by Wally Metts
In a prescient sonnet, written long before Google and fake news, Edna St. Vincent Millay wrote: Upon this gifted age, in its dark hour, Rains from the sky a meteoric shower Of facts … they lie unquestioned, uncombined. Wisdom enough to leech us of our ill Is daily spun; but there exists no loom To weave it into fabric. It is the job of Christian scholars to insist that there is in fact a loom, a framework upon which our students can weave the fabric of their lives.
When we speak of the integration of faith and knowledge, we speak of faith as the framework upon which facts can be combined to create beauty and truth or to ask questions of significance. In the academy, this is primarily an intellectual exercise, one that allows us to love the Lord our God with all our heart and all our soul and all our mind, which our Lord referred to in Matthew 22 as the greatest commandment.
Unfortunately, “in this gifted age, in this dark hour,” passion and pleasure skew the facts and distort the wisdom, not just in our culture but in our churches. The self-centeredness that characterizes the echo chambers of public discourse requires reasonable and even dispassionate conversations about what really matters and how we decide.
Christian scholars can and should contribute the intellectual rigor needed, drowning as we are in knowledge but not civility or certainty. This contribution is no easy task. Many of our own conservative religious traditions have been skeptical of mere intellectual approaches to what is ultimately a spiritual battle.
Mouw, who also cited Millay’s sonnet, quotes Kempis, who in his classic The Imitation of Christ said, “my choice is rather to be pricked in the heart for sin than to have the skill to define the word compunction.” Surely this is a false dichotomy. Surely, we can feel it and define it. Not only can we define it, we can help see how, in Mouw’s words, “a Christian understanding of human flourishing has to cherish a world in which there is good poetry, proper historical understanding and the benefits of scientific research.”
This task requires more than praying before class, however commendable that might be. This task requires more than including a few relevant Scripture verses in our lectures or syllabi, as useful as that might seem. This task requires the thoughtful and intentional construction of a loom that lasts a lifetime.
At Spring Arbor University, we require faculty be a Christian. And we like it when they say and do Christian things. But what we desperately need are faculty who think Christianly about their discipline, examining and even challenging its presuppositions. We need faculty that ask:
- Should genetic engineering be used to enhance our well-being?
- How is Scripture the same as and different from other literature?
- What responsibility does a business have to its employees and its community?
- What, if any, are the limits of creative restorative expression?
- Is history linear?
- What is the relationship between profit and justice?
- How is the internet changing us and why does it matter?
None of these questions were addressed in Sunday school. All of them are being addressed in the academy. Even if Christians do not agree on the answers, we will arrive at them differently because we begin with different premises. That’s because Christianity is not just a viewpoint. It is an epistemic foundation.
We hold, for example, that truth is not constructed, but discovered. This is how we approach the Word of God, but also the works of God—all that he has made and done. There is an eloquence in creation that challenges the mind and the spirit. We are lovers of a created reality, grieved by its brokenness, hoping in the power of grace to redeem it.
We will have none of the cynical despair that characterizes post-modernism or the blind determinism of a strict materialism. We can follow without fear any rigorous inquiry into neuroscience or economics because “the earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof (Psalm 24:1).” We do so with humility and with hope. We may be wrong in our own interpretation of Scripture, for example. We must proceed with caution. Pride can derail even well-meaning efforts. But In a rain of facts and the incessant arrogance and anger of the Twitterverse, we point to a Word that became flesh and dwelt among us, taking on the form of a servant and being obedient unto death.
This is no mere model. It is an essence, scrawled across thousands of years of human vanity and pride. This story of creation, fall, and redemption, changes everything, including human inquiry and scholarship. As fallen and redeemed children, we come in awe of all that God is and all that man can become. We tremble in the face of His justice and the experience of His love. But as scholars we are called to help students explore both God’s specific and general revelations, not only to sense their depths but to grasp their connections.
Consider, briefly, three strategies for integrating faith and learning originally proposed by David Wolfe and later refined by Robert Harris: First, we can find areas of harmony and compatibility, highlighting common ground between our faith and the assumptions of our discipline, our methods of inquiry, or ways of distinguishing facts from opinion. In some disciplines, our faith does not challenge the underlying assumptions. This is often the case, since what we have uncovered is something God designed.
In these cases, it is easier to find and make Christian and biblical connections. A second strategy is to recognize that specific claims and interpretations within our own discipline may need be corrected and even transformed. In these instances, we have to expose faulty assumptions and ideologies and suggest new ways to explain the data. What was the researchers’ presuppositions? How did this affect their interpretations? Are there other explanations?
