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Volume 21, Number 4 (Summer 1981)

Christian Studies and the Liberal Arts College

Gerhart Niemeyer

This paper was delivered at the launching of the Christian Studies Institute program at Hillsdale College on November 8, 1980.

What can a student today rightfully demand from a “liberal arts education”? A diploma that translates into a better-paid job? Such a certificate calls for vocational training. A smattering of a wide range of various disciplines? That would hardly make him a more useful citizen. “Liber” is the Latin word for “free.” A “liberal” education should itself be free and enable its students to become free human beings.

In the context of education, what does “freedom” mean? What educational gift is likely to lead a student toward freedom? Simply speaking, liberal education would offer the promotion of competence, sense of direction, and ability in all those aspects of life in which human beings are essentially free, meaning that they are in these aspects not subject to the necessities of matter and inescapable needs. What comes to mind is, first, the area of moral action; secondly, the faculty of judgment; and thirdly, the dimension of understanding.

Regardless of college catalogues and even of faculty intentions, a school of liberal education, as soon as it opens its doors, makes to the students an implicit promise, even though neither teachers nor students may be clearly conscious of it. But the promise is grasped by the student retrospectively, in his maturity, when he tries to sum up the advantages his education has given him. He will wonder what help his education has been in his endeavor to recognize the possibilities of life, along with the requirements for making good use of them. He will rummage through the residue of his education, looking for tools to help him discern the character of the time in which he lives. For instance, when confronted with something like the rise of the Nazis in Germany or of the Communists in Russia, he will wonder which of his studies has equipped him to judge such forces correctly, and also to assess the course the culture of his time is taking. Most often, though, mature alumni will reflect about the ways in which their college has opened for them visions about the meaning of the whole. A thinking person needs purpose and insight. If his liberal education has not prepared his mind for those ultimate questions, it has totally failed him.

This, I submit, is a rough sketch of the fundamental promise inherent in the nature of liberal education and in human nature. Now let us take a bold step forward and outline in a recognizable if somewhat fuzzy manner, the ways in which a liberal arts college can and must keep faith with its students regarding that implicit promise. It must a) undertake to come systematically to grips with the nature, function, and even the content of human beliefs; b) it must shoulder the responsibility for handing on the tradition of culture and history; and c) it must not neglect to inform the students about Christianity: its message, teachings, and institutions. These three constitute the core of liberal education faithful to its own mission.

This is a far cry from the usual cafeteria concept of “a little science, a little math, a little philosophy, a little sociology, a little language, and a lot of electives.” On the other hand, it does not amount to a demand for a Bible College. Whether there is a place for the “cafeteria concept” and whether it even deserves to be called education, I will not discuss. There is obviously a place for Bible colleges. A liberal arts college, however, is something sui generis which we feel we ought to have, largely because of our tradition. It is chiefly in reverence for our tradition that we honor the concept of the liberal arts college and try to trace its perimeter.

Let us then turn to the first item: the importance of beliefs. In that respect we are still beset by what is now recognized as a fallacious prejudice—that rationality consists in a completely pure recognition of an object, that the object contains all of the fact there is, and that the subject remains essentially passive in order for one to attain to “objectivity.” This fallacious view goes back to Descartes, who divided all reality into a world of extended things on the one side, and of thought, on the other. It has taken us about three centuries to rid ourselves of this prejudice, and without modern physics we would not yet be free of it.

Planck and Heisenberg established beyond dispute that knowledge is a relationship in which nature and man are mutually involved, each affecting the other. That meant the end of the old concepts of “things” and of “objectivity.” In the wake of this modern “Copernican Revolution,” there has emerged a body of very considerable philosophical criticism of the Cartesian idea of “rationality.” Thinkers like Michael Polanyi in England, Stanley Jaki in the United States, and Wilhelm Kamlah in Germany have demonstrated that all thinking involves acting; that the discovering mind is necessarily moved by unscientific premises, beliefs, and motives; and that personal commitment is an integral part of all scientific innovation. Thus there is no science apart from belief, and indeed no human activity at all without beliefs.

