It’s that time of year again. Up and down the land, households are in the grip of their annual bout of school exam stress – a condition not restricted to students but also affecting parents and grandparents, aunts and uncles. For a few weeks a bewildering concoction of new and old exam types (National 5s, Intermediates 1 & 2, Highers, New Highers and Advanced Highers), testing a vast array of subjects, seems to be the most important thing in the world.
For around half of our young people, the next step will be a hoped-for place at university (where the annual exam stress will of course continue for some further years). Is it all worth it? What’s it all for? What is true wisdom and where is it to be found?
This question has a Biblical answer. In Job chapter 28, the quest for wisdom is set in the context of mining. The kind of mining that probably comes to mind for most of us today is coal mining. But the kind of activity Job discusses is mining for minerals and metals such as silver:
“There is a mine for silver, and a place where gold is refined… Man puts an end to the darkness …Far from where people dwell he cuts a shaft… He tunnels through the rock; his eyes see all its treasures.” (Job 28: 1, 3, 4, 10)
It’s a wonderfully evocative picture of the laborious exertion that human beings engage in to find gold and silver, as used to happen for example near Alloa at Silver Glen, the richest deposit of silver ore ever discovered in the British Isles.
But then, Job has this contrasting thought: “But where can wisdom be found? Where does understanding dwell? (v 12). After a further colourful discussion of where it’s not to be found, this is his conclusion: “The fear of the Lord, that is wisdom; and to shun evil is understanding.” (v 28).
So the contrast is drawn for us: on the one hand, the lengths people go to, to obtain gold and silver; on the other hand the quest for understanding and wisdom. To say “the fear of the Lord, that is wisdom” sounds rather quaint today.
Yet if we ask why universities were founded in the first place, there is absolutely no doubt about the answer. The oldest university in the English-speaking world is Oxford, whose motto is this: Dominus illuminatio mea (The Lord is my Light). Or take one of Scotland’s ancient universities, the University of Aberdeen, whose motto is a verse from the book of Proverbs very much like Job 28:28: Initium sapientiae timor domini – (The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom).
And these institutions were not restricted to the study of theology alone, but also to the study of the natural world and the humanities. Belief in a Creator – far from being a hindrance to such enquiry – was the very stimulation and motivation for that enquiry! Thus Isaac Newton considered he was “thinking God’s thoughts after him” when he discovered gravity. Much later, when the physicist James Clerk Maxwell founded the Cavendish Laboratory in Cambridge in 1874, he had the Latin version of Psalm 111:2 carved on its doors: “Great are the works of the Lord, pondered by all who delight in them.”
Of course, today things are very different. For most people in universities today, God is no longer regarded as an objective reality – i.e. really there, and to be reckoned with – but just a kind of private hobby for those who like that sort of thing. God is no longer seen as the source of all wisdom and meaning but merely as a human idea.
In the light of all this, Christian students planning to go to university – and those praying for them and nurturing them – should be encouraged to see their studies and their faith as complementary rather than contradictory. It’s very common for students to keep their studies and their faith in completely separate ‘compartments’ of their lives, but this is not healthy in the long term. As we know, plants that have only known the greenhouse will quickly wither outside it unless they have been hardened before being planted out.
Yes, Christian students may well face challenges to their faith through their studies. In some of the sciences, there may be promotion of the (false) view that science is the only route to genuine knowledge and that it has ‘disproved’ God. In the arts and humanities, another false view will be encountered: that since God has been ‘disproved’ then all ideas and values are purely subjective and relative.
Being truly persuaded that these approaches are wrong – and becoming equipped to resist and perhaps even challenge them – may not be easy. It will entail greater effort than just going along with the prevailing view. Yet having a large vision of the Gospel will enable students to “demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God” and to “take captive every thought and make it obedient to Christ” (2 Cor 10:5). It will also motivate them to seek out practical advice on how best to do this.
An appreciation that God is in fact foundational to all wisdom and knowledge, and is not marginal as is commonly held, will help students to emerge with a robust faith that has been tested and made stronger as a result.
For truly, “The fear of the Lord, that is wisdom; and to shun evil is understanding.”