An Open Letter to a College Freshman.

Dear Freshman,

At last your time has come.  Leaving behind the old world and the deep ruts you carved in the corner of that world that belonged to you, you’re off to explore undiscovered countries, to join a new and ever-replenishing society of fascinating people and learned scholars and impassioned artists and driven achievers, off to a place where the world is new and so are you.  Whether or not your college years will be “the best years of your life,” they will almost certainly be among the most transformative.

The question is whether that transformation will be for the better.  Unmoored from the people and places that once defined you, you’ll feel a fluidity in your identity that’s both thrilling and frightening.  You may feel as though you can be anyone and become anything.  I pray that you will become who you are — the individual you most truly and deeply are, the one God dreamt of when he made you — and not the person that you or your parents or your friends think you should be.  In service to that end, I thought I would offer seven pieces of advice.  Though it feels churlish to say so, I offer this advice on the basis of some personal experience — more than many and less than some, with four undergraduate years at Stanford, three at Princeton Seminary and seven at Harvard for my Ph.D.  I did a fair amount of teaching, came to know many professors well, and spent time too at universities overseas.  So, on the basis of those experiences, here are my thoughts:

1.  Seek wisdom, not merely intelligence. My father shared this advice with me before my departure for Stanford, and he was precisely right.  On a university campus, intelligence is common.  Wisdom is rare.  Intelligence is cheap, because it’s inherited freely; wisdom is of inestimable value because it’s gained through suffering and sacrifice and years of hard study and experience.  Every night at Stanford I watched the most intelligent people doing the most foolish of deeds, chasing after the most worthless of goals, and believing the most baseless of things.  Their intelligence did nothing to make them more loving or joyful or genuine.  In fact, in many cases it led them astray, as they came to worship their own intellectual powers along with the admiration and accolades and material consolations they could win.  They became immune to criticism, self-indulgent, and chasers of intellectual fashions.  When you love the reputation of intelligence, then you will do and believe those things that will sustain that reputation.  Intelligence does not make you more likely to do what is right or believe what is true.  This is why it’s important to…

2.  Seek mentors, not merely teachers. Intelligent people are dazzling and engaging — and a dime a dozen.  The fascination wears off.  Colleges and universities are replete with intelligent fools, because academia worships the intelligent.  You should know better.  Seek out people of wisdom.  The wise are harder to find because they are fewer and they do not advertise their wisdom (they may not recognize it as such).  Intelligence, like physical strength, is a morally neutral capacity that can be bent in any direction, and it’s most often bent in the direction of personal advancement.  Wisdom’s native movement is toward the true, the good and the beautiful.  So darken the doors of many professors, and return most often to those professors — whether or not they’re the most renowned or powerful — who have true wisdom to impart.  But bear in mind that those who teach you the most, your true mentors, may not be professors at all.  They may be staff, coaches, campus ministers, and especially your friends.  Invest in these relationships.  These are the people who will guide you through the many — and there will be many — difficult and consequential decisions you’ll face in these years.  For pragmatic, social and spiritual reasons, invest deeply in a handful of relationships that you will intentionally pursue for the rest of your life.  It’s better to come away from college with five true friends and mentors than with fifty playmates you’ll barely recognize at the tenth reunion.  In this way you will…

3.  Seek the truth, not merely prevailing opinion. All too often, universities, especially elite research institutions, reward intelligence more than wisdom and the fashionable argument over the solid one.  The reasons are simple — and important to understand.  Publication is the route to academic prestige.  Hiring and tenure decisions at research universities are overwhelmingly influenced by publications.  Yet publishers are not looking for what’s true; they’re looking for what sells.  If you want to publish in the most respected journals and presses, if you want to become a shining academic celebrity, then the question is not whether your contention is true — the truth is old, boring and probably oppressive — but whether your contention is new, provocative, and flattering to the vanities and affirming of the politics of the academic establishment.  The problem is, most true things have already been explained and defended well; but in order to make your name as a scholar, you have to publish and push the envelope, which means you have to explain and defend new theses.  So there’s an intrinsic bias within the academic system toward the novel and the sensational, toward that which challenges tradition.  While young scholars do have to marshal the evidence and argumentation, the truth is that the arguments that tear down the outmoded and ‘oppressive’ — the arguments that lead to the politically correct conclusions — are held to a far lesser standard.  Older, more established scholars scarcely have to advance an argument at all; they coast on the reputations they established in their youth and they’re rarely challenged as long as they fight on the side of the preferred causes.

