What follows is the text of a talk I gave yesterday evening at Point Loma Nazarene University in San Diego, California. Thanks to Ben Cater, who directs general education and the Humanities Honors program at Point Loma, for inviting me to share some thoughts on the value of the Christian liberal arts. He had enjoyed my spring talk likening the humanities to the sacraments, so I took that metaphor and wrapped it inside another (the university as cathedral), in order to explore how schools like Bethel and Point Loma participate in three distinct economies, each with its own way of valuing education.
When I first came to Bethel in 2003, we had just adopted a statement of seven core values. We said that we were — or, better, were becoming — Christ-followers, truth-seekers, learners, character-builders, reconcilers, salt and light, and world-changers. Even if we quibbled about the particulars of that list (or whether our then-president had sufficiently considered faculty feedback), no one doubted that ours was an education that inculcated important values.
But as easily as we talk about values at Bethel, many of us on the faculty chafe at the word value. Our trustees tell us that we need to clarify our “value proposition” and communicate more effectively to prospective students the “value-added” by our programs. (Or, worse yet, the “return on investment.”)
I see problems with that kind of rhetoric, but I need to acknowledge that this is very much how those who actually pay our bills are thinking and talking.
A few weeks ago in the New York Times, NYU anthropologist Caitlin Zaloom previewed her new book on how paying for college has changed middle-class American families. She concluded that the struggle to afford tuition at expensive private universities like hers (or ours) can “threaten the solvency of the family and cast children in the role of risky ‘investments’… It is altering relationships between parents and children and forcing them to adjust their responsibilities to each other.” Nonetheless, she found that “[b]y draining their savings to pay for college, parents affirm their commitment to education as a value…”
There’s that word again… Let me suggest that there is value in talking about the value of what we do. Like it or not, we are part of an economy and need to speak accordingly.
Actually, that’s not quite true… We are a part of economies, plural. Three of them, at least. And each measures the value of our model of education in different terms.
First, there’s the economy that my students would describe if they started a paper on the subject in my least favorite way: “Webster’s defines the economy as ‘the organized system of human activity involved in the production, consumption, exchange, and distribution of goods and services.’” This is the economy studied by present-day economists, whose professional association in this country defines economics as “the study of scarcity, the study of how people use resources and respond to incentives, or the study of decision-making.” It’s not only about money, but it’s about money.
Such an economy forces institutions like Bethel and Point Loma to seek “economies,” by making decisions about how to prioritize scarce resources — like, say, the credits to be included in a core curriculum and the budget available to teach them. Such an economy easily turns Christian colleges and their departments and professors into competitors with each other. It turns students into customers (or, per Zaloom, investments), and then into employees, and then, a generation later, back into customers (or investors).
For students, the value here is easily understood: it’s a transaction. If you want to enjoy a lifetime of stability and affluence, relatively inured against the uncertainty and anxiety that comes with scarcity and change, pay us tuition and we will eventually deliver you a diploma that serves as your ticket to a middle-class career.
Universities like yours and mine participate in this economy. We must and we should.
But we must and should understand that this economy values some things we do — and devalues others. If all we do is serve the needs of this economy, we will have little reason to teach more than rudimentary versions of fields like art, history, literature, music, philosophy, theatre, and even theology. We will even have little reason to teach the sciences and mathematics if they aren’t coupled to the technology and engineering core of STEM.
But as economic historian Dotan Leshem pointed out in a 2016 article, this is not the original meaning of economy. “Both Ancient Greek oikonomia and contemporary economics,” he wrote,
study human behavior as a relationship between means and ends which have alternative uses. However, while both approaches hold that the rationality of any economic action is dependent on the frugal use of means, contemporary economics is largely neutral between ends, while in ancient economic theory, an action is considered economically rational only when taken towards a praiseworthy end.
For the Greeks, an economic choice was rational only if it was praiseworthy. And it was praiseworthy only if it helped one to live the good life. The buying and selling that we’d associate with the “economy” only mattered in the oikonomia if its management enabled someone — a male, well-to-do someone — to seek wisdom and fulfill his functions as a citizen of the polis.
The value here can be harder to perceive, but at least some Americans still think that the liberal arts serve primarily to prepare young people to serve the polis. In 2013 the American Academy of Arts and Sciences called the humanities and social sciences “the heart of the matter, the keeper of the republic—a source of national memory and civic vigor, cultural understanding and communication, individual fulfillment and the ideals we hold in common.” While it applauded new investments in mathematics and the natural sciences, the report argued that it was disciplines like history, languages and literature, philosophy, political science, and sociology that would best “educate Americans in the knowledge, skills, and understanding they will need to thrive in a twenty-first-century democracy.”
