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Considering Scholarship through a Gospel Lens (and Not the Other Way Round)

What might be called Classical Christian Liberal Arts Education? How is such an education reflected in the BYU Mission and Aims?
The second of a three-part series based on the paper, “The Nature and Role of Christian Liberal Arts Education in Light of the Mission and Aims of a BYU Education”—exploring the possibility and the nature of what might be called Classical Christian Liberal Arts Education, how such an education is reflected in the BYU Mission and Aims—and why the world needs it now more than ever.

Note 4: Regarding the Mission and Aims of a BYU Education. 

The Gospel of Christ as the source of breadth.

In the section of the Mission and Aims document dealing with the aim that a BYU education should be “intellectually enlarging,” it speaks of the importance of students acquiring 1) intellectual and academic skills to gain a good education and to succeed in the world’s work; 2) breadth—chiefly in undergraduate education; and 3) depth of education to prepare them for success in their chosen fields and the particular life’s work. The concept of a broad undergraduate education is a reiteration of the idea of a “general education,” described in the previous essay. It is also, or should be, recognized as essential to what is being discussed here as a “liberal arts education.” It is a worthy goal. 

However, the latent danger attached to this aim as statedof a broad education—was articulated in the prior essay. It is simply this: breadth qua breadth,  by itself, is not a compelling virtue (shallow pools of water generally don’t last long, however much area they cover). Neither is breadth for its own sake a worthy goal of a Christian Education. Furthermore, the very real danger is that speaking only of breadth might reinforce the problematic conceptions, either that breadth itself is a virtue, or that mandated breadth is just an idealistic imposed requirement that must be fulfilled, however grudgingly (as in “getting one’s ‘generals’ out of the way”). Contra this interpretation, there is greater wisdom in the Aims document itself (in the same section quoted above):

Breadth. BYU undergraduates should also understand the most important developments in human thought as represented by the broad domains of knowledge. The gospel provides the chief source of such breadth because it encompasses the most comprehensive explanation of life and the cosmos, supplying the perspective from which all other knowledge is best understood and measured. (Emphasis added.)

It is bold to suggest that “the gospel [of Jesus Christ] provides the chief source . . . of breadth” in a higher education. If the breadth of a BYU education consists of some set of courses from a variety of fields covering various bodies of knowledge, then these statements about the gospel being the chief source of breadth, encompassing the most comprehensive explanation of life and cosmos and supplying the perspective from which all other knowledge is best understood and measured,” seem to be merely symbolic and sentimental, or, at worst, immediately absurd. Based on my nearly 40 years of experience it has been my experience that instantiating and claiming the gospel as the most important source of breadth in a BYU education, is really quite rare, and not an explicit expectation routinely monitored and rewarded. 

There is a wonderfully rich field of understanding and insight available to us —perhaps even the redemption of the Western intellectual tradition itself.

I realize that there have been and continue to be isolated examples of this “taking the gospel seriously, but it has been more often based on individual faculty members’ personal commitments and intellectual expertise. It is certainly not systemic as one could rightly expect of something enjoined in the Mission and Aims document. Part of the reason surely is that BYU faculty often do not come to the university with the background, mindset, and skills to mine the restored gospel for this intellectual or academic breadth because they did not receive exposure or training in the practice as students themselves at BYU or elsewhere. In other instances, faculty who attempted to explicitly make the gospel a major source of academic breadth, or even to used the gospel as context and enrichment for learning in academic areas have been, not infrequently opposed by colleagues, and seldom supported at important levels of the university. Thus, if this aim is to be taken seriously, it would appear we have a substantial training, or “in-service” issue at the university.

The proclamation, that the restored gospel is, or should be, the chief source of breadth in a BYU education must surely seem like mere “lip service” to the gospel since we are a religious school, and it is surely not meant to be taken literally or seriously, especially when the more immediate and binding source of mandated breadth in a BYU education has so often required only taking, perhaps, a course in world civilization, pre-calculus, English composition, introduction to physical science, or French. Faculty, perhaps quicker than students, might conclude that the lofty aspiration articulated in  this section of the Aims and mission is seldom explicitly undertaken in practice. And it is hard to argue with such a conclusion in the context of a “merely general” education as a prelude to a more sophisticated education in some particular subject. This phenomenon on the academic side seems to mimic a phenomenon more common on the student side regarding the Honor Code, i.e., that is a mere recommendation, and certainly not to be taken literally or seriously.

