The primary goal of a liberal arts education is to aid students in developing practical wisdom. By introducing students to foundational knowledge from a wide array of academic fields and exposing them to multiple ways of interpreting that knowledge, a liberal arts education guides students toward becoming critical and nuanced thinkers who can gather, reflect on, and evaluate information. At its best, such education forms students to create new knowledge that improves upon and corrects existing knowledge in the ongoing human quest to better grasp what is true, good, and beautiful.
A Christ-centered liberal arts education is differentiated from a secular liberal arts education by providing the teachings and example of Jesus Christ as the touchstone for discerning what is true, good, and beautiful. Providing this foundation is critical because it forms students’ character in a way that secular liberal arts cannot.
This is not to suggest that a secular approach to liberal arts cannot catch glimpses of the true, good, and beautiful. Secularism is not capable of restraining the Holy Spirit from prompting the human desire to seek after these. However, this exploration is undercut by the secular endeavor’s lack of a teleology outside of self-interest. As St. Augustine observed when explaining how the Trinity is reflected in the ability of the human mind to remember, understand, and love itself, “This trinity of the mind is not really the image of God…[until] it is also able to remember and understand and love him by whom it was made. And when it does this it becomes wise. If it does not do it, then even though it remembers and understands and loves itself, it is foolish.”1
Borrowing the words used in many university commencement ceremonies, students’ purpose in studying the liberal arts rarely extends beyond a desire to enjoy “the rights, privileges, and responsibilities appertaining” to the bestowal of their degrees. These rights and privileges usually take the form of a wider horizon of job opportunities and a higher earning power. It is true that they may desire to do some good along the way, hoping to make the world a better place as they seek their own benefit, but that is ancillary. Secular schools understand this and market themselves accordingly. They point to the percentage of students who graduate and land high-paying jobs thanks to alumni connections, internship opportunities, and the school’s name recognition. In the end, this anemic telos taints the enterprise of secular liberal arts education, turning it into nothing more than a means to a selfish end that does not benefit the human quest for the good, true, and beautiful.
This selfish telos finds a sympathetic host in our late modern culture that eschews the call for normative moral standards in the pursuit of the good, true, and beautiful in favor of protecting fragmented aspects of human life, which it rebrands as “identities.”2 This results not only in secular liberal arts being reduced to a means for a selfish end, but also the curriculum being developed to provide apologetics for lionizing these fragmented identities. History, philosophy, literature, and even theology are taught through the refraction of sociological categorizations, giving students the capacity not only to pursue selfish interests but to fend off any effort to call them to a vision of serving something beyond their chosen identity. At its most extreme, secular liberal arts devolve into a process of intellectual deconstruction by only teaching students how to analyze and critique without giving them the tools to construct something new. This offers a real life example of what Lesslie Newbigin explained in his lectures on secularism (compiled into the book Honest Religion for Secular Man, 1964), when he stated that secularism lacks an affirmation to sustain it amidst its work of negation.3
This is an ironic realization given that the assumption of secularism is that explicitly espousing religious faith narrows a person’s perspective. In fact, it is a secular approach that limits not only the curriculum a person studies but the character of the person who is studying it.
A Christ-centered liberal arts education does not limit the knowledge or viewpoints available to study because, to pick up on Newbigin’s language, it establishes an affirmation in the person of Jesus Christ. This is the same Jesus that the Nicene Creed teaches was “begotten, not made, of one essence with the Father by whom all things were made…And he shall come again to judge the living and the dead, whose Kingdom shall have no end.” As such, it does not fear encountering anything that is in the world because all the world is Christ’s. It came into being through Christ and will be restored in the end by Christ. That which has been corrupted can be redeemed, and that which is simply evil has no final power to overthrow the good. As such, the Christian liberal arts education need not be moralistic or prudish but can explore all facets of human knowledge knowing that its telos is grounded in Christ and his Kingdom. As E. Stanley Jones explained, this is what Paul meant when he wrote “all are yours in Christ” (Christ at the Round Table, 2019).4
The Bible offers a picture of how we can do this through the Wisdom Literature. It exhorts those who would be wise first to recognize the sovereignty and glory of God and then to reflect on the nature of the world. In doing this, the wise person is prepared to face the world as it is, in all its complexity. Ecclesiastes offers perhaps the clearest representation of this, contrasting just the effort to generate more publications to submitting the search for knowledge to the purpose of honoring God:
Of making many books there is no end, and much study wearies the body.
