Integration of Faith and Learning

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The title is the phrase that many Christian colleges and universities (see the Council for Christian College and Universities’ list of members) use to describe the difference an education in one of our schools makes, compared to secular institutions, and sometimes schools that were at one time more closely identified with Christian faith or with a particular Church or denomination (this group probably includes most of the independent colleges and universities in the US). The classic statement on the integration of faith and learning was made back in the mid-70s by Arthur F. Holmes, Professor of Philosophy at Wheaton College in The Idea of a Christian College—well worth reading.

The phrase is not, it has been noted, the most helpful, however. It seems to imply that on the one hand there is learning which is based on reason and experience. And on the other there is faith which is based on revelation, or the Bible, or perhaps spiritual experience and which involves a unique Christian “worldview.” And further it might imply that reason and experience are testable, public and rational, while faith is private, subject to authority but not reason, and perhaps irrational if not supra-rational. The goal in this kind of potentially oppositional pairing is to unite the two as much as possible, because (another phrase in the tradition) “all truth is God’s truth.”

Reason works on the data of creation–material or human—it is understood to be a part of the order established by the Creator. Creation is understood to be a reliable order that can be discovered and understood by, for instance, the scientific method, or the social sciences, or through works of creativity and imagination. The works of revelation, the Bible, having the same source, are reliable in the same way as ordered by the Revealer, who is also the Creator. Thus knowledge discoverable in the sciences, social sciences and humanities, for instance, cannot, if true, contradict the knowledge revealed in Scripture (or perhaps by the Spirit, depending on the tradition or particular Christian “worldview”). And so too vice-versa. The goal is to bring these into harmony, by isolating error, more cogent reasoning, and better and more accurate interpretation of the revealed Word. The professor’s goal is to integrate what is known and believed into something harmonious and to guide students to a more comprehensive understanding or knowledge true to both reason and faith.

There is a certain utility in this process and a bit more than that. It points to a large and inspiring intellectual goal. And it fits with the modern worldview which more often than not describes faith and commitment as subjective and personal, and knowledge are reasonable, testable and public. It gets difficult, or more difficult, when faith is seen as the same yesterday, today and forever, unchanging in content (if not always in verbal formulation) while knowledge is progressive and ever deepening. At its worst, the difficulty of the relation of the two is formulated as a battle between religion and science, a popular notion still heard in the news, though serious historians of science, for example, know that modern science had deep theological roots and that there has more often been stimulation and even assistance between the two than battle.

Each age has its fault lines in the relationship between the two–knowledge and faith–if not battle lines. For more than a century and a half, one of those fault lines has been the teaching of evolution which seems to many to contradict the revelation given in the Christian Bible (I have also seen Muslim arguments along the same lines). At the same time, many Christian’s have recognized a place for evolutionary understanding, notably today Francis Collins, a confessing, Evangelical Christian who led the project to unravel the “genome” (see his The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief).

Another fault line today, and an interesting one, is neurobiology or “brain science” with it’s sometimes claims that all of our thought processes are dictated by chemical patterns etched in the biology of our brains. The scientists have gone one up on the Christian doctrine of predestination. Why do you believe X or Y? Why have have faith in science or religion? Neither is rational or a matter of choice. Your brain made you do it. That may not be entirely fair, but this is a blog….

In the social sciences the updating of old style social materialism (what we believe is the result of our social conditioning) in radical forms of the “social construction of reality” is another we confront in our work in the academy. What is true at one very practical level—we learn to experience the world through the actions, daily practices and institutions of our society—becomes the whole of knowledge. All knowledge is the reflection of these social patterns and power. But it shows up to in popular arenas in various forms. We might hear it as all political persuasions being merely the imposition of power blocks formed within our society, or as “its right for me, perhaps not for you, but we all come from different places so we can’t hope to agree on anything except that we need to get along.”

In this world the “integrationist” has a tougher task. Why integrate when there isn’t a truth or Truth to find in either religion/faith or knowledge/reason? Some take comfort in a simple personal commitment. A person might say ‘I believe in the Christian religion because I have experienced goodness among other believers,’ or ‘I have read the Bible and the words of Jesus must be true. They are so complete in their concern for the poor and weak.’ It is a powerful argument. But the counter argument is powerful too. ‘I do not believe because of the Church that has not followed Jesus,’ or ‘…because of believers I have encountered who justify the evil they do with their belief in God,’ or ‘…because the extent of evil in the world makes me conclude that there cannot be a good God out there somewhere bringing justice to his creation.’ And the opposite conclusion might make good sense: ‘I trust in the sciences or human knowledge of one kind or another because at least we can find a reasonable and testable way of making claims and science has brought much good to the world (even if some bad people use it for evil).’

All of this is to say that the language of “integration” may not get us very far in a “postmodern” world where many believe that knowledge is purely the result of power structures or personal, unanswerable commitments, even in the sciences. All is conditioned either by our social location, our brain chemistry and our personal experiences. So where do we go from here?

One response might be to give up on the notion of integration altogether. A responsible thinker teacher might claim that the subjectivist critique of knowledge is for practical purposes true. We should not attempt to rationally explain what we know or believe. We should commit to the faith community in which we have experienced something profoundly good, or experienced God in some way, and let the “fruits” as it were be the witness of that choice—”by their fruits you will know them.” A Christian College of this kind will stress the community ethos, the way of Jesus, and the commandment to love one another. Its academic work will be focused on its applicability to solving real problems in a hurting world.

This has deep resonance with the Anabaptist/Mennonite tradition of FPU’s founding denomination. It is deeply part of the FPU tradition. There is much to say in favor of this response. It is a profound witness to religious faith and to its transforming quality. It is energetic in doing good and seeking out the hurting, exploited and lost. Its weakness is that no community of faith is consistent in its witness. It may be experienced as light and life or the opposite. We can stray from our witness. If this is the only way, it is to risk all on the integrity and “Jesus-character” of the community. And especially a college or university cannot rely on this pursuit alone. We read, study, experiment, reflect and must talk, defend, argue, explain and expand our understanding. We exist to promote and deepen understanding and knowledge. The Anabaptist tradition and we at FPU have not shirked this responsibility, even when our deepest commitment is to the community of faith and its ethos of love and reconciliation.

Another response might be to continue with the integrationist understanding, even in the current intellectual climate, but to take the claims of the “truth” of human knowledge and “truth” of revelation seriously and work hard to be better scientists, diligent social scientists and students of the humanities as well as thoughtful, reasonable and more faithfully committed Christians. I respect this attempt immensely. It is a serious attempt to grapple with profound issues that confront our world. I have good friends who work within this understanding of knowledge and faith, and have seen profoundly helpful thinking as a result of it. It has led to contributions by Christians in all of the forms of knowledge in the academy. It requires us to live with an internal tension, with a willingness to suspend or test our supposed certainties. It can make colleges and universities seem like dangerous places to the faithful who would like the certainties of faith taught to their children. It makes communication between Christian Colleges and their supporting churches crucial to both of their ongoing work. (College presidents, provosts and deans often receive letters from pastors and parents asking “what is going on?”) It requires mutual trust, support, willingness to speak and listen, and goodwill.

To those who work within these two responses of the modern tradition—we all do in some ways—I will continue to believe, read and think with you. They work on some levels and produces practical results that we can share. But I think there is a better way, a way both more ancient and more modern. I will attempt to outline this in a subsequent post.

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