Learning in the Crossfire – by Donald Opitz

This is an original post by Donald Opitz, co-author (with Derek Melleby) of The Outrageous Idea of Academic Faithfulness: A Guide for Students.

Donald Opitz (PhD, Boston University) is associate professor of sociology and higher education at Geneva College in Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania. He is the author of numerous articles and has worked as a pastor as well as a campus minister. 

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The venerable C. S. Lewis delivered a remarkable sermon in the Church of Saint Mary the Virgin in October 1939. “Learning in War-Time” was written in the shadow of the Big One, and in his sermon, Lewis addressed students who felt cowardly or insignificant because they were not sacrificing their lives to defeat the enemy.

On behalf of his students and colleagues, Lewis asked, “How can we continue to take an interest [in the academy] when the lives of our friends and the liberties of Europe are in the balance?” When at every moment, lives—eternal destinies—are in the balance, how can we study literature or art or mathematics or even theology, for that matter?

Lewis realizes that this isn’t just a question for wartime. It is an “all the times” question for every Christian student. People perish every day, and there are so many important causes that cry out for loving attention. Does our academic work stand up under the shadow of national and eschatological urgencies? Is it frivolous or selfish to invest in our own learning?

Lewis reminds his audience that human culture has always existed under the shadow of something infinitely more important than itself. Yet there is no life apart from culture, and culture was our human assignment from the start. Culture is not swept away by the sirens of war, or even the trumpet blast of judgment.

For those of us called to teaching and learning, academic culture is the focus of our love and the fruit of our labor. East of Eden work is often toilsome, sometimes agonizing. But Lewis reminds us, as did the apostle Paul long ago, that “whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God” (1 Cor. 10:31). Lewis turns to a theology of glory as the heart of this spirituality for everyday life and as the root of academic faithfulness.

The first sentence of this sermon is often quoted: “A university is a society for the pursuit of learning.” And here is the primary task for those of us gathered in this society: to see God more clearly and to see what God sees more clearly.

This road will not be an easy one. Lewis sees three challenges along this road that cut across his campus and your own: distractions, frustrations, and fears. Perhaps you feel that your learning is futile; that it does not matter; that you’re not good enough, smart enough, influential enough. Please remember that such fear and frustration isn’t of God, and that your calling isn’t to be acclaimed or even successful; it is simply to honor God in life-wide, deep-thought, loving-response faithfulness.

At the end of the day, we must not place our hope in human culture or expect too much from the academy. There is no academic panacea. The cure is not in us, and it is not on campus. No discipline discovers the Holy Grail. No discipline holds the key to wisdom. For only Christ is the source of all wisdom and knowledge (Col. 2:3).

The best our disciplines can do is to make ready the way for the One who comes and to make ready the way for all who are to come, so that in each aspect of the created and cultural world that is ours to tend, something glorious is growing and glowing there. Learning is leaning toward glory, and we do it best together.

We wrote The Outrageous Idea of Academic Faithfulness because we share the love that C. S. Lewis had for learning and for students. We hope that the book will help students to love learning and the Lord of learning a little more during their college years.