Whatever Things are Noble

Jeffrey Sikkenga

October 1, 2007

The following address was delivered to the graduating seniors and their families at Ashland University’s Baccalaureate chapel celebration on May 11, 2007. We reproduce it here for your leisure and meditation.

It is a real pleasure to be with you tonight at this wonderful event. What a great weekend for you students, and for your family and friends. This weekend you will hear plenty of congratulations for your accomplishments; and you deserve them. But rather than praise you for what you have done and what you are gaining, I want to warn you about what you are in danger of losing. Then I want to offer a few thoughts about how you may endeavor not to lose it.

Our Scripture text this evening comes from the fourth chapter of the Apostle Paul’s “Letter to the Philippians.” As many of you know, Paul writes this “Letter” from a prison in Rome to the church at Philippi, which had been particularly generous and faithful to his instruction. They cared about God’s truth and they wanted to live in its light. In other words, they had been good students. Even more, Paul says, they had become what he calls his “beloved… brethren” (Philippians 4:1).

In his letter, Paul fears he will not see the Philippians again. So what are his final words to these students and friends? He says this: “I pray that your love may abound still more and more in knowledge and all discernment” (Philippians 1:10). Then he concludes his teaching with these words:

“Finally, brethren, whatever things are true, whatever things are noble, whatever things are just, whatever things are pure, whatever things are lovely, whatever things are of good report, if there is any virtue and if there is anything praiseworthy—meditate on these things” (Philippians 4:8).

These are beautiful, soul-stirring words that many of you may know very well. But they are also words that pose a problem for all of us; most especially our graduating students.

You see, when you walk across the platform tomorrow, you are leaving one of the only places that is—or at least should be—devoted to meditating on what things are true, or noble, or just, or pure, or lovely. As one of my colleagues here at Ashland always likes to remind students, the word “school” is derived from the Greek word schole which means leisure. Properly understood, school is not work; school is leisure. And leisure is what you are in danger of losing.

The great thinker Aristotle—who has been an important source for Christian theologians from Thomas Aquinas to C.S. Lewis and beyond—tells us something that I think we can also find in the pages of Scripture. Life, Aristotle says, is divided into three kinds of activity: work, recreation, and leisure. Work he describes as serious but unpleasant (think of those exams a couple days ago). Recreation, in contrast, is pleasant but unserious (think of those nights spent hanging out at the local watering hole or at the movies). Modern Americans—you and me—we know all about work and recreation. Our culture’s motto is “work hard, and play hard.” Some people emphasize the first and others emphasize the second. That is, some people work in order to play, and some play in order to work . But whatever we do, it seems like it is always connected to working or playing hard.

You students were no exception. If you weren’t cramming for a test or going to a part-time job, you were hanging out with your friends. If you weren’t hanging out with your friends, you were cramming for a test or going to a part-time job.

When I say that “work hard, play hard” is our culture’s motto, I don’t mean to suggest that it is entirely new. When he was floating West down the Ohio River in the 1830s, the great observer of America, Alexis de Tocqueville, commented that “on the right bank [that is, on the Ohio side of the river] a confused hum proclaims from afar that men are busily at work; fine crops cover the fields; elegant dwellings testify to the taste and industry of the workers; on all sides there is evidence of comfort; man appears rich and contented; he works.”

Notice that Tocqueville says that the people he encountered appeared contented. He admired many things about Ohio and America; in fact, he says that he saw the hand of God at work in our nation. But he also felt a fundamental restlessness in many Americans because dividing time only between work and recreation ignores a whole aspect of life. It ignores leisure.

As your parents and grandparents will testify, the older you get the more you realize that time is one of the most precious gifts from God. It is our only non-renewable resource; you can spend it, but you can never make more. And spending it by ignoring leisure is not wise stewardship of the time God has given you.

Let me be clear: leisure, as Aristotle understands it, does not mean taking it easy. We modern Americans think it does only because we cannot imagine what a person could be doing if he were not working or playing. That is how our minds see the world. But leisure is a different kind of activity from either work or recreation. Leisure means doing something both serious and pleasant. It is so important that God set aside a day not only for rest but also for leisure—for contemplating what is true, and noble, and just. If you want to understand how far we have gone in losing any real sense of leisure, think about how much our culture has forsaken the Sabbath.

So where can we find leisure today? According to Aristotle, we should look in the same place people have always looked—in beauty. The core of leisure is experiencing things that are beautiful; those things that are the only enduring and truly serious and pleasant objects for our contemplation. Aristotle’s Greek word for beauty—Kalon—means more than just good looks. It encompasses all of the aspects of beauty: physical, moral, and intellectual. A smile is beautiful not just when it shows straight white teeth, but also when it shows us the goodwill and joy of a person. In particular, moral beauty is found in what the Scripture describes: whatever is just, pure, and especially whatever is noble.

This is the kind of beauty that King David discusses in the Psalms: “One thing I have desired of the Lord, that will I seek: that I may dwell in the house of the Lord, all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the Lord, and to inquire in His temple” (Psalm 27: 4). Experiencing beauty—noble beauty—is what leisure is all about. When you have this experience, you know it. It is always compelling: it grips you, demands your attention, lifts you up to something divine. It is, as Aristotle says, serious in the deepest sense of the word—rather like falling in love. It also has something deeply satisfying in it; something that gives our souls true pleasure.

Where do you find that kind of experience in beauty? Tonight’s Scripture tells us: in meditating on what is true, and noble, and just. In other words: we find beauty in pursuing wisdom. As Solomon says, his father David told him to: “Get wisdom! Get understanding!… Love her, and she will keep you. Wisdom is the principal thing. Therefore get wisdom. And in all your getting, get understanding” (Proverbs 4:5-7).

