Integration of Faith and Learning II

Integration of Faith and Learning II

In my last post I argued that the phrase in the title of this post which indicates a certain way of seeing the purpose or distinctiveness of Christian Higher Education is not quite adequate. It is useful. It starts us on a path, but there are deeper ways of understanding our work that are more fruitful, more distinctive, and I think truer to the reality of academic work whether in religious or state institutions. This is a large claim; all I can hope to do is to sketch an outline of it.

A more complete and profound way of thinking about human knowledge has developed in a variety of ways since the eighteenth century Enlightenment. Whether we think of the development of Romanticism, the thought of Kierkegaard, the “Gothic Revival” and return to traditional spirituality in the Oxford movement and beyond, Nietzsche’s postmodern critique of rationalism, the traditionalist rediscovery of modernist poetry like that of T.S. Eliot, or some elements of post-modern thinking today there is a common element that recognizes that empiricist rationalism is an artificially restricted form of thinking. Each of these movements reaches out to something beyond mere rationality. Our globalized world which has offered greater understanding of Eastern Religions and philosophies like Taoism, Buddhism and Confucianism has helped in our reorientation.

Underlying each of these movements is the recognition that human experience and perception of reality is broader than matter, chemicals, quantified reasoning or other similar limitations. Human beings experience and sense transcendence, a sense of being beyond us. A perception of deeper reality shapes our thinking. If we limit our experience to secular, material data, our thinking will reflect that limitation. If we open ourselves to a broader and deeper experience reflected in multiple intellectual and cultural movements and many, many thinkers and artists from across the globe, our thinking and understanding will reflect that openness and depth.

Another way to say this is that all reasoning and thinking is in some way dependent on a faith of some kind. For our modern, scientific mind that faith is a limited one that brackets off transcendent experience as subjective and irrational. It chooses to ignore broad ranges of human experience. It gains precision and immediate utility. But it loses depth and insight into broader experience. It can tell us about chemicals in the brain, but cannot tell us about love. The faith of the movements outlined above is open to greater experiences and seeks something deeper, the “known unknown” as Bernard Lonergan calls it.

Some thinkers use the symbol of a “horizon” to explain this pattern. We can think within a small or large horizon. As we open ourselves to the depth of human experience we enter an expanding horizon with broader vistas, more resplendent colors, and perhaps dramatic experiences. One must listen to those who have lived within these horizons and learn to see and experience, to grow beyond the limitations that have bound us.

Other thinkers, the phenomenological schools for instance, argue that all knowledge is “intentional” in some way. We intend certain investigations, we look for data, and we can do so in limited and or open ways. We must learn to intend deeply, be attentive, and open to experience. Or as Polanyi argued, all knowledge is personal. It reflects personal experience and commitments.

All this is to say that our common phrases in the modern world—faith as opposed to knowledge, reason as opposed to spirit—are not adequate. Faith and spirit are intimately involved in knowledge and reason from the beginning. The subjective is not irrational, but something that directs the rational element of our thinking. And similarly our thinking might help us open our perception to deeper spiritual experience.

In different language forms, and through different symbols, ancient and medieval forms of thinking reflected this combination of elements. Speculative philosophy and theologies were experienced as “the mind’s road to God,” as St. Bonaventure said. Reason itself was something of a religious experience, a “theophanic event.” As Boethius said, reason was given to us by God to lead us back to him. And for this he drew not on the theological works he had studied and written but on Greek philosophy. As St. Augustine said, our hearts our restless until they rest finally in God, and then he traced his own pilgrimage drawing on reason, Biblical revelation, and personal experience to find and describe an ever deepening faith and rationality at the same time. (One of the classic modern explanations of this is by Eric Voegelin in a little essay, “Reason the Classic Experience.” I have attempted to develop his insights for the medieval experience in my teaching in the kinds of examples here.)

So we might say that wherever we are, in whatever form of academic and intellectual work we do, knowledge and faith are already thoroughly integrated. The quality of our work and the depth of our understanding will depend upon not only on our intellectual ability (say in math, or technical research, or logic, or languages) but on the depth and range of our faith. When we close off our reason, attention, and intention from the depths and heights of human experience we live within a restrictive faith. When we open them to that experience, and to the ways in which God (the transcendent being) has sought us, revealed himself to us in the Christian community, church and scriptures and we have then encountered him, or been drawn into his presence, we might experience deeper understanding.

In the Christian college and university all of this, I believe, gets worked out almost unconsciously. Not many of us take the time (or need to take the time and energy) to explore what I have attempted to outline here. But our experience and faith, and I hope our openness, provides an added dimension that might not be found in such a concentrated form elsewhere. It shows sometimes in implicit rather than explicit ways.

It shows up in the literature class where a different selection of literature is studied, where the poet’s transcendent experience is respected. It shows up in a business program which emphasize the work of non-profits or social entrepreneurship, or that teaches that the purpose of business is not just to make money but to serve and that the businessperson’s role is to give. It shows up in a history class where a mystic is discussed along with a political ruler. It works out in an international program that goes out not just to the first world, but to places of poverty and need and asks students to listen and learn, and not just solve problems.

But it is sometimes explicit as well. It shows up in education programs like ours that speak of the “redemptive service” of the teacher. It makes its way into a prayer before a class session in which we ask to have the locks that shackle our minds broken so that we can understand more deeply. It appears in graduation requirements that ask students to study the Bible both with faith and with scholarly tools. It makes its creative appearance in developing ways to reconcile those battered and lost in conflict and hate. It shows up in the professor and student who understand that their passions for mathematics or microbiology or economics are high and even divine callings. It is discussed in College Hour (chapel) when we explore our callings, what and who God is calling us to be and do. It is deepened in student life and spiritual formation experiences, in leadership sessions, and in service projects.

To be sure, we don’t always do it as well as we should. We can be closed minded, small in our thinking, and refuse to hear and see what is before us. We can approach our faith and the Bible with closed minds, focused on our own limited positions and interpretations, and forgetful that God might have something more to teach us. Like all academics we can be obtuse and parochial.

But at our best we recognize that all knowledge is deeply bound up with faith of one kind or another. It is already integrated in the very way we approach our work. The faith, the lenses we bring shape the horizons before us, and our understanding and what we will learn before we even begin our study. We seek to be articulate about that faith and the knowledge we gain and to let that faith guide our search for understanding. In other forms of higher education it is already integrated as well, with other horizons, other intentions, and other forms of faith. There is no understanding without faith. There is no faith without understanding. We are always following that old medieval formulation of “faith seeking understanding.”

How then do we do it? We live it in community with each other and God, and invite students to join us in living this faith seeking understanding, and understanding seeking faith. It is a life-long adventure. We seek to bring students into this adventure with us, and then send them out into the world, to schools, to businesses, to churches to let their faith and understanding deepen and to serve as God has called them.


Educated State
Steve Varvis

Steve Varvis

Tagged: Faith and Learning Integration Reason and Faith