Under a “general education” model, it really is difficult to conceive of how a teacher or a student could (or should) take from the gospel the foundation of “the most comprehensive explanation and source of perspective and knowledge” in any of the General Education courses mentioned above. At least it seems too much to expect any substance from the restored gospel that would rise above an occasional mention of the gospel, a general testimony of truth, or,  perhaps some strained example of gospel “correlation” within some particular academic field (e.g., the vastness of the visible universe testifies of a creator, or Carl Rogers’ unconditional positive regard is the same as God’s unconditional love). Even a “souped-up” religious education course with tougher requirements, similar to those found in a course in a secular subject matter will not meet what seems to be obvious intent of this important aim— i.e., how the restored gospel should prominently enter and inform a BYU education.

The problem here, however, is not with the Aim as stated and not with the pronouncement that the gospel is the chief source of breadth, and the most comprehensive explanations, and best perspective from which to know and understand truth in any field. The problem is with the nature and content of what has traditionally, in practice, constituted a “general education.” This Aim of breadth, as stated on the Aims document, is lofty indeed. However, it can only be achieved in the context of a curriculum rich enough to support, and lofty enough to make possible, the sort of integration, elaboration, and enlightenment that is described in this section of the Aims document. Thus, breadth of education is a qualitative concept manifest in a rich integrative understanding of the world and self and truth at the highest level of intellectual and spiritual rigor and across a range of disciplinary contents. Breadth is not merely a quantitative concept, such as how many introductory classes across how many disciplines must be taken. It is just such a qualitatively broad curriculum that I am attempting to describe and to recommend, in this document—that I have referred to as a Christian/Latter-day Saint Classical Liberal Arts Education. 

Such an enriching aim, and a curriculum that can provide and sustain it, do not come about merely from a broad offering of courses over a broad representation of academic fields. Such an aim and curriculum must be purposive, planned, focused, explicitly rigorous, integrated, and unapologetically Christian. To formulate such a curriculum, and thereby to enable such an aim as that found in our mission and aims document, requires that we think differently, and more deeply about a BYU education, and about our own intellectual history and tradition. It will also entail, I am convinced, similarly serious thinking about, or perhaps rethinking, the place and power of the (restored) Christian gospel in intellectual matters generally. I submit that the relationships at the heart of such thinking about the gospel and about our intellectual tradition are far richer, more profound, and more affirming of faith and intellectual excellence than we as a faculty, and as a people, might have heretofore understood. But we can see this only if we are explicitly and unashamedly Christian intellectuals and scholars.

The gospel can “provide the chief source of . . . breadth” and the “most comprehensive explanation of life and cosmos,” or supply the “perspective from which all other knowledge is best understood . . . ” for a subject matter, only within a curriculum full enough and deep enough to accommodate the enterprise. The gospel can only broaden and provide explanation and understanding of things   at a scholarly level worthy of it; lesser things will be eclipsed, transformed, or dispelled. As philosopher Leo Strauss argued:

It is safer to try to understand the low in the light of the high than the high in the light of the low. In doing the latter one necessarily distorts the high, whereas in doing the former one does not deprive the low of the freedom to reveal itself as what it is (Liberalism Ancient and Modern, 1968, p. 225).

This is the primary reason and argument for a broad, comprehensive, and serious Christian/Latter-day Saint liberal arts education at BYU—so that the gospel (as the “high” in Strauss’s terms) can do its work of revealing the world as it is in the lives and minds—as well as the hearts—of those who study here both as students and as scholars/faculty. Such a curriculum, and the education it can provide, can have positive effects at BYU, in Church Education, throughout the Church, and into the broader culture, and, if we are good enough, into the broader academic agenda and intellectual culture itself. I believe it has the potential to make us (and fellow Christians thus similarly engaged) a force for good and “live leaven” in the loaf of our entire culture. But this will be, only if we are good enough and determined enough, and if we care enough, and if we are Christian enough.

How might this come about at the conceptual level?

It is less common in the Latter-day Saint tradition today than it was perhaps several decades ago, to speak in terms of a Great Apostasy having set the course of religious, cultural, and intellectual history from the first century AD or so until at least, significantly, 1820. The more often-used contemporary metaphor, in contrast, is that the early Christian church was driven into the wilderness—largely in response to Roman pagan domination. This follows from the metaphor in Revelation 12 of the woman who brought forth a child and was nurtured in the wilderness, and whose son ultimately triumphed over the forces of evil in the latter days. All Christians who anticipate Christ’s return to earth to reign in latter times can relate to this metaphor. A crucial part of the nurturing of the Church in the wilderness in the early centuries AD, was the development of what we now refer to as the Western intellectual tradition within which Christianity might develop and flourish. 

From as early as the late second century (the first post-apostolic century) there arose issues, debates, conflicts, and doctrinal interpretations occasioned by challenges and factions both within the Church and from contact or clash with contemporary pagan Roman culture. These were expressed in terms available from the predominant intellectual learning and understandings of the times. As theology scholars Roger Olson and Adam English (2005) express it, Theology was the result of the “ . . . church’s [necessary] reflection on the salvation brought by Christ and on the gospel of that salvation proclaimed and explained by the first-century apostles” (p. 9). 

