A Dangerous Education

As the academic year begins, students return to university campuses seeking knowledge and experience.  At Emmanuel College within The University of Queensland, Pastor Nathan Campbell challenged students beginning their studies for the year to resist safety and instead to pursue a more dangerous, but ultimately more rewarding, way of engaging with ideas.  Here is the text of his address:


Pastor Nathan Campbell addressing students at the Emmanuel College Convocation Ceremony

It’s a privilege to be invited to speak to you tonight, especially the students, to launch your year of being educated and formed as people here at Emmanuel College.

This is a college with a tradition of forming leaders who transform the world — by ‘nurturing academic excellence, leadership, and community service’ — but what is academic excellence? What sort of education sets you up to transform the world, to leave the world a better place than it was when you arrived? That must surely be a goal of any real education.

I’m going to put my prophetic hat on for a minute. I’m predicting that while you’re here on campus you’re going to feel the pressure to stay safe. To not stray from the path. I’m not talking about dark alleys — stay out of those!

You’ll feel you should read the right things, and say the right things, and write the right things. By ‘the right things’ I don’t necessarily mean the good or true things, but the consensus view, or the opinion of those teaching you. This won’t be overt pressure, it’ll be the implicit pressure of staying with the safety of the herd. It’ll be the pressure of the default. The status quo.  The easy road. Your time will be pulled in all sorts of directions, and you’ll feel pressure to follow the path of least resistance, or to avoid danger.

Educational excellence is not found in walking the safe road, the well-trodden path, but walking the dangerous road; engaging with those who push you out of your comfort zone and challenge your default assumptions about the way things are.

Transforming the world requires innovation. It requires being open, not closed, to new ideas, threatening ideas. This requires embracing danger. If you want to be a real leader then you should do that, boldly, for the good of others, as an act of love for your neighbours, but you should also do it for the safety of your soul.

Danger — risk-taking – is where you’ll be tested; entering the crucible of contested, dangerous, ideas and staring down discomfort, leaving your ‘comfort zone’ is where your character will be refined and you’ll be forged into a formidable force for change.

The challenge in front of you is not just to learn as you read people who say what you already think, but to learn to respond well to ideas you disagree with; with openness, charity, and curiosity, not outrage. It’s a challenge to listen carefully, and lovingly, to people you disagree with, seeing their humanity, and not revert to the safe default of being offended, not revert to the safety of the mob. When mobs become outraged they quickly become lynch mobs. You don’t have to go far on the internet to see this at play.

Academic excellence — academic virtue — leadership — requires listening attentively, really listening, and it requires loving those who are different, and engaging with them, rather than remaining in the safety of your convictions. It is actually only by listening and understanding — by paying attention to the world as it really is, and people as they really are, that you earn the opportunity to speak for change.

One model of this approach — of paying attention — is right there in Acts 17. Where we meet the Apostle Paul in Athens, where people ‘spend all their time discussing the latest ideas’. Paul walks around the city. He pays attention. He seeks to understand, and he speaks.

Paul clearly had a great education — in this passage he quotes poets and philosophers — and he was a leader. One of the most significant leaders in history. His writing undoubtedly changed the world. If you want evidence for this claim you don’t have to look much further than this building and this moment. Here we are in a Christian chapel, within a Christian college, on a university campus a world away from Athens. Even if Paul was wrong about the God stuff, he’s an effective leader, and we can learn from him. Bizarrely, if God isn’t behind the success of the church, then Paul probably is, which makes him even more effective.

Paul is a model of facing up to danger, rather than fleeing to safety. He pays attention to ideas that challenged him, for the benefit of others.

Paul has every reason to hate idols and temples. His ‘great education’ didn’t just feature Greek poets and philosophers, it featured Psalms like the one Tamaya read tonight —with its utter condemnation of idols and idol worship…and yet, here he is in Athens, a city of idols and temples. He believes idols are dangerous, but he doesn’t get outraged. He doesn’t shout about how offensive the idols are, or seek out a safe place. He doesn’t try to tear them down. The idols are outrageous and offensive, but he doesn’t incite an angry mob. He engages. He listens. He understands. Then he speaks.

I want to challenge you — the students of today — to be like Paul in your time here at uni. This is a place full of ideas and modern idols. I want to challenge you to have a dangerous education, to really pay attention to the world, and that includes at least considering the idea of God, and the question of what you worship. Your pursuit of danger for the sake of others should at least include pondering this question. Perhaps tonight will be the only time you do that. And that’s ok. So long as you pay attention.

One of my favourite modern philosophers is the American writer David Foster Wallace. He once spoke to a bunch of uni students at an event similar to this one. His speech, This Is Water, is on YouTube. If you only check out one thing after tonight watch it. Or read it. His speech — a vision of the ‘good’ life of the university graduate — was ultimately an invitation for a bunch of students to forget the “safe” stuff they’d learned in their degree, and to ‘really think’ to ‘pay attention’. Foster Wallace, a noted agnostic, calls us to truly see the world around us to: “consciously decide what has meaning and what doesn’t,” which he ultimately says is to “decide what to worship”.

And this is where things get dangerous, because here’s what Foster Wallace told this bunch of graduating uni students and its true for us too: “There is no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship.”

You get to choose. Foster Wallace says this is dangerous stuff. Because what you choose here actually shapes and forms you. He says, “An outstanding reason for choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship” – Jesus or otherwise – “is pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive.”

He says — “worship money and things – if they are where you tap real meaning in life – then you will never have enough…

Worship your own body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly…

Worship power – you will feel weak and afraid… Worship your intellect… you will end up feeling stupid…”

What are you worshipping? What are you hoping your time here at uni will lead to? Money? Sex? Family? Friendship? A good job? Power? Perhaps you haven’t decided yet… and uni is your opportunity to figure out what life is going to centre on for you.

