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Lovers in a Dangerous Time: Reflections on the Moral Sources of our Intellectual Life

Bruce Hindmarsh

James M. Houston Professor of Spiritual Theology, Regent College
September 23, 2017

We are all indebted to the philosopher Charles Taylor for his careful anatomy of everyday moral questions. He reminds us that statements of strong evaluation—such as when we say that thoughtful intellectual inquiry is really important—require articulate moral sources. Modern life has often obscured these sources, with simple appeals to various seemingly obvious goods, such as the good of companionate pair bonding (happiness in relationships) and the good of material prosperity (happiness in material comfort). These things seem self evident perhaps. Everyone wants to find someone to love and wants to be comfortable in material terms. As Taylor says, these are the goods of production and reproduction, but we rarely ask what it is that grounds these things as good.  

The Purpose of the Intellectual Life

What about intellectual inquiry? Is it worthwhile because it gets us somewhere toward one or other of these goods? In the case of education today, there is often an appeal simply to social utility: Education is important to prepare young people for thoughtful and virtuous citizenship in a democracy, or, more commonly now, simply to prepare them with the necessary skills to succeed in the workplace. What though are the deepest sources to which we can appeal to ground such statements? Naturalism—the belief that reality is wholly constituted by material objects and forces—does not provide an especially deep grounding for saying with any urgency that human beings ought to devote time and resources to a disciplined scholarly investigation of the world, or that the knowledge derived thereby might make for a more just and flourishing society. Taylor suggests that religious communities can often provide a more adequate grounding for moral narrative than mere naturalism. As he writes, “High standards need strong sources.” And, “great as the power of naturalist sources might be, the potential of a certain theistic perspective is incomparably greater.”

It is unlikely that such a strongly articulated theistic perspective will inform the future of our major public universities anytime soon, or that transcendentals of goodness, truth, and beauty will suddenly become the unifying goal of scholarship in a pluralistic society. Still, I wonder if there might be room for a committed and articulate Christian witness that points in this direction. In 1 Peter the apostle urged his readers to live as ambassadors within their culture, resident aliens. One ought to be known for making a morally beautiful contribution to one’s society, even if in a kind of exile and subject to minority status. This was the same theme in Jeremiah’s message to the Jewish exiles in Babylon: “Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.” Indeed, “Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their produce.”

The academy ought to be first and foremost about love.

Let us consider just one area of possible witness a Christian can bring to the modern academy: the witness of love. The deepest moral sources, and highest moral ends of higher education, are to be found not in utility but in the freedom of love. Within the reduced horizons of material goods and the preoccupation with instrumental causes (how things work), it is all too possible for education to become less about what we love than about the desire simply to extend our powers: to extend our powers over the world and its resources, or to extend our powers over other people, even if in the name of solving problems or achieving justice. The focus on technical expertise is often especially preoccupied with enhancing and extending our powers. Likewise, and more troubling, the regnant ideologies of our time in the humanities—whether Marxist or Foucauldian or Neo-Nietzschean—seem mostly to be preoccupied with power and perceived power imbalances.

What is underneath this? The desire for enhanced power and status, even if it is just the benign hopes of gaining skills that will enable gainful employment in a competitive marketplace, may be more or less influenced, at bottom, by a spirit of fear and a sense that the world itself is not a gift nor a place of abundance, but rather a place of threats and a realm of scarcity. In this environment, I wonder if the Christian calling is to bear witness to a deep trust in a loving God who has created and who sustains the world as a place of beauty and abundance. The Christian witnesses to a God who wants others to be blessed with his blessedness. For all the reality of evil and suffering in this world, these theological affirmations remain true, and God’s purposes continue in his action to redeem the creation.

The incarnate Christ will always be the center of any truly Christian humanism.

Above all, the incarnation and atoning death of Christ have revealed the depth of God’s love for and commitment to humanity and the whole of creation. On the mount of Transfiguration, Jesus Christ was revealed in splendour as the eternal son of God and the archetype of the true humanity radiant with the glory of God. St. Paul made clear that this transfiguration is the destiny of redeemed humanity and the whole of the groaning creation. The incarnate Christ will always be the center of any truly Christian humanism.

What, therefore, is the ultimate meaning of the world? As Julian of Norwich saw so clearly in the confusing times of the fourteenth century, love was God’s meaning. God created and redeemed the world in love. On this basis, then, we may turn aside from the common reductions of scholarship to mundane goods and various forms of implicit or explicit will to power, and seek instead to reflect something of a will to love in our scholarship. The academy ought to be first and foremost about love. For the Christian pursuing an intellectual calling, this is simply one aspect of his or her discipleship, following the Lord Jesus Christ. This is to draw upon an Augustinian tradition of Christian humanism, where faith and reason may be fused in a loving exploration of the truth of the world, cultivating a just and ordinate response to all things.

Two Forms of Scholarly Love

In taking this further, I would like to suggest two forms of this scholarly love.  Each of these, as always with love, are forms of freedom.

