In yesterday’s post, I shared my journey through finding my way in faith and learning up through graduate school. As perhaps for many of us, I then wrestled through this crisis of faith for the next two years at the University of Chicago and then Northwestern. I found a sympathetic mentor for my PhD program, but my faith concerns were not his. Another professor generously and helpfully read and discussed thousands of pages of theory with a small group of us interested graduate students, but he advised me to bracket for later consideration the faith questions that the readings unavoidably raised. I found this no more possible for me than for a swimmer caught in a riptide.
My flailing grasp finally found a hold in the thought of Jurgen Habermas and Paul Ricoeur, whose critical engagement with postmodern thinkers provided a persuasive account of how the constructive power of language also retains its power to refer both descriptively and intelligibly to realities outside itself—to reflect reality as well as to construct it. Their analyses helped me find a foothold for renewed confidence not only in my historical work, but for my faith in Biblical revelation as well. Through that struggle I learned that faith and learning were not incompatible but linked organically, as Ricoueur has observed,
The contrary of suspicion, I will say bluntly, is faith. What faith? No longer, to be sure, the first faith of the simple soul, but rather the second faith of one who has engaged in hermeneutics, faith that has undergone criticism, postcritical faith . . . It is a rational faith, for it interprets; but it is a faith because it seeks, through interpretation, a second naiveté. . . . “believe in order to understand, understand in order to believe”—such is its maxim; and its maxim is the “hermeneutic circle” itself of believing and understanding.1
The theologian Kevin Vanhoozer, who has also drawn on Ricoeur and Habermas among others in his work on hermeneutics, develops the relationship between faith and knowledge even further by arguing for a “communicative covenant” between an author or text and, by short extension, a community of readers or learners. The acquisition and development of knowledge through the various means of communications takes place within communities of trust, of faithfulness among those committed to receive—indeed sometimes to wrest—the desired knowledge out of the curriculum and the teachers who are committed faithfully to convey and facilitate the acquisition of that knowledge, knowledge in which God is always already present as source, giver, and gift.2
In graduate school, I had experienced some elements of such reading communities of trust, but typically organized around sets of aims from which God was explicitly excluded and which conflicted with each other as well—often irreconcilably, as is common in the modern multiversity. The intellectual environment that I entered as an assistant professor at Colgate and then Central Michigan University was no different. Indeed, many instructors viewed it as their duty to disabuse their students of the ideas that had passed for knowledge in the homes, the schools, and especially the churches many of them had come from. To be sure, most incoming first-year students brought with them very little knowledge that did not need at least some correction and augmentation, if not wholesale revision. After all, they had enrolled seeking a college education. Those who came from evangelical churches often also brought a narrow, fragile understanding of Scripture and Christian tradition that teetered on the edge of collapse at their first encounter with a persuasive biologist’s lecture on natural selection or a philosopher’s rebuttal of Paley’s argument from design. Now incorporated within a university community steeped within the immanent frame, the explanations offered in the classroom only clarified the suspicions that had lingered at the fringes of these students’ awareness, and the faith of too many of them fell away like a withered husk.
I joined other professors of Christian faith within the academy who labored to extend grace, hope, encouragement, and resources to students of all backgrounds who found themselves unmoored and adrift in the university’s challenging intellectual and spiritual environment. We met during office hours to discuss their concerns and answer their questions. Several of us formed a group we called “Thinking Like a Christian” to read contemporary thinkers both Christian and non-Christian and to discuss our responses to both from the vantage point of Christian faith. We partnered with parachurch and church-based campus ministries to speak to students as professors who found Christian faith reasonable, persuasive, worthy of devoted pursuit, and compatible with the findings of our disciplines in STEM, the humanities, and the social and behavioral sciences. We helped some of those students find their way back to faith and saw others drift away.
Most of what we did to foster faith, however, took place on the fringes of university life. Our activities were extracurricular, not incorporated into the classroom or lab—indeed, proscribed from those spaces in any formal way. The structure of our students’ everyday experience in the academy thus tended powerfully to perpetuate the separation of faith from learning to confirm almost subconsciously the notion that faith dealt only in the private, unknowable realm of religious experience while true knowledge dealt in the realm of empirical evidence and confirmable fact. As Marshall McLuhan observed decades ago, the medium is the message.3
The deanship of Samford’s Howard College of Arts and Sciences in 2016 promised the opportunity to serve an institution that did not impose the unnatural demand to keep faith and learning in separate spheres, but existed to live out the conviction that the two are organically linked. As St. Augustine observed more than 1,500 years ago, belief gives rise to a quest for greater understanding, and knowledge in turn informs belief. The prospect of contributing to such a learning environment excited me. I looked forward to supporting caring faculty as they came alongside undergraduates who resemble so closely Ricoeur’s “simple souls” to help them through the inevitable intellectual and spiritual challenges that good teaching and learning brings. Any intellectually honest quest for knowledge, after all, cannot avoid confronting uncomfortable truths, unveiling faulty assumptions, and introducing fierce tensions into the fabric of knowledge, thought, and belief.
