Forty Years Later

Editor’s Note: The following convocation address was delivered at the Institute
for Christians Studies in Toronto on May 9, 2008, on the occasion of the Institute’s
40th anniversary. Founded in 1967 as a distinctly Christian graduate school in the
Reformed tradition, the Institute began granting first masters-level degrees and then by
1980 doctoral-level degrees in conjunction with the Free University of Amsterdam. The
Institute is now affiliated with the Toronto School of Theology and continues to carry
out its mission of training rigorous scholars in the fields of philosophy, theology, and
related disciplines. This convocation address by Dr. Wolterstorff is re-printed here by
permission from ICS.

Forty years later and ICS is still
here. There have been some
rough patches, but by the grace
of God, it’s still here. True, it has not
done what some said they expected it
to do. It has neither transformed Canadian
society nor has it transformed
the world of scholarship. But it was a
mistake for anybody ever to have held
out transformation as the proper expectation
of Christian thought and action–it is enough to act faithfully and
aim at making a significant difference.
ICS has made a significant difference.
So I salute you for acting faithfully
and making a significant difference in
Christian thought and action over these
past forty years.

When I was pressed a couple of
months ago to submit a title for this talk,
I anticipated taking note of the changes
that have occurred in society, culture,
and the academy over these past
forty years, and then saying something
about the challenges that face you and
me as Christian scholars in this new
situation. For the changes have been
enormous. Forty years ago was before
the fall of the Soviet Empire, before the
formation of the European Community,
before the emergence of China as an
economic powerhouse, before the near-total
globalization of the economy, before
the U.S. invasion of Iraq, almost
before the Vietnam War, almost before
the assassination of Martin Luther
King, Jr., before the revolution in South
Africa, before the rise of militant Islam,
almost before Vatican II, before the
mega-church movement, before the issues
of abortion and sexual orientation
began to tear apart churches around
the world, almost before the emergence
of praise songs, before the Dutch Reformed
diaspora in North America began
to lose its religious memory, before
postmodernism and deconstruction,
before feminist studies, before African-American studies, before gay studies,
before evolutionary psychology, before
American neo-conservatism, almost
before the emergence of shopping
malls, before personal computers, before
laptops, before cell phones, before
CD’s and DVD’s, before airport security
lines, before global positioning devices in cars and tractors, before the landing
on the moon, and before the American
dollar was worth less than the Canadian.
Forty years ago was before almost
ever ything! The challenges that face
us as Christians tr ying to live faithfully
in this present social world, and that
face us as Christian scholars trying to
live faithfully in the academy, are profoundly
different from what they were
forty years ago.

So when I sat down to compose this
talk, a couple of weeks ago, that’s what
I expected to talk about–changes and
challenges. But soon it began to feel
too conventional, too stereotypical. It’s
expected of speakers on such occasions
that they will describe the changes
that have occurred in
the intervening years,
 
I took to putting three questions to
students contemplating some particular
career choice: do you love it, are you good
at it, and is it worthwhile? I always made
a point of adding that they might not find a
position that satisfied all three criteria, but
that’s what they should look for.
 

outline the challenges
that confront us
in the new situation,
and conclude with
some cautious words
of prophecy about the
future. Now it’s not a
policy of mine to take
note of what people
expect and then proceed
to disappoint
those expectations.
But on this occasion, that’s what I’m
going to do. Instead of talking about
changes and challenges, I am going to
talk about love and learning–or more
precisely, about the love of learning.

ICS emerged out of, and continues to
locate itself within, the neo-Calvinist tradition
that originated in the Netherlands
in the nineteenth century, with Abraham
Kuyper as its great formative figure.
Kuyper and those who followed him had
important and innovative things to say
about the nature of Christian learning,
and distinctive things to say about the
rationale for Christian learning. On this
occasion, I want to focus on the rationale.
What’s the point of Christian studies?
What’s the mission of an institute
for Christian studies? What bang do its
supporters get for their bucks?
Kuyper’s answer went along the following
lines. In opposition to pietist
forms of Christianity that see human
beings as sojourners in this world until,
hopefully, they are transported to heaven,
Kuyper insisted that at creation God issued
to humankind a “cultural mandate”–a mandate to develop human culture in
all its pluriformity. Kuyper was fond of
describing this as a mandate to actualize
the in-created potentials of things, “the
powers which, by virtue of the ordinances
of creation, are innate in nature itself.”
Art, he said, is “the natural productivity
of the potencies of our imagination,”
theoretical learning is “the application
to the cosmos of the powers of investigation
and thought created with us,” and so
forth.