“The apologists [early Christian clergy/scholars] defended the Christian faith by using Greek (Hellenistic) philosophy to meet their critics on their own terms. They worked to show that Christianity was not irrational or philosophically naive” (p. 15), In this way, Greek philosophy, which was born in the pagan world of classical Greece, and preserved throughout the pagan Roman world, became a tool in the hands of the early Christian Fathers to establish the gospel of Jesus Christ. This was a crucial part, it seems, of the nurturing in the wilderness. 

The power of rational thought, metaphysics, aesthetics, and moral concern were at the heart of pagan Greek philosophy. This tradition lent to early Christianity, language, images, and  even the power of reason as it spread throughout the western world. This is not to deny or minimize the power of the Holy Spirit in conversion and convincing. It is only to say that the persuasive power of the rationality of Western philosophy as it was integrated into Christian theology was an important part of the success and the staying power of Christianity. 

In a sense, it seems that it often “set up” people— perhaps especially the more educated and philosophically inclined—for the finishing and confirming power of the Spirit. This powerful favorable relationship between mind and spirit, Christianity and philosophy, worked in the other direction as well, as the Western philosophical tradition took on great importance and staying power from its integration into Christianity and the message of the Gospel. There is a sense, in other words, that the Western intellectual tradition made the world safe for Christianity as it emerged from the wilderness, and Christianity gave to the Western intellectual tradition a sustaining telos and considerable vitality.

The melding of Christian doctrine with classical Greek philosophy, and the intellectual traditions that descend from it, has not been easy; nor has it been entirely positive. While Catholic and Protestant traditions are largely more at peace with the theology that has developed in bits and pieces, or waves, and reformations, from the interplay of Christianity and Western philosophy, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, as a “restorationist” tradition, is not always quite so sanguine about all that has emerged from that interplay. Some of the problems arise from the very fact of the claim that true authority, and thus, subsequently, true doctrine, were restored, and therefore, that these things (i.e., truth and authority) had been in some real sense and to some degree “lost” sometime after the time of Christ, thus requiring a modern-day restoration. 

More subtly, but perhaps more importantly, however, is the perceived “lack of fit” between the broader Western intellectual tradition (at any number of points along its development across 2000 years of history)  and the Gospel of Jesus Christ understood and interpreted in the light of what Latter-day Saints take to be restored truth. Some is best expressed as doctrine, some as practices, and some as something more ontological or metaphysical, sometimes having epistemological implications, including fundamental understandings of the nature of God, of our own nature, of the cosmos, and the nature of knowledge of truth, and of revelation itself, not to mention a universal telos at the very heart of “creation” itself. 

The larger question of the commensurability of Christianity with our intellectual tradition is very important to the Church and to its university but has been, in my experience at least, under-studied. It seems odd that a restoration (of truth and authority) might have come to be necessary in the religious sphere after centuries of co-mingling of the Western intellectual tradition and Christianity, but that no such a restoration would be called for in our scholarly disciplines that are also based in that same intellectual tradition—even though, in many ways, religion and the liberal arts disciplines compete for the same meaningful ground in the lived cultural and moral world, the world in which we live and understand ourselves and our faith. 

I submit that there is a wonderfully rich field of understanding and insight available to us —perhaps even the redemption of the Western intellectual tradition itself—when we take up these questions seriously and purposefully, and from a more philosophically-informed perspective. What is called for is a perspective which asks not so much about religious or doctrinal implications of intellectual doctrines, but rather asks about what Latter-day Saint-informed understandings of the intellectual issues themselves imply about, or contributes to, the broader understanding of the substance and key issues of the Western intellectual tradition itself. In other words, we would ask not what the western intellectual tradition has contributed to our “theology” and doctrine (and it has and can genuinely contribute), but rather, what our “theology” and doctrine might contribute to the western intellectual tradition; and the same might be asked in terms of Christianity itself more broadly.

In this larger project, we are joined together with all serious Christians. In other words what new understandings, approaches, and insights open up to us in our intellectual lives if we take the principles of our (restored) Christianity seriously and pursue their implications? Perhaps we as Latter-day Saints (and the same might be said of all Christians, and of Christianity itself)  have been thrust into the role of the “keepers” of the Western intellectual tradition—we can honor it, but we may also need to remake it, or redeem it—as Christianity remakes and redeems all human souls. 

