A Sacramental Vision of the Liberal Arts

Earlier this month I had the honor of delivering the keynote address at the 2019 Twin Cities Undergraduate Theology Conference, a joint effort of four evangelical colleges: Bethel University, Crown College, North Central University, and the University of Northwestern St. Paul. I decided to use the occasion to think in public about another kind of metaphor for what Christians are trying to do in the humanities in particular, and the liberal arts in general: I suggested we consider how our disciplines are, in some ways, similar to the seven sacraments.

I’m not quite sure what qualifies me to address a roomful of theologians and biblical scholars — having never taken a single college, seminary, or graduate course on either subject! But I’m honored and intrigued to be here.

For biblical studies, theology, and history are in the same boat these days. The Bible is the Word of God and theology used to be the “queen of the sciences,” but in 2019 America, I’m afraid that your disciplines increasingly join mine as just “one of the humanities,” along with literature, languages, and philosophy. And with the arts and sciences, we humanists form the vaunted “liberal arts.”

Medieval illustration of the liberal arts
Top half of a 12th century illustration of the liberal arts – Wikimedia

You’ve heard of the liberal arts, right? They’re the academic disciplines that don’t lead to meaningful employment. At least according to many cultural commentators, politicians, educational innovators, and some of your peers and parents, the liberal arts are the impractical, irrelevant fields of study most likely to waste your time and tuition.

Now, most of us make sure that we’re associated with programs that actually do lead to specific careers: Journalism for English, Social Studies Education for History, Ministry for Theology and Bible, Pre-Law for everyone. And our friends in other liberal arts disciplines are no different: students come to Bethel more for Graphic Design than Art, Pre-Med than Biology, Engineering than Physics.

But people like your professors and me will also insist that it’s highly practical to study pure academic disciplines. Spending four years in theology or history courses hones highly marketable, adaptable skills like critical thinking, research, data analysis, problem-solving, speaking, and writing.

So I can’t disagree that we must and can make the argument that what we teach and learn is responsive to the economy.

But that’s not what we really want to say. As scholars, as Christians: we know that that argument alone tempts us to forsake the hard questions that are central to the Christian liberal arts. We risk forgetting that our model of education promises something more than employment and earnings.

Whether theology or history, humanities or sciences, the liberal arts are liberating arts, freeing us from personal prejudice and cultural captivity. In particular, the humanities are about our shared humanity, in all its beauty and ugliness; our fields ask of God the psalmist’s question, “what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?” (Ps 8:4)

If that’s true, then pointing primarily to earnings potential will just impoverish the meaning of our model of education. We need to use language that’s richer than dollar figures. Whether we’re theologians or biblical scholars, historians or lit scholars, we ought not neglect the discourse we know: narrative, allusion, reflection, poetry, metaphor…

So let this non-theologian tentatively suggest a theological simile for what our disciplines accomplish within the larger context of the Christian liberal arts.

Our disciplines are like the sacraments

I’m thinking of analogy more than allegory. I’m not saying that history and theology are symbols of certain rituals. By using simile here, I want to do what all of our disciplines do: stretch our imaginations.

In the same way that I ask my history students to imagine what it was like to be a French peasant on the eve of revolution or a Jewish victim of the Shoah, in the same way that theologians young and old reach out with their minds to imagine a God who surpasses understanding… tonight I want to push you to think afresh about intellectual work that is more than professional, even more than academic.

And what better way to do such imaginative stretching than to consider our disciplines by comparison to the sacraments, what Irenaeus called “the mysterious operations of God.” Specifically, I want to think out loud about the seven late medieval sacraments depicted in this famous 15th century altarpiece by the great Flemish painter Rogier van der Weyden.

Rogier van der Weyden, “The Seven Sacraments Altarpiece” (ca. 1450) – Wikimedia

Now, I’m a Protestant: I don’t think that all of these rites are actually sacraments ordained by Jesus in Scripture. Some of you don’t even believe in the sacraments. Some of you might add other ordinances, like footwashing. But however we define them, I think these seven practices can help us to think more imaginatively, as Christians, about what our academic disciplines do to and through us.

