It is cliche at this point to observe that humanistic learning is declining in American colleges and universities, including Christian ones. There are new data points each year, but the conclusion is always the same: faculty positions supporting particular arts and sciences majors, such as classics, history, philosophy, etc., are being reduced. It is easy for those who care about this kind of learning to lose hope. How can the humanities survive the push toward technical degrees or withstand the demolition of a coherent body of knowledge from multiculturalism? It seems like a lost cause. Efforts to justify the humanities on intrinsic or utilitarian grounds are worth making and should be repeated, but they seem to have no effect or fall on deaf ears. The forces at work going in the other direction seem to be unstoppable.
Why does this matter? I’d like to argue that the loss of the humanities diminishes our knowledge of human persons and even God.
First, without the humanities, we learn less of what it truly means to be human. Therefore, we also learn less of what it means to be created in the image of God. A comparison of my own discipline of political science to humanistic disciplines will suffice. Let’s say we want to know about race relations in urban America. Most political scientists would seek that knowledge through empirical methods modeled largely on the natural science fields. These methods are sophisticated, precise, rigorous, and require years of training to master. The answers that flow from these methods usually take the form of generalizations about (in this example) disparities between white and African-American communities across the country in the areas of education, police brutality, and so forth. And to be sure, these conclusions can be very useful for the advancement of social scientific knowledge and even public policy formation.
By contrast, a humanistic approach to the topic of race relations in urban America would likely lead us to understand not what generalizations we can make from the outside about these communities but instead what kinds of narratives exist of people who actually live in those communities. This is what the humanities do at their best. They attempt to see human life from within and not from without. In this case, we might watch and study Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing, where we actually feel the (admittedly fictionalized) anger, heat, and tension between African-American, Italian-American, and police communities in 1980’s Brooklyn. Instead of learning about gentrification, we experience a depiction of it. Instead of learning about police brutality, we witness it depicted. And while artistic depictions can distort reality and deceive audiences, at their best they illumine the human condition in a way social scientists cannot.
The more universities and colleges abandon this second approach, the more we lose the ability to see human life the way we all experience it: as image bearers of God, in community with others, with narratives and histories that defy the disembodied calculations of the social scientist or data analyst. Therefore, for every diminishment of the humanities, we lose a piece of what it means to be human.
However, far more serious than the loss of the human being is that, if we diminish the humanities, we will lose some of our knowledge of God. This is more difficult to see and more controversial to argue. Probably the most oft-quoted passage from John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion is the following: “Our wisdom, in so far as it ought to be deemed true and solid Wisdom, consists almost entirely of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves. But as these are connected together by many ties, it is not easy to determine which of the two precedes and gives birth to the other.” In other words, because we are created in God’s image, we know ourselves better when we know God, and we know God better when we know ourselves.
In God’s great kindness to humanity, he revealed himself in both special and general forms. In historic terms, that special revelation is found primarily in the Scriptures and in the Son Jesus Christ. In general revelation, he reveals himself in his creation and most especially in human beings. And if, as I argue above, acquiring knowledge of human beings happens best when done from a humanistic point of view—that is, from a human point of view, from the inside—the less we engage in this kind of study, the less we will know of God.
To take the example of Do the Right Thing, we don’t learn simply that God is just in the character of Mookie (a flawed character, no doubt); we also learn what it’s like for God to be just, what it might feel like for God to stand up for what is right in the face of injustice (in this case, police brutality). This kind of knowledge is personal in that it transcends a cold, objective knowledge; it is more like the Hebrew word “yada,” which goes beyond a mere apprehension of something or someone, more like a lover’s knowledge of her beloved. This is the kind of knowledge God wants of us and that we should want of Him, and it is the kind of knowledge into which the humanities invites us.
It is uncontroversial to say that God’s revelation is sufficient for our salvation but is not exhaustive in its revelation of the divine nature. Given God’s infinite complexity and creativity, it only makes sense that it will take all of eternity to comprehend the nature of God. And yet, when we in the here and now get to read the great diversity of literature and history and philosophy, when we get to make friends with brand new people, and when we attempt to experience the human condition from within someone’s narrative (as difficult as that can be) —when we do all these things, we get to know a little bit more of who God is and what he is like.
While this final reflection is more speculative, its plausibility should push colleges and universities (especially Christian ones) to think twice about a headlong pursuit of the technical disciplines. Administrators surely do not have the time or luxury to consider these lofty thoughts while enrollments decline, labor markets change, and budgets tighten. Moreover, the Church of Jesus Christ does not ultimately rely on the health or existence of Christian colleges and universities. And conversely, if Alan Jacobs is right that the humanities may be dying in universities but not necessarily in the culture writ large, then maybe this is all a moot point (Jacobs, Trinity Forum conversation, July 10, 2020). But if the knowledge of the human person and even the knowledge of God are on the line, it’s worth asking what it is these institutions are preserving if this knowledge is lost.