God’s mandate to develop culture
was not the mandate to develop culture
in any old way we wish, however. There
are right ways and wrong ways of developing
culture, good ways and bad ways,
ways that conform to God’s ordinances
and ways that violate God’s ordinances.
Given our human fallenness and
finitude, the ways in which culture has
in fact been developed have all-too-often
been out of accord with God’s ordinances.
Thus it is that the Christian’s
engagement with culture is always a
critical engagement that seeks to discern
when to say “Yes” and when to say
“No,” and when it discerns that a “No”
must be said, an engagement that does
not rest content with saying “No” but
patiently looks for a better way to go,
and when it finds it, pursues it. Thus
Christian engagement in culture often
has a redemptive quality.

Apart from the fact that I judge it
was a blessing rather than a mandate
that God spoke over humankind at creation, my own way of thinking about
these matters goes very much along
Kuyperian lines. But on this occasion,
I want to move from that familiar big
picture down to the person. Down at
the level of the person, that big picture,
of commands and obedience to commands,
proves not to be of much help.

Over the years I have had many
students come into my office to discuss
career choices. Should they set
their sights on becoming a professor or
should they go into some other line of
work? A nd if they set their sights on
becoming a professor, should they go
into philosophy or into some other discipline?
Rather late in my career I took
to putting three questions to students
contemplating some particular career
choice: do you love it, are you good at it,
and is it worthwhile? I always made a
point of adding that they might not find
a position that satisfied all three criteria,
but that’s what they should look
for.

I did not suggest that they ask
whether they felt obligated to go into
the career they were considering, for I
learned over the years that almost always
when a student felt obligated to
go into some career, it was because the
student’s parents had made him or her
feel obligated. And never once in my
entire career have I suggested that they
ask whether the career was likely to
yield fame or fortune. I suggested that
they ask whether they loved it–and if
they did love it, whether it also fit their
talents and was worthwhile.

Now I know that there are people in
the academy who don’t love learning–or don’t love that particular branch of
learning in which they find themselves.
 
The love of understanding keeps
learning alive; if that love were
extinguished, learning would
die out.
 

But that’s not how it should be. What
should be is that we’re in it for the love
of it. From the first half hour of my
first college philosophy course, I found
myself in love with philosophy. I remember
saying to myself that I had no
idea whether I would be any good at it
but if I did prove to be good at it, this
was it. That first love has never grown
cold.

What kind of love was that, the love
of philosophy that I experienced in that
first half hour? Love comes in different
forms. What sort of love is love of
learning? A nd what is it about learning
that leads some of us to love it?
I suggest that love of learning comes
in two forms. Start by noticing how often
those of us engaged in scholarship
use the language of doing and making.
We speak of gathering evidence, of constructing
theories, of developing arguments,
of conducting research, of
writing books, all highly activistic
language. This is the side of learning
that Kuyper had his eye on when
he placed learning under the rubric
of production of culture. Love
of learning, when it takes this form,
is the love of producing something of
worth–a well-crafted essay, a new
theory. It’s like the woodworker’s love
of crafting a fine cabinet and like the
poet’s love of composing a fine poem.
It’s an image of the love manifested in
God’s work of creation.

But this was not the love of learning
that I experienced in that first half
hour of philosophy, since producing
philosophical essays was still well in the
future for me. Nor was this the love of
learning that I discerned in my father,
in my grandfather, and in some of my
aunts and uncles. My grandfather was
a farmer on the prairies of southwest
Minnesota. But he did not love farming;
he disliked it, maybe even hated
it. What he loved was reading theology–Kuyper and Bavinck and Brakel.
As much as possible he neglected farming
and gratified his love of learning.
But his love of learning did not eventuate
in any works of theology–though
he certainly talked a lot of it. So love
of learning takes a form in addition to
the love of producing worthy pieces of
scholarship. Fifty-eight years after that first philosophy course, this other
love of philosophy remains alive in me.