Baptism

The most direct connection I can sketch has to do with the first, initiatory sacrament. We could spend hours just on one of the oldest metaphors for baptism: Early Christians prayed that God would “Sanctify this water, that those who are baptized in it may be crucified with Christ, die with him, be buried with him, and rise again through adoption.” We might ask, In what ways does a liberal arts education help us to die to our sins and rise to new life? At the very least, here we should consider that the baptismal font or pool is not a finish line, but a starting block: the anticipatory beginning of a Christian journey, not the proclamation of its completion.

That’s maybe easier to see if, like me, you come from the pedobaptist tradition, in which it’s especially clear that baptism is not only about the person being baptized. In one medieval sacramentary, the priest acknowledges that “infants, who by reason of their youth understand nothing” start their journey “through other people’s profession, since their damnation came by another’s fault…” So in my home denomination, the Evangelical Covenant Church, it’s just not the parents and sponsors who make promises. The pastor then turns to the congregation and reminds us that “The Christian nurture” of new followers of Jesus is all our responsibility: “Since we are members of one another in the fellowship of the Church, the responsibility of caring for the newly baptized must be shared by all.” We pledge to “guide and nurture” the baptized, with God’s help “encouraging her to know and follow Christ and caring for her as Christ’s own.”

A Christian college is not the church, but as a professor at a Christian college, I am fulfilling a baptismal vow that I’ve made again and again to sisters and brothers in Christ. To teach any discipline in this setting is to share in the nurturing of fellow Christians who are still young in their faith; whether we teach history or theology, we are encouraging people like you to know and follow Christ; we are caring for you as Christ’s own.

Confirmation

Left panel of van der Wyden, "Seven Sacraments"
The left panel of van der Weyden’s altarpiece: Baptism, Confirmation, Penance

At the same time, we cannot stand in for you. In baptism, you have personally been named, claimed, and sent forth as a child of God. That’s a blessing, and a responsibility. Especially in the traditions these colleges represent — evangelical, Pentecostal, Holiness, Baptist, Pietist — it is understood that Christianity cannot be assumed or affected; it isn’t a family legacy or a cultural veneer, but a freely chosen, thoughtfully considered response to Jesus’ Great Invitation: follow me (Matt 4:18-20). You must, we often say at Bethel, learn to “make your faith your own.”

For many of you then, attending a Christian college is actually a belated form of what is still a sacrament in the Catholic Church and an educational practice in other communions: Confirmation. Starting in the 5th century and then especially as infant baptism became the preferred mode in the Middle Ages, the Church has offered a coming-of-age ritual: a special anointing by which the baptized confirm their participation in the Body of Christ and receive the Holy Spirit. Whether you believe in that theology or not… there is something confirming in the Christian liberal arts: as you learn to think about God both devotionally and rigorously, as you read the Bible as both true and complicated, as you find in history not just inspiration but tragedy, you start to “put an end to childish ways” and see God, the Church, yourself, and others “more fully” — if never quite perfectly (1 Cor 13: 11-12).

This is the great adventure and risk of our education: we cannot assume that you will reach its completion still desiring to follow Jesus. But if you do still say Yes to his invitation, it will be a more authentic, more assured, more committed Yes.

Penance

But also a more sober Yes. Because saying Yes to following Jesus means saying Yes to taking up his cross (Matt 16:24).

And now, as Lent ends and Good Friday draws near [note: I originally gave this talk on April 11th], we really should think about what a Christian liberal arts education has to do with dying to sin. That’s related to the event of baptism, but it also evokes the ongoing process of penance. When I taught the medieval understanding of this sacrament last month in our 1st year church history survey, my evangelical students generally heard it as a punishment for sin; but medievals — and my Catholic students — saw it as grace-filled means of training saints for holiness.

As a history professor, even at a Christian college, I’m not here to absolve anyone, or to assign them works of satisfaction. (Though I’m sure my students think of my tests as a kind of mortification.) But I do think that what we do in theology and history classrooms evokes the first two elements in the sacrament of penance: confession and repentance.

At baptism Christians are traditionally asked, “Do you renounce Satan… the evil powers of this world… [and] all sinful desires that draw you from the love of God?” And we say yes — or speak that yes for others — but Martin Luther is right: we are saints who will continue to sin. And because we know we’re called to sainthood, we’re prone to lie about our sin. We’re tempted to bury that truth deep down: hiding it from others, from ourselves, and even (we think) from God.

