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What is the Christian Core of a Classical Christian Liberal Arts Education?

If the purpose of education is acquiring truth, then education must take seriously the question of what truth is.

Note 5 Regarding the Mission and Aims of a BYU Education.

Truth as an exemplary concept.

In LDS Christian scripture we find Jesus’ own self-expression:  “Behold, I am Alpha and Omega, even Jesus Christ.  Wherefore, let all men beware how they take my name in their lips” (Doctrine and Covenants 63:60-61).  The context of this scripture was an exhortation to Church members that they not assume authority, or speak with authority that they do not have.  Jesus also described himself in John 14:6, “ . . . I am the way, the truth, and the life. . . .”   If the transitive principle holds in rational argument as it does in mathematics, then Christian scholars ought to be quite careful how we talk about “truth.” I draw from this that proclaiming something to be true, or presenting something as truth is not a simple thing, but it is a sacred thing, something that should always be carried out with due attention focused on the larger picture of things—even the “beginning,” and the “end.”

The Mission and Aims document of BYU uses the word “truth” in various contexts, which is to be expected in a general document of the sort that it is.  It recommends that all students at BYU should be taught the “truth of the gospel of Jesus Christ.”  In two other sections, it points out that the gospel encourages the pursuit of all truth,” and suggests that a “broad education” is the key to this pursuit.  However, understanding “truth” within the context of “breadth,” or making “breadth” the means for pursuing and acquiring “truth,” can, if we are not very careful, lead us to a problematic, secularized, and impoverished understanding of “truth.”  If the broadening of one’s education, per se, is the means of achieving or enhancing truth for, or within, students, then we might succumb to the notion that “truth,” in the form of “bits of truth,” are somehow lying around in each and all disciplines waiting to be captured and added to the truth quotient of one’s education. 

The integration must be founded and focused on what is rather than what fits.

This way of thinking quantifies truth as the complete set of all things that are true, such as propositions, data sets, experimental results, or, even more problematically, statements, thoughts, and stories—or the thoughts and feelings evoked within one as a result of hearing, thinking, or feeling. This not only has the potential to privatize and relativize truth—as in “what I individually think or feel about something”—but it fragments truth into bits and pieces.  There is no scriptural instance of the word “truth” being used in such an individual and atomized way.  The word “truth” is used in the plural in scripture only to refer to a set of teachings or ideas that had been taught in the past.  Thus, it is implied, the pursuit of truth is much more comprehensive, more transcendent, and more integrative than any set of atomistic “truths” could ever be or be combined to be.  It does not yield itself to simply broadening an education.  There must be deepening and integration, but the integration must be founded and focused on what is rather than what fits.

Returning to the Aims document, it also notes that students should “study academic subjects in the light of divine truth.  There is nothing academically or doctrinally wrong with any of these uses of the word “truth” in regard to a BYU/LDS/Christian education.  However, these multiple usages suggest that truth is not univocal, to be understood always in the same way across domains, situations, and contexts.  Thus, truth itself is, and must be a legitimate topic of intellectual investigation and scholarly study.  This is particularly true in a Christian institution of higher education as it seeks to offer a Christian/LDS education focused on the “wherefore,” in which truth matters mightily.  

Suggesting that the pursuit of truth can be meaningfully or easily manifest simply as, or principally achieved by, focusing on the “breadth” of a (general) education is problematic because it passes too lightly over a key issue at the very heart of Christianity, and therefore, at the core of any adequate Christian liberal arts education.  Nothing is more descriptive of the spirit of our contemporary intellectual discourse in this post-modern, post-truth age than the relativizing, narrativizing, politicizing, and privatizing of truth itself.  For the Christian, this diffusion of the concept of truth in our intellectual disciplines and our cultural discourse makes “non-sense” of Jesus’s proclamation that He is the truth.  It also renders problematic the promise that the Holy Spirit can speak truth, and speak of truth, to every human mind and heart.