What we can say here is that we might profitably conceptualize the relationship between Christianity and the Western intellectual tradition (including the Latter-day Saint tradition) in the following way. There is an important sense in which Christianity—including doctrine, and the ontology and epistemology within it—has provided the telos of the Western tradition, i.e., the end or purpose to which it inclines, the “that for the sake of which” our minds and our souls are animated in all aspects of life. Christianity lends importance, and, indeed, urgency to the intellectual project of our Western tradition. It puts a face on, and gives purpose to, a Greek Being (a Theos) which was innately impassive, moved purely by necessity in all things. Largely following the eminent Catholic philosopher, Charles Taylor, it is common in contemporary intellectual discourse to refer to pre-modern—probably most importantly understood as pre 19th century—civilizations in terms of the extent to which they were grounded in what is referred to as an “enchanted” world view. 

This term essentially describes a view largely understood and accepted throughout earlier centuries that there is a transcendent reality of some sort that enforms, grounds, illuminates, and animates our lived world. One consequence of the Enlightenment, and more directly, post-enlightenment thinking is the “disenchanting” of the world. This is, basically, to understand the world as being entirely “immanent.” That is, that there is no transcendent reality behind, beneath, or outside the world of our common experience and rational understanding. The world is self- contained, in the sense that all that exists is contained in its own—generally material—being. So rationality, in its ability to capture and grasp, comprehends all.

The immanence thesis inclines toward materialism and understands all “meaning” as either empirical fact, or personal immanent desire or preference. The world of immanence is a world without a telos—except in the very short term, or in local or personal, and generally a strictly pragmatic sense. Any longer or larger telos is constrained by the material “just-isness” determined by materiality and described by natural law. So long as the Western world was animated by Christianity, intellectual and spiritual life was provided with a telos (the “high” in Strauss’ terms)—that toward which knowledge and understanding point us, and toward which moral sensibility inclines. That is, Christianity provided the Western intellectual world with an end or “that for the sake of which,” and an anchor for meaning.

Post-enlightenment thought and culture simultaneously pursued epistemology as the question of first importance, and knowledge and truth as ultimate goals of intellectual life, and at the same time eschewed metaphysics as being no longer of primary importance, and thus, lost, or surrendered, the end, reason or purpose toward which reason and rationality were the pre-eminent means. Thus, reason and rationality became ends in themselves—and any purpose for rationality beyond itself was necessarily only pragmatic. To an increasing degree, this is the intellectual world in which Christian scholars find themselves enmeshed today. Christianity can provide the “end” that gives meaning to the intellectual traditions, while those very traditions, in a sense, prefer to take their point of departure from the negation of any such end.

What is a Christian/Latter-day Saint Liberal Arts Education?

The search for some principles and some metaphors for conceiving and describing a genuinely Christian/Latter-day Saint liberal arts higher education.

At present it may seem difficult to describe what this new seriousness about bathing intellectual/academic subject matter in the light and color of the restored gospel might look like. At the level of secondary education, CES provides, through the Seminary system, a curriculum of distinctly religious and faith-based education, introducing teenage youth to scripture study, and inspired gospel teachings on subjects important in helping form testimonies and strengthen understanding of fundamental Church doctrines and how they can and should be made a part of our lives. There really is no need nor expectation that what is taught in Seminary make much contact with the subject matter of the high school curriculum. 

For the most part, a secondary school curriculum is intended to provide basic literacy and numeracy, general introductions to a variety of essential topics in the arts and sciences, and equally importantly, scholastic and intellectual discipline, skills, and methods, that will serve the students well in higher education and in life. Seminary aids in their spiritual development during this very formative stage of life and provides some moral strength and protection. For the most part, secondary students will still be, at this stage of life, strongly influenced by parents, family, and church. Seminary can play a supporting role. Although it is acknowledged that for some youth seminary plays a primary religious role.

Our call must be to be the most careful, rigorous, and unflinching of scholars.

Although there is evidence that this situation is changing in our contemporary society, high school curricula often do not present direct or concrete challenges to the basic Judeo-Christian-compatible knowledge base that Latter-day Saints and other Christian students have in common with their families—even in topic areas that might be controversial. Topics like evolution might be advocated, but often in relatively harmless ways lacking focus, direction, and substantive background support (high school curricula do not leave time for that). Also, parents often have some discretion for their children to opt-out of courses and experiences that might be deemed inappropriate, or too  challenging to faith and morality, and there is often some leverage at the level of local school boards and opportunities for “school choice.” Also, the level of knowledge conveyed on controversial topics is generally one which parents can readily deal with, and to which they can likely respond at sufficient levels of sophistication. This is, of course, truer for some families than others.