Appreciate your professors and learn what you can from them, but do not venerate them and do not view them as the tribunes of the truth.  Sadly, the better I came to know my professors, the less their opinions swayed me.  For some I still have the utmost respect.  Yet it became clear that some were constructing elaborate defenses for the things they had long ago determined to believe and do.  More than a few had left their faith in their youth, and had devoted their scholarly careers to justifying that decision.  Many were world-renowned for their intelligence and learning; many were wonderful human beings; some were wise.  Yet academics, no less than other human beings, are swayed by their desires, their fears, their biases, and especially the latest trends sweeping through the halls of academe.  The best professors are no smarter than the best doctors, the best lawyers, the best business executives, and so on.  Many have led sheltered lives with limited forms of social interaction, and they can be, at times, astonishingly insecure and socially under-developed.  So as any true academic should tell you: listen to your professors’ views, take them seriously, but never take their word for gospel.  They, like the rest of us, are limited, biased, sometimes immature, often selfish, fallible creatures.

4.  Seek answers, not merely questions. You may hear the opposite in the freshman orientation process.  ”It’s not the answers but the questions that matter,” they might say, “not the verities but the inquiries, not the destination but the journey.”  Yes and no.  The faculty certainly want you to question the views with which you were raised, especially when they do not agree with those views.  When I was teaching, it was commonly said amongst my colleagues that the purpose of our instruction is to make the familiar strange and the strange familiar.  Our aim, in other words, is to cause young people to see how dubious and arbitrary are the moral, political and religious beliefs with which they were raised, and how sensible and compelling the beliefs of others could be.  Of course, this was not applied evenly.  If you were a liberal pluralist, then you had no oppressive, exclusivist, intolerant and irrational beliefs from which you had to be disabused.  And if you were a conservative Muslim, then the religious studies faculty would stumble all over themselves to defend your perspective.  If you are a conservative (white) Christian, however, then your parents are a part of the problem, and, for your sake and the sake of the world around you, you have to be liberated from the bonds of prejudice and ignorance.  Thus we had professors who promised the students at the outset of a year-long course that any Christians in the lecture hall would lose their faith by the end of the year, or who scoffed that “God is dead beneath my feet,” or who verbally high-fived their fellow faculty when they provoked evangelicals into crises of faith.  This is important to remember: if you are a conservative Christian of one stripe or another, many professors will view your loss of faith as a good thing for you, and an accomplishment for them.

And there is value, to be sure, in critically examining the beliefs with which you were raised.  Your faith may never truly be your own otherwise.  However, you should resist the advice simply to “rest with the questions” and “grow comfortable with ambiguity.”  Grow comfortable with complexity, yes, and with a proper humility over the things we can know and the things we cannot.  But compelling, reasonable answers are out there.  When I began what became a decade-long study of atheism, my faith was cast into question.  I believed that I had been initiated into mysteries that other Christians had not, that I had come across criticisms of the Christian faith that few if any Christians had heard or addressed.  After all, no one at my home church had read Hume or Voltaire, Nietzsche or Russell.  Yet this, of course, was rubbish.  The more I investigated the matter, the more I discovered that, of course, countless thousands of exceptionally intelligent Christians have read Feuerbach and Freud and Russell and Rorty — and not only read them, but developed very satisfying responses to their critiques of Christianity.  The problem arises when you pit a university course criticizing Christian beliefs against an immature, unlearned, Sunday School faith.  Just as you educate yourself (if and when you do) on the criticisms of your beliefs, you should educate yourself on how your faith community has responded to those criticisms.  Men and women of profound Christian faith and extraordinary intelligence and wisdom have been responding to criticisms of Christian belief for as long as the Christian church has been in existence.  Today there is no field — from biology and physics to philosophy and biblical studies — where there are not committed believers who stand amongst the most accomplished in their fields and stand ready to explain how they see their faith in light of their expertise.