One could argue here that the Holy Spirit speaks a different and individual truth to each and every human mind and heart.  Most Christians would find this problematical in light of Jesus’s own scriptural declarations. But one taking this intellectual track would have to at least grant that the question of “truth” is crucial to Christian life and Christian understanding, and, therefore to Christian higher education.  If there is no trans-situational or trans-personal truth, then one must seriously wonder why any such thing as an eternal and universal sacrifice might have been necessary.  At best it might provide a “good example,” but it could hardly really be “the power of God unto salvation to every one that believeth. . . .”  From what we know, there are many paths, but a single door leading to salvation and eternal life.

This contemporary taking liberty with the concept of truth shows up in and will have an impact on the content, import, and moral tenor of every discipline.  Once again, courses in the “professional” disciplines will be somewhat shielded from the consequences of the relativization and the diminished role of truth in our intellectual lives, as they will focus most of their attention on the acquisition of the requisite skills of the disciplinary craft.  There is an essential pragmatism built naturally into the professional disciplines.  This pragmatism serves their needs most of the time—they can take as truth that which the discipline has found effective in the laboratory, as broadly defined.  Therefore, it is presumed that discussions of truth qua truth can be noted, but passed over and relegated to religion classes or ignored altogether in favor of a workable pragmatism in dealing with what are taken to be the “real” and pressing problems of the discipline.  

However, in the classical liberal arts disciplines—the arts, humanities, social sciences, and religion—the question of truth cannot be handled so easily.  And for the same reason, the “truth question” cannot be just “slipped past,” or abandoned to prevailing modernist or post-modern, majority opinion.  For a Christian, and for a Christian Liberal Arts education, The truth question is the question.  It must be dealt with over and over through the liberal arts curriculum so that the recipient of a Christian Liberal Arts education is prepared to maintain faith and commitment while living in what has officially become the post-truth world.  Therefore, professors hired to teach within a Christian institution of higher education, or in a Christian Liberal Arts curriculum, must have the breadth of training, the depth of training, and specifically, the Christian training, in the “truth question” so that truth, and helpful discourse about truth, is understood, defended, and folded into the curriculum for all students.  Truth is one of the themes, or pre-emptive realities, that must be taken up, and defended in Christian Liberal Arts education.

This is not to say that Christians must just assume any one definition or one understanding of “truth” to be the correct or adequate one.  Nor is it to say that conceptions and understandings of “truth” cannot be challenged and modified in the course of a Christian liberal arts education.  It is to say, however, that Christians are, on some level, obligated to truth qua truth, in some non-privatized, non-relativized form, because Christ is who He has proclaimed himself to be, or He is not; salvation and resurrection are sure, or they are not.  And these “truths” make all the difference to the nature and claims of Christianity and to the lives of Christians.  So genuinely Christian education can and should examine, scrutinize, explore, modify, and perhaps enrich the understanding of the concept of truth.  What it must not do is privatize and individualize truth to correspond with individual desires or agendas or emaciate it to accord with prevailing philosophical fashion.  If Christian scholars and students do not maintain truth at the center of scholarship and education, they will have abandoned the intellectual field, the concept of truth itself—and many Christians weak in their faith—to non-Christian secularism.  Certainly, at BYU and at every Christian institution we must do better than this across the entire spectrum of disciplines.

The burden of truth is one of those things that “animates” (to use the concept mentioned above) the scholarly life of Christian/LDS scholars.  We might consider some others.  This is not to say that a single “truth” must be established by doctrine or dogma in every discipline and then professed by every professor in every discipline.  It is to say, however, that the intellectual problem of truth must be dealt with adequately in every discipline so that students know what is at stake in the intellectual realm in which they are being educated, so that they know what discourses about truth are on offer in each intellectual sphere, and so that they have the guidance of wise Christian professors through this difficult but all-important intellectual terrain.

Other Key Intellectual Issues.  

In addition to truth, there are other intellectual issues and problems that will be found at the core of any serious Christian/LDS Liberal Arts education.  I offer here one possible list of concepts and issues that must be dealt with in any genuinely Christian/LDS Liberal Arts, as they might manifest themselves in the subject matter of any or most disciplines.  In my own career, my students and I have found it necessary to deal with these issues.