What is this other love of learning?
It’s the love of understanding. Previously
one was baffled, bewildered,
perplexed, or just ignorant; now one
understands. Some of us love that, love
gaining understanding. In fact I think
all of us love it, though some don’t like
putting much effort into it.

It’s my view that this second form
of love of learning, the love of understanding,
is not merely in addition to, or
alongside, the love of producing worthy
pieces of scholarship. Understanding is
the point of the enterprise. Scholarship
is for the sake of understanding. We
produce works of scholarship in order
to articulate, record, and communicate
what we have understood.

When I listen to deconstructionists
and postmodernists, I sometimes get
the impression that they never think
in terms of gaining understanding; for
them, the academic enterprise consists
entirely of producing essays that others
will find interesting and provocative.
Some take the radical next step of
insisting that there’s nothing there to
be understood; production is all there
ever is–though it’s worth noting that
even they tend to get upset when they
find that they themselves have been
misunderstood! My position is that it
is the love of understanding that keeps
learning alive; if that love were extinguished,
learning would die out. What
would be the point?

And why do we human beings long
for understanding when we don’t have
it; why do we love it when we do have it?
The only way of answering this question
available to the secularist is to identify
or postulate some desire within the
psychological makeup of human beings
that explains this love–a desire whose
manifestations are shaped by culture
but which itself is innate. For an answer
of a very different sort, an answer
that points away from the self, I invite
you to turn with me to the wisdom literature
of the Old Testament.

“How great are your works, O Lord,”
exclaims Israel’s song writer, “Your
thoughts are very deep” (Psalm 92).

How manifold are your works!


In wisdom you have made them all;


the earth is full of your creatures.


(Psalm 104)

Over and over the theme is sounded.
The cosmos in which we find ourselves
is not just here somehow, nor are we
just here; both cosmos and we were
made. We are works, works of God,
made with wisdom.

The Lord by wisdom founded the earth,


by understanding he established the heavens;


by his knowledge the deeps broke open,


and the clouds drop down the dew.


(Proverbs 3:19-20 )

The response of the Psalmist to this
vision of the cosmos and ourselves as
works, works of God, made with wisdom,
is to meditate reverentially on
these awesome manifestations of divine
wisdom and to praise the One by whose
wisdom they were made:

On the glorious splendor of your majesty,


and on your wondrous works, I will meditate.



(Psalm 145)


I will sing to the Lord as long as I live,


I will sing praise to my God while I have being.


(Psalm 82)

Not only are we and the cosmos works of
divine wisdom; so also is Torah, God’s
guide for Israel’s life. It too is a work of
divine wisdom.

The Torah of the Lord is perfect, reviving the soul,


the decrees of the Lord are sure, making wise the simple;


the precepts of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart;


the commandment of the Lord is clear, enlightening the eyes.


(Psalm 19)

The response of the devout Jew to this
vision of divine wisdom embodied in
Torah was to meditate with delight
on Torah so as to discern the wisdom
embodied therein. “Happy are those
[whose] delight is in the Torah of the
Lord; on his Torah they meditate day
and night” (Psalm. 1).

Oh, how I love your Torah!


It is my meditation all day long.


Your commandment makes me wiser than my enemies,


for it is always with me.


I have more understanding than all my teachers,


for your decrees are my meditation.


(Psalm 119:98)

The orientation that I have all-too-brief
ly been describing, of meditating
with awed and reverential delight on
God’s works of creation and redemption,
seeking to discern the wisdom
embodied therein, has virtually disappeared
from the modern world, rejected
by secularists, neglected by Christians
who have turned it into one among other
religious beliefs that they hold. So I
invite you to do some imagining. Imagine
that we have recovered this vision,
and that for us it truly is an orientation
toward reality rather than one religious
belief among others. Then we
would see it as the point of the natural
and human sciences not just to produce
theoretical constructs worthy of
admiration but to enhance our understanding.
And we would regard the object
of our understanding not as something
just there but as a work of God,
infused with divine wisdom. Love of
learning, so understood, would lead us
to reverence these works of divine wisdom
and to praise their maker, some
of whose wisdom we had now glimpsed.
Cell biology of the past fifty years is an
extraordinary scientific construct–admirable
both for its intrinsic worth and
for its technological utility. But more
than that, it has revealed to us some of
the astounding intricacy of the divine
wisdom embedded in creation.

