So I’d like to start with definitions. We’ll start with what I mean by the life of the mind. I have a narrow meaning in mind and I have a broad meaning in mind when I say the life of the mind.
The narrow meaning is this: the life of a vocational scholar, that is, a life devoted to research, thinking, teaching, and writing. That would be one way to talk about the life of the mind. The broader meaning that I also have in mind is the use of the mind in everybody’s life to observe, analyze, systematize, imagine, memorize, and express itself. So in the first sense, you have a small band of scholars who devote themselves to reading, thinking, observing, analyzing, expressing, teaching, and writing. And then you have everybody else in the world who either use their mind well or poorly. My understanding of education, whether at the lower or higher levels, is that the people in the first group help the people in the second group use their minds better.
Now what about the phrase supremacy of God? I’m still talking about definitions here. What do I mean by the phrase the supremacy of God in the life of the mind? I think in a day of Islamic resurgence we must not assume anything when we use the word God today. So here’s what I mean. I mean the sovereign Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who was sent by him to die for sinners, who was raised by him from the dead, and who reigns today over the universe as very God and very man. So when I say God in this talk, I mean the Father of Jesus Christ and Jesus Christ as very God and very man. So you may substitute Jesus anytime you hear the word God as well.
What do I mean by supremacy of God? Now this is probably the most important definition I’m going to give you because it gets at the heart of the matter. By the supremacy of God in the life of the mind, I mean the conscious, worshipful experience of God’s supremacy in the use of one’s mind together with an intentional display of this supremacy in our mental work.
I’ll say that again because if you understood it and embraced it and lived it, I could stop talking and we’d all go have cookies and I wouldn’t have to spend the rest of the time trying to persuade you or inspire you to it. What I mean by the supremacy of God in the life of this institution and it’s scholars and its administration and, God willing, its students, is the conscious and worshipful experience of God’s supremacy in the use of one’s mind together with an intentional display of this supremacy in our mental work. I say it like that because atheists experience the supremacy of God. God holds them in being. They discover all their natural truths through God’s common grace. Atheists have massive experience of the supremacy of God, but they have no conscious, worshipful experience of that supremacy, and they make no efforts to intentionally display his supremacy in their mental work.
So you can see why I added all those qualifiers at the front of experiencing the supremacy of God. I mean the conscious, worshipful experience of God’s supremacy and an unashamed display of his supreme truth and beauty in our mental work. Now, when I take all those definitions and bring them together, they produce a prayer for Northwestern College, which goes like this:
I pray that the vocational scholars, the faculty, will so consciously and worshipful experience God’s supremacy in the use of their minds, and so intentionally display God’s supremacy in their research and thinking and teaching and writing, that the rest of us will be inspired and instructed to depend upon God’s supremacy and display his supremacy in all of our mental work — indeed all of our work, absolutely.
So I pray that all that defined supremacy in the life of the mind will land upon this faculty and this administration and produce a profound effect upon the students and the community in which the school lives.
Why Does the Life of the Mind Matter?
Now, here’s the first question, why should a Bible-believing Christian care about the life of the mind? This is a very urgent biblical question because the Bible says, “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up” (1 Corinthians 8:1). The Bible says, “Of the making of many books there is no end, and much study is a weariness of the flesh” (Ecclesiastes 12:12). The Bible says, “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, says the Lord” (1 Corinthians 1:19), and, “God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise” (1 Corinthians 1:27). So the question is not just of academic interest, it is of biblical urgency. Why should anybody care about cultivating this dangerous thing called the life of the mind, which is so fraught with danger and difficulty?
Well, I really believe those warning sentences ought to fly like a banner over this school, but they should not be at the top of the mast. There’s another flag that should be flying at the top of the mast. In fact, there are flags all over the Bible that say, “In spite of all those dangers, go for it.” I’ll give you a few.
Brothers, do not be children in your thinking. Be infants in evil, but in your thinking be mature (1 Corinthians 14:20).
That doesn’t exactly sound like Paul wants him to stop thinking. Does it?
Think over what I say, for the Lord will give you understanding in everything (2 Timothy 2:7).
Therefore, gird up the loins of your mind . . . (1 Peter 1:13, KJV).
That’s an old image for pulling up the skirts so they don’t mess you up if you try to run. It’s saying, “Fit yourself for action. Move with an energetic mental activity as you embrace the hope set before you.”
