Kelly M. Kapic is professor of theological studies at Covenant College. He is the author of The God Who Gives: How the Trinity Shapes the Christian Story (Zondervan) and co-author, with economist Brian Fikkert, of Becoming Whole: Why the Opposite of Poverty Isn’t the American Dream (Moody).
In their recent book, For the Life of the World, Yale theologians Mirsolv Volf and Matthew Croasmun argue that there is a crisis in theology—that it has lost touch with what non-theologians consider to be real problems. This hurts not just the church but the whole world, they say, because theology can contribute to conversations about human flourishing in ways that no other discipline can.
In fact, this crisis extends beyond theology and into Christian higher education in general.
In 2018, The Atlantic and The Chronicle of Higher Education both ran lengthy features about the decline of the humanities (a rough synonym for “liberal arts”) in contemporary higher education. Facing economic pressures and multiple ideological critiques, bachelor’s degrees in the humanities have declined by about 35 percent on average since 2008, according to the Department of Education.
The Wall Street Journal reported a shift at liberal arts institutions away from the classic liberal arts disciplines and toward more “career-ready” degrees. According to Vicki Baker, an economics professor at Albion College in Michigan, an estimated one-third of colleges that called themselves liberal arts in 1990 no longer meet that description. “It’s an evolution and we are losing some of our liberal arts colleges as schools try and manage these pressures,” she said.
At the same time, the value of a specifically Christian education is frequently questioned. When Wheaton College in Illinois suspended a professor in 2016, accusing her of violating its statement of faith, many in the academic community expressed concerns that statements of faith threaten academic freedom and have no place in higher education. John K. Wilson, for example, co-editor of the American Association of University Professors’ “Academe” blog, argued that statements of faith are violations of academic freedom and “completely illegitimate” under the 1970 interpretive comment, which states that the AAUP doesn’t endorse departures from its academic freedom statement. This skepticism is mirrored by softening interest in religious studies disciplines, which have declined 43 percent in bachelor’s degrees awarded since 2008, according to 2017 Department of Education statistics.
In spite of these trends—perhaps because of them—I argue that the distinctively Christian liberal arts college is more valuable than ever.
Questions about human purpose and meaning are essential for the health of the human person, but when do we ever take the time to explore them at the level they deserve? And when are we in an environment with experts who can help us with them? While the value of a liberal arts education and the place of religion in the academy may be in doubt at the moment, questions of meaning, purpose, and the “good life” are very much alive and well. And when we ask what human flourishing is and we fail to take God into account—as so many do—the consequences are devastating.
LinkedIn, the career-focused social media network, conducted a worldwide survey in 2016 of over 40,000 professionals and found that 74 percent of respondents want a job where they feel that their work matters. Lifestyle trends such as exercise routines, fad diets, or even decluttering all attempt to find, articulate, and live a life of flourishing.
But according to the World Happiness Report, Americans have reported an overall decline in life satisfaction over the last ten years. It is part of a longer-term trend: A 2009 study in Clinical Psychology Review showed that, despite increasing freedoms, better technology, and sustained economic growth, the depression rate among college students has been increasing over the last 50 years. One of the study’s authors, social psychologist Jean Twenge, toldNew York magazine, “There’s a paradox here that we seem to have so much ease and relative economic prosperity compared to previous centuries, yet there’s this dissatisfaction, there’s this unhappiness, there are these mental health issues in terms of depression and anxiety.”
This distorted vision of flourishing, mistaken as it is, has also taken root among Christians, producing a flattened-out, bumper-sticker Christianity that is spiritually divorced from the world in which we live. I frequently hear from young (and older) Christians who have been fed a steady diet of slogans instead of wisdom, self-help programs instead of Christian formation, and clichés instead of pointing to the difficult beauty of following our crucified and risen Savior. We need young Christians trained in more holistic ways for the challenges of our day.
Real life, real work, real relationships, real joy and pain call for the deep wisdom of the God of Abraham and Isaac, Mary and Paul. Additionally, we must grow in our understanding of an increasingly complex, fallen world. Instead of dividing our lives between the spiritual and the worldly, we are called to discover what it means to be a child of God, called by him to pursue meaningful work in his world. Such work is meant to be an outgrowth and expression of one’s faith, not a distraction from it.
The research of Robert Bellah and his colleagues, published in their book Habits of the Heart, concluded that people approach their work either as a job, a career, or a calling. While job and career are understood primarily in material terms—money or status—those who engage their work as a calling find aspects of it inherently fulfilling, taking satisfaction in the work itself.
Scholars, not all of them Christians, sense the need for what Christians call “vocation.” But without a transcendent reality to secure it, without God’s presence and blessing, the idea that work can be intrinsically satisfying loses stability: It points us in the right direction, but it can’t answer the questions “Who is calling us? Why does my enjoyment of the work matter?” A specifically Christian liberal arts education investigates how the good God is connected with the everyday aspects of life.
Every college or university employs plenty of faculty who follow an academic discipline because they love it and want to convey that love to their students. This is a good and right instinct, but unless we embed learning in its proper subordination to God, then learning can become our god. When this happens, all our affections, our desires, and our actions are directed toward temporal realities alone.
This substitution of the creation for the Creator is idolatry, as is treating the good gifts of God as if they were God himself. Without a proper Christian framework for understanding our world, we tend to belittle God’s good creation or to fragment life into compartments, where we bow to God for the “spiritual” parts of life and ignore him for the remainder. Instead, learning to love God’s creation as just that, God’s creation, puts us into a fruitful place of receiving and using the creation rightly as gifts from our loving God. Delighting in God’s gifts as just that, gifts from God, enables us to live in a healthy place, neither denigrating nor deifying creation, and enables us to hear God’s calling for us in the world he has given.
Why Liberal Arts?
Because God had set us in a creation that he repeatedly called “good,” Christian theology addresses all spheres of life, not just church life. It asks novelists about books, painters about art, actors about the stage, historians about the consequences of the slave trade. These Christians immersed in the liberal arts are vital to the rest of us.
A background in the liberal arts enables students, whatever their major disciplines, to understand their studies externally in relation to the whole world and internally in relation to interests beyond their jobs. Such an exploration can show how a student’s particular gifts and callings fit into what God is doing both around them and within them. We don’t have to do everything; we just have to discover our place in what God is doing and then serve him faithfully in his church and world.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics notes that the average baby boomer has had at least 12 different jobs during their life. A Christian liberal arts education can prepare students not simply for a job, or even a career, but for vocation—the wisdom that hears God’s call to respond with the whole self to produce meaning and purpose in God’s world. Engaging a broad swath of learning in the concentrated context of Christian higher education can encourage a fair-minded, holistic approach to life, grounded on the Scriptures and the faith of the church through the ages.
Weary or simply lacking resources, we have too often opted for simplistic and naïve answers to the hard questions of faith and life. Whether dealing with theology or science, economics or psychology, we find it easy to substitute careless proof texts for the hard work of absorbing the wisdom of Scripture and addressing this complicated, broken world. Busyness, tiredness, and defensiveness often keep us from the difficult task of discovering how to live our lives and do our work as an expression of our faith. What would it mean, say, to be a Christian economist rather than a Christian who is also an economist or an economist who happens to be a Christian?
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Source: Christianity Today