Utilizing the essays of Marilynne Robinson, this paper provides an alternative model to faith integration. Rather than a worldview approach, I argue for a sacramental imagination that helps re-enchant and reinvigorates the educational task. As opposed to two separate spheres of knowledge—human knowing and divine knowledge—a sacramental imagination via Robinson sees the divine reality in and through human knowledge. Alex Sosler is assistant professor of Bible and ministry at Montreat College.
One of the primary recoveries of the Protestant Reformation was a return to the centrality of the Scriptures; the liturgy centered on the Bible preached, sung, read, and recited. With the revolution of the printing press and the primacy of letters, the Reformation spurred on new movements of education and learning. However, an unintended consequence is that Protestantism became cerebral. This emphasis on Bible teaching trickles down into schools and universities whose primary way to discuss faith-integration is in the realm of ideas and worldviews. “Worldview,” as popularly defined by James Sire, is “a commitment, a fundamental orientation of the heart, that can be expressed as a story or in a set of presuppositions…that we hold…about the basic constitution of reality, and that provides the foundation on which we live and move and have our being.”1 Even if a worldview is unquestioned or assumed, it can be condensed to a set of beliefs through evaluation and articulation.2 A Christian worldview becomes the baseline wherein students can begin to critique other worldviews.3
While valuing the necessity of worldview construction, this way of faith- integration is limited. Before any worldview is cognitively developed or evaluated, there exists a precognitive imagination of the world. If a worldview is the glasses with which one sees the world (to continue the ocular metaphor), a sacramental vision can be akin to Lasik surgery. It gives the educator new eyes to imagine the world rather than a set of beliefs. Protestant Christianity tends to have become so absorbed in the Word to the neglect of the sacraments.4
In her ontology and anthropology, Marilynne Robinson’s sacramental vision of education encourages a different posture toward faith-integration. Rather than a purely “idea” conception of faith-integration, educators need a new way to imagine the task of education. I want to consider Robinson’s philosophical foundations, including a critique of the modernist stance on faith and learning. I will then move to a robust understanding of a sacramental education which leads to a unique approach to the world before concluding with a few re-orientations to education and pedagogical distinctives.
Two paradigmatic quotes from Marilynne Robinson’s essays are essential for discussing a sacramental education. In The Givenness of Things, she suggests, “There is no art or discipline for which the nature of reality is a matter of indifference, so one ontology or another is always being assumed if not articulated.”5 Whether or not one provides a handout describing a view of reality when teaching, a metaphysic is latent within the task. Education assumes an ontology. The task before us is to define a Christ-shaped reality necessary for Christian education; Robinson helps educators do so.
The second quotation comes from her series of essays, What Are We Doing Here?, where she states, “How we think about ourselves has everything to do with how we act toward one another.”6 These two statements from Robinson—one ontological, one anthropological—will frame an understanding of sacramental education. An educational philosophy includes both ontological and anthropological elements, whether or not conceptualized. What Robinson provides is a way to think about existence and one another that is oriented around the sacredness of Christ.
In Charles Dickens’s Hard Times, Professor Gradgrind labels his students as numbers rather than names and refers to them as “little pitchers” ready to be filled with information.7 The vision has a distinct view of personhood. James K. A. Smith describes modern educational anthropology as “brains-on-a-stick.”8 Are we practical training computers or instruments needing fine-tuning in the classroom? Are students on the right path but need a little guidance, or can they even be trusted to find the path? Are teachers reliable guides? Marilynne Robinson suggests that how we think about these questions has everything to do with how we will treat each other in education.
Ontology and anthropology; reality and people; classroom dynamics and students—these are the elements of education that need to be carefully considered. Before discussing how Robinson encourages educators to view the task of education, what is the reigning paradigm of Christian education today? That is a broad question with diverse answers, but I want to propose preliminary reflections on today’s faith and learning conversation.
The prevailing idea of faith-integration in Christian education is that subjects are not integrated. It is the teacher’s job to see the intellectual landscape of their discipline and critique the secular, while giving a nod to the truth of the secular as God’s truth and noticing the connections between faith and secular knowledge.9 In The Idea of a Christian College, Arthur Holmes posits four approaches to faith- integration.10 First, the attitude approach deals with the posture and motives of Christian educators. Faith-integration means exhibiting fruits of the Spirit and being motivated by the love of God. Second, the ethical approach is how faith integrates into the way teachers do their job (i.e., don’t cheat or lie, have integrity, be kind). Thirdly, the foundational approach to faith-integration evaluates the philosophical foundations of a given discipline. How does theology interact with or correct the foundations of, say, the scientific method? Lastly, the worldview approach has gained prominence as a popular approach to faith-integration in the intervening years. In this approach, faith-integration means assessing ideas or theories by a Christian or biblical worldview. One forms a worldview through theological reflection, biblical analysis, etc. Then one takes this worldview to secular domains and subjects to see how the biblical worldview integrates (or fails to integrate) in an area of human knowledge.