Fourteen times, the apostle Paul rebukes the churches by saying, “Do you not know?” He says things like, “Do you not know that your bodies are the temple of the Holy Spirit?” (1 Corinthians 6:19), and, “Do you not know that the law is binding on a person only as long as he lives?” (Romans 7:1).
He gets very upset with these churches when they don’t know certain things. He repeatedly says, “Do you not know? Do you not know? Do you not know?” There are 14 times in his letters that he rebukes the church with that language. And in the book of Acts, I wrote down six places where you find Paul “reasoning” in the synagogues with the Jews, proving that Jesus is the Christ.
Risk and Reward
Now that’s the banner I want you to put above the banner knowledge puffs up. The dangers are huge to be here in this institution, teaching, studying, and leading. But, evidently, from these other flags that are flying in the Bible, it’s worth the risk. In fact, we are commanded to pursue it and we dare not run from it.
Think with maturity. Think with energy. Think because you’re commanded to. Think for the sake of holiness. Think for the sake of Christ. That’s the way I would summarize those flags that I just read. And of course you would all add this, wouldn’t you? The first and great commandment is this, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and mind” (Matthew 22:37). So the first commandment includes the mind as God calls us to love him. So there’s no escaping the life of the mind. We have a great mandate to pursue it. God cares about it.
It’s no fluke that everywhere the mission of Christianity has spread in the world, three institutions have come in the wake of that spread: churches, schools, and hospitals. That’s not an accident. The reason, I believe, is this: you can’t worship in the church if you’re dead, and you can’t worship in the church if you don’t know how to think. If you think wrongly about God, if you use your mind wrongly about the Bible and about the gospel and about God, you won’t worship God in a Christ-exalting, God-honoring way. So it’s not surprising that everywhere the church goes or everywhere the mission goes, churches come, hospitals come, and schools come.
The supremacy of God is essential to the right use of the mind. That’s what I’m arguing. So if the right use of the mind is essential for worship and church, THE supremacy of God in the life of the mind is essential for the right use of the mind. But I haven’t proved that yet, and that’s where I want to go now. How shall we establish that? How can I create a sense in this room, or to whoever listeners to this tape, that your heart should burn with passion to see to it that you exercise your mind, whether vocationally as a scholar or avocationally in whatever you do, so that in and through all of that God’s supremacy is experienced worshipfully and displayed intentionally. How can I get you to embrace that?
The Enthrallment of God in the Mind of God
The approach I’m going to take is this. I simply look at my own experience and see what had the biggest impact on me. And I’m just going to run the risk that since it’s biblical, it also might have a similar impact on you.
The way I was gripped by the supremacy of God in the life of the mind, as in all other things, was by being brought face to face with the shocking truth that God is supreme in his own mind. It was in seeing that all over the Bible that added a booster to a thought that was there but wasn’t a passion. The thought that I should live for the supremacy of God, or I should think for the supremacy of God, under the supremacy of God and through the supremacy of God and for the supremacy of God, didn’t become a universal passion until I saw the biblical shocker that God is supreme in the mind of God. And therefore, God should be supreme in my mind.
Now, there are a lot of Christian scholars I know who say they believe in the supremacy of God in all things and in the life of the mind, but you look in vain in their scholarship for any robust, public evidence of the commitment to the supremacy of God in the life of the mind. My conviction is that such people are probably not enthralled by the biblical reality of the supremacy of God in the mind of God. So I’m hopeful that if I could bring to bear on such minds the enthralling biblical vision of the supremacy of God in the mind of God, it might shake them out of the kind of neutrality in which they presently carry out their tasks.
It’s a strange phenomenon to me to watch the debates happen, like in books and culture and other places, between historians who do history one way and others who do it another way. I’m puzzled, because it just seems to me that if you are enthralled, if you are absolutely caught up, as it were, into the seventh heaven of God’s enthrallment with his own glory, nothing can stay the same again. Nothing stayed the same for me again back in 1968, 1969, and 1970, as I was being clobbered over and over again by the majesty of God in the mind of God. So I have this sense that there’s something about this truth that is difficult for people to receive. It’s doesn’t bother people that you can find in the Bible sentences that say, “Make God’s supreme in your mind.” That’s not the kicker.