This state of affairs, however, does not hold as Latter-day Saint/Christian young people move into higher education. The influence of parents is not so clear nor present. College students face a series of decisions not required of high-school students that will have major impact on their lives. University-level curricula are not aimed at basic introductions and the building of basic intellectual skills. The subject matter is more sophisticated and in-depth; nearly all texts are produced not by experts in subject-matter pedagogy, but by experts in the subject matter itself. To an increasing extent, universities and their curricula—as well as the disciplines which produce the scholars who in turn produce the curricula—are becoming politicized, not exclusively in the sense of the partisan politics of our day, but in the sense that all knowledge claims, bodies of knowledge, and the purposes of education itself, are taken to be manifestations of, and are taken to derive from, the grander, often occult, political, and social structures taken to be in play in our culture. This is, to a significant extent the intellectual fruit of decades of influence of critical theory applied across college and university curricula. 

By this light, academic work at BYU (and any Christian institution of higher education) should reflect, and be in the service of, the same consensual understandings operative in the dominant secular intellectual world. For example, in that secular world view, what is considered socially just is ipso facto, “true.” Thus contemporary, consensual, and fashionable conceptions of what can broadly be described as “social-justice” become a template to be applied to the subject matter and truth claims of virtually all disciplines, but more directly and obviously in the “liberal arts” disciplines, including religion, social science, and arts and letters. This is, however, a morally laden project. The reach of this secular-inspired world view extends far beyond the particular subject matter of any particular university course. Christians must ask, however, whether secular understandings of “social justice” correspond in every case to a Christian understanding and desire for “social justice” equal in both sincerity and intensity to any on display in the secular world. 

Thus, the task of Christian higher education is to help students respond, as Christians, to the secular intellectual thrust broadly at work across their intellectual endeavors and, often, asserted or inserted  “over top of” whatever particular academic content they are asked to master, and situated within the culture of our age. The task of Christian/Latter-day Saint higher education requires that professors be conversant in the intellectual movements of our age and adept at understanding and responding to the intellectual implications and consequences of imposing the secular template on top of our doctrines, our history, our moral systems, our commitments to social institutions such as marriage, family, and chastity, and even our view of eternity, and our understandings of our own eternal nature. It will also require a Latter-day Saint/Christian inspired understanding of any number of contemporary secular-inspired commitments to social justice. 

This whole enterprise is entailed in, and provides an effective response to, the secularization of university education. It is important to make this enterprise salient to young Latter-day Saints(and other Christian) students so that it is a core part of their education, rather than leaving it at the level of merely a  sub-text for them to work through on their own. Neither can the enterprise be achieved if it is left within the provenance of our current curriculum which essentially creates two tracks for students—the general education track, and the religious education track. A two-track approach can hardly be expected to produce integration and mutual enhancement. It should be noted that, while I have used “social justice” as a prime manifestation of the secular thrust in contemporary higher education, Christian/Latter-day Saint higher education need not, and must not, be construed in any way as opposed to “social justice.” On the contrary, it is our Christian duty to “capture the discourse” on “social justice,” so that within the Christian/Latter-day Saint worldview a grander, more life-affirming, and faith-affirming view of social justice can unfold—one which sustains and enriches our Christian understanding and animates our Christian work of love in the world, and one which has as its ultimate end, the blessing and salvation of the children of God. 

It is not yet time to close the door of the ark.

By all the foregoing, I do not mean to advocate a siege mentality. We do not retreat into a sort of fundamentalism. While some version of the so-called “Benedict Option” (Dreher, 2017) may be prudent for all Christians and all Christian communities, the more drastic form that some attribute to Dreher, seems not to be the best option now—while some reformation and redemption of our traditions might still be possible. Rather, a Christian/Latter-day Saint higher education should meet all these issues head-on—i.e., respond to the hegemony of secularism on its own ground, “out-think” it, and “out-perform” it. 

The strategy is not to become simply contrarian, nor to avoid the full range of subjects and perspectives constitutive of any contemporary quality higher education. Rather we pro-actively “take on” the secular tradition in all the disciplines at the deepest and most profound levels of intellectual engagement. Our task would be not merely to refute or supplant contemporary intellectual and academic knowledge and perspectives— although there surely will be times when such is necessary—but to engage them at the deepest and most profound levels of analysis and understanding. Such engagement will be largely “critical” in the best sense of that word; sometimes the subject matter and the prevailing explanations and understandings will be shown to be lacking. More importantly, such scholarship will rigorously explore and exploit our own Christian/Latter-day Saint understandings so that, regardless of the intellectual merit of the secular mainstream perspectives, we can articulate an alternative perspective grounded in revealed truth with equal or more profound intellectual merit and implications. 

Our call must be to be the most careful, rigorous, and unflinching of scholars. Our goal is not so much apologetics—to justify our beliefs—nor is our goal to avoid or hide from problematic intellectual approaches and subject matters. Rather our goal is to employ the power of revealed truth at a level, and with such skill and force, that it stands on its own, and we can offer it as a deeply intellectually rigorous and defensible position—within any relevant intellectual discussion in any and all relevant academic disciplines. In this sense, our Christian/Latter-day Saint worldview is the end toward which the intellectual tradition bequeathed to us by the best minds of past centuries, moves us. In this sense, we must be the finishers of the intellectual tradition of our age. The only question is whether we have the courage of our convictions and the intellectual work-ethic, and energy, to fearlessly do what needs to be done intellectually.

