This past spring, I had the privilege of addressing academic scholarship recipients and their parents on the topic of academic integrity. The God-given potential in that room was electrifying, but it will fizzle out if the students do not understand well and counter wholeheartedly the dehumanizing ideas currently dominating higher education and reflecting our culture as a whole. The following is an adapted version of that speech. Scholarship recipients or not, may we all be like the sons of Issachar, who understood the times and knew what God’s people should do (1 Chronicles 12:32).
What you’ve done to be sitting here this evening, how you’ve chosen to invest portions of your life when you could be doing other things – thinking seriously about life when you could merely be searching for entertainment – Who you are and what you’ve done to be here are so desperately needed in our day … but I wonder if you know why.
Because of you, what we have in this room is the astounding potential for something which our society so desperately needs, but on so many levels does not know that it lacks – in a word: INTEGRITY. Not just honesty, but that which honesty presupposes: that there is knowable truth and that we are duty bound to know it, to tell it, to serve it. As we view life with the conviction that we can know truth, all the parts of life connect; we see that they are integrated.
What we have in our day is what previous generations have asked for, demanded really. What this young generation has grown up with as the often unchallenged ethos of its existence, is what we might call – DIS-Integrity, DIS-integration. The parts of life don’t connect to bigger principles; the pieces don’t unite. That’s the way of life in our day.
One of the most popular songs of the past few years is called “We are Young” by the group Fun. Do you know it? I won’t sing it for you. That would not be “fun” for any of us! On the surface, the song seems to celebrate hedonism…the party lifestyle of sex and willful substance abuse. The chorus goes: “Tonight, we are young, so let’s set the world on fire; we can burn brighter than the sun…” But I wonder if below the surface, it actually and with poignant irony laments that way of life – if, as it loudly portrays hard partying as the brightest expression of who we are, it is not also quietly weeping over the same fact.
Consider these lyrics coming right before the chorus: “…I just thought, maybe we can find new ways to fall apart. But our friends are back, so let’s raise a toast, ‘cause I found someone to carry me home!” The downfall is inevitable. The only “fun” to be had is discovering new kinds of collapse; the only comfort is finding someone to carry you home after you crash. Is that not sad? If not self-consciously within the song, what about objectively in life? See if this doesn’t ring true to what you know and hear.
In our day, brokenness is a given. Disintegrated lives are a given – lives in which the parts don’t form a cohesive whole, let alone a strong, true and beautiful one. The very idea of life based in knowable, absolute truth is laughable in our day. But don’t you find that sometimes we laugh, because if we don’t, we’ll cry?
When self-destruction is the studied choice of hearts seeking a way to burn brightly in this life, something fundamental to their souls has been muted. That instinct toward integrity, innate in the human heart, that instinctive awareness of a life which touches ultimate meaning and purpose, seems among us but a faint glow. Sure, as a society, we’re more willing to talk openly about spiritual matters than we once were. But at the same time, we’re told to stuff that spirituality into the private corners of our lives.
We’re told to keep our souls on silent. As in a movie theater or at a meeting, we’re told to keep our phones on silent. Vibration is okay, but no sound! When someone speaks out from a standpoint of absolute truth – when someone references God in a very specific way, it’s more offensive than the phone that goes off in the middle of the movie or the meeting. It’s awkward, and people get angry …who IS that person? How rude! Why can’t she just buzz about God in her heart? Why does she have to make the rest of us hear it?
This evening, I want to encourage you to turn up the volume on the deepest matters and questions that we can possibly ask in this life, because, though we try to fight it so as to live how we want to, life really does have integrity.
As a culture, we want the fruit of an integrated life – but not the foundation. So we maintain this separation between us and knowable truth, between us and the One who IS the truth, the way and the life. We set up a phantom wall between us, but we don’t like when that fantasy comes to fruition.
To paraphrase C.S. Lewis: “We mock the idea of honor and are shocked to find traitors in our midst.” To which we could add: we mock truth and are shocked to find liars in our midst. We say that meaning is merely a societal construct and are shocked to find people living as if life is ultimately meaningless. We teach people that absolute truth is unknowable, that whether there is life after biological death is unknowable and therefore unnecessary to know. We encourage spirituality, but not one which goes beyond seeking peace with the self, here and now, and we’re shocked to find people living selfishly. We tell people in so many words that they are, for all they can know, biological machines, and we’re shocked to find them living and learning mechanistically – going through the motions, sometimes quite efficiently, but with no underlying, transcendent purpose or passion.