There are, however, beliefs in the nature of hypotheses which can be disproved, and there are others beyond proof or refutation. The latter, which John Macquarrie has called “transcendent beliefs,” are the really important ones. They transcend man’s subjectivity, personal or collective; they also transcend nature and history. They are beliefs about the whole of which we acknowledge ourselves to be a part, without being able to demonstrate beyond any doubt of what whole we are a part and in what way we are a part of it. At any rate, the whole, by definition, has no context. There is no place affording us a possibility to step out of it to the end of looking on it as if it were an object. Our wonderment about that mysterious whole and our mysterious place in it can therefore have no end. It cannot be satisfied by mere facts of experience. It cannot be silenced by any compelling proof. If there were, such proof would stop our questioning once and for all; we would indeed be enclosed by a confining wall of “fact” imprisoning us beyond endurance. Transcendent beliefs, therefore, “stretch” our human nature beyond mere abstract “facts,” thus making us capable of generosity, commitment, sacrifice.

On the other hand, it would be a great mistake to assume that any kind of belief would suffice. We are creatures endowed with reason. Our beliefs do not, or should not, require the silencing of the intellect. They must not flout common human experience. They must agree with what we know about “the facts of life.” Therefore it makes sense that people argue with each other about their respective beliefs, thereby manifesting their own seriousness and their acceptance of critical standards for the contents of beliefs.

Liberal education, then, must focus its main efforts on thinking about and examining our beliefs, studying them not as if they were alien objects, but from within, as an integral part of the “serious play” of life in which we are involved.

Secondly, there is tradition. Again, prejudice intrudes as we tend to think of “tradition” as the “quaintness” of the past, replete with primitive mentalities and characters, crudity in manner and feeling. That prejudice stems from our assumption that we, our own present, constitute the apex of history, so that all that has been is relevant only as a preparation for what we have become. In reality, while there is growth, there is also perversion and decay. The tradition must not be regarded as a stepladder, whereby one makes invidious distinction between the “lower” and the “higher rungs.” Life is, in a sense, a movement toward what is new, but no innovation occurs in empty space. All newness is also re-newal.

Human beings are members of one another, not merely in the plane of the present (what we mean by the cliché of “humanity”) but also in the dimension of past and future. Every new religion has its deep roots in an older one. Every science relies on work already done and appropriated. Every moral action is taken in the presence not only of our contemporaries, but also of those who have gone before us and those not yet born. The tradition is the testimony of human solidarity rather than that of inevitable upward progress. He who cuts himself off from tradition is not a new man but rather a naked and isolated “self,” shivering from icy solitude, deprived of any signs of direction or hints of possibilities. The New Yorker once published the cartoon of a clock which instead of numbers only, had twelve spots, each saying “now!” Rebellious movements in our time, having elevated that “now!” to the sole dimension of time, have destroyed not only the past but also the future.

Thinking, as eminent philosophers have pointed out, is essentially memory. No memory is purely subjective and individual. Because each memory reflects the solidarity of humankind, such a thing as a public memory is possible, a memory that undergirds a common culture and political order. Therefore, the handing down of tradition is not the transmission of nostalgia, but rather a noble task for all whose position confers on them teaching functions: parents, schools, colleges and universities, churches, and governments.

Again, as in the case of beliefs, tradition must always be transmitted critically. As it is taught, it is necessarily examined and thereby imperceptibly changed. This “critically” must not be seen as a denial of the past in an invidious, hostile, and destructive way. Rather, the past is renewed, the criticism being practiced in the spirit of ancient Roman pietas, approaching reverently the defects of what has historically grown, “as one approaches the wounds of a father,” to use Burke’s words. Nor must that “piety” be confused with bigotry. Rather it manifests respect and love for everything that bears a human face, for all whom God has loved and who have sought God in their way.

We are now brought, to the third item: the place of Christianity among the studies of liberal education. At first glance we see that it pertains to the study of beliefs, especially the “transcendent beliefs.” Such is also the tradition which a liberal education must hand down to new generations. Beyond that, however, it must be taught in its own right. Nor must Christianity merely be mentioned “in passing,” in the context of literature, art, politics, and cultural “problems.” As a study, Christianity must be embraced in its fullness and understood “from within.” The studies must embrace the body of sacred scripture, the proclamation of the Gospel, dogma as well as teaching, the developing form of corporate worship, the errant movements of heresy, the constructive movements of monasticism, the mystics as well as the doctors of the Church, its diversified order of moral discipline and supervisory authority, and the Christian enterprise of mission.