  • What is the Christian message, the “good news” in the context of every subject, i.e. where do we find Christ in our intellectual lives and our subjects of study in a “fallen world?”
  • The nature, including the divine nature, origins, and eternal potential of the human soul, and what difference our understanding of this makes.
  • The nature of knowledge in this area of study, the varying kinds and varying sources of knowledge itself.  What counts as knowledge in this discipline and elsewhere and how this knowledge might fold into Christian understandings of knowledge and truth.
  • The origins of and the anchor for morality, moral principles, and moral sensibility. What a Christian understanding adds to, or requires of, our theories and approaches to morality.
  • The nature and purpose of human life—the telos and the “wherefore” of life and of living souls.
  • How to understand our fundamental human nature, and what light this might cast on the problem of evil, including the universal need for atonement?
  • The nature and importance of families and family life.
  • The nature, origins, and meaning of human sexuality and its inherently moral and inherently agentic character.
  • A comprehensive, recognizably Christian “ethic of life,” or some similar guide to social and personal responsibility, and respect for all human life.
  • Transcendence as it is essential to religion and to intellectual understandings of all meaningful human actions, social theories, and meanings.
  • What, for Christians, constitutes the good and flourishing life over against what constitutes such a life in the context of our disciplines and the secular world.
  • The nature and relationship of the good and the beautiful—virtue and art.
  • The nature and content of a “Christian take” on each and all academic disciplines.

Certainly, this list is only a preliminary articulation of issues that might inform any adequately Christian liberal arts education. Again, it must be stressed that the foregoing list of issues, while they might be taken up individually as topics of discussion and study on their own, are more likely and more usefully dealt with as important aspects, or organizing principles, of any Christian perspective – or “take” – on any number of topics in the arts and sciences that are at the core of a Christian liberal arts education.   They will thus be most profitably woven into curriculum and discussions. When properly informed and enhanced by just these types of topics and considerations, a liberal arts (general) education can provide students—and faculty—with a Christian-informed and enhanced foundation for their advanced and professional studies—in whatever field they might pursue.  

This role for liberal arts education is crucial because many advanced programs of study— particularly advanced professional programs, often do not take up such issues at all, even as background, in the usual course of instruction and training, leaving students, in some real sense with explicit or only vaguely formulated questions, but without firm grounds to help formulate responses to those questions, or even to adequately formulate the questions themselves.  The result of this omission is often, as expected, to simply suspend the kinds of considerations that ought to be part of students’ education, and to invite students, explicitly or implicitly, to instead, suspend these questions in their own lives as well—hoping, perhaps, that they will never encounter serious value- and belief-laden questions, or never have a need for the type of foundation a rich liberal arts education informed by such Christian/LDS concerns ought to provide them.

Turning attention to a (somewhat) distinctly LDS formulation of a similar set of questions and issues, I have found helpful a general conference address by President Dallin H. Oaks (Truth and the Plan, October 2018).  These are found in a list of what he referred to as “restored gospel truths that are fundamental to the doctrine of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.”  They were not presented by President Oaks in a form intended to make salient their scholarly implications; however, the implications should be clear, and can certainly be made clear, with even a modicum of careful thought.  I might suggest that these points be read with a single question in mind: What difference do (or should)  these “truths” make in our understanding of truth, knowledge, beauty, morality, the nature of the world, and what it means to be a human being (i.e., the core subject matter and the point of university-level Christian liberal arts education), and thus what difference do these truths make in our advanced studies and our intellectual lives across a spectrum of intellectual topics and disciplines?

  • “There is a God, who is the loving Father of the spirits of all who have ever lived or will live.”
  • “Gender is eternal.  Before we were born on this earth, we all lived as male or female spirits in the presence of God.”
  • As part of a divine plan, “ . . . God created this earth as a place where His beloved . . . children could be born into mortality to receive a physical body and to have the opportunity for eternal progress by making righteous choices.”
  • “To be meaningful, mortal choices had to be made between contesting forces of good and evil.”
  • “The purpose of God’s plan [is] . . . the opportunity to choose eternal life . . . by experience in mortality and, after death, by post-mortal growth in the spirit world.”
  • There will be “a universal resurrection to an embodied life after death.”
  • The Savior “. . . [provided] an atonement to pay the price for all to be cleansed from sin on the conditions He prescribed.”
  • “God’s plan . . . provides a perfect balance between justice and mercy . . .”
  • “The family is ordained of God . . . gender is an essential characteristic of individual premortal, mortal, and eternal identity and purpose and . . . marriage between a man and a woman is essential to His eternal plan.”
  • God “has provided a destiny of glory for all of His children.”
  • “. . . we honor agency . . . and religious freedom . . .”
  • “. . . mortal life is sacred to us. . .. [which] requires us to oppose abortion and euthanasia.”
  • “. . . the bearing and nurturing of children [is] part of God’s plan and a joyful and sacred duty of those given the power to participate in it. . . we must teach and contend for principles and practices that provide the best conditions for the development and happiness of children —all children.”

