FAITH AND LEARNING RECONSIDERED:
THE UNITY OF TRUTH
MEL R. WILHOIT
Chair, Division of Fine Arts
"Is what you get in a Christian college worth the difference in cost over what you get in a state school or community college?" For approximately three decades, the Christian college's strongest philosophical argument has been the Integration of Faith and Learning. While state schools may often have superior facilities, well-known faculty, a nationally ranked football team or better proximity, they cannot deal with the integration of faith and learning which is crucial to the untutored believer in a world of hostile or conflicting ideas.
If not our main raison d'etre, the integration of faith and learning certainly seems to rank very high in our collective make-up as Christian colleges. We correspondingly place a heavy burden on this concept and find it perennially to be a common topic of collegial discussions, few of which seem to be directed towards the validity or merits of the concept itself. Most discussions simply begin with it as an axiomatic concept and proceed to demonstrate how it should operate in one's professional or institutional life.
Now an axiom is a self-evident truth that, theoretically at least, enjoys universal agreement. Axioms, however, are often troubling, for even a superficial reading of history immediately suggests that one culture or subculture's axiom is another's taboo, and that one group's creed is often another's heresy. Before proffering a few thoughts on the topic at hand, therefore, it may be useful to question this modern evangelical shibboleth at the outset. This effort is not iconoclastic, but derives from the perspective of a believer who desires to bring every thought and concept--including that of the integration of faith and learning--under the captivity of God's Word.
In attempting to either question or discuss the subject, one is immediately impressed with the need for definition, for we must first agree on a common understanding of terms if communication is to take place. However, common definitions do not easily lend themselves to our subject; nevertheless, let us first begin with integration for it is probably the easiest or least controversial. The meaning here seems simply to reflect the idea of harmonization or a bringing together of separate parts into a coherent unity.
The real puzzle comes with the terms faith and learning, for we must ascertain, not their denotations (or dictionary definitions), but their connotations within the confines of the evangelical community in general and our own institutions in particular. It seems obvious that the existence of the two terms, faith and learning, suggests two qualitatively different spheres of comprehension--something like the categories of apples and oranges--which we as master chefs or teachers are to prepare as a single satisfying concoction and to serve to our hungry students.
In the present context, the implications, at least to the less than critical mind are that: Faith is the area of personal communion with God--it values traits such as trust and love rather than precision of thought or emotional detachment; and learning is represented by cautious generalizations of philosophy or the carefully controlled inductive truths of empirical science. Put another way, learning represents those things we can verify by the scientific method (such as water being made of two parts hydrogen and one part oxygen), while faith relates to those things we cannot test or rationalize (such as the concept that God is all powerful). Ultimately then, the difference between faith and learning is a question of origins--with faith representing the sphere of understanding as revealed by God in His Word, and learning representing the sphere of understanding as discovered and recorded by man.
Within the general context of this perspective, we as teachers in Christian colleges face the rather Herculean task of reconciling what might be called the natural and the supernatural or the secular and the sacred. Admittedly, many a Christian teacher has boasted an impressive record of just such reconciliations, but it is with the very concept of a dichotomy between the natural and the supernatural or the secular and the sacred that issue is here taken.1 Though not an original position, it is this writer's contention that there is a unity of knowledge or truth, rather than a dichotomy; and that any suggestion of a dichotomy is, at best, an incomplete understanding of Scripture, or, at worst, heresy. Arthur Holmes has observed:
[The Bible's] purpose is not encyclopedic, but redemptive. To say that all truth is God's truth, moreover, does not mean that all truth is either contained in the Bible or deductible from what we find there. Historic Christianity has believed in the truthfulness of Scripture, yet not as an exhaustive revelation of everything men can know or want to know as true, but rather as a sufficient rule for faith and conduct. Human knowledge in mathematics and science has arisen from other sources than Biblical teachings. Historical and philosophical knowledge overlap here and there with Biblical knowledge: but there is no Biblical history of modern Europe nor any Biblical theory of sense perception, to cite two obvious examples.
