Making the most of college: asking big questions

Pop quiz: What do I love? What do I believe? Where do I belong? Who am I? What hurt needs healing in the world? What potential waits to be realized? What is to be done? Read it. And, yes, it will be on the "final."

Appears in Fall 2006 Issue: Making the most of college (first annual)
September 1 st 2006

College is a time for falling in love, reading great books, and asking big questions. It is a time for adventure and exploration, discovery and delight—for "tensed leisure," as Calvin Seerveld sometimes calls it. While our deepest loves may take root in childhood, it is in our young adult years that we are most likely to begin to articulate the implications of what we love for how we hope to live. For those of us privileged to spend time at college, the provocations offered by books and movies, paintings and songs, teachers and friends encountered during these years bring us to question the answers we have inherited from our parents. Sometimes we appropriate those answers for ourselves with deepened conviction, and sometimes—wrenchingly—we reach for other more convincing and more coherent answers. It is a time in which we can try out different ideas, ways of life, kinds of work, with a little more wiggle-room in the face of destiny, and a little more tolerance from others for backing out of options we find to be cul-de-sacs. For some of us, there is a little less pressure to put food on the table by the sweat of our brows and, therefore, a little more of Seerveld's classical leisure for reading, visiting art galleries, staying up late over beer or coffee to talk through things, wrestling with writing in which we bring our selves to bear on concerns common to humanity through the ages or peculiar to our own time and place.

I remember with great fondness long hours spent in the library of the University of Cape Town in the early months of 1990 when, unexpectedly released from conscripted work, I briefly laboured as a full-time graduate student. It is in those months that I fell in love with the New York Intellectuals through their opinion journalism—one of the great loves of my life—and for the first time began struggling with the big questions raised by African poverty in an honestly post-utopian way. Compared to the preceding five years of doing a full-time day job as a conscript and doing a full load of undergraduate and graduate studies at night, it was leisure indeed. But it truly was "tensed leisure"—filled with effort and potential, like an archer's bent bow. My reading started early in the morning and ended late at night, and I spent long laborious hours trying to think and write through the perplexing troubles of postcolonial Africa, and the questions they raised about being human, living together in a society, and trying to change the way things are in a world bent out of shape. The questions I considered in those months were genuinely academic—that is, informed by the long traditions and stringent standards of scholarship, while simultaneously being urgently connected to the salient issues in late apartheid-era South Africa. My intellectual forays were prompted by curiosity, but sustained by a near-irresistible insistence that rose up out of both the times and my own life stage of young adulthood: to choose a life, to take a stand, to decide what is to be done.

I am convinced that any attentive, thoughtful young adult will find big questions rising up within themselves. The following seven questions are important for all of life—and the college years offer a uniquely privileged setting in which to seriously consider them.

1. What do I love?

The most basic question anyone can ask themselves is, "What do I love?" Steven Garber writes in The Fabric of Faithfulness that "It is in that question and the spiritual dynamics implicit in its answer that belief and behavior are woven together."

We love a great many things. I enjoy asking people to write down a list of fifty things they love. Making such a list is an illuminating exercise. I review my own list several times a year—usually in preparation of a class or workshop in which I am planning to use the exercise. I encourage people to list items that range from the sublime (for example, their love for their spouse) to the ridiculous (for example, my love for Stabilo Sensor pens), in random order, to share their lists with others, and to amend their lists whenever they wish. Once they have a provisionally complete list, I suggest that they circle the four to six items on the list that they love most deeply, and that they write down a few notes on the relationships between these four to six.

The list of my own four to six deepest loves includes God, Angela (my wife), Tala and Hannah (my daughters), reading, and neocalvinism. I have learned a great deal about myself in the last three or so years as I have considered the relationships among my deepest loves. For example, I have realized that there is a close and perhaps inextricable connection between my love for Angela and my love for God. It was Angela who was instrumental in introducing me to the love of God, when in 1982 she bought me a previously owned copy of The Good News New Testament at a street market in Cape Town—and it is my love of God that ultimately anchors me to a faithful and trusting marriage with Angela, despite my vigorous appreciation of feminine beauty at large. As my love of God is nurtured, so is my love for Angela—and vice versa.

Human loves are not rhizomatic but, instead, exist in a hierarchy, with all of our loves being ultimately rooted in a single, deepest love, an ultimate commitment that enables and at the same time relativizes all of our other loves—a love that serves as a god. When asking the question, "What do I love?", during the college years, our answers include matters of taste—in clothes and music, food and poetry, coffee and beer—and intimate relationships—a man or woman with whom, maybe, to partner for life or a circle of friends—but all of these emerging loves derive their deepest meaning from the decisions we make about the god we will love and who will root, centre, and encompass all of our lives.

