Remember the Well-Digger
Roberta Green Ahmanson
La Mirada, California
26-27 May 2006
Thank you for that kind introduction. It is an honor to receive this degree and an honor to be asked to address this audience on this special evening/day.
I first came to Biola in 1983 or 84 as a journalist. Then, in 1987, I returned as a professor. Since then Howard and I have been involved in several programs here. So, it’s a pleasure to be with good friends again.
The title of my talk, “Remember the Well-digger,” comes from an ancient proverb of China, a country your president knows far better than I. The whole proverb says: When you drink from the well, remember the well-digger. What does that mean?
At the very least, it means that we all come from somewhere. We all stand on someone’s shoulders, the shoulders of those who’ve made our world possible, people whose names we’ll never know, whose faces we’ll never see.
Knowledge, such as the knowledge you’ve just spent years acquiring, wasn’t created ex nihilo. Generations have studied and thought and experimented and recorded their learning for you to engage it and make it your own. In turn, you are now sent out to dig yet more wells for others.
I want to talk first about some of the well-diggers who made Biola possible, and then, to suggest some tools you will need to become well-diggers yourselves. In the bonus track I hope to challenge you to think long-term and big-picture when you look to see where God might call you to dig.
In 1908 Lyman Stewart, founder of Union Oil Company, and his friend T.C. Horton established the Bible Institute of Los Angeles (Biola) in downtown LA. By 1912 there were enough students to hire their first dean, R.A. Torrey, for whom the Torrey Honors Program is named.
In the 1930s, led by President Louis Talbot, Biola became a four-year college and in 1945 opened a School of Missionary Medicine. In 1949 the institute officially became Biola College. Ten years later, President Samuel H. Sutherland oversaw the move to 75 acres of land here in La Mirada, where we are today, and Talbot Seminary was inaugurated.
In 1981, Rosemead School of Psychology was added and Biola became a university under President Richard Chase. The next year Dr. Clyde Cook became president.
Since then schools of intercultural studies, business, and professional studies have joined the others. These presidents and the faculty as well as those, like Lyman Stewart, who have given of their time and resources made this occasion possible for each of you. They are Biola’s well-diggers.
Of course, the ultimate well-digger is Jesus Christ Himself, the Creator of the World. Paul described this Well-digger in all His cosmic grandeur in Colossians 1:15-17:
He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For by him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things were created by him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together.
It isn’t likely that we will ever fathom all the layers of meaning in those verses. But, consider what light they shed on what it means to be a well-digger. What qualities does it take to be a well-digger? What tools do you need?
Let me suggest three starting places, three intellectual tools. First, we need to be able to step out of ourselves and our own time. How do we do that? The British scholar C.S. Lewis suggests we read old books.
In 1944 in an introduction to a very old book, the fourth century On the Incarnation by Athanasius, Lewis writes that every age is especially good at seeing certain truths and making certain mistakes. For example, we live in a time when high self-esteem is considered one of the key signs of mental health. In the first centuries after Christ, humility would have been the ideal. So, it is necessary to read old books. "Not, of course," he says, "that there is any magic about the past. People were no cleverer then than they are now; they made as many mistakes as we. But not the same mistakes."
Next, part of learning to see the blind spots in our thinking, in our view of reality, is coming to understand what drives us to do the things we do. In 1944 Lewis gave an oration he called "The Inner Ring." His point, our second tool, is that there is a motive more powerful than money or sex or even ambition. It is the desire to be one of the people who run things, the "in" group, the people in the know, the Inner Ring.
Lewis says that there are two problems with the lure of the Inner Ring: First, the desire can make not very bad people do very bad things. Second, it sets a person up to expect something that can never be had. As he put it: "Until you conquer the fear of being an outsider, an outsider you will remain."
But, Lewis does offer a remedy. He suggests that if we make work our end, if we strive to do the very best we can in the work we have chosen to do, we will find ourselves in the only circle in any profession that really matters, the circle of sound craftsmen, and other sound craftsmen and women will know it.
Then he tells us there is something more. If we spend our free time with the people we like, we will find ourselves in "a real inside," a place that looks like an Inner Ring but isn't. "This," Lewis says, "is friendship. Aristotle placed it among the virtues. It causes perhaps half the happiness in the world, and no Inner Ringer can ever have it."
The final well-digger’s tool comes from the 16th century Reformer John Calvin’s writing about how to see and to use the material things in our lives. Once you’ve paid your school loans, you will be launched on a new phase of your life’s work. You will also step into a greater ability to earn money and accumulate things. What value you place on those things will shape your lives.
In the Institutes of the Christian Religion, Calvin explains that we are faced with two obvious choices but need to find a third way.
The first option is total abstinence, rejection of things. In his time, certain religious orders ate only bread and water and dressed in rough clothing, all to renounce the temptations of this world.
The second option, Calvin said, was to worship things - gourmet foods, expensive clothing, jewels, precious and costly pieces of art. Today we’d have to add fast cars, foreign travel, sailboats, designer watches, you name it.