So if the liberal arts are truly liberating arts, they must teach us to be more honest about ourselves, both our personal failings and our participation in unjust systems. If we take them at all seriously, our studies should make it harder and harder for us to lie about the words, thoughts, and deeds (done and undone) by which we — individually and collectively — do not love God with our whole selves and our neighbors as ourselves.

This has important implications for teaching and learning in the humanities. In courses that often center on reading, we should only ask hard questions of our texts if we’re willing to let the texts ask still harder questions of us. In courses that often look to the past, we should not simply judge those who came before us, but let our studies hold up history as a mirror revealing our own shortcomings.

And in the process, we will revisit another baptismal question: “Do you turn to Jesus Christ?” We will remember that Jesus invited Peter and Andrew to follow him in the midst of a ministry calling all who would listen to “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near” (Matt 4:17).

In the sense that they help us to confess our sins and repent of them, the humanities are penitential. But they are also eucharistic.

Eucharist

Central panel of van der Wyden, "Seven Sacraments"
Eucharist: the central panel of the altarpiece, with a Crucifixion scene in the foreground

First, like Communion, our disciplines almost all engage in remembrance. Not just history, but literature, philosophy, theology, and biblical studies involve something like what historian Peggy Bendroth calls “the spiritual practice of remembering.” They take the most present-minded people to ever walk this earth, Americans, and send them back in time to pasts historic and imagined.

Second, like the Mass, they provide spiritual nourishment. This comes to mind every other January, when a colleague and I take students to Europe to study World War I, and we end up eating with them every morning and most evenings, figuratively chewing on the questions of the course as we literally chew our food. “Eat this book” is how Eugene Peterson recommended we read the Bible (cf. Rev 10:9-10). And I think we often take a similar approach to the many types of texts that we humanists don’t just consume, but savor.

Third, even if your classroom doesn’t include an actual meal, there is a spirit of gathering. As at the Lord’s Supper, our courses draw people from east and west and north and south to sit at table. We extend hospitality to people, those physically present with us and the distant or deceased guests whose words and ideas we’re considering.

And perhaps Christ himself is truly present. I won’t push that eucharistic metaphor any further… but I will quote C.S. Lewis, who once wrote that “every created thing is, in its degree, an image of God, and the ordinate and faithful appreciation of that thing a clue which, truly followed, will lead back to Him.” If you study rigorously any aspect of Creation and its Creator, you should expect to encounter the Living Word, Jesus Christ, the visible image of the invisible God through whom all things came into being (John 1:1-3; Col 1:15).

Ordination

Finally, we come to three sacraments that help us think about what lies on the other side of a liberal arts degree from colleges like ours.

Some of you are studying Bible and theology because you mean to pursue further education for pastoral ministry, and perhaps take formal vows as members of the clergy — as the young priest in the right panel of van der Weyden’s altarpiece is doing.

But I hope that all of you find ways to serve the Church. For universities like this exist for the sake of the Church.

That can be hard for some of us on the faculty. I’m so accustomed to examining the flaws and hypocrisies of the Church as revealed in the past that I walk into worship every Sunday cued up to spot similar flaws and hypocrisies being revealed again in the present. I’m sure it’s even more exhausting for your professors who study the Bible and theology and know how badly churches sometimes teach and preach God and his word.

But the Christian liberal arts are Christian in part because they serve the Church and further its mission. We ask questions of the Church, challenge assumptions of the Church, and propose solutions to the Church — for the good of the Church. And we prepare students like you to do all of that, and to serve the Church as you are gifted and called (whether clergy or laity).

Whatever else you hear tonight, hear this: the Church needs you — your questions, your discontent, your gifts, and your passion.

Marriage

For even if you don’t have a pastoral calling, you are still called to specific ways of seeking God’s glory and your neighbors’ good.

Right panel of van der Wyden, "Seven Sacraments"
The altarpiece’s right panel: Ordination, Marriage, (Extreme) Unction

Which brings us to the sixth of van der Weyden’s sacraments… It’s nothing new to associate Christian colleges with marriage, but I don’t want to talk about Ring by Spring or the “MRS degree“… I want to remind you that the sacrament of marriage is actually a sacrament of vocation, a sacrament blessing our use of this present life.

