Best of The Pietist Schoolman: Metaphors for Christian Liberal Arts

In the 3+ years of this blog, I’ve written often about the value of the liberal arts — particularly as an integral component of Christian higher education. While I’ve occasionally pointed to the instrumental benefits of such an education (provides a marketable skill set, prepares learners who can pick up new skills and thrive in grad/professional schools), I’ve also worried that such explanations are ultimately inadequate:

…both because our “consumers” sometimes seem unable to comprehend or properly value those purposes, and because we’re so well drilled in them that they can come off as stock phrases, I find myself searching for metaphors, allusions, parables… Anything slightly off-center that will prompt a fresh look at what we do and perhaps refocus the discussion.

So to start the week, let me point back to five metaphors that I’ve explored in the last year or so:

The Christian Liberal Arts as Spiritual Retreat

“Going to college on an exceedingly comfortable campus in a genteel Twin Cities suburb isn’t much like following Jesus and Anthony to the desert… but the Christian liberal arts education that students receive in places like Arden Hills, MN… does evoke ‘initiative, exploration, evaluation.’ Choosing to spend time discussing metaphysics or creating a sculpture or conducting a chemistry experiment does interrupt our normal patterns with something more like the leisurely contemplation prized by the Greeks. Reading about the Holocaust or reflecting on the atonement very much disengages students from ‘the regular round of respectable human activities.'”

Wells Cathedral
Licensed by GNU (Hisane)

…as Cathedral-Building

“If what we’re doing is transforming persons, then we shouldn’t expect to see quick results. There are habits to unlearn, tensions to leave unresolved, and external forces impeding us all the way. (Our own limitations as teachers not least of all.) Stonemasons work with a far more malleable medium.”

…as Tolkienesque Quest

“…if we were to be completely honest with our prospective students and their nervous parents, we would tell them that we can’t guarantee they’ll get anything tangible, fungible, or salable out of the education we offer. Or even that they’ll come out of it spiritually unscathed.

“But they will not be the same. That we can promise.”

River baptism ca. 1900
River baptism at the turn of the 20th century in North Carolina – Wikimedia

And within that post, I hint at another metaphor that I want to flesh out at some point: “One may think of this kind of education as an extended asking and answering of the classic baptismal questions: ‘Do you renounce Satan… the evil powers of this world… all sinful desires that draw you from the love of God? Do you turn to Jesus Christ?'”

…as Borderland

“Our hope [for keeping a college or university ‘Christ-centered’] lies in recognizing that, like the Alsatian [Philipp Jakob] Spener, we inhabit a borderland — between faith and reason, church and academy, public and private, commerce and service. Borderlands are often where the combat is fiercest, but they teach their denizens to speak multiple languages, and to move between groups, earning the trust of both. At its best, a Christ-centered university like Bethel is not a garrison of defenders of the faith, preparing for battle in the safety of their citadel; it’s a community of people serving faithfully, fearlessly in contested territory, building bridges, healing wounds, and inviting their enemies to turn towards the Prince of Peace.”

…and World War II

(You really need to read the first half of this post to understand the context…)

“While we should hesitate to draw close comparisons between something like studying French literature and the liberation of a concentration camp, the metaphor does seem to suggest that young college students should reconsider how they approach their education…. Opting for a liberal arts education — and particularly for the concentrated study of something as seemingly useless as a field in the humanities — requires a kind of yieldedness that is rare in our culture: a willingness to explore without knowing the destination, to wrestle with ambiguity and complexity along the way, and, ultimately, to discern a purpose that is beyond one’s control.”

Do any of these metaphors seem especially useful to you? What others would you suggest? (And is metaphor even a good way to communicate the importance of the liberal arts?)


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