The kicker is to look at all these texts that say God’s passion for his glory is the supreme value of his own mind. It’s that that just jarred me and changed everything. It just turned the world upside down. So I have this suspicion, this sense, that when we see the truth of God’s supremacy in his own mind, we will make him supreme in our mind because we will realize by doing that we’re linking our lives to the highest, holiest, happiest purpose of the universe, namely, God’s exaltation in God — God’s thrill with being God, God’s admiration of his own excellences, and God’s cherishing his own glory above all other values. When that grips a person, their scholarship will take on a conscious, worshipful experience of God’s supremacy and yield an intentional display of God’s supremacy. So, how shall we see this? Well, let’s try this. I’ve got about six or seven ways to see it in the Bible.
God’s Supremacy in the Works of Salvation
Let’s go first to salvation and ask this. If you do a survey of the great works of salvation, and ask at every one of those key points of salvation, “What’s driving God? What’s his passion? What’s uppermost in his mind?” what you’re going to find is something very surprising. The events of salvation I have in mind are predestination, creation, incarnation, propitiation, sanctification, and consummation. Let me give you a verse for each one of those six saving activities.
First, let’s look at predestination. Ephesians 1:5–6 says:
He predestined us for adoption to himself as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will (why?), to the praise of his glorious grace, with which he has blessed us in the Beloved.
There you have God stating that he predestines us to sonship so that we will praise the glory of his grace. So his glory is uppermost in his motives in predestining us.
Next, take creation. Isaiah 43:6–7 says:
Bring my sons from afar
and my daughters from the end of the earth,
everyone who is called by my name,
whom I created for my glory,
whom I formed and made.
You were made that you might make much of God. God designed it that way. And therefore, God’s being made much of is his chief design. He is supreme in his own mind.
Next is incarnation. Romans 15:8–9 says:
For I tell you that Christ became a servant to the circumcised (that is, he became a Jew) to show God’s truthfulness, in order to confirm the promises given to the patriarchs . . .
One of these reasons for Christ’s coming was to prove that God is a truth teller. And then verse 9 continues:
and in order that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy.
There are two purposes for the incarnation in this verse: first, to prove he keeps his promises, and second, so that the Gentiles outside the covenant people might join in making much of God for his mercy. God says to his Son in heaven, before the incarnation, “Will you go down and accomplish for me my praise among the nations?”
Or consider propitiation. That’s the great work of removing the wrath of God on the cross. Romans 3:25 says:
God put [Christ] forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins.
The design of the atonement, though it’s big and has many parts, includes right at the center and ground of it God saying, “I mean to vindicate my righteousness, my name, and my glory as my Son dies so that I can justify the ungodly and still be just.” That is how he upholds the value of his glory.
Sanctification can be seen in Philippians 1:9, which says:
It is my prayer that your love may abound more and more, with knowledge and all discernment, so that you may approve what is excellent, and so be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God.
Here you have Paul saying, “Father, come now. Fill your people with the fruits of righteousness through Jesus Christ so that glory and praise comes to you.” Now, the Father is going to hear that and either, in mock humility, say, “Oh, I don’t seek my own glory,” or he’s going to say, “That’s exactly the kind of prayer I’ll answer. Just like Moses argued my name, you argued my name. I will engage for the sake of a holiness that reflects my glory.” Clearly, in designing prayer, God’s purpose is that he be supreme in our lives, and therefore, he’s supreme in his own value scheme.
Finally, consummation. Second Thessalonians 1:9–10 says:
They will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might, when he comes (this is Jesus coming back) on that day to be glorified in his saints, and to be marveled at among all who have believed . . .
Here’s the Son of God awaiting the appointed time of the Father, and when the time comes, he comes. If you ask him, “Why are you coming?” he says, “To be glorified in the saints and to be marveled at among all those who have believed in me.” So clearly, his passion, his driving, animating principle, is, “I will be supreme,” and that’s what makes him tick.
God’s Passion for His Glory
Now that’s one way to see it in the Bible. I have about six others, but you can just take all of salvation, look at the high points, look at the motive statements or the purpose statements, and what you see is that from beginning to end, what God is doing in saving you is magnifying his glorious grace. Therefore, we must feel the force of the supremacy of God’s value in the mind of God. I think that until we feel that, until that lands on us like a majestic weight of glory, we will not live for the supremacy of God in our minds the way we should.
