As I Was Saying is a forum for a variety of perspectives to foster faith-related conversations among our readers with the goal of mutual learning, even in disagreement. Apart from articles written by editorial staff, these perspectives do not necessarily reflect the views of The Banner.
The word, motto, like many words, has a circuitous history. It comes from the Latin word, muttum, which means “grunt.” The verbal form, muttire, means “to mutter” or “to mumble.” In the 12th century, a derivative word in French, mot, came to mean “a short and witty saying” (perhaps, a wise grunt). By the 16th century in Italy, the word took on its modern meaning: “a word or phrase offering symbolic significance.” Eventually, organizations coined their own mottos to express their essence. The most well-known mottos come from universities. Oxford University, one of the oldest institutes of learning, has as its motto: Dominus Illuminatio Mea (the Lord is my light). When colonists in the new world started their own colleges, they, too, took on the practice of having mottos. Harvard University (originally New College) settled on a short motto: Veritas (truth). St. John’s College, which was established in 1696 opted for a longer motto: Facio liberos ex liberis libris libraque (I make free adults from children by means of books and a balance). Yale (originally Collegiate School) decided on two mottos in 1736: one in Hebrew: אורים ותמי (Urim and Thummim) and the other in Latin: Lux et Veritas (Light and Truth). The biblical references and allusions cannot be missed. Moreover, it is not a far stretch to say that the rich soil of knowledge, truth, virtue, and freedom is faith in God. Faith was seeking understanding and found expression in institutions of higher learning.
One unlikely man was instrumental in starting two of our great universities: David Brainerd. His life was cut short by exertion and tuberculosis in 1747 at the age of 29. He was expelled from Yale College during the Great Awakening when he commented that one of the tutors in the college, Chauncey Whittelsey, possessed “no more grace than a chair.” Brainerd confessed to making this comment and wrote a letter of apology, but the college wanted to make an example of him. It seems that administrators are always seeking to discipline students! He was expelled. Shortly thereafter, he became a missionary. There he would inspire many. Eleazar Wheelock, hearing Brainerd, started a school for Native Americans and colonists. Later this school became Dartmouth whose motto is Vox clamantis in deserto (A voice crying out in the wilderness). To encourage Wheelock, Brainerd donated the proceeds of the sale of his tea kettle and pot, which amounted to four pounds. Brainerd would also have an indirect hand in establishing Princeton because of the ill treatment he received from Yale. Jonathan Dickinson and Aaron Burr, the first and second presidents of the college, were dear friends of Brainerd, who felt Yale went too far. While Brainerd was convalescing in Dickinson’s back room, classes of the fledgling college began in the next room. Here, we see once again, faith producing our great institutions of learning. The storyline that says that faith is antithetical to education is the worst kind of fiction. To be faithful to learning and in deepening our minds is to be faithful to God who gives faith.
Times change, we all know that. Gone are the days when our great universities shine the light of God. Gone also are the days when towering intellectuals and God-fearing people like Jonathan Edwards are presidents of universities. However, what does not have to change is the pattern of faith and learning. Faith still produces the highest learning if we allow it. One practical step in that direction comes from another word with an interesting range of meanings. The word, meditate, in Hebrew is hagah. This word is often translated simply as “to meditate,” but it has other important resonances. It also means to mumble or mutter. It is also used to refer to the moaning of grief (Isa. 16:7), the growling of a lion (Isa. 31:4), and the cooing of a dove (Isa. 38:14)—all emotive and inarticulate. It is the idea of expressing God’s Word to oneself with or without words. Therefore, when the psalmist states that blessed is one who meditates on the law of the Lord day and night, he is calling readers to do more than read or listen to or contemplate God’s word. The words of God are to resonate in our cavities, be in our breaths, and expressed through our lips. We mumble, speak, and at times groan God’s word, and by his grace, live according to it. In time, our meditation will produce wisdom and strength of character to live up to the mottos of our ancestors. From there, we might be able to bless our institutions of learning to reconsider the wisdom of the past. Hope we must not lose. Until then move onward in our educational mission of faith seeking understanding.