The Life of the Mind by Dr. Lisa Clark Diller

Keynote address at Bryan's 2013 Undergraduate Research Conference. Used with permission of the author.


What are we doing here?  We are Christians, studying and researching a whole range of things  But aren’t there starving people?  Aren’t there people perishing for lack of knowing the gospel?  Shouldn’t we be out there helping them?  How do we justify being here, doing this?
In 1940 Lewis’s Christian students asked him how and why they should continue studying when the world was engaged in such a momentous war.  Lewis said this was no different than the Christian knowledge that we live in a world that will be destroyed, that all of us are fiddling on the brink of hell, so to speak.  How can we think of anything except the hereafter?  He wrote an amazing piece on Learning in Wartime, which I commend to all scholars.

Research Has Made Me a Better Christian

But before I tell you what Lewis said, let me share what I’ve learned about being a follower of Jesus and the life of the mind.  Research has made me a better Christian.  Let me share some lessons I have learned:
  1. Because of Jesus, everything we study has value.  Jesus came to earth and gave this world value through becoming flesh, becoming part of our world.  So when we study anything, we are studying the world God made.  When I study, I grow in my appreciation of our Creator God and his complex world.
  2. All study can be an act of worship.  When I choose to ask God into my study, what I’m doing is a service for him.
  3. Attentiveness is what is crucial for research, and this is great for character formation—paying close attention is an act of love and requires discipline and is important in many aspects of life.
  4. Study and research requires one to be willing to be surprised.  If in my Christian walk I think I know it all and am not ready to learn something new, I miss a great deal of what God might be teaching me.
  5. I can choose to take pleasure in what is not immediately “useful”—finding out or rethinking what is useful.
  6. Humility is required—I may not be right, and I may have to change my mind.

Jesus: Study and Service

But it turns out that other people have also thought this through.  A recent book by Mark Noll called Jesus Christ and the Life of the Mind has inspired me to think about this even more.  He points out a story in Jesus’s life that shows that he gives academic study even more importance sometimes than service.  The story of Mary and Martha is not just of someone wanting to be with Jesus and someone needing help doing the housework.  Mary was engaged in scholarship—the whole phrase “sitting at Jesus’s feet” means that she was acting as a student.  She was Jesus’s disciple.  And when you choose to take time to study, it sometimes means you don’t have the time to engage in all the immediate acts of service that are available all around us.

Noll points out that this is partly hard because we’re all about the present, the here and now, in our modern culture.  Study means preparation for the future.  It has long-term significance and we often feel better if we are doing something tangible that can be measured right now.  Because of the Incarnation, we can resist this.
The act of studying takes long hard work—we don’t wait for lightening to strike—we have to seek out knowledge, work for it.  Think about the way Jesus worked with his disciples.  And 1 John talks about the fact that they “saw, heard, touched”—this was experiential, experimental, exactly what it means to study and know something.  The Incarnation was long hard slogging work—it would have been lots easier for God to radically reveal himself to all the world at once in his transcendence.  Instead he did it a really inefficient and time consuming way.

The Incarnation says that Jesus was fully God and Fully Human.  This is really hard and crazy to study.  And the dual nature of Jesus should teach us that many things have to be got at from different angles.  There are multiple perspectives to many different issues we might study.  This should make us excited about searching out and being comfortable with truth in other elements of creation—and holding their paradoxical patterns together in our minds (light as a wave and a particle, the balance between free will/choice and biological origins of actions).

Because of the Incarnation, the physical and material world have dignity and are worthy of study.
  • Biological, chemical sciences, engineering, etc.  Because of the Incarnation—buildings and structures are important.
  • We won’t expect things to be simple—like Jesus, much of his creation is multi-layered and complex.  We will know things primarily by experiencing them outside our minds and heads—through experiment you might say.  Again, God didn’t reveal himself primarily as a list of creeds/dogma, but as a Person in time and space.  The Incarnation happened in history and people testified to it and told other people and wrote it down.  It isn’t something that we just have or know about in our minds, but through our sense and through scholarship  This is LIFE—experiences, our senses, our interaction with the world and people around us.  And it is in THIS WORLD and THIS LIFE that Jesus came to and testified through
  • Because of redemption, we have the potential of delight in this material world and in human engagement with it.
  • Because of the Incarnation studying human culture has value and interest—Social Sciences, systems thinking, policy.  We also understand, as we do with the Incarnation, that we can know some things but that our knowledge is limited.  So we both keep seeking and also accept that we need humility in our work and scholarship because we still see through a glass dimly.
  • Because Jesus was a particular human as well as the universal God, human particularity and personality are worthy of study (Humanities, history, psychology. 
  • We hold the dichotomy in our hand that humans are both flawed and broken and that they are redeemed and therefore have worth.  We don’t expect that we will study people and find the one law for all time regarding how people should be in the world, for how human society is constructed, but we may find some particular truths that are useful. We aren’t going to find the one thing that solves everything, but we may be able to look closely at something small and extrapolate in generally useful ways from it.
  • Because Creation was to give glory to God, there is beauty in the world and all that is beautiful finds its origins in God's glory.1
Aesthetics are not wasteful, beauty and how to create it is great.  Alice Walker, in The Color Purple, one of the many great American novels, has her primary character say, “God loves everything you love—and a mess more.  But more than anything, God loves admiration. I think it pisses God off when you walk by the color purple and don’t notice it.”  And by writing a work that took notice of humanity, Walker herself contributes to beauty in this world, gives dignity to humanity, participates in the Incarnation.

Should We Study or Change the World?

In 1940 Lewis’s Christian students asked him how and why they should continue studying when the world was engaged in such a momentous war.  Lewis said this was no different than the Christian knowledge that we live in a world that will be destroyed, that all of us are fiddling on the brink of hell, so to speak.  How can we think of anything except the hereafter.  He wrote an amazing piece on Learning in Wartime, which I commend to all scholars.  I will only share a part of it here. 

He said that the war just revealed the ways the world always is—this is the true nature of how we really are.  And it is quite dull and boring.  When he had been a soldier in WWI, he thought it would be all excitement and fighting.  He found most of the time it was petty frustrations and boredom.  Pastors, he said, find the same thing out—they think they are going to be helping souls all the time and most of the time they are working on organizing church meetings and social events and showing up to the church tea tent at the local fair.  But scholarship and cultural work must be done, even in these situations (and I’ll spare you all the details of why—but DO read it; click here). 

All of the universe is God’s work, and there is no real separation between the secular and the sacred.  He said “if we thought we were building up a heaven on earth [with our scholarship], if we looked for something that would turn the present world from a place of pilgrimage into a permanent city satisfying the soul of man, we are disillusioned….  But if we thought that for some souls, and at some times, the life of learning, humbly offered to God, was, in its own small way, one of the appointed approaches to the Divine reality and the Divine beauty which we hope to enjoy hereafter, we can think so still” in spite of the war, the immanence of the End of Time.

Closing Prayer: Ephesians 3:14-21                      

For this reason I kneel before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth derives its name. I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God. Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen.
1 Mark Knoll, Jesus Christ and the Life of the Mind (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2011), pp. 35-41.