Liberal arts: the term designated for the education proper to a free person (Latin liber, “free”) as opposed to a slave. (Merriam-Webster dictionary)
“So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.” John 8:34-36
Although the concept of a liberal arts education has existed for over fifteen hundred years, the way scholars describe its purpose continually changes. The most recent method of justifying the liberal arts focuses upon the need to develop individual “capacities” that society finds useful. Claiming that a liberal arts education enhances human capacities that serve society, whatever they may be, offends no one and appeals to everyone.
I often find Christians defending a liberal arts education joining this type of justificatory chorus. They may become a bit more specific about the capacity, but the appeals remain safely general. History, they contend, enhances our capacity for empathy. Philosophy improves our capacity for critical thinking and taking new perspectives. And the general defenses go on and on in this manner. Strikingly, these defenses avoid theological references in favor of general reasons they hope will appeal to everyone (or at least a wide range of future students).
In the current context, however, I contend that Christians should spend less time trying to defend a liberal education by appealing to random human capacities that need to be enhanced in order to serve society. Instead, when Westerners no longer share Jewish and Christian assumptions about human personhood we need to recover the uniqueness of distinctly Christian liberal arts education justifications. We need to remind everyone that our liberal arts justifications need Jesus.
A Christian defense of a liberal arts education must begin with the type of specificity that will prove offensive to many contemporaries. The reason is that our understanding of what comprises a liberal arts education stems from our different narrative. If a liberal arts education is indeed the education for a free person, a Christian vision of a liberal arts education must begin and end with the Christian theological narrative that reminds us who we are, what it means to be a slave, and the liberating arts that help one become free.
Who Are We?
For Christians, an education for the free person must rest on a particular understanding of freedom and personhood that does not descend into vague generalities about human capacities. The Christian story reveals that we are made as free, dependent human beings in the image of God. God created us with the potential to fulfill that image by acquiring particular forms of God’s capacities.
First, and most importantly, we are to demonstrate virtues, including God’s love, justice, forgiveness, faithfulness, wisdom, etc. These are the virtues demonstrated by Christ, “the image of the invisible God” (Col. 1:15a) that we are called to imitate. This kind of virtue acquisition is how the early architects of the university justified their liberal arts approach. For instance, Hugh of St. Victor contended the liberal arts are particularly meant
to restore within us the divine likeness, a likeness which to us is a form but to God is his nature. The more we are conformed to the divine nature, the more do we possess Wisdom, for then there begins to shine forth again in us what has forever existed in the divine Idea or Pattern, coming and going in us but standing changeless in God.1
The best theory in any field seeks to unpack God’s hidden wisdom.
Second, we are to learn to create in the same way that God created. If there is anything that is clear about who God is when the term “image of God” is introduced in Genesis 1, it is that God is a creator. As image-bearers we are to create in ways that honor God and promote human flourishing. The liberal arts should be the tools we provide that help that creation.
Third, as God is revealed to us through different identities (e.g., potter, shepherd, teacher, friend, lover), so we are created to develop excellence in various identities (friend, neighbor, professional, spouse, steward of natural creation (including our own bodies) and human culture (including money), etc.). The liberal arts we teach should help us achieve excellence in those identities.
Overall, the essence of the liberal arts is that they are God’s gifts for amplifying our God given capacities to restore us closer to our original purpose—to be image bearers of God. The random development of our capacities without attention to God’s story and our identity and purpose within that story cannot be a true liberal arts education.
What It Means To Be a Slave
To be a slave is to be bound by sin. Of course, sin takes many forms (individual, structural, etc.) and thus slavery takes many forms. In fact, it can even take educated forms that are amplified by what are traditionally called the liberal arts. Augustine famously recalls how his early “liberal arts” education merely amplified his enslavement. He wrote about his teaching from ages 19 to 28 in the Confessions, “[W]e were seduced and we seduced others, deceived and deceiving by various desires, both openly by the so-called liberal arts and secretly in the name of a false religion, proud in the one, superstitious in the other, and everywhere vain.”2
“So-called” accurately describes these “liberal arts.” In this situation, the supposed “liberal arts” prove powerful instruments for enhancing misdirected desires that result in pride, envy, lust and more. Seeking knowledge for its own sake can become an idol. Intellectual virtues developed for a career can serve an individual’s interest in power and prestige. Even moral virtues, as Augustine wisely observed, become corrupted by pride when one believes that they are achieved through one’s own efforts.