Let me show it to you from four or five other places. Just a verse each, maybe.
The Glory of God’s Wrath, Mercy, and Power
Another way to see this is that the goal of the wrath of God, the mercy of God, and the power of God — as in my last Sunday’s text standing in this pulpit two days ago was Romans 9:23, which says:
in order to make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory . . .
His purpose for his mercy, his purpose for his wrath, and his purpose for his power is to make known the riches of his glory. He wants to be known as glorious. So his glory is supreme in his motives.
Do All to the Glory of God
The third way to see it in the Bible is that the aim of all human endeavor from the most seemingly insignificant thing is said to be for this end. First Corinthians 10:31 says:
So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.
Here you have God, designing eating and designing drinking so that even the lowest, simplest, everyday, mundane things would be part of his great enterprise to be glorified. So clearly it is a pervasive passion of God that he be made much of in the world.
All Lack the Glory of God
Fourth, sin is defined as a failure to make much of God. Romans 3:23 says:
All have sinned and fall short of (literally lack) the glory of God.
That word lack I think is filled up from Romans 1:22–23, where it says:
Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things.
This is an exchange. The essence of sin is that we choose things, love things, like things, and do things that show we do not value God above those things. So when God defines sin that way, he shows that his passion is to be valued above all things.
The Glory of God Among the Nations
Fifth, his design for the nations is that he be displayed in his glory.
Oh sing to the Lord a new song;
sing to the Lord, all the earth!
Sing to the Lord, bless his name;
tell of his salvation from day to day.
Declare his glory among the nations,
his marvelous works among all the peoples!
Here you have the psalmist, under the inspiration of God, saying, “Come on, you nations, come on. I’m going to declare the glory of God among you. Bow and worship this God.” And it’s the design of God for the Psalms to talk that way, and therefore his passion is to be known that way among the nations.
The Gospel of the Glory of Christ
A sixth way to see it in the Bible is that the heart of the gospel is defined in terms of making much of his glory. Listen to this:
The god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God (2 Corinthians 4:4).
What’s the gospel? It is the declaration of the glory of Christ as the image of God. So God designed a gospel, a good news, a saving message of salvation, in which he says, “I’m right at the center of it as my Son’s glory shines as my image. That’s clearly what I want it to be because I am supreme in my own affections.”
The Knowledge of the Glory of the Lord
Finally, number seven is that he says that the earth is going to be filled with his glory someday. Habakkuk 2:14 says:
For the earth will be filled
with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord
as the waters cover the sea.
That’s God’s plan. He aims to be supreme and known as supreme in the world. So I draw out of all that biblical information an absolutely shocking truth. It doesn’t shock me anymore, but it shocked me about 30 years ago because I hadn’t heard anybody say it up until the time I was 25 years old. I hadn’t heard anybody say God is supreme in the mind of God. The highest value in the priority structure of the mind of God is God, not me. Nobody said that to me for 25 years. And when it came home to me it changed everything.
And I think it will change the life of the scholar. If a scholar is gripped by what God is gripped by, namely, the supremacy of God. Because God is gripped by the supremacy of God, I think there will be a conscious worshipful experience of God’s supremacy and an intentional display of God’s supremacy in his mental work. I mean, how can you look at all those verses I just spent 20 minutes on, where God does everything to display his worth, and choose a strategy of life that conceals it? That would be very strange to me.
Four Faculties of the Mind
I want to do one last thing with you. I want to ask, practically, what this might look like in four faculties, or capacities, of the mind. If you say, “Why did you pick these four?”, my answer is that they’re sort of on my front burner. That’s all. They’re nothing absolute about them. These four capacities are observation, cogitation, imagination, and memorization. Let’s say just a word about each of those. Those are acts of the mind — observing, thinking, imagining, and memorizing. Those are acts of the mind which ought to be done under the weight of and for the sake of the supremacy of God. So let’s talk about each one just briefly.
The mind is a perceiving organ. I know it uses the eyes, but it perceives. It observes. It uses the ears and the senses, but it’s the mind that is observing. How shall the supremacy of God be manifested, or displayed, in the right use of the mind in observation? I saw this quote years back by Charles Meisner about Albert Einstein and he said this:
I do see the design of the universe as an essentially religious question, that is, one should have some kind of respect and awe for the whole business. It’s very magnificent and shouldn’t be taken for granted. In fact, I believe that is why Einstein had so little use for organized religion, although he strikes me as a very religious man. He must have looked at what the preacher said about God and felt that they were blaspheming. He had seen so much more majesty than they had ever imagined and they were just not talking about the real thing. My guess is that he simply felt that the religions he had run across did not have a proper respect for the author of the universe.
