Reflection on God and Learning
by Anna Plantinga
In C.S. Lewis’ essay Learning in War-Time, he opens with the question of whether it is right, or morally responsible, to devote our lives to learning. Is academia a frivolous waste of time, when we could be telling people about Jesus, or is there a deeper significance to a life of learning? And if learning is worthwhile on an eternal scale, are some questions more worthy than others?
I am convinced that the academic life is right and fitting for Christians. Much of what we do in academia is a pursuit of learning, which for us is a pursuit of both truth and beauty. Augustine says something along the lines of “all truth is God’s truth,” and King David, in the psalms – along with countless others – admires God’s beauty reflected in the world. Any time we are seeking truth and beauty in a way that uses our gifts to their fullest extent, we are glorifying and seeking God.
Not only that, but learning is one of the ways we can love God. The oldest prayer in Judaism is this command from Deuteronomy: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength.” Jesus changes that command, saying “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” Neal Plantinga, in Pray the Lord My Mind to Keep, says that the primary goal of Christians engaged in the intellectual life is “that we are trying to become better lovers. We want to love God with all our mind. Of course we want to offer our hearts to God… and the same with our souls. But we are also intellectual beings, and Jesus Christ calls us to mindful love; he calls us to intellectual love.” Intellectual love includes not just studying God Himself, but studying what God has made – both creation and humanity.
Still, are there better and worse questions for us to study? We are, time and again, called to care for “the least of these,” for the widows, the orphans, the sick, and the dispossessed. If we can care for these people through our work, it seems right and valuable to do so – and we need members of the Body of Christ to take up this call. But God takes a much longer view of our work than we can. If we, even though we are human and limited, can see that each person’s tiny contribution to the vast body of research brings our picture of the world and of humanity a little closer to reality, how much more might God, who sees the whole picture from the start – God, who is the ultimate Reality – call us to work towards that end? And since it is God who created the world in its unimaginable complexity and variety, and who created all of humanity, it is worthwhile for us to study it. All of it.
But even if we may rightly study any question, following Jesus in the academy does (or should) affect the way we do our work. Our faith does not necessarily change our pipetting technique, calculations, reading summaries, or code, but it should vastly change our priorities and attitudes. Our colleagues submit their work to journals and advisors; we, in addition, submit our work to God. Colossians 3:23 says, “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters.” What would it look like to write a research update for God? Could you give an honest and satisfying progress report on your work today, or this week, to the One who has called you to that work? Could I?
It seems to me that this approach to work fosters both humility and great encouragement. In contrast to so much of the academic life, which assumes that acceptance and respect are based on performance, we submit our work to God secure in the knowledge that our performance will never change his love for, or view of, us. We are therefore free from the need to sell our ideas more because they are ours than because they are right; from the desperate striving to write a paper that will prove our competence; from the insidious habit of comparing ourselves and our work to our peers. This is intellectual humility: we can celebrate our good ideas and academic successes without using them for our own glory, and celebrate others’ ideas and successes without jealousy. This is also great encouragement: we are free to love and enjoy learning for its own sake, and in so doing, love God with all of our minds.
This is the work we are called to do. We are called to seek God’s truth and God’s beauty in the truth and beauty of the works of His hands. We are called to express and deepen our love for God by loving the things God loves; by studying the people and the world that God has created; by helping them become more fully themselves. We are called to willing diligence, since we work not for ourselves or for our academic peers, but for God. We are called to humility and great encouragement, since God accepts our work as an offering of obedience and love.