The counselor, David Powlison, may provide an interesting case study in the field of psychology. In an article on modern psychotherapies, Powlison provides three epistemic priorities for counseling. The first is establishing a theory by biblical truth. Psychologists need a biblical foundation regarding worldview questions: Who are humans? How do we know? What’s wrong with humanity? The second priority is to correct and critique secular theories. Since Christian psychologists have a grounding in biblical truth, they can clearly see the errors and misgivings of secular theories. Lastly, the third priority is to learn from secular sources.11 These priorities plot out the intellectual landscape of psychology. It starts with worldview, then critique, and then perhaps secular approaches can teach us something about methodology or provide an insight into one’s biblical foundation. But if or when the Christian community confuses these, according to Powlison, Christians lose their prophetic voice. If biblical truth is lost, we have nothing distinct to say; Christians can merely repeat what culture says and add some Christian principles behind it.
Summarizing the prevailing models, one of the most popular definitions of faith-integration comes from William Hasker. He defines faith-integration as “a scholarly project whose goal is to ascertain and to develop integral relationships between the Christian faith and human knowledge, particularly expressed in the various disciplines.”12 Such a definition proposes two spheres of knowledge: humankind and Christian kind. The integration exists in critiquing, developing, or seeing the connections between the two spheres. Centered in this conception is worldview language, where ideas are transferred or weaved together, or where worldview is central, and all else flows from thought. The goal here is that once one sorts out all his or her ideas regarding Christian faith versus human knowledge, they will have completed the task.
In terms of ontology, inherent is the idea of a sacred/secular divide. How much sacred should blend into the secular subject? Where does the sacred fit? How can we weave it in or tack it on? These questions assume a sacred realm where God matters and a secular space that is “neutral.” This understanding speaks to the modern milieu: separation of secular and sacred, intellect and will, faith and learning. Or, as Robinson realizes, “There is a deeply rooted notion that the material exists in opposition to the spiritual, precludes or repels or trumps the sacred as an idea.”13 Underlying this idea is that if a thing can be explained or studied with the scientific method or physical process, the spiritual is nullified. In sum, there is a conflict between the sacred and secular that needs ironing out. The spiritual is threatened by the advance of science, and the religious folk are holding on to dogma and tradition when they should be advancing and progressing.
Or, operating from a “God of the gaps” theory, educators instruct in all the secular ways, but one gets to a place where no explanation is possible, perhaps a mystery, then God can fit into that “gap” where, as Robinson suggests, “the light of science has not shown.”14 But this development makes the sacred space smaller and smaller as we discover more and more. If God is only in the unproven or unknown questions, what happens if or when we discover the answers? When we can discover most things, what use is God? God gets written over and blacked out. Charles Taylor calls these “subtraction stories” where religious belief is left after the subtraction of secular truth.15
Faith-integration functions somewhere along this divide. Some scholars will argue there is a greater divide—educators need to develop a Christian worldview to critique the secular space, as Powlison suggests; a worldview where special revelation is primary. Other scholars will lean closer to an “all truth is God’s truth” understanding where learning in the secular sphere is sufficient in and of itself, and they can add some Bible verses to prove the secular point in common grace. Wherever one leans, it’s within an imagination that includes the dominant divide of sacred and secular. In Robinson’s terms, that’s the assumed ontology.
Regarding the modern understanding of students—or how we view each other relating to how we treat each other—by and large, I agree with James K. A. Smith’s diagnostic where he describes the modern conception of students as big heads on stick-figure bodies.16 Students are pitchers that need to be filled up with the right ideas, and when they have the right ideas, Christian morality or praxis will flow. In short, one needs better ideas, and a Christian worldview produces better ideas. Ideas are how people change, and if people change, culture changes. Conversion happens in the mind. Thus, worldview has played a central role in Protestant education.17 Christian discipleship and education are about getting the right ideas into people’s heads: the right worldview or truth. If students believe the right things, then we’ve accomplished the task because all else flows from thought: values, morality, and action.