Universities like yours and mine participate in this economy as well. We must and we should.
But we must and should also remember that we are not just citizens of a twenty-first century democracy, any more than we are just producers and consumers in a market economy. We are “strangers and foreigners on the earth” who “desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one” (Heb 11:13, 16, NRSV). We are citizens of the kingdom of God, whose economy is radically different from that of the Athenian polis, the American republic, and the neo-liberal global market.
Halfway through his epistle to the church in Ephesus, the apostle Paul pauses to make sure that his readers or listeners have “heard of the commission of God’s grace that was given me for you, and how the mystery was made known to me by revelation” (Eph 3:2-3). What the NRSV renders commission and other versions translate as “stewardship” or “administration” is actually a variant of the Greek word oikonomia. You don’t want a 20th century European historian to exegete too much Greek scripture, but at some level, what Paul is saying is that he has a role to play within the “economy of God’s grace.”
And God’s economy is of a fundamentally different kind. Unlike our contemporary market economy, God’s economy is one of abundance, not scarcity. Paul goes on to say that he was given the grace “to bring to the Gentiles the news of the boundless riches of Christ” (Eph 3:9). This is an economy where, by grace, God accomplishes “abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine” (v 20). It is an economy of fruitfulness and flourishing, of cups overflowing and fields ripe for harvest.
Unlike our present economy or the Greek oikonomia, God’s economy is not one of privilege and inequality. Its currency is not earned or inherited; grace is given, Paul explains, “according to the measure of Christ’s gift” (Eph 4:7). Its engine is not competition or coveting, but community. Not all of us are given to become apostles of grace, but God also calls prophets and evangelists and pastors and teachers and other workers to roles in his economy, “[growing] up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love” (Eph 4:15-16).
So, like the Greek oikonomia, the economy of grace prepares us for praiseworthy ends. One of the “immeasurable riches” of God’s grace is that we are saved by faith alone, “not the result of works, so that no one may boast.” But we have been “created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life” (Eph 2:7-10).
Universities like yours and mine participate in this economy as well. We must and we should. We are preparing students for employment and for citizenship, but above all else, we are preparing them for God’s “way of life.” A life of what we at Bethel like to call wholeness and holiness.
So, what does this mean? How does this economy define value?
If it’s a mystery to Paul, it’s a mystery to me. All I know for sure is that God’s economy defines value in terms far richer than what dollar figures can measure. And so I want to try to explain that value of our education using a different kind of language than that of transaction.
For mystery demands metaphor. Like the poet John Donne, we serve a God who is “a direct God,” but also a God whose praise requires “remote and precious metaphors,” “curtains of allegories,” and “third heavens of hyperboles.”
So at the risk of hyperbole, I invite you to imagine that your university is like a medieval cathedral: say, Notre-Dame de Chartres.
It’s not such a leap. After all, Gothic cathedrals like this one hosted schools, centers of learning where Christian scholars taught students subjects like music and rhetoric and logic and geometry. It’s in the School of Chartres as much as the School of Athens that our story as liberal arts colleges begins.
But see more than antecedents here. See a project that took generations to complete, a building whose builders started their work knowing that they would never see its completion. The people who worship and work in it are like the Israelites, inhabiting a promised “land on which you had not labored, and towns that you had not built, and you live in them” (Josh 24:13). They are like us, who serve institutions that were started long before our births and — God willing — will continue long after our deaths, doing work whose completion we will never see.
See a cross-shaped reminder that stretches out vertically and horizontally: lifting our hearts, minds, and souls to the transcendent, and placing our mission and ministry smack dab in the middle of the immanent. Like the cathedral, our university exists for the glory of God and the good of our neighbors.
See a structure that stands as a perpetual reminder of what matters most to Christians sojourning in this world. It rises above the first and second economies, not, like this disused Methodist church in downtown Seattle, dwarfed by monuments to worldly power.
But let’s not be too idealistic. A medieval cathedral likes Chartres’ participates in the other two economies. It is a center of commerce, every year drawing thousands of pilgrims from around Christendom to spend money on local goods and services. It is a marketplace as much as a sanctuary, with vendors selling everything from cloth to meat to wine around and within its walls. (One of its famed stained glass windows is even sponsored by the local money changers, who also do business here.) It’s intimately connected to the political life of the town and kingdom around it. It is a cathedral because it is the seat of bishops who are both religious leaders and political advisers. When we enter, we will see symbols of France’s most devout kings, Charlemagne and the sainted Louis IX, and we will enter the sanctuary where Henry IV was crowned in 1594, ending the kingdom’s Wars of Religion.
