Christian Colleges on the Mind: Part Four: Liberal Arts and Truth that Sets Free

Cynicism, not of the classical kind but the kind that regards all life a joke, characterizes too many of my college-teaching colleagues. Even as we welcome those folks whom the college chooses to be the next cohort of intellectuals trained for service, some among us sneer, assuming from the outset that our contribution to their lives is to provide a bit of amusement as they jump over us and into the money-making world. Because the college has lost its vocation as a place where free people become educated and has, as so much of late-capitalist culture’s institutions, become another site for consumerism, the liberal arts have, except in small pockets of resistance, become little more than a label for those classes not in a given student’s major.

From Augustine to Josephus Hopwood: What in Blazes are Liberal Arts?

As Augustine notes in De Doctrina Christiana, liberal arts, as the ancients conceived them, bring with them a couple significant problems. First of all, to be free in the ancient world meant to be a land-owner, one of the wealthy class, and to be liberally educated meant to take over one’s father’s position as a landholder and therefore candidate for public office. Since the Church assigns teaching and pastoral responsibilities based not on heredity but on Spiritual gifts, Augustine warns that although the skills are similar to those taught to the wealthy young at pagan schools, we Christians should keep in mind that we are developing gifts rather than perpetuating privilege. Second, he warns against the self-containment towards which educational disciplines tend. In other words, he asserts (rightly) that the Psalms are not Ciceronian speeches and Paul’s letters not rhetoric-according-to-Isocrates, yet in both cases a bit of examination (which he performs in book four of De Doctrina reveals intelligible rhetorical patterns.

In Augustine’s day, liberal arts, which he recast as Christian teaching arts, had as their aim some kind of oratorical career, whether as a statesman (Greek politico) or lawyer or pastor. In some ways, Christian colleges, with their ministry majors, stay more true to that ancient ideal than do German-style research universities. But before I go there, I should get to the German research universities and Christian responses.

In the nineteenth century the German university became the world’s intellectual powerhouse, exerting an influence greater than the Arab schools or the European universities of the middle ages. Central to their project was the idea that all of reality, those entities made of particles and those made of letters, were subject to human reason, that rigorous human study could make sense out of all realities, textual and material. (That the boundaries of their reality were textual and material is largely the legacy of Kant.) They quickly appropriated the studies of individual intellectuals like Newton, Darwin, and Spinoza, and teaching faded from its high position in the medieval university and became more or less something that subsidized research. Anybody who has taken a college class from a Teaching Assistant, hired so that the real professors would have more time for research, has felt the influence of the German model.

As a response to these schools’ new research focus and to the dangerous scholars emerging out of them (Wellhausen is the favorite bogeyman in biblical studies, Nietzsche in philosophy) and to English and American universities’ adoption of the research focus, many Christian traditions in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries began to open their own colleges for the sake of training educated, traditionalist ministers and candidates for professions such as medicine and law.

The purpose of these schools had something to do with oratory (most of them had and some still have ministry majors), but more than that their goal seems to have been a latent or seminal Evangelical (note the big E) project, namely to engage the best ideas that the philosophers of the day could conceive and to capture every thought for Christ and to do so by allowing professors to spend their time teaching young Christians, those called to serve the Church in intellectual capacities, to do the same. Their hope was (and their successors’ is) that in the course of such studies, reading the best that human science and art has to offer and situating them inside a thoroughgoing Christian philosophy would make of them a generation of missionaries in a world whose knowledge was forever expanding. Those Christians neither retreated from nor sought to imitate uncritically the German university but to participate as intellectuals in God’s mission to the world they were shaping.

Among those Christians was Josephus Hopwood, a Disciples of Christ congregant and the founder of my own alma mater, Milligan College.

Against the Nations: Liberal Arts as Site of Resistance

Christian liberal arts schools stand to present resistance against the big research universities in a couple ways. First they call into question the deprived (not necessarily depraved) methodology that drives so much of academic work as it stands. Unsatisfied with “religious studies” that will not speak God, “hard science” that cuts off human knowledge at the level of common experience, and “social science” that assumes the ontological priority rather than the fallenness of human wretchedness, the Christian college pursues rigorous studies and remains open to divine Logos. A Christian college can explore the fullness of God’s world because a Christian college can acknowledge its status as part of creation.

Beyond that, the common life on a Christian campus stands to critique the grand research university. Because its professors will be teachers first and will worship together with their students, such a place will not only explore the material and textual shape of created reality but might even stand to live together in ways shaped by the best Christian ethical philosophy. None of this is to say that such places will know no hypocrisy or thoughtlessness, much less that they will present some kind of messianic “hope of the world” (one unfortunate slogan that Milligan once took on), but it is to say that such a place might present a new Benedictine way, a common life to oppose the rampant consumerism that is the character of the state college campus.