Love of Delight or Wonder

The first form of scholarly love is what Jonathan Edwards once called the “love of complacence”—that is, a love of delight or wonder. One of the responses of the lover to the beloved is always something of awe and reverence. Again, it is like holding a newborn child. I recognize that there is something here more than I can grasp or circumscribe with my reason or imagination. There is something here presenting itself to me as sheer gift, and it is more than I can take in. It would take forever to turn this treasure into coin. There will always be another facet of this diamond to explore. So whether it is the physics of the large or small, the chemistry of the organic or inorganic, the biology of rats or humans—whether it is the human meaning of history or language or culture—whatever the subject, it may be approached with what the baptismal liturgy calls a spirit of joy and wonder in all God’s works. There is something here that is contingent—that is, it was not necessary and it genuinely might not have been. Therefore the fact that it is should arrest me, and I should never lose the sense of the facticity of the world as something presenting itself to me as a gift. And because this gift reflects its giver, there is also something inexhaustible and uncircumscribable about it.  Always more to know and to explore in the freedom of wondering love.

We are entirely free to approach our scholarship in this spirit of love, even within the institutional constraints of the present moment, since one is always free to love.

On this theological view of intellectual inquiry, science is always taken up into wisdom, and knowledge into love. What we know is bounded by what we do not know—not in the spirit of skepticism or methodological doubt, but in an apophasis of what Charles Wesley called “wonder, love, and praise.” This sort of love of complacence, brings, as love always does, other virtues in its train. There will be a kind of humility or chastening in the presence of knowledge that must always remain partial. There will also be gratitude, as the proper response to the presence of a gift. And in our best moments there will be intellectual joy, a pure intellectual joy in the object of one’s contemplation. And I cannot help but think that love, humility, gratitude, and joy would be welcome and noteworthy and winsome things in any academic setting. We are entirely free to approach our scholarship in this spirit of love, even within the institutional constraints of the present moment, since one is always free to love.

Love of Attention

The second sort of scholarly love, and it really just follows from this first, is something I’d call a love of attention. In philosophical terms, this is to move from existence to essence, from the reality that something is to the awareness that is thus. Love doesn’t just stand in awe of the beloved, but love notices and lingers over every detail of the beloved. And love is diligent to do so, energized to remove every obstacle that stands in the way. Love therefore invites attention.

Love Inspired Discipline

Again, it is all too possible for scholarship to become motivated by fear or threats. The coin of the realm in the academy is reputation, and there is a way that the academy is a powerful shame–honour culture as real as any studied by anthropologists. From the grade on a paper, to the cachet of one’s publisher, to the opinion of a tenure committee, the social status of one’s work is always under review. And there is perhaps a proper role for all this in maintaining discipline. But something can creep into one’s soul in an unhealthy way and extinguish a spirit of scholarship that is attentive to its subject not out of fear or ambition but out of love.

In contrast, when our study is accompanied by an attitude of love, we may at our best moments rise to what Simone Weil and Iris Murdoch in their different ways understood as the just and loving gaze of the soul directed toward a particular reality. Again, it is what Richard of St. Victor called the penetrating gaze of a mind suspended in wonder. For all the power of fear as a motivation, the power of love is even greater to inspire attention to details, and to awaken deep reservoirs of fidelity. A deep love is always accompanied by a fervent discipline.

The Witness to Love

In this vein, the philosopher and critic Warren Heiti has argued that disciplined training and technical literacy helps one hear more what is really there in a poem. It is like the training of the outfielder in baseball that in effect positions him so that at the right time and right place he is available to “find” the ball in his glove. The fly ball is, as it were, a sheer grace presenting itself to me, and I respond with attentiveness and place all my training and my well formed habits in its service. There is a relationship here between discipline and grace in the fidelity of love. “The poet’s voice,” says Heiti,

Is the voice of the object inflected by the specific perspective of the poet . . . In this sense, each genuine act of witnessing is a gift. It lets us occupy the same space as the poet: to perceive the object from her irreplaceable perspective in the universe.

For both the poet and the reader, the world that presents itself to us as gift invites disciplined attentiveness. Love gets down to work. Here too a love of attention brings virtues in its train, and the fruit of the Spirit is faithfulness, zeal, and self-control. In the best scholarship, love is faithful, love is kind, love seeks not its own. Such signs of careful and disciplined attention to one’s subject are surely welcome things, again, in any academic department or at any academic meeting today.

In Christian contemplation, there will always be both a mystical dimension of joy and wonder, and an ascetical dimension of diligence and discipline, since scholarship is only one more path of love down which to come to Jesus Christ.

None of this witness to love suggests ambitious plans for institutional reform or a program for intellectual hegemony. In the post-war period, the neo-Thomist Josef Pieper was already aware that society was on a path toward a culture of total work, and he sought to remind his readers of the basis of the university in a different sort of intellectual activity. The fundamental basis for intellectual inquiry was a contemplation that looked for truth with a kind of suspended wonder that did not immediately instrumentalize learning, or operationalize scholarship to the ends of total work and power. He reminded his readers that the word school itself derives from the Greek schōlē, meaning leisure. This leisure is not the time “leftover” from capitalist time–work discipline—my free time, as we call it. It is, rather, what I have been calling the freedom of love to contemplate and to investigate what is good, true, and beautiful. So no, this is not about an aggrieved sense of Christian moral custodianship for the culture—a battle to regain control and hegemony. It is simply to invite, under the conditions of our time, a joyful witness to some of the possible moral sources for intellectual life. To bear witness. In Christian contemplation, there will always be both a mystical dimension of joy and wonder, and an ascetical dimension of diligence and discipline, since scholarship is only one more path of love down which to come to Jesus Christ. And the love of Christ is a deep well from which to draw water, even when the academic landscape may seem at times a dry and weary land.