College and the Christian Vision

For centuries, students graduating from Christian-based colleges saw the workforce they were joining as far more than a source of employment and income. Besides mastering professional skills and learning Christian doctrines, they had absorbed a view of life dominated by an expectation of self-sacrifice, symbolized by a sacramental aesthetics, and lived out in a discipline…

For centuries, students graduating from Christian-based colleges saw the workforce they were joining as far more than a source of employment and income. Besides mastering professional skills and learning Christian doctrines, they had absorbed a view of life dominated by an expectation of self-sacrifice, symbolized by a sacramental aesthetics, and lived out in a discipline of humility and compliance. But it is a different world today. In the past 25 years, because of the proliferation of specialized professional courses and the decline of required courses in theology and philosophy, students inherit by default a business and professional vision of the world. What Christian vision is available comes more from personal contact with faculty and pastoral caregivers than from course lectures and discussions.

Religious sponsors of these colleges watch helplessly as professional concerns move to the center while they are left circling the outside and working through pastoral ministry programs. Great flocks of students migrated through the campus having met a few deeply religious men and women, and having learned something about the Bible and ethics. But what they learned about physics, psychology, economics, sociology, English literature, history and current affairs has been no different than what their peers in secular universities learned. Secularly mature but religiously adolescent, they no longer receive the integration of learning and religious living that Christian colleges were founded to give.

This is a pity, since Christian tradition is actually rich with doctrines that bear an immediate impact on scholarly and scientific worldviews. Our heritage already possesses an academically sound vision of the universe that deals with sin and grace, with the mystery of the person, with the spiritual character of the cosmos, and with the evolutionary process that brings forth the likes of each of us. The question is how to address religious doctrines within a perspective designed to educate culturally aware professionals.

The answer to that question will take ongoing academic discussion. But for an illustration of some key topics, what follows are three Christian doctrines that possess the intellectual depth suitable for inclusion in academic study:

Human Progress and Decline are Religious Issues

Since the late 1960s, the focus of Christian faith has shifted from personal prayer and liturgy to social awareness and doing justice. In this new perspective, we can expect that the theology of history will play as central a role in Christian self-awareness as religious psychology once did. Where, formerly, stages of our personal intellectual, emotional and religious growth enjoyed the limelight, now dysfunctional families, the inherited character of psychological diseases, and great tragedies of nationalism and racism are moving to center stage. A theology of history can provide an explanation of these historical phenomena in a way that takes evil and God seriously.

In our own time, Bernard Lonergan located the sources of social decline in several biases natural to consciousness – individual egotism, group egotism, and the general bias of common sense against taking the long-range view. The source of social progress, on the other hand, lies in the precepts natural to consciousness to be attentive, intelligent, reasonable, responsible, and in love. Lonergan emphasized the power of God’s love to heal social and historical problems.

The Real Includes the Spiritual

A second Christian doctrine can make or break a student’s chances of understanding what exactly scientific knowledge is. It is an ancient Christian belief that something does not have to be material in order to be real. That is, the spiritual order is no less actual than the material. Although neoplatonist strands of Christian doctrines interpreted this belief in a way that boosted the spiritual to the detriment of the material, some contemporary scientists have turned this upside down, regarding the spiritual as outside the realm of the empirical and the material as the only thing real. Still, we believe that God is spirit yet absolutely real – as are grace, wisdom and love. Our belief in the reality of spirit is not a rejection of the material but rather its embrace.

We believe that God will redeem not just our individual souls, but also our bodies and indeed all of material creation, which “groans together and labors in birthpangs together even now” (Romans 8:22). Likewise, both Aquinas’ analogies about God and the Church’s reliance on the natural law as a basis for ethics presume that all of nature has invisible, “spiritual” dimensions.

Fortunately, the doctrine that the spiritual infuses the material is easily compatible withthe view of science that all matter follows laws, laws that are absolutely invisible. Students easily take for granted that things have a nature, that Newton’s apple will always fall, accelerating at a predetermined rate. But there’s a shock in store when students face the bare question: Can the real be nonmaterial? The realization may arise when, with Einstein, physics students accept mathematical equations as sufficient explanation of the unimaginable behavior of subatomic particles at one end of our imagination and of macro-astrological phenomena at the other. Or psychology students may assent to the reality of spiritual dimensions when, with Freud, they acknowledge diseases whose proper realm is not synapses in the brain but ideas and feelings in the mind. These are rich fields for a philosophy of science to explore when it asks what a “theory of everything” ought to explain and whether or not there can be “another universe.” Evolution is a particularly relevant issue. Most people today accept the laws of natural selection and “survival of the fittest” as a sufficient explanation of evolution. Recently, however, a growing number of scientists claim that these laws do not explain the marvelous capabilities and economical complexity of emerging species – self-assembling organisms whose intricacies seem far beyond the opportunities offered by a natural selection. A key question, then, is this: Is “spirituality,” as we traditionally understood it in medieval, normative categories, actually the emergence in human consciousness of a goal-directed character of the universe? If so, then spirituality belongs at the center of any integrated scientific account of our reality.

Everyone Has a Vocation

When curriculum committees ask, “What should our students learn?” they depend on an often unspoken assumption about a prior issue: “For whom are they learning?” It’s a question of purpose, not content; a question of the end, not the means. If they are learning only for themselves and their careers, then the college serves society by handing over skilled workers to employers who are glad to tell them their purpose is to make money. But if they are learning for the sake of the commonweal, then, besides being skilled for their own benefit, students also need an understanding that will enable them to contribute to society.

Typically, it’s up to the boards of directors and trustees to state the college’s purpose. To spell out the college’s purposes, they issue “The Mission Statement” – an expression sadly now degenerate. Originally, it appeared in Catholic hospitals sponsored by religious women. As their membership declined, they crafted mission statements to pass on to incoming lay administrators their vocation to serve the needy. Unfortunately, industrial and business corporations copied the term, but omitted the meaning. They have reduced a mission to “what we have decided to do.”

If a Christian college wants a mission statement, let it be written by those people who depend on scholarship and science for wisdom – the laborers in the city, the poor in the slums, the leaders of the community, the representatives of service corporations and industry, and any others within the ministerial sights of its sponsoring religious body. These are the people to whom the college “missions” the students. This would help convey the ideal that attending school on this campus is for the spiritual and material good of the commonweal, not merely for the career of the student or faculty member.

While the mystery of living an inspired life may lie in some exquisite religious experience for the few, for the many it lies in the mundane business of appreciating value where rational analysis sees only loss, in mustering the courage to reach out to the marginalized, and in the resurrection of hope in the face of failure. This eye toward the good, this heart for the neighbor, and these guts to persevere are the continued and sustaining events that can divert social decline into progress. And precisely because these events arise mysteriously and without our fabrication, in a refreshingly relevant way they pose the theological question of how God’s providence works.

The Christian College

Christian leaders always have adapted the Good News to their hearers. They realize that for the Good News to be effective, it has to speak to the mindsets of the times. During the half-century spanned by the New Testament, these leaders did far more than teach doctrine and denounce heresy. They also sharpened the questions that most profoundly affect human life. To accomplish this, they had to integrate their faith with the modes of thought peculiar to their times. It was a personal achievement. It was not a piece of information. Indeed the Christian vision can never be taught as mere information. For our times, this means leading students to understand their faith with the empirical, functional kind of insights that work so well in science, scholarship and professional life. And it means understanding science, scholarship and professional life with the kind of insights that respond at least to the three issues we have been discussing: What is real redemption here? What must be the full dimensions of this world where transcendence envelops us not only through Jesus in our history but also through a Spirit with our spirit? What, therefore, are we called to do?