We’ve been making our way through the three great transcendentals: truth, beauty, and now, goodness. We saw that truth obtains when we stand in a right relationship to ideas, and ultimately, in right relationship with the person Jesus. We noted how beauty awakens longing and sets us on a journey to God. But what about goodness? Perhaps unsurprisingly, like truth and beauty, we can only understand goodness in relation to God. God is wholly good—without defect, blemish, or lack. This perfect goodness is diffusive of itself, bubbling out into the creation of a good and beautiful world. As we read in Genesis 1, God saw all that he had made and “it was good.” In other words, as originally created, everything functioned as intended. [1] Humans—as the pinnacle of creation—are made in God’s image to serve as vice-regents of God’s good world. We are kings and queens that have been gifted this world and our tasks as stewards and priests are to care for it and re-gift it back to God in creaturely response.

Reflection on God’s good creation gives us insight into the nature of goodness. We can define the good in terms of proper function: good objects function properly according to a design plan. A knife is good if it cuts well. A dentist is good if she fills cavities successfully, among other things. A professor is good if she ...? What? Has a five-star rating on Rate My Professor? Achieves tenure? Publishes a book with a prestigious press? Wins that lucrative grant? What is the proper function of a professor such that she can be called a good professor? To answer the question, we must first answer another question: what is the purpose of the university?

In my book, The Outrageous Idea of the Missional Professor, I note two competing views regarding the purpose of the university. [2] The current reigning view, called the Deflationary View, says that the university is for the making of parts of things. If you teach physics, then your job is to teach about velocity, acceleration, and force. If you teach literature, your job is to introduce the canon (or perhaps to shun the canon and introduce alternative histories) of literature to your students. If you teach engineering, your job is to teach students how to build a better bridge, and so on. I reject this deflationary vision. There is another view of the university—the Traditional View—that says the university is about more than making mere parts. Rather, on the Traditional View, the university is for making humanity itself. In his essay, “The Loss of the University,” Wendell Berry captures well this older way of thinking:

Underlying the idea of the university—the bringing together, the combining into one, of all the disciplines—is the idea that good work and good citizenship are the inevitable by-products of the making of a good—that is, a fully developed—human being. [3]

A fully developed human being. A good human being. That is the goal of the university. This is all well and good, but now, it seems, we’ve just pushed the question back another step. We started by asking what makes a good professor. I suggested that we can only answer that question if we first understand the purpose of the university. Now, I’ve argued that the purpose of the university is, or at least ought to be, the making of a good human being. But of course, that raises another question: what is the proper function of humans? What does human flourishing look like? And here we seem to have reached rock-bottom. If we can discover what is the good life for humans, then we can figure out what it means to be a good professor, or even better, a faithful professor. For that answer, stay tuned for my next post.

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[1] As the Old Testament Scholar John H. Walton describes the use of “good” (tôb) in Genesis 1 and 2, “’good’ refers to a condition in which something is functioning optimally as it was designed to do in an ordered system—it is working the way God intended” [The Lost World of Adam and Eve (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2015), 55].

[2] Paul M. Gould, The Outrageous Idea of the Missional Professor (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2014), 40-43.

[3] Wendell Berry, “The Loss of the University,” in Home Economics (New York: North Point, 1987), 77.