Yet a community of Christian scholars, made up of faculty recruited for both excellence in scholarship and commitment to “active advocacy of Christian belief and practice” (as Samford’s Faculty Handbook puts it), can work together to point students and each other to explanatory possibilities that lie beyond the immanent frame. They can help students to recognize and correct or discard faulty assumptions, to think through apparent conflicts between Christian faith and empirical knowledge, to learn to live with the unavoidable tensions and uncertainties that attend the pursuit of new knowledge, to acquire the patience and openness to reason that the apostle James lists among the characteristics of “wisdom from above” (James 3:17-18). In so doing a faculty united in the pursuit of a Christ-centered mission can help students embrace as their own a Christian faith that is mature, robust, and resilient, one able to thrive in a suspicious world.
The hope of strengthening such a community of Christian scholars and teachers has lain at the core of my decision making ever since I took up the office of Dean of Howard College of Arts and Sciences. The task has required strengthening procedures for recruiting faculty who are committed to advancing the mission, but that is only the beginning. Very few new-minted PhDs arrive on campus with the know-how to undertake the challenging intellectual program of faith integration. Far from facilitating such efforts, most graduate programs mirror my own in their utter neglect or outright opposition. Those Christian colleges and universities with the most success in faith integration maintain intensive, sustained programs of faculty development and support ongoing research into how to integrate faith and learning more effectively and to adapt such practice to fields where it has proven more challenging, such as STEM fields and some professional programs. I have enjoyed the privilege of working with talented members of my own administrative staff, the provost’s team, and a growing cohort of creative and engaged faculty in putting such a program in place here at Samford University.
The time has now come for me to shift roles in this process, stepping away from the administrative responsibilities of the deanship and taking up once again the sacred responsibilities of teaching and scholarship. I look forward to doing my part as a faculty member toward supporting my successor and practicing the integration of faith and learning in my own classroom for the first time in my career in higher education. I do so mindful of the perspective of Koheleth in Ecclesiastes, entrusting to my successor the things for which I “toiled under the sun” but are no longer my responsibility (Eccl. 2:18-19) and putting my shoulder to the wheel in my role as professor. I will do my part to encourage my colleagues not to distinguish between academics and the Christian mission, recognizing that a Christ-centered university can only excel when top-notch scholarship and top-notch teaching are united with rigorous pursuit of a vital life of faith.
I hope to pursue this conviction for the remainder of my career. When Paul prays that the Ephesian Christians “comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God” (Eph. 3:18-19) he does not write about a vague spiritual feeling or noncognitive sense, nor does he confine his hopes only to the prayer life of his believing readers. He wants them to “comprehend” and to “know.” To be sure, both terms entail an element of spiritual intimacy that cannot be reduced simply to intellectual knowledge and comprehension, but they scarcely exclude it. In their Pauline uses they encompass more besides—an experiential comprehension and a knowledge born of love.
New works of scholarship so pursued appear all the time. I recently completed Thomas Joseph White’s magisterial book, The Trinity, which models a lifetime of rigorous scholarship and constitutes a treasure trove of rich spiritual insights about God—insights that only came from White’s application of the methods of rigorous humanist research to dredge those nuggets out of the difficult writings of two thousand years of Christian thought concerning these lofty and weighty matters.4
The same soul of inquiry can animate excellent Christian scholarship and teaching in STEM fields as well. The beauty of a snowflake, whose structure is a result of complex molecular interactions taking place in widely variable atmospheric conditions—all of which we can only access and understand through rigorous study of mathematics, physics, and chemistry—also displays and directs our attention and devotion to the beauty of the Creator.
And as the Christian mathematician Francis Su has recently claimed concerning his own field of inquiry, the pursuit of disciplinary excellence in mathematics and the sciences yields far more than merely useful knowledge: it “cultivates virtues that help people flourish,” more fully reflecting the image and glory of the One who made them.5 These are just a two of small examples of millions of opportunities—from genetics to political theory to poetry—for both faith and learning to be exercised and developed together. I hope that under a succession of deans and faculty here at Samford University, a robust, organic union of faith and learning will both advance the boundaries of knowledge and deepen the faith of faculty and students in Jesus Christ, “in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” (Colossians 2:3).
- Paul Ricoeur, Freud and Philosophy: An Essay On Interpretation (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1977), 45.
- Keven J. Vanhoozer, Is There Meaning in This Text? The Bible, the reader, and the Morality of Literary Knowledge (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1998), 346–50.
- Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1964), 7-21.
- Thomas Joseph White, The Trinity: On the Nature and Mystery of the One God (Washington, DC: Catholic University Press of America, 2022).
- Francis Su, Mathematics for Human Flourishing, reflections by Christopher Jackson (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2020), 10; see also Su, “I Loved Studying Math. I Needed God to Show Me Why,” Christianity Today, June 12,2013.