The next part of this series will focus on how such places might relate to the local congregation. Until then, please chime in–once more, I progress in this inquiry not as an expert but as one grooming myself for and seeking excellence in a career teaching in Christian colleges. Any help anyone could offer would yield my gratitude.


About Nathan Gilmour

Nathan P. Gilmour is a Christian, a husband, a father, and a college English teacher. He tries to do all of that and write something worthwhile on occasion.


4 thoughts on “Christian Colleges on the Mind: Part Four: Liberal Arts and Truth that Sets Free

  1. >I’ve given some thought to distance learning, and my first, petulant answer would be to wonder out loud why they don’t do Marine boot camp and medical residencies through online simulations.Then, after my foot stamping is over, I’d point to my seminary, Emmanuel School of Religion, whose D.Min program combines online and on-campus experiences, running each cycle of classes for five months online and then getting together for a five-day intensive seminar. It takes longer, but since those folks are all full-time ministers (it’s part of the requirements to start the program), it combines those elements quite nicely.With regards to the upshot of this series, I’d say that the challenge to the German-style university started in the nineteenth century and persists, and I’m praising the work that Christian colleges have done and encouraging folks to appreciate that work more than I’m suggesting new ways to do things. The common life that I describe here I saw, in some form or another, in my four years at Milligan and again when I taught at Emmanuel College (no relation). Certainly there’s room for reform, but my point is that the shape of common life in those places is already robust enough that it can correct from with not much more than a reminder of why they’re there and whom they serve.

    Posted by Nathan P. Gilmour | March 13, 2008, 7:47 pm
  2. >”Beyond that, the common life on a Christian campus stands to critique the grand research university. Because its professors will be teachers first and will worship together with their students, such a place will not only explore the material and textual shape of created reality but might even stand to live together in ways shaped by the best Christian ethical philosophy.”This part about common life on campus got me thinking about a couple practical issues. I know we’re discussing things ideally so this might not be the time to bring in “what ifs” but…What are your thoughts on the impact of elements such as commuter students and internet courses? The almighty dollar is driving much of what goes on in Christian colleges, universities, and seminaries and they will do whatever they can to increase the money coming into the school. I know when I brainstorm about things for the local church I come to the conclusion that they could probably only be done in a church plant. Are you envisioning a new school or changes to existing schools? Or just thinking out loud at this point and plan on looking at implementation later?

    Posted by Jeff Wright | March 13, 2008, 6:21 pm
  3. >You’re right to see in my account an appeal for a Benedictine/monastic integration of study and service. With regards to scholasticism, I’d say that what you describe is one vein of Thomist/scholastic thought but not the only one. Whereas some scholastics think that Aristotle is Thomas’s most important contribution to Christian intellectual life, I’d say that his main contribution was bringing Philosophy to bear on theology. In other words, Thomas hands to us a genuine but genuinely discerning integration of Aristotle, which was the sum total of non-Christian philosophy in his Paris, and Christian theology, which we know now had Platonic and Stoic elements but didn’t have any humanist-era texts of Plato or Seneca from which to work.I make this distinction because in my own work I tend to be a Thomist who sees value not only in Aristotle but also in Bacon and Hegel and other post-medieval philosophers. Like Thomas I cannot simply assume that they are coterminous with Christian theology, but I do think that Christian theology has the resources to assimilate and to make good of certain sweeps of those and other philosophers’ work.With regards to humanism, I think that the heirs of the ad fontes project and those of the Thomist project could learn a great deal from one another, canceling out as much as possible the naivete of the former and the ungrounded speculation of the latter.

    Posted by Nathan P. Gilmour | March 13, 2008, 6:12 pm
  4. >Nathan,Excellent post! Thank you for writing it.As I read it I was reminded of some similar tensions in the Western Christian tradition with regard to educational philosophy. Particularly the traditions of monasticism, scholasticism, and humanism come to mind. While there is some overlap, each carries a different educational emphasis. Monasticism emphasizes a more holistic educational philosophy that includes both rigorous study and rigorous living in close commune with one’s teachers and colleagues.Scholasticism widens the field of study into Aristotelian method in order to systematize the Western Christian tradition.Humanism, while not excluding all of scholastic method (e.g. Luther was a bit of a hybrid between schloasticism and humanism), deepens the field of study by emphasizing original languages and sources (ad fontes).None of these movements was perfect, but each offer the Christian educational tradition wonderful elements to take into consideration when constructing an educational philosophy that is distinctly Christian.Just a few thoughts.Again, thanks!

    Posted by M. Jay Bennett | March 12, 2008, 4:20 am

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