Columbia University in the City of New York
We live in a generation that prides itself on personal preferences and choices. We believe what we want to believe, and reject those things that do not fit our personal viewpoint. This is especially true when it comes to matters of religion. We hold today to a bewildering array of religious beliefs. Some of us can even be quite religious about our refusal to believe in God! On his deathbed in 1882, Charles Darwin spoke regretfully of what his contemporaries had done with his ideas and speculations on the origins of life: “To my astonishment the ideas took like wild-fire. People made a religion of them.” (John Myers, Voices from the Edge of Eternity, 248)
We pride ourselves on being more intelligent, more sophisticated, and more informed about what we believe than previous generations. We even promote critical thinking in our schools, yet one has to wonder how critical our thinking really is! The fact is that we are not very different from earlier cultures, including the ancient Greeks. As has been true throughout human history, ignorance and arrogance all too often walk hand in hand.
The Areopagus on Mars Hill, Athens, Greece
In the above passage from the book of Acts, the Apostle Paul found himself in the middle of the genuinely religious city of Athens. But he was troubled because they worshipped a wide array of gods, as if the nature of the Almighty were actually determined by human preferences. You worship the “god” of your choice, and I will worship the “god” of my choice! And just in case they had missed something, the Athenians even built an altar to the Unknown God.
Ironically, no intelligent Athenian would ever have treated mathematics or science as if facts were a matter of personal preference. They would have laughed such a perspective out of the academy! The ancient Greeks made great efforts to ascertain the truth about algebra, geometry, and other vital fields. But when it came to “gods” and religion, anything would do. Like them, we study created things with care and thoroughness, going to great lengths to seek out the facts. But when it comes to who the Creator is, woe to the man or woman who claims that his or her views are better than anyone else’s. You believe what you believe, and I believe what I believe, and that is where we will leave the matter. God forbid that we should intelligently discuss religion!
This was precisely the problem Paul was addressing in Acts 17. He was troubled that the Greeks were willing to settle for far less than exact knowledge of who God really is. If God or “gods” are merely human inventions, why bother with Him, or them? Like Santa Claus or the tooth fairy, they should be the domain of children, not adults. But if we and the universe were made by a real and living God, why treat Him so carelessly? You are a distinctive human being! What I think about you does not determine who you are. You are who you are! Why do we think that God is any different? If God is real, His identity will not be altered by our uninformed opinions. He is who He is, or to use one of the ancient Hebrew names of God, “I am that I am.”
First President of King's College
In a number of ways, Columbia University is a perfect example of confused modern attitudes. Believers in Jesus Christ founded the university in 1754 under the name King’s College. Its first tutor and first president was Samuel Johnson, and he could not have been plainer about his guiding rule for life. “That which I propound to govern myself in general… is the awful account which I expect to give of all that I do in this world, before the dread tribunal of God, where the secrets of all hearts shall be disclosed, and every one shall receive according to his work.” (E. Edwards Beardsley, LIFE AND CORRESPONDENCE OF SAMUEL JOHNSON) These are not the words of a man who viewed God as a pliable creation of human imagination! This was a man who believed God to be the perfect, unchanging, just, and faithful Being described in the Bible.
When Samuel Johnson was in his seventies, he was walking down the street one day. Suddenly, he remembered something he had done as a small boy that was disrespectful to his father. He broke down weeping, asking the Lord to forgive him for what he had done all those years before. As Romans 2:4 states, “the goodness of God leads you to repentance….” (NKJV)
Nevertheless, Columbia has strayed far from its Christian roots. Its motto is “In lumine Tuo, videbimus lumen,” or, “In thy light, we see light,” from Psalm 36:9, but there has even been an effort of late to make the university’s motto something less religious. Two major early 20th century donors to the university’s construction evidently foresaw such a spiritual decline. Olivia and Caroline Phelps Stokes, in giving the funds for the construction of St. Paul’s Chapel, made a request. By their stipulation, the curved wall panel high above the altar of the chapel was inscribed with the words from Acts 17:23 in the King James Version, “Whom therefore ye ignorantly worship, him declare I unto you“—Paul’s words to the Athenians. They realized that one day many in the university would worship God, or nowadays even “gods,” without genuine knowledge of whom they were worshipping, just like the ancient Greeks. In fact, there are many today whose only “god” is themselves!
Shield & Motto
Consider now the rest of Paul’s speech to the Athenians:
24 “God, who made the world and everything in it, since He is Lord of heaven and
earth, does not dwell in temples made with hands.
25 Nor is He worshipped with men’s hands, as though He needed anything, since He
gives to all life, breath, and all things.”