I felt rebuked as a pastor when I read that years ago and vowed that, if I could help it, I would never ever handle the Bible or God in a way that would make an astronomer say, “I’ve seen way more than you’ve seen of majesty, Piper.” I just thought I would do my best, never ever to let that happen. And I don’t think it’s just preachers who fail to see; it’s also those who look at the stars and don’t see, who look at a molecule and don’t see, who look at a poem and don’t see, and who look into the face of baby and don’t see. This institution exists to help students get eyes in their heads so that they see what nobody else can see.
Coming to Grips with Greatness
Light travels at 5.87 trillion miles a year. The galaxy of which our solar system is part is about a hundred thousand light years in diameter. That’s about 587,000 trillion miles across — the short way. It’s one of about a million such galaxies in the optical range of our most powerful telescopes. And in our galaxy, there are about a hundred billion stars. The sun is a smaller, modest one — only 6,000 degrees centigrade on its cooler, outer surface. It travels at about 155 miles per second, which means that it will complete one revolution around the galaxy in 200 million years. Now, God has given us eyes and telescopes and microscopes to see these things.
Somebody asked me one time, “How can you be a Christian and believe that you are the only rational, human-type creature in a universe of this size?” And I said, “That’s not any problem at all, because the point of the size of the universe is to bear witness to this little creature about the magnitude of the maker, not the significance of the creature.” Therefore, the fact that the Hubble telescope is enabling us to go on and on and on should simply cause us not to fall into the trap of Albert Einstein’s condemnation that the preachers don’t know what they’re talking about because he has seen far more majesty than we have. That is sadly true for many pastors and many scholars. You would think in some classrooms and some pulpits that observing reality was quite a blah, ordinary, no-thrill thing.
G.K. Chesterton — he’s got eyes. He said the really amazing thing is not the shape of anybody’s nose but that you have a nose. Isn’t it strange? It’s so odd. It ought to be flat — two holes or no holes. Why is it like this? Noses are strange. They should cause wonder, even a small wonder, at least. We should at least be interested. But we’re blind. We are just blind. You know one of the reasons we’re blind? I’m going to start preaching if I’m not careful here. One of the reasons we’re blind is because we’re utterly wrapped up in ourselves, just so wrapped up in ourselves. The great glorious thing in academia as well as church life and family life is to forget yourself and be caught up in the beauties that God has made and that God is. That’s not in the manuscript here.
So one of the faculties I’m pleading for the supremacy of God in is the faculty of observation. You know what you should see when you look up into the starry sky at night?
To whom then will you compare me,
that I should be like him? says the Holy One.
Lift up your eyes on high and see:
who created these?
He who brings out their host by number,
calling them all by name;
by the greatness of his might
and because he is strong in power,
not one is missing (Isaiah 40:25–26).
Oh, I hope that God would grant Northwestern College such a faculty that in every classroom, from economics, to anthropology, to music, to physical education, to math, to Bible, wherever it comes in the disciplines, sees wonder everywhere — especially right in front of them in their students, or right in a book composed by a human mind in the image of God.
I just chose this weird word, cogitation, to make it rhyme with all the others. What I mean by that is the faculty of analyzing, synthesizing, and systematizing. It’s what you do with what you observe. It’s what the mind begins to do with it when it comes into the brain. We call it thinking. It’s what a lot of scholars substitute footnotes for and substitute reading for.
I’ll just give a little plea here. I’m a slow reader. I taught college for six years. I never assigned more than two books in a semester. Now there are different disciplines and different problems, I suppose. But what we did with those books, you wouldn’t believe. I’d assign Adler’s How To Read A Book and we’d rip that one to shred for about five weeks. And then I’d assign Aims of Interpretation, or something like that. There would be dozens and dozens and dozens of study questions that made them understand the word therefore. They would have to look eight-tenths of the way down on page 53 and how it relates to the paragraph before and the paragraph after because they needed to get this man’s argument and restate it to his satisfaction, and then show why it’s good or bad.
