Pietist Vision Previews: Education as Conversion

Bethel University: Community Life Center and Benson Great Hall

What is the purpose of Christian higher education?

There is, of course, no single answer to the question. In any college, or any of its departments or programs, or of their required or elective courses and the individual class sessions that compose them, there are multiple objectives. But running through all of them, in our Pietist vision of Christian higher education, is the desire that our students will have an experience of Jesus Christ that results in the transformation of the whole person.

They will acquire information and refine skills, but that is not enough. Nor is it sufficient that they develop a more coherent Christian worldview. (While that’s a common enough idea in the Christian academy, I think we share Jamie Smith’s concern that “By reducing the genius of Christian faith to something like an intellectual framework — a ‘perspective’ or ‘worldview’ — we can (perhaps unwittingly) unhook Christianity from the practices that constitute Christian discipleship.”)

Like Pietists at all times and in all places, we seek the new life that comes through conversion.

So theologian Roger Olson contends that “the main purpose of a Pietist approach to higher education is the shaping of Christian character, helping students become ‘whole and holy persons'” (p. 100). For psychologist Kathy Nevins, “forming whole and holy persons” entails “Nurturing all aspects of student maturity and identity—including social, moral, ethical and spiritual, as well as intellectual, development…” (p. 53). Because it is Christ-centered, Olson says our model of education is “person-centered” — that is, we seek “to heal and make whole God’s image” in our students.

(Near the end of the book, sociologist Samuel Zalanga will warn that external pressures are changing the very nature of personhood in societies like early 21st century America: “While the Pietist vision of Christian higher education tries to shape a whole and holy person created in the image of God, under neoliberalism human dignity is made fragile and diminished in reality if not validated by the market” — p. 212. But back to the transformation of these persons…)

Francke Foundations in the 18th Century
The Pietist center of Halle included a pharmacy as well as schools, orphanage, and a publishing house – Wikimedia

Philosopher David Williams emphasizes that “The consideration of ideas in a classroom, then, will not consist simply in the analysis of worldviews but be convertative.” In other words (and here David echoes the medical metaphors that Pietist patriarch Philipp Jakob Spener used to describe conversion),

…when one’s whole person is involved, one experiences a kind of movement analogous to the movement from sickness to health. The life of the mind becomes more than a mere analysis of proposition. The inquirer needs to see something they did not before and feel the change that has been wrought by having considered the world in a different way. Pietism’s central theological notion maintains that an encounter with the transcendent will leave one altered in all senses of what it means to be a person, and this experiential emphasis is carried into the realm of academic inquiry. (p. 45)

“Such a model of Christian higher education,” continues Olson, “values transformation over information without discarding or demeaning information and critical thinking” (p. 100). Williams explains this by reference to teaching the Homeric epics — in a passage that also suggests that the Pietist vision is often likely to frustrate the teachers who share it:

The instructor could very well leave the semester’s course in which our hypothetical student was enrolled having provided the most convincing instrumental reasons relative to the Christian faith for reading Homer. She may have used all of her pedagogical acumen regarding the Iliad and Odyssey to produce a rich and deep understanding of Greek epic poetry in all her students. Everyone could have aced the final and shown a mastery of Homer beyond their years. But if no one answered the altar call to experience Homer, to feel Homer as she feels Homer, to be moved by the meeting of Achilles and Priam as she is moved, then the semester has fallen short of what it might have been. The pietistic professorial impulse is to care as much for the arguments and rigor of the discipline as any other practitioner of the academic arts, but what she may care most about is having her students experience those arguments and that rigor because of what they have done to her whole person. The content of the arguments have been instrumentally valuable, but it was the convertative and intrinsically good activity of reading Homer that affected her heart. And it is this that drives her to research, teach and serve. (p. 47)

For Olson, “Such transformation requires life-transforming encounters with God through Jesus Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit.” So, for example, Nancy Olen writes of the conversional effects of clinical experience for nursing majors at Bethel:

Even more than in chapel time or lecture classes, students and faculty members exchange stories of faith and questions of doubt. It is at the bedside of dying persons that the real meaning of spirit is discussed. It is in memory care units, serving people with dementia, that the biblical promise that nothing “will be able to separate us from from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom 8:39) can be explored. It is in the sharing of time and resources with a young, indigent family that the true meaning of Christian community becomes a reality. The deep communication between student and teacher, between junior and senior faculty member, or between nurse and client transforms each when we recognize one another as fellow learners and fellow pilgrims on the journey of life. (p. 162)

Likewise, Marion Larson and Sara Shady have found that A. H. Francke’s conviction that “faith was a verb” (as Francke biographer Gary Sattler put it) “implies a responsibility to extend learning beyond mere intellectual activity to actual engagement with the people living beyond the borders of our campuses.” In their case, through service-learning experiences conducted side-by-side with people of other faiths: “…like [Philipp] Spener we are also seeking to help our students develop spiritual maturity that goes beyond intellectual growth. Engaging students in direct interaction with people of other faith traditions creates an opportunity for spiritual growth and learning outside of the ‘campus bubble’ that is characteristic of our Christian college.” In particular, “they learn firsthand lessons about how to live out the Christian responsibility of hospitality: to welcome the stranger in their midst and to love the neighbor who is different from their usual neighbors” (pp. 136-38).

But something like conversion might also happen within more traditional on-campus learning environments.

Dick Peterson
In addition to being a terrific teacher himself, Dick has served as president of the American Association of Physics Teachers and spent two years as program director with the National Science Foundation’s Division of Undergraduate Education

The New York Times recently discovered that science professors are emphasizing teaching — it should have sent a reporter to physicist Dick Peterson’s classes a couple decades ago! In Dick’s view, being in the lab offers chances for “turning the corner” as students find the “personal experience of research bringing them closer to the Creator,” filling them with delight and astonishment – but also modesty and humility, as “The awesome universe we study and try to embrace (on both large and small scales) has its own natural ways of escorting us [in the words of the Shaker song] to ‘where we ought to be'” (pp. 153-54).

And even those of us who spend most of our semesters discussing texts with students within the four bare, cinder block walls of one of Bethel’s ugliest classrooms (AC 3rd floor!) believe that what we’re doing is convertative. Here’s my own brief contribution to this line of thought:

As I dove into the conclusion’s theme that we join God in his mission of making “all things new” — including persons — I emphasized the importance of a school like Bethel keeping central the liberal arts:

There are many reasons to defend a model of education that is well-rounded, integrative and—because it’s not especially instrumental—easy to undervalue. But one is particularly relevant for pietistic Christians like [long-serving Bethel president] Carl Lundquist who are suspicious of nominal, cultural or purely formal Christianity: the liberal arts are liberating arts, freeing us from “the chains of ignorance, provincialism, bigotry and narrowness” to choose to follow Christ, and to become our “unique and creative best for the glory of God.” (p. 229)

“Pietists,” I explain at the other end of the book, “seek an authentic Christianity: not inherited or assumed, coerced or affected, but lived out through the transformative experiences of conversion and regeneration” (p. 20). To bring about those experiences is how Pietists must approach the task of education.

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