Essay / Education

A Letter to My Freshmen

To My Freshmen:

Okay, so that may be premature. We’ve only just met, after all. Five months ago you were a sea of undifferentiated faces only loosely attached to names (but great names—names like Bustos and Magness, Tonti and Duarte, Mendelson, Zilka, and Van Vlear). To call you ‘my’ freshmen presupposes a kind of possession that runs against the grain of, well, being freshmen. This is a time for loosening, even cutting, ties; and my ‘my’ threatens to tether you to (yet another) authority figure. But mine you are, by virtue of your place in the Torrey Honors Institute and the only slight deliberation of whoever it is slots mentees with mentors.

Whatever else it means, know that for the next four years (and beyond) that you are ‘mine’ means that I embrace a responsibility for you. This is academic, sure; I will give you half of your college grades, mark up your papers, ask you more questions than you can imagine, push, prod, and applaud you. This is spiritual, too; I will seek with you to discern the Shepherd’s voice and the Spirit’s way in your life, tell you the gospel, hand you Kleenex, laugh with you, ask you even more questions, pray with and for you.

You are already acclimated to the alpine air of our Socratic pedagogy. Gone are the plains of rote memorization, the foothills of three-point lectures and fill-in-the-blank assignments of high school. Here, you learn by discussing; you read, read, read and then sit with a cohort of peers, massaging an issue until the knots are worked out. Your teachers don’t tell you what to think. We tell you, and expect you, to think for yourselves. Kant was not always right, and he was rarely witty; but he was both when he challenged his readers to Sapere aude!Dare to know! Enlightenment, he tells us, occurs when we emerge from our self-incurred immaturity, in which we thought what others told us to think, and escape the cave into the near blinding brilliance of the sun. Don’t freak out when you can’t see; truth is dazzling, and it takes a while for our eyes to accustom to the light.

Know, too, that these new thoughts you will have are not quite a sign that you have gone from utter ignorance to robust knowledge. It is more, for most of you and most of the time, a case of going from not knowing what you know to knowing what you know. Please remember that as you begin to read in the history of theology. You will run into terms, questions, and answers that are all Greek to you (most of them are Greek—words like hypostasis). At first they will Babel at you in gibberish; they will confuse you, frustrate, maybe delight you. And at some point, it will occur to you that you knew none of this about the triune God before now. If you’re not careful, you may make the grammatically small but theologically giant step to believe you did not know the triune God before now. That, if I may be so blunt, is a diabolical lie. You have known the Father ever since the Spirit led you to Jesus. Now, your theoretical side is simply catching up with your experience. I’m a theologian. I love theology and have been nourished by the Spirit as I have read, written, and taught theology. But never forget that knowing God and knowing about God are not the same. You have known him for some time, even if you are only now beginning to know certain things about him.

Thre’s a theologian who lives in North Carolina called Stanley Hauerwas. You should read him some time. He tells his students that he doesn’t want them to learn to think for themselves; he wants them to think like him. He’s right. And, while I’m a far cry from Hauerwas, I want you to think like me, too. This is hardly a cocky counsel; asking you to think like me scares me, as I consider the responsibility it entails and the frayed edges of so many of my thoughts. I am heartened by my companions in the way, the Torrey tutors; and really, you are being apprenticed to all of us. So let me amend what I said: I want you to think like us.

You learning to think like us is a form of apprenticeship. An apprentice learns her trade by sitting under someone who was worked long in the business, who can embody, model, and explain what it is to be a plumber, say. In the days ahead, you will practice the basics again and again. Your drains will stop, and your sinks will leak. You will be all thumbs as you fit pipes, doing jobs in thrice the time it would take a journeyman. But you will learn the trade.

I have a secret to tell you: Torrey isn’t quite—or at least not exclusively—Socratic. We don’t believe the truth can simply be coaxed out of you, that a teacher need only serve as a midwife as you birth memories of your souls’ pre-embodied visions. Socrates is wrong there; Christians believe that what we most need is not recollection but revelation. So, while I don’t want you to merely think for yourselves, I don’t quite want you to merely think like us either. If I do counsel you to think like us, it is because we have committed our lives to obediently serving God as he has revealed himself in Christ. We have listened long to the voice of God in Scripture, convinced that of ourselves neither we nor you have much worthwhile to say. Oh, but God is eloquent. Listen to him!

Of course, listening is easier said than done. God may speak a word directly to you—I hope he does. But he has spoken preeminently in his Word and has covenanted to meet us there. You’re old enough to know that it’s not hard to distort the Bible. Already in the second century Irenaeus complained that the Gnostics took the precious stones of Scripture that, properly arranged, make up the image of King Jesus and instead came up with the image of a fox. One way to avoid this is to listen to God’s Word in the Bible with the church. On occasion, you might hear in the church a dissonance that doesn’t jive with Scripture. But not very often. You are more likely to be wrong than the church, my freshmen. So, think like the church.

Paul speaks of believers having ‘the mind of Christ’ (1 Cor. 2:16). To have the mind of Christ is to be taught by the Spirit, whose joyful office it is to lead God’s people into all Truth. Christ is the Truth. To have the mind of Christ is to think as Christ did. It is to not count equality with God something to be grasped, but to make ourselves nothing, taking the form of a servant (Phil. 2:6-7). It is, too, to have a mind that is Christ-ward. Our abiding, delightful occupation is, like Mary, to treasure up everything about Jesus, pondering it in our hearts (Luke 2:19).

Really, I just want you to think like—and of—Jesus. Take your bearings from him. Move from, in, and toward him. Consider him. Celebrate him. Be consoled by him. Corral all your thoughts, affections, words, and deeds and bring them into the service of him. He is our beautiful, holy God.

With—already—deep  affection,


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