To conclude the discussion of modern ontology and anthropology, Robinson writes about the educational environment. She suggests, “I wish only to say one more time that the rationalistic arguments that claim to winnow out the implausible and the meaningless by applying the flail of common sense are the products of bad education. Religions are expressions of the sound human intuition that there is something beyond being as we experience in this life.”18 There is something beyond being. In other words, there is nothing ordinary: our internal thought life, the fact that we exist, the colors of leaves in the fall, the sheer spectrum of colors—these all push us to the beyond. As Robinson writes, the question then turns to: Are we open to the “inarticulable richness concealed in the garments of the ordinary?”19 And how can education prepare us to see?
Marilynne Robinson offers a contrasting path forward from the modern conception in the faith-integration conversation. Rather than a sacred/secular divide, in her notion, all things are infused with God’s presence. Or, as Reverend Ames, the fictional Iowan minister who plays a prominent role in the novel Gilead, states toward the end: “But the Lord is more constant and far more extravagant than it seems to imply. Wherever you turn your eyes, the world can shine like transfiguration. You don’t have to bring a thing to it except a willingness to see. Only who could have the courage to see?”20 The world can shine with divine transfiguration if we have eyes to see. Seeing depends on how one views ontology and anthropology, and the sacraments give educators a new vision of both.21
The sacraments—baptism and the Lord’s Supper—are popularly in the Catechism of the Book of Common Prayer (1662) and are “an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace.” The sacraments are a physical, material object that points to an invisible, spiritual reality. In his Christian Platonist leanings, Hans Boersma extends the sacraments beyond their meaning in baptism and the Lord’s Supper. For him, “…everything around us is sacramental, in that everything God has created both points to him and makes him present.”22 All things share in the life of God, and therefore, every created thing is sacramental. This sacramental understanding of the world affirms that “God reveals himself through created things…that God can speak through the things he created.”23 Key to a sacramental vision is an understanding of this reality: God reveals himself through created things. There is shared holiness in created things, but they shine like transfiguration when used rather than enjoyed. This Augustinian distinction is key to how one interacts with the world of things. Just as one sees through a particular sacrament to the divine grace and reality behind it, so Robinson encourages readers to see through ordinary objects to the divine. Ordinary things are not to be enjoyed as ultimate but to be used en route to the ultimate enjoyment, God.
In such a way, there is a pedagogical use in sacramentality—that is, sacraments teach us something about God. Through baptism and the Lord’s Supper, we do not project meaning upon the material elements but draw out the meaning latent within. Material reality is holy because God speaks through it rather than God is in it. The particular sacraments are the unveiling of God’s glory hidden in water and bread and wine. Then when eyes turn toward other ordinary objects—a subject, a student, a classroom—one has eyes to behold transfiguration in the words of Reverend Ames. The sacraments are pedagogical for a sacramental imagination.
As mentioned in the introduction, whereas a worldview is often compared to the glasses one puts on to evaluate ideas, a sacramental vision may be compared to Lasik surgery. Due to the fallen nature of humanity, educators will always need to put their worldview glasses on, but they also require a fundamental shift in how they position themselves to see in the world. Whereas the worldview focuses on what one knows, a sacramental vision refers to how one sees—in essence, its focus is on the aesthetic below and beyond the rational. Robinson provides the educator a way of sensing the world before we know it. In the typical worldview paradigm, teachers deliver the metanarrative: God created the world good, so there’s much of culture that is good and worth praising. But through the Fall, human culture tends toward evil and waywardness. In every endeavor and subject, things are broken and need fixing. Christ comes to the world to save sinners and redeem culture. God is beginning to put right the brokenness of the world.
Furthermore, God invites us into the task of re-creation or new creation. He wants to do more than merely heal the world; he is making the world new. And so, whatever our subject or vocation, he’s inviting us to participate with him to renew culture. A sacramental education does not want to say less than this truth but more.
The sacramental vision is the foundation of faith-integration before the conscious construction begins. Thus, a sacramental vision is more like a social imaginary than a worldview or set of beliefs. Perhaps it is the space between imagination and posture. I’m not suggesting educators merely change the way we think with better ideas but that the sacramental vision encourages a re-imagination of the classroom space and learning environment. A sacramental vision requires a shift in the fundamental approach to the world rather than ideas tacked on at the end of a lesson. It differs from worldview because, in a worldview, it is the conscience structures of a life, whereas vision is the landscape wherein one begins construction. In essence, as one sees through the ordinary means of bread and wine and water to divine reality and grace to which it points, so too teachers and students can see through subjects and disciplines and lessons to the divine creator behind them. The sacraments provide a pre-cognitive shift by beholding.
The theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar diagnoses the modern culture as characterized by “a fateful loss of sight” in which “the light of Being no longer shines over the world.”24 In many ways, God’s presence has been purged from creation and our view of reality in the modernist conception. However, Robinson indicates that education is an occasion to see God as the light which enlightens everything—not just certain subjects or certain arenas or certain things. This notion can be labeled as a sacramental vision where the whole world is an epiphany of God.25
In The Givenness of Things, Robinson proposes, “It is a triumph of science to have, in some degree, described the electron, and preposterous to suggest it has been explained.”26 One can describe how an electron moves and how it relates to neutrons. In the same way, one can describe the sacraments but can never explain them. There is an inherent mystery and “more-ness.” And by having this sacramental imagination, teachers then have eyes to see the world shining like transfiguration. Robinson’s quippy sentence should go with Christian educators in the classroom: we will describe phenomena or an event or story, but we do not explain it. We cannot. Studying history or science or literature or theology should lead the reader to understand that there is something more behind and beyond the subject. God doesn’t just fit in the gap but infuses the whole enterprise. There is a mystery of existence, the sublime goodness and absurdity of it all. The restoration of sight requires a re-imagining of reality and personhood—ontology and anthropology.
Robinson draws from Dietrich Bonhoeffer and John Calvin to portray the sacredness of existence. While Bonhoeffer is awaiting his death in a German prison, he writes theological treatises to his friend and love letters to his fiancé. In essence, even when death is at his doorstep, he’s still teaching and learning, connecting and loving. Robinson refers to the effort of Bonhoeffer as “to actualize the sacred, that is, the relationship of love, the ground of shared understanding.” She then shares two essential ideas from Bonhoeffer’s life and subsequent death: “First, that the sacred can be inferred from the world in the experience of goodness, beauty, and love; and second, that these things, and, more generally, the immanence of God, are a real presence, not a symbol or foreshadowing. They are fulfillment and promise, like the sacrament, or the church.”27 These two ideas—sacredness as goodness and beauty and love, and the immanence of God as a real presence (particularly intriguing language that strangely warms my Anglican heart)—are two ideas at the heart of a sacramental vision.
The conception of the nearness of God centers on the incarnation: God has come near to us in Christ, so one can expect God to be near in all things. Robinson writes, “To properly value this pledge of fervent love, the Incarnation, we must try to see the world as deserving of it—granting our almost perfect incapacity for seeing how God sees.”28 Such a sentiment echoes the likes of Saint John of Damascus, who wrote: “Because of [the incarnation], I salute all remaining matter with reverence.”29 In the past month, my neighbor brought over caterpillars turning into chrysalides, which will eventually turn to monarchs before migrating to Mexico. She let us watch the different stages, and when I say “us,” it was mainly for my children. But I watched with child-like wonder. Did you know a chrysalis has gold flakes? I’m sure some scientist can describe why that is or what function it serves, but they’ll never explain it (to hearken back to Robinson’s distinction). God is more playful than I typically imagine him. This was just one object lesson outside my discipline where my experience of something “nonreligious” was infused with the holy and sacred, where something ordinary turned into a real presence. The chrysalis was not divine grace, but it taught me to see through and beyond to the divine. This kind of learning is what Robinson encourages and what theology should help us see: “A theology for our time should help us to know that Being is indeed the theater of God’s glory.”30
Moving from Bonhoeffer to Calvin, Robinson refers to the latter on the subject of “secular” learning. Robinson posits, “Divine Wisdom has the character of revelation. As it emanates from God, it also reveals him. As we are able, within radical limits, to perceive and understand it as wisdom, we are participants in it. This ontology precludes all conflict among the varieties of knowledge.” In other words, when one receives Divine Wisdom, he or she participates in it. Robinson continues elaborating from Calvin, “Lately I have been turning my thinking to- ward the ontological Christ, the Christ-presence in Creation. Calvin says, ‘Were it not that [Christ’s] continued inspiration gives vigor to the world, everything that lives would immediately decay or be reduced to nothing.”31 Robinson is re- positioning educators’ eyes onto Christ and reimagining reality as Christ-haunted and Christ-saturated. She is echoing Paul’s Christ hymn in Colossians 1: “For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him, all things hold together” (Col. 1:16–17). If Christ is latent within all things, and therefore all subjects, then that should affect how one imagines their discipline and teaches in the classroom. With eyes that see, every class is an opportunity to receive the Wisdom of God.