There are intellectual and scholarly implications of each of these fundamental principles of our Christian faith.  There is not room here to develop all the most important general, intellectually relevant points, let alone, the finer points. One great purpose of a Christian liberal arts education should be to provide the intellectual discourse, and scholarly rationale incumbent within, and implications that follow from, these grounding propositions, and to develop those implications of our Christianity thus articulated, for the lives of educated Christian students, and for our understanding of the world in which we will live and rear families. A further purpose is to find the sacred within—or, perhaps just as often, in contrast to—the intellectual, scholarly world, and where necessary, pursue the redemption of our culture and its intellectual foundations where they have gone astray.

Given the intellectual structure, form, and texture of our contemporary scholarly world, and the influences of that world on the broader culture and the context of our human relationships, I offer one example of both the challenge and the opportunity of LDS/Christian liberal arts education.  In the 21st century, there is no intellectual issue more pervasive and far-reaching than the proposed status and power of abstract ideas/structures/forces, operating across the personal, cultural, and global spheres. Postulating the existence, power, and scope of such abstractions is really at the heart of our positivist, post-structuralist, world.  It is the shape that much of post-modern intellectual life has taken.  It is recognized perhaps most clearly in the power and ubiquitous influence attributed, increasingly through the late 19th and throughout the 20th century, to abstract unembodied forces, structures, and ideas taken to be causally operative in virtually all human affairs.  

These abstract forces constitute the core of the various “–isms” predominant in contemporary intellectual explanations of virtually all things—including the actions of persons—whose lives and acts are determined by such unseen, often occult, yet powerful idea-structures operative in individual and communal life.  In the present day, from within many perspectives, it is assumed that real understanding and explanation of our humanity and human behavior require recognition and explication of the presumed powerful invisible forces at work on us and in us.  Examples of such forces are those described within Marxism, racism, feminisms of various sorts, capitalism, and even speciesism, among others. Another category of powerful abstractions consists of laws and concepts, such as “conditioning,” “reproductive advantage,” “sexuality,” and “emergent biological processes.” These abstractions are considered to have such power over humanity, that only some other kind of power (political or specialized, privileged, intellectual insight) can successfully counter them. In all these intellectual considerations, power is at the heart of things, and agency is attenuated.

For LDS/Christians this entire philosophical cultural movement presents serious challenges.  Such challenges demand an intellectual response.  Since these powerful abstractions are taken to be operative across virtually the whole range of human activity, questions regarding them will be intellectually relevant across virtually the whole range of disciplines and theories covered by an LDS/Christian liberal arts education.  For example: 

  • Christians, including LDS Christians, have some fairly developed understandings of the ontological status of human beings, and even of God.  However, just what is the ontological status of things such as “sexism,” or “racism” which are often endowed with causal powers on both the individual and cultural level.  
  • What is the nature of their “powers” to cause or influence?  
  • How does the “power analysis” that flows so freely from explanations of selves and lives in terms of such “–isms,” laws, and structures make contact with the core and telos of our Christian reality? 
  • What role can any power analysis play in a genuinely LDS/Christian understanding of our humanity and the purpose of life? 
  • Are such powerful causal abstractions real?  If so, in what sense are they real?  Are they creations of God (if so, in which day of creation were they formed) or are they self-existent so God Himself must take account of them?  Do they, like all of creation, bear testimony of Him?  Or are they human inventions?  
  • Do these abstractions and their effects obviate human agency, or are they merely parasitic upon the agentic powers of individual children of God to create and worship our own creations?  
  • Are we, as children of God, real actors on the stage of a world formed for the specific moral purpose of the perfection of the human soul?  Or, are we, as children of God, merely stages on which powerful forces and abstractions act out some larger drama of reality heading toward some largely inscrutable end? 
  • We understand that we need to be, and will be, redeemed from the death of our physical “selves,” which redemption is powerful and comes upon us without our agentic consent. However, how could intelligent moral selves be redeemed from, or would we need to be redeemed, from the effects of abstract causal forces operating upon us without our agentic consent?  
  • These issues take us to the core of our agentic nature as children of God and of the meaning and purpose of our lives and our very humanity.  Are the prevailing secular intellectual doctrines revelatory of our nature, or perfective of our nature, or neither?

