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My Remarks for our PhD Induction Ceremony

As the director of the PhD program at Southern I care about creating a culture and liturgies as part of our life together as Christian scholars.

A couple of years ago, inspired by an Honors Program initiation I attended for my daughter’s college, I created an Induction Ceremony for our incoming PhD students. Each January and August, as part of the students’ week of introductory classes, we conduct a short evening service in the chapel, attended by current PhD students and faculty. At this ceremony the students are read a charge by a current PhD student and they respond with a printed reply. They then sign a book and cross the platform to be pinned with a beautiful lapel pin we had made. At the beginning of the service the inductees are seated together on one side of the chapel. After crossing over they join the seating with the current students and faculty and then recess together at the end of the service. All of this is followed by a brief dessert reception. It has become a meaningful ritual for our PhD community.

At this service I offer a brief charge and explanation for why we are doing what we are doing.

Below are my remarks for the Jan 24, 2017 service.

PhD Induction Ceremony

Jan 24, 2017

The Calling to the Doctorate of Philosophy

Imagine with me a large, tastefully-decorated church sanctuary, adorned with beautifully woven tapestries down the side aisles that invite worshippers to consider many names and truths about God. In an elegant font one banner reads, “Savior,” and another, “Messiah.” One banner has in gold thread the word, “King,” and another “Provider.” We see “Friend of Sinners,” “Immanuel,” “Son of David,” and others.

And one, of course, reads, “Philosopher.”

Well, not of course, in any of our modern sanctuaries. But I would suggest to you that “Philosopher” is precisely what may church banners would have read in the earliest centuries of the Church if they had such banners. We do have plenty of records in theological treatises, homilies, engravings, and sacred art (mosaics, frescoes) that Jesus was clearly understood as a Philosopher, THE great and true Philosopher.

This raises two questions:


And Why does this seem so odd to us?

In answer to the first, Why?

The reason Christian leaders and theologians understood Jesus as a Philosopher and described him as such in word and art is because Holy Scripture can easily be read in such a way that shows Jesus (and Moses before him) as very much functioning as a philosopher – as a sage, a purveyor of God-centered wisdom for how to be in the world that accords with God’s Heavenly City/Politeia/Society, as the one who teaches truly how alone one can enter into the fullness of life that all people long for.

And this leads into the answer to my second question, Why does this seem odd to us?

The reason is because in the Modern period we have completely lost the ancient understanding – both Christian and pagan – of what a philosopher is and what they do.

In the ancient world – both within Christianity and outside of it – people understood that a philosopher played a key role in society, to help people understand human nature, the divine nature, nature’s nature, and how to order one’s life in line with virtues and habits that will result in true life.

Now what does this have to do with you and tonight’s induction ceremony?

Tonight we are standing at this milestone inviting you, new PhD students, into this final stage of your formal education, this terminal degree, the highest recognized degree one can earn in any field, the Doctor of Philosophy degree.

Have you considered it is called a doctorate of philosophy when most of us are not studying “philosophy” in the modern sense of that? And after all, doesn’t the Bible warn us against being captive to philosophy?

The reason this very old and venerable degree (one we’ve been offering at Southern for nearly 125 years) is called a doctorate in philosophy is because “philosophy” is the older term that means originally, “love of wisdom” and then more generally, a devotion to the life of learning.

A true philosopher, unlike a mere scientist or technician or medical doctor, or other forms of skilled and valuable labor, a philosopher is one who labors to understand things at the meta-level, how the world works, what humanity is and how it functions, and how it all fits together. Philosophers – especially those who earn the lofty title of Doctor of Philosophy – are those who are called to use their intellectual gifts and labors to lead society.

Last year the New York Times ran an insightful little piece about philosophy and its role in the university. It noted that this older understanding of philosophy (and theology) was sadly lost when philosophers sold out this high calling for something much less – trying to be like every other field of study in the university, very narrow and specific. The result was the loss of its influence and relevance.

But we are gladly using the term Doctor of Philosophy in its older sense of one who loves and seeks the wisdom to understand how the world fits together and works.

And friends, when this is combined with and studied within the context of Holy Scripture and a confessional Trinitarian orthodox understanding of the world we have the highest intellectual calling that God has given to humanity.

So today you are entering and we are welcoming you into a vision, a calling, a privilege, a joy, a mutual labor, a community of co-learners, a fellowship of philosophers, a throng of theologians, a cohort of Christian thinkers – not because we are inherently better people than non-PhD folks, or more loved by God, or necessarily paid more – but because we are people who have received a special calling from God.

And with a calling comes a responsibility.

And so as we begin a new school year and welcome you into our PhD community here at Southern, Induction Class of Spring 2017, we want to stir you up with this vision of our shared calling AND we want to challenge you to take this beautiful mantle upon yourselves with joy and sobriety.


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1 Comment so far
  1. Mike Zachary January 26, 2017 4:01 pm

    In a day of narrow specialization and in a day when education is too often dumbed down in any number of ways, these are encouraging comments that obviously are linked to the command that we should love God with all our mind.