Since reality is sacramental, human beings take a special place in this sacred existence. Another idea that is strikingly clear in Robinson’s writing is this: the mind or soul is a sacred thing. The body may be made of material parts or chemical components, but there is something about a person that is more than the material. This “beyond” or “more-ness” is central to a sacramental imagination, and this reality will have everything to do with how we treat one another. Marilynne Robinson quotes the Puritan John Flavel, who says, “The soul has in itself an intrinsic worth and excellency, worthy of that divine Original whence it sprang: view it in its noble faculties, and durable powers, and it will appear to be a creature upon which God has laid out the riches of his wisdom and power.”32 In short, our students are multi-dimensional, wholistic souls who love. To reduce teaching to the transfer of ideas reduces them to cognitive receptacles. Robinson has sought to care for her own mind (or what another generation might have called “care for the soul”) and her own thinking, knowing the “luxuriant flowering of the highest possibilities.”33
For Robinson, the idea of soul is rooted in a Christ-centric reality. Since Christ is central to reality, Christ is the central element of the humanity God made. She writes, “It implies Jesus is the defining instance of this essential humanity. Christ is central ontologically, and what I have called humanity is ontological, as well, profoundly intrinsic to Being because he was in the beginning with God, and with- out him, nothing was made that was made.”34 Whereas the modern imaginary is to reduce human beings to their simplest components, Robinson seeks to enlarge our imaginations. Everything—and therefore every person we encounter—is a means of grace.
Such an understanding of the soul has ethical implications. In an essay on Darwinism, Robinson suggests, “The Judeo-Christian ethic of charity derives from the assertion that human beings are made in the image of God, that is, that reverence is owed to human beings as such, and also that their misery or neglect or destruction is not, for God, a matter of indifference, or of merely compassionate interest, but is something in the nature of sacrilege.”35 Here again, she ties the view of students to how we treat them. If students are merely chemicals or organic matter, it doesn’t matter how they are treated. However, if they are image bearers, to imagine them differently is sacrilege, according to Robinson. Teachers are obligated to their students in this religious scheme—not professionally encouraged or economically tied—but morally obligated. If students are brains centered around a worldview, teachers teach by information. But if students are complex image bearers—both dignified and depraved—then teachers shepherd students with care. As Parker Palmer indicates, the root word for “truth” is the German “troth” or “trust.”36 Charity then should define the task of teaching, learning, and knowing.37
To summarize this sacramental section, Rebecca Painter connects ontology and anthropology in her comments on Reverend Ames. She writes, “As an example of someone entirely serious about being human and fully aware of the mystery and demanding nature of God, it would be difficult to outdo Rev. Ames, who encounters a hauntingly credible prodigal son who challenges his moral seriousness.”38 In essence, a deep understanding of the mystery of God spills over into charitable dealings with others. If reality is sacramental, then we ought to be open about uncertainty in ourselves and others. Particularly in Reverend Ames’ case, that means the difficult reality of being charitable to his godson, Jack. In our case, perhaps that means the difficult, defiant, or perpetually absent student. Who can know what God is doing?
In the sacramental landscape, one sees before they know. We relate to the world in a certain way before one places cognitive truth. Here, Robinson adds layers to the metanarrative of faith-integration. Before students can cognitively plot out their intellectual commitments, there is a way of relating to truth. Sacramental sensing is a precognitive activity: something like intuition. James K. A. Smith calls it “habits of perception,” which can be another way to say imagination.39
A Reorientation Toward Education
With a sense of the philosophical and sacramental, how does this change the way one teaches or learns? First, I suggest that sacramentalism begins in the church. There needs to be a renewed dialogue on the church’s central location to Christian institutions. So often, church is an afterthought to the Christian college, or perhaps a place for students after they leave the confines of campus.40 But if colleges and universities want to develop sacramental see-ers, then they need to see the sacraments in their context: the liturgy of the church. As Catholic theologian Michael Himes points out, “The whole Catholic sacramental life is training to beholders. Catholic liturgy is a lifelong pedagogy to bring us to see what is there, to behold what is always present, in the conviction that if we truly see and fully appreciate what is there…we will be encountering grace.”41 In other words, reality is tinged with the divine because the sacraments help the church see. Through bread and wine and water, the church sees through the ordinary elements to the God behind them. From these special, local, primary grace vehicles, the church is sent back into the world to reimagine all ordinary and everyday things. The sacraments are the first pedagogy students get for a sacramental vision.