Issues of this sort—and there are many others that could be taken up—are at the heart of an LDS/Christian liberal arts education.  What greater project could there be than to explicitly, critically, and openly address questions such as these?

How can a genuinely Christian/LDS liberal arts higher education be established and maintained?

A purposeful administration and a purposeful environment are essential. Classical liberal arts education, much less genuinely Christian/LDS classical liberal arts education, does not “just happen” on its own, even among otherwise worthy and committed Christians.  Neither does it emerge—easily or quickly—from “grassroots” efforts or enthusiasm.  There are two primary and interlocking reasons why this is the case.  First, the very nature of Christian liberal arts education “cuts against the grain” of established intellectual and academic movements to an increasing extent, especially in the traditional liberal arts disciplines.  Priorities and philosophies at play in higher education over the past half-century at least have not produced welcoming and supportive scholarly environments for Christian-centered academic or intellectual activity.  The secular values at work in higher education have produced fewer and fewer scholar-advocates for classical liberal arts curricula of a Christian or even a non-Christian sort.  

A long trend of secularization has called into question the role of anything with even a “scent” of religion in intellectual life and culture, and any positive role for Christianity and Christian institutions in higher education—this in spite of the prominent, and at times dominant, role churches and religious institutions have played in higher education for at least the last millennium and a half.  Academics and others have politicized curricula in virtually all disciplines, sometimes capturing entire subject areas and curricula, displacing, and at times disparaging, not only the thought but the thinkers, who early on provided the source texts at the foundation of classical education in the Western tradition. From these same texts, other scholars over the years have developed and nourished the classical liberal arts curriculum with its intellectual and moral concerns.  Christianity tends to value these same texts as integral to liberal arts education within, and supportive of, the faith.

In contemporary higher education, the classical liberal arts approach is increasingly hard to find or imagine, when viewed in the rearview mirror of on-going, progressive academic and intellectual reform.  In addition to all this—as usually happens when moral and religious concerns slip from importance—politics and pragmatisms have been the chief replacement intellectual projects of choice.   Thus, the pragmatic has become a dominant force in higher education.  From this new perspective, the goal of higher education is not the sort of education that has for its end the perfection of the human soul; rather, the increasingly important concern has been the pragmatic relevance—social, political, personal, and economic—of education.  The central questions have increasingly come to be whether higher education can effectively supply an increasingly skill-enhanced labor force for increasingly skill-demanding economies and whether students are being personally supported and validated, and politically enlightened.  While such pragmatic concerns may sometimes be legitimate, and while skill acquisition is important, if these things are given a priority in a way that obviates classical liberal arts education—particularly Christian education—then we will have sacrificed the “essential” and the moral (in the broad sense of the term) in favor of utilitarian and hedonic ends.

Relatedly, the university and its sponsoring institution must actively value what a Christian liberal arts education can uniquely provide.   In the contemporary academic atmosphere, recognizably Christian liberal arts education with its focus on the moral, the rational, and aesthetic in our nature, and the ideal of the good and flourishing life, will not just naturally occur.  The roots of such an education are no longer broadly available in most faculties just by virtue of the faculty members’ own graduate training.  Room and time for such a broad liberal arts curriculum are scarce and are often no longer made available. Nearly all of the current intellectual, political, and economic trends in the academy (and in much of culture) are pulling in other directions, and they have been strong.  For these reasons and others, if there is to be credible Christian liberal arts education, it must be implemented purposively from the top down.  Resources, commitments, and priorities must be allocated by top administrators and governing bodies.  Recruiting and training of faculty who have the heart and mind, breadth and skills, required by a Christian/LDS liberal arts education, must be a mission priority and a funding priority.  Great Christian liberal arts education must be rewarded in faculty evaluation, promotion, and tenure decisions.  At the same time, faculty members’ pursuing scholarship and issues in the intellectual sphere at the heart of Christian/LDS liberal arts education must not be actively discouraged or punished.

