Finding a deep well of moral values in Scripture
By Dr. Mark Tietjen
When I was in college twenty years ago, the buzzword in education was “community.” How can schools foster good community? In what sort of community do students best thrive? How can we encourage each young woman and man to find community as they navigate their busy lives?
While no one would claim that community is unimportant, if we fast forward to the present moment another buzzword has taken the top spot in educational organizations: character. As they say in Washington, it’s good “optics” for schools to be out in front with their promotion of character and character education. Perusing the websites of both elite private schools and local public schools reveals this growing interest in training students not only in reading, writing, and ‘rithmatic, but in character education. As was the case with community in the 90s, an emphasis on students’ character development is a good thing; there is no doubt about it.
A few things follow from this trend. First, Stony Brook can point to its motto “Character before Career” and take a measure of pride in the fact that we were emphasizing the value of character in education long before it was trendy to do so. The flipside, though, is that since every school touts character education nowadays, a purported emphasis on character no longer distinguishes us, or anyone. Is this bad news for Stony Brook even if it is good news for schools on the whole? How does Stony Brook stand out among peer institutions?
The fact of the matter is that much of the emphasis on character education in most schools and colleges today draws from a very shallow pool of moral values. Non-confessional institutions have the difficulty of developing a curriculum that will satisfy constituents with all sorts of different worldviews, and the result is that character education often amounts to little more than tolerating those who are different from us. While tolerance is a basic virtue required for living in a globalized world as we do, at Stony Brook we have a much deeper pool of virtues from which we can draw. Tolerance is fine, but respect is better, and love is the best, or so Jesus and his Apostle Paul tell us.
Over the past calendar year, the practice of instructing and forming our students in the rich character traits we find in scripture—traits like love, courage, self-control, truthfulness, and hope—has been central to spiritual life at Stony Brook. The guiding virtue in chapel this Fall has been wisdom and specifically the very rich concept found in Proverbs: “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” (9:10, ESV). No less than a dozen messages from the Hegeman Chapel pulpit have addressed some facet or another of biblical wisdom, calling each and every student to respond to that life-giving voice whom the writer of Proverbs says calls aloud in the city streets.
One of the themes of biblical wisdom found both in Proverbs and also in the book of James pertains to the power of loving, truthful, and edifying speech. October was National Anti-Bullying month, and so in concert with that movement several chapel speakers took the opportunity to challenge our students not only to not bully, but to speak (or text, or post) words that build up, words that encourage, celebrate, and bring peace.
Part of wisdom is recognizing the depths of human fallenness, and so in the spring we organized a sermon series around what the medieval church referred to as the seven deadly sins, with one sermon devoted to each particular vice. Both faculty speakers and outside guests approached each vice with clarity, gentleness, and a laser-focus on the practical steps we might take to fight these vices in our lives.
Chapel is just one dimension of Christian life at Stony Brook and often a starting point for conversations about character around dinner tables, in dormitories, and in advisory groups. There are two other settings in which students have opportunity for significant character and spiritual growth: Bible studies and the Gathering. Each year more than one hundred students participate in voluntary Bible studies focused around the following: Bible books, biblical womanhood or manhood, devotional works by C.S. Lewis or Timothy Keller, and discussions of current issues and events. New this past year, the Gathering is a school-day option students have to meet together for worship, prayer, testimony-sharing, and Bible reading. These voluntary meetings afford Stony Brook students an opportunity to develop close relationships with others seeking to grow in faithfulness to God and love for their fellow students.
Ultimately the desire merely to differentiate our approach to character takes a back seat to simple obedience to the great calling God has placed upon The Stony Brook School to “challenge young men and women to know Jesus Christ as Lord, to love others as themselves, and to grow in knowledge and skill, in order that they may serve the world through their character and leadership,” as our mission states. As long as we are dedicated to this vocation we will naturally distinguish ourselves from other schools. And if we can succeed in this great venture, we will indeed become a community of character transformed by the presence and power of the one who became wisdom in the flesh, “our Helper and our Captain until the ages end,” Jesus Christ.