One can readily hear the objections: “Why just Christianity? Why not religion in general?” “All right, but if you introduce Christianity into the curriculum, you ought to give equal time to other religions.” “Since Christianity claims to be the true religion, how are you going to reply to the charge of dogmatism? Better risk loss of truth than chance of error” (William James’s description of the skeptic’s option). To which we would respond: a) “religion” as such is no subject matter; it is at best a branch of psychology which has had great difficulty in understanding what a religion is; b) as for comparative religion, it is a legitimate subject, and an important even though very difficult one. It may well be added to Christian studies, but it will not do as a substitute because Christianity is the center of our culture, the truth that has shaped our past and is still shaping our present, regardless of what the attitude of particular person to it may be. We cannot realistically step out of this truth into “another one,” we cannot in truth become Hindus or Buddhists, and least of all can an amalgam be made of all religions as a dwelling place for anybody. Western civilization came into existence through the unifying impulse of Latin Christianity. No other religion has ever wielded a similarly powerful influence in the centuries of our cultural identity. The historical metamorphoses of our culture can be understood only in their relations to the Christian origins, even where these metamorphoses have not worked for but rather against Christianity. Finally, as for the option of the skeptic, “better risk chance of error than loss of truth,” this is a decision which cannot and will not be made in the context of class assignments, tests, and grades; but in the solitude of each person’s heart.

Another objection might arise from the traditional concept of the liberal arts college. On second thought, this is a mistaken way of putting it, since traditionally Christian studies have formed not merely an integral part but the crowning part of liberal education. So let us state more correctly that the objection will come from the contemporary idea of liberal education, with its commitment to positivism, objectivism, and an instrumental concept of reason. It is a fact that students matriculating today in a liberal arts college come with an intent different from those seeking a Bible college. One may indeed say that they have come with the expectation of never hearing the word “God” mentioned either in the classroom or in the halls of their alma mater. It is likewise a fact that of all the subjects that may pop up in conversation among academic intellectuals today, one alone is positively taboo: the subject of God. If the word is as much as mentioned by someone in the conversation of intellectuals, there will either be an abrupt change of subject or an abrupt end to the conversation.

Thus the introduction of Christian studies into a liberal arts curriculum requires a special effort of justification. It must be defended against a concept of rationality that sees belief, especially transcendent belief, as the denial of valid thinking. The defense can hardly be successful until one can demonstrate that Cartesian concept of rationality itself to be in error. Let us assume, though, that we have managed to meet the objections, and to make our justification, honestly and lucidly. There still remains an inherent limitation: the character of liberal education still prohibits the offering of these studies with a proselytizing intent. One may ask whether that limitation inheres only in liberal education or is not rather characteristic of all studies proceeding formally by means of books, lectures, recitations, tests, and grades.

A few years ago the dean of one of the top-ranking Anglican seminaries addressed a parish meeting at my church. Our director of religious education rather heatedly assailed the dean’s talk with the argument that religious education should have “experience” as its subject matter and as its goal, that is, the emotion of personal conversion of the students. The dean, with great firmness, rejected that view. “Life, indeed, consists of experience,” he said, “but the business of education is tradition.” His point was that education works with subject matter that is transmitted in a lucid, orderly, and faithful manner. Conversion may and frequently will be the indirect result of such form-bound education, but it occurs in another context and situation.

In his A History of Christianity (Norland, 1979) Donald Treadgold reports on a poll regarding knowledge of minimal facts of Christianity: In America 43% attended church, in Great Britain only 15%. When asked about the authors of the four Gospels, only 35% of all Americans could respond with Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, while 61% of Britons remembered correctly. The poll reveals a phenomenon of decline: the waning of knowledge, a kind of wasting disease. Thus there is a manifest utility in Christian studies at a liberal arts college. That, however, cannot be the chief reason for teaching this subject, nor should it be the last word today. Relevant is a passage from Albert Salomon’s [1963] book In Praise of Enlightenment, a book which, as its title shows, cannot be suspected of partisanship. Salomon concludes his work with these remarks:

the classic blunder of modern, scientific, secular civilization concerning religion [is] the assumption that religion is just one other cultural motif, like some particular technology or philosophy . . . Whereas, in fact, religion as a social constituent is of secondary significance. Primarily, the religious experience is the axis around which all other experience revolves. It sets the center and describes the horizon of the human scene, and so disposes into their places all the other goods of civilization without ever being itself disposed by them. Once the whole has been so experienced, a man will be better able to consider any aspect of reality, including that aspect which is society—the grandeur and misery of man’s lot.  

Dr. Gerhart Niemeyer (1907–1997) was at the time of writing professor emeritus of government at the University of Notre Dame and a frequent lecturer at Hillsdale College. He was the author, among others, of Between Nothingness and Paradise and Deceitful Peace.

Posted: May 8, 2011 in Best of the Bookman.

The conservative believes that the individual is foolish, although the species is wise; therefore, unlike the confident intellectual, he declines to undertake the reconstruction of society and human nature.

Russell Kirk

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