The church, as such, can be seen as the training ground of the soul. In the church’s sacraments, we see the One who gave himself not for a school or institution or students in general but for each living person, and so re-enchants and reinvests in personhood—not numbers or statistics or pitchers, but human beings for whom Christ died. In so doing, it strengthens the heart to learn to love. Having been nourished by the bread and wine, we go into the classroom and offer nourishment to others. Educators gain a new vision that leads to sacrifice.
However, it is important to highlight those who see in Robinson’s novels—and what they are blind to. In Gilead, Reverend Ames had eyes to see Jack’s situation and be sympathetic to him. But he did not have the courage to see how the historically abolitionist town could welcome an interracial marriage. In Jack, Della has eyes to see Jack’s soul, but her whole family sees a degenerate bum—the same way Jack sees himself. The world can shine like transfiguration if we have eyes to see, but we also must ask through Robinson’s fiction: what are we blind to? What don’t we have the courage to see? Gilead ends with a prayer of Reverend Ames for his son: “I’ll pray that you grow up a brave man in a brave country. I will pray you find a way to be useful. I’ll pray, then I’ll sleep.”42 Bravery or courage is necessary to see rightly and to act properly. In seeing sacramentally in the church, educators and students cannot assume they rightly see. This truth is one reason why communal education is important. Teachers and students need diversity in the classroom to see clearly.
Second, schooling needs to consider the imaginative lens, along with its content and curation through worldview development. The Reformed theologian and philosopher Calvin Seerveld advocates for the importance of the imagination in schooling. He defines good teaching as “teaching which captivates students and opens them up to God’s world and his mighty acts in history…[one] fascinated by one’s own material who is himself or herself a ‘captivating’ teacher, that is, one able to stir the imagination of students.”43 By doing so, the first step of a good aesthetic educator is a personal one: do you still find the wonder of your subject? One must pursue education allusively—alive to the fact that there is more there than meets the eye, as “an outgrowth of one’s own enriched imaginatively.”44 In another place, he describes an aesthetic education nurturing students who walk down the street open to the fact that God is still up to his marvelous tricks, cajoled into wonder at what meets the senses and the nuances therein, expectant about what they are experiencing. Teachers who cultivate this aesthetic imagination love their subject and their students in a bond of trust.
Love leads to the third feature of a sacramental vision. So often, in Christian educational contexts, the emphasis is on knowing, and if someone knows the right things, living will follow. But St. Augustine is instructive as he wrote, “For when we ask whether somebody is a good person, we are not asking what he believes or hopes for, but what he loves.” Or in another place, “Whoever, therefore, thinks that he understands the divine Scriptures or any part of them in such a way that [his interpretation] does not build the double love of God and of our neighbor does not understand [the Scriptures] at all. Whoever finds a lesson there useful to the building of charity, even though he has not said what the author may be shown to have intended in that place, has not been deceived, nor is he lying in any way.”45 What Augustine says of the Scriptures can be extended to any learning endeavor: any knowledge is valuable only when charity informs it. A sacramental vision pushes the learner beyond the concepts to the reality behind the divine reality or the divine author or the divine student. How they treat a text or subject is in a profound way how they are treating God. As such, it’s not merely an educational obligation to learn but a moral one: learning as a way or means to love God and neighbor. Our main posture of study and teaching would be charity rather than critique.
Lastly, there must be a pedagogical difference between worldview faith- integration and sacramental faith-integration. First, a sacramental imagination encourages a contemplative gaze for subjects rather than objective mastery. In today’s university, the common goal is to “master” a subject through distanced objectivity. If one has affection for a subject, that’s a sure sign of subjectivity and care. These postures hinder one’s approach to arriving at truth. Worldview analysis positions the learner in a sort of distanced gaze at a subject or author. The observer attains objectivity through analysis like a scientist. However, a sacramental imagination invites care and return. Rather than one look at a subject or text and making a worldview analysis, this latter posture invites care and returns—like a psychologist asking many questions from several angles, a farmer knowing its land, an entomologist looking at the same insect again and again, or a literature professor reading the same novel. Each of these returning to the same thing over and over begins to see new realities they did not once see. Novelty is often found in the same thing seen through a new lens rather than the pursuit of originality.
