Loving God, Each Other and the Truth

Editor’s note: The following is adapted from a chapel talk at Northwestern College, Orange City, Iowa.

A salesman driving through rural Iowa has car trouble. He has no cell service, so he walks to a nearby farmhouse. He enters the yard and, looking to his left, sees a pig in a pen. The pig has a wooden leg. The salesman stares for a moment then walks onto the porch and knocks on the door. After the farmer lets him use the phone, the two men wait there for the tow truck. Finally the salesman says, “Can I ask, Why does your pig have a wooden leg?”

“Oh, that pig’s a marvel. Look how smart he is.” The farmer then has the pig perform a range of tricks, each more unusual than the last. “That is great, but why does he have a wooden leg?” With greater enthusiasm the farmer says, “You wouldn’t believe what that pig can do. We had a house fire a week ago, and we were asleep. You see the burned portions of that window in the house? This pig got out of his pen, broke into the house and dragged my wife and me to safety. That pig is just a wonder.”

Defenses of the Good News as a moral system risks making it just like any other religion’s program.

“I see that; I believe you,” the confused salesman says. “But you haven’t answered me: how do you explain the pig’s wooden leg?”

The farmer gives him a steady look. “You don’t eat a pig like that all at once.”

Such a remarkable pig – but still a pig. Don’t we often say something similar about the Good News, about God’s Kingdom? Astonishing, wonderful, Good News from another world, a different kingdom. Christianity is the most remarkable of all religions and moral systems, we say,  but still it is primarily a religion, an ethic. A certain kind of Reformed thinking encourages this – a creation perfect in origin but distorted by human rebellion and sin. The church encourages moral behavior in conformity with God’s work to restore that creation; we might call this “the third use of the Law.”

But Christian colleges are not churches. Liberal arts programs should of course challenge student conviction. What is an appropriate scale of intellectual discomfort for college students? On many campuses in the United States, students and administrators struggle to distinguish suitable intellectual challenge from insensitivity to ethnic, religious and sexual minorities. Schools associated with the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities face controversies highlighting Christian educational missions inseparable from fundamental behavioral codes on sexuality. As long as we consider the Good News primarily to be an ethical system, that shouldn’t surprise anyone.

NOT PRIMARILY A RELIGION

Yet the Good News of God’s here-and-coming kingdom in Christ is not simply any of those things. Consider, for example, Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 6. He places himself at the center of the Kingdom of Heaven. This kingdom is so different from the kingdoms Jesus’ audience would have recognized. This kingdom’s power doesn’t rest in wealth, military might, expert training or elaborate ceremony and ritual. It rests in the meek, the poor in spirit, those who love their enemies and turn the other cheek to their violence. Those people, the salt and light of the kingdom, are hardly qualified to be rulers or administrators.

Jesus was no less controversial when he turned to religion. He dismissed public practices we would call pious: Don’t let anyone know about your compassionate actions to others. Don’t let anyone see you praying and, if you do, keep it simple. If you are fasting or by implication doing any religious activity, don’t let anyone know about it; hide your piety from others. Piety and righteousness are always vulnerable to desiring approval from others.

Similarly, no matter how glorious and sublime, no matter how remarkable, defenses of the Good News as a moral system risks making it just like any other religion’s program of moral, purity and ritual demands: ways of solving problems, a kind of medicine for the soul and heart and mind.

God’s Good News is remarkable. Jesus has freed us from the demands of moral and religious perfection. This freedom is shocking. Paul in Galatians 5 tried to explain this radical freedom and yet maintain moral boundaries: “For you were called to freedom … Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another. For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself’”(5:1, 13, 14). He proceeded to explain how loving your neighbor means avoiding sexual immorality, strife, drunkenness, envy, sorcery and more. I think he adds this long list – wise moral advice, surely  – because simply saying “God wants you to love one another. That is a righteous life,” well, that sounds too easy. What is particularly religious or pious about loving others and being free to do whatever else you want?

