What are we confessing when we seek academic qualifications?

Bruce Wearne presented this paper at the Faith-in-Scholarship Postgraduate Leaders’ Conference in Leeds, February 2014

For it is not the one commending himself who is accepted, but the one whom the Lord commends.

2 Corinthians 10:18

Let’s engage our imaginations for a minute with respect to the event at the end of your search for academic qualifications. What is to happen? What has been the purpose of all this striving?

Pause to consider your own institution’s certificate. Then consider another possibility, this imagined citation on the testamur of a fictional “Christian” institution:

This qualification, from this Christian university, indicates that, as a trained Christian student,

HENRIETTA DUBB

is henceforth qualified for the service of Jesus Christ as a graduate who, in wholehearted love for God, will seek the benefit of His people.

This certificate is presented in the confident hope that Our Father in Heaven will answer our prayers and richly bless the service of this qualified student enabling her to serve with all her strength to honour the student vocation, in whatever sphere she serves, striving with all the energy God gives her, to encourage wisdom and maturity among her neighbours, our neighbours, so that they too may find the blessedness that comes from adhering to God’s will for all of life (Col 1:28-29).

This imagined inscription of a “Christian piece of paper” seeks to give voice to a biblically-driven vision about graduation. It assumes that academic credentials and qualifications have their own place in God’s Kingdom.

But why limit our imaginations to a “Christian” context! What about the “secular university” context in which so many of us find ourselves working away at our degrees? The Bible teaches us of a Messiah in whose pierced hands all authority resides (Matthew 28:18-20). It reiterates this by saying that everything makes sense and maintains the Creator’s purpose through Him (Colossians 1:17). It would seem that we Christian students are called to confess that our qualifications are granted to us by God’s Son! We carry these letters with us throughout our life.

But as we think about graduation ceremonies, we are faced with a task, a task that requires formation. How are we, in our rituals, to faithfully give thanks to God for what He grants to us in our academic work? Academic rituals may be somewhat ancillary to the hard slog of laboratory or fieldwork, of writing reports and re-reading difficult theoretical texts. But are we not also called to find ways to creatively celebrate our graduation by confessing together that Jesus Christ has given us this “piece of paper”. And can we form such events in ways that are wide-awake in our academic work to the intellectual atmosphere in which we have been called to follow Christ? That is the challenge.

This is more than a reaction to some of the secularised-mechanical graduation ceremonies we witness. And yes, this does mean confronting what is called the “commodification” of learning with an intellectually healthy response. There is a task here, as a community of students bound together by the love of Jesus Christ poured into our hearts, to celebrate by coming together to give thanks for God’s blessings upon us in our scholarly work and especially at those times when we are rewarded for our efforts. If, in response to “do not neglect coming together” (Hebrews 10:25) we join in intellectual discussion about our post-graduate projects, then surely we can also come together when our course has been completed to give thanks and praise for God’s mercy to us in our studies.

Wherever diplomas are given they should be respected on their merits. The dominant pragmatism may induce us to view this artefact as a lever, but to accept the diploma at the end of the course will only make Henrietta Dubb into a pragmatist if she has been won over in her heart to that view. To reject pragmatism’s misplaced pride in the ability of educated people to “move on”, and become “movers and shakers”, means that we are instead taking a path that is thankful to God for this “piece of paper”, this symbol that points us to our responsibility as qualified students under heaven. Our study is of God’s world, the world He loved so much that He gave His Son.

Qualifications are not levers of self-interest, and we thank God for these pieces of paper, these testimonies to our hard work. We are Christian. Getting the piece of paper can never be all-important. But in Jesus Christ, who is supreme for us, even the “piece of paper” makes sense. It is a necessary help to us as we further explore how the service He calls forth from us defines our lives. Our certificates challenge us as symbols of our calling to life-long thankfulness.

Read Bruce’s articles at AllOfLifeRedeemed.

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