All truth, no matter where it be found or by whom it be discovered is still God's truth.2
Although H. L. Mencken quipped that faith is an illogical belief in the occurrence of the improbable, J. Gresham Machen has more accurately observed that, "far from being contrasted with knowledge (or learning), faith is founded upon knowledge."3 John Stott points out that faith is not credulity: faith and reason are not incompatible. The Scripture may set in opposition faith and sight, but not faith and reason. "On the contrary, true faith is essentially reasonable because it trusts in the character and the promises of God. A believing Christian is one whose mind reflects and rests on these certitudes. Faith is a reasoning trust...which reckons thoughtfully and confidently upon the trustworthiness of God."4
In his commentary on Titus, Calvin concluded:
They are superstitious who dare not borrow anything from profane writers. For since all truth is from God, if anything has been aptly or truly said by those who have not piety, it ought not to be repudiated, for it came from God. Since then all things are of God, why is it not right to refer to his glory whatever can properly be applied to that.5
Our task, then, is not in trying to bring together in the classroom both divinely inspired truth and humanly derived truth, for all truth is God's truth. Here the implications of the creation account are clear: it means that men "will be the instruments of an exploration of reality in which man, in Kepler's phrase,`thinks God's thoughts after Him,' and by improving his knowledge increases his mastery of the world."6 When God gave those of us created in His image the mandate to be stewards of His creation, He fully expected us to discover, interpret, and implement truths which He had created but yet did not include in His special revelation--the Scriptures.
Therefore, when a scientist discovers a new element, or a sociologist discovers unknown patterns of cultural activity, or a composer invents a new way of organizing sound--we should rather rejoice in that God's mandate of stewardship, even by sinful men, is being carried out. Man discovers nothing that God wants hidden; man unlocks no realm of truth that God wants concealed. It is true that man does abuse his stewardship as did Adam in the garden, but that is a question of obedience--not one concerning the nature of truth.
From the standpoint of the nature of unity of truth, it is just as true that the earth rotates on its axis every twenty-four hours as it is that Abraham was the father of the Jewish people or that Christ died on the cross to save sinners. Although it is true that the source of most of our spiritual knowledge comes from the Bible, Scripture, like other sources of knowledge, does not bypass either reason or inquiry. It requires reading and thought, a knowledge of ancient languages, syntax, historical considerations, and literary contexts before one can begin fully to comprehend what it means. Not only must we approach special revelation
in much the same way we approach the truths of human discovery (while also recognizing the unique role of the Holy Spirit as a guide to spiritual truth), but we must also realize that both spheres are subject to much of the same limitations, for no one individual has ever understood all or even most about the Scriptures or human knowledge. And both spheres are subject to misunderstanding, misinterpretation, and improper application (witness the examples of Caesaropapism as an interpretation of Scriptural truth and the Piltdown Man as an example of scientific truth).
This illustrates once again that, as teachers in a Christian college, we should not be attempting to integrate or harmonize two separate or differing spheres of understanding or truth but, rather, that we should be demonstrating the unity of truth whose author is God and whose stewards we are.
Now, after just having called into question some aspects of the concept of integration of faith and learning, it may be helpful to share further regarding this concept of the unity of truth, and demonstrate how it operates within the realm of my stewardship at Bryan College. In speaking of that amazing group of men and women who substantially influenced both England and America, the Puritans, noted historian Perry Miller suggests that in ninety percent of their life and living, they resembled everyone else around them. It was that remaining ten percent that made all the difference and helped to create one of the great dynamic movements of seventeenth-century Protestantism.
Were a casual observer to come into my classroom, he, likewise, would most probably find a class in which the course number and title, course description, textbook, general content, methodology, tests, grading scale, and classroom setting seemed to differ little from a similar course taught at the nearby state university. But with closer and more prolonged observation, the careful observer would begin to notice certain presuppositions, both spoken and unspoken, which are actually a referential basis for everything else that is taking place within the classroom.
As our observer's curiosity became more aroused, he undoubtedly would realize that many of the spoken presuppositions are presented as part of the course content via lectures, assigned reading or classroom discussions. Although many of the presuppositions themselves may not be new to the student, the focus may well be on the application of these familiar concepts to the specific subject matter at hand. Numerous unspoken presuppositions are also obviously operative within the classroom, but they generally remain unarticulated because of their axiomatic nature; that is, because of their rather universal acceptance as foundational truth among the evangelical community of which Bryan College is a part. Yet, even these unspoken presuppositions give understanding to the subjects which impinge upon them.
The nature of these presuppositions is identified by Cornelius Van Til, who reminds us that "man is under a mandate to investigate the meaning of both nature and history, not in the light of the presuppositions and methodology he would construct for himself, but in the light of those presuppositions revealed to him by God."7 Harry Blamires further contends that a "Christian mind" is "a mind trained, informed, equipped to handle the data of secular controversy within the framework of reference which is constructed of Christian presuppositions."8
Liberal philosopher-theologian Langdon Gilkey has expressed it precisely in observing that:
Every culture has a spiritual center, a commonly-held vision of what is real, what is true and beautiful, and what is good. These visions differ markedly from culture to culture and it is this, not its geography, size, technology, amount of knowledge, or even duration, that makes a given culture unique, that importantly differentiates Chinese from Indian from Greek--and all of these from modern culture.
