Dr. Jack Reese (’71), dean of the College of Biblical Studies and the Graduate School of Theology, and professor of preaching and worship, was the featured speaker at Saturday’s May Commencement at Abilene Christian University.
As it has for several years, ACU held ceremonies at 11 a.m. and 3 p.m. during its May event – the largest of three held each year – to accommodate the family and friends of graduates. Seven hundred and twenty-five new alumni were recognized yesterday in Moody Coliseum.
Reese has served three terms as dean of the College of Biblical Studies since 1997 but announced in late February that he would not seek a fourth. He will return to full-time teaching after completion of a research project for the university.
His message yesterday was titled “Making Humans”:
Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy. This is the four-word description and subtitle of Eric Metaxas’ remarkable book about Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Bonhoeffer is one of the most compelling figures of the 20th century. He was born in 1906, the same year this university was birthed. He is one of the most well-loved and extensively read Christian authors in the history of Christianity.
Bonhoeffer was a Lutheran pastor who, in the 1930s and ’40s, defiantly opposed Adolf Hitler. He ultimately became a part of a plot to assassinate Hitler, surely the hardest and most controversial decision of his life. The plot failed. Bonhoeffer was arrested and imprisoned for more than two years. He was executed just days before the Americans liberated the prison camp.
Perhaps the most important single experience that shaped Bonhoeffer’s ethics and discipleship took place on American soil, in the 1930-31 academic year. He had completed his Ph.D. at the University of Berlin three years earlier, at the age of 21. Now at 24, having completed post-doctoral studies, this brilliant scholar and gifted minister came to America to study at a seminary in New York. He was horrified at what he discovered: intellectual sloppiness combined with cheap discipleship.
These theology faculty and students, in their opposition to certain individuals on the other side of the religious divide, “had jettisoned serious scholarship altogether,” Metaxas writes. “They seemed to know what the answer was supposed to be and weren’t much concerned with how to get there.” On top of that, they didn’t seem to take their Christianity very seriously.
The turning point in Bonhoeffer’s American experience came when one Sunday morning he accompanied one of the seminary students, Frank Fisher, an African American who had grown up in Alabama, to the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem. The preacher was Adam Clayton Powell Sr., who was the son of slaves and who had been born only three weeks after the end of the Civil War. At this 14,000-member church in Harlem, Bonhoeffer found a deep intellectual commitment that he had not seen at the seminary, a robust intellectual life combined with passionate discipleship that grew directly out of their experience as outcasts in American society. It was, in fact, their marginalization and pain that so markedly shaped their discipleship. He was immediately caught up in it. He attended the church week after week, taught classes for children, and became immersed in the singing and preaching. His life and future were transformed.
Here is what Bonhoeffer discovered: “the only real power and piety that he had seen in the American church were in those churches where there were a present reality and a past history of suffering.” He could not possibly have imagined in 1931 how these experiences would have shaped him before the end of the decade to address the persecution and slaughter of European Jews or the suffering experienced by confessing Christians in his own country. One can hear the echo of the experiences of those African-American Christians in Bonhoeffer’s most famous line from his book, The Cost of Discipleship: “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.”
Bonhoeffer’s conclusion may have more to do with your education here than you may know.
It may not be a bad thing for you to ask, what was all this for, all these courses, papers, tests? And it’s certainly important for faculty and administrators to be asking, what are we doing here? What are we making here?
A few years ago, the great American poet and essayist Wendell Berry wrote, “The thing being made in a university is humanity … What universities are mandated to make … is human beings, … not just trained workers or knowledgeable citizens but responsible heirs and members of human culture.”
In other words, education is more than the accumulation of bits of knowledge and the acquisition of certain skills. If that’s all you received here – some knowledge and some skills – then we have failed you.
The universe if filled with pieces of knowledge. You have more access to information than any generation in human history. You have it all at your fingertips – or at your thumb tips. Yesterday, I Googled “Bonhoeffer,” and more than 5 million entries were available to me in .13 seconds, some of the information good, some not, but all of it accessible.
The purpose of university education is not merely to dispense information. Nor is it to focus or funnel that knowledge to make it more user-friendly. There is a trend in higher education in America, growing out of a more contemporary sort of intellectual sloppiness, to let others out there manufacture the primary educational material, where most of the technological resources in a course is produced by professors at schools like Harvard or Stanford, and where the local professor or facilitator just wraps around it a little bit of context or application. As if education is primarily about making knowledge available. As if education were a commodity and faculty merely day traders. As if the purpose of a university were to make the acquisition of knowledge more efficient.
A university is in the business of making human beings, of equipping you to be responsible contributors to human culture. And that requires more than providing you pieces of information or equipping you with certain skills. For that reason, any university education that’s worth its salt is both subversive and formative. It challenges and upsets; it cuts and shapes. It is by nature painful and liberating.
What is true for all universities must be particularly true for Christian universities, because our goal is larger. We are not only helping make humans, we are helping make humans live like Jesus. Nicholas Wolterstorff – the longtime professor of philosophy and theology at Yale, who was a product of a Christian college and is a professing Christian – has said, “the goal of Christian education is to equip and energize our students for a certain way of being in the world, not just for a way of thinking, … a Christian way, not one of your standard American ways of being.” “I submit,” he says, “that the curriculum of a Christian college must open itself up to humanity’s wounds,” it must prepare students to see and respond to “the cries and tears of human suffering.”
Whatever your major, we have wanted the curriculum to do that. We want to prepare accounting majors who not only can do numbers and understand accounting principles but who grasp that accounting is about justice and mercy, about protecting the innocent from fraud, about stewardship and social order. We want to prepare chemists, physicists, biologists, and mathematicians who can see the building blocks of the universe, who partner with God in caring for the world God has made and serving the lives of the creatures made in God’s image. We want to nurture the arts because we want you to participate fully in God’s inherent urge to create. We want nurses and social workers, teachers and journalists, therapists and dieticians who are willing to fight for God’s creatures and care for the wounded, the disadvantaged, and the hungry. We want you to engage in research because we want you to be thirsty for knowledge, because God made us that way, because it opens our eyes to God’s larger kingdom. We want you to speak and write well, because we want you to think clearly, because we want you to be persuasive about things that matter, because we want to inoculate you from simply buying without thought what popular culture or a political cause might be selling.
And mostly, we want you to grasp that learning requires pain – the pain of hard work, the pain of changing your mind, the pain of having to say you’re wrong, the pain of knowing that you do not know – and that true knowledge, knowledge into which God has breathed, pushes us to ask and seek and knock, it drives us to see and share humanity’s wounds. And offer peace. And offer Christ. And offer your life.
That’s what we have wanted for you. That’s what we want you to walk away with today.
Like the church in Harlem where Dietrich Bonhoeffer found both robust intellectual life and costly discipleship, may this university embody within you the present reality of suffering, that you may be human as God intended, that you may contribute substantially to human culture, and that you may be open to the world’s wounds.
You have come here and learned. Now, go and live, go and serve, go and die.