Crossing the threshold of a medieval church, wrote Philip Ball in his biography of Chartres, “took you into many places at once: a town hall, a social club, even a marketplace…” But also, he continued, “a temple… indeed, nothing less than a kind of heaven itself.” Not lost amid the hubbub of people doing business and the reminders of political power, we enter and find reverence. We realize that we are about to participate in a different economy.
As we move into the nave and look around us, note that we have now left the world of medieval history and entered the world of medieval imagination — specifically, that of the Flemish master Rogier van der Weyden, who painted this altarpiece between 1445 and 1450 as an illustration of the seven sacraments that stood at the center of medieval piety.
For the remainder of this talk, I’d like us to linger on these particular images, and be so bold as to consider how the Christian liberal arts are like the sacraments.
I’m thinking of analogy more than allegory. I’m not saying that history or physics are symbols of certain rituals. By using simile here, I want to do what many of our disciplines do: stretch our imaginations. In the same way that I’m asking my Modern Europe students this semester 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 physicists push their students to imagine the operations of quantum fields and subatomic particles… tonight I want to push you to think afresh about intellectual labor whose value is defined by more than commerce and politics.
And what better way to do such imaginative stretching than to consider our disciplines by comparison to what the Catechism of the Catholic Church calls the “sacramental economy,” which doesn’t manufacture products but instead dispenses “the fruits of Christ’s Paschal Mystery….” Even if, like me, you don’t think that each of these rituals is ordained by Scripture, they at least point to what the 2nd century theologian Irenaeus called “the mysterious operations of God” and so put us in the mindset of God’s mysterious economy of grace.
If nothing else, I hope that thinking of our disciplines in terms of the sacraments prompts you to consider how God makes ordinary intellectual stuff like research, writing, teaching, and learning into means of grace. I hope you can listen and recognize that the passion and purpose, doubts and convictions that you have all recognized in yourselves as Christian scholars are undeserved gifts of a God who wants his people to love him with their minds, and their neighbors as themselves.
Where else to start than 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. As one early medieval theologian put it, “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 “[t]he 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 university is not the church, but as a professor at such an institution, 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.
Scot McKnight tells the story of meeting an older colleague for the first time. “What do you teach?”, he asked, expecting the answer to be theology or chemistry or social work. “I teach students,” the other replied. “What do you teach?” That’s my favorite thing about general education: I may teach as a historian, but I’m teaching students from all fields — encouraging them to know and follow Christ, caring for them as Christ’s own.
At the same time, we cannot stand in for them. My current pastor likes to say that, in baptism, we have been named, claimed, and sent forth as children of God. That’s a blessing, and a responsibility. Especially in the Pietist, Wesleyan, and Evangelical traditions that have shaped schools like yours and mine, it is understood that Christianity cannot be assumed or affected; it isn’t a family legacy, cultural veneer, or political strategy, but a freely chosen, thoughtfully considered response to Jesus’ Great Invitation: follow me (Matt 4:18-20). If you are to be a Christian, we often say at Bethel, you must learn to “make your faith your own.”
For many of our students, then, attending a school like Bethel or Point Loma 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 students learn to think about God both devotionally and rigorously, as they read the Bible as both true and complicated, as they find in history not just inspiration but tragedy, as they wrestle with ethical dilemmas and moral quandaries, they start to “put an end to childish ways” and see God, the Church, themselves, and their neighbors “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 students will reach its completion still desiring to follow Jesus. But if they do still say Yes to his invitation, it will be a more authentic, more assured, more committed Yes.
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, 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 teach the medieval understanding of this sacrament next week in our curriculum’s foundational course on Christianity and Western Culture, most of my evangelical students will hear it as a punishment for sin. But most of our Catholic students — like medievals — will recognize it as a 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. But I do think that what we do in classrooms like mine 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 was right: we are saints who will continue to sin. And precisely 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 (those done and undone) by which we do not love God with our whole selves and our neighbors as ourselves.
This has especially important implications for teaching and learning in my neck of the woods: 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 that sense, the value of a Christian liberal arts education is that it’s penitential. But it is also eucharistic.
First, like Communion, our disciplines almost all engage in remembrance. Not just history and neighboring disciplines like literature and biblical studies, but even sciences like biology, geology, and physics 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: near, far, and even imagined.