(It is this very type of commonly held vision that makes Bryan College different from the state schools and different from the other schools in the Christian College Coalition.)
This vision of reality, truth, and value is expressed in fundamental symbolic forms: mythical, theological-philosophical, social and artistic. These symbols expressive of this vision, articulate it, organize it, communicate it, and provide the possibility of discourse about the vision. And discourse about a vision in turn makes possible a conscious appropriation of it, explicit loyalty to it, and criticism and reformulation of it.9
Taken together, these commonly held visions, concepts, or presuppositions produce a Weltanschauung or worldview. And it is precisely this formulation of a biblical worldview which acts as a filter or interpreter for all information which passes through it, which I believe to be the essence of the integration of faith and learning or instruction in the unity of truth. It is not attempting to square the biblical account of creation with modern scientific theories of origins; it is not trying to mesh Old Testament accounts with apparent contradictions of historical or archaeological data; nor is it trying to correlate biblical eschatology with plausible explanations of current events. Rather, it is the development of a biblical worldview based on scriptural presuppositions which is central to, yea even the very core and fiber of, Christian education. And like those Puritans who so resembled their neighbors but differed so radically from them because of their worldview, so should we be producing graduates who, because of their biblical worldview, appear to be in the world but are definitely not of it; for they have learned to think from a biblical perspective.
Now, lest a rightful accusation be lodged of soaring among only those rarified realms of philosophical-theological-educational speculation, let me focus upon two specific courses and attempt to ascertain how biblical presuppositions operate therein. These classes are History of Music, which is primarily for music majors although it is also listed as a general education elective and is often braved by a few hearty or foolish souls, and Introduction to Fine Arts, which is a general education requirement for all Bryan College graduates.
First, it is appropriate to note that a written list of biblical presuppositions which acts as a template onto which I overlay all academic subjects or courses does not exist. (With a bit of reflection, the reasons for this will be obvious.) However, it is possible to list a few spoken and unspoken presuppositions which are particularly relevant to these courses and comment briefly upon their role in forming a biblical worldview. Comments and observations concerning these presuppositions are in no way meant to be exhaustive, but simply illustrative.
1) There exists a God who (to use Schaeffer's phrase) "is really there," and this existence gives meaning and purpose to life. The arts themselves (particularly the fine arts) often contain or attempt to give understanding and meaning or interpretation to life as it has been experienced and perceived by individual artists. It is probably not an oversimplification to say that every work of art is a comment about the nature of reality or existence. Historically, the God of the Bible was recognized as existent and, often, as consciously active in the world of men--at least in Western culture. However, in much of nineteenth-century philosophical thought, as embodied in such writers as Nietzsche, the arts began to reflect agnosticism (e.g. composer Charles Ives' The Unanswered Question) and a lack of any meaning or purpose in life (e.g. Alban Berg's masterpiece, the opera Wozzeck). In later developments, witness the "theater of the absurd." In art, witness movements such as Da-Da (a child's term chosen by this movement to reflect its meaninglessness). For many such artists and composers their productions (the term "creations" is purposefully avoided) simply exist as you find them; you make up your own meaning about their significance, or simply decide if they, like much of life, have only rational or purposive meaning. The basic concept that God exists and therefore gives meaning to life is presently being rejected by many of the creative leaders of Western society. Its ramifications for the art we see and the music we hear are enormous and profound.
2) God has not been silent, but has revealed Himself: in the general revelation of the physical world and in the special revelation of the Scriptures. Here it is perhaps pertinent to point out that the Scriptures provide no specific technical criteria for the visual arts or for music although certain deductions or inferences appropriately may be drawn from the scriptural record. In this regard, Francis Schaeffer's excellent pamphlet Art and the Bible is required reading and receives lively classroom discussion as it relates directly to this topic. Parts of Frank Gaebeline's The Christian, The Arts, and Truth are also applicable. And should a few of our students turn out to be adventurous thinkers or born philosophers, the works of Calvin Seerweld and of Nicholas Wolterstorff provide ample food for thought.
