Published May 25, 2023
I am the spirit that negates.” So Mephistopheles describes his calling to Faust in their first encounter in Goethe’s great version of the medieval legend. And the calling of Mephistopheles has become the very spirit of the age in which we now find ourselves. Whether on the left or the right, the spirit of negation, of nay-saying, of tearing down that which is, has become our default setting. For this reason, it should really be no surprise that critical theory, the most intellectually impressive articulation of the Mephistophelean metaphysic, has found a home at both ends of the political spectrum.
In such a culture, despair can become a chic temptation, especially when, to quote the hymn writer, change and decay in all around we see. There is, however, an antidote: hope. But where is hope, in an allegedly hopeless age, to be found?
I am privileged to be a teacher. I am paid to read, write, and talk about things I love, things I consider to be important. And I do that full-time, for my living. Those who are blessed with such a calling but who feel no gratitude for it have small souls and little grasp of the lives many others lead that are not marked by such good fortune.
But more than being paid full-time to pursue what would otherwise be my hobbies, it is the students that bring me joy and hope. Contra so many stereotypical media accounts of “snowflakes” and over-privileged, hyper-sensitive, entitled troublemakers, my students are respectful, keen to learn, and hungry for truth. They do not simply assume as truth everything I tell them, thankfully, but they are eager to use class as a context in which they pursue it to the best of their ability.
I was reminded of this at commencement last Saturday. Grove City College, like many schools, has a tradition of a student giving a speech during the ceremony to the graduating class. If what a college is really doing is best demonstrated by what its best students say and think, then I found real hope—real, joyful hope—on Saturday as a young woman, Meredith Johnson, spoke about the true nature of home. That she is both a student of mine and the daughter of a former student of mine made her speech even more powerful to me. Here is proof positive that teaching is a joy and a privilege whose significance goes beyond the momentary classroom encounters.
Her argument was simple but profound, biblical and Christian: The best homes are those that prepare us for our next home. And our ultimate home is heaven, a final destination that should have a serious effect on the shape of each of the temporary homes that mark our sojourn along the way. Here is how she ended:
When I think about how Grove City College has prepared me for a home in heaven, I think about the book of Isaiah class, the fellowship on my ICO trips, or my chemistry professor praying before every chemistry class. Two things, however, especially come to mind. The first is Western Pennsylvania in the fall. As is the case for many of you, I’m sure, my camera roll is full of pictures I’ve taken of the quad because I am trying to capture a bit of the remarkable beauty. However, the vibrance of leaves turning red in pockets and the familiarity of the air gradually cooling helps me consider the nature of change. During fall at Grove City, we see that the world is always changing. It is transitory. At the same time, the beauty of it all points us to the wonder of the God who made our world and his beautiful plan to bring his people to an eternal home in heaven.
Secondly, I think about singing worship songs and hymns with other students. Whether in chapel or at church or in Warriors, there may be few better opportunities to taste heaven than to sing God’s praises with others. For Christians, singing together functions as a shadow for the future reality of worshipping God in our home in heaven. The last verse of “Amazing Grace” says, “When we’ve been here ten thousand years / Bright, shining as the sun / We’ve no less days to sing God’s praise / Than when we first begun.” The time we have spent worshipping God with others here could prepare us for endless time worshipping God together in a heavenly home.
My prayer is that as we move on from this campus home, God will be preparing us for a heavenly home. While we are on earth, may we glorify him in our careers, friendships, and families. After today, we will no longer enjoy being greeted by President McNulty on the first day of class, splurging on an Urban Trails coffee before a night of studying in the library, or setting up picnic lunches on the quad during a sunny spring day. We will miss these things. But, may our last four years at Grove City College have prepared us for a better home. A heavenly home that we will never have to leave.
Sadly, many on right and left today choose to be marked by the Mephistophelean metaphysic. They embody the spirit that negates, an easy, lazy option that carries with it the instant gratification that destruction always brings with it. And are we not all tempted by such at points? The spirit of Mephistopheles is truly seductive, as Goethe well knew. Thankfully, however, there is still hope. Temporal hope in the young people, however few they may today be, who carry the torch of truth into the future. And eternal hope, for the final home that awaits us at the end. I am grateful to have been reminded of both last Saturday. And that it was by one of the so-called “snowflake” generation is encouraging indeed.
Carl Trueman is a professor of biblical and religious studies at Grove City College and a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.
Carl R. Trueman is a fellow in EPPC’s Evangelicals in Civic Life Program, where his work focuses on helping civic leaders and policy makers better understand the deep roots of our current cultural malaise. In addition to his scholarship on the intellectual foundations of expressive individualism and the sexual revolution, Trueman is also interested in the origins, rise, and current use of critical theory by progressives. He serves as a professor at Grove City College.