Now of course, there are those who, though entrenched in such education, do live with passion and purpose, who serve others with selflessness as the self-conscious goal. But how sad that so many of them are driven to serve precisely because life feels so dis-integrated? In the face of meaninglessness, the only meaning they can find is to help others make meaninglessness more manageable. How much better equipped would those passionate hearts be, how much stronger their service to others, if they saw that all the parts of their lives do connect? If, on an ultimate level, they were able to make sense of their service to others and to protect those whom they serve by rooting their reason for serving in unchanging, knowable truth? You see, this is what building the phantom wall actually does: Living as if there is a permanent divide between us and absolute truth hurts humanity – it hurts people.
Conventional wisdom dictates that private religious conviction be kept out of public policy. We’re told that politics and science and law are fundamentally irreligious disciplines, that government works best when it is literally godless. But in reality, those principles serve to sneak in the back door the preferred religion of the powerful. Now law, no policy ever arises from a socio-religious vacuum. Someone’s socio-religious conviction always rises to power in order to control the terms, the definitions which inform and control public discourse – definitions of what constitutes a crime, and therefore what constitutes a victim, definitions even of what constitutes a human being.
So many so-called social justice efforts in our day include, and sometimes necessitate the marginalization and disenfranchisement of the most defenseless people in our society – namely the unborn, and increasingly, the severely ill and elderly. These are people whose mere existence is an affront to the autonomy of others. So, in the name of human rights, certain humans are denied the right to live. Depending on who controls the terms and definitions, the beneficiaries of social justice today may be its victims tomorrow. Thus, DISintegration leads to humanity’s disintegration, what C.S. Lewis calls The Abolition of Man.
That disintegration is rampant in higher education. We’ve minimized the importance of the humanities and have been shocked to find that graduates have such a shallow understanding of what it is to be human. Their inability to stretch cognitively beyond the confines of bare, brute fact is alarming professors at prominent universities. A Harvard Medical School professor, in a response to a New York Times article chronicling the decline of the humanities in higher education, writes: “I have turned down undergraduate students at our institution (some with near perfect GPAs) based on the fact that they cannot recall the last humanities course that they took. While teaching a person how to do research, I cannot afford to also take the time to teach them how to write and think critically about ideas that are abstract as well as concrete.”
This is not to say that liberal arts-driven Christian higher learning – such as that available at oh, say, Geneva College! – is the answer to all of life’s ills. Nor is it to suggest that higher learning is the social context most crucial to cementing together the fragmented part of our lives. Basic social institutions such as the family and the church are fundamental to that task. But that’s what is so troubling. The crumbling interest in the humanities in higher education reveals the fracturing of those foundational social structures. These fractures are aggravated as family and church are increasingly subject to re-definitions and restrictions which social engineers in high places force upon them, in many cases without objection or even the slightest contrary notion from those whose education has prepared them to be little more than loyal servants of the state.
So, in an ideological environment like this, would college not be a great place, and a crucial time to turn up the volume – to take our souls off silent – to begin, with truly educated earnest, to critically and compassionately engage the dynamics behind DISintegration? A crucial place and time in which to mend those fractures by rediscovering and purposing to live out during and after college a robust, beautiful humanness? A crucial time and place to not only unearth the deep, necessary questions, but to – dare we say it – arrive at answers? To mature in the moral and cognitive strength which comes from knowing Christ, to not only see through the phantom wall but to help in the liberation of souls unknowingly enslaved beneath its sinister shade?
In a truly integrated education, all the constituent parts combine to bring teacher and student into vital, soul-forming touch with the Transcendent One – the One who has become one of us in Christ – the One who literally wrote the book on what it means to be human, to love, to know, to feel – what it means to live, and to truly live well. We all need to be so educated. Lives are depending upon it.
We would love for Geneva College to be the place where you turn up the volume, where you come to know and love more fully the One in whom all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge are found, the One in whom all of life finds its essential integrity. We would love to serve you as you learn to truly serve others by living lives of bright, burning integrity.
Congratulations on your accomplishments, friends. Now more than ever, it’s time to learn, and it’s time to get loud. Hope to see you in the fall.