The nature and importance of a genuinely Christian/Latter-day Saint Liberal Arts Education?

In this context, I offer for consideration five expressions of the nature and the purpose of Christian liberal arts education. The first four I borrow from a talk by Dr. Darin Davis, then Vice President for University Mission at Baylor University, delivered at the Wheatley Institution at BYU in April of 2018, although I modified them and must take responsibility for the form in which the ideas appear here. The fifth reflects my own framing of the issue. In an increasingly secular age such as ours, it is increasingly necessary to be clear and explicit not only about what a Christian liberal arts education is—what it consists of—but why it is important. Certainly, it cannot be expected that faculty members will emerge from their largely secular graduate training with a developed understanding of—or with developed skill in providing—a genuinely Christian higher education. While, as  will be suggested below, Christian understanding and commitment are relevant at all levels of higher education within various disciplines, they are often most obviously and clearly relevant to students in their undergraduate liberal arts experience—what we often and unfortunately call their “general education.”

Almost all university courses—in the liberal arts and even in some of the professional areas—begin their treatment of their particular subject matter by making reference to the work of the ancient Greeks. This is to be expected, of course, because chief among the contributions of Greek thought is the proposition that understanding of the world is possible through the application of the rational mind to what is present to us. This is the core of all education since. It is also from Greek philosophy that we derive the central intellectual concerns that have formed the foundation of our knowledge and study through the ages: a) metaphysics (or ontology)—the question of the nature of reality in its most fundamental form, from which all else derives; b) epistemology—the question of the nature, possibility, and limitations of knowledge and standards for separating knowledge from mere opinion; c) ethics—the question of the ought,  of what constitutes the good, and the good and flourishing life for the kinds of beings we are; and d) aesthetics—the question at the intersection of all of these three of what constitutes the good, the beautiful, and the true in our engagement in the world, including concern for what constitutes the good and flourishing life, and how truth and beauty in their ultimate, “eternal” sense, map (however imperfectly) onto the world we know. 

Education in the twenty-first century still takes up the study of the world in these terms, even though all four of these projects have evolved over time. They are reflected in culture in ways that have also evolved. It is important to note that under auspices of the 20th-century movement often referred to as “critical theory,” metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, and aesthetics have all been exploited and co-opted into a loosely defined and fluid project of “emancipation” of humankind, even while the fundamental questions raised by all of these intellectual endeavors remain unfinished and unanswered. This predicament lends a distinct air of uncertainty to the project of emancipation. But this is a topic for another essay. The more traditional intellectual fields and projects still put the traditional first things first. Indeed, it is hard to think of any scholarly or intellectual endeavor in any of the fields that make up a higher education where one could legitimately ignore questions of the sort of beings we are (as human beings), and of what we are capable, of what constitutes knowledge and how is it attained and evaluated, of what is the right thing to do and why, or how any of the subject matter in a discipline can simply ignore questions of the good and the beautiful, and the true.

Given this rational intellectual structure that informs our educational efforts, and remembering that it is just this system of rationality developed during the period Christianity’s “sojourn in the wilderness” that created a world ripe for the development and spread of Christianity, we can readily see that Christian education and those who provide it have a stake in, or a perspective on, these very same rational intellectual issues and approaches. This has been factually and historically true on a broad scale through the various ages of the western intellectual tradition in the largely Christian world. It is no less conceptually true at the level of individuals (although they may not be explicitly aware of the fact) and the ideas and understandings that constitute the body of knowledge accrued from education and culture. Individual Christians and Christian institutions of higher education have a stake in the intellectual traditions that allowed Christianity to emerge as a major player in the intellectual world. Given this understanding, then, we can make the following observations about the nature and relevance of a genuinely Christian (liberal arts) higher education.

  1. There is a Christian “construal” of every discipline. Because there is a Christian construal of, or a Christian “take on,” all the intellectual issues that inform our contemporary education and our culture, there is a Christian construal of every discipline that takes up those issues as part of its subject matter. Christianity has a take on metaphysical issues, the “stuff,” as well as the means, of creation and the fundamental substrate or substance of all that is. It has a take on epistemology, the powers of intellect and the nature of knowledge both revealed and discovered. It certainly has a take on ethics as the heart and soul of Christianity and the salvation that comes through Christ’s atonement for sin, as the quintessence of the good, offered by a saving Christ. And if these things are granted, then it follows that Christianity also has a stake in aesthetics—the true and the beautiful are good and bring us to Christ and the perfection of the soul. The false and the evil do not. They lead only to alienation. 

