Graduate students are like Gollum from The Lord of the Rings. That was the claim made by one of my literature professors. What does a graduate student in engineering or a person studying law or medicine have in common with a fictional, deformed creature known for his skulking behavior? They both are staring down. Gandalf describes Smeagol (Gollum’s previous name) to Frodo in this way,
“The most inquisitive and curious-minded of that family was called Smeagol. He was interested in roots and beginnings; he dived into deep pools; he burrowed under trees and growing plants; he tunneled into green mounds; and he ceased to look up at the hill-tops, or the leaves on the trees, or the flowers opening in the air: his head and his eyes were downward.”
Inquisitive. Curious-minded. Interested in beginnings and the “roots” of things. These are the characteristics of a good graduate student one would hope. But hidden inside of that positive description is a warning as well: “his head and his eyes were downward.” And it was not just looking down at the roots, but also looking down on all those who did not share his obsession. Gollum’s obsession with knowledge and the promise that it would bring power is what caused him to look with antipathy toward all others. Thus, when we meet Gollum he is alone in a subterranean cavern playing riddle games with himself, seeing other people only as a meal.
The problem of anti-anti-intellectualism
While graduate students may not live alone in caves obsessing over elven rings capable of making you invisible—although pouring over tomes in a library or staring at measurements in a science lab may be just as appealing to the rest of the world as an underground cave filled with goblins—they share a temptation: To allow knowledge, or formal education, to cause them to look down on their peers.
Speaking for myself as a graduate student, I’m certain that my family and friends would prefer to have a game of riddles in the dark than listen to me engage in a description of my interest in the history of evangelicals and labor activism at the turn of the 20th century. Why? Because, so often, my eyes and head are turned downward just like Gollum when I engage in those conversations.
And this is not unique to graduate students. Harvard professor Michael Sandel notes that this kind of bias against those without a college degree or formal education is more prevalent than other forms of contempt, and that unlike other forms of bigotry such as racism or sexism, educational elites are often “unapologetic” about their views of the less educated. In a culture where education is a marker of upward (economic) mobility, and success often the result of educational attainment, then it is unsurprising that we would value individuals and their contributions more because of the institution on their diploma. However, Christians should be the first to reject such a demeaning view of individuals, recognizing that just as worth is not defined by race or sex, neither is it defined by the number of letters after your name, whether J.D., M.D., or Ph.D.
Education to encourage love of God
Now, I am not advocating for a lack of education. It would be disingenuous since I have completed one graduate degree and am currently pursuing another in history. Further, I think that Christians have a unique responsibility to pursue education because we are convinced that truth exists and can be known. Part of the creation mandate to take dominion over creation includes cultivating and stewarding the world, which can only be done with proper knowledge. And colleges and universities are often a mission field in need of cultivation by Christians who can speak truth and the gospel message to people asking questions about identity, the future, and purpose.
The purpose of education is to cause you to look up, metaphorically speaking, rather than down. The scientist who probes the workings of the cosmos should exult with the psalmist that “the heavens declare the glory of God” (Psa. 19:1-4). The jurist studying the law should be confronted with the justice and perfection of the lawgiver (Psa. 19:7-8). And the student of history should look back and see the providence of God at work in the most minute details and events (Psa. 136). Contemplation of God’s created order should be the beginning of worship, not its end. And those who have studied the inner depths of particular aspects of creation should be those most loudly proclaiming the glories of God.
Education to encourage love of neighbor
Just as important is the way that education should be a method for loving our neighbor, or looking to our right and left rather than down. On a practical level, we can see how this plays out. It is scientists and medical professionals (all, we hope, with years of training and experience) who have developed a vaccine for the pandemic, a service to their neighbor for sure. In a similar way, the lawyer may provide their services pro bono in a legal clinic for the poor, and teachers use their training to educate the next generation as a form of public service.
Contemplation of God’s created order should be the beginning of worship, not its end. And those who have studied the inner depths of particular aspects of creation should be those most loudly proclaiming the glories of God.
We know what it means to use our skills to serve our neighbor. But just as education leads the Christian to worship more fully, it should also be a means for enriching the worship of others. And this is the beauty of the church—others benefit from your effort and exertion. Thus, the pastor who has learned Greek and Hebrew need not teach a course on Sunday mornings for his congregation to benefit from his study (though if congregants wanted to learn the original languages, that would not be a bad thing). In fact, it should be the opposite. Those around you should benefit from the work that you have produced and enjoy the fruits of your intellectual labor. For example:
The pastor who studies Greek or Hebrew can convey to the congregation the meaning of the text without subjecting them to a grammar lesson. Paul’s pleading can come through in the way that you explain the text rather than in your diagramming of articles, verbs, and participles.
The Christian historian spends hours in the archives to tell the story of former slave and Baptist missionary George Liele, illustrating to the church the role that he played in the spread of the gospel after gaining his freedom.
The theologian studies the work of the fathers and mothers of the church during the early church period to bring renewed interest in ancient methods of devotion and catechesis all to encourage spiritual piety.
The ethcist asks the deep questions about technology, sex, or politics in an effort to help their church think not only about this immediate social issue but about the one coming down the road for the next generation of the church.
And the Christian sociologist studies patterns of behavior and statistical analysis of transmission of values to teach parents how to better disciple their children.
None of these examples require that the recipient be an expert in ethics, sociology, history, or ancient languages. The Christian scholar, who has been gifted the responsibility to study and serve, brings to the church the fruits of their labor and says “taste and see that the Lord is good” (Psa. 34:8)
In Acts 2, the early church met the needs of the community by those who had much providing for those who had less. Each brought as they were able, each received what they needed, and neither looked with contempt on the other; they all “broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts (Acts 2:44-46). In the same way, the act of service of the scholar is not to puff up themselves with knowledge, but to recognize that they have been blessed with the opportunity for formal education and to bring the result of their studies to others, who for any number of reasons have not been able to devote themselves to formal training in the same way (1 Cor. 8:1; 1 Tim. 6:3-6; 2 Tim. 3:6-7). But neither is more dignified or performs more godly work. Rather, each encourages and supports the other in their specific calling, spurring one another on to greater worship of God and love of neighbor.
When we first meet Gollum in The Hobbit, he is alone, muttering to himself and his precious ring. He is twisted and deformed by his quest to know the ring and use it for his own power, always at the expense of others. In contrast, the church is the picture of a community where those with college degrees and those without are gathered together to worship God and serve one another. The Christian scholar is called to use that knowledge to serve their church and proclaim the gospel message to the world, not their own prestige and importance. It is the recognition that scholastic activity should have relevance for the church, sanctification, and love of God. The Christian scholar should be humbled by the ability to list the order of salvation in Latin or Greek and remember that, Latin or not, all of us are called to the foot of the cross in repentance, and all of us will one day cast our crowns and all accolades at the feet of the only one worthy of praise (Rev. 4:10). That is a calling better than any riddle game in the dark.