2. What do I believe?

Our most sincere convictions grow out of our deepest loves. Our ultimate commitment to something that is radical, central, total—something that roots, holds, and encompasses all of our lives, as one of my college mentors, Danie Strauss (no relation), taught—is expressed in our beliefs about the relation between the world and the divine.

Everyone understands the world to be somehow dependent upon something that is itself independent—something self-existent, as Roy Clouser calls it in his Myth of Religious Neutrality, something that can therefore be defined as "divine." Sometimes we identify some part or aspect of the world as self-existent, as the very early Greek philosopher Thales did water. Clouser calls such divinity beliefs pagan. Sometimes we identify the world as a whole to be a part or aspect of that which is self-existent, as is the case in Hindu philosophies. Clouser calls such divinity beliefs pantheist. The teaching of the Bible is that God is not part of the world, and the world is not part of God, but that the whole world is entirely dependent on God for its existence—it is a creation of God. The truth of creation and its surprising focus in the incarnate Jesus is expressed best, I think, by the Apostle Paul in his letter to the Colossians when he writes:

"[Jesus] is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross" (Col 1:15-20, ESV).

Our ultimate commitment finds expression in divinity beliefs, which themselves most often ground the big stories—the grand narratives—we tell as truth about the genesis, coherent structure, and purposeful meaning (in the face of evil) of reality.

In seeking to answer the question, "What do I believe?", perhaps a good way to go about it is to ask: "What stories do I believe to be true to the reality of things?" Much has been written in recent years about the importance of stories to the ways in which we humans make sense of the world—the narrative ethics of Stanley Hauerwas and the narrative theology of N. T. Wright being prime examples. "Story" in this sense is a metaphor, and there are certainly other warranted metaphors for the ways in which we try to make sense of the world and our lives. We can think of the world and our lives in terms of maps and journeys, as lists, as logical arguments, as prospects and perspectives (like the popular metaphor of a worldview), or in the terms of number of other metaphors. But stories are the most common and profound ways in which we try to understand the world. Stories are dynamic and coherent. They have a plot with a beginning, a dramatic climax in the middle, and a conclusive and meaningful end. They have characters and a conflict, so that it makes imaginative sense to trace the trajectory of a human life from birth through the travails of life to death in terms of a story. Stories have protagonists and antagonists—heroes and villains. We understand our own stories in those terms.

In wondering what stories are true, young adulthood can unfold as years of imaginative flourishing if they include the pleasures of being educated by novels, plays and movies. While I cannot say with Joseph Epstein that "novels … have been the most decisive in forming my character," I do believe that digging into novels—and in particular the greatest novels, by Austen and Bellow, Cervantes and Dostoyevsky, Eliot and Flaubert—and the list goes on—is a necessary part of the education of our imaginations, necessary to a discovery of the stories we believe to tell the most truth. My own daughters, while not quite young adults yet, have come to profound conclusions about the nature of love and justice, wit and honesty, through their watching and reading of Shakespeare's plays—perhaps, the most imaginative and thought-provoking set of stories in English literature. Similarly, we can discover what we believe by asking questions of the movies we watch, if to a lesser degree. Denis Haack writes that some of the best storytellers of our time are using the medium of film to tell their stories, so that if we want to understand the stories that people of our own time believe to be true to reality, we have to watch and consider movies.

The greatest stories challenge us most deeply with their possible truth. Homer's Iliad and Odyssey; Shakespeare; the Bible. I do not see how a young adult, seeking to make sense of the world, can get around reading these stories, with critical humility, trying to understand if they tell the truth, or not.

Deciding what we believe is not only about the stories told by others. It is also about the stories we tell ourselves, and most significantly, the story we tell of our own lives. A grand narrative only gains meaning for us as it intersects with our personal narratives. Telling our own stories and being listened to attentively and with care, by friends, is one of the most profound—while often unsettling—experiences available to us at any time of our lives. It is as we tell our own stories, and imaginatively weave it onto the grand narrative we believe to be true of the whole world, that we begin to make sense of who we are. It is as we explain where we started, where we come from, as we articulate the coherent plot lines of our lives, despite many detours, highs and lows, and reach for a sense of personal meaning and purpose, in particular as we face up to the evil around and within us, that we discover—and to a significant extent forge—our individual identities. Through our stories we make sense of what it is we are living for.

3. Where do I belong?

The confessional tradition into which I am adopted has as one of its biggest and most familiar big questions this: "What is your only comfort in life and death?" The historical answer to the question is, "That I am not my own, but belong—body and soul, in life and in death—to my faithful Savior Jesus Christ."

One of the things this interrogatory gets right is the link between our deep need for comfort and the necessity of its being met in a complete belonging. While the deepest sense of belonging can only be met by being rooted in a relationship with the divine, we humans are neighbourly creatures. We also need the comfort of belonging to and among other human beings.

