An address delivered by David Baer (President, Overseas Council/USA) to the 2012 ICETE Doctoral Consultation in Nairobi, Kenya.
I have been asked to sound the notes of celebration and achievement this evening, a task I hasten to undertake. I will add to these a personal word of congratulation.
I have given to the modest thoughts that I will place before you this evening a title of just two words: Studying Love.
But because this title is intentionally enigmatic and because a meeting of people like us in a context like this one practically begs for a subtitle, I offer you the whole thing: Studying Love: the doctoral experience as obedience to the two greatest commandments.
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What if the densest complexities of life are actually simple? (or at least simpler than we have believed)
What if some of the most difficult challenges we face are actually less like running a marathon and more like kissing a much-loved spouse on the cheek?
What if achieving approval of a doctoral dissertation is more like profoundly ecstatic worship than it is like wiping years of intellectual sweat and grime off your brow? (or at least a little bit of each)
What if the doctoral experience—whether as designer, teacher, student, mentor, or administrator—is a calling to love more deeply than we have loved? What if the beloved, in this process, include both the Lord our God and the neighbor who stands beside us?
How would such insight frame—or reframe—our shared work? How would it provide a new window into those Beirut Benchmarks? How might it refresh our understanding of our Bangalore Affirmations? How might it spice up and enrich the flavor the now famous pizza recipe, now apparently the preferred cuisine of Beirut?
* * *
And one of them, a lawyer, asked (Jesus) a question to test him. ‘Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?’ And he said to him, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.’ (Matthew 22:35–40 ESV)
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Although these words lend themselves to being quoted with a certain innocence, even at times with stunning naiveté, Jesus speaks from the cauldron of controversy. The paragraphs before the one I have quoted are peppered with words that in my part of my country are called fightin’ words: words like ‘malice’, ‘hypocrites’, and ‘putting Jesus to the test’. Jesus is arguing with those who will in a short time end his life.
The young lawyer has asked for the greatest commandment, that is, for just one. Perhaps he has in mind a pyramidal structure of ranked statutes and obligations that narrows as it ascends and eventually picks a winner: the greatest commandment. I suspect that he is on just this kind of quest, of a system of ranked complexity
If so, then Jesus gives this lawyer both more than he asks and less.
On the ‘more’ side, Jesus gives him two commandments, not one.
On the ‘less side’, Jesus with a stroke reduces the assumed complexity of Torah into a simple prioritization that makes sense of it all.
It might seem odd—or perhaps, better, very much like Jesus—that our Lord responds to this contentious probing, this verbal belligerence, with two words about love. And then clarifies that each word—each of these two, greatest commandments, is like the other.
Both command love that:
- focuses on the other (not on oneself). In fact, you could say that both commands involve a kind of self-forgetfulness:
- the first deploys the full self to the project of loving God. (heart, soul, mind; or in the Deuteronomic version, heart. soul, and strength [מאדך]).
- the second elevates the neighbors worthiness of my love to that level at which I quite naturally and appropriately love myself. It dethrones me as the sole, reigning object of self-love.
- deploy strong, comprehensive love. The language just cited pushes through conventions and proves itself unsatisfied with theordinary boundaries that love is told to respect.
- align with all that can be reliably known about God’s purpose, through his self-revelation in Scripture. Indeed, κρέμαται suggests something deeper than what we might at first understand.
- Older English translation put it this way: ‘upon these commands the Law and the prophets hang …’
- In Mt 18.6, a millstone is hung around the neck of an adult who dares to lead one of Jesus’ little ones astray.
- Four times κρέμαται is employed in connection with hanging a man upon a tree/cross. The full burden of the human body hangs upon the evil contrived of Palestinian wood and Roman nails.
- In Acts 28, the serpent that latches onto Paul’s hand as he gathers firewood hangs (κρέμαται)from the very hand that signed the apostolic epistles.
- It is not just that these two loves fail to contradict the Law and the Prophets or that they extend them in some way into a new set of circumstances. These would be conventional expectations. Rather, the two commands appear to be prior to the Law and the Prophets, which hang upon them. They undergird, they are the foundation, they fuel the Law and the prophets themselves. Without love for God and love for neighbor, Jesus seems to say, the Law and the Prophets are useless … senseless … way too complicated … confusing. If this were Paul speaking he might say death-dealing, and I suspect that Jesus would not disagree.