Paul was distressed that the city of Athens was full of idols, and that the Athenians had no real understanding of whom they were worshipping. Paul’s desire was that the eyes of his Athenian hearers would be opened to understand who God really is. Remember that Paul himself once violently persecuted the early Christian church, thinking he was doing the God of Israel a favor! So he thought, until he saw a heavenly vision on the road to Damascus. There he heard the voice of Jesus calling out to him, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me?” (Acts 26:14, NKJV) Saul’s name was changed to Paul because of that revelation from heaven of who Jesus is. His life was changed by the power of God, not because human persuasion had altered his viewpoint.
In fact, Paul was willing to face imprisonment, beatings, stoning, shipwreck, and ultimately execution because of his imprisonment. No personal opinion, however strongly held, can carry someone through that! Paul did not wish such suffering on the Athenians, but he strongly desired for them to experience the glory of knowing who God is! That is why he declared to them that the God who made all things, and who gives life to all, is not the creation of human imagination. In fact, as Paul states in Acts 17:28, “‘For in him we live, and move, and have our being’ as certain also of your own poets have said, ‘For we are also his offspring.'” The first quote is from the Cretan poet Epimenides (c. 600 BC), and the second is from Cleanthes (331-233) in his Hymn to Zeus. Paul was reasoning with the Greeks from their own literature that God is our Father. He is the one in whom “we live, and move, and have our being,” whether we know Him or not.
Albert Einstein once said, “The Lord God is subtle but malicious he is not.” (“The Universe…,” The New York Times, June 5, 2007) The Lord and His ways are not always obvious. Nevertheless, He is anything but impersonal and uncaring. Einstein also wrote, “Every one who is seriously engaged in the pursuit of science becomes convinced that the laws of nature manifest the existence of a spirit vastly superior to that of men, and one in the face of which we with our modest powers must feel humble.” (Yale Alumni Magazine, May/June 2007, 4.) Why do we think that our mental powers are sufficient to comprehend God, let alone shape who He is? We can deceive ourselves, but we will never deceive God. If God did not choose to reveal Himself to us, we would never find him—though His handiwork is everywhere a daily reminder of His existence.
Around 750 BC, the prophet Isaiah spoke words whose power and eloquence remain undiminished over the millennia since his day:
21 Do you not know? Have you not heard? Has it not been told you from the beginning? Have you not understood since the earth was founded?
22 He sits enthroned above the circle of the earth, and its people are like grasshoppers. He stretches out the heavens like a canopy, and spreads them out like a tent to live in.
23 He brings princes to naught and reduces the rulers of this world to nothing.
24 No sooner are they planted, no sooner are they sown, no sooner do they take root in the ground, than he blows on them and they wither, and a whirlwind sweeps them away like chaff.
25 “To whom will you compare me? Or who is my equal?” says the Holy One.
26 Lift your eyes and look to the heavens: Who created all these? He who brings out the starry host one by one, and calls them each by name. Because of his great power and mighty strength, not one of them is missing. (Isaiah 40:21-26, NIV)
Were any of us there when the Creator imagined and then made all that we now call home? Can you or I number the stars, or call them all by name? Have we realized how insignificant we truly are?
We matter only because the One who made us deliberately chose to love and care about us! One of my high school math students once said that she would never believe in anything that could not be examined in a test tube. Do we really think that the Almighty is going to be found in a test tube, or through a telescope? We rob only ourselves by failing to acknowledge our Creator, refusing the greater blessings He would give us if we would make room for Him to work in our lives.
God is real, as the majority of the Founding Fathers (and Mothers) of our nation well understood. The founders of universities such as Columbia, Yale, Harvard, Princeton, and many others knew this, also. They built institutions where they hoped that young people would grow up in the knowledge of the Living God. They desired that young men and women would come to know God personally, and then go on by His grace to contribute to the welfare of the nation.
In our own day, personal opinions, pronouncements in college classrooms, and even theological debate are not going to change the reality of who God is. God is who He is! Either we come to know Him as He really is, or we will be the poorer for never coming to know Him! In the words of Isaiah, “Before me no god was formed, nor will there be one after me. I, even I, am the Lord, and apart from me there is no savior.” (Isaiah 43:10-11)
Like the ancient Israelites, we may try today to build our idols “out of wood that will not rot,” or set them up in a way that they “will not topple.” (Isaiah 40:20) The idols we worship include money, fame, ambition, success, self-fulfillment, and pleasure—among many others. But all the idols of this world will one day topple and rot! The glory of man himself will fade, especially when men and women refuse to acknowledge the glory of God. As Isaiah also declared after the Lord commanded him to speak,
6 A voice says, “Cry out.” And I said, “What shall I cry?”
“All men are like grass,
and all their glory is like the flowers of the field.