It is reasonable to ask whether an institution can feasibly pursue genuine, high-quality Christian/LDS liberal arts education and still maintain its focus and its programs allowing it to also maintain its Carnegie classification.  In a way, it seems odd to even suggest that the intellectual depth, enhancement, broadening, and focusing that would occur on campus via the sort of Christian liberal arts education proscribed here would not positively impact the entire intellectual life of the institution. 

The answer must surely be that it is indeed possible to maintain the desired Carnegie classification; however, it will take firm resolve and purposive administration.  As in so many other things in higher education, in regard to this question, the answer must be “both . . . and . . ..”  The most unfortunate of all outcomes in regard to this question would be for the university, its students, and the sponsoring institution to value the outcomes that quality Christian/LDS liberal arts education can produce, and to expect it, while all the time only producing, by design —intended or not—an education only barely distinguishable from that available at secular universities nationwide.  Perhaps the most significant loss on investment with such an outcome would be that students leave BYU (or any other Christian affiliated school) with only modest appreciation of the real eternal and moral implications of the content of their education and what they have taken with them as the product of their college years.  

Equally problematic would be that students would leave their Christian-affiliated colleges lacking Christian-informed responses (and even answers) to the salient and challenging intellectual and moral questions of the day.  This would be to leave with their faith no stronger (and perhaps weaker) then when they entered. They would thus leave still vulnerable to any number of issues and arguments that might challenge their faith and lead them to miscast their own religious lives and faith commitments even to their own understanding.  In other words, they would leave without “reason for the hope that is in them” (1 Peter 3: 15), when it might have been possible to provide just such reason.  Most distressing of all is that they would leave without the “peace that passeth all understanding” (Philippians 4:7) in their intellectual and moral lives.  This argument makes contact with the argument made by C. S. Lewis in his essay on Learning in War-Time:

If all the world were Christian, it might not matter if all the world were educated. But as it is, cultural life will exist outside the Church whether it exists inside or not. To be ignorant and simple now—not to be able to meet the enemies on their own ground—would be to . . . betray our uneducated brethren who have, under God, no defence but us against the intellectual attacks of the heathen.  Good philosophy must exist, if for no other reason, because bad philosophy needs to be answered.

Christian liberal arts education will require purposeful recruiting, explicit example-rich training, and apprenticeship.  Discernibly high-quality Christian/LDS liberal-arts education will not result simply from building and maintaining a Christian, spiritual environment.  There is intellectual substance to a genuinely Christian/LDS education that must be discovered and articulated.  It requires particular academic training such that it will not just occur as a by-product of our own—our faculty’s and our students’—personal Christian commitments, or their individual academic pursuits.  At the same time, it is unlikely that it will be immediately possible to hire substantial numbers of faculty able to engage, fully support, and contribute to a quality Christian/LDS liberal arts education right out of their graduate training.  

There will be a need to recruit early, identifying our best undergraduates with promise and making them aware of the standards—and the type of education that will be required for future faculty members.  Even in disciplines not situated in the liberal arts and sciences, it will be important to hire for the larger, Christian liberal arts mission.  To the greatest degree, we want academic “dual citizens” with their “citizenship in the kingdom and their passports in the world” (Elder Neal A. Maxwell’s description), who can travel between these two spheres being equally at home and sophisticated in both.  In every discipline, including the natural sciences and the professional disciplines faculty should have the (Christian liberal arts) perspective as part of what they can bring to the students, to colleagues, and to the university.  It is worth remembering, and Professor Darin Davis reminds us, that there is a Christian perspective on (although not necessarily in) every discipline. 