Most people substitute reading for thinking. Many scholars substitute footnoting for thinking. There is no correlation between having a PhD and being able to think. There is no correlation between many footnotes and being a good, penetrating, synthesizing, truth-recognizing thinker. Thinking is just plain hard work, and footnotes generally get in the way. I believe you have to credit your sources. I just think we are all prone, me included, to make ourselves look well-read.
Think Over What I Say
Listen to what Paul says about thinking in 1 Timothy 2:7:
Think over what I say, for the Lord will give you understanding in everything.
Isn’t that amazing? He did not say, “The Lord will give you understanding in everything, so you don’t need to think.” And he didn’t say, “You must think because the Lord certainly will not give you understanding. You have to get it.” He said the seemingly paradoxical thing — “Think over what I say, for the Lord will give you understanding.” Oh there’s a worldview in there. There’s a theology in there. There’s a whole way to approach reality in there. And it is this: God has appointed these little things called brains, fallible as they are, to be his means of transmitting understanding of reality into us. “Think over what I say for the Lord will give you understanding.” This isn’t meant to go around your thinking, but to go through your thinking.
The implication with regard to the supremacy of God is that in the life of the mind and the use of the brain, we will really believe in prayer. That is, we will make much of our absolute dependence on the second half of that verse. We are actually thinking.
The horse is made ready for the day of battle,
but the victory belongs to the Lord.
Thinking is like making the horse ready. I’m going to open this book I’m going to take some caffeine if I have to. I am going to read slowly. I’m going to underline and I’m going to mark it up. I’m going to put question marks on it. I’m going to take notes. I’m going to understand the flow of this man’s thought, and the Lord may give me understanding. So if I make any progress in understanding, I bow down and I honor the Lord.
God gives heat through burning wood, strength through eating food, sound through the blowing of a horn, and understanding through the work of thinking. Therefore, since clearly the Lord is the one that’s giving understanding as we think with our minds — doing hard, rigorous, robust thinking — we surely will bring our thinking into accord with what we know about his values and make him supreme in what we do with those brains as we think.
Tearing Down Lofty Opinions
For example, will dethrone irrational arguments against God’s truth (2 Corinthians 10:4). We will expose slippery, equivocal language and bring all things to light (2 Corinthians 4:2). One of the great contributions of the Christian college in this day is teaching students to be ruthlessly analytic in the way they handle language in the media. We all know spin-doctoring. Where did that phrase come from? We have a whole new language to talk about what is done with language in our day to conceal things. People craft sentences to be misunderstood so that Saddam will understand it one way and the Russians will understand it another way, or whatever.
We work at being ambiguous. We work at being slippery and equivocal. I tell you in the name of Jesus, fight that with all your might because Paul said we speak the truth before God in an unadulterated upfront, straightforward, let-it-all-out way (2 Corinthians 2:17). And that’s what we contribute to this corrupting-language culture of ours.
We also labor to make difficult truths plain and clear. The best thinkers, like C.S. Lewis for example, who had an absolutely razor sharp mind, are the most clear and easy to understand. If you read a muddle-headed academic article, you’ve got a mediocre thinker behind it. The profound things in life cannot always be made acceptable, but they can be made intelligible so that an intention can be transmitted from one head to another head with clarity. That can happen, and that should be our aim.
We’ve moved from observation through cogitation or thinking to imagination. I believe one of the great duties of the Christian mind is imagination. We move now from observing what is there in reality, whatever your sphere is — and it could be any discipline in the school at all — to analyzing and ordering what is there, to imagining what might be there but you can’t see it there. That’s called sometimes scientific discovery. It is intuitive, or imaginative. It’s thinking, “What could possibly be here that I’m not seeing that would account for what I am seeing?” That is very strange, and it happens in the Bible and it happens in the chemistry lab.
Imagination is a duty, I say. Why do I say it’s a duty? Because you can’t love people in obedience to the second commandment or the golden rule without it, can you? Jesus says, “Whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them” (Matthew 7:12). You have to imagine yourself in their situation. This is where the words compassion and sympathy come from. The beginning of those words, com and sym, are a Latin and Greek prefix for saying, “I’m with you. I’m in there with you.” It takes imagination to get inside a widow’s skin, or a mom who just lost a one-year-old, or a woman who hasn’t been with her son for five months and she thinks he’s probably committed suicide somewhere and he’ll never show up again.