* * *
But here we are. What has all this to say to us and to our task?
I suggest that doctoral experience is best understood as the obedient practice of these two great commandments.
It is easy, in the face of a challenge as daunting as that of developing majority-world doctoral programs, to work always with a furrowed brow and hands that wring themselves as though under their own power, to be possessed of a sort of Pelagian self-importance with all its attendant anxiety.
We should be concerned about the troublesome and foundational issues that wrinkle our foreheads and set our hands to twisting and that trouble our minds.
- Does this or that doctoral program grow out of soil that is genuinely Africa or Latin American or Asian?
- Does it address the needs of our place with attention to our way of learning?
- As it grows, is it capable of engaging similar programs around the world with the humble confidence of a peer?
- Is this doctoral program adequately inserted into and nourished by the Great Conversation? Is it undergirded by library facilities that allow a student in, say, Bangalore or Bangui, to converse with the North African fathers or an insightful 19th century German or with cutting-edge research emerging from Scandinavia or from Buenos Aires?
- Is it sustainable in the hands of the institution that hosts it, or must it depend upon a steady flow of funds and personnel from outside the region that represents its primary vocation, its primary calling?
- Is it truly ours, not so that we can call it ‘ours’ but so that we can share—even give away—its fruits, because our hands have planted seeds, watered tender shoots, and harvested first fruits?
We ought to fall under suspicion if questions like these do not cause us to lose the occasional night’s sleep. If they do not, we are not adequate to our task.
And yet … and yet …
I want to suggest that we are well served to understand the doctoral experience (and therefore the construction of doctoral programs) not first as a technical challenge or as the need to ‘get it all right’, but rather as an exercise in love … in fact as obedience to the two great love commandments upon which the Law and the Prophets hang.
We love God by …
- caring enough about the world, as the biblical wisdom tradition would have it, to make that world in all its dynamic vigor the object of our life-long observation and study … finding its design not only hard-wired in by a Creator, but pregnant with purpose … and even with glory?
- training our minds to ‘think God’s thoughts after him’. The Great 17th-century German scientist Johannes Kapler is quoted as having said of his life’s work: ‘I was merely thinking God’s thoughts after him. Since we astronomers are priests of the highest God in regard to the book of nature, it benefits us to be thoughtful, not of the glory of our minds, but rather, above all else, of the glory of God.’ In our hyper-pragmatic world, let us nurture the capability of finding joy in the beautiful thought, the unexpected discovery, the elegant hypothesis, not merely because it might prove useful but because it peers deeply into God’s reality and is, therefore, both beautiful and joy-giving.
- lingering over his Word in a way that exalts the loving Conversationalist who spoke it and speaks through it still. It is almost universally regarded in biblical studies circles, to name just one discipline that is likely to find a home in the kinds of doctoral enterprises that concern us, that mastery of the biblical languages and indeed of its literature has suffered in the last two generations a slippage so steep as to be plausibly defined as a collapse. Might it be that the loving, expert custodianship of Scripture, as other areas pertaining to the pastoring of souls, might pass qua baton to Christian scholars in Africa … or Asia … or the Middle East … ?
- training both heart and mind in a particularly focused way in a particular area of created reality to delight in that which delights the heart of God and to have one’s heart broken by that which grieves God’s own heart.
- We academics too quickly lose our childlike sense of delight in understanding … and in that path to understanding that we call learning. Yet I am struck forcefully as I read the prophets, to see how often Yahweh’s relationship with his world and with his people is mediated in terms of words for delight.
- Yet there is more to this placement of delight near the core. When a poem like Psalm 1 bends its energies to depicting how a singular/solitary commitment to God’s revelation shapes the heart and mind of the man or woman who will be fruitful for the sake of others, in season and out of season, it says that he or she delights in the instruction of YHWH above all other things.
- We love God by knowing his world and his purposes in the way that He knows them. (Such knowledge is of course derived knowledge, but it is also real knowledge.) And we do with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength. The doctoral experience seems particularly well suited—if we will allow it to be so—to support and nourish those who are called to love their Maker and Redeemer in this way. He will see our delight in his ways. He will be delighted by it.
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If this is how we love God … if this is our vocation with respect to the first commandment, how are we to love our neighbor as ourselves? How does the peculiar, historically and contextually conditioned phenomenon that I am calling the ‘doctoral experience’, help us to obey the second commandment? How does it help us—or hinder us—from loving our neighbor as though we were that neighbor and occupied ourselves as much with his wellbeing as with our own?
