Some evangelicals at Christian Colleges do not believe that John Henry Newman is useful today because his famous book The Idea of a University is addressed to Christian “gentlemen.” I understand this critique. I also think it is short-sighted. Indeed, Newman wrote the lectures that became Idea in 1854–a time when the most prestigious British universities were only open to men. But his lectures on the university also offer a lot of interesting insights for anyone who works, teachers, or leads a Christian college.
In a plenary address at “The State of the Evangelical Mind” conference this past week, Tim Larsen, the McManis Chair of Christian Thought at Wheaton College, applied Newman’s work to the task of cultivating the evangelical mind on Christian college campuses.
Drawing from Newman, Larsen offered several characteristics of a Christian liberal arts college:
- Christian liberal arts colleges must pursue “substantial knowledge.” Students should study those things that distinguish us from other animals. Larsen argued that money should be used to pursue this kind of “substantial knowledge” and not the other way around.
- Christian liberal arts colleges are about “formation,” not careerism or the pursuit of monetary comfort.
- Liberal arts colleges must promote “the entire circle of knowledge.” They should embrace and celebrate the fact that psychologists, biologists, historians, sociologists, economists, and theologians, among others, all offer useful ways of understanding the world.
- Students at Christian liberal arts colleges should not be sheltered from “unsettling realities.” When students are sheltered from certain ideas they are only “delaying their education” and, in essence, turning their education over to the world.
- Theology must be a core discipline at a Christian liberal arts college and it must inform all the other disciplines.
The Q&A was lively. I was interested in how Larsen’s model might work at a college without a denominational or Christian confessional core or specific doctrinal statement beyond the basic historic Christian creeds. At the college where I teach there is no particular theological system that can serve as a starting point for how theology might inform the work we do in our fields. Jay Green followed up on my question by asking Larsen how to balance disciplinary-specific ways of thinking with the integrated model Larsen proposed in his lecture.
I liked Larsen’s lecture and have always been attracted to the kind of Christian liberal arts institutions that he described (with a lot of help from Newman). I do wonder whether such a vision would only work at a handful of Christian colleges. At most Christian colleges the humanities (the study of the things that separate us from other animals) are in decline, professional programs prevail, and students decide what to study based on economic considerations. Some Christian colleges even prevent students from engaging with certain texts and ideas that are considered dangerous by the administrators in charge.
I thought this excerpt from Why Study History: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past would make for an appropriate Valentine’s Day post on history blog.
Love is at the center of the Christian life. It is one of the “fruits of the Spirit” recorded in Galatians 5:22-23. Jesus reminded us that “greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” (John 15:13). His sacrificial death on the cross exemplified the ultimate act of love (Phil. 2:6-8). In the Christian tradition, we flourish as human beings when we learn to live the “Jesus Creed”–loving the Lord our God with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength, and loving our neighbor as ourselves. Such sacrificial love for God and neighbor is the source of true joy and happiness. In the words of St. Paul, “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Gal. 2:20). As theologian Miroslav Volf reminds us, ” At the core of the Christian faith lies the persuasion that…’others’ need not be perceived as innocent in order to be loved, but ought to be embraced even when they are perceived as wrongdoers… The story of the cross is about God who desires to embrace precisely the ‘sons, and daughters of hell.'” Our lives should be one of “embrace” rather than “exclusion.”
The study of the past offers endless opportunities to exercise loving embrace to our fellow humans, even if they have lived in a different era and are no longer alive. It is easy to manipulate the voices from the past to serve our own purposes in the present, and out of love we must not do this….This kind of presentism makes for bad history, and when looked at theologically, this kind of manipulation is also a failure to love–a failure to enter into the worlds of those who have gone before us with a spirit of compassion, selfishness, and empathy. People in the past cannot defend themselves. They are at the mercy of the historian. This, of course, gives the practitioner of history a great deal of power. But Christian historians will do their best to meet the people in the past as Jesus encountered the people he met during his earthly ministry. They must relinquish power and avoid the temptation to use the powerless–those in the past who are at the mercy of us, the interpreters–to serve selfish ends, whether they be religious, political, or cultural. The exercise of this hermeneutic of love means that we will read historical texts for the purpose of learning how to love people who are not like us, perhaps even people who, if we were living at the same time, may have been our enemies. It forces us to love others–even a nineteenth-century slaveholder or Hitler–when they seem to be unlovable. Failure to respect the people in the past is ultimately a failure of love. It is a failure to recognize the common bond that we share with humanity.