What we teach in our classrooms certainly ought to connect to sexuality and family, but I think there’s a broader objective here: among all the other things that ought to happen as you study the humanities, you should better understand the kind of human God means you to be. This kind of education should help you to recognize, commit to, and prepare for your divine calling from God. For if we follow that vocation, wrote John Calvin, “we shall receive this special comfort: there is no job so simple, dull, or dirty that God does not consider it truly respectable and highly important!”

Every time I teach that selection, I think of a sermon that the Presbyterian novelist and pastor Frederick Buechner preached, fifty years ago now, to students a bit younger than you all. As he considered how the prophet Isaiah heard his calling from God (Isa 6:1-9), Buechner noted how hard it can be to pick out God’s voice among the many others we hear in our cacophonous world. For example, I’m sure he’d see the current push to make sure that college prepares students for the needs of corporations as an example of how we’re tempted not to heed God’s call, but instead to “listen to the great blaring, boring, banal voice of our mass culture, which threatens to deafen us all by blasting forth that the only thing that really matters about your work is how much it will get you in the way of salary and status….”

So Buechner urges us to listen for the voice of gladness, whatever “leaves us with the strongest sense of sailing true north and of peace,” whether that’s making something beautiful out of wood or words or “making people laugh or weep in a way that cleanses their spirit[.]” Maybe that’s why you’re studying something as impractical as theology or Bible — you felt a sense of sailing true north in those courses. I can assure you that no one is a History major these days who doesn’t find some degree of joy in studying history — it’s only ever because they felt passion and love and curiosity; they heard the voice of gladness as they listened to the voices of the past.

But I trust that they heard something else. Gladness — but not just gladness. Buechner would also have us listen to the needs of others. So the humanities should also keen our ears to the cries of the suffering, marginalized, lonely, and grieving. We will find our gladness in meeting the needs of others.

Unction

And if that sounds at least a bit like marriage, it also leads naturally to unction, the sacrament that my Protestant mind wants to call “last rites.” In its “extreme” form, it is a final blessing on this side of the divide separating mortal existence from what follows. And if our disciplines are about humanity, then they are necessarily about mortality. The kind of education I have in mind should prepare people in the prime of life to encounter the end of life.

But the sacrament (Holy Unction in the Orthodox tradition) is more broadly one of healing and blessing, a way of interpreting James’ admonition to “pray over [the sick], anointing them with oil in the name of the Lord” (5:14). (The present-day Catechism of the Catholic Church calls it simply “anointing of the sick.”) So I return to Buechner’s notion that pursuing your own gladness will actually lead you to tend to the needs of others. “[T]here are words of truth and healing,” he said, “that will never be spoken unless [we] speak them, and deeds of compassion and courage that will never be done unless [we] do them.” Our very lives are to be an unction, an anointing of the sick and sorrowing.

So while the humanities can tend to sound bookish and solitary and abstract, any disciplines claiming the name “human” must also foster empathy for hurting humans. And perhaps history, theology, biblical studies, and the others — as much as professional programs in ministry, health sciences, or social work — should prepare us to heal and bless others. They should make us ready to be God’s answer to one of Augustine’s most famous prayers: “Tend your sick ones, O Lord Christ. Rest your weary ones. Bless your dying ones. Soothe your suffering ones. Pity your afflicted ones. Shield your joyous ones. And all for your love’s sake.”

* * *

It’s entirely possible that I’ve claimed too much for our model of Christian higher education. Maybe all we can really hope to do is prepare employees who are better than average at finding patterns, solving problems, and writing reports. But the longer I teach at Bethel, the more convinced I am that there’s more to the Christian liberal arts in general, and the humanities in particular.

So, if nothing else, I hope that thinking of our disciplines in terms of sacramental similes prompts you to consider how God makes ordinary intellectual labors like research, writing, teaching, and learning into means of grace. I hope you’ve listened and wondered if the passion and purpose, doubts and convictions that you recognized in yourself as a young scholar are undeserved gifts of a God who wants his people to love him with their minds, and their neighbors as themselves.

As you leave this place and continue your education, may you consider anew how our disciplines disciple us as followers of Jesus. May your studies open your eyes to the presence of our Christ, till you too, like the disciples of Emmaus, realize that your heart has been burning within you and you rush out into the night to tell a weary world with word and deed the good news of his resurrection (Luke 24:28-35).

May you go in peace and — through your learning and your living — serve the Lord. Thanks be to God.