Calvin would say that neither of these options gets us anywhere that offers lasting joy or satisfaction. Instead, he says, we need to understand material things as gifts of God, created “for our good, not for our ruin.” We should hold them lightly, enjoying them and sharing them with others, not denying them or measuring our life or the lives of others by them.
How do we manage this? Calvin says that God knows “with what great restlessness human nature flames, with what fickleness it is borne hither and thither, how its ambition longs to embrace various things at once. Therefore, lest through our stupidity and rashness everything be turned topsy-turvy,” he says, we have been given particular gifts and talents. By understanding those we find our calling, the work of our lives.
Two different men, two different centuries, both saying that our work matters as does the company we keep. So, tools in hand, you are set to look around and within and determine what it is God has called you to do, where it is God wants you to dig your wells.
To help you do that, let me turn to a challenge from another 16th century Reformer, Martin Luther. He argued that if we are not defending the church at the point where it is being attacked in our time, we might as well not be defending it at all. He wrote:
If I profess with the loudest voice and the clearest exposition every portion of the truth of God except precisely that little point which the world and the devil are at that moment attacking, I am not confessing Christ, however boldly I may be proclaiming him.
If we are to take Luther’s challenge seriously, we need to read our own times carefully. The truth of God is under attack in many ways and many places today. For the bonus track I’d like to focus on three in particular and present them as places we need to dig important wells.
The most profound attack strikes at our notion of the nature of reality itself. Reality, in purely materialist terms, is reduced to only what we can see and touch. Christianity, on the other hand, understands reality to be both material and spiritual with a transcendent, personal God who creates, redeems, and sustains the universe. Two very different ways of engaging the world flow from these two views. And, they are increasingly in conflict.
Let me give two examples, sexuality and bioethics. In the United States, sexuality is at the center of the current debate over the definition of marriage. Christianity teaches that marriage is between a man and a woman. It reflects Christ’s union with the church and is both a source of joy to the partners and the healthy home for children. To our cultured Western elites, this Christian understanding is discriminatory and hateful. If you start from the premise that the material is all that is, what difference does it make if people choose same-sex relationships over heterosexual ones? Aren’t Christians and others who share their views simply imposing an arbitrary and bigoted standard on others?
On March 10, as reported by Maggie Gallagher in the May 15 Weekly Standard, Catholic Charities of Boston announced it would be going out of the adoption business. Why? Because Catholic Charities will not place a child in the home of a same-sex couple, married or not.
That stand is now illegal in Massachusetts. Washington, New Jersey, and New York may soon make gay marriage legal. California, Vermont, and Connecticut have legalized civil unions. At the same time 41 states have passed legislation or referendums defining marriage as between a man and a woman.
The issue is far from settled and has serious implications for religious liberty, free speech, and the right for schools like Biola to exist. Underlying it all, is the question: What will it mean for the freedom of the Church to challenge one of the assumptions of our time? Is this not a place where we need well-diggers?
Bioethics. One example obvious to us all is abortion, a global death wish that has killed more than 33 million unborn babies in this country alone since 1973. Other bioethical issues from cloning, eugenics, and stem cell research, to organ harvesting and egg donation are regularly front-page news.
To cite one example, Eric Cohen of the Ethics and Public Policy Center says that the number of parents seeking pre-implantation analysis of embryos for in vitro fertilization is growing. Parents are seeking to control which children can be born. To take that further, college newspapers across America are filled with ads for selling human eggs. The price for those with desirable genes – listen to those words, “desirable genes” - can go as high as $45,000. Sperm sell for much less, $50 to $100. Debra Sparr of the Harvard Business School says egg donation is a $40 million annual industry. On what basis will our society decide these issues? Well-diggers needed.
A second challenge to what it means to be human comes from the world of the arts, entertainment, and news media. Images are powerful. They touch emotions and change our understanding before we even know it. We live in a visual, emotional culture.
Often the narratives end in despair, such as the endless search for a meaningful relationship in “Sex and the City” or the apocalyptic violence of action and science fiction dramas.
Visual artists, too, often arrive at a place of despair as some have concluded that it is impossible for painting to have any meaning because there is no coherence for a picture to express.
In the news media the pressure for profits continues to push honest, in-depth reporting to the periphery. Is that another expression of helplessness in the face of overwhelming destruction and seemingly intractable human problems?
These images have enormous cultural reach. The U.S. film industry, according to the Motion Picture Association, did a 2005 worldwide box office of more than $123 billion, and sold nearly 1.3 billion DVDs. The National Broadcasters Association reports that American television took in $54.4 billion last year and reaches almost every country in the world. At the individual level, according to the A.C. Nielsen Company, by the age of 65 the average American will have watched 9 years of nonstop television. A Kaiser Family Foundation study released on Thursday found that one third of the nation’s youngest children – babies through age six – live in homes where the television is on almost all the time, counter to recommendations of the American Academy of Pediatrics.
The arts, too, draw a large audience, much of it made up of the wealthiest and best-educated Americans, says Tom Bradshaw of the National Endowment for the Arts. In 2002 more than 53 million people attended art museums, 27 percent of the adult population, and art sales totaled $4.2 billion.