Paul’s point is easy to misunderstand. It is a foolish notion, even offensive. Why aren’t we embarrassed to find ourselves followers of Jesus and believers in this story? Yet God is willing to risk our misunderstanding such freedom – and grace – in order to tell us in ways we understand. We’re naturally moral, religious creatures; humans always have been, as far as we can tell. God talks to us in whatever way is necessary for us to hear him, to pay attention and turn our lives to his life-giving love. We’re likely to turn the Good News into more religious work, another moralistic job, to turn Jesus into some kind of religious program director for the big summer-camp-quit-smoking clinic we sometimes make of Christianity. The Hebrew scriptures as some kind of timeless moral and political guidebook – why not? The Sermon on the Mount as a kind of constitution for social and political life? Sure. Marriage only between a man and woman? Often, we emphasize all this. When we hear such crazy news from another land in the mouth of Jesus, news that seems good but also is strange and even upsetting, we can’t help but revise it to more closely fit what we already believe. Some of our most challenging writers, people as diverse as John Milbank and Marilynne Robinson, suggest a version of this. They remind us that we need an ontologically thick metaphysics to make proper sense of our lives and of the world.

THE GOOD NEWS AND THE LIBERAL ARTS

How is the Good News suited to the kind of lives we should live as members of a liberal arts college? Chapels on our campuses are the living hearts of our communities, symbolizing two deep convictions: We honor Christ, God in flesh alive for us and creation. We also honor the rigorous, disciplined work of scholarship in every field, from accounting to music to philosophy to science. God made the world and declared it good, and we honor him by studying it. Talk about “integration of faith and learning” means we can and must negotiate the tensions, disagreements and shared ground between them and the claims of God in Christ. We honor both to the best of our ability. That is really challenging and at times frustrating. If we have not felt that challenge or frustration, we are not working hard enough.

The job is to honor the pursuit of knowledge and training despite fear for our spiritual and moral lives. We trust God’s power and love to protect and care for us, to conform us graciously to Christ through our skills and knowledge in the long run in service to his Kingdom. We might have to change our minds or feel anxiety over a new truth, maybe argue with someone over a tough problem. We study Scripture, we pray and worship, we build one another up as the Body of Christ, we serve others: but as members of a liberal arts college, those goals must accompany all the serious intellectual life of the mind.

I’ve changed my mind on a number of serious questions. None of these changes were arbitrary or casual. The evidence and argument forced me to do so. But each was really difficult, costing me some sleepless nights and straining my relationships with friends and colleagues. I see the consequences from student opinion in my course evaluations. But this is our job: our calling. And many colleagues agree.

We have a duty to pursue truth, to discuss problems openly, even if we risk offending someone. We might offend our administrators; we might challenge our board of trustees and members of our denomination. Academic freedom does have its limits. Faculty handbooks typically state that it ends where it intrudes on the freedom of our students, meaning I can’t use the classroom to try to create disciples for my ideological convictions. But academic freedom includes the public and frank discussion of any subject legitimately part of the classroom and its disciplinary field as part of the way members of that field take up the subject and which treats differing viewpoints with respect. It is a freedom of questioning, not only asking what and why but engaging in skeptical questioning: “Why is that true?” This kind of freedom often is confusing, unpopular or frightening. Our peculiar problem is that we have two basic sources of authority we hold onto simultaneously: the authority of our academic disciplines and the authority of the Christian faith based on Scripture as we understand it broadly in the Reformed tradition.

We face a great threat at Christian colleges to the peculiar freedom we enjoy and defend. We are often challenged by members of our own communities, board members, students, even on occasion faculty, dismayed over what is portrayed in our art galleries, on our stages, in our campus newspapers, even our classrooms. Often these worries are about sexuality; sometimes, about science; sometimes, about art. Yet as I stated earlier, I understand the Good News to be so strange, so unusual, that it calls into question all the moral and religious convictions we carry around with us – convictions that seem so natural that we struggle to distinguish them from our call to be followers of Jesus.

Remember the Sermon on the Mount? Jesus criticized his own Jewish religious tradition, the moral and religious expectations of his family, his teachers, his audience, even his own disciples. That is what it means to be really free; that is the strange, shocking freedom Jesus returned to over and over again when he taught that his kingdom was the kind of place where God saves everyone, even the worst sinners, gives them cuts in line into the Kingdom in front of the most righteous. That is the shocking freedom Paul mentioned in his letter to the Galatian church, where even their enemies spied on them to try to figure it out (2:4); where Paul near death told the Philippian Christians that he counted all his life, including his work as a Christian missionary, as nothing compared to knowing Christ in His death (3:8); and where the epistle to the Colossians tells us that God takes all our moral and religious convictions, which we inevitably fail to maintain, and nails them to the Cross of Christ (2:14). That is the shocking character of the Good News. Yet Christians of all kinds have repackaged this that so it becomes a new set of moral and religious rules: God’s free grace invites us into the Kingdom, but staying inside the Kingdom, we have to obey the rules.

