Liberal learning lacks logical integration and needs a unifying frame

Many educators have declared that a liberal arts education cannot be truly liberal and open-minded, truly humanizing in its effects upon students, if it is dominated by a “Christian approach.” They view Christian faith as a sectarian prejudice that hinders the free and disinterested study of our world.

In a book entitled Christianity and History (1964), E. H. Harbison describes the attitude of these educators and scholars:

Deep at the heart of the American academic world is the belief that the word “scholar” cannot tolerate any qualifying adjective like “Christian.” … Did not the Church burn Bruno and humiliate Galileo? And in the search for historical truth, were not the real heroes those who (like Nalla) exposed the arrogant forgeries of Popes or (like Bayle) laid bare the superstitions on which Christians had been nourished for centuries? Once a man allows himself to be anything before he is “scholar” or “scientist,” so the argument runs, truth flies out the window and prejudice fills the classroom [p. 5].

Even some of the more conservative Christian educators have asserted that the liberal arts are independent disciplines which the Christian student must include in his studies but which he can never relate to a Christian perspective derived from Scripture. Rational inquiry and tentativeness in approach characterize the liberal arts, while assured faith and personal commitment characterize the Christian perspective. Therefore, say these Christian educators, the two remain incompatible, or at least irreconcilable. Such persons would perhaps assign all who are more optimistic about the integration of “revelational truth” and “liberal arts truth” to the limbo Dante reserved for those who “refused to take sides.”

These educators have not failed to find support for their contentions. They refer to the Scriptures—to Christ’s prayer, for example, as recorded in Matthew 11:25,26, or to Paul’s rejoinder to the Corinthians (“Where is the wise man? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?” [1 Cor. 1:20])—as well as to the historical fact that from time to time unpleasant tensions have marked the relations between theologians and philosophers, theologians and educators, theologians and scientists, theologians and literary scholars.

Valid Though Dangerous

Whether or not one agrees with this view, it is obvious that any serious attempt to integrate the learning of men and the revealed knowledge of God is fraught with difficulty and danger. Yet, despite the prejudice of certain unbelieving educators and the anxiety of certain Christian educators, a Christian “approach” or “perspective”—if not a thorough-going Christian philosophy—in the teaching of the liberal arts, still seems both possible and valid. Several considerations support this belief.

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First, the New Testament, while it declares that the “learning of men” may under certain conditions obstruct the way to a personal faith in Christ, does not disparage this world’s learning as such. Rather, it implies (in passages like Second Corinthians 10:5 and Philippians 4:8,9) and even illustrates (in the dialogue of Christ with his opponents as well as in the ministry of Christian teachers like Paul and Apollos) that the Christian must deliberately bring the two kinds of knowledge together. He must let the one kind (Christian revelation) illuminate, interpret, and sometimes correct the other kind (learning of men).

Secondly, some Christian humanists have in past centuries shown that liberal education can be given a Christian orientation that renders it more meaningful. Harbison, in chapter 5 of the work mentioned above, refers to a number of these, among them Jerome, Augustine, Vittorino da Fettre (of Mantua), Johann Sturm (of Strasbourg), John Colet (of London), Luther, the Brethren of the Common Life, Calvin, Erasmus, and Comenius. Indeed, Harbison goes so far as to maintain that, on the basis of historical evidence, Christianity and liberal education, though they have often drifted apart, have never fully and finally split in the West; they have “always shared one central belief and concern: belief in the dignity of personality and concern for its integrity” (p. 86).

Thirdly, the learning involved in the liberal arts must, insofar as it is valid, be part of God’s truth. For the Christian, no genuine learning, whether received from Christian or non-Christian teachers or textbooks, can be alien. The reminder of Augustine is relevant: “Let every good and true Christian understand that wherever truth may be found, it belongs to his Master.”