Finally, the news media still shape our understanding of the world. In their book The News about the News, Washington Post reporters Leonard Downie, Jr. and Robert G. Kaiser argue that newspapers still do most of the actual reporting even though, since 1963, polls have shown that most American get their news from television. The news television reports was probably first researched by a newspaper reporter.
The Christian tradition has a rich visual history and a commitment to truth-telling that can make a unique contribution to each of these media. Biola has developed strong programs in the arts, film, and news and communications media. Those programs need only to continue to grow stronger to meet the obvious challenges of the future. As you all know, one of your own, Scott Derrickson made a movie breakthrough last year with his successful film “The Exorcism of Emily Rose.” I trust his commitment inspires you to join him on the front lines if film is your calling.
Christians have long been at the forefront of defending free speech and a free press. In Acts 4 Peter and John refused to stop speaking about Jesus. In the 17th century the Puritan John Milton argued for a free press because no human being has a corner on the truth. Today Christians are once again at the center of the storm, whether to preserve the freedom to argue for an unpopular moral position or to criticize the actions of a particular religious group. As a journalist, I urge those of you who have the calling to join Scott Derrickson at the frontlines and dig wells in of truth-telling in the news media – be it print, broadcast, or the Internet.
That leads to my third challenge - radical Islam. Apart from the threats of terror and destruction like that of 9/11 or the bombings in Madrid and London or the violence and killing in Egypt this Easter, radical Islam is a threat to our understanding of religious liberty, freedom of speech, a free press, and the separate roles of religion and the state in our political life.
Abdurrahman Wahid, a moderate Muslim and former president of Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim nation, argues that Islam has been perverted by the militants. In a December 30, 2005 Wall Street Journal article, he called on all people of good will to unite against the threat. “Islamic fundamentalism has become a well-financed, multifaceted global movement that operates like a juggernaut in much of the developing world, and even among immigrant communities in the West,” he wrote.
Recent examples are the rioting and uproar over the cartoons of Mohammad published in Denmark and the story of Dutch parliamentarian Ali Hirsi. An outspoken critic of Islam, Hirsi just resigned her office because the people in her apartment building have forced her to move out because her presence upsets their lives.
Of the world’s 1.3 billion Muslims, Islam scholar Daniel Pipes says that between 10 and 15 percent are militant, people who embrace the radical interpretation of their faith and are willing to die and to see their sons and daughters die to make it reality. Their goal is the Islamization of the entire world. They are persuasive.
Of the world’s 44 predominantly Muslim countries, 15 have Islamic law written into their constitutions and in another 22 Islamic law plays a major role.
So far, their destruction is great. We have all read of the children taken into slavery in the Sudan, where more than 2 million Christians, animists, and dissenting Muslims have been killed in the last 20 years by Islamist jihad. Hundreds of thousands of Christians live under some form of persecution.
In at least six countries conversion to Christianity is punishable by death as in the recent case in Afghanistan, where moderate Muslims who spoke against the death penalty were threatened with death themselves.
Yet, only 13 percent of Christian missionaries – tentmakers and relief workers – can be found in Muslim lands. Of the other 186 countries where Christian workers can be found, 141 are more than 60 percent Christian. Those countries together receive 85 percent of Christian workers.
Of course, we must face the a direct threat to the lives of our brothers and sisters and to any who oppose the militants. We must stand with them. But, taking the long view, we must also face the threat their view poses to our understanding of human freedom, particularly religious and political freedom, and our tradition of separate roles for religion and the state. For this, we need to study Islam, its history and its teachings, and we must engage all Muslims of good will in seeking to live together as we continue to bear witness to the truth of God’s Word. So far, I know of no Christian college or university with a major in Islamic studies.
Why does all this matter? Why such dire subject matter on this joyous occasion? We get back to C.S. Lewis and John Calvin. As you step out into the next stage of your life, you have to consider your blind spots, your drive to be an insider, and your calling.
As you contemplate sites for your own well-digging, I remind you of Paul who said we wrestle not against flesh and blood. No one understood this better than the well-digger I quoted earlier, Martin Luther. No one knew better that our ancient foe is also digging wells, making our work more urgent. So, I leave you with the words of perhaps his most famous hymn:
A mighty fortress is our God, a bulwark never failing;
Our helper He, amid the flood of mortal ills prevailing:
For still our ancient foe doth seek to work us woe;
His craft and power are great, and, armed with cruel hate,
On earth is not his equal.
Did we in our own strength confide, our striving would be losing;
Were not the right Man on our side, the Man of God’s own choosing:
Dost ask who that may be? Christ Jesus, it is He;
Lord Sabaoth, His Name, from age to age the same,
And He must win the battle.
And though this world, with devils filled, should threaten to undo us,
We will not fear, for God hath willed His truth to triumph through us:
The Prince of Darkness grim, we tremble not for him;
His rage we can endure, for lo, his doom is sure,
One little word shall fell him.
That word above all earthly powers, no thanks to them, abideth;
The Spirit and the gifts are ours through Him Who with us sideth:
Let goods and kindred go, this mortal life also;
The body they may kill: God’s truth abideth still,
His kingdom is forever.