Every college student wants to be successful. What do you need for college success? The Jewish and Christian traditions are quite clear about how you should begin any quest for learning or what the Scriptures call wisdom: “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” (Proverbs 1:7).
In fact, the very first university leaders and teachers understood their pursuit as the love of wisdom, which is literally what the word philosophy means. They used the word “philosophy” differently than we use it today. “Philosophy” in the middle ages referred to every subject studied. One still finds a remnant of this language when you unpack what it means to receive a Ph.D., which actually stands for a doctorate of philosophy. Thus, at a university graduation you will see people specializing in a variety of different subjects such as chemistry, history or English receiving a doctorate of philosophy or Ph.D. In the middle ages, within the study philosophy (wisdom), the study of God (theology) was the most important subject or “queen of the sciences.” Although scholars also understood that the wisdom acquired in the study of every subject came from God.
What does this kind of love of wisdom require? It involves three key elements that I call the liberating arts (versus the liberal arts you will study in college). The first liberating art starts with what God reveals everyone should recognize (Romans 1:19-20). God is the creator of all wisdom and the patterns and structures of the world. Only through him can we find true wisdom and learning. As Proverbs 8:22-31 says about wisdom:
“The LORD possessed me at the beginning of his work,
the first of his acts of old.
23 Ages ago I was set up,
at the first, before the beginning of the earth.
24 When there were no depths I was brought forth,
when there were no springs abounding with water.
25 Before the mountains had been shaped,
before the hills, I was brought forth,
26 before he had made the earth with its fields,
or the first of the dust of the world.
27 When he established the heavens, I was there;
when he drew a circle on the face of the deep,
28 when he made firm the skies above,
when he established the fountains of the deep,
29 when he assigned to the sea its limit,
so that the waters might not transgress his command,
when he marked out the foundations of the earth,
30 then I was beside him, like a master workman,
and I was daily his delight, rejoicing before him always,
31 rejoicing in his inhabited world
and delighting in the children of man.
The originators of the first universities understood that one could learn God’s mind or discover God’s wisdom, which does not change. This is what today we would consider theory discovery. You need to realize that when you are learning various theories in all kinds of different classes, those theories are primarily attempting to explain the patterns in the world that God first established through his wisdom.
When we recognize and discover these patterns, we should respond with the only appropriate response to understanding God’s eternal power, divine nature, and wisdom (Rom. 1:20; Proverbs 8). We should worship. Said differently, the fundamental basis for a Christian education should be the pursuit of excellence without idolatry. By idolatry, I simply mean the worship of any created thing. When our pursuit of excellence in any academic field or the development of any human capacity becomes an object of worship it enslaves us. The education we pursue to obtain excellence then transforms into slavish education. This understanding of a Christian education recognizes that every developed human capacity can be used for fallen ends, and only when we pursue excellence in the liberating art of worship can someone properly undertake an education for the free person.
The second liberating art emerges from worship involves acquiring humility. It should be no surprise that Proverbs states that “with humility comes wisdom.”1 Part of this humility extends to recognizing that an education in the liberating arts of worship and humility is much more important than an education in the liberal arts. Indeed, the liberal arts graduate may more easily demonstrate pride (e.g., placing too much confidence in their newly acquired abilities to understand, manipulate, and control the world). In contrast, as Paul admonishes us in Philippians 2: Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus: Who being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness, And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death—even death on a cross” (vs 5-6). An understanding of the Triune God’s story and the practice of the liberating arts of worship and humility liberate us through Christ to pursue the third element.
Finally, if we acquire wisdom by getting to know God’s mind and thoughts and respond to worship, we then realize something important about the key to learning. It involves a relationship. When you pursue someone romantically, you seek to know everything about them—including the things they have created. In the same way, when you fall in love with God, you seek to get to know everything about God. This is why one early architect of the university called the pursuit of wisdom seeking friendship with God. The best of friends seek to know each other’s minds and thoughts. In the same way, only by getting to know God can one begin to understand the causes of things and the pattern of things in God’s creation. Indeed, this belief that through friendship with God one could understand the cause and pattern of all things in a systematic way, God’s ordering of the world, became instrumental in the building of the first universities. 2
In fact, the construction metaphor is also appropriate for thinking about how we build our knowledge. Contemporary thinkers often talk about constructing knowledge or making meaning without reference to some final ideal or blueprint. In contrast, Christians believe that God has given us a blueprint or model of how our lives and thinking should be designed. We just need his help to discover it (through Christ). All humans should discover and construct a place for Wisdom in their heart and minds that adhered to a blueprint provided by God. Hugh of St. Victor, an early architect of the first universities said this, “Let no man excuse himself. Let no man say, ‘I am not able to build a house for the Lord; my poverty does suffice for such an expensive project; I have no place in which to build it’…You shall build a house for the Lord out of your own self. He himself will be the builder; your heart will be the place; your thoughts will supply the material.”3 Hugh believed this motivation for education could apply to all Christians. For Hugh, an educational institution should assist with this majestic endeavor by being God’s instrument for helping build the image of Christ in humanity.