Fourthly, the objectives of the Christian liberal arts college demand a Christian approach in the teaching of secular subjects. One of the broad objectives of such a college has been defined as follows:

Christian higher education should provide balanced programs of liberal and professional education that are Biblically centered and are designed to prepare selected young people for leadership—either as fulltime Christian workers or as consecrated members of other professions and occupations. [Christian Education in a Democracy, Frank E. Gaebelein, p. 137].
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Clearly, such a goal can be achieved only if students are theistically oriented in the basic areas of human knowledge—that is, in the liberal arts.

Fifthly, in higher education today discerning educators increasingly feel a desperate need for a frame of reference that will pull together seemingly disparate fragments of knowledge and serve as an integrating center for teachers and students alike. The authors of the Harvard Report of 1945 (General Education in a Free Society) for instance, confess freely that the “search continues and must continue for some over-all logic, some strong, not easily broken frame within which both college and school may fulfill their at once diversifying and uniting tasks” (p. 40). Surely the Christian college ought to be in a position to supply that frame.

Steering Between The Extremes

The crux of the problem of a Christian approach to the liberal arts is the proper integration of two seemingly unrelated spheres of knowledge. If our understanding of both spheres were fuller and more precise, the problem of integration would doubtless be much simpler. But as things are, it is quite difficult to steer a safe course between the extremes of full and forced absorption of liberal arts knowledge by Christian revelation and superficial accommodation of liberal arts knowledge to Christian revelation. Medieval scholasticism is an example of the one extreme and the instruction offered in second-rate Bible colleges today an example of the other.

Liberal arts subjects have an integrity of their own. History, for example, provides some of its own “rules” of evidence and criteria of reliability and authenticity; music provides some of its own “laws” of harmony and dissonance; literature provides its own “canons” of literary criticism. And such rules, criteria, and canons cannot be ignored without serious loss of understanding; indeed, the subjects cannot be intelligently studied without them.

But for Christian students and teachers, the study of a liberal arts discipline includes more than an understanding of subject matter. Christians need to know how that particular subject is related to the moral nature and purpose of man in the universe, as these are revealed by God in the Scriptures. They must know how that subject illustrates, even if only faintly, the moral nature of man and how it may be made to serve God’s moral and spiritual purpose.

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It will not do, therefore, for Christian teachers in a church-related college simply to point out the presence or absence of artistic integrity in a given selection. A work of literature may evidence artistic wholeness and artistic sincerity and yet embody misleading insights and induce false feelings about the nature and destiny of man. Only a distinctly Christian reading of such a work will uncover and properly correct these undesirable insights and feelings.

Few Christian scholars have achieved anything like a satisfactory integration of human and divine knowledge, even in limited areas of study. And the phenomenal increase of human knowledge in the twentieth century has only complicated the task. Yet Christian educators must constantly strive for such integration in their own teaching.

Two simple guiding principles may help. First, this integration must be attempted in crucial areas, not merely at peripheral points. It would not do to suggest to students that Shakespeare’s Othello is a basically religious play because it has numerous allusions to the Bible or because Othello dies in recompense for his murdering Desdemona. These are only superficial links and tell little about the basic tone and thrust of the play.

A Christian approach to this play would involve, rather, a critical and biblically oriented discussion of the deeper motives of Othello and of Shakespeare’s own comments—as implied in the statements of certain characters—upon these motives.

In the study of European history, the instructor claiming a Christian approach could not content himself with “prophetic denunciation” of Hitler’s wickedness; he would need to discuss the moral factors that disposed Hitler to act as he did, and to present whatever evidence of divine judgment he might justly see in the development and final disruption of the Nazi regime.

A second guiding principle is that integration must be attempted in a natural, intuitive, and suggestive manner rather than in a forced and dogmatic one. The most meaningful comments of the teacher may often come as a delightful surprise to the students. Such a way of presentation calls for humility, tact, and even a bit of reticence.

Christian teachers of liberal arts subjects need to be very much at home in both human and divine areas of knowledge. Many will need as much formal education in theology as in liberal arts. But whether by formal or informal means, they will need to acquire a thorough knowledge of the inscripturated revelation of God and a strong personal commitment to its truths. For unless a personal integration of divine and human knowledge underlies the attempt at integration in the classroom, the latter is bound to be weak and unconvincing.

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