Faith Requires Learning
All disciples are called to love God with their minds. Consequently, authentic discipleship is never anti-intellectual. The need for ongoing Christian learning is a direct implication of faith. Although it is not widely enough recognized, the challenge of cultivating a mature ability to think Christianly about every area of reality belongs to the entire church. It applies to all Christians, no matter what we do with the bulk of our time during the week.
These insights enabled me to see that the Great Commandment provides a compelling rationale for Christians to undertake liberal arts education. The liberal arts tradition at its best endorses the intellectual and moral formation of the whole person, seeking to prepare men and women with the knowledge, character, and skills to become responsible citizens and public leaders in all walks of life. If we consider from a biblical standpoint such a way of conceiving the liberal arts, it is clear that Christian liberal arts offers a profound expression of its transformative ideal and its overarching purpose. Loving God with heart, mind, soul, and strength expresses the Bible’s most thoroughly holistic conception, and loving our neighbors as ourselves expresses the Bible’s most comprehensive vision for service in God’s world.
Therefore, the Christian liberal arts are for the sake of love—learning to grow into the most comprehensive love of God and to be equipped for the most comprehensive love of our neighbors. Accordingly, the entire breadth of academic learning in the humanities, arts, social sciences, and natural sciences opens up as the Christian’s context for learning to cultivate a Christian mind, thinking Christianly about God, his world, and his creatures so that we might honor, serve, and glorify God in word and deed.
Loving God with our minds entails learning from God’s “two books,” the Book of Scripture and the Book of Nature. The foundation of the entire Christian liberal arts enterprise is becoming biblically rooted in our ways of thinking and theologically formed to grasp the implications of our beliefs for every dimension of life. Learning from the Book of Nature, Christians discover God the Creator’s work through astronomy’s study of the starry heavens above and through geology’s study of the shifting tectonic plates below. We gain insights into God’s creatures through sociology’s analysis of urbanization, through history’s narration of the rise and fall of the Roman Empire, and through theater’s depiction of varied human experience in all its richness and complexity. To love God fully, we need to understand God and his creation; to love and serve our neighbors, we must understand them in diverse ways— socially, politically, economically, linguistically, culturally, historically, and artistically.
The value of a Christian mind cultivated through liberal arts education becomes acutely important once we recognize that the vitality and effectiveness of the church’s mission in the world depends upon the whole people of God becoming representatives of Christ in every sphere of society. Christians are not merely to be morally upright people or productive citizens of an earthly society, but God’s representatives wherever they live and work—the citizens of an eternal kingdom. The church’s mission belongs to every Christian, right where we are, not simply to specialist “full-time missionaries.” The apostle Paul writes, “Whatever you do, in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him” (Col. 3:17). To do something in the “name of Jesus” means doing it on his behalf, as his commissioned agent or personal representative. Acting in “the name of Jesus” requires thinking with the mind of Christ through the particular complexities of each situation of action and decision that we face, whether our daily tasks involve starting a new business, teaching first-graders to read, or serving as an elected official. Theologian Georgia Harkness contends that in doing so “it is the business of the Church to hold every proposed line of action up to Christian scrutiny— to throw the searchlight of the gospel upon every issue which affects the lives and destinies of persons in God’s world.”1 Christian liberal arts education affords the opportunity to be well prepared with the faith-informed knowledge and disciplined habits of mind necessary to take up Blamires’s challenge to “flood” any and every topic of inquiry with the “distinct and distinctive light” that comes from Christian convictions.
We will always have more to learn about God, about his written word in Scripture, and about the ever-changing natural and cultural worlds around us.
Thinking Christianly is not an optional nicety relegated to bookish followers of Christ; it is essential to the missionary vocation of each Christian and to the church’s credibility in public life. Thus understood, it would falsely limit the scope of the command to love God with our minds if we applied it primarily or exclusively to those whose daily work involves chiefly intellectual labor. But it does apply in a particularly acute way to students and professors whose particular vocations require focused and sustained study. I propose that such people pursue what I call “faithful Christian learning” as the particular fulfillment of our general calling to love God with our minds. Students should seek to be faithful to Christ in their specific courses of learning in order to be faithful to Christ over the entire course of a lifetime.
Christian students are invited to see all their studies, in whatever academic fields may best match their gifts and interests, as an expression of personal allegiance to Christ. The apostle Paul speaks to every student’s deepest motivation when he says, “Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men” (Col. 3:23). Education becomes a context for exercising faith as a form of reliance upon God’s grace to be sufficient for our intellectual as well as our personal needs. We should consider ourselves ready for every challenge that comes with genuine academic inquiry since we can stand firm on the presupposition that Christian faith provides a compelling, unrivalled account of the truth in a wide-ranging frame of reference that applies to all of reality. Holding these factors together enables our studies to become genuinely Christian learning—learning undertaken as an intentionally spiritual pursuit, motivated by a desire to grow in the love of God, grounded in God’s truth, and aimed at being equipped for faithful service to Christ as a representative of his kingdom, wherever his calling might lead.
Faithful Christian learning, so defined, can give meaning and focus to one’s college years. It is not something achieved conclusively during a few precious college years, but it can be accelerated dramatically when those years are well spent. However, faithful Christian learning really is a lifelong challenge. We will always have more to learn about God, about his written word in Scripture, and about the ever-changing natural and cultural worlds around us. Developing faith-informed thinking is a gradual process requiring patience and persistence. It is best undertaken in the company of wise mentors within the fellowship of the praying and witnessing church. And it is crucial to remember that loving God with all of our capacities—heart, soul, strength, and mind—does not allow us to focus on intellectual development to the neglect of all else or to elevate intellectual achievement to the most important aspect of Christian faith. Your college years will be spent most valuably through engagement, both inside and outside the classroom, which simultaneously attunes your inner life through prayer and worship, orients your life concerns and passions toward God, and develops practical skills through experiential learning in active service to your neighbors.
The journey into faithful Christian learning in a liberal arts context involves the daring venture of whole-life discipleship in response to the Great Commandment. Whether at the beginning, middle, or end of this journey, it is appropriate to meditate on and pray the words of Frances Havergal’s famous hymn: “Take my life, and let it be consecrated, Lord, to Thee. . . . Take my intellect, and use every power as Thou shalt choose.”
1. Georgia Harkness, The Church and Its Laity (Nashville: Abingdon, 1962), 132.
This article is adapted from Liberal Arts for the Christian Life edited by Jeffry C. Davis and Philip Graham Ryken.
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