Class of 2023: The Way Up Is Down
President Ben Merkle welcomed the Freshman Class of 2019 with a lecture on wisdom, and he closed with the well-known divine paradox: “The way up is the way down.” Apt, as some of the students themselves may well have felt turned upside-down at this point—alongside President Merkle’s talk, during orientation week they took a Latin placement test and heard lectures on reasoning, music, rhetoric, and theology. This was the first squall of the academic climate they have entered into. All the welcoming talks were important landmarks to orient the freshman class for life at New Saint Andrews, but President Merkle’s talk on wisdom holds a special place in the college. And so does the divine paradox.
Wisdom is the essential quality a person needs to live out the college’s mission statement: lead and shape culture under the Lordship of Christ. “Wisdom,” said Dr. Merkle, “biblically speaking, is a skill of leadership. It is godly inspired decision making.” Leaders need wisdom, but they need to gain it paradoxically—leaders should gain wisdom through submission. “Wisdom begins with an act of submission, acknowledging that God is God and you are not. Fearing God is the first step. Kingly wisdom and dominion for the Christian is not your normal type of rulership. It is gospel dominion.” At New Saint Andrews, to lead means to submit in order to gain wisdom.
President Merkle then turned to the parables of Christ and the proverbs of Solomon—both are leaders, kings, but also riddlers. The parables and riddles, says President Merkle, are like military drills for the soul. As we puzzle their insights, we slowly gain the mental capacity to move from a general truth to a particular case of the matter. And as we are drilled, we become wise, we become riddlers, able to recognize in an instant how general truth relates to the case in front of us. As Dr. Merkle puts it, “wisdom is a blessed intuition that sees not just the facts of the matter, but the bigger story, the riddle that God is telling in the lives and circumstances around you. Wisdom is the ability to see what you ought to do.” Through a New Saint Andrews education, students gain wisdom like they would a new set of mental reflexes. Through their curriculum and by the guidance of the faculty, they learn to fight, fly, or take a different fork in the road, and to do so according to the truth. As their education will teach them, these reflexes should often be to die to self, to love our neighbors at our expense, and to consider others more significant than ourselves.
Dean Tim Edwards continued the “up is down” theme. Speaking on the vocation of the student (which you can watch here), he dismantled the common idea that vocation, or a calling, is a strong feeling of suitability for the job at hand. As Dr. Edwards put it, “If vocation can be described as a calling, and each of you has the vocation of being a student, then someone is calling. You are being called; you are the object of the call.” A call is less generated from within and more laid upon us from without. Drawing on his Hebrew expertise, he said “calling and vocation—the two words in Hebrew do not carry the meaning of a spoken voice or internal feeling. Rather, the words carry the sense of a designation, of being sent, of mission. There is a sense of obligation, almost a command.” Therefore, the call of the student does not wax or wane depending on their feeling of suitability—the call to be a student is constant because they are students now. Dr. Edwards then paired the obligation of the call with another obligation.
“Love God and love your neighbor. This is your vocation and calling. Everything else is commentary.” The obligation, or rather the invitation, to love God should be the impetus live out the student vocation. “In all the obligations being a student requires, hear God say in each of them, ‘Love me.’” And the obligation to love God is, in Christ, a light burden and an encouragement rather than an additional weight. The love of God should pervade the vocation of the student and be a resting place in the midst of the rigorous undergraduate program. “Remember before whom you study,” said Edwards, “your studies at times may feel like too much. They may feel beyond you. You need to remember, who has placed me here? And find comfort in the fact that it is not a feeling of suitability that has brought you here; rather, it is the wise providence of a loving God.”
The double obligation—loving God and the vocation of the student—are not typical college entrance remarks. But New Saint Andrews has always been unique. Because it follows the Lord’s “up is down” teaching—to lead we must learn to submit, to live we must learn to die, and we must meet the demands of God’s law by having faith in Jesus Christ’s work on our behalf. Welcome, class of 2023; as you begin your early steps into a four-year journey of academic rigor, your first lesson is this: up is down.