While we can inform people of this essential quality in faculty candidates, it will take extra work, on the part both of faculty members and of the institution, to actually achieve the ultimate aim.  To establish and maintain a genuinely Christian/LDS liberal arts education, ultimately, participants need to feel peaceful and confident about the Christian/LDS meaning, import, and thrust, of both their scholarship and their teaching.  It takes time to relax, surrender, purge ourselves of all those things that we might reflexively feel drawn to defend from our secular training as being of intrinsic worth and as established truth.  That is, there may be some things we do not think we should have to “lay on the altar,” for any number of reasons.  Some academics may come to this challenge much as the young man came to Jesus and learned that it would be required of him to give up all that he had acquired and valued (Matthew 19:16-22; Mark 10:170-22; Luke 18:18-23).  

Thus to adequately participate in, and effectively lead, a Christian/LDS liberal arts higher education, one has to undergo, at some point, a Christian/LDS conversion in one’s intellectual soul, so that one is of one mind and heart within him- or herself—ceasing to live out of “two pockets.”  This will be, obviously, different for each person, just as religious conversion is.  It will not result in mindless uniformity of thought: Christian/LDS conversion never has.  It will also be different within each discipline.  But such conversion will provide an openness in which genuinely and unapologetically Christian/LDS education can occur—for both faculty and students.  And as is the case with sincere religious conversion, in one sense, everything is changed while, in another sense  everything remains the same. It may be that in some cases, after laying some things on the altar, we discover that we can take them up again, in a fuller, more meaningful, transformed, and even redeemed form.

While an institution can inform prospective faculty that a comprehensive and genuinely Christian/LDS liberal arts education is a high priority for our faculty hires, it will be necessary also to do a good deal of modeling of it, to conduct ongoing workshops and in-service experiences in various forums.  Collaboration with like-minded Christian scholars from other institutions will be valuable.  Such like-minded institutions can share much, as there are strengths and weaknesses in all institutions.  In this endeavor to establish genuinely Christian/LDS liberal arts education, we must avoid two horns of a dilemma.  These horns are Secularism on the one hand, and Sectarianism on the other.  While this dilemma may seem difficult, it should not be.  The middle ground, “between the horns,” is spacious and accommodating.  That middle ground is our Christian commitment itself, coupled with a firm moral commitment to what we know to be the nature of a well-lived and worthy life.  This brings us all together and offers to students and to faculty members the intellectual and moral genuinely “safe space” that Christianity offers to all.

Attempts to institute any serious programs in Christian liberal arts education may likely start small.  We would need to rely on some key scholars, and then develop others.  Meanwhile, there will be a need for changes, such as modifications in curricula in nearly all departments and colleges to create classes and experiences that a commitment to genuinely Christian liberal arts education should provide.  An extant organization on campus—an institute or center, or even an informal study group—that has the vision, might be an ideal place to begin a serious effort to demonstrate, model, and teach each other about serious genuinely Christian liberal arts education both in concept and in actual pedagogy.  At BYU, and perhaps at other Christian campuses, the effort might start slowly and require time to evolve.  

We simply must require from our faculty both quality scholarship by the standards of universities in our time and culture and personal commitment


Under auspices of clear administrative support, and based on symposia, forums, financial support, collegial support, and interdisciplinary collaboration, Christian/LDS liberal arts education could incubate until it is established in minds and hearts and in some (or many) classrooms.  Then it could become institutionalized in a form that has sufficient strength and social and intellectual capital to survive and move seamlessly into any explicit intellectual and administrative structure that the home institution would provide. Lest anyone should equate this kind of re-thinking and re-evaluation with some sort of “re-education camp” for reluctant faculty,  please understand that this paragraph is an acknowledgment that genuinely and explicitly Christian education is, at present in our culture, largely an acquired skill.  It needs to be nurtured.  It should be noted that there is a very important difference between a political re-education camp and a Christian retreat.

Clearly, this stage of institutional commitment must begin with conversion of a mindset, from thinking in terms of “General Education” offered before upper-division courses, to something like a college of Liberal Arts and Sciences.  The value of a genuinely Christian/LDS liberal arts education will have to be conveyed to students and to the entire university by key administrators who believe in the concept and the practice.  It is crucial that the university establish early, and never retreat from, the call for “both . . . and.. . .”  We simply must require from our faculty both quality scholarship by the standards of universities in our time and culture and personal commitment and involvement in the broader project of distinctly Christian/LDS liberal arts education.  