Those are the kinds of things I pray for after church every Sunday. How can I love these people? The only way is if I could have some little taste of imagination that can transport me out of myself into their situation and feel some of what they’re feeling. We should work hard to cultivate that gift of imagination.
There’s a second reason why I say imagination is a duty. And it’s this. This is closer to the life of the mind, perhaps. Speaking, writing, singing, drawing, painting, or carving thrilling truth in a boring way is sin. Thinking and then expressing a glorious, thrilling, scintillating, mind-blowing truth through writing or some artistic form in a boring way is sin. It’s wrong. It’s wrong to preach boring sermons. It’s wrong to teach boring classes. It’s just wrong. God is not boring, nor is his awesome creation.
Old Beauty in a New Light
But it takes really hard work to find fresh, imaginative language to state the old beauties. Dr. Kilby, one of my lit professors back at Wheaton, used to say one of the chief marks of the fall is that we get tired of everything, like sunsets. You visit the Alps for the first time and you’re breathless. By the afternoon, you’re going to watch TV. It takes one day and it’s old hat. Not so with little children, Chesterton said. Little children keep saying, “Do it again, daddy! Do it again!” And sometimes you test them to see if they’ll ever stop and they never stop. You always run out of juice before the child does. And he says that’s because they have not quite been jaundiced yet. There’s some little remnant about the original there. Even though they’re fallen, that’s the way Adam and Eve would’ve been. When the sun came up, Adam would have said, “Ha, Eve, look, he did it again! Can you believe the sun came up again?”
There would be this incredible sense of wonder. Now I say, that’s hard work to use your imagination that way. I say it as a preacher. We must think of patterns of words called a poem, or a metaphor, or an analogy. We must think of them. That’s what makes C.S. Lewis so rivetingly interesting. Every other sentence is an analogy it seems like. I’m listening to him on tape right now in the bathroom. I’m listening to Mere Christianity, which I haven’t read for 30 years. And I’m just blown away by this man’s ability to think up analogies. He says things like, “It’s like this,” or, “It’s like this.” And I’m saying that’s hard work. I sit there on Saturday afternoons knowing my exegesis from my Romans passage, and knowing that if I just say what I say with my old, tried, biblical, worn-out theological language with no analogies, no metaphors, and no windows, it will bore people. That’s not because it is boring, but because I’m failing.
I have not risen to the use of my mind under the supremacy of God in the capacity of imagination. One of the reasons I think imagination is such hard work is because it’s the most godlike of all the faculties of the mind. It’s the closest we get to creation ex nihilo. God created ex nihilo (out of nothing). I mean picture the difficulty. Have you ever tried to write a poem? Do you have a wife? I have a wife. I write a poem for my wife on Valentine’s Day, her birthday, and Mother’s Day. I think that’s about it. Three times a year at least I write a poem for her. And sometimes I am absolutely dog tired. It’s nine o’clock at night, and I have to get up at six in the morning. I forgot until now to plan to do this, and I’m not going to break this pattern.
And I sit there and I say, “Out of nothing must emerge a poem.” I have no idea what the theme should be. I have no idea what the words are going to be. It is nonexistent in the universe, and I must bring it into being. That’s an awesome task. That’s what imagination is. And I think one of the reasons there’s so many boring preachers is because there’s so many lazy preachers. It’s just easy to say the language that comes naturally. Well, the language that comes naturally is in a rut. It’s just the same old, same old, same old that you said every week. And until you give an hour to looking for three analogies with a hard, mind-bending, creation-almost-ex-nihilo feel, you’re probably going to be boring. I think this institution exists with all Christian institutions to prove to students and to help cultivate in students this truth.
The faculty of imagination is the faculty given by God to man so that God’s beauty will be made beautiful. It’s the faculty given to man so that God’s beauty will be shown to be beautiful.
Finally, I want to speak about memorization. I debated whether to talk about this one or not because it’s not going to sound very scholarly and I’m supposed to sound scholarly here. But I decided to do it anyway because I don’t care anymore about what people think about me. I would not have said this maybe even 10 years ago. I wouldn’t have closed a talk on this about memory and memorization. So I want to ask this question, why should a Christian college concern itself with cultivating a habit of memorization in its community of learners? Why should a Christian college cultivate a habit of memorization?
