It’s graduation season and, like many of you, I have been attending various ceremonies honoring those who are receiving high school diplomas as well as undergraduate and graduate degrees.
But something came to my attention this year that I had not realized before. While every school has a motto, usually written in Latin or Greek, there are many institutions of higher learning who have moved away from their traditional motto.
To be more particular, many great educational institutions began with religious missions reflected in their mottos. Harvard University’s motto used to be, Veritas Christo et Ecclesiae, “Truth for Christ and the Church.” But due to the influence of the Unitarians in the late nineteenth century, the phrase Christo et Ecclesiae was dropped from the school crest and for well over a century the ivy league school has functioned under the single word, Veritas. (Before 1650 Harvard’s motto was actually In Christi Gloriam, “For the Glory of Christ.”)
Likewise, Yale University’s motto, Lux et Veritas, “Light and Truth” also hearkens back to a spiritual heritage. The phrase does not appear explicitly religious, but it is actually a translation of the Urim and Thummim connected with the Old Testament priesthood. The motto was chosen by the founders of Yale who saw themselves as the chosen people of God in the New World. In the eighteenth century, students at Yale were taught to make their chief study the knowledge of God through Christ and to live with sobriety and devotion toward God.
As in the case of Yale, some universities do not choose to update their mottos. They merely reinterpret them. The University of Wisconsin, Madison’s catchy motto, Numen Lumen has been traditionally translated, “God, our Light.” But in recent history the motto has been reinterpreted by the following translation: “The divine within the universe, however manifested, is my light.”
Needless to say, all three of these schools have drifted far from their chartered purposes.
Ironically, there are some institutions whose mottos still reflect their abandoned spiritual heritage. McMaster University in Ontario, Canada still retains the Greek phrase, ΤΑ ΠΑΝΤΑ ΕΝ ΧΡΙΣΤΩΙ ΣΥΝΕΣΤΗΚΕΝ, “All Things Cohere in Christ,” even though the school broke away from its Baptist roots in 1957 and has become a secularized campus open to all expressions of faith as personal ideas. Brown University’s motto is still In Deo Speramus, “In God We Hope.” Colgate University displays the words Deo ac Veritati, “For God and for Truth” on its official crest. George Washington University still carries the motto, Deus Nobis Fiducia, “God Is Our Trust.”
Nevertheless, before we as believers in Christ pass judgment upon human institutions that drift from their biblical moorings, some self-reflection is in order. What about our own mottos? Do we ourselves stay true to them?
Take, for instance, the simple motto inherent in the word “Christian.” Christian means, “one who is like Christ” or, “one who follows Christ.” Being saved and being a Christian is not the same thing. To be saved refers to the transaction that takes place when we place our faith in the death of Christ for our sins and his resurrection. Salvation refers to being born again, regenerated, justified by faith alone in Christ alone.
To be a “Christian,” however, is something more. In the city of Antioch, there was a visible community of believers. When the citizens of Antioch wanted to refer to this new sect of religious people they identified them as “Christians” (Acts 11:26). Most likely, the name was not contrived but originated organically. The Antiochians heard the name Christos from the lips of the members of this strange, new community. They saw their devotion, most likely heard their teachings, and watched as they became more visible, more pervasive in the city (see Acts 11:19–26). They were called Christians by their neighbors because of their explicit identification with Christ that set them apart from others in Antioch.
By taking the name “Christian” we in essence adopt the motto, “Follow Christ,” or “Be like Christ.” Christ reflected in our actions. Christ reflected in our attitude. Christ reflected in how we treat others. Christ reflected in our speech. Christ reflected in our fellowship with the Father. If the name “Christian” had never been coined, would it still occur to those who know us to identify us by the name of Christ?
This is a valid question in today’s culture, in which the lives of many “Christians” are largely indistinguishable from their non-Christian neighbors. Perhaps the biggest irony, then, is the fact that Christianity in America has become so anemic, so watered down, so much like the culture in which it exists, that there is no urgency for a campus to change its religious motto when it begins to live by non-religious goals. “All Things Cohere in Christ” need mean very little in practical terms. Merely a traditional phrase, a piece of history, a quaint reminder of the past. As if no one actually expects Christians to distinguish themselves as real Christians.
What the world needs most, however, are Christians who follow their sacred motto.
This article was originally published on Theology in 3-D.