7 The grass withers and the flowers fall,
because the breath of the Lord blows on them.
Surely the people are grass.
8 The grass withers and the flowers fall,
but the word of our God stands forever.”
(Isaiah 40:6-8, NIV)
We pride ourselves today on being modern, but the word modern just means the “mode of the moment,” or what the Oxford American Dictionary calls in “current fashion.” (Oxford American Dictionary, 428) What is modern today will be passé tomorrow, a perfect illustration of Isaiah’s words, “All men are like grass, and all their glory is like the flowers of the field.”
Today’s hottest theory, or movie star, will soon be replaced and forgotten. Capturing the latest trend is a great way for academics to get papers published, or for fashion designers to make money, but it is a terrible way to build a life. “The grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of our God stands forever.” It may be unfashionable nowadays to claim that the truth in God’s Word is forever, but thank God that it is! Everything else changes and will ultimately pass away, but God and His promises are forever.
Yet how do we come to know God? Only if He reveals Himself to us. That is exactly what He did in and by His Son, Jesus Christ! The last passage we will look at here is from John 1:1-5, 10-13 (NIV). It speaks of who Jesus was, is, and ever will be:
John is saying that Jesus not only was with God, the Father, when the universe was created, but that Jesus “was God”—God the Son. The Father and the Son together made everything that exists around us today: “Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made.” Jesus is not just another religious teacher, a prophet, a good man, or whatever else you may choose to call Him!
If you never understand that the One who made all things left the glories of Heaven, becoming flesh and blood in order to die in our place, for our sins, on a terrible cross, you will miss the greatest blessing a man or woman can ever have. To those who do receive Him, to those who believe in His name, Jesus gives “the right to become children of God.” This world and the universe around us will pass away, even much sooner than most scientists think! All that will remain forever is those men and women out of every nation, language, and tribe on earth who receive God’s great gift to mankind, redemption and eternal life through Jesus Christ. They will live forever in a new heaven and a new earth in which war, disease, suffering, and even death itself will no longer exist.
You see, God in His infinite wisdom made this present world subject to decay—in hope! People blame God for making an imperfect world, but He could not let men or fallen angels continue in their evil ways forever. Anyone can see the evil in a Hitler or a Stalin, but we generally miss the evil in ourselves! In putting Jesus to death on the cross, the Heavenly Father made the way for our fallen nature to be nailed there with Him. It was a spiritual work—nothing anybody could see with physical eyes—but it opened the door for us to live a new life. That is why John Newton, the slave trader, could be transformed into John Newton the preacher, composer of “Amazing Grace,” and implacable foe of the slave trade. That is also why a David Berkowitz, the Son of Sam killer, can today be a preacher of righteousness helping other prisoners find new life in Jesus.
In the shed blood of Jesus Christ, God opened a fountain in which anyone of us can wash away our sins and failures, and God will never mention them again. When we die to our old evil nature, God implants in us a new and eternal nature that longs for Him and hungers for what is right. As 2 Corinthians 5:17-18 (NIV) states, “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ.”
Will you let God remain someone unknown to you, or will you lay aside your personal opinions and prejudices, and come to know Him today, personally as He really is? Will you receive Jesus as your Lord and Savior, and have Him wash away your sins and give you an entirely new life? As Samuel Johnson well understood, we will all stand one day before the judgment seat of Christ, “before the dread tribunal of God, where the secrets of all hearts shall be disclosed, and every one shall receive according to his work.” Are you ready to stand before the living God and give account for everything you have ever thought or done? Heaven and hell are on the line. None of us is worthy of Heaven, despite what modern culture may tell us. But Jesus is able to make each and every one of us ready, if we will simply receive Him:
Copyright ©2007 Christopher N. White.
1.) John Myers, Voices from the Edge of Eternity, Spire Books: Old Tappan, New Jersey, 1968.
2.) E. Edwards Beardsley, LIFE AND CORRESPONDENCE OF SAMUEL JOHNSON, D.D., MISSIONARY OF THE CHURCH OF ENGLAND IN CONNECTICUT, AND FIRST PRESIDENT OF KING’S COLLEGE, NEW YORK. Chap II. Published by Project Canterbury at: http://anglicanhistory.org/usa/sjohnson/beardsley1874/.
3.) “The Universe, Expanding Beyond All Understanding,” The New York Times, June 5, 2007.
4.) Yale Alumni Magazine, May/June 2007.
5.) Oxford American Dictionary, Oxford University Press: New York, Oxford, 1980.
Biblical Versions Quoted:
NKJV: The New King James Version, Thomas Nelson, Inc.: Miami, Florida, 1982.
NIV: The New International Version, The Zondervan Corporation: Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1995.