This understanding leads to a practical pedagogical example distinguishing worldview and sacramental imagination. On a few different occasions, I show Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ in class. Serrano’s large photograph features a cheap crucifix in a yellow-orange tint. The light shines and exemplifies the crucifix in a sort of golden light. If “piss” was not in the title, one may think it is a religious artwork. Garnering controversy from its first exhibition in 1987, this piece can be run through a worldview analysis. In James Sire’s popular conception, evaluating a worldview includes the following eight questions: What is prime reality? What is the nature of external reality? What is a human being? What happens to a person at death? Why is it possible to know anything at all? How do we know right and wrong? What is the meaning of human history? What personal, life-orienting core commitments are consistent with this worldview?46 The first impulse is to call this blasphemy: it puts a crucifix in the artist’s urine. Shut and closed case. This includes a prime reality of nothingness and meaninglessness—the artist cannot be judged by God because God has been defiled. There is no right or wrong. Typically, this is evidence of a postmodern worldview and art: provocation. One can discern why it was condemned so harshly. In many ways, it should be.
However, a sacramental imagination invites the viewer to take another look. Art is difficult to run through a worldview filter because like life, there are more questions than answers. When we boil down a work of art to a sentence of world- view, we miss the latent and complex meanings. In an interview in The Guardian, Serrano said, “What it symbolizes is the way Christ died: the blood came out of him, but so did the piss and the shit. Maybe if Piss Christ upsets you, it’s because it gives some sense of what the crucifixion actually was like…”47 This reality is surprising. Serrano sees his work as a Christian work (which is up for debate). Or one interpretation could be that the urine does not contaminate Christ, but Christ sanctifies the urine. In essence, a sacramental imagination encourages creative thinking rather than purely critical thinking. It looks to see what an artifact can teach us even if it first offends. It cultivates humility and patience.
In a sacramental vision, all the goodness, beauty, and sacredness are already there latent within a subject; the educator’s job is to help notice it. Quoting lines from Gerard Manley Hopkins, Michael Himes says, “These things, these things were here and but the beholder/Wanting.” Nothing changed but the “beholder.”48 In the new paradigm of faith-integration, teachers are training “beholders”—or to use words from Robinson, cultivating courage for eyes to see. The sacred is already there. The teacher and the student—the beholders—need to be willing to change.
If the beauty of God lies in and through and beyond all things and if humanity has a universal appetite for God, then the teacher’s task is stoking the appetite and laying out the feast. While educators cannot make students eat, they can set the table. Educators cannot afford to be indifferent toward reality. Indifference leads to apathy and exploitation. Christian people need (and have) the resources to care deeply and widely. A sacramental imagination invites a posture of care for the world.
- James Sire, The Universe Next Door (Grand Rapids, MI: InterVarsity Press, 2009), 20.
- Another definition of worldview is “a conceptual scheme by which we consciously or unconsciously place or fit everything we believe and by which we interpret and judge real- ity.” See Ronald Nash, Worldview in Conflict: Choosing Christianity in a World of Ideas (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1992), 16. Here, the “set of beliefs” remains primary.
- The notion of a single “Christian worldview” has been critiqued in recent years. See Roger E. Ebertz, “Beyond Worldview Analysis: Insights from Hans-George Gadamer on Christian Scholarship,” Christian Scholar’s Review 36 (Fall 2006), 13-28, as well as Matthew Bonzo and Michael Stevens, eds., After Worldview (Sioux Center, IA: Dordt College Press, 2009), and Jacob Alan Book, Worldview Theory, Whiteness, and the Future of the Evangelical Faith (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Academic, 2021).
- Charles Taylor calls this “excarnation.” Whereas historic Christianity was “incarnated,” he argues that the Protestant tendency is excarnation. He defines it this way: “the steady disembodying of spiritual life, so that it is less and less carried in deeply meaningful bodily forms, and lies more and more in the head.” See Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Boston, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2007), 771. This royal road to truth is led by reason.
- Marilynne Robinson, The Givenness of Things (New York, NY: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2015), 5.
- Marilynne Robinson, What Are We Doing Here? (New York, NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2018), 143.
- Charles Dickens, Hard Times (New York, NY: Penguin Classics, 2013), 3.
- James K. A. Smith, You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit (Grand Rapids, NY: Brazos, 2016), 3.
- The assumption is also that the original learning or culture failed to rightly show “faith,” so now it’s the educator or students’ job to find it. For more of this critique, see Todd Ream and Perry Glanzer, The Idea of a Christian College: A Reexamination for Today’s University (Eu- gene, OR: Cascade, 2013), 55ff.