5.  Seek betterment, not merely achievement. On the one hand, it’s never quite true that you can “reinvent yourself”; you do, after all, bring yourself with you wherever you go, along with your habits and predispositions, your wounds and weaknesses.  But the transition to college offers extraordinary opportunities to improve your character and enrich your personality.  Commit, for your first year, to try something new every week.  Go to a Taiko concert, write a piece for the school newspaper, watch an obscure foreign film, sign up for that sailing (or golf or Swahili or classical guitar) class, attend that public lecture (public lectures are among the most powerful and the most underutilized resources you can tap at college), go bungee jumping or apply for overseas study in Europe or a research trip to the Amazon.  Countless students can attest that the most important things they did in college took place outside the classroom.  If you’re faithful with your classes, you’ll receive your education and training.  But if you’re faithful with the other opportunities college affords you, your horizons, your sensibilities, your sense of yourself and your world will expand exponentially.

The important corollary here is that you should not do those things that diminish you or enslave you to addictions.  No decision is isolated.  The decisions you make in these years will form patterns and momentum for the decisions you’ll make for decades to come.  If you throw yourself into drinking or drugs or even the addictive pursuit of love and sex, you may awaken four years later and find that you’ve squandered your opportunities and wasted your potential.  Envision the person you want to be, the person you believe you are called to be, and start being that person.  And start now.  One of the biggest mistakes college students make is thinking that their college years are a pause from “real life” or a waiting room set apart from “the real world.”  Your older friends or siblings do you no favors when they act as though you do not inhabit the real world.  Yes, you inhabit a particular sphere with its own rules and protections, but you are called to be who you are today, to begin today the habits you want to keep tomorrow — for who you are in the next four years will have an immense impact on who you are for the next four decades.

6.  Seek fellowship, not merely friends. I’ll keep this short.  The best and most important part of my Stanford experience, by far, was the Christian fellowship to which I belonged.  It’s a great joy to be surrounded by people your age, people like yourself, who love God and seek to live their lives according to his Word.  The most significant training I’ve ever received for ministry or for Christian living came through that fellowship world.  The friendships I’ve maintained in the thirteen years since graduation are virtually all from that fellowship.  We played and worked, prayed and worshipped, served and ministered shoulder to shoulder — on campus, in the inner cities, around the country and around the world.  The fellowships also introduced me to remarkable Christian women.  One beautiful relationship ended with pain and regret.  Another led to a beautiful marriage.

7.  Finally, seek first the kingdom and righteousness of God. Plunge deeply into the life of the mind, and savor the beauty and the rhythms and richness of the scholarly life.  Immerse yourself in friendship and fellowship and commit to learn from one another.  Enjoy the sports contests and the public lectures and study abroad.  Explore all the idiosyncrasies of your school and community, the traditions and hidden treasures.  And learn how to love and be loved by a significant other.  You will change majors and change jobs and change careers many times before your professional life is through.  That’s fine.  And you will go through your romantic ups and downs.  That’s fine too.

Just make sure you major in the majors and minor in the minors.  Remember your first love, remember who is the Way and the Truth and the Life, seek him, and the rest will work itself out.  ”Delight yourself in the Lord and he will give you the desires of your heart” (Ps 37:4).  ”In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will direct your paths” (Proverbs 3:6).  Whether your college years bring you hardship and misfortune or flourishing and joy, or more likely both, seek God through it all.  Probably the most important thing I learned in my college years came when I broke my neck in a gymnastics accident, and I learned in truth that nothing could separate me from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus (Romans 8:38).  God’s gracious communion is the one thing needful.  No matter what else might be taken from you, if you have that, then you have enough and more than enough.  The goods of the world will come and go.  Yet the peace and the joy of your fellowship with God through faith in Jesus Christ will endure forever.

Live for that fellowship, live in it, and live out of it.  In the end, the rest are details.

Sincerely,

Your Friend

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