Most nights before I go to bed, I, like many others, spend some time reading. The topic of my reading is, to most people, a little less interesting. I am currently working my way through a stack of books and journal articles analyzing The History of Alexander the Great, a book written sometime in the 1st or 2nd centuries A.D. (itself a hotly debated scholarly question) by an otherwise unknown individual named Quintus Curtius Rufus. While this isn’t exactly what I would call “page-turner” reading material, it is all research related to my doctoral dissertation and, I would suggest, in my Reformed world- and life-view, an act of love and devotion in response to the grace of Jesus Christ.
The work of doctoral research involves digging as deeply as possible into a narrow subset of information. There are very few people in the world who would find my dissertation research interesting (at times, truthfully, I don’t find it all that interesting either!). Many find my area of research unexpected. Most people assume, given my work as a pastor, that I must focus my research on something related to theology or church history rather than an obscure Roman historian writing on Alexander the Great.My reasons for academic study are many, but to see my academic study in light of and in response to God’s grace in my life has been the most freeing.
I spent my college years inundated with the Kuyperian mantra, “There is not a square inch of creation over which Christ does not claim, ‘This is mine!'” I learned to see the life of the mind as being more than a means to an end – good grades, a skill set for the job market, a career – but as an end in and of itself. In the work of studying the created world and the creations of human culture, I was joining in the great task of uncovering God’s truth. I began to see my academic work in light of the second article of the Belgic Confession: “We know God by two means: first, by the creation, preservation, and government of the universe, since that universe is before our eyes like a beautiful book in which all creatures, great and small, are as letters to make us ponder the invisible things of God.”
I learned that even in the study of classical history and ancient literature I was learning more about the invisible things of God. While narrowly defined my academic research has focused on the literature of the Greek and Roman communities of a relatively small subset of history, the broad themes of my research ask much larger questions: how do the stories we tell define us as a community? How do we depict and describe those who look different and act differently from us? How do we join together across gender lines to join in the common work of humanity? The Belgic Confession helped me to see that in asking such questions in light of my Christian faith, I was not just pursuing knowledge for knowledge’s sake, but was delving deeper into the mysteries of God’s created world and the cultures we image-bearers create.
The life of study and academic inquiry became itself an act of devotion, a response to the grace of God. As Reformed believers, we operate with an acute awareness of the realities of sin and brokenness in our world and in our lives. We recognize the ways in which even our best actions are tainted by the pollution of sin. Anyone familiar with the academic world is probably all too aware of the effects of sin on the life of the mind. Some research suggests high rates of suicide and depression among graduate students. Many struggle with the academic world in which “publish or perish” is the norm. As a campus minister working with graduate students at Michigan State University, it was not uncommon for me to hear stories about students whose research, data, or ideas were stolen by colleagues. Of course, this is not limited only to the pursuit of post-graduate degrees. Plagiarism is a perennial problem on college campuses. Reading the first book by which we know God, the book of creation, is undermined by the effects of our sinfulness.
Yet, God’s story does not end with the fall. Through Christ, God redeems all things – including the life of the mind. As a result, academic study is not something I pursue in and of itself, but a response to the grace of God redeeming all things – including my study of ancient literature and history. As God invites us into the reality of the restored Kingdom, God also invites us to build for that Kingdom – not just by sharing the Gospel, not just by working for justice, not just by loving God with all of our heart, soul, and strength, but also by loving God with our mind, in response to God’s grace at work in our lives.