Friday, July 17, 2015

Liberal Arts at a Christian College 8

This is my eighth and final post in a series on the importance of the liberal arts for civilization. Previous posts include:

1. A Vision for the Liberal Arts
2. The Value of Philosophy
3. The Value of History
4. The Value of Music and Art
5. The Value of Literature, Writing, and Speech
6. The Value of Science and Math
7. The Value of Psychology and Sociology

1. The last thing I want to cover in this series is the intersection of the liberal arts with Christianity. What particularly Christian spin will these subject matters have at a Christian college? Indeed, are some of these subjects that Christians should reject (e.g., psychology, sociology)?

I would say a resounding, "No!" These subjects can all peacefully co-exist with Christianity. Indeed, I would say that they must.

2. The "integration of faith and learning" is often a BIG topic of conversation on Christian campuses and, believe it or not, there are debates and books on the subject. My friend Steve Lennox has given a paper several times that has gained some traction in my own circles, and now he has become President of Kingswood College in New Brunswick, Canada, where he can try to implement a sense of a Christian college in the Wesleyan tradition as a "sanctifying context."

He has presented what we might call a "formational" model of a Christian college, which fits very well with the most typical underlying goals of a liberal arts institution. The overall goal of such a Christian institution, beyond education itself, is to see students formed in faith, which includes seeing them redeemed and restored to the image of God. This eternal goal goes well beyond curriculum to the co-curriculum.

There are of course other dimensions of integration. Perhaps the most important is the person of the professor and administration. If the faculty themselves serve Christ, love God, and love others, that is perhaps the most important way in which a Christian college can be Christian.

3. I have not yet mentioned content integration, which reflects my sense of what the priorities are and should be in the integration of faith with learning at a Christian institution. The personal and contextual are the most important. But there are two very key ways in which the content of teaching is usually affected significantly by a Christian context.

The first is ethical or applicational. After presenting the mechanics of a subject, a Christian professor will be keenly interested in how to evaluate and apply those mechanics. So you can use physics to built a nuclear bomb. Should you? So economics work in a certain way if you poke it this way. Should you? This element of a Christian college does not greatly change the content of teaching but its application.

The second and most controversial is presuppositional. All interpretation of the world involves assumptions. For some Christian colleges, those assumptions are vast. In the current climate of retrenchment, the boards of Christian colleges have been drawing lines in the sand. "If you are to teach here, you cannot draw certain conclusions. Rather, you must more or less start with such and such a conclusion and work backward to find arguments to defend it."

Of course a better way is only to hire professors who, as scholars, freely hold the positions you want to be taught. You can see a potential tension here, though, with the purpose of the liberal arts in freeing students intellectually. If every option is not truly on the table for discussion, then Christian colleges themselves become enemies of civilization in the manner I have been discussing.

4. That is because truth is not just revealed. It is discovered as well. That is to say, God is "in on" the method of logic and evidence.

Indeed, if you look at the crazy variety of Christian belief that exists, tens of thousands of little splinter groups who believe LOTS of idiosyncratic things, the content of revealed truth gets rather murky rather quickly. I would identify the following at least as key to a Christian worldview, although even here you will find nuances among the many Christian groups:
  • God exists as a person and is involved with the world.
  • The world is not as it could be. All around us is a need for redemption.
  • God has and is reconciling the world to himself through Jesus Christ.
  • Every human being has intrinsic value because we are created in the image of God.
  • There are two great ethical absolutes--love of God and love of others.
Different Christians and Christian groups will play these out in different ways. For some Christian colleges, being Christian means filling in a whole lot more details to these presuppositions down into the content of specific courses. At some, discussing any of these options is part of the education. At others, these and other details are not really open for discussion. At them, the goal is to indoctrinate the students in the specifics of belief, and that is what they mean by integrating faith with learning.

5. This latter type of Christian institution is ultimately an enemy to civilization and by their very approach cannot really be said to be liberal arts institutions. They are enslaving arts institutions. They are brainwashing arts institutions. Truth is both revealed and discovered. The true alternative is not "Truth is only revealed."

After my first year of seminary, I became troubled with the way Matthew 2 interprets Hosea 11:1: "Out of Egypt I have called my son." I had a lovely chart in the back of my Thompson Chain Reference King James Bible as a teenager that gave all the prophecies in the OT that were fulfilled in Jesus. But I had never really gone back to the OT and read them.

Then in college we did. I had expected to find clear cut predictions. So with regard to Matthew 2, I had expected to find Hosea 11 to say something like, "When Messiah comes, he will be pursued by an evil man and will go down to Egypt for a time. Then out of Egypt I will call my Son."

But that is not what we find in Hosea 11. Hosea 11 says that when Israel was a child, God brought them out of Egypt in the exodus. But then instead of serving him, they pursued other gods and idols and did not worship him.

Woah! That was very troubling to me. It shouldn't have been, mind you. It was the Christian teaching of my context that set me up by making me think this would be a straightforward prediction. That is the problem with an overwhelming amount of Christian teaching today. It makes a lot of people feel wonderful as long as they don't go poking around to see if it actually matches up with the truth. Then Christian professors are made out to be the enemy when the problem was the "feel good" ignorance of popular Christian rhetoric.

For me I found myself asking horrible questions like, "Is this a test?" "Does God want to see if I'm willing to submit my intellect to him by willing myself to believe things that he has made to look false?" In other words, does God want me to believe lies as an act of submission?

6. What a horrible position the ignorant teaching of my Christian context had put me in!

But God is not a God of lies. He is a God of truth. God has not made the world irrational to test our faith when all the evidence is screaming, "This is false!" That was my final conclusion after much angst. Mind you, I don't think having our understanding right is God's first order of business. I don't believe he is troubled by those with the right heart but kind of messed up understandings.

But God does not demand that I be irrational to be a Christian. God is complicit in the discovery of truth. God has set up logic to work. God has made a world were the preponderance of evidence tends to point toward the right verdict. And if we get it wrong intellectually, that also is not greatly worrying to God.

7. My point is that we need not fear the open pursuit of faith seeking understanding. We can consider all the options fairly, even if we favor certain ones over others. All the disciplines of the liberal arts and general education have the values we have been discussing, even in Christian contexts.

They have those values because truth is both revealed and discovered, and the two do not normally conflict with each other. If they do, then we have made a mistake in one or the other. Science changes. The twentieth century corrected even the great Isaac Newton, even the great Euclid was modified. Science is open-ended; it is not finalized.

But it is also immensely true that Christians disagree massively on the interpretation of revelation. It is not as though the meaning and implications of the Bible are agreed on by all. They soundly are not. So it can also be possible that the problem in conflict between revelation and discovery is our misinterpretations of revelation.

I believe in the liberal arts because I believe truth is both revealed and discovered. God is complicit in this framework. A Christian need not fear the liberal arts. And the liberal arts need not fear the Christian.

And least that's where I am at on my own journey, at 7:10am on July 17, 2015.

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