A little while back, I attended two different conference presentations where colleagues within the Christian academy were presenting on the topic of integrating faith and learning (IFL). In both cases, I was eager to hear the presenter’s thoughts and to pick up some ideas that I could incorporate into my own teaching practice. Instead, as a biblical studies scholar myself, I sat through both presentations growing more and more horrified about how I heard the Bible being treated by colleagues within the Christian academy.
In both cases, the presenters described several attempts at IFL that involved trying to fit the Bible into their academic discipline. In one case, the presenter described classroom moments of using selective proof-texts taken out of context to illustrate and highlight the importance of a key course principle. She discussed assignments in which she tasked students with engaging in similar proof-texting exercises that ignored the genre, socio-historical setting, and literary features native to biblical texts in favor of making superficial connections with the real area of interest: the academic discipline. She described classroom conversations in which she would ask, “What Bible passages illustrate [this course concept]?”
In the other presentation, the presenter offered an extended discourse of how he used a particular part of the Bible to illustrate a key concept from his academic discipline. The presentation methodically matched up the features of course concept with elements of the biblical text that ignored how those elements functioned in their native context. By the end of the presentation, the biblical text in question had been completely divorced from its historical, literary, and canonical settings in favor of placing it alongside key textbooks in the field.
In short, the picture of IFL that these Christian colleagues painted was one in which the Bible, rather than being the authoritative revelation of God’s Word, was turned into a vehicle for teaching an academic discipline. The concerns that were native to the text itself were set aside in favor of answering the questions and concerns that a modern academic discipline might have to impose upon the text.
On the surface, such exercises might appear harmless. However, such approaches can inadvertently situate the Bible, the spiritually authoritative scripture for Christians, beneath the interests of a given academic discipline. That is, such approaches to IFL massage the biblical text to make it address concerns that are inherently foreign to it and ultimately assert power over the biblical message in the process.
To be sure, Christian scholars can (and, I would argue, ought) to engage with the Bible as a source for practicing IFL. However, when the concerns of an academic discipline become the driving factor in an encounter with the biblical text, the result is not an integration of faith and learning. It is a forced occupation of the Bible that serves to offer a thin biblical veneer to something else that is deemed the “real” content of learning.
At the risk of sounding overly alarmist, such approaches to IFL inflict a form of violence onto the biblical text and engage in what I call academic colonialism. That is, just as some problematic colonial exploits involved the forced removal of native cultures and values in favor of those held by colonialists, the imposition of an academic discipline’s values and questions onto the biblical text can exhibit similar tendencies. In engaging in such practices, Scripture is wrested from its own cultural context and made to conform to the colonizing expectations of a scholar using it merely to reinforce or illustrate an academic discipline’s theories.
The Solution: Decolonizing the Integration of Faith and Learning
The larger world of higher education has become enamored with the notion of “decolonizing” our curricula, our syllabi, and nearly every other aspect of the higher education enterprise. This decolonization movement, at its heart, is concerned with how instructors and institutions wield their power in a way that does not eliminate endemic cultures and values.
Some Christians shy away from this language of “decolonizing,” suspecting it of being infected with an anti-Christian bias. However, the impulses behind the decolonization movement and Christian explanations about right uses of power hold several values in common that might be useful for practicing IFL appropriately in relation to the biblical text.
At its heart, decolonizing IFL is deeply resonant with biblical reflections on right uses of power. One need only call to mind Jesus’s imperative to respond to violence with nonviolence (Matthew 5:38-48) or the Christ Hymn’s adoration of Jesus’s own renunciation of power (Philippians 2:5-11). Beyond that, several other biblical texts uphold a value for epistemological humility that might serve as a guide for decolonizing approaches to the Bible in the practice of IFL.
The prophetic text of Isaiah 55, for example, offers a model for how Christian educators might decolonize IFL practices. In Isaiah 55:3-5, the text celebrates the special status that has been granted to David and the unique place that Israel has among the nations. At first, it would seem that this text is promoting the superiority of Israel’s knowledge and religious expression. However, just a few verses later, this impulse is put in check as God declares, “My thoughts are not your thoughts nor are your ways my ways. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts” (55:8-9). In other words, regardless of the truth and the special religious access granted to David and to Israel, the prophetic speech emerges as a reminder of the limits of human knowledge.
The New Testament picks up on similar themes. For example, in Romans 11:33-34, the Apostle Paul rejoices at the lack of human knowledge about the divine: “O the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! For who has known the mind of the Lord? Or who has been his counselor?” For Paul, human ignorance of the transcendent is not indicative of a human epistemological failure; it is an indication of how truly marvelous the divine really is.
As just these two examples illustrate, the Bible itself can help to provide a model for Christian educators for how to reverse academic colonization that uses the Word of God to serve the interests of an academic discipline (e.g., taking Bible verses out of context to illustrate a particular theory in one’s field). Unlike approaches to IFL that treat the Bible like a proof book for course content that provides epistemological certitude, the biblical text itself highlights the value of wonder, curiosity, and epistemological humility. It may be that these values that are already endemic to the Bible might have something to offer to Christian educators who seek to decolonize the use of the Bible in their IFL practices.
As I have written elsewhere, I believe that the episode of Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch (Acts 8:26-40) has much to teach Christian educators about proper uses of pedagogical power in the practice of IFL.1 In this account from the book of Acts, the “teacher” divests himself of power in his encounter with his student and with the biblical text. The student’s own reading and questions guide this episode (Acts 8:32-34), and the teacher’s response begins with the scriptural text and addresses that text on its own terms (Acts 8:35). In short, rather than exerting his own power over the biblical text, the teacher allows his student and the text itself to determine the direction of how faith and learning are integrated.
So, how can we decolonize IFL in our own classrooms?
As a biblical scholar, I have devoted my life to the study of God’s Word, and I am always delighted when Christian colleagues inquire about how that Word might animate their IFL practices. Given my deep love for this revelation of God’s truth to God’s people, I also always hope to take great care in suggesting how this might be done in order to respect the Bible for what it is…and for what it is not.
One way of respecting the Bible’s place as Scripture within the Christian tradition is by allowing it (rather than an academic discipline) to maintain its own boundaries for what it does and does not address. So, for example, rather than asking students to treat the Bible as a proof book for the truth of an academic discipline, Christian educators might ask students to embrace the Bible’s silences in relation to course content. What are the limits to what the Bible says about a given academic discipline’s questions, and how might those limits inspire epistemological humility? How can the Bible’s silence on a given topic lead to wonder about the transcendence of the Divine? How can the Bible’s logic about what it does say inform careful reflection about what it does not say? What values endemic to the biblical text are present or absent from our academic disciplines? That is, rather than exerting power over the biblical text and over students as a means of cultivating epistemological certitude, a decolonized approach to IFL might instead seek to cultivate the same wonder, curiosity, and epistemological humility that the Bible itself promotes.
Decolonizing IFL practices need not be imagined as acquiescing to some liberal “woke” cultural norm. Rather, it might be envisioned as a way of relinquishing power over the very faith and the very text that we seek to integrate into our curricula. In doing this, Christian educators might be able to demonstrate a truly faithful approach to their students, their discipline, and their Scripture.