I was thinking about the Christian doctrine of the incarnation today. For those unfamiliar, the incarnation is the historic Christian belief that God revealed Himself to the world (or incarnated Himself) in the form of a man (Jesus Christ).
The school where I teach, Messiah College, affirms the following in its statement of faith:
God speaks to us in many different ways, times and places but is uniquely revealed to all the world in Jesus of Nazareth who was fully human and fully divine.
If we believe this, how might it shape the culture of a Christian college? As historian Mark Noll has argued, most forcefully in Jesus Christ and the Life of the Mind, the incarnation implies that the stuff of this world is important to God. The world is important to God because it was the place where He decided to uniquely reveal Himself.
The Christian scriptures teach that human beings–in the flesh–are important because they are created in the image of God and because God revealed himself in human form.
What are the implications of this belief? What might it say about online courses in which students are not bodily present with the instructor in a flesh and blood learning community? What might it say about MOOCs or other forms of course delivery in which professors are not bodily present and where students are passive consumers of information as they sit behind computer screens?
I like this older piece from Christian philosopher Jerry Gill. Here is a taste:
Although there is room for, indeed a need for, a wide variety of professorial styles within the college setting, the sine qua non of an educator is the ability to communicate through embodiment. Presenting ideas and questions clearly, listening attentively, evidencing continued growth, and integrating faith in learning are priorities. Such criteria place a necessary premium on selectivity in faculty recruitment. Moreover, continual faculty development must provide models and skills for educational growth. Here again it is the fruits that count – learning as participation rather than as accumulation.
From the student’s perspective, the living-out of an incarnational approach to education will involve active participation in the learning process. The passive reception of information and someone else’s ideas does not constitute education any more than merely giving mental assent to a set of doctrines constitutes Christian faith. Students must take responsibility for their own education as well as for their faith. They must search and sift, think and feel, create and synthesize; moreover, they too must apply and incorporate their learning in order for it to become an actuality.
Just thinking out loud. Would love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.
Here is a taste:
…But in the spirit of seeing logs instead of specks… I want to take seriously Barton’s critique of Christian professors like John, Jared, and myself. Are we “just like” the Ivy League-trained scholars who trained us? Have we become Christians who “don’t think right”?
Though only a couple of the historians who trained me had been educated at Harvard and Yale, I’m probably even more guilty in Barton’s eyes: I received my master’s degrees and doctorate from Yale.
It was twenty years ago that I started that phase of my education, so it’s worth reflecting on how that experience shaped me. And I can’t dismiss Barton out of hand, for there is much about graduate schooling that is formative.
Grad schools don’t tend to make the same kinds of promises (“Transformational! Whole-person!”) as the Christian liberal arts colleges where John, Jared, and I work. But they do far more than deepen the knowledge, sharpen the skills, and expand the networks of their students. Graduate programs shape beliefs, values, and virtues (and vices).
How could it be otherwise? I started grad school two months before my 21st birthday, at a stage of life when I had considerable intellectual, emotional, and relational development left to complete. It was intimidating and intoxicating, as I found myself surrounded by people smarter than me, conducting cutting-edge research at a world-class institution. Far more than happens in most of those colleges that promised “low student-to-faculty ratios,” my peers and I were thrown into intimate pedagogical settings — tiny seminars held over meals in professors’ houses, one-on-one mentoring by dissertation directors. And because this stage of schooling is less about general education than professional preparation, we were seeking models of what it looks like to do what we so badly wanted to do with our lives.
Not that anyone actually emerges from that experience “fully trained,” but it’s not unreasonable to expect that we’ll look something like our teachers. In some ways I do, and am largely grateful for it — John Gaddis, Paul Kennedy, and my other professors are brilliant historians and conscientious teachers who taught me to seek truth as part of a community that spans borders and eras.
But here’s where Barton clearly doesn’t understand the graduate education of Christian history professors, perhaps because his own seems to have been quite different. In terms of my formation as a Christian scholar, graduate school did shape me — but not in the way Barton thinks.
Read the rest here.
As many of you know, I am very interested in the ways that my Christian faith informs what I do as a scholar, historian, and teacher. Back in 2011 I joined my friends Jay Green and Eric Miller in editing Confessing History: Explorations in Christian Faith and the Historian’s Vocation. My book Why Study History?: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past has a couple of chapters that reflect my interest in the integration of faith and history.