For courses of study that are singularly “professional” in nature, where the point of education is primarily learning a craft, it might be difficult to see the point or purpose of a Christian construal of the subject matter (e.g., there is likely not a “Christian geometry,” or a “Christian engineering,” or a Christian principle upon which to determine the outcome in a particular legal case). However, every discipline, even the professional disciplines, in their intellectual histories, their intellectual assumptions, and the ethical impact of their present applications, will make contact with the bigger questions of metaphysics, epistemology, and ethics. Certainly, the non-professional, liberal arts, majors take all their points of departure from those greater issues that clearly lend themselves to a Christian construal. 

Furthermore, all students at the university, in their non-major, “general education” curriculum will be exposed to intellectual issues, and have opened to them an intellectual life, with profoundly Christian construals and implications at its heart. It is for this reason that a classical Christian liberal arts education is so important as the foundation of university education for all students. Students in the non-professional majors will continue to engage (and to need) a Christian construal of their intellectual subject matter —even if it requires work to find all the places where a Christian construal is obvious and important—and they will need such construal in their personal lives and in their families as they inevitably confront the culture that surrounds them.

  1. Faith “animates” the intellectual and scholarly lives of Christian/Latter-day Saint scholars. While one might rightly argue that knowledge or wisdom is a good in itself and perfective of our nature, it is nonetheless true that the message of Christianity provides the “wherefore” (a term I borrow from the Spanish writer and philosopher Miguel de Unamuno(1864-1935) for knowledge and thus for our scholarly lives and for life itself. The central message of any genuinely Christian/Latter-day Saint perspective is that this life, and thus the life of each person, has a fundamentally moral purpose and that there is moral meaning and purpose to life itself and to the world. In that sense then, all knowledge of life and world is morally meaningful and has something beyond itself to which it inclines. This core of our faith animates our quest for knowledge and gives color and meaning to the world. 

To ignore our faith, or to exclude it from the core of our scholarly lives is to render them colorless and only tenuously tethered to meaning and purpose. It is to lose contact with the telos, the most essential and sustaining meaning and purpose, and abandon all, and give ourselves over to mere pragmatism as the highest virtue to which we might aspire. The faith of every Christian/Latter-day Saint scholar is that true knowledge is always—in some non-trivial way—knowledge of the sacred and eternal. To learn, and to achieve faith-animated scholarship is a crucial aim of any Christian higher education. It should be the center of a classical Christian liberal arts education at BYU.

  1. As Christian/Latter-day Saint scholars, we must ask ourselves, “are we ontologically Christian?” A question about the ontological is a question about the essential or the fundamental from which everything else emerges or derives. To ask whether we are ontologically Christian thus has at least two interesting aspects. The first, and perhaps more obvious is to ask about the depth of our Christian conversion or commitment. To be ontologically Christian in this sense is to be Christian with our whole heart and soul—to be Christian at the deepest level of our identity, that is to say, in our very being. If we are not Christian at that level, or to that extent, it will be hard to be sufficiently Christian in our intellectual life so as to be able to recognize, formulate, or in some instances, to create a genuinely Christian construal in the intellectual matters we teach and research. This is not to say that it is sufficient to simply fabricate a religious or Christian story that finds application or a “moral” within the subject matter we teach. Rather, to be ontologically Christian is to find in our intellectual lives and subject matter what matters to Christians and, we believe, to Christ and His purposes—why, such things matter, and, what might help our students also see how and why these things matter essentially.

The second sense in which the question above might be asked, “Are we ontologically Christian?” is as an inquiry about how deeply Christianity penetrates not only our individual hearts, but how deeply Christianity permeates the foundations of our disciplines and our intellectual understandings of the world, what we take to be real, what matters in all ideas and disciplines, and why. In a field such as psychology, for example, which seeks to understand the nature of human beings, do we find, or do we allow ourselves to incorporate into our intellectual understandings, a genuinely Christian ontology of human beings? 

For example, it is essential to Christianity to understand that however God may have chosen to do it, human beings are created “in the image of the Divine,” as intelligent human beings, endowed with moral sensibility and, directed toward moral purposes. In other words, human life is fundamentally meaningful, not just incidentally, accidentally, instrumentally, or privately meaningful. This, in turn, seems to require moral sensibility and moral agency—again, not just as accidental side-effects of socialization, or a property of the meat and chemical of the nervous system, but intrinsic in our very souls. Only beings with moral sensibility and moral purpose require atonement, natural objects apparently do not. Adequate liberal arts education will always take students (and instructors) to the foundations—to ontology. A genuinely Christian liberal arts education will find the Christian ontology at the deepest level.