In short, we teach our students to think critically. Doing so requires courage and effort, because the textbook may in fact be wrong. We should say so or ask how.
There is a third strategy, which requires more work. We may need to reconstruct our discipline, creating entirely new foundations for our own and our students’ engagement and understanding. Here our Christian worldview provides the organizing principles and leads to new insights. Clearly this sort of thinking is more necessary in some disciplines than others. And clearly this calls for deeper study and more reflection, including the time and resource to do it.
In fact, any of these strategies require study and reflection, since they are not discrete, but complementary and overlapping. But these strategies are precisely what we are talking about when we talk about the integration of faith and learning. It is the unique calling of Christian scholarship. By it our minds are no longer conformed to the pattern of this world, but renewed and transformed as the Apostle Paul suggests. Then, he says, “you will be able to test and approve what’s God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will" (Romans 12:2).
As a young scholar, I began to seek out professors from other Christian schools at conferences. In communication, there was lots of low hanging fruit, as I could find dozens of biblical texts about how we should speak. And not speak. But I also had to consider ethical boundaries in subjects like advertising and journalism. How might a Christian think about the boundary between personal privacy and a public need to know? When do we move from persuasion to manipulation?
And then there are fundamental ideas about key theories to unpack; do reader-centered approaches to interpretation affect our confidence in a God who speaks to us? As you can see there are elements of all three strategies in my personal journey. Fortunately, we are a community of learners, and we can engage each other in thoughtful conversation about important questions and Christian responses. And fortunately, this community extends beyond our campus, to other Christian universities and to generations of Christian scholars who have contributed to this conversation and to networks around the world.
We can find mentors and companions. We can read their books or follow their social media. And we should. But there are tools readily available. One tool, for example, is reflection, something we should be asking students to do anyway. How do we know what we know? What is the agenda or ideology of the author? What goodness is there in this, and what brokenness? Where is the hope? How can we claim this, or reclaim this, for the glory of God?
Our most useful tool may be questions like these, questions that explore the edges along the path between any observation and its application. Questions we don’t know the answer to. Questions about the questions. Questions with theological implications. “Who is man that You are mindful of him?” the Psalmist asks God. “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?” God asks Job.
We have to learn to ask the questions that require a thoughtfulness about the relationship between our theological understanding and our disciplinary expertise. This requires we actually have a theological understanding, of course, so Christian scholars must be committed to developing our own understanding of who God is and what He has said.
It is not enough to go to church. We must be curious and intentional and committed and studious Christian scholars. The Apostle James tells us that if we ask for wisdom God will give us wisdom. Christ said He would send His Spirit to guide us into truth.
Prayer, then, may be the most powerful tool of all, as we welcome students into a community of inquiry, challenge their assumptions, celebrate their growth, and listen to their doubts. Be certain of this. They will bring their doubts, and our own will be exposed. But in a world where safe places are being created so students will not encounter an uncomfortable idea, as Christian scholars we should be creating a space where they will safely encounter many of them.
The Gospel offers many uncomfortable insights into our frailty and failure. What we offer, though, is a hermeneutic of hope, vocations of service, and a foundation of truth. And in our gifted age, these are powerful antidotes to darkness and despair.
Millay wrote her sonnet in 1939, on the eve of World War 2. She had already lived through the senseless brutality of World War 1, the Great War, the war to end all wars. It was a time every bit as dark as ours, if not darker. But I say to her and I say to you, there is a loom. It is large enough and strong enough for all those unquestioned and uncombined facts to be spun.
As I understand it, the strongest threads in any fabric are the warp —the ones fastened directly to the loom itself. This is what a Christian scholar can do, each time he or she stands in a classroom or posts online or plans a lesson. With reflection, questions and prayer, we can help students fasten the strand we offer to the frame of faith.
I can think of no clearer picture of integrating faith and knowledge than this. Over a lifetime they will themselves provide the woof, the strands of color and texture that run across the tapestry of their lives, creating garments of righteousness and praise. We can have confidence that this will occur because there is not only a loom, there is a Weaver who knit us together in the womb (Psalm 139:15), for His own praise and glory. He is worthy to be praised when we offer prayer or devotions at the beginning of a class. And He is praised, each time we tie a strand of truth about his character and purpose to the frame.
Harris, Robert. Integration of Faith and Learning: A Worldview Approach. Eugene, Ore.: Cascade Books, 2004.
Mouw, Richard. Called to the Life of the Mind. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2014. David L. McKenna | Christ and the College - http://enarche.arbor.edu/2017/05/26/david-l-mckenna-christ-and-the-college/