- Arthur Holmes, The Idea of a Christian College (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishers, 1987), 67ff.
- David Powlison, “Cure of Souls (and the Modern Psychotherapies).” Journal of Biblical Counseling 25.2 (Spring 2007). If this was my theory, I would swap priorities two and three. As Glanzer and Ream have noted, “Christians also spend quite a bit of time critiquing the culture perhaps because they have spent so much time in Bible schools and seminaries learning to critique instead of more time in the university learning to create.” See Ream and Glanzer, The Idea of the Christian University, 60.
- William Hasker, “Faith-Learning Integration: An Overview” in Christian Scholar’s Review XXI:3 (March 1992): 231.
- Marilynne Robinson, When I Was a Child I Read Books (New York, NY: Harper Collins Publishers, 2012), 9.
- Ibid., 10.
- Charles Taylor, A Secular Age, 77-79.
- Smith, You Are What You Love, 3.
- See James Davison Hunter, To Change the World (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2010), 24-26.
- Robinson, The Givenness of Things, 212.
- Ibid., 223.
- Marilynne Robinson, Gilead (New York, NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2004), 245.
- James K. A. Smith offers a similar critique of worldview formation in Desiring the Kingdom (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2009). In his argument, his basic premise is that we are liturgical beings, and we are formed by our habits. While sympathetic to this line of argumentation, I wish to push Smith’s argument further. In essence, he says that worldview is necessary but insufficient. He pushes the formation further to habits. I am wishing to say more and go deeper than habits or worldview: namely, the sacraments.
- Hans Boersma, Scripture as Real Presence: Sacramental Exegesis in the Early Church (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2017), 1.
- Leonard Vander Zee, Christ, Baptism, and the Lord’s Supper: Recovering the Sacraments for Evangelical Worship (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2004), 17.
- Hans Urs von Balthasar, The Glory of the Lord: A Theological Aesthetics. Vol 1. Seeing the Form (San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press, 2009), 624.
- See Alexander Schmemann, For the Life of the World (San Francisco, CA: St. Vladamir’s Press, 2018), 120.
- Robinson, The Givenness of Things, 222.
- Marilynne Robinson, The Death of Adam (London, UK: Picador, 2005), 122.
- Robinson, The Givenness of Things, 201.
- St. John of Damascus, First Apology Against Those Who Attack the Divine Images. Trans. David Anderson (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1980), 23.
- Robinson, What Are We Doing Here?, 49.
- Robinson, The Givenness of Things, 144, 145.
- Quoted in Robinson, What Are We Doing Here?, 208.
- Ibid., 209.
- Robinson, The Death of Adam, 47-48.
- Parker Palmer, To Know as We Are Known: A Spirituality of Education (San Francisco, CA: Harper & Row, 1983), 31.
- For more on charity and education, see Alex Sosler, “The Prodigal Love and a Hermeneutic of Charity: How Grace Changes Learning.” Pro Rege 58, no. 3 (March 2020).
- Rebecca Painter, “Loyalty meets prodigality: the reality of grace in Marilynne Robinson’s fiction.” Christianity and Literature 59, no. 2 (2010): 329.
- James K. A. Smith, “Healing the Imagination,” Image Journal (Spring 2021) Vo. 107: 3.
- See Alex Sosler, “What is Christian Higher Education For?: Assessing Various Teleological Priorities at Selected Liberal Arts Institutions,” (EdD diss., Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, 2018), 115-116, 140-141.
- Michael Himes, “Finding God in All Things: A Sacramental Worldview and Its Effects,” in As Leaven in the World: Catholic Perspectives on Faith, Vocation, and the Intellectual Life, ed. Thomas M. Landy (Franklin, WI: Sheed & Ward, 2001), 91-104, 100.
- Marilynne Robinson, Gilead, 247.
- Calvin Seerveld, Rainbows for a Fallen World: Aesthetic Life and Artistic Task (Toronto: Toronto Tuppence Press, 2005), 139.
- Ibid., 153.
- Augustine, On Christian Teaching, trans. by R. P. H. Green (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), 30.
- Sire, The Universe Next Door, 22-23.
- Jonathon Jones, “Andres Serrano on Donald Trump: ‘I never speak ill of people who’ve posed for me,” The Guardian, April 3, 2016.
- Himes, “Finding God in All Things: A Sacramental Worldview and Its Effects”, 100.