Stewardship, I: The Life of the Mind
We destroy arguments and every proud obstacle raised up against the knowledge of God, and we take every thought captive to obey Christ.
—II Corinthians 10:4–5
Stewardship is a word you hear mostly in church, and almost nowhere else, but in church you hear it all the time, which is a bit strange when you notice that the word ‘stewardship’ never appears in the Bible.
The word ‘steward’ appears 12 times, but almost always in the literal sense referring to an important person’s manager or administrative assistant, and only once in the large metaphorical sense meaning our human responsibility to care for the good things God has lent us for the 80 years we take up space in God’s world.
Other synonyms for ‘steward’ at thesaurus.com include ‘custodian’, ‘waiter’, and ‘flight attendant’. I hope that doesn’t diminish the concept for you.
Adam Copeland, professor at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, put it in perspective for me by referring to Downton Abbey. We are not Lord Robert Crawley, seventh Earl of Grantham, or Lady Cora Crawley, or even Dowager Countess Maggie Smith. We are Mr. Carson, the butler, the manager of the estate. We are Elsie Hughes, who keeps the house for the Lord, Lord Robert.
Today, the life of the mind, one of our responsibilities as agents of the creator is to cultivate a rich, critical, internal life. Jesus said, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and mind.”
I am happy to say that there is much good news on this front for people like us. In several ways I am preaching to the choir this morning.
I am preaching to the choir if you are or were a Calvinist, if you grew up among the Congregationalists or the Presbyterians or the Dutch Reformed.
That surly Frenchman John Calvin got a lot of things wrong but one thing he got right was to shepherd a literate flock so that they could read their Bibles for themselves.
Calvin’s Geneva boasted one of the earliest public high schools in Europe, free for the scions of lawyers, doctors, earls, ladies, butlers, and housekeepers.
In the nineteenth century, American Presbyterians recapitulated that priority by demanding free public education for all Americans until they reached the age of 16.
I love the memory that our dour ancestors the Puritans, later the Congregationalists, built Harvard University on the banks of the Charles River in 1636, a mere 16 years after they landed at Plymouth Rock.
There they were perched on a narrow sliver of beach between dense virgin forest and the deep blue sea, but after they hammered together their humble hovels and heaved up a modest meeting house and planted their maize and tobacco, they built an institution for the training of an educated ministry on their own shores because they didn’t want to have to send their preachers back to Europe to learn something about the Bible and Greek and Hebrew.
They did it, they said, because they “dreaded—they dreaded—to leave an illiterate ministry to our churches.” Yale and Princeton were founded later for the same purposes—to educate Calvinist preachers.
So I’m preaching to the choir if you are a Calvinist, and I’m preaching to the choir if you are an American, and you probably are.
Someone calculated that MIT graduates have founded 4,000 companies, created more than a million jobs, and raised revenue of $240 billion.
But Thomas Friedman says it’s not MIT which makes America unique, but that every state in the nation has something like it, in some cases more than one; Illinois has three, in Evanston, Hyde Park, and Champaign.
America has 4,000 colleges and universities; the rest of the world combined has fewer than 8,000. California alone has 130, more than all but 14 countries.
This is a proper national priority, now more than ever, because in Beijing and Bombay they are learning to recapitulate our intellectual advantage.
So I’m preaching to the choir if you are a Calvinist, and I’m preaching to the choir if you are an American, and I’m preaching to the choir if you are a Trevian, if you live in New Trier Township, and Evanston too.
We insist that our children cultivate a rich life of the mind. We don’t always do it for the right reasons; sometimes we just want to be proud of them; sometimes as parents we just want to bask in a reflected glory, like the moon, but we insist that they become the best thinkers they can be.
Not everybody has to get 1500 on the SAT; not everybody has to take AP classes; there is nothing embarrassing about matriculating at Calvin College or Oakton Community. But we do all have to buckle down and learn something.
Why are there so many Dartmouth graduates around here? I know more Dartmouth graduates than Northwestern grads. When I ask someone where they went to college and they tell me Dartmouth, which is aptly a point of pride, sometimes the next thing they tell me is, “I’d never get in today.” In some cases, that’s not false modesty; they’re right.
I’m not casting aspersions on their academic capabilities; it’s just that my contemporaries attended college in the 80's and it’s so much more competitive 30 years later. This competitiveness might be the best and the worst thing about us.
So I’m preaching to the choir if you are or were a Calvinist; I’m preaching to the choir if you are an American, and I’m preaching to the choir if you are a Trevian, but am I preaching to the choir if you are a Christian, and you probably are?
