Being Christian Pioneers in an Educational Wilderness – Part 3: Academics and Educational Choices

Note: This is a multi-part article, for previous installments see:

Part 1: The Educational Wilderness

Part 2: Philosophy and Culture

Higher education often has great value. As Ronald Reagan was ramping up his campaign for his second term as president, I graduated from Georgia Tech with an Electrical Engineering degree. The economy was growing, companies were hiring, and I had nine job offers. It was a great time to start an engineering career. One of the jobs I turned down was with Texas Instruments (TI) in Johnson City TN. And, as I packed my bags and headed to work for the then #1 rated company for engineering grads, I reflected on how I wished TI was on a more solid footing—Johnson City was my kind of place: not too crowded, great hiking, mountain rivers and stunning views.  I was headed to Raleigh NC and it would take me thirty years to make it back to northeast TN. Now, every morning when I look out at Roan Mountain off in the distance from the windows of my yurt, I thank God for the beautiful place in which He allows me to live.

Life is full of choices. If I had taken that job with TI it is unlikely that I would live here now. Within four years, TI was moving engineering jobs out of the area and within ten years they were gone. Meanwhile, the job stability and opportunities in Raleigh provided an economic foundation that allowed for growth in family and church life; as well as access to a seminary where I gained the theological and philosophical education that undergirds my current work in Christian education.

Only God knew.

Higher education has played an important role in my life though not always in the way that I might have anticipated. Even so, I would not want to say that higher education has been necessary for my life in Christ. Yes, God has used both the engineering degree and the theological degrees for His purposes.  No, God is not dependent on those degrees with respect to his eternal plan for my life in Him.

In part one of this series, I wrote: “political agenda and pressures to grant a ‘college education to all’ are not only lowering the standards but also compromising the free quest for knowledge.” I think the first effect, lowering the standards, will eventually drive businesses to devalue much of higher education. Perhaps the MITs, John Hopkins, etc. of the academic world will retain their shine but many traditional academic paths may well be compromised to the point of irrelevance. The second effect, compromising the free quest for knowledge, has already largely been realized. What else would we conclude when: God cannot be mentioned in class debate or in online course discussion forums; history cannot be debated with respect to the foundations of our country or the causes of our country’s greatest internal conflict; and science cannot be debated with respect to the origins of the universe or the effects of economy on environment and society.

So, how do we make wise educational choices that properly acknowledge the value of higher education in the current educational climate? While there is surely no quick and easy answer to that question, I do want to suggest a few principles that should guide those choices:

The eternal is infinitely greater than the temporal. Paul states this truth most clearly in Romans 8:18 when he writes that “the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us” (NKJV). Sometimes our choices are well aligned for both temporal and eternal benefit. Sometimes they are not. Luther acknowledged the latter when he said “to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. Here I stand, I can do no other, so help me God.” Our life in Christ must always rule our life in this world even when our life in this world might be greatly disadvantaged by our life in Christ. This is because our hope is an eternal hope rather than a temporal one. If we do not consider that the eternal is infinitely greater than the temporal then we essentially deny our hope and live against our calling in Christ.

Being pragmatic must account for the eternal. Being practical, matter-of-fact, sensible, realistic, etc. are rightly considered to be virtues. The issue arises when we remove the eternal consequence from the pragmatic equation. We not only need weigh the temporal value of an educational option, we also need to weigh the eternal value of that same option. Likewise, we not only need to weigh the material value but also the spiritual; and we should recognize that eternal and spiritual weights are heavy. An educational option is rarely the best option when it serves to undermine growth in Christ. An educational option, however, that serves to increase ones growth in Christ might absorb a great deal of material shortcomings before it becomes impractical or unrealistic. If we do not consider the eternal consequences of our choices we live out the untruth that Lordship of Christ is irrelevant to everyday life.

God is both creator and provider. We often assume that if we cannot provide a solution to a problem that no solution is to be had. We do not trust God’s provision; and because we don’t trust God’s provision we see no alternatives to the status quo. What if starting today, no degrees of any type could be issued unless the recipient denied that Christ is Lord? Should we fear the consequences of refusing that action? No, we should not. Perhaps we might suffer materially on that account but we must ultimately say that our hope rests on Christ alone. Further, God has not left us on our own and He is capable of accomplishing all of his purposes for us without the means of any formal higher education—if circumstances were to demand it. As such, we are not locked into any status quo, either corporately or individually. If we do not consider that God is both creator and provider, we deny that He is able to provide for us “all things that pertain to life and godliness” (2 Pet. 1:3), and our trust in ourselves rather than Him.

Christ must be head over all. We have become masters at segmenting our lives into the secular and the sacred. Christ cannot be head over our lives unless he is head over all of our lives, including educational choices.  Paul writes that “whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God” (1 Cor. 10:30). I conclude from this that we must be able to worship God in and through our education. It will no more suffice to say that we will educate ourselves apart from Christ so that we might live in Christ than it will suffice to say that we will sanctify ourselves apart from the Christ so that we might be obedient in Christ. If we do not place Christ head over all, we reserve something somewhere for ourselves and He is ultimately head over naught.

In sum, whatever we do with regard to higher education, it must serve to declare Christ as Lord, both in and of itself and towards its ends. Just as it was wrong for Abraham to attempt to further God’s promises through Hagar and Ishmael, it would be wrong for us to attempt to further God’s promises through educational means that do not glorify Him. Ultimately, a Christian’s hope is in Christ. Let us make choices consistent with that hope!