In our prayers as Christian scholars we will often find ourselves asking for wisdom, knowledge, depth of insight, and understanding. But do we realise that with the granting of these gifts comes an increased responsibility?
Now let me say right at the beginning of this post that this truth is not unique to gifts of the mind. There is nothing particularly spiritual or exalted about being a great academic over, for example, being a great carpenter or a great carer for an elderly relative. Those who work with ideas have no advantage (and no disadvantage either, let it be said) in God’s economy over those who work with their hands or in any other business. However, given that the focus of this blog is on the Christian scholar, I will make particular application to the academic vocation here.
The idea that the granting of increased wisdom and insight implies a greater responsibility can be extrapolated from the conclusion to Jesus’s parable of the two servants:
Everyone to whom much was given, of him much will be required, and from him to whom they entrusted much, they will demand the more.
In other words, the more we know the more we are expected to use that knowledge wisely. Now of course Jesus is speaking here of knowledge of the Father’s will, and that must be the primary application of the passage, but as a secondary application we are also well served to examine the use we are making for God of all the wisdom he has given us. Academics are supposed to know a great deal about certain matters, so it behooves us to ask the question of what we are doing with that knowledge.
The same can be said of the conclusion to the chilling parable of the talents in Matthew 25 (an “R-rated” conclusion if ever there was one):
But his master answered him, ‘You wicked and slothful servant! You knew that I reap where I have not sown and gather where I scattered no seed? 27 Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and at my coming I should have received what was my own with interest. 28 So take the talent from him and give it to him who has the ten talents. 29 For to everyone who has will more be given, and he will have an abundance. But from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away. 30 And cast the worthless servant into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’
From both these passages, as I understand them, it is right to draw the conclusion that we are responsible before God for all that he has given us, and that Christian scholars are therefore responsible before God for how we use the knowledge and wisdom he grants us in our academic endeavours.
Reflecting the truths of the biblical passages above, this section from Thomas à Kempis’s The Imitation of Christ makes sobering reading, I think, for any Christian academic:
EVERY man naturally desires knowledge; but what good is knowledge without fear of God? Indeed a humble rustic who serves God is better than a proud intellectual who neglects his soul to study the course of the stars. He who knows himself well becomes mean in his own eyes and is not happy when praised by men.
If I knew all things in the world and had not charity, what would it profit me before God Who will judge me by my deeds?
Shun too great a desire for knowledge, for in it there is much fretting and delusion. Intellectuals like to appear learned and to be called wise. Yet there are many things the knowledge of which does little or no good to the soul, and he who concerns himself about other things than those which lead to salvation is very unwise.
Many words do not satisfy the soul; but a good life eases the mind and a clean conscience inspires great trust in God.
The more you know and the better you understand, the more severely will you be judged, unless your life is also the more holy. Do not be proud, therefore, because of your learning or skill. Rather, fear because of the talent given you. If you think you know many things and understand them well enough, realize at the same time that there is much you do not know. Hence, do not affect wisdom, but admit your ignorance. Why prefer yourself to anyone else when many are more learned, more cultured than you?
If you wish to learn and appreciate something worth while, then love to be unknown and considered as nothing. Truly to know and despise self is the best and most perfect counsel. To think of oneself as nothing, and always to think well and highly of others is the best and most perfect wisdom. Wherefore, if you see another sin openly or commit a serious crime, do not consider yourself better, for you do not know how long you can remain in good estate. All men are frail, but you must admit that none is more frail than yourself.
Now we may want to question some of what Thomas writes here. For example, the injunction that “he who concerns himself about other things than those which lead to salvation is very unwise” seems to sit uncomfortably with what the bible says about the chokmah of Solomon, to take just one example. Perhaps a better sentiment would be Augustine’s prayer in Confessions X, 40 that “He loves thee too little who loves anything together with thee that he loves not for thy sake”. With that caveat, however, I find that this passage from The Imitation has a sobering message for Christian academics and ought to lead to much self-reflection: “The more you know and the better you understand, the more severely will you be judged, unless your life is also the more holy. ”
Are we really ready for God to answer our prayers for more wisdom and insight?