If I get a chance to continue writing about faith and the academic vocation I would like to explore the way that spiritual practices or spiritual “disciplines” might inform the work of Christian scholars. (Perhaps such a study might revive my own inconsistent efforts at engaging in these practices).
So much of the conversation on faith and scholarship, at least in the field of history, revolves around Christian epistemology, philosophy, or theology. It is driven largely by those Christians who associate with the Reformed Protestant tradition. In Confessing History we tried to push this conversation away from the epistemological questions long associated with what Douglas Sweeney has called the “Calvin School” of Christian historiography, and into the area of calling/vocation and practice.
It seems like there could be a third way of thinking about connecting faith with history. We know how Christian theology and philosophy inform the presuppositions of believing historians. We are starting to learn, thanks to the authors in Confessing History, about how believing historians might practice their craft as scholars, teachers, and public scholars. But we don’t have a lot of work on how things like prayer, fasting, Bible reading, and other spiritual disciplines might influence our work. (I discussed this a bit in Why Study History?, but a good place to start is A.G. Sertillanges, The Intellectual Life: Its Spirit, Conditions, and Methods).
I was thus very encouraged and inspired today reading Kevin Spinale’s interview with Robert George, the McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence at Princeton University and one of America’s leading Catholic intellectuals. George talks to Spinale about how the spiritual practices of his Catholic faith informs his work as a scholar, teaching, and public intellectual.
Here is just a small taste:
Prof. George, how do you pray?
On my knees, the old-fashioned way—not always, but I do find that being on one’s knees in a posture of prayer facilitates trying to remove oneself from all of one’s cares and concerns. It’s valuable to remove oneself from one’s normal routines and put oneself in the presence of God for that conversation. So, to me the posture matters. Of course, one can’t always be on one’s knees.
I often pray when I am driving, for example, if I am alone. I like to pray with people, a lot, with friends—some of whom are Catholic, some of whom are not. I am happy to pray with just about anyone who wants to pray. But there is something special about—especially at the end of the day—being on one’s knees before God, in that posture and praying.
Is there a particular text or devotion that you ordinarily use to initiate or shape prayer?
That can vary extraordinarily widely. Sometimes it is petitionary prayer: something I am concerned about; something that I want to ask for God’s help with, assistance with, blessing upon. It might be a person; it might be a cause; or it might be an event. Often, I find myself praying for help in thinking things through, trying to discern what I am supposed to be doing.
It is difficult for me and I have to make an effort at this, but I try to remember the importance of prayers of praise in addition to petitionary prayer. That is something I have to discipline myself to do; otherwise I find myself always in the asking mode. It is very easy. I do not have to think much about petitionary prayer.
It is very easy if I feel or judge there to be a need—I find myself very easily moving into prayer to ask for God’s help with that need. But I recognize that it is very important to give God the praise he is due, and I have to discipline myself to remember to do that. It does not come as immediately or effortlessly as petitionary prayer.
I like the old-fashioned forms of prayer, although I do not restrict myself to them. The rosary is great—praying the rosary is valuable. The traditional forms of prayer that I was taught when I was a boy, what we Catholics call the Our Father, the Hail Mary, the Glory Be, I still say all those prayers—the guardian angel prayer, I still say all those prayers.
In part, I like these traditional prayers because of their simplicity. Jesus said that we are supposed to be childlike in our faith, and those prayers are prayers that are prayed by children as well as adults. We learned them as children, most of us, and they continue with us in our adult life. We should never regard ourselves as too sophisticated for these prayers. Saying those prayers is a help in maintaining the kind of faith that Jesus said we should have: the faith of those little children who were clamoring to get onto Jesus’s lap, whom the disciples were trying to shoo away—Jesus says, “No, no, no, let them come. … Your faith should be like their faith.” [Mark 10:13-16]
Read the entire interview here, including George’s thoughts on vocation, suffering, spiritual desolation, and Catholic higher education.
Four of the greatest Christian thinkers of the last generation once taught together at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan. They are philosophers Alvin Plantinga and Nicholas Wolterstorff, historian George Marsden, and theologian/philosopher Richard Mouw.
Plantinga taught at Calvin from 1963 to 1982 and spent the rest of his career at the University of Notre Dame.
Wolterstorff taught at Calvin from 1959 to 1989 and at Yale University from 1989-2001.
Marsden taught at Calvin from 1965 to 1986, Duke Divinity School from 1986 to 1992, and finished his career at the University of Notre Dame (1992-2008).
Mouw taught a Calvin for seventeen years and then moved to Fuller Theological Seminary, where was eventually elected president.