- It seems to me that we love our neighbor if we understand his circumstance. I use the word inclusively.
- We understand his battle (whether this is in the first instance, economic, spiritual intellectual, cultural, or ecclesial).
- We understand her delight.
- We understand his peculiar victory.
- We understand what is plausible to her and we learn to speak into her plausibility in language that makes sense in that place.
- We generate the kind of research that is protean. That is, it is of such enduring quality that its versatility allows it to serve multiple purposes. Most human beings are not called to live in this space. Many scholars are.
- We manage the delicate equilibrium between the ‘for its own sake-ness’ of scholarship and the ‘for a purpose-ness’ of scholarship. We refuse the disease of the mind that says, ‘If you cannot show me a pay-off tomorrow, your scholarship is corrupt, self-serving, irrelevant, and useless.’ At the same time, we resist the corresponding illness that says, ‘I am a scholar. I answer to no one. Return to your busy-ness and I will return to my exquisite solitude.’
- We delight in popularizing. Far from being a concession to an unyielding reality that we disdain, we seize upon the privilege of making the fruit of our intellectual labors accessible to those who walk in paths that are not scholarly.
- We understand that the space to cultivate the life of the mind is a tactical privilege, not an existential prerogative.
- We are stewards of the truth, not in a way that elevates us, but in a way that recognizes the deep chasm that lies between truth and lie. We do this with attention to the subtlety with which this gulf might disguise itself in any historical moment. (Perhaps we need to resurrect the perilous but valuable Reformation concept of the ‘Doctors of the Church’.) On behalf of our neighbor and ourselves, we care enough about truth to uphold it, grant it the nobility it deserves, and—when necessary—defend it. We do so with the intellectual tools that have been granted to us, without explanation by a wise and loving Father, that it might never be said of us and our people what it was necessary for Jeremiah to say to the intellectual and religious elites of his day:
How can you say, ‘We are wise, and the law of the LORD is with us’? But behold, the lying pen of the scribes has made it into a lie. The wise men shall be put to shame; they shall be dismayed and taken; behold, they have rejected the word of the LORD, so what wisdom is in them? Therefore, I will give their wives to others and their fields to conquerors, because from the least to the greatest everyone is greedy for unjust gain; from prophet to priest, everyone deals falsely. They have healed the wound of my people lightly, saying, ‘Peace, peace,’ when there is no peace. (Jeremiah 8:8–12 ESV)
These are ways that we, from the midst of the doctoral experience, love our neighbor as ourselves. That is, we turn with our scholarly vocation knit deeply into the fabric of our lives, and we love a community of neighbors who are in the main not scholars and not called to be scholars, just as I would want the scholars to love me if I were not one of them.
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It may not have escaped your notice, that if we love God and love our neighbor in this way, we will be shaping and nourishing a Christian community that is both rooted and engaged.
* * *
Some personal observations:
- The Beirut Process thrills me. I believe congratulations are due. Those to whom it is due are, in the first instance, those who have the courage to raise their heads above the parapets and produce something, those who have placed in our hands provisional conclusions that have—as the French say–the ‘merit of existing’. But congratulations are also due to those who have criticized these provisional results, to those who have wondered aloud—sometimes noisily—whether the Beirut Processes’ circle has been too narrowly drawn or perhaps centered where it ought not to be centered.
- The quality of the ‘conversation’ seems to me quite high.
- The questions that are being asked seem to be, by and large, the right questions, insofar as one can make such judgments from outside the primary question of the programs in question.
- The protocols and standards seem to me to lead promisingly in the directions both of contextual fidelity and of sustained insertion into the wider conversation (universality?).
- I believe I observe a discernible scarcity of delight (no doubt a correctible malady, if in fact I have diagnosed it accurately). Perhaps our love has simply not yet run its full course so that it can culminate in doxology. I dare to hope that some notes of praise … some love, some delight … might find its way ahead of time into our long, demanding march.
* * *
‘Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?’ And he said to him, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.’
* * *
We have invested some minutes in studying love, a love of a particular kind.
I hope we have also glimpsed a studying love, which finds its deepest satisfaction in loving God entirely and our neighbors as ourselves … even that unlikely love which manifests its warmth and delight from within the doctoral experience.