Abraham Maslow correctly identified the need for belonging as a basic human need. While I am not a wholesale social constructionist, I think Kenneth Gergen, and perhaps more so Peter Berger, are on to something when they suggest that our sense of identity is derived from our social relationships. I am to a large extent who I am—or at least who I understand myself to be—because of the people among whom I belong.

For most people, the close relationships of the family provide us with our earliest and most immediate sense of belonging. For many people, a faith community provides perhaps the deepest and most enduring sense of belonging. Today, perhaps most obviously, our work communities loom largest in giving us a less profound but more consuming sense of belonging. Perhaps, less than before but still significantly for many people—including my family—our neighbourhood provides us with a familiar place and community.

Among young adults, at least since the advent of modern popular culture, the friendship of peers is the most decisive matrix for developing a sense of belonging. In recent years the importance of friendship has been a leading theme in popular culture, as in the television series Friends. It is a great gift if we are able to cultivate friendships in our youth and young adulthood that can persist throughout our adult lives, and if these friends can challenge and encourage us to live lives true to our deepest commitments and most sincere convictions. As Greg Veltman writes in "Making friends for life," "Friendship shows us that it is possible to know and be known, to love and be loved."

4. Who am I?

Our character, and with it our sense of personal identity, is rooted in our commitments, nourished by our communities, and articulated in terms of our convictions. I best understand myself in terms of what I love, with whom I am friends, and by what I believe. As Steven Garber writes in The Fabric of Faithfulness, our character is additionally shaped in relation to more experienced mentors who in their lives embody the commitments and convictions we share.

Mentors whom we know face-to-face and heroes whom we know mostly through our readings of history, literature, and sacred scriptures serve as models for our own development of character. The question, "Who am I?", is answered in part when we ask "Like whom am I?" Young adults in college have the double privilege of developing relationships with mentors and of immersing themselves in great books inhabited by a great variety of heroes against whom to consider their own lives and aspirations.

Consider, for example, some of the questions raised by Shakespeare's heroes. Is enduring historical fame worth the sacrifice of everything else? Is passionate romantic love worth civic disturbance and family honour? When is a mentor a millstone, and what is to be done in that event? Is revenge possible and necessary? Do we forge our own personalities, or is it shaped by forces beyond ourselves?

My own sense of identity has been shaped by several heroes and mentors, but in no case have I tried to emulate someone else comprehensively. For example, one of my mentors during my teens was an Anglican monk in South Africa, Anthony Perry, whose monastery was the only site we could find in our province for a multi-racial youth camp. I strive to be like Anthony in his relentlessly living his convictions in the face of political censure, in his commitment to building institutions, in his combination of thorough scholarship with passionate (but quiet, below-the-radar) activism. I do not, however, seek to live a life of monastic poverty, celibacy, and obedience. Especially not the celibacy! As another example, Angela and I seek to live a life like that of Edith and Francis Schaeffer, in nurturing a home and family life characterized by generous hospitality, thoughtful conversation, and thoroughgoing trust in the care of God. But we do not seek for our home to be an exotic pilgrimage destination, and we do not see our primary vocation as a couple to be that of missionaries.

5. What hurt needs healing in the world?

Perhaps the most often quoted sentence by novelist and essayist Frederick Buechner reads, "The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world's deep hunger meet." The question of calling or vocation—obtaining a sense of personal purpose or mission in the world, in particular with regard to our work—is one of the most burning questions facing college-age people. It is partly in paying attention to the world's hunger, pain, and brokenness that we begin to discover our own answers to this question.

Tikkun olam is a Hebrew phrase translated as "repairing the world." While it refers in the first place to the work of God in returning the world to its original purposes, it is also a call to us to participate in that work. It is a phrase popularly used by Jewish social activists (reflected in the name of the journal of opinion Tikkun) and by followers of the currently fashionable mystical kabbalah tradition in Judaism. Without succumbing to the mystical panentheism of the kabbalah, this phrase does point us to the need for people belonging to God to be involved in God's repair of the world.

Finding our task in the world, our mission in life, requires attending to the pain, the brokenness in the world. Abraham Kuyper—another of my heroes—said in a famous speech in 1891, on the "social problem"—the problem of urban poverty in the wake of the industrial revolution—that

Only one thing is necessary if the social question is to exist for you: you must realize the untenability of the present state of affairs, and you must account for this untenability not by incidental causes but by a fault in the very foundation of our society's organization. If you do not acknowledge this and think that social evil can be exorcised through an increase in piety, or through friendlier treatment or more generous charity, then you may believe that we face a religious question or possibly a philanthropic question, but you will not recognize the social question. This question does not exist for you until you exercise an architectonic critique of human society, which leads to the desire for a different arrangement of the social order.

