don’t, and God has chosen the foolish, the lowly, even the things that are not, to bring to naught the things that are.4 We must go through our own deaths, in our own profession, in our own way. Martin Luther had it very right when he stressed that no one can claim any wisdom until he or she has been made thoroughly foolish in Christ. Are we willing to give up our loves, our love for the world and the things of the world, to be made thoroughly foolish in Christ? Are we willing to believe that the folly of God is higher than the wisdom of man? This sounds hard. It goes against everything we’ve been taught by everyone, not least the best of us. The things of this world are beautiful, wonderful, and deserving of our attention. Our ideas are magnificent, just, and powerful. “Knowledge is power,” “adventure is out there,” “change the world,” “all truth is God’s truth.”
But, we can only say that last phrase in good, true faith after, not before, we have undergone the suffering and foolishness of Christ. We cannot take a shortcut. We cannot skip to the end of the story.
There is an unfortunately neglected Christian thinker, Charles Habib Malik, who did good work for the world. He helped draft the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. The only way most of you would know him now is that one quote of his opens Mark Noll’s Scandal of the Evangelical Mind: “If you win the whole world and lose the mind of the world, you will soon discover you have not won the world. Indeed, it may turn out you have actually lost the world.”5
Malik had also once studied under the philosopher Martin Heidegger. He admired Heidegger more than he had admired most anyone, and he confessed that he read his Being and Time more than any work except the New Testament, the Psalms, and the main works of Whitehead and Plato. He also knew that, at one point in his life, Heidegger had been a Nazi and had forsaken his Christianity for his love of his German people and home, and even after all that passed, had never really lost his desire for an immediacy with his Black Forest. Therefore, in a speech celebrating Heidegger’s 85thbirthday, he said:
Christianity has all along been uneasy in Germany and many Germans repeatedly feel uncomfortable with it… Thus there is always a harking back among some of the finest German thinkers to pre-Christian or non-Christian sources… These German thinkers feel more at home with them. But this is the whole point, for it belongs to Christ to make people—all people and not the Germans alone—not feel at home in their home. Because he ever reminds them… of their true home, namely the heavenly Jerusalem, of their desperate need for being near, not only their soil and their earth and their roots and their forests and their hearth and their folk and their gods, but for being near him, which is the surest way—indeed the only way—of enabling them to be truly near all these other things.6
One year later in the philosopher’s hometown, the Black Forest village of Meßkirch, Malik attended the funeral of Martin Heidegger, who requested a Catholic burial.
We desperately want to be near the things of our world. As scholars, we want to be at home in our knowledge of our objects of study; we want to be at home with our fellow guildmembers; we want to be at home in our conferences and cocktail parties and journals and jargon and book deals and expert publicity. We want to be so near them that, as we think on this progression, we soon realize we have already forgotten the real things we had loved. To get back home, we must be at home in Christ. We must die to ourselves to get back to ourselves.
I can’t do this for you. I can hardly do this for myself. I try to do it—I can’t say ‘daily’ because I don’t. I can only say that it’s a task to be done. And before we go further, I must emphasize, we can’t glance past this task and look too quickly to the other side.
But for hope’s sake, for encouragement’s sake, I can’t help but glimpse at this other side. On the other side, I hear this promise, from Paul writing to the Colossians:
He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by him all things were created in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace through the blood of his cross.7
All things, all things, all things. Christ is before all things, and all things are through him, and in him all things hold together. All the things you and I as scholars love, or should love, all these things hold together in Christ. The historical text fragment, the star, the light beam, the logarithm, the long-dead author, the educational curriculum, the story, the system, the law, the policy, the theology—all these things find their place in Christ, and where they are out of place, God has made sure through Christ to reconcile to himself all these things, making peace of all these things through the blood of his cross. We may not be scholars because we clutch to the things of the world and delight in our own curiosities about whatever we find “valuable.” We may be scholars, after putting our little loves to death and binding ourselves in love to Christ, because Christ is reconciling all the things of this world to himself. We have hope, delight, and scholarly love, because God in Christ loves us and all His creation, and He is working through it all to make peace by giving up Himself for us. This, God’s truth, is all truth, and just therefore all truth is God’s truth. And just for that reason and that reason alone, we may study, we may learn, and we may teach. As the Christ declares, even to us scholars in our strange profession: the truth shall make us free.
So we may read the first two verses again, but in reverse:
“Love not the world, neither the things that are in the world. If any man loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh, and the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life, is not of the Father, but is of the world. And the world passeth away, and the lust thereof: but he that doeth the will of God abideth forever.”
“Verily, Verily, I say unto you, except a grain of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone: but if it die, it bring forth much fruit.”
- John 12.24 KJV.
- 1 John 2:15-17 KJV.
- Recounted in Ellis Sandoz, Republicanism, Religion, and the Soul of America (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2006), 116.
- 1 Corinthians 1.27-28 KJV.
- Cited in Mark Noll, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1994), 26.
- Charles H. Malik, “A Christian Reflection on Martin Heidegger,” The Thomist, Vol. 41, No. 1 (January 1977), 38.
- Colossians 1.15-21 ESV.