Now some people will say that you are not losing your chance for wisdom when you leave this ivory tower. In fact, they might agree with the sentiments of the old farmer who told my dad how proud he was of his son: the boy had gone to college and come back with a fancy degree—even more impressive; the boy came back with his common sense still intact.

In this view, life—the real world out through those doors—is the thing that gives you true wisdom. I have to admit: there is a certain sense in which that is right. Life gives you experiences: sometimes “hard knocks,” sometimes even terrible blows like those the Apostle Paul suffered. And those experiences cannot be found simply in the classroom, or the laboratory, or the studio.

But everyone knows people with a lot of experience who are not wise. Wisdom requires, as Solomon says in Proverbs, that you “apply your heart to understanding” (Proverbs 2:2). You will always have experiences happening to you; the question is what you will draw from them. Wisdom requires that you meditate on your experiences. College is supposed to teach you how to meditate on life; in fact, it is supposed to show you what in life is worth meditating on. It is supposed to educate you in pursuing life’s important questions, which all of us have to answer someday: For whom should I vote? Why? Who should be my friends? What kind of person should I marry? What is the right way of life? What do I owe to God? We all must meditate on these questions.

Now I realize that meditating—the word the Apostle Paul uses—is not a word that we use very easily. It sounds sort of New Age-ish; more California than Ohio. And anyway, how can we bother with that sort of thing? When we are in school, we are too busy going to class or raising our GPA or being involved in extra-curricular activities. When we graduate, we are too busy going to work or raising our families or being involved in weekend fun. Who has time for leisure?

Well, college gave you the time. But the question is: How did you use it? Did you fall in love—not with a person but with a subject that you never thought you would? Did you read books that opened your minds to a question you just could not stop thinking about—something that you never even realized was a question? Did your education create a painful but wonderful new hunger in you to understand? If not, you missed an opportunity that may never come again.

But we cannot blame you. We—the university—do not always sell ourselves as anything fundamentally different from our culture’s rush of work and play. I have met many students (even here at Ashland) who think of their education as fundamentally a means to a degree, and their degree as a means to a job. For them, education is just a means to work. I understand why they have that view; but they are wrong. Education is the means to leisure. It is where our mind is lifted from the everyday to the forever. Unfortunately, the university does not always set students straight. Despite what we say, we do not always stand against the flow of our culture, telling you to come here because your heart and mind need to be cultivated. We advertise good food and wonderful recreation facilities. Don’t get me wrong: a lot of people worked hard to bring you a nice meal in the cafeteria day after day, and it’s a good thing. And we are justly proud of our recreation facilities: I use them (obviously not the weight room) and I’m glad we have them. But we should not forget that, in the end, these things minister to the body.

They are not where your heart and mind experience the beauty of truth. They are not where you finally glimpse for a brief moment the miraculous bonding of chemicals, or the genius of Mozart, or how to turn on the light of understanding in the minds of little children. They are not where you finally see something of Tolstoy’s depth, or Abraham Lincoln’s height. They are not where you begin to understand. That happens in the classroom, discussing great books; and in the labs, observing the natural world; and in the studios, analyzing and creating works of art. And it can also happen in long conversations about all those things, late into the night, with those who—in attempting to understand along with you—have become your friends. That is leisure; that is the true university.

For most of you, the days of the classroom and the lab and the studio end tomorrow. So how can you not lose your leisure? My only advice is this: Infuse your life with it.

Start with your work. I have been told that professors don’t know much about work and this is probably true. What other job gives you a semester off just to think? In fact, what other job has semesters? But let me say this. Don’t denigrate work, elevate it. Make your work leisure, as much as possible. How do you do that? Find a job that has some real purpose and that makes you contented. When you see something of God’s purpose in your work and—despite all the pains that come with every job—you find it satisfying, then you will know that you have found your calling. When someone else looks at your job and says it is work, and yet you find leisure in it, then you know you have got the right job.

And make your recreation as leisurely as possible. There is nothing wrong with fun: Jesus attended the wedding celebration at Cana. But if your work is truly satisfying, you will not come home morally exhausted, always needing to escape. So if you go to movies for recreation, think about them and talk about them afterwards. When you read, pick great books that can teach you something while they entertain you. Keep a dictionary in your house, and learn new words whenever you come across one—not just to exercise your mental muscle, but to remember how beautiful words can be. Teach these things to your children: tell them to love beauty and pursue truth. Be an example to them of someone who follows the Apostle Paul’s teaching to meditate on everything lovely. Keep alive the joy of real leisure.

If you never experienced that joy at Ashland—if college for you was just a combination of the pain of work and the fleeting pleasure of play—tomorrow will not be bittersweet. You may be sad at saying goodbye to some friends; you may be a little nervous about your new responsibilities—but you will merely be moving on from one kind of work to another. You will get your degree and then be off to a different job. We wish you God’s blessing.

But to those of you who have experienced—even “through a glass darkly” as the Apostle says—what it means to meditate on “whatever things are noble,” tomorrow is a loss. Graduation is a fine accomplishment, but mixed with the glory of the day will be—must be—a pang of regret. That is only natural and right. Your soul soared closer to God’s truth, but you didn’t have a chance to grasp it all. You didn’t get to dig as deeply as you needed to into the great questions of life. You could have had one more conversation about what is really important—

To you, I can only conclude with the prayer which the Apostle Paul offers on behalf of his students and friends, the Philippians:

“I thank my God upon every remembrance of you… being confident of this very thing, that He who has begun a good work in you will complete it… that you may approve the things that are excellent, that you may be sincere and without offense until the day of the Lord, being filled with the fruits of righteousness,” and having “the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding” (Philippians 1:6; 1:10; 4:7).


Jeffrey Sikkenga is an Adjuct Fellow of the Ashbrook Center and an associate professor of political science at Ashland University.