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I teach at a Christian university in Houston, Texas. It is, in my view, the best possible job anyone could ever have. The majority of my teaching is in our undergraduate great books program. The core of our educational philosophy is focused on reading good books, writing about them, and talking about them. We typically teach in the Socratic style, refining our understanding of a text by asking questions. A basic assumption that underlies Socratic teaching is the belief that knowledge gained through questioning and challenge is more valuable than merely being handed the correct opinion. This applies to educating, but also to advising.
It’s not uncommon, on any given day, to find students in my office discussing their papers or Plato.1 Most of the time we just talk about things on the syllabus, but sometimes students are in crisis or a jam and need advice. Sometimes I know what to say, but most times I find that it’s better to help the student discern the way forward by asking some questions, following Socrates as a guide.
A FABULOUSLY FECUND QUOTATION
A quote that often helps here comes from the late theologian J. I. Packer’s book A Quest for Godliness: The Puritan Vision of the Christian Life. In that book, Packer writes, “Maturity is a compound of wisdom, goodwill, resilience, and creativity.”2 There’s a lot to like about Packer’s thumbnail sketch of maturity, but perhaps what’s best is that the combination of four distinct terms offers four good lines of attack on any given problem.3
When a student is in crisis, I list off these four ingredients in maturity, explain them a bit, and ask which one they need most to solve the problem. Typically, I’ve found that students are pretty good at identifying which term is most needed. I’ve found using this quote helpful enough that the rest of this article is little more than an explanation of terms, as I understand them, so that others can use this trick as well.
Maturity is seen in the animal world when a creature has attained a measure of self-sufficiency, though for humans we set the bar a bit higher. For humans, maturity is a kind of flourishing, becoming what you were made to be: socially, spiritually, and intellectually. The clearest mark of maturity in humans is when we begin to give more than we get — it’s when we begin to put energy into the system, instead of taking it out.4 Paul gives a clear image of Christian maturity when he talks about the fruit of the Spirit in Galatians 5. Through life in the Spirit we bear fruit, and fruit feeds others.
I don’t know what it’s like to be a fruit tree, but I do know what it’s like to cultivate them. It involves nurturing, but also pruning. I imagine that if you asked a tree what the process of cultivation is like, it would be a mixed bag — sometimes pleasurable; sometimes painful. The way that I tend to describe the process of maturation with students is “leveling up.” When you advance to the next level in life, your abilities increase, but so do the challenges, though not always in that order. Often it is only in the face of tougher challenges that we discover we have more abilities than we knew existed.
I once heard it said that the problem is not that kids grow up too fast these days, but that they grow up too randomly. I’ve found this to be true, especially with the current crop of students in the age of COVID-19. They are sometimes called Generation Z, or, as I heard someone quip recently: Zoomers. Our current awareness of problems far outpaces our ability to handle them. Social media makes us hyper-aware of the failings of others, so it can be a real shock to the system when we see that we too suffer from the same faults we see in others. Maturity requires going beyond awareness of a problem. It requires that we know how to solve our problems and work to that end.
A further challenge that we all face now, young and old alike, is a rapidly changing social, economic, political, and religious landscape that has mutated almost every facet of American life over the last 20 years. The internet has accelerated the speed of information exchange to a breakneck pace. COVID-19 slowed down the economy and our social lives but seems to be further accelerating existing trends. Students are experiencing a profoundly disrupted educational experience with a rocky and uncertain job market ahead of them. In many ways, so are the rest of us. I only speak about advising students because that’s my daily experience. Perhaps it would be better to include all of us in the same boat. We are all, in one way or another, facing challenges that test our maturity. We are all students again.
A Socratic Heuristic
But let’s get back to the quote. I typically unpack Packer’s list of skills (wisdom, creativity, resilience, and goodwill) with some connected questions. I’m faced with a problem. Do I not know what to do? That’s where we need wisdom. Do I not know how to do the task before me? Let’s start to think creatively. Do I know what to do and how to do it, but it’s just hard? That’s resilience. Am I lacking the motivation to solve this problem? Am I discouraged? Here I might need some goodwill. Normally when I’m advising a student with a problem, they can recognize where the need is. Then the conversation continues. I’ve found that asking strategic questions helps my students much more than offering my own suggestions. I also typically spend a bit of time talking about what these terms mean.
Wisdom is skill for life, and, at the most basic level, means we know what to do. We might think in terms of a journey. The most important aspect of a successful journey is having a destination. If we don’t know where to go, we can’t even begin the journey. It’s hard to overstate the importance of wisdom in the thought-world of Scripture. Wisdom begins with fear of the Lord (Prov. 1:7) and is embodied in Jesus (Matt. 12:42). Without some measure of wisdom, human flourishing is impossible.
Creativity involves the capacity to discover new patterns or possibilities. Because our resources are always somewhat limited, almost any difficult task requires the creative use of our current skills, strengths, and supplies. Difficult journeys often involve unexpected obstacles and therefore creative rerouting. A key skill for success in almost any complicated endeavor is the ability to adapt to changing circumstances. Creativity knows there’s more than one way to skin a cat, though wisdom might question if skinning a cat is a good idea to begin with.
Resilience is, simply, the ability to bounce back from setbacks. It’s expected that the process of maturation will involve failure. I spend a good bit of my time talking with students, convincing them that though they failed at first, they possess the inner strength to try again and the capacity to grow through this challenge. Difficult journeys require resilience. Nietzsche aphorized that which does not kill us makes us stronger. This is good wisdom, though from a dubious source. A better source is St. Paul, who understands that “suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope” (Rom. 5:3–4 NIV).
Finally, consistent goodwill requires the ability to extend grace and love to our fellow man and to ourselves. No community can survive for long without the consistent practice of good will. No difficult journey can be ultimately successful without it. The most enduring challenge for every person in any age is how to meaningfully integrate with and help the community in which they find themselves. In some sense, the wise practice of goodwill is the end toward which all maturity aims. It is what defines a person whose presence is a blessing to others: a person whose presence is a present.
Philip Tallon (PhD, University of St Andrews) is the author of The Poetics of Evil: Toward an Aesthetic Theodicy (Oxford, 2012) and The Absolute Basics of the Christian Faith (Seedbed, 2016). He is currently the Interim Dean of the School of Christian Thought at Houston Baptist University. His next book, The Absolute Basics of the Wesleyan Way, will be out later this year.
- At least, when there’s not a global pandemic.
- J. I. Packer, A Quest for Godliness: The Puritan Vision of the Christian Life (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 1990), 22.
- I also like the list because it’s fresh. As opposed to, say, a list of the Cardinal Virtues, I’ve found that students intuitively get a sense how each of these four Packer terms can be used to solve issues related to their social lives or education.
- It’s worth noting, of course, that many in our communities, such as the disabled, remain in a state of partial dependency for their entire lives. Those of us who grow old will re-enter a state of dependency. This is part of life in real community. We encourage self-sufficiency not because autonomy is the goal and end of our maturity, but for the sake of others. When we are mature we can care for those in need.