  1. We should stand as “Winsome Witnesses” of Christ and His salvation. While this is not an expression native to BYU, in my experience over many years at the university, most faculty and even administrators have, tacitly or explicitly, pursued this goal. Most often the goal and the strategy unfold in a standard fashion grounded in a rationale that holds that the reputation of the university and the Church will be enhanced best by our being very good scholars competing at the highest levels with scholars throughout the various disciplines—even those who do not share our Christian commitment or our moral concerns. That is, the rationale suggests, we can show the world that it is possible to be a good member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and a good scholar by the standards of scholarship generally. Thus, we will gain respect within the scholar community while our religion and our personal standards show through our lives and interactions. In this way, we become winsome witnesses by being good by the standards of the intellectual community while by being good persons.

This is a legitimate goal; however, it works best at times when, and within disciplines where there is widespread basic moral and intellectual consensus and where conflicts between moral systems and intellectual commitments on one hand, and fundamental Christian/Latter-day Saint commitments on the other, are minimal and trivial—or avoidable. However this is not the nature of the intellectual and cultural worlds we find ourselves in at the end of the second decade of the 21st century—nor, I submit, has it been the case for quite some time, at least five decades of increasing individualism, moral relativity, politicization of knowledge and morality, and secularization. 

It is certainly not the case in the world where the current college-age demographic will live their faith (or not), maintain their testimonies (or not), and rear their families (as best they can see to do it). In one sense, these social trends have happened so gradually that it has been possible to largely miss them as changes, and thus, to dismiss them as challenges to the integrity of our religious and intellectual lives. They “feel” harmless. In other ways, these trends have been obvious and unrelenting, but only to those who look for them and can see them in the light of the Christian principles we value most. They are more visible in some disciplines than others— being most obvious in the classical liberal arts disciplines where human nature and morality are in constant play. It seems, therefore, that our strategy of earning winsomeness in our witness of Christ based on our increasingly secular orthodoxy is no longer viable—the cost to our students is too high. 

In an increasingly ontologically and morally secular intellectual world, genuinely ontologically Christian commitments are increasingly incompatible with prevailing intellectual orthodoxy. And as the prevailing socio-cultural orthodoxy invades and pervades our intellectual disciplines, our private Christian commitments and practices will be increasingly less winsome and considered to be reactionary and culturally and politically insensitive. In the new post-truth, increasingly secularized, regime, our religious commitments cannot be a “sideshow” to our orthodox intellectual lives. Our Christian witness will need to inform and pervade our intellectual lives and careers. The winsomeness of our witness will reflect a depth of intellectual contribution, which is at the same time, fundamentally Christian at the ontological level, and often in contrast to prevailing intellectual, cultural, and disciplinary orthodoxy. Again, this will occur first and most obviously in the classical liberal arts disciplines and differently in the more applied fields. But even those applied professional disciplines, if only because of political forces, will call for an intellectually mature and compelling, Christian witness.

  1. As Christian/Latter-day Saint scholars, are we able and willing to engage and help our students discover, the Christian “wherefore?” In addition to these four issues which I have adapted from Darin Davis, I offer one more from my personal experience. The Spanish philosopher Miguel de Unamuno, in his work on The Tragic Sense of Life, is unapologetically Christian in his analysis. In a brief autobiographical reference, he writes of his response to the view of the various divine punishments that, he was taught, awaited the sinner after mortal life. None of those graphic portrayals of eternal suffering struck fear in his heart as much as did the larger—and in a sense the contrary—possibility that “nothing” awaited us after death—that nothing matters, that there is no “wherefore,” no meaning, that there is nothing that “follows,” logically, chronologically, or morally from what simply is—but only the meaningless void. 

Christ, in His atoning act, testifies in every moment of a “wherefore” to human life, and to individual human lives. There is no point to an atoning sacrifice and suffering if there is no point to life. Can we find the meaning and purpose, the Christ-centered “wherefore” in the subject matter and intellectual project of every discipline, so that our education affirms the “wherefore” in the lives of our students? Most professional—practice-focused—education will not naturally make room for education about the “wherefore,” but the “wherefore” will be there, around the edges and underneath the foundations of the discipline. In classical, non-professional disciplines, and in classical liberal arts education, the question of the “wherefore” will be more obvious, closer to the heart of the disciplines, and more frequently present in the intellectual discourse. Indeed, it will be ubiquitous. In any genuinely Christian liberal arts education, the wherefore is the purpose to be uncovered, articulated, and instantiated across all subject matters.


About the author

Richard Williams

Richard N. Williams is a Professor in Counseling Psychology and Special Education at Brigham Young University, and former director of the Wheatley Institution. He has edited or co-authored several books, including most recently On Hijacking Science. He has a Ph.D. from Purdue University.
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