I haven’t yet said memorization of Scripture. I will say that eventually, but I don’t limit it to that as a habit of memorization. Now the sad thing is that in academia we do cultivate this. And do you know in what we cultivate it? Answers to test questions. What a sad debotching of the gift of memory. I teach students to memorize the table of elements or the answers to these historical dates. But where has this faculty said, “Our students are going to memorize these great poems, these great speeches, and these great chapters in the Bible.” Where is anybody cultivating a community like that? Let me give you a couple of reasons why I think this is so crucial to cultivate a community of memorization.
The Deep Mystery of the Mind
The best and wisest things that will ever be written have already been written. The best and wisest are in the Bible. There are some great poems and great songs outside the Bible. God has been seen and savored and celebrated with words and music before you were born in ways far more magnificent than you will ever see or savor or celebrate him in this life. Why not take your little plug and put it into that socket, through memorization of some magnificent song, or poem, or chapter in the Bible?
Why does it make such a difference? Here I might be over my head. I’ll bet some of you are way ahead of me on this one because I’m not sure. I’m just going to speculate for a minute here. Why is memorizing beautiful and true things so deeply influential on the fruit and spirit of the mind? I think it’s because when you put something into your mind by way of memory, it goes down deeper and it shapes more than if you just read them. The mind and the brain are a great mystery, aren’t they? I just find them amazingly mysterious. Who, but God, can explain what a thought is? Why does one thought occur to you and not another? How do words flow from our mouths without pausing to check each one out with deliberation? I mean, a lot of people say, “Think before you speak.” Well nobody can do that, at least not with every word.
If I say, “Not with every word,” I say not, and then do I ask, “Do I want to say with? Yeah, say with.” And then, do I say, “Do I want to say the? Yeah, say the.” And then, do I say, “Do I want to say word? Yeah, say word.” I can’t do that. I can’t check every word. Well how do they work then? How do they know when to line up? They’re not checking with me. I just find the brain absolutely mind-boggling, which might help me understand why memorizing great literature or profound theological truth from God has such deep, subconscious effects.
I can’t figure out how the brain works. I don’t know where my thoughts come from or why words line up the way they do. So might it not be the case that when you stock 1 Corinthians 13, Romans 8, a dozen Psalms, and Isaiah 23, and you say them year after year after year, they have a deep, root effect on the way your mind looks at reality and feels about reality and speaks reality. Who knows? But that is the explanation, and it is so. So my first argument for why memorization is so crucial is that it has this profound shaping effect upon our thinking.
A second reason is that God intends the mouth to be a fountain of life. Proverbs 10:11 says:
The mouth of the righteous is a fountain of life.
I would just ask you, is your mouth a fountain of life to people? One of the effects of Christian education should be that students come in and their mouths are often disappointing, maybe full of criticism, full of cynicism, or full of banality, talking about the latest soap or something. What a use for this Go-given instrument. By the time they leave, the reputation of this school should be that you get around those students and life happens through their mouths. Life happens. How does that happen? How does your mouth become a fountain of life?
I think the answer is when this mind and this heart are stocked full of glorious things, glorious truths and beautiful language, this instrument has some resources to draw upon both consciously and unconsciously. They come out in prayer, they come out in counsel, and they come out in crisis.
Well, very practically, as I close, I would say I have no idea whether a school will ever pick up such a thing. I think if I were responsible here at this school, I would try to bring about some kind of agreement on the faculty and the administration that we will require henceforth from all students over four years that they memorize 12 Psalms, Isaiah 53, the whole Sermon on the Mount, Romans 8, and 1 Corinthians 13. If you spread that over four years it would be like a verse a week probably. It’s very little. I just wonder what the effect would be. The main good effect might be simply forcing students to try once what they might not have tried and now will do for the rest of their lives because of the profound effect it had on them.
I close now with an exhortation to you all in your kind patience to me for this time. I say this to the faculty and to the administration primarily: May you be unafraid at this school. May you be so poised in God, so unworried about the criticisms of the world, so yourself in Christ, that you can draft philosophies of education, statements of purpose, class syllabi, lectures, and assignments which are manifestly Christ-exalting, God-centered, and Bible-saturated. And may you enjoy in every discipline the conscious, worshipful experience of the supremacy of God in the use of your minds — namely, the truth and beauty of Christ, by whom and for whom all things are made. Let’s pray.