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  • Paradigms, Conversation, Prayer:Liberal Arts in Christian Colleges
  • Donald G. Marshall (bio)

Given the debates now raging about the place and function of English and its allied disciplines, how should we understand the situation of the liberal arts in the particular context of Christian colleges and universities? For Anthony Kronman (2007: 205–59), the phrase "Christian liberal arts college" is an oxymoron. Are not the liberal arts defined by a free, open, critical inquiry seeking human truths about the issues inherent to our existence? Do they not begin in Socratic ignorance, free of received opinions, and arrive at Kantian self-assertion, the bold assumption of individual responsibility for one's own knowledge and convictions? Is not such a spirit of critical inquiry completely at odds with Christianity's—indeed any religion's—demand that adherents obediently submit to authoritative truths? Surely a college with a Christian mission has already committed itself to certain truths that are placed beyond question or inquiry?

A little reflection will reveal that the opposition that frames this outlook is, to say the least, highly questionable. Terry Eagleton (2009) provides a trenchant critique of it. On the one side, all inquiry rests on presuppositions it cannot itself ground—a point noted by Jürgen Habermas in his exchange with Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI (Habermas and Ratzinger 2006: 40). Nor is it possible to suspend all beliefs, to start inquiry with a slate wiped clean by Cartesian doubt. To do so would obliterate the very concerns that motivated the inquiry while simultaneously demanding a self-consciousness and self-critique that exceed the capacities of a fallible and [End Page 183] mortal creature. If we are to think at all, we must take up from the tradition of human thought at least some concepts and some methods as authoritative. A simple opposition between faith and reason is naively dogmatic about both.

On the other side, Christian doctrine is itself a critique aimed to liberate the human mind from superstition, from subjection to the self-evidence of the "world" and its "wisdom," and from a slavish submission to rules and regulations—a point Paul stresses in his epistles. The Christian proclamation is not a mysterious dogma that calls for blind faith; it presents itself as the revelation of truths that had previously been concealed beyond the reach of human understanding. Critical inquiry begins in ignorance, but ignorance is not skepticism. Christianity demands that believers exert themselves to understand their beliefs,1 and centuries of subtle and rigorous investigation have been devoted to showing the persuasiveness in terms quite intelligible to the human mind of the Christian account of human existence. Even a superficial examination of the history of Christian doctrine shows intense and closely argued debates. Christian tradition is not a congealed system imposed like a dead hand but a variegated conversation, marked as strongly by conflict and critique as by consensus. This conversation itself constitutes the ongoing life of the community's faith, flowing with unbroken continuity into the future, as Peter M. Candler (2006) has forcefully argued.

We should not begin with unreflective assumptions about either what the liberal arts are or what relation to them a Christian mission commits a college and its faculty to. The liberal arts need not be presumed to teach a secular humanism whose task is to save the contemporary world from religious dogmatism. Some may still regard the function of the liberal arts as tempering the tendency toward any kind of uncritical dogmatism and thereby separating Christian college education from Christian catechesis. There is truth in such a view. It always liberates and expands the mind to think seriously about one's most deeply held beliefs, even when the outcome of such an investigation is to reaffirm their truth. But from the other direction, I want to argue that a Christian perspective may reveal something essential about the liberal arts that might otherwise be missed and that as a perhaps paradoxical and surprising consequence the liberal arts might find their home more essentially in a Christian college than in a secular one. Those with no investment in Christian teaching will, of course, be skeptical about that claim. After...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1533-6255
Print ISSN
1531-4200
Pages
pp. 183-200
Launched on MUSE
2009-12-06
Open Access
No
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