3) This might be stated as a related cluster of presuppositions: God is the creator of all things: all men bear God's creative image in them; the fall and sin have distorted God's image and man's ability to create, reason, and comprehend. Understanding the significance and ramifications of the creation account and the fall are absolutely central to studying the arts from a biblical perspective. Such an understanding helps to answer such questions as to why creativity in all its manifest forms is an innate part of being human rather than a desirable but unnecessary frill. It helps to answer why the unregenerate are often able to produce magnificent works of religious art and music (e.g. DaVinci's Last Supper, or Handel's Messiah). It helps to provide understanding for how the arts can document so carefully and powerfully the results of man's sin: man's alienation from God, from others, from his environment, and from his own self (e.g. Eduard Munch's painting The Scream, or composer Kristoff Penderecki's haunting Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima). It also enables us to comprehend how art and music can lift us above the prosaic and commonplace, transporting us to a realm beyond the confines of rationality alone, allowing us to view the veiled glories of God (e.g. Rembrandt's Head of Christ or Bach's Saint Matthew Passion). Arthur Holmes has boldly asserted that the arts may even become a vehicle for God's general revelation.10
4) Scripture teaches us that history has a purpose and goals. The Hebrew-Christian concept of history, upon which Western art has been built, is basically a linear one with a beginning, middle, and end. Our arts reflect this unspoken presupposition. But Eastern concepts of time are basically cyclical, often with little or no recognition of direct cause-and-effect relationships. Much modern art (e.g. some aspects of Abstract Expressionism, Surrealism, etc.) and music which reflects random compositional techniques (often called "chance" or "aleatory" and determined by the throw of the dice or the I Ching) reflect this ultimate sense of purposelessness or lack of ultimate direction, with the emphasis on process rather than product.
About 1970, Greg Singer attended an informal session held by historians meeting for the American Historical Association. He relates that after they had concluded that history lacks any decisive meaning or discernible purpose, he asked, "Why then teach history?" All appeared dumbfounded and none answered.11 May those of us who teach various aspects of history not be found thus mute when asked by our students, "Why must we take history?" Rather let us answer that history is the working out of God's eternal plan of which He has graciously allowed us to be a part. To an extent, the history of the arts reflects how mankind has perceived and interpreted our role in this plan as well as how we have fulfilled the creative stewardship given to all mankind created in God's image.
5) Lastly, there are moral absolutes or universal truths. Contrast this presupposition with the influential thought of Karl Mannheim who, in his book Ideology and Utopia, propounds:
It is imperative in the present transitional period to make use of the intellectual twilight which dominates our epoch and in which all values and points of view appear in their genuine relativity. We must realize once and for all that the meanings which make up our world are simply an historically determined and continuously developing structure in which man develops, and are in no sense absolute.12
Even though artistic standards and techniques are relative and do vary with time and place, we as believers understand that these are simply various manifestations of the unchanging Truth which--or more correctly, Who--is the same yesterday, today, and forever. And although our perceptions of God and our artistic responses are thoroughly culturally conditioned, God's nature and character, His plan and His purpose for His creation are ever settled in Heaven.
In a recent study by an Ivy League college, it was determined that a significant number of its graduates were presently employed in jobs that did not even exist during their college years. If this is even partially true for our students in Christian colleges, it is incumbent upon us to be actively involved in preparing believers who will be equipped to encounter new ideas and concepts and to make mature and true judgments from a biblical basis, as well as making valuable contributions to the world in which they operate as salt and light.
The reconciliation of what some may see as the disparate elements of faith and learning is not the role of the believer who teaches college as both a vocation and as a calling. It is, rather, to act as one who desires to lead others to investigate and appropriate the truth that God has created and then given into our stewardship. Let us proclaim with the Psalmist, "The earth is the Lord's and the fullness thereof."
1It is difficult to tell to what degree this concept of a dichotomy exists. In surveys conducted by the Christian College Coalition of participants (most of whom had terminal degrees) attending 20 Coalition seminars, only 132 out of 317 faculty surveyed chose "articulating a Christian worldview" as their first choice to the question of how they understood "the integration of faith and learning." The second most popular choice, chosen by 38 faculty, was "emphasizing the central relationship of Christian wisdom to academic subjects." "Christian College News" Vol. XII, No. 8; August, 1987, pp. 2-3.
2Arthur F. Holmes, All Truth is God's Truth (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1977), pp. 53, 8, 14.
3Gary North, ed., Foundations of Christian Scholarship: Essays in the Van Til Perspective (Vallencito, CA: Ross House Books, 1979), p. 36 quoting Machem's What is Faith, p. 46.
4John R. Stott, Your Mind Matters (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1972), pp. 34, 36.
5Alexander Miller, Faith and Learning: Christian Faith and Higher Education in Twentieth Century America (Westport, Conn: Greenwood Press, 1977), p. 195 quoting John Calvin's Commentary on Titus, Opera III.
6Miller, p. 63.
7North, pp. 64-65.
8Stott, p. 23, quoting Blamires in The Christian Mind, p. 43.
9Langdon Gilkey, Creation on Trial: Evolution and God at Little Rock (Minneapolis: Winston Press, 1985), pp. 210-211.
10Holmes, p. 137.
11North, p. 53 from chapter IV "The Problem of Historical Interpretation" by C. Gregg Singer.
12Miller, p. 5 quoting Karl Mannheim's Ideology and Utopia.