Yesterday was our first day of discussion in Created and Called for Community (CCC). The students read Stanley Hauerwas‘s 2010 First Things essay “Go With God: An Open Letter to Young Christians on Their Way to College.”
After some conversation about how to read critically, I asked the students what this article was doing. We would discuss what the article was saying eventually, but I wanted to start by identifying why Hauerwas decided to write this article. What were the problems he was trying to address?
We concluded that Hauerwas was trying to address four major issues with this piece:
- Too many Christian undergraduates are losing their faith in college.
- Too many Christian undergraduates see college solely in terms of career preparation and the pursuit of wealth or, at the very least, a comfortable middle-class life.
- Too many Christians do not value intellectual work as a way of worshiping God.
- The Christian church is characterized by anti-intellectualism, which is why it needs Christian students to take their college studies seriously.
We identified the fact that Hauerwas wrote this essay in 2010. Were the problems he identified in 2010 still relevant ten years later? The overwhelming answer among my Messiah College students was “yes.” In fact, most students thought the problems Hauerwas identified were even more acute than they were a decade ago.
By this point, we were running out of time. But we still had a few minutes to reflect on two key issues in Hauerwas’s piece.
First, we talked about what it might take to think about college as something more than the pursuit of a career. What might it mean to understand college in terms of calling or vocation? (We will pick-up on this theme later in the course). Hauerwas writes:
In a world of deep injustice and violence, a people exists that thinks some can be given time to study. We need you to take seriously the calling that is yours by virtue of going to college. You may well be thinking, “What is hethinking? I’m just beginning my freshman year. I’m not being called to be a student. None of my peers thinks he or she is called to be a student. They’re going to college because it prepares you for life. I’m going to college so I can get a better job and have a better life than I’d have if I didn’t go to college. It’s not a calling.”
But you are a Christian. This means you cannot go to college just to get a better job. These days, people talk about college as an investment because they think of education as a bank account: You deposit the knowledge and expertise you’ve earned, and when it comes time to get a job, you make a withdrawal, putting all that stuff on a résumé and making money off the investment of your four years. Christians need jobs just like anybody else, but the years you spend as an undergraduate are like everything else in your life. They’re not yours to do with as you please. They’re Christ’s.
We talked about the counter-cultural nature of Hauerwas’s view of college. Some students did not feel comfortable with the claim that the college years were not “yours to do with as you please. They’re Christ’s.” Some said God gave us free will. But others pointed out that for a Christian, the goal is to bring one’s free will more and more in conformity with the will of God.
Second, we talked about cultivating friendship in college. Hauerwas writes:
You can’t do this on your own. You’ll need friends who major in physics and biology as well as in economics, psychology, philosophy, literature, and every other discipline. These friends can be teachers and fellow students, of course, but, for the most part, our intellectual friendships are channeled through books. C. S. Lewis has remained popular with Christian students for many good reasons, not the least of which is that he makes himself available to his readers as a trusted friend in Christ. That’s true for many other authors too. Get to know them.
Books, moreover, are often the way in which our friendships with our fellow students and teachers begin and in which these friendships become cemented. I’m not a big fan of Francis Schaeffer, but he can be a point of contact—something to agree with or argue about. The same is true for all writers who tackle big questions. Read Plato, Aristotle, Hume, and John Stuart Mill, and not just because you might learn something. Read them because doing so will provide a sharpness and depth to your conversations. To a great extent, becoming an educated person means adding lots of layers to your relationships. Sure, going to the big football game or having a beer (legally) with your buddies should be fun on its own terms, but it’s also a reality ripe for analysis, discussion, and conversation. If you read Mary Douglas or Claude Levi-Strauss, you’ll have something to say about the rituals of American sports. And if you read Jane Austen or T. S. Eliot, you’ll find you see conversations with friends, particularly while sharing a meal, in new ways. And, of course, you cannot read enough Trollope. Think of books as the fine threads of a spider’s web. They link and connect.
I asked the students how they made friends during their first semester of college. They mentioned that their friendships were built on a variety of things: sports fandom, musical tastes, common tastes in video games, membership on athletic teams, proximity to one another in the dorms, etc… Very few students said that they were building friendships around the kinds of common intellectual pursuits Hauerwas describes above. I challenged them to go back to their dorm rooms, find some CCC students who also read Hauerwas today, and go get some coffee and talk more about the essay. Some students seemed to be inspired by this idea. Others thought I was crazy.