Have we practiced the same discipline and diligence in our Christian education as we have in our secular education? At the age of four we matriculate at A Joyful Noise and faithfully attend Sunday School from the crib room through Confirmation and then many of us quit. Why do we treat Confirmation Class as graduation rather than commencement? Not the end but the beginning of a life of the Christian mind.
Episcopalian priest Barbara Brown Taylor taught undergraduates at a small liberal arts college in Georgia, and she talks about how anemic her students’ religious education has been up to the time they enter her religion classes.
When they turn in their first quiz in Christianity 101, they know something has gone badly wrong. One of them says, “I think I just failed my own religion.” The only student who gets an ‘A’ in Christianity 101 is an orthodox Jew.
Dr. Taylor says, “They never noticed that Matthew and Luke tell different stories about the birth of Jesus or that Mark and John tell none. Nobody ever told them about Constantine, Augustine, Benedict, or Luther.”
One student is shocked to learn that Charlemagne was not the major player in the Protestant Reformation. “College students in every other way,” she says, “they remain fifth graders in religion.”
Love God with your whole heart and soul and mind, said Jesus, also Moses. “Do not be conformed to this world,” writes St. Paul to the Church in Rome, “but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.”
Be transformed, says Paul. The Greek word is metamorphosis. Morph into a new thing, a new mind, like a moth, like T-1000, the bad guy in that Terminator movie, who slithers around like mercury and turns into something completely unlike his original form. Read the Bible—I know it’s shocking but I’m not kidding. Join Jo’s Bible Study; she’ll teach how to read Holy Writ.
Writes Paul to the Church in Corinth, “We destroy arguments and every proud obstacle raised up against the knowledge of God. We take every thought captive to obey Christ.”
Once Dean of the Chapel at Duke and then Methodist Bishop of Alabama, Will Willimon says that Christian Education is “detoxification of culture.” You see what he means, right? The world teaches us many things, some of them wrong, a few of them toxic.
Christian Education will help you unlearn some of what the world tries to teach—some, not all: That the world we can see with our eyes and touch with our hands is all the world there is; that the point of human life is to make money, be successful, and have fun; that you are the captain of your own soul; that you owe nothing to anybody in this life but yourself.
The Stewardship of the Life of the Mind is not all there is to Christian discipleship. Oscar Wilde said, “Education is an admirable thing, but it is worth remembering from time to time that almost nothing worth knowing can be taught.”
St. Paul proves it in his letter to the Romans when his advice is almost comically simple: Let love be genuine. Hate what is evil. Hold fast to what is good. Repay no one evil for evil. You don’t need a degree from MIT to know stuff like that.
Garrison Keillor says, “Brilliance is like four-wheel drive; it enables a person to get stuck in even more remote places.”
Someone sent me an email years ago. It was called “Things I’ve Learned.” Maybe you got it too:
I've learned that I like my teacher because she cries when we sing "Silent Night". Age 6
I've learned that my dog doesn't want to eat my broccoli either. Age 7
I've learned that just when I get my room the way I like it, Mom makes me clean it up again. Age 12
I've learned that if someone says something unkind about me, I must live so that no one will believe it. Age 39
I've learned that the greater a person's sense of guilt, the greater his need to blame others. Age 46
I've learned that you can tell a lot about a man by the way he handles these three things: a rainy day, lost luggage, and tangled Christmas tree lights. Age 52
I've learned that regardless of your relationship with your parents, you miss them terribly when they’re gone. Age 53
I've learned that life sometimes gives you a second chance. Age 62
I've learned that even when I have pains, I don't have to be one. Age 82
I've learned that I still have a lot to learn. Age 92
The human mind is the most complicated, miraculous item God ever created. Be good stewards of the life of the mind. Don’t be conformed to this world, but be transformed, so that you know the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.
Take every thought captive for Christ. And maybe by the time you’re 92, you’ll have learned that you still have a lot to learn. About Jesus and about everything else.
Adam Copeland, ed., Beyond the Offering Plate: A Holistic Approach to Stewardship (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2017), p. xv.
New England’s First Fruits, originally published 1643, quoted by Diana L. Eck, A New Religious America (New York: Harper Collins, 2001), p. 14.
Thomas Friedman, The World Is Flat (New York: Farrar Straus & Giroux, 2005), p. 244.
Barbara Brown Taylor, “Failing Christianity,’ The Christian Century, June 17, 2008, p. 35.
William Willimon, “Resident Aliens: Being Christian Today,” a lecture in the January Series at Calvin College, Grand Rapids, Michigan, January 10, 1992.