In a previous post I commented on the importance Sir Donald Hay gives to the biblical notion of shalom in his understanding of what it means to be a Christian academic. In the present post I want to think a little more carefully about what shalom is and how it is an important idea of the Christian academic.
Shalom embraces and gathers together a number of related ideas. For the most part translated ‘peace’, it can also mean to be well with somebody (i.e. ‘Is it well with him?’), or to denote being in good health; it can be used as a greeting (and still is today); it can denote prosperity, safety, peace as opposed to war, and rest, as well as favour and wholeness.
We have no English equivalent, but in the round it means something like peace, prosperity, rest, wholeness and flourishing, all rolled into one: a holistic view of economic, social and spiritual flourishing. Cornelius Plantinga explains it as “the webbing together of God, humans and all creation in equity, fulfillment and delight”, and Tim Keller has the following gloss:
When the prophets (like Isaiah) describe shalom, they assume it means spiritual conversion and true worship but also social justice for the poor and cultural products that glorify God, not ‘man.’ So God is calling believers to seek the full range of human renewal in the city—individual, spiritual, communal, social, cultural.
It is the word the ESV uses to translate ‘welfare’ in Jeremiah’s letter to the exiles from Jerusalem now living in Babylon:
Thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: 5 Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their produce. 6 Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. 7 But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare. 8 For thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel: Do not let your prophets and your diviners who are among you deceive you, and do not listen to the dreams that they dream, 9 for it is a lie that they are prophesying to you in my name; I did not send them, declares the LORD. 10 “For thus says the LORD: When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will visit you, and I will fulfill to you my promise and bring you back to this place. 11 For I know the plans I have for you, declares the LORD, plans for shalom and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope. (Jeremiah 29:4-7)
Shalom and academia: not what we can get, but what we can give
First of all, in verses 5 and 6, God’s injunction through Jeremiah is a recapitulation of the cultural mandate in Genesis 1:28:
- “Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their produce” is expressing the same idea as “subdue [the earth] and have dominion”)
- “Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease” is reiterating the command in Genesis 1:28 to “be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth”.
Then, in verse 7, the exiles from Jerusalem are to seek the shalom of the pagan, godless, violent, city of Babylon, and they are to pray for the city. They are to have no compunctions about serving this godless and, quite frankly, somewhat vile culture, and working for its prosperity, though of course the basis of shalom in all its fullness is that the LORD is worshipped and obeyed as King.
Before we go any further it would be wise to establish that the biblical historical context in which Jeremiah is writing the letter, namely exile, can be read and appropriated by us as New Testament believers in more or less the terms in which it is given, though of course we will read the passage through the lens of serving Christ. Indeed, exile language is applied directly to New Testament, post-resurrection believer by Peter at the opening of his first letter:
Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ, To those who are elect exiles of the dispersion in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia (1Peter 1:1)
The ESV is correct to translate the word, parepidēmos, as ‘exiles’, but its meaning is more nuanced than that. It means ‘alien alongside’ or ‘resident foreigner’: neither someone who is just passing through, nor someone who feels completely and utterly at home where they are. As Christian academics, our relation to the culture—including the academic culture—in which we find ourselves is complex: we are not transient or hostile, spies or terrorists, and neither are we completely assimilated: we are “aliens alongside” our culture, standing shoulder to shoulder, but different and not, so to speak, at our final resting place.
And I want to suggest that this paradigm of exiled “aliens alongside”, working for the shalom of our university and national cultures, provides a further two building blocks for understanding our work in biblical categories.
First, it transforms the paradigm of our engagement with our disciplines, because we are not here for what we can get out of the academy, whether it be money or reputation or career; we are here to seek the all-round flourishing of the part of the culture with which we are engaged. We’re not here as spectators or as cynics; we’re here as servants.
And that is the only way to flourish as Christians in the academy, because if we’re here on the make, not just on the financial make but on the reputational make or on the research make, then we have assimilated; we are here to plunder the academy, and it has converted us. But likewise, if we are here to despise the academy, to decry its culture and scorn its triviality, if we are here only to make converts, if we’re tent-making without caring about the quality of the tents we make or the lives of those who will inhabit them, then we are not seeking our culture’s shalom either. Both these attitudes—assimilation and contempt—start with the same question: what can the academy provide for me? Assimilation answers ‘everything’ and contempt retorts ‘nothing’.
But Jeremiah 29 starts from a different question altogether: what can I give to the city, to the culture, to the academy? Both assimilation and contempt are about keeping power. Assimilation keeps power by not challenging the current norms, and contempt by teaching you to withdraw from the culture around you. But the gospel of God’s grace lavishly poured out on us through Christ’s death on the cross and the new life of his resurrection is too humbling for us to WANT to seek power, and too affirming for us to NEED to seek power over others.
Instead, we ask: What does it/would it mean for my discipline to flourish according to God’s definition of flourishing (which I don’t have time to go into now but has so much more to do with relationships than processes and structures)? For my department, or group, or faculty, to flourish? For culture to flourish? And how can I pour myself out to help make that to happen?
If we reject both assimilation and contempt and embrace the gospel, its truth shapes our perspective on our disciplines, notes Tim Keller:
We must live in the city to serve all the peoples in it, not just our own tribe. We must lose our power to find our (true) power. Christianity will not be attractive enough to win influence except through sacrificial service to all people, regardless of their beliefs.
Keller cashes out this servant attitude in this way: it’s the sort of attitude that makes people say: “I don’t believe what they believe, but I can’t imagine the city without them. If they left, we would have to raise taxes.” Isn’t it the challenge of seeking shalom for us to be the people you can’t imagine the department without, who, if we left, they’d have to get more staff in to cover the deficit? It is a huge sacrificial challenge, and only one thing can prepare us for it: an ever deeper and firmer grasp of the gospel of the Son of Man who came not to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many (Mark 10:45).