Finding our vocation requires exercising an architectonic critique, also in our age. The college years offer a wonderful opportunity to hear, read and view insightful social criticism that exposes the evil in the world and in our own hearts, and its consequences in the oppression, exploitation, injustice, poverty, anger, fear, pain, and loss suffered around the world and in our own neighbourhoods. There are faults in the very architecture of society, and if we do not know where the faultlines lie we cannot know where to insert ourselves as healers and bringers of hope.

But answering this question requires more than listening, reading and watching. It also requires that our hearts be broken.

6. What potential waits to be realized?

The world is not only broken—it also . . . no, primarily . . . continues to be God's good creation, with all of the possibilities embedded in it by God at the beginning of time. The world is pregnant with potential, waiting to be disclosed through human care, stewardship, and cultivation.

God enfolded the patterns of possibility into the world—the poetry of human-making lies in the imaginative unfolding, opening up of these possibilities.

The vocational quest of the college student demands more than critique—it requires reflection on the patterns embedded in the structure of reality, patterns that provide a template in terms of which critique is possible, and that offer a matrix within which discovery and invention flourishes. I remember the deep delight of such reflection, in catching glimpses of the wisdom that shapes the world, the awe and wonder that arise in the process of discovery, and the subsequent pleasure of invention and organization, as we enjoy the entrepreneurial pleasure of educated prudence brought to bear on professional and institutional tasks and challenges.

College is a time for cultivating a sense of wonder that can feed a lifetime of opening up the possibilities in the world, be it in taking care of a small backyard vegetable garden or restructuring global commodity markets, writing laws or raising a family, singing songs or teaching students.

7. What is to be done?

The question raised by Lenin

draws young adults out of the appropriate reflection and "tensed leisure" of the college years into the responsibilities of a lifetime.

Love, brokenheartedness, and wonder are necessary elements of college life, but by themselves, insufficient. Critique and discovery must translate into responsible action. And action requires strategic vision and tactical skill.

As I have written elsewhere, young adults need college cafeteria alcoves in which to passionately "argue the world," figuring out what is to be done. One of my favourite examples of college students arguing over what is to be done is Alcove No. 1 at the City College of New York, in the 1930s, as described by Irving Kristol:

It provided serious conversation, even heated debate, around big questions as they connected with public life. It provided options and nuances on current affairs, but in conscious interaction with a grand encompassing tradition (in this case, marxism and its nearest neighbourhood, especially as mediated by an immediately preceding generation). It offered companionship around shared concerns, but also over and against a common adversary (stalinism, and in particular the stalinism of the alcove next door!). It was a place where books and magazine articles could be enthusiastically shared and vigorously discussed.

The college years, in offering a space for heartbreak and wonder, and strategic argument, offers a space in which to begin to realize and answer calling. To make the most of that space, it is necessary to do more than read—provided one does read! It is necessary to acquire certain kinds of experience: the experience of travel, finding an understanding of places different from one's home town, sharing the wonder of new landscapes and the pain of foreign shanty towns, and the experience of volunteer service, in which a certain generosity at work and humility in leadership can begin to be cultivated.

* * *

There are big questions that only become urgent later in life. After some years of adult work, most of us begin asking, "How am I doing?" What expertise have I developed during my years of apprenticeship? It is good to cultivate an attitude of reflective practice: open to learning from failure, engaged in relentless incrementalism but not stubborn foolhardiness, regularly stepping back to consider our work by means of a journal, a retreat, and morning prayer. In time, some of us begin to wonder, "Who can I tell?" Out of our own experiences grows a desire to mentor and teach others, to share our expertise, to testify to our discoveries, to pass on the torch to someone who can carry on a tradition and steward a legacy. And for those who take on the responsibility of leadership, in time the question arises, "How do I say thank you?" The business leader and thinker Max De Pree famously wrote that "The first responsibility of a leader is to define reality. The last is to say thank you. In between the two, the leader must become a servant and a debtor. That sums up the progress of an artful leader." Saying thank you is one expression of the ethics of gratitude: an approach to life that grows out of the realization that we receive all of life, including our own work, as a gift, and that the best we have to offer is the expression of gratitude, also by giving away our efforts as gifts, even when we are getting paid to do a job.

It is good to "party." It is necessary to learn skills that can be traded in the job market. But a college education limited to beer and business skills is the prelude to a life wasted. So I beseech my student readers . . . Fall in love! Read beyond the requirements! And . . . Ask big questions!

Topics: Education
 

Gideon Strauss was the editor of Comment from 2000 to 2010. He is currently Associate Professor of Worldview Studies at the Institute for Christian Studies, a graduate school of philosophy in Toronto, and a senior fellow with the Center for Public Justice in Washington DC. Gideon also facilitates vocational discipleship in churches in his native South Africa.

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