Structurally we must resist the temptation, as our history has manifest, of approaching “general education,” by having every college meet the requirement by simply designing and contributing something like a large enrollment introductory survey course in their own subject matter. This tactic, regardless of how broad, “interdisciplinary,” and well-executed such courses may be, is what leads students to the strategy of simply “getting their ‘generals’ out of the way.”  If we cannot do it all right now, we need to do what we are doing differently to come as close as we can to a rich Christian liberal arts education and the rich intellectual atmosphere that both nourishes it and follows from it.  Certainly, we can do better than we have done. Our Mission and Aims document calls for it.  We can bless our students,  our stakeholders,  our culture.   And, in so doing, we can honor Him whose we are.

The absolutely essential step in establishing genuinely Christian/LDS higher education is the intellectual work that must take place in the minds and hearts of individual faculty and students.  In its most basic and essential form, it is quite simple.  We must take up with serious minds and souls a key question.  What ideas, concepts, or assumptions are crucial in making not only the environment and pedagogy but also the content, of a course meaningfully and non-trivially relevant to and supportive of our (LDS) Christianity and our faith?  This question will have more meaning and will yield itself to deeper and clearer reflection if we retain in the forefront of our minds and hearts three basic truths of, and one conclusion about, our Christian faith: 1) We are children of God, and therefore, life has a telos—sacred meaning and purpose; 2) People, therefore, also have a telos—sacred meaning and purpose; and thus, 3) People and what they do are sacred; therefore, 4) All learning that reveals the truth about what God and his children are and do is sacred.  Education is always about the sacred.  We must never forget that.

In this essay, I have spoken as plainly and carefully as I know how about the importance, nature, and role of genuinely and discernibly Christian/LDS higher education, concentrating mostly on what is often referred to as “liberal arts education.”  I have concentrated on BYU because I am most familiar with it, and because I see in its unique status and mission great possibilities.  I am not responsible for the direction or purpose of BYU.  And I sustain those who are.  I have written from the vantage point of several decades of service in various parts of the university.  The essay is also informed by my years of interacting with other Christian institutions of higher education.  Finally, what I have written comes from my friendship with genuinely Christian colleagues and friends as an expression of our shared vocation and a desire to be yoked with them.  Perhaps the most charitable way to understand my purpose—a Pentecostal purpose—is found in Acts 2:17: 

And it shall come to pass in the last days, saith God, I will pour out of my Spirit upon all flesh: and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams.

We live in A Secular Age.  Charles Taylor has laid out the details for us.  This age was centuries and decades in the making.  More importantly, it has been generations in the making.  It is always important to remember that intellectual movements and eras are always overlays upon lives of real people who are God’s children. The Christian message is that every individual soul is broken and needs redemption.  We find souls always within cultures and traditions, and always with lived histories, and acquired understandings of themselves and the world.  The secular world will attempt to provide, with greater or lesser success, all that is needed to meet the outward necessities of life.  It will also, in the absence of viable and visible alternative sources of understanding, provide the meaning, morality, epistemology, ontology, purpose, and vision that will animate and define people and peoples.  We know this secular account.  It has found its way into our contemporary minds, hearts, and relationships. In some ways, it has been a success, particularly in technology, medicine, and many other fields of endeavor.  But its effects on the soul are not so impressive.  

The secular world can never satisfy a Christian soul, but it can destroy one.  For this reason alone, the world desperately needs Christian perspective, Christian understanding, and Christian education geared to the highest ambitions of a human soul.  Without these, where do we find Christian hope?  There is Christian education going on in our culture, but too often, even when we find seriously Christian education at any level, what we find is a saint or two, dutifully tending their own plots.  BYU can help.  All Christian institutions can help.  

Christian higher education is the diversity in contemporary higher education today.  We must not lose it.  We can fulfill its purpose.  Currently, the windows are still open—the windows of opportunity to contribute within the sphere of intellectual life and higher education, and the windows that give entry into the hearts and minds of students.   If not us, who?  If not now when?  The windows may close. We can link arms and hearts as Christian friends and scholars to be about the business of educating and elevating souls, helping them return safely home.

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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