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Ask the Right Question

By February 14, 2013 9 Comments

Last night I received a teaching award at my college–most surprisingly and not a little discomfiting, as the remarks below indicate. But an occasion to celebrate a worthy common project in our Reformed endeavor, nonetheless. Here, then, my acceptance speech.

When President LeRoy called me up with news of this prize, I immediately replied no, no, you can’t mean it. I was afraid that the awards committee was going to visit my next class, observe for five minutes, then quickly meet to revoke its decision. I started a mental list of four or five people just in my department who are better teachers than I. So, first denial, then anxiety, then bargaining—why was I responding to such good news by recapitulating the five stages of grief? I decided to drop that line and go for gratitude instead. Here then my simple, heartfelt thanks for this wonderful tribute. I accept it, as my predecessors in this prize all have, as a tribute to all Calvin College faculty­­ for the unrelenting commitment it takes to sustain good teaching day by day over the long run. Most of all, I accept it as a tribute to our common project of Christian liberal arts education.

Some of my best moments in that project came in teaching the students on our honors floor last year. Every Monday night from September to May we met to discuss a great book, in this case Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America. I chose this title not because De Tocqueville, much less America, got everything right, but because of the penetrating questions this French aristocrat asked of a strange new democracy 180 years ago. I wanted us to be provoked by his observations to better understand this country and other countries today, and also to demonstrate how various disciplines can converge to enrich our comprehension of a subject.

Our conversations in that class were spritely, wide-ranging and very revealing—especially to me as a teacher. Because more often than not, as I was driving home, it would hit me: so that was the question in the room! That was the issue in the text! Not the one I had thought of or prepped for. Why hadn’t I seen it ahead of time and set it up foursquare from the start? Because I couldn’t discover it on my own, nor could the students. We had to find it together, off our pre-set plans.

Much of good teaching consists in simply asking the right question, but the right question is not so simple to find. It’s not evident at the start. We happen upon it by working our way through a puzzling maze of experiment and deliberation, in the lab, in the field, in the text. We think the answer is this and so the question must be that, but we learn when we discover that the question is really something else. This quite simply is what liberal arts education is at heart, and only by its means does this kind of learning occur. Don’t worry—the skills it teaches are readily transferrable and highly valuable, whether for crafting a legal brief, designing medical tests, or reading a balance sheet with integrity.

We may come to faith by the same process. At least so it happened for this good Grand Rapids boy. I was reared within the full matrix of Christian Reformed education (catechism, Sunday School, Christian day schools, and 110 sermons a year). Early on I learned that faith was the most important thing—the only gateway to salvation, the only hope in life, the only ground of lasting value. So I set out intently to get this faith. I worked hard at it. In fact, faith became the hardest work I’d ever done—hard, and quite unavailing. The quest left me hovering in mid-air, battering my head against a sky of brass. My professors here at Calvin did me the enormous service of listening to my doubts and giving me methods for interrogating those doubts. But in my case it was not until I became a father that the issue was ultimately joined, for then I finally had to face up to the existentialism I had encountered in philosophy and German literature classes here: is love forever? Could I love unreservedly in the face of death; commit utterly to these tiny new persons in full knowledge that separation and loss stand at the end of the road?

That was the question, and it unfolded its own answer: yes. And that answer itself opened up on the person of Jesus Christ who made precisely that same commitment to us. And in making it, broke through the wall of death into the mystery known as life everlasting. It’s not the theology that’s important right here—notice the process. Only when the question of faith changed to precisely the right question for me did Christ become Christ to me, and for me.

Faith and learning typically do not yield to direct assault. They come by indirection. We don’t even so often pose the right question as have it dawn upon us, a different proposition altogether. We stumble over it on the path to somewhere else. As we go forward together in recalibrating this college in the face of the harsh winds of change in higher education, may we remain open—no, resolutely committed—to this unmeasurable, seemingly inefficient process of searching and learning, for it is the true and proven way to wisdom, most worthy and irreplaceable.       

James Bratt

James Bratt is professor of history emeritus at Calvin College, specializing in American religious history and especially the connections between religion and politics. Starting in Fall 2016 he took a break from blogging on The Twelve to teach in China and on the Semester at Sea, which venues afforded him some welcome distance from the USA’s descent into its current mortal illness. But now he’s back in the States, looking for hope. His most recent book (which he edited and completed for the late John Woolverton) is  “A Christian and a Democrat”: Religion in the Life and Leadership of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.


  • Debra Rienstra says:

    Jim, I am so thrilled for you. You deserve this award fully, all the usual Calvinist qualifications aside. Thank you for these humble and beautiful words. Three weeks into the semester, going on twenty years of teaching, I still marvel at the messy mystery of it. It is a daily exercise in what seems like failure. The successes come only by grace. It's good to know that even master teachers feel this, perhaps more and more as the years go on.

  • Jodie says:

    So beautiful! I am deeply thankful for your teaching. Sometimes the questions you asked then only make sense now.

  • Jessica Bratt says:

    Congratulations, Uncle Jim! I am grateful for you and for your example. Thanks for sharing the speech here; I only wish I could have been there to hear it in person! Also, I'm inspired to read some de Tocqueville.
    And your great reflections on the importance of the questions we ask reminds me of my favorite passage from Rilke's Letters to a Young Poet:
    “Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.”

  • Jennifer Holberg says:

    I am so glad you posted these moving and inspiring words, Jim. Though I teased you a little last night, I am so grateful for the way you welcomed me and others so graciously into the richness of the Reformed project. I am very proud to have you as a colleague.

  • Young Kim says:

    Bravo! Congratulations from Cyprus. What a well deserved award!

  • Deb Stout says:

    Van harte gefeliciteerd, Jim! I am not at all surprised — well done! I'm proud of you and proud that I was able to have you during my Calvin years. Echt goed gedaan!!!

  • dghart says:

    Congratulations, Jim.

  • Daniel Meeter says:

    Marvelous words, Jim, which also describe your approach to friendship. And the way you describe the communal enlightenment of teaching, finding the right questions in the classroom process, is also true for preaching. You preach to the same congregation week after week and together you begin to learn the questions the Bible demands of you. You know your comments about love and death go to the heart of the Barth Romans commentary, right? You're my kind of Kuyperian. And thank you for continuing to teach me all the time.

  • Hanna Meeuwse says:

    Goed gedaan meneer Bratt. Uw dienst is uitstekend. Dankuwel voor alles en zegeningen aan u.

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