Faith and Learning: A Handbook for Christian Higher Education
Reviewed by Karen S. Buchanan, Academic Affairs, George Fox University
In Faith and Learning: A Handbook for Christian Higher Education, David S. Dockery, President of Union University, and his twenty-four co-essayists explore the “place of Christian faith” on the university campus. Dockery asserts that the “calling of Christian higher education is to “reflect the life of Christ and to shine the light of truth” (xi). Writings explore this notion and describe its application in a variety of disciplines and departments found on Christian university campuses. Chapters are organized around three broad categories: foundational commitments (3-124), Christian faith and the disciplines (125 – 474), and concluding applications (475 – 538). Contributing authors include junior faculty, administrators and seasoned scholars.
Dockery’s experience as a veteran Christian leader is evident in chapter one as he kicks off the section on foundational commitments. He notes that the starting point for the consideration of the role of Christian faith in higher education is found in Jesus’ Great Commandment to love God with our hearts, our minds, and our souls, and to love one another completely (Matt 22:36-40). He then explores the call to learn to love God with our minds through foundational discussions about faith and learning as it relates to the unity of knowledge, the disciplines, the influence of the Christian intellectual tradition, ideas and issues of our day, a confessional framework, character formation, and a model for Christian thinking in a post-Christian context.
Dockery argues that “we need distinctively Christian thinking, the kind of tough-minded thinking that results in culture-engaging living” (4). For example, this tough-minded thinking challenges the Christian scholar to embrace as a foundational commitment that all true knowledge flows from the One Creator to His creation. This commitment is the starting place for scholars to wrestle with significant ideas from history as well as confronting the issues of today. Christians in the academy are called to think deeply about how their Christian faith engages with study and research within their own disciplines. Additionally, Dockery explains that Christian thinking shapes the perspective with which the scholar wrestles with life’s big questions and engage the issues of the day. He posits that the extent to which Christian scholars apply these foundational commitments to their work in their disciplines and their teaching practice influences the intellectual, moral, and character development of their students.
Gene Fant Jr.’s essay, “The Heartbeat of Christian Higher Education: The Core Curriculum,” introduces readers to the rich history of the liberal art-based core curriculum. A significant portion of the essay focuses on a distinct Christian liberal arts-based core. The essay closes with practical considerations for students, parents, faculty, and administrators. I particularly appreciated Fant’s call for a core where faculty purposefully build connections with their assigned content and other elements of the core. Additionally, he reminds administrators that they “should be fierce guardians of a rigorous core curriculum precisely because of the importance of such work to the formation of students” (44). The foundational commitments section concludes with Harry Lee Poe’s, “The Gospel, Worldview, and Christian Higher Education”and Klaus Issler’s essay, “Philosophy of Education.”
Scholars that discuss how faith influences their thinking and work in their disciplines fill section two. Sixteen essays reflect traditional liberal arts areas as well as the professions. All contributors in this section are from Union University except Kevin S. Trowbridge, lecturer in public relations and student media advisor at Lee University. Trowbridge’s essay, “A Christian Perspective on Communication and Media,”is an important contribution to this section. He discusses the emerging media/communication issues of our modern technologi-cal age in light of a Christian perspective. Mark Bolyard’s essay, “A Christian in the Sciences,” explores the place of faith in the context of the life sciences. Bolyard begins by discussing the development of science and natural philosophy and explores key life scientists from the Christian intellectual tradition. He then discusses evolution and the origins of life. Bolyard ends his essay with personal questions he has wrestled with regarding his role as Christian scholar and teacher in the higher education setting. These two essays serve as examples of the essays found in section two: Christian faith and the disciplines.
A narrowing aspect to section two is that men wrote thirteen of the sixteen essays. Jeannette Russ’ “Christian Scholarship in Math, Physics, and Engineering,” Mary Anne Poe’s “Social Work and Counseling in the Christian Intellectual Tradition,” and Emily Lean’s “The Study of Business at the Christian University,”provide a particularly important perspective in this collection. Readers may hear or interpret the voice of female authors differently because those authors have developed their points of view on faith and learning in the context of the female experience. Gender plays a significant role in the development of an individual’s worldview, and most certainly has played a historic role in both faith and higher education. A set of essays with more female authors might have provided for the inclusion of broader perspectives in theology, justice, pedagogy, and inclusion. With that limitation in mind, this section can be especially helpful to Christian scholars at other institutions as they seek to deepen their integrative work in their disciplines.
Section three brings readers back to the big ideas that Christian university’s talk about with prospective students and parents: teaching, vocation, and engaging culture. Thomas Rosebrough and Ralph Leverett’s essay, “Faith and Transformational Teaching” discusses teaching that is transformational in nature. This notion includes a holistic pedagogy that involves not only academic and social goals for students, but also attention to spiritual goals. Their work delves into a transformational pedagogy model and reflects current thinking about effective teaching and learning in the higher education classroom. Kimberly Thornbury’s essay, “Student Life: Thinking Biblically about Vocation and Community,” focuses on yet another big idea of Christian education: calling or vocation. Ben Mitchell concludes this section with an essay entitled “Engaging the Culture and the Academy.”
In the preface, Dockery writes that this volume is “designed primarily with Christian college, university and seminary students in mind” (xii). While such a volume might be of passing interest to some undergraduate and graduate students, it is my opinion that it would not serve most students in a meaningful way – certainly not enough to merit the purchase of the book. The primary target of such a volume would naturally be a Christian faculty member, particularly those teaching or learning to teach in Christian institutions. For example, this would be an excellent resource for a new faculty orientation program. Each chapter ends with a set of questions for further reflection and could foster engaging group discussion. The volume could also serve as a resource for deans and department chairs as they seek to grow their faculty. The contributions will challenge and extend the thinking of Christian faculty and administrators. Additionally, I found this volume to be a source of inspiration and renewal for the life-changing nature of a Christian mission.
This is a solid “show piece” for Union University – with twenty-three essays, almost all written by Union employees. It displays the breadth of talent gathered at Union. While this is so, there are also some limitations to this approach. The foundational commitments and disciplinary essays carry a reformed theological orientation, referring to worldview, God’s sovereignty, and the authority of scripture. This in no way diminishes the quality of the volume, but it narrows its applicability, particularly in institutions representing other Christian traditions (Quaker, Wesleyan, Mennonite).
These couple of reservations aside, I wholeheartedly recommend Faith and Learning: a Handbook for Christian Higher Education. The work by the essayists has potential to provide engaging scholarly inquiry and discussion on Christian college and university campuses.