At Calvin University, the concept of faith and learning integration – the belief that faith should inform everything that we think and do across all disciplines and tasks of academic work – is a driving force behind Calvin’s mission. There’s a collection of key words or phrases that consistently appear in the efforts to practice the integration of faith and learning: vocation, Imago Dei, general and special revelation, shalom, creation – fall – redemption, Christian hope, and the sovereignty of God, among many others. Each phrase invokes a rich element of Christian tradition. At the same time, each phrase can be oversimplified into a cliché or buzzword that misses out on the theological fullness that it’s intended to point to. As part of the Calvin Symposium on Worship this past January, Matt Lundberg, director of the de Vries Institute, hosted a conversation with biblical scholar and theologian N.T. Wright that was intended to go “beyond cliché” and refresh the depth of these phrases.
The audience that registered for the Zoom event had the chance to steer the conversation, filling out a survey before the event and submitting questions with topics that they wanted to hear Prof. Wright address. Common survey responses and submitted questions asked Wright to consider creation – fall – redemption with special interest in the fall, as well as the topics of the “image of God” and vocation. As Wright spoke on Imago Dei and vocation, he shared the rich image of humans belonging to the “royal priesthood,” acting as an angled mirror that reflects God into the world and the world’s praises back to God. “Vocation is always to some role within that royal priestly work, bringing God’s order into the world whether as an administrator, as a computer scientist, as an artist, whatever.”
Wright returned to this conceptualization of vocation when he discussed sin and the fall. He explained the fall as a choice that humans made to favor their claim to power and knowledge over their duty to God’s will – and we continue to face this choice every day. Sin distorts both reflections, royal and priestly: “When human beings pay attention to some aspect of creation, rather than the Creator, and allow that to dominate and determinate who they’re going to be, then everything’s going to go wrong.” To fulfill their vocations as members of the royal priesthood, people must choose instead to be “always open to the call to be reflecting God into the world and reflecting the world back to God.”
As evidence of Calvin University’s commitment to theological mindfulness in all areas of life, the Zoom audience included diverse faculty, staff members, and administrators within the Calvin community. The faculty represented departments as diverse as history, education, biochemistry, business, English literature, speech pathology, computer science, biblical studies, nursing, and world languages. Professor Kate Strater from the Education Department said that “Even though the conversation with N.T. Wright was online over Zoom, it had the feel of a personal conversation, which I was not entirely expecting after months of online meetings. It was helpful that we could submit ideas and themes beforehand to direct the conversation. I am grateful to have had this experience.”
Professor Abraham Ceballos from the World Languages department agreed: “I have been concerned by how some ideas commonly used in faith and learning integration can be interpreted in ways that highlight power rather than service. For that reason, during the Q&A I asked about what [Wright’s] perspective is on dominionism, the idea that Christians should take over and rule all spheres of life. He explained how Genesis 1 is not about having power over one another… He also explained how Jesus defined the Kingdom of God in terms of his vocation: to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many… As a junior faculty member starting to articulate what it means to integrate faith and learning in my field of study, this conversation with N.T. Wright was the perfect talk to attend.”
N.T. Wright has been a great friend of Calvin University over many years, and his insights from the “Beyond Cliché” conversation highlight his role as something of a theological optometrist, helping Christians to correct their theological vision and restore theological richness to the language we use to invoke parts of Christian tradition in faith and learning integration. Video clips of Wright’s explanations in this conversation will be used in future de Vries Institute programming (including Reflecting Faith faculty development courses).