Second, like the Mass, the liberal arts 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 together every morning and most evenings, figuratively chewing on the questions of the course as we literally chew our food. (Or last week, as my Modern Europe students thought about sources of national identity while sampling Swedish, Hungarian, Greek, and other European cuisines.) “Eat this book,” Eugene Peterson recommended as a way to 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.
Now, even if your classroom doesn’t include an actual or figurative meal, there is a spirit of gathering. So third, 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.
Finally, we come to three sacraments that help us think about the value of the Christian liberal arts as it will be revealed more fully after graduation.
Some of our students are preparing explicitly for pastoral ministry, and may even take formal vows as members of the clergy — as this young priest in the right panel of van der Weyden’s altarpiece is doing. But I hope that all of our students find ways to serve the Church. For universities like yours and mine exist for the sake of the Church.
That can be hard for some of us on Christian college faculties. 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 those of you who study the Bible, theology, and ministry 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 to do all of that, and to serve the Church as they are gifted and called (whether clergy or laity).
For any students in the audience… Whatever else you’ve heard tonight, I pray that you hear this: the Church needs you — your questions, your doubts and discontent, your gifts, and your passion.
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.
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. Especially as a general education curriculum turns to the humanities, students should better understand the kind of human God means them to be. This kind of education should help them recognize, commit to, and prepare to fulfill their divine callings. For if we follow that vocation, wrote John Calvin, “we shall receive this unique consolation: there is no work so mean and so sordid that does not look truly respectable and highly important in the sight of God!”
Calvin’s words always put me in mind of one of his spiritual descendants: the Presbyterian novelist and pastor Frederick Buechner, who preached, fifty years ago now, to students a bit younger than ours. 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[.]” I can assure you that no one is a History major these days for the sake of salary and status. It’s only ever because they found joy in studying history. They sensed 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 Christian liberal arts should also keen our ears to the cries of the suffering, marginalized, lonely, and grieving. We will find our truest gladness in meeting the deepest needs of others.
I hope that sounds at least a bit like marriage. But it also leads naturally to unction, the sacrament that my Protestant mind wants to call “last rites” — a final blessing on this side of the divide separating mortal existence from what follows. And academic disciplines that are about humanity are necessarily about mortality. The kind of education I have in mind should prepare people entering the prime of life to encounter the end of life.
But the seventh sacrament 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). 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 especially can tend to sound bookish and solitary and abstract, any disciplines claiming the name “human” must also foster empathy for hurting humans. And perhaps disciplines like mine — as much as professional programs in ministry, health sciences, social work, or education — should prepare us to heal and bless others. The liberal arts should make us ready to be God’s answer to one of Augustine’s most famous prayers. They should prepare us all to “Tend your sick ones… 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.”
That, too, is the value of the Christian liberal arts.
But now our tour of van der Weyden’s sanctuary reaches its end, and we prepare to reenter a world that operates according to economic principles other than grace, mercy, and love. While we intend to go in peace and serve the Lord, we immediately experience fear and desperation, for we see that the cathedral is on fire.
Chartres has burned multiple times, most recently in 1836. And we all saw an even more terrifying conflagration at another French Notre-Dame this past April.
I’m afraid this is the easiest metaphor of all: anyone who works in higher education in 2019 might feel like something old and venerable is burning down around them. And many of you know that it’s a lot harder to raise funds to meet that crisis than it was for Notre-Dame in Paris, which had a billion euros in pledges within a week.
But let me suggest two final takeaways that should give us hope. First, nothing will stop God’s economy of grace from functioning, in all its irrational, praiseworthy abundance. With only a brief interruption, the sacramental economy continued in the rubble of Paris’ Notre-Dame; at the Chartres, the sacramental economy continued even in the midst of two world wars. And our participation in God’s economy continues in classrooms and labs and offices and libraries and dorms, even if they’re not as nice as we think they should be — or if they’re populated by fewer students or professors than in years gone by.
Second, the history of cathedrals reminds us that we work within institutions that are ever-changing and never-changing. The part of Notre-Dame de Paris that burned first and fastest was the newest, a spire added in the 19th century. Meanwhile, its iconic towers survived.
I don’t know what the future holds for the Christian liberal arts university, but I’m certain of two things. It will change, often in response to the demands of the first two economies, insofar as they speak for the needs of the world that God loves. It will change… and it will not change, in its essence, so long as it remains faithful to the needs of God’s economy.