When I said, near the beginning
of my talk, that I had decided to talk
about the love of learning, there were
perhaps a few of you who were reminded
of the title that a Belgian author,
Jean Leclercq, gave
to his book about
learning in the medieval
monasteries,
The Love of Learning
and the Desire for
God
. It’s a wonderful
book; I strongly
recommend it. It’s
available from amazon.
com. I checked!
What I have done in
these last few minutes
is call your attention
to one way
in which the love of
learning and the desire for God unite.
The wise person of the Old Testament is
guided in daily life by God’s wise directives.
But the wise person also turns
around from following the guidance of
divine wisdom in daily life to discern
and ref lect on the wisdom embodied in
God’s creation. Such turning around is
almost the same as the turning around
that one executes when one interrupts
one’s faithful daily work for a time in
order to worship the One for whom one
was faithfully working.

Some of you will have been asking
yourselves whether the orientation
that I have been describing and commending
is relevant to the humanities,
those disciplines in which we study not
what God has made but what our fellow human beings have made–works
of literature, of visual art, of music, of
philosophy, and so forth. I have asked
myself the same question. Let me offer
a suggestion.

There were powerful currents of
thought in the twentieth century that
urged us to treat texts and works of
art autonomously–urged us to ask not
what Milton said by way of the poem
but what the poem says, urged us to
ask not what Rembrandt represented by
way of the painting but what the painting
represents, and so forth.
 
Meditating with awed and reverential
delight on God’s works of creation and
redemption, seeking to discern the wisdom
embodied therein, has virtually disappeared
from the modern world, rejected by
secularists, neglected by Christians who
have turned it into one among other
religious beliefs that they hold.
 

Instead of
regarding oneself as engaged with Milton
when reading Paradise Lost, one is
to regard oneself as engaged with that
impersonal artifact which is the text
called Paradise Lost; instead of regarding
oneself as engaged with Augustine
when reading the Confessions, one is
to regard oneself as engaged with the
text called the Confessions. These were
powerful movements, in short, toward
removing authors and artists from the
scene of the humanities. Such removal
of the person from the scene, such depersonalizing
of the humanities, has
gone hand in hand with the emergence
in psychology and sociology of ever-new
reductionist accounts of being human.
Currently the hottest form of such reductionism
is the truly wacky outpourings
of evolutionary psychologists.

Here, then, is my suggestion. If one
sees the cosmos not as something just
there but as a work of God, made in wisdom,
then one will naturally also see
poems, symphonies, bridges, churches,
and the like, not as found objects
but as works, made by persons with
one and another degree of wisdom and
imagination, made because the maker
loved and cared. To remove the person
is an act of dishonor. Bach’s Sonatas
and Partitas for Solo Violin are abstract
sound patterns. But they are more than
that. They are musical intelligence and
imagination of an extraordinary level
embedded in sound. To listen to them
is to engage J. S. Bach. To insist on removing
Bach from the scene is to treat
Bach with dishonor.

We in the Reformed tradition talk
easily about duties, mandates, obligations,
laws, obedience, and the like; we
don’t talk easily about love. I have used
the occasion of your fortieth anniversary
to talk about what we don’t talk
easily about–love, specifically, love of
learning. When learning goes well, the
scholar does it for the love of it–just
as the farmer farms for the love of it
and the woodworker works wood for the
love of it. I have suggested that love of
learning takes two forms, the love of
producing worthy works of scholarship
and the love of understanding, with the
latter being the point of the former. And
I have set before you the vision of love
of understanding being the love of discerning
the intelligence, the imagination,
the love, manifested in what God
and one’s fellow human beings have
made.

If learning here at the Institute
for Christian Studies is for the love
of it, if the love of it is for the love of
understanding, and if the love of understanding is united with the desire
for God and the honoring of one’s fellows,
then, so I predict, the Institute
will make a significant difference to
Christian thought and action for another forty years.

Nicholas Wolterstorff is
the Noah Porter Professor
Emeritus of Philosophical
Theology at Yale Divinity
School, New Haven,
Connecticut and senior fellow
at the Institute for Advanced
Studies in Culture
at the University of Virginia.