Faithful Learning: A Vision for Theologically Integrated Education
I have taught at Houston Christian (formerly Houston Baptist) University since 1991, and I am happy to report that the university has spent the last two decades intentionally recruiting, encouraging, and equipping professors committed to the integration of faith and learning in every discipline of the modern university. I, along with dozens of my colleagues, have been empowered to apply the Christian story of creation, fall, redemption, reconciliation, and glorification, the authority of scripture, and the central doctrines of the trinity, incarnation, atonement, and resurrection, not only to the humanities, social sciences, and business, but to every area of the STEM curriculum.
To help further our commitment to, and our enthusiasm for, the integration of faith and learning, our provost concluded the 2022–2023 academic year by purchasing every professor a copy of Faithful Learning: A Vision for Theologically Integrated Education by Jacob Shatzer so that we can discuss it together during our August faculty meetings. Rather than wait until the end of the summer, I, always eager to learn more about faith and learning, chose to begin my summer by reading and reflecting on the book.
Shatzer, associate professor of theological studies and associate provost at Union University, provides his readers with a brief, systematic theology in layman’s terms that highlights the essential doctrinal beliefs that support and sustain the Christian worldview. In his ten central chapters he surveys what orthodox theology has to say about God, humanity, creation, fall, the person and work of Christ, the Holy Spirit, salvation, and the nature and function of the church. He bookends these ten chapters with a consideration of the four sources of theology (scripture, reason, tradition, and experience) and the four last things (death, judgment, heaven, and hell). At the end of each chapter, he invites one of a dozen professors from one of a dozen disciplines to comment on the link between the theology covered in the chapter and the subject they teach.
Shatzer is genially ecumenical and works hard to elucidate the foundational doctrines of the faith. Like C. S. Lewis in Mere Christianity, he keeps his focus firmly on what all believing Christians hold in common, though he does, commendably, take the time to survey the different ways those foundational doctrines have been understood by (mostly) evangelical groups.
Most believers should resonate with Shatzer’s overview of God as Creator, especially his argument that, though God created a world that we can study by means of science, “the world God created exceeds the world scientists can measure” (44). Properly understood, such a view empowers and sets proper limits for the natural sciences; indeed, it challenges and chastens all academic disciplines that seek to study the world God made and to think his thoughts after him.
Many today may find it strange that Christians have traditionally described God as self-existent (aseity), impassive, and jealous, but Shatzer argues that these key attributes of God are essential to his nature and his interactions with us and our world. His aseity makes clear that he “does not depend on anyone or anything else for the fact or quality of his existence… [and] does not relate to the world because he lacks something or needs something” (28). His impassivity assures us that he “is never overcome by emotions in such a way that he changes who he is” (29). Such an understanding of God is vital for establishing the kind of divine standards necessary for the proper pursuit of goodness, truth, and beauty in the humanities, social sciences, and STEM disciplines. In his overview of theological anthropology, Shatzer does well to direct his readers to focus on our “shared humanity as fundamental before adding adjectives and qualifiers that divide us” (49). He reminds us of several things about ourselves that are often forgotten today: that we did not lose the image of God (imago Dei) when we fell; that we were created as embodied souls (not souls trapped in bodies) and that we are destined for an embodied eternity; that we were created male and female for purposes that include and transcend procreation. If Christian professors are to navigate the minefields of racial and gender identity politics, it is vital that they be grounded in a positive and nuanced biblical anthropology that does not rest on shifting ideologies.
The word salvation, Shatzer explains, comes from a Greek root that means “health.” As such, we cannot understand fully the Christian doctrine of salvation until we grasp what a healthy person was created to look like, diagnose what is preventing that health, and determine what treatment is needed to restore that health. Salvation in Christian theology “is not just a Get Out of Jail Free card” (114); it means union with Christ and the restoration of our lost health and well-being.
Just as the most effective churches are those that minister to the hearts, souls, minds, and strengths of their parishioners, so the most effective colleges and universities will be those that treat their students, not as clients or consumers, but as complete, holistic people in need of restoration as well as education. In contrast to our therapeutic culture, which treats young people as victims or victimizers in need of social engineering, schools guided by Christian anthropology and soteriology will treat them as fellow sinners in need of grace.
Shatzer serves his fellow academics well by providing them with a grammar of essential theology for the twenty-first century Christian university. Only after professors gain a firm grasp of basic theology can they begin the hard work of reviewing their chosen disciplines through the lens of creedal-doctrinal orthodoxy. I only wish his potentially fruitful decision to end each chapter with a different professor from a different discipline had worked as well as it might have. Little-to-no real dialogue is established between theology and practice; the individual testimonies feel tacked on at best. Shatzer makes no reference in his chapters to anything written by the contributors; instead, he quotes theologians who, though they offer excellent theological insights, have nothing to say about the classroom. Still, the attentive reader will cull useful, if scattered insights from several of the contributors that should prove helpful to professors struggling to connect their Sunday morning observance with their Monday morning lectures. Reflecting on the imago Dei, Aaron Brown, assistant professor of English at LeTourneau University, works hard to ensure that his students come out of his “classroom as more empathetic listeners, recognizing that to win any argument one must first properly know, understand, and care about other opinions” (18).
Blake McKinney, assistant professor of history and humanities at Texas Baptist College, laments the fact that most historians have replaced “the all-wise, all-powerful, triune God who oversees all creation by his sovereign providence,” with “innumerable causal explanations for who we are and how we got here. In so doing, they have ignored the personal, benevolent Creator and offered impersonal, oppressive forces, such as class, gender, race, and a myriad of other materialistic causes” (31).
While Anna Rose Robertson, instructor of exercise science at Welch College, offers a fascinating catalogue of the essential physiological differences between men and women, Sarah Bracey, assistant professor of psychology at Welch College, lays out “a more encompassing model that views humans as biopsychosocial spiritual beings” (109). Matt Henderson, associate professor of sociology at Union University, offers his own encompassing model that would preserve the noble goals of such progressive social reformers and Social Gospel advocates as Jane Addams without falling prey to their utopian dismissal, or downplaying, of the effects of original sin. Henderson advocates for a balance between individual and communal sin that will study “how human depravity, faithlessness, fear, and greed infect and corrupt social institutions” (73).
Rick Martinez, distinguished professor of management at North Greenville University, argues that a business model that “maximizes church efficiency and facilitates good stewardship of scarce resources” (137) can benefit churches in a period of growth. Jeannette Russ, professor of engineering at Union University, does something similar for her own discipline, arguing that the problem-solving paradigm and tools of engineering can assist missionaries in communities that are not normally open to evangelism: “if a missionary can bring them something they want or need, such as solar-powered lighting or clean water, they can typically gain a hearing for sharing the gospel” (166).
Despite the lack of organizational and narrative fusion between its theological overview and its pedagogical testimonies, Faithful Learning remains a helpful resource for Christian professors committed to the integration of faith and learning. Those with the patience to draw the proper connections between logos and praxis, doctrinal truth and the implications of that doctrine for education, will come away equipped to lead their students into an active engagement with the fullness of the Christian worldview.