Nicholas Wolterstorff is the Noah Porter Emeritus Professor of Philosophical Theology at Yale University.
Let me begin my response to this fine essay autobiographically. When I was a student at Calvin College in the early 1950s I was inducted into the Americanized version of the Dutch Reformed understanding of Christian higher education. The talk was all about worldviews, sometimes called world-and-life views. We as students were to acquire a Christian worldview, we were to express that worldview in our own future social and cultural endeavors, and in the light of that worldview we were to identify and critique the alternative worldviews implicit in the social and cultural endeavors of others. Sometimes this was called “learning to think with a Christian mind,” sometimes it was called “learning to think Christianly,” and sometimes it was described as “faith seeking understanding.” It was heady stuff!
Somewhere along the line I learned the origin of this way of thinking and speaking. It came from Abraham Kuyper. Christianity, Kuyper said, has a worldview – in Dutch, a wereldbeschouwing. Kuyper did not identify Christian faith with its worldview; he himself wrote numerous devotional pieces. His reason for employing the term “worldview” was that he wanted to oppose the pietist idea that the cognitive content of Christian faith is all about getting to heaven. Christianity does, of course, have an eschatological dimension; but it also incorporates a view on this world and on our life therein. It was the comprehensive character of the cognitive content of Christian faith that Kuyper wanted to emphasize. I applaud him for that.
In recent years the term “worldview” has been eagerly embraced by a sizable number of American evangelicals, Charles Colson prominent among them. It is my impression that their reason for using the term is the same as Kuyper’s, namely, to emphasize that Christianity is not just about getting to heaven but also about our life in this world.
When I was a young philosophy professor at Calvin College, and chair of its curriculum revision committee in the mid-1960s, I began to have my doubts. I did not doubt that Christian faith is comprehensive in the way Kuyper insisted that it was. It was the term “view” in how Christian education was understood that began to rub me the wrong way – the idea that it is the aim of Christian higher education to imbue in students a certain view, a certain way of thinking. Of course it should do that. But is that the full extent of what it should do? We as human beings are more than thinkers, and there is more to Christian faith than its cognitive content. So what reason is there to suppose that the Christian character of Christian higher education consists of imbuing students with a certain view?
The report of the curriculum revision committee that I chaired stated in one place that the goal of Christian education is “to educate the student to live the Christian life”; in another place it said the goal was “to equip the student to become a citizen of the Christian community in contemporary society.” Obviously education so conceived does not just aim at getting students to think a certain way. This is education for formation.
A defender of the traditional view might reply that though the goal is that students live a Christian life in contemporary society, the contribution of Christian colleges and universities to that goal is getting students to think Christianly. If the college succeeds in getting them to think Christianly, they will then act as Christians. It may be that I myself thought along these lines for a time; I do not recall. But if so, I soon began to doubt that getting students to think a certain way does all that much to shape what they actually do. It is not completely without effect in that regard, but the result in many cases will be that the students talk the way their professors taught them to talk while acting the way our ambient society teaches them to act.
So I began to read around in the psychological literature on how action is shaped. From that emerged my little book, Educating for Responsible Action.1 I concluded that if one wants to shape how students act within, say, the field of business, it will not do just to enunciate abstract principles of business ethics. One has to get down into the nitty-gritty of what used to be called “casuistry,” showing in detail how one thinks businesspeople should act in various situations; one has to present students with businesspeople who model for them that way of acting; and the students must have a “value system” such that they find that way of acting rewarding.
In what follows I will not be saying anything more about the second and third of these three points, except to remark that I regard modeling as an extremely important component of formation. Business professors and philosophers may talk until they are out of breath about how their students should conduct themselves when they enter business; their influence pales beside the modeling influence of those business men and women who are in fact conducting themselves in that way.
Here is how I would now state the goal of Christian education in general: to cultivate in students the ability and the disposition to think, speak, and act as Christians when engaging in the practices of present-day society. If it is future businesspeople that one is educating, the goal is to cultivate in them the ability and the disposition to think, speak, and act as Christians in the practices of contemporary business. The terminology that I am using here differs from that used by Wong, Baker, and Franz in their essay, but I see no substantive difference between their views and mine. I affirm their thesis: business education should aim at formation.
I am not a fan of so-called virtue ethics, and so have never been inclined to state my view in terms of virtues. Dispositions are virtues; so it is in fact the cultivation of virtues that I recommend. But in my experience, virtue-talk all too easily becomes yet one more version of contemporary “me-ism” – admittedly a more noble-sounding version than most. Let me explain. One virtue-ethicist (I will not say who) cites with approval the reply that a Dane, at the time of the Second World War, was reported to have given when asked why he risked his life to save Jews. The answer he was reported to have given was, “Because I would not have been able to live with myself if I had not tried to save them.”
Is this really why one should try to save Jews – because failure to do so would be such a blotch on one’s moral character that one could not live with oneself? Should one not rather try to save Jews because they possess the ineradicable dignity of bearing the image of God and being loved by God, and because paying due respect to them for that dignity requires that one try to save them? It is to the requirements laid on me by their dignity that I should respond, not to the requirements laid on me by my desire to have an upstanding moral character. When one’s own virtue becomes an end in itself we have, as I say, one more version of the “me-ism” that is all too common in the contemporary world. The character formation at which Christian education aims is not for its own sake but for the sake of what the students so formed will do.