He says this choice — this decision about what to worship — is a choice between these destructive defaults and real freedom, freedom which “involves attention, and awareness, and discipline, and effort, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them, over and over, in myriad petty little unsexy ways, every day. That is real freedom. The alternative is unconsciousness, the default setting, the ‘rat race’ – the constant gnawing sense of having had and lost some infinite thing.”

Do you have that sense? A taste of something infinite out there, that haunts you, here. Now. In your finite existence and the crazy whirring of thoughts going around in your head as you try to wrap your head around existence? I do.

The reason I’ve banged on about this speech for so long is because I think David Foster Wallace is onto something, and his challenge is one we should heed.  Safety doesn’t satisfy, and it’s actually not safe. If you want real freedom you have to head into danger beyond the default.

The Bible agrees with him — it says if you worship the wrong thing, it’ll destroy you. That’s exactly what the Psalm Tamaya read earlier said about idols — about the things we choose to worship, in verse 8…

“Those who make them will be like them,
and so will all who trust in them.”

In the Psalm, idols make people speechless. Sightless. Breathless. Lifeless… they shape us. They make us in their image… There’s a lot riding on this. If David Foster Wallace and the Bible are to be believed, worshipping idols — the finite things we desire — will ultimately kill us. They’ll consume us. They lure us with the promise of safety and satisfaction, like the legendary sirens, but they dash us on the rocks. We’re left looking for a god to worship who’ll really satisfy, who’ll connect us to that infinite thing we’ve lost.

Like Paul, I want to take this unknown God and make him known to you — the God who is the answer to that sense you might have that you’ve lost some infinite thing. Because Paul’s claim here is that God is that infinite thing, that we’ve lost, and that loss is what haunts us. It’s what leads us to worship other things. To be shaped by our desires and our hunt for meaning and satisfaction.

That’s what his sermon in Athens is all about. God is not finite — you can’t capture his being, his nature, in a statue or a temple — he doesn’t live in a temple. He’s not some being within the cosmos. The cosmos is within him… he is infinite and “he himself gives everyone life and breath and everything else.” God is the absolute opposite of the idols that steal our breath, and kill us; he gives us breath and life. Paul puts his finger on that gnawing tug within, he says that’s because God made us so that we  “would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him…” He put this gnawing sense within us and our hearts are haunted until we find our way back to God.

And Paul says it’s not up to us to bridge the gap to God. God himself provides the way back. We don’t satisfy this longing with our worship of finite stuff, in temples, or idols, or shopping centres, in bed or even at university. God isn’t far away. It’s just he’s infinite and we’re finite. We keep wanting to answer that gnawing sense by bridging the gap ourselves — that’s what worship is, and everybody worships. Worship, when its directed at a finite thing, is trying to grasp God in our own hands — that’s why people used to take up a hammer and chisel and craft gods for themselves, it’s why we in our “sophistication” invent ways to express our longing for money, sex, popularity, or connection with other people. But here’s what Paul says…

“Therefore since we are God’s offspring, we should not think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone—an image made by human design and skill…”

When we ‘worship stuff’ — when we make our own ‘divine images’ — it’s an insult to the God who made humanity in his image, and made the stuff. It’s dangerous. Paul says God let that slide in the past, but now something has changed. The infinite God has made himself more knowable. The infinite God bridged the gap; became finite; became someone we could grasp. In the person of Jesus — the one who gives life and breath — became a living breathing person. An image of God.

But because we’ve always been addicted to false gods, humanity executed him. Now, Christianity’s claims to be a dangerous idea worth hearing hang on what happens next. If Jesus wasn’t raised, well, as Paul puts it elsewhere: Eat. Drink. And be merry… for tomorrow we die. That gnawing sense within you isn’t pointing anywhere. So dull it with worship of sex, money, education, power… whatever.

But, if Jesus was raised from the dead it proves he is worth paying attention to. It proves he is dangerous to ignore, and we’re called to repent, to turn back to God, and away from worshipping these false gods.

This is where this choosing what to worship gets dangerous.  Idols are dangerous in and of themselves, in that they shape us into their own image. They destroy us, but the worst bit isn’t the result of following the wrong thing, it’s the result of missing the right thing.

And if you’re going to really pay attention to ideas, to dangerous ideas, while you’re here at uni, then this is one dangerous idea to consider. Whatever you do with it.

A couple of years ago another modern philosopher — the writer — Peter Hitchens — was in Australia for an annual event called the Festival of Dangerous Ideas. He was asked what the most dangerous idea in the world was. And he said it’s this claim — the resurrection of Jesus. He said:

“It turns the universe from a meaningless chaos into a designed place in which there is justice and there is hope and, therefore, we all have a duty to discover the nature of that justice and work towards that hope. It alters us all. If we reject It, it alters us all was well.”

So here’s my challenge for you this year. You can take some or leave some. Some will make you better educated. Some will make you a better leader. Some might lead to your destruction or to you making the world a better, more hopeful place.

Read beyond your bubble. Read voices you wouldn’t normally hear — especially voices from the margins, people who won’t be heard unless you make the conscious effort to hear them. Listen to their voices and then champion them, help them be heard, as an act of love. Don’t stay comfortable. Weigh up dangerous ideas. Pay attention. Do it for the sake of others. Sacrifice your safety for the sake of others. That’s real freedom.

When you find ideas that offend you, don’t get outraged. Listen. Seek to understand the people who hold them. But speak up with love. Challenge the status quo. Innovate. Lead.

But the big one. The big decision… David Foster Wallace was onto something…

“You get to consciously decide what has meaning and what doesn’t. You get to decide what to worship.”

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