Now all has been heard;
here is the conclusion of the matter:
Fear God and keep his commandments,
for this is the duty of all mankind.
For God will bring every deed into judgment,
including every hidden thing,
whether it is good or evil. (Ecclesiastes 12:12-14, NIV)
St. Gregory Palamas would later link this perspective to the spiritual disciplines, especially prayer, in The Triads. He explained that knowledge is good the same way that hemlock is good. If hemlock is plucked, crushed, and prepared properly, it can be medicinal.5 So also can all human knowledge be engaged and used if we properly prepare it through the mind of Christ. We do this by first quieting ourselves before God in prayer so that the Holy Spirit will direct our minds. Then, with the light of the Spirit guiding us, we are ready for our academic pursuits. To do otherwise would be to lift human ingenuity over spiritual guidance, and that would quickly fall afoul of a selfish telos.
This is why, as Perry Glanzer contended, even a telos that suggests a liberal arts education is a means of imparting tools to make the world a better place ultimately cannot stand.6 While this might seem an effective middle-ground between a Christ-centered liberal arts education that focuses on serving Christ and his Kingdom and a secular liberal arts education that only focuses on deconstruction, it still is premised on human insight and effort. No matter how well-intentioned, it would ultimately fall short of God’s eschatological purposes in Christ. It might produce some good for a time. In the end, though, it would collapse under the self-interested desire for human praise as surely as the Roman Empire did.7
There is need for a Christ-centered liberal arts education in our culture of fragmented identities today. One of the practical results of being able to discern the good from the evil is the ability to avoid vilifying those who disagree with us or hold to different convictions than we do. This neither honors the teaching of Christ to love even those who persecute us, nor does it grant us the capacity to build a strong civil society. A primary witness that Christians can offer the world today is a recognition of the dignity and value of everyone that we encounter regardless of how vehemently or hatefully they may disagree with us. We can do this because we see them as the whole person God created them to be and because we recognize that our purpose is not to win in some contrived zero-sum game between them and us. Rather, our purpose is to honor Christ by reflecting his Kingdom through loving God and our neighbor. That is practical wisdom that not only recognizes but witnesses to others what it means to participate with the good, true, and beautiful.
The hope for those teaching in a Christian liberal arts college would be to help form students who can be such witnesses for Christ in the public square. These students would impress others with their wide-ranging knowledge on a variety of topics, their refined ability to appreciate the true, good, and beautiful no matter what the topic is, and their gracious way of treating those who are their interlocutors. The hope would be to help form witnesses who persuade not only with their insight but also with how they love others as they share what they know. In doing so, students become welcoming beacons for others to likewise seek first after Christ and his Kingdom.
- Augustine, The Trinity, Book XIV, Ch. 4, ed. John E. Rotelle, trans. Edmund Hill, (Hyde Park, NY: New City Press, 1991), 383
- For a much fuller development of this idea, see Perry L. Glazner, The Dismantling of Moral Education: How Higher Education Reduced the Human Identity (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2022). <https://rowman.com/ISBN/9781475864946/The-Dismantling-of-Moral-Education-How-Higher-Education-Reduced-the-Human-Identity >
- Lesslie Newbigin, Honest Religion for Secular Man (Philadelphia, PA: Westminster Press, 1966), 38.
- E. Stanley Jones, Christ at the Round Table (New York: Abingdon, 1928), 327.
- St. Gregory Palamas, The Triads (New York: Paulist Press, 1983), 28.
- Perry L. Glanzer, “Is Jesus Irrelevant to Our Defense of Liberal Arts Education?” Christian Scholars Review August 16, 2021, <https://christianscholars.com/is-jesus-irrelevant-to-our-defense-of-a-liberal-arts-education/>.
- Augustine discusses how the Roman Empire was able to “bridle its baser passions” for a while because of its overarching desire for human praise and glory. However, ultimately, he demonstrated that this was insufficient because it simply led to an ever-increasing need for human acknowledgement that caused Rome to decay from the inside by taking it ever further from the eternal purposes of God. Augustine, The City of God Against the Pagans, Book V, Ch. 13, ed. and trans. R. W. Dyson, (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 213.