Business in the contemporary world is an example of what is commonly called a “world” or “sphere,” other examples of such worlds being the world of medicine, the world of education, the art world, and so on. Each such world incorporates a wide variety of social practices for doing certain sorts of things in certain sorts of ways. To engage in those social practices is to take many things for granted: to take for granted things about human beings and their behavior, to take for granted things about present-day society, to take for granted things about the natural world, to take for granted that experiences of certain sorts are worthwhile whereas those of other sorts are not.
Unless they are Old Order Amish, those businesspeople who are Christians participate in the practices of the contemporary business world along with those who are not Christian; they share the practices. There is much about those practices that they do or should find unacceptable, however. That is the point of saying that it is their calling to think, speak, and act as Christians when participating along with others in the practices of the world of business; otherwise one would say that they should think, speak, and act as everyone else in business does.
Wong, Baker, and Franz note that it is not uncommon for Christians in business to explain that what is different about their way of engaging in the practices of business by saying that they are always honest in their dealings and they contribute a significant proportion of the money they make to Kingdom causes. Of course the latter, strictly speaking, does not pertain to what they do in business but to what they do after hours.
The authors rightly reply that this is woefully inadequate. It assumes that everything is OK in contemporary business except that some businesspersons now and then are less than fully honest. Would that it were so! The authors say, we cannot be content
just to use established business practices (“proven techniques”) to achieve Kingdom outcomes (such as reconciliation, poverty, eco-stewardship, health, and so on). . . . We must examine the practices themselves to discover whether they have embedded values that are not . . . consistent with Kingdom principles. We cannot be faithful to the outcomes we seek while using tools/techniques that may be antithetical to our purposes.
Well said! To this end, teachers of business students in Christian colleges have to “give students the tools necessary to identify, read and critique” the fundamental assumptions of the current practices of American business so as to “uncover implicit teloi, values and virtues.” Students have to learn how to engage in what the authors call “cultural exegesis.” I could not agree more.
Note how far this is from supposing that the problem of conflict between Christian convictions and standard business practices can be dealt with by beefing up the department’s courses in business ethics. What I know of standard business ethics curricula is that the ethics taught almost always takes the form of quandary ethics or dilemma ethics. After introducing the students to the standard frameworks of philosophical ethics – deontology, utilitarianism, and the like – the instructor then describes quandaries or dilemmas that arise within American business and asks the students how a deontologist would deal with the quandary, how a utilitarian would deal with the quandary, and how they would deal with the quandary. To proceed in this fashion is, once again, to assume that American business is fundamentally OK as it is. Assuming that it is fundamentally OK as it is, one then addresses the quandaries that unfortunately but inevitably arise. It is as if one were treating pimples on a healthy person.
The authors note that, in addition to cultural exegesis of current business practices, what is called for in the business courses of the Christian college is Christian critique. They observe, however, that “most business professors are not theologians;” they “lack the formal training and/or language and categories with which to make these connections.” To “overcome this hurdle,” the authors recommend “collaboration between business faculty and their colleagues in theology and humanities departments.”
I support this recommendation, provided that biblical scholars are brought into the discussion along with theologians and provided that the goal of such interdisciplinary discussions is clearly and correctly understood. There are cottage industries in theology and art, theology and science, theology and sport, theology and psychology, and the like. So far as I can tell, these discussions always take the same form. The operative assumption in the theology and art discussions is that art and our common ways of thinking about art are pretty much OK as they are; we will now add on to these some theological reflections about them. The practices of sport and our common ways of thinking about sport are pretty much OK as they are; we will now add on to these some theological reflections about them. And so forth. This is one more manifestation of the add-on approach that the authors and I regard as profoundly inadequate.
The goal of the discussions between business professors and theologians and biblical scholars should be that business professors become biblically and theologically informed, thereby becoming equipped to reflect with biblical and theological perceptiveness on the practices of contemporary business. To this should be added that in the course of their discussions with business professors, theologians and biblical scholars may notice certain things about the practices of business that business professors had overlooked, or may raise questions that had never occurred to those in the field; this sort of things happens not infrequently in interdisciplinary discussions.
Lest there be any doubt on the matter, let me say emphatically that acquiring biblical and theological perceptiveness is not to be equated with having a Christian worldview. It consists of habits of attention, habits of interpretation, habits of evaluation, the ability to imagine alternatives, and the like, these all shaped by Scripture and by the long tradition of theological reflection.
I hope I will be excused for closing my response to “Reimagining Business Education as Formation” by quoting myself:
The Christian college and university, among other things, should be a place where the Christian community does its critical thinking about the major social formations of contemporary society – provided that critical thinking is not understood as just negative thinking, and provided that it is understood as going beyond mere evaluation. For the thinking I propose about our contemporary social formations will be neither purely negative not purely positive. It will neither laud business to the skies nor condemn it to Sheol; it will neither praise American politics unstintingly nor criticize it unrelievedly. It will exhibit normative discrimination. And it will go on to ask how what is good can be preserved and what is wrong, changed. In saying this, I understand myself to be expressing the classical Calvinist attitude toward social formations and institutions: the Christian pronounces not just a Yes on such formations nor just a No, but a discriminating Yes and No. Critical appreciation, appreciative criticism. That done, the Christian then struggles to act redemptively.2
Cite this article
- Nicholas Wolterstorff, Educating for Responsible Action (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1980).
- Nicholas Wolterstorff, “Should the Work of Our Hands Have Standing in the Christian College,” in Wolterstorff, Educating for Shalom (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2004), 266.