A WORTHY LIFE

That is not the Good News. God became human to reveal himself and his love to humanity, and doing so he reconciled humanity to him. Jesus’ obedience to the Father forced the very moral, religious and political authorities to kill him. But God restored Jesus to life and confirmed who he was and is and shall be. This truth liberates us, and we should live in obedience to that act of love. That is what a worthy life looks like.

For liberal arts students such as we are, the Good News suggests a worthy life. We are free to ask everything, read everything, look at everything, talk openly about everything, encouraged the entire time to love one another as we do that work. Our questions, books, art and discussions will not always be beautiful, hopeful, encouraging, kind or loving. They might even be offensive. But that is the risk we take to learn the truth.

What then does love peculiarly look like at a Christian liberal arts college? It looks like loving truth enough to ask the hardest questions, even challenging those closest to us. No one gets away with shoddy work; how would that help? Academic freedom isn’t exactly like freedom of speech: It is limited to real academic work. If a claim lacks scholarly credentials, if it isn’t a real part of an academic field, it doesn’t belong in our classrooms or any other formal college setting. Love has to shape our response to any claim made here, and love at such a school means being skeptical because the truth matters enough to risk that what is obvious or what everyone agrees upon isn’t necessarily true. Love also means trying to keep the person making the argument as beloved of God right in the front of us. Love means protecting the person taking the minority position, the unpopular argument – as long as it is an argument and not just flaming or trolling – even if the college authorities go after them. Our academic freedom as a Christian college, which in this place is love in action, is only as strong as our loving ability to defend the person making the most offensive scholarly argument we can imagine. Think of the Christian story: Really ancient documents testify to a God who made the universe, revealed himself to and through an insignificant Near Eastern people, became one of them in the flesh, was killed and resurrected and now waits for the day to return and restore us and the world? Paul said it was offensive, even scandalous (1 Corinthians 1:18-31). If the Gospel doesn’t confuse or offend us, we aren’t paying attention. As the German theologian, pastor and activist Dietrich Bonhoeffer said in a Christmas sermon, “the Throne of God in the world is not as human thrones, but is in the depths of the human soul, in the manger” (Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Christmas Sermons). Compared to such a strange and offensive story, what could we possibly talk about that is more difficult?

We can take this risk because of the hope within us rooted in the living Christ. We hope this story of Jesus as God in the flesh, living a life like us and murdered for his obedience to the Father but brought back to life to give us his life, is true. Such hope makes love for one another possible, trust in God’s love and power to make it all work in the end, trusting in the truth no matter how shocking or dismaying it is.

Phillipe Falardeau’s 2011 film Monsieur Lazhar (based on the play by Évelyne de la Chenelière) introduces an Algerian refugee in Montreal. He begins teaching 12-year-olds after their teacher hangs herself in their classroom. No one knows that this new teacher fled his home after terrorists murdered his wife and child. He is gentle but strict; his old-fashioned methods and high expectations encourage his student’s best work. Their loss haunts them, especially a boy and girl whose friendship has now broken down in the wake of the suicide. Their grief finally propels them into a brutal argument over who was responsible for Martine’s suicide. Lazhar comforts them and then addresses the class: “Don’t try to find a meaning in Martine’s death. There isn’t one. The classroom is a home for, it’s a place of friendship, of work, and courtesy. Yes, courtesy. A place full of life where you devote your life, a place where you give your life, not infect a whole school with your despair.”

Even as his own grief draws him to these students, he does not take advantage of their pain as a teaching moment. Silently binding his grief to their own in kindness and gentle firmness, Lazhar trusts that the work of understanding an academic subject, of the intellectual virtues themselves, are enough. His love of literature helps heal some of his own pain-filled life, giving him hope in the healing power of the truth.

The truth is hard to determine, to find, and tell. Doing so takes all of us. Even if we risk offending someone doing so. To speak against falsehoods and fake science, against voodoo scholarship, against prejudice disguised as truth. We must figure out how to love one another and love the truth.

Michael Kugler teaches history at Northwestern College, Orange City, Iowa.

Photo: CCO Public Domain.