Integration: Inter/Disciplinary Possibilities for the Future of Christian Higher Education

Todd C. Ream
Published by Abilene Christian University Press in 2012

Reviewed by Gary S. Selby, Communication, Pepperdine University

Just when we thought were we beginning to get a handle on the “integration of faith and learning,” ACU press has released a new volume, Beyond Integration, which questions whether the conception represented by that slogan is even “now beginning to demonstrate its limits” (15) and, if so, what will emerge in its place. The book contributes to a growing conversation that challenges the traditional integration model’s tendency to foist on Christian scholars what Douglas and Rhonda Jacobsen called a “neutral, one-size-fits-all paradigm that applies equally to everyone or to every field of scholarly endeavor.”1 While it is not clear that the present collection succeeds in taking us “beyond integration,” the diversity of approaches represented in its essays certainly underscores the nuanced character of that enterprise. More importantly, the book offers a much-needed discussion of the practical ways that teachers and scholars might pursue connections between faith and learning in their own academic disciplines.

The collection is framed by two essays that critique the common understanding of “faith and learning” for its failure to challenge the assumptions and structures of modernity. James K. A. Smith’s “Beyond Integration: Re-Narrating Christian Scholarship in Postmodernity” (which offers a condensed version of the core argument in his provocative book, Desiring the Kingdom2) questions Christian education’s preoccupation with developing a “Christian worldview,” arguing that this focus is rooted in an Enlightenment anthropology that sees “human persons as primary thinking things.” From this perspective, “information rather than formation” becomes paramount, as if “the end of Christian education … [is] the dissemination and communication of Christian ideas rather than the formation of a peculiar people” (20; italics in original). The concluding essay by John W. Wright (focusing on the general education program), takes the Christian university to task for its unquestioned acceptance of a fragmented system of knowledge which disconnects Scripture from the life of the church and reduces it to one intellectual field among many, as well as for imbibing a Kantian vision of education in which the university’s ultimate goal is to prepare citizens for acquiescent service to the state.

For both, the answer is to engage the educational experience fully in the worshipping life of the church. Smith calls educators to embrace an “anthropology that sees humans as primarily desiring creatures and liturgical animals” (23; italics in original), as persons whose spiritual formation comes about through our “immersion in the material practices of Christian worship” (23). Likewise, Wright proposes a plan of general education centered on the university chapel: “My suggestion is simply that the whole of the university’s intellectual life culminate in the proper worship of the Triune God in chapel” (177). Both work from a conviction, captured forcefully by Smith, that “Christian scholarship and Christian teaching … are not primarily about ideas; they are concerned with the formation of the imagination, and that happens largely (but not only) through affective means,” that is, through practices of liturgy and worship (42; italics in original).

Between these two essays is a collection of six chapters that explores the interface between faith and learning in a variety of disciplinary areas in the arts and sciences. The essays resist categorization, reflecting not only the perspectives of the authors and the state of the broader conversation within Christian higher education, but also the degree to which particular academic disciplines have been open to exploring the place of faith within their domains. Indeed, running through them is a tension that many Christian academics feel as they seek to bring faith into their teaching and scholarship while also remaining credible (and marketable) within the academy at large.

Nevertheless, the essays represent at least three approaches to the question of how to relate faith to learning. The first is reflected in the essays on psychology and political science, which pursue integration by challenging the foundational assumptions of their disciplines—for political science, the nature of the “common good” that should be the outcome of healthy political systems, and for psychology, an anthropology shaped entirely by either evolutionary biology or individualistic humanism. The second approach, represented by the essays on sociology and English literature, calls scholars to return to the religious roots of their disciplines. For sociology, this means rediscovering the roots of the discipline’s language and practice within the social activism of early twentieth-century Christianity. For literature, it demands that we steel ourselves against the “embarrassment of being thought unfashionable” and continue to plod along, “out of step, teaching Shakespeare, Milton, and other ‘uninteresting’ authors” for the contributions that such works can make to students’ Christian intellectual formation, at a moment when the study of English literature in the secular academy is becoming increasingly known “for rhetorical obscurantism, jejune carnality, and a loss of capacity even to distinguish between good and bad writing” (92-93). A third approach is represented by the essays on history and science, which call on scholars to work within the epistemological frameworks of their own disciplines, but to do so in a way that combines excellence with humility. The essay on history warns practitioners away from the dangers of confusing “the work of an academic historian with the ministry of the prophet” and, instead, calls on them to accept the “confines of methodological naturalism” while also allowing faith to infuse their scholarship, for example, through their choices of subjects for study or in their fair, sympathetic treatment of believers in the historical studies that they undertake. Likewise, the essay on science, rather than calling scientists to eschew accepted empirical methods, instead challenges science departments to be prepared to engage students who bring pressing questions about faith and science to their own study. One way to do this, the author observes, is by including among their course of study opportunities to explore the “humanistic aspects of science” so as to challenge the naive assumptions that many students bring to the discipline, for example, that science and faith are in perpetual conflict or that science is based on purely objective knowledge, while faith relies merely on subjective belief.

Taken as a whole, the book is a welcome contribution to the ongoing attempts to think about the connections between faith and scholarship. As with any volume of this type, readers will find some essays more useful than others, but all are engaging and each offers helpful insights into the possibilities for pursuing those connections. Particularly useful are the essays that challenge us to explore the fundamental but often unexamined assumptions of our disciplines. Further, Smith’s essay on formation as liturgy has significant implications for pedagogy, providing strong impetus for moving away from mere information transmission to more praxis-oriented approaches to teaching,

But perhaps the most important contribution of the volume may actually grow out of one of its limitations. The book’s introduction offers as one motivation for undertaking the project “the erosion of barriers once separating the academic disciplines” (14); hence, its focus on “Inter/Disciplinary” possibilities. And although the book does address questions that transcend particular disciplines (particularly in the essays by Smith and Wright), most of the chapters offer insights into the connections between faith and learning within traditional, distinct academic domains. Yet that is a key part of what makes the book so important. Numerous works over the past twenty-five years have offered broad rationales for bringing faith and learning together, but few have answered the question that immediately follows for most academics: “Yes, but what does this look like in my discipline?”3 This volume actually begins to answer that question by offering readers a glimpse into the practical contributions a faith perspective might make to the study of particular disciplines in the academy. In this way, then, rather than going “beyond integration,” this collection of essays offers us something that might be more helpful—a first attempt to explore in concrete terms what that integration might mean both in our individual disciplines as well as in the mission of our universities as a whole.

Cite this article
Gary S. Selby, “Beyond Integration: Inter/Disciplinary Possibilities for the Future of Christian Higher Education”, Christian Scholar’s Review, 43:3 , 298-300

Footnotes

  1. 6Douglas G. Jacobsen and Rhonda Hustedt Jacobsen, Scholarship and Christian Faith: Enlarging the Conversation (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004), 25.
  2. James K. A. Smith, Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2009).
  3. Two recent exceptions include Mark A. Noll, Jesus Christ and the Life of the Mind (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Pub., 2011); and Jeffrey B. Van Duzer, Why Business Matters to God: (And What Still Needs to be Fixed) (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2010).

Gary S. Selby

Pepperdine University
Dr. Gary S. Selby is Professor of Ministrial Foundations at Milligan University, he previously worked as the Carl P. Miller Chair of Communication at Pepperdine University.