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?
Learning to be faithful stewards of God’s world, whatever our vocation, requires a whole array of knowledge that is too vast for any one person to effectively learn. A Christian education grounded in the liberal arts engages learning across disciplinary and ideological boundaries to equip the student to appreciate God’s will in and for God’s world.
We are all alarmed at the growing tribalism and fragmentation in North America and around the world, but we must not settle for simplistic answers that become tribal markers. We cannot afford to reject others who don’t say things exactly the same way we do; we need them to help us on the journey of seeking after God’s truth. We miss the full breadth of God’s wisdom when we substitute stereotypes for real people or cling to one-dimensional answers. When we are threatened by a constructive reflection that seeks wisdom wherever it may be found, we demonstrate a lack of trust in our heavenly Father who delights to give good gifts to his children (Matt. 7:11). Christians, of all people, should have the liberty to actually learn.
Rather than being afraid, we can explore all of God’s creation, learning to do good work in any profession, confident in God. That confidence teaches us that our lives have meaning and purpose now, not just in the future. That confidence also teaches us that our limits are not threats but paths to growth and learning from people whose faith has led them through years of study to a God-centered expertise. A Christian liberal arts college provides a distinctively God-centered environment for collaborating with such scholars.
Christian education is not merely about giving the “Christian answer” to questions. No, the advantage of a Christian liberal arts college is that it provides a broad, sustained, relationally based conversation led by trusted scholars about who God is, who we are, and how to live faithfully in this world. It is broad because the resources available span many disciplines, not only the pastoral and the theological. It is sustained because the ministry engages the student’s vision for every hour of every day—not just Sundays. It is relationally based because the significant amount of time the community spends together for four years allows for deep, consistent engagement with peers, mentor-experts, and big questions. Finally, it is a conversation in which all parties can ask penetrating, inconvenient, uncomfortable questions because we are confident the truth can stand the closest scrutiny.
In his 2012 book, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion, social psychologist Jonathan Haidt argues that while we imagine that we are led by pure logic and reason, we are really more often led by intuition and our passions. We know what we want to think and we know the conclusion we want to end up with, so we sift through arguments to find what aligns with our preconceived opinion.
This is a problem for all of us, regardless of political or ideological persuasion. This is what makes us all vulnerable to “fake news.” Haidt argues that we tend to gather data that supports our views (accurate or not) and ignore data that questions our convictions (despite the weight of evidence). This brings to mind the biblical warning about “self-righteousness”: We are so consumed with the problems we see in others that we fail to see our own shortcomings, both morally and intellectually (Matt. 7:1–5).
In his 2018 book, The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas are Setting Up a Generation for Failure, Haidt writes that we are losing our ability to know how to debate and how to wrestle with difficult ideas, let alone how to learn from those who say things we find objectionable.
One version of this shows up in Christian parents who send their children to secular universities while cautioning them, “Enjoy the football and college life, but be careful about those faculty. You can’t really trust them.” Though this is certainly not always the case, stories persist of two kinds of bad reactions.
On the one hand, these dire warnings about unbelieving, anti-Christian professors lead some students to assume that everything the professor says is basically wrong. The students are 19 years old and have no expertise for navigating the scholarship, so by default they reject it, stifling real learning—which was the goal for going to college in the first place! From biology to economics, from philosophy to educational theory, some doubt everything they hear.
On the other hand, others discover that these “unbelieving” teachers are good people who are not only passionate and compelling but also give the students tools for handling aspects of the world that their parents only ignored. If the only Christianity these students have been taught can’t handle the “real world,” was any of it true? Young Christians sometimes abandon their faith because the choices seemed to be either a faith that couldn’t grow or growth without faith. They felt like they were forced to pick between intellectual rigor and Christianity—but we know this is a false dichotomy.
There is no reason that Christians attending a secular university have to make this choice. But they do have the disadvantage of being neither scholars nor theologians, so it can be tough going. Many Christians do attend secular universities, get a great education, and keep a strong faith. But a quality Christian liberal arts college provides a community of living examples of Christians who are both intellectually engaged and deeply faithful to the gospel that can be much harder to find in the secular academy.
College students, stepping afresh into adulthood, ask deep questions about life, ethics, vocation, and purpose. They are concerned that Christians too often embody worldly individualism, consumerism, and arrogance. I have been a college professor for almost two decades and I hear versions of these concerns weekly. Young people want more—not more money but more meaning, more purpose. They want to discover a vision that integrates a rich theology with insights from specialists in all the disciplines.
College provides four years for digging into some of the deep questions of life, years of formation that shape one’s imagination and intuitions, then shape the communities where graduates go. This is where one can set a reliable foundation for asking what constitutes “the good life.”
At a Christian liberal arts college, we wrestle with the hard questions (not always solving them!), while applying to these challenges the faith handed down through the ages. We seek not easy answers but slow-growing wisdom and the formation of godly instincts. One of the most important things Christian faculty members at any institution can do is believe. Students witness thoughtful professors who don’t have all the answers, who are honest about the real challenges, who delight in insights from whatever source (including non-Christians), and in it all, the professor still stands there believing.
Is education at a Christian liberal arts college the complete answer to the problems of higher education? Will its students emerge as completely equipped Christians? No, obviously not. But, with all its imperfections, it supplies a depth and breadth of tools and resources unavailable to the local church and a Christian scholarly context either unavailable or largely absent at secular universities. It will help us live out one of the ways we honor God and our neighbor: by taking this world seriously.
Christians desperately need deep learning, not only in theology but in the wonder of God’s creation. What a gift it is to the church and to the world when a Christian liberal arts college graduates students who are not simply interested in a job or a career but who see their work as a calling. Whether they enter the laboratory, the classroom, or the courtroom, whether they rear children or serve as accountants, they enter their work not as a distraction from their faith but as a vital expression of it.
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).
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