In particular, Augustine lamented, his lack of gratitude to God for the ability to be able to understand the various arts:
Whatever was written in any of the fields of rhetoric or logic, geometry, music, or arithmetic, I could understand without any great difficulty and without the instruction of another man. All this thou knowest, O Lord my God, because both quickness in understanding and acuteness in insight are thy gifts. Yet for such gifts I made no thank offering to thee. Therefore, my abilities served not my profit but rather my loss…
As Augustine found, acquiring expertise in the “so-called liberal arts” can merely amplify our pride, ingratitude, and enslavement.
The True Liberal Arts
Thus to gain true freedom to fulfill the image of God, we first need the education that leads us to freedom from sin. In other words, the first set of liberal arts that every Christian needs includes conversion and worship. Oddly, I have never read of a Christian who calls conversion or worship liberal arts. I find that astounding. Instead, we call our Christian colleges, “liberal arts” because they teach something associated with the seven (or more) older liberal arts (e.g., mathematics, music). We have fallen prey to pagan culture. In truth, for Christians every Church is a purveyor of these two key liberal arts.
This recognition would help us overcome the current Christian intellectual snobbery that often pits us against our blue collar brethren (in fact, I would argue one of the major failures of the Church and Christian higher education this past half century has been the neglect of our blue collar brothers and sisters). We need to acknowledge that true freedom and excellence as a human being can only come through Christ who paid the penalty for the sin that makes us slaves and reconciles us to God. Everyone needs these liberal arts. Furthermore, a liberal art is anything that helps us then reverse the effects of the fall in the world.
Yet, too often churches understand freedom from sin and the reversal of the fall as the ends of the Christian life. They fail to forget that even within creation before the fall, God created us to develop into a fuller image of God. In creation, humans were still meant to acquire God’s virtue, demonstrate God’s creative capacities, and achieve excellence in their identities as spouses, parents, stewards of creation, men and women, and more.
Thus, the second set of liberal arts are those capacities that help us achieve those three ends established in creation. Again, the liberal arts should not simply be a list of seven subjects handed down from 1500 years ago and taught in certain kinds of colleges (although they often include those). The liberal arts are any discipline and any particular capacity that helps us not only find freedom from sin and reverse the fall but also helps us fulfill our original three capacities established in creation.
The importance of the triune God when establishing this creation-oriented set of liberal arts especially involves two areas. First, in response to and through the power of the Holy Spirit, we acquire the fruit of the Spirit that is necessary to guide our lives and our wisdom acquisition. Thus, a true liberal arts education involves following the example of Christ and acquiring and demonstrating humility (Phi. 2:1-7). It should be no surprise that the Proverbs state, “The fear of God is the beginning of wisdom” and “with humility comes wisdom.”
Part of this humility extends to recognizing that a Christian liberal arts education should enhance our practice not only of work-related forms of excellence but also other forms of human excellence unrelated to vocations for which one earns a living. A Christian liberal arts education should provide students, the church and humanity insight into what means to be an excellent Christian, neighbor, enemy, son/daughter, spouse, citizen, steward of culture (especially money) and nature, women/man, and much more.
The creative capacities of humans are especially important here. A basic exposure to sociology can help one become a good neighbor and learning developmental psychology can help one be a good parent. The problem with most general education courses is that they fail to connect the knowledge they provide to improving one’s capacities in ways that develop students’ fundamental identities. General education should help one pursue excellence in multiple areas of life.
Second, the common moral dilemmas most of us face are not figuring out what it means to be a good engineer, nurse, lawyer or accountant or even what it means to be a good citizen, although we certainly face some of those issues as we pursue excellence within a particular specialization. Instead, our major life dilemmas, as the Christian tradition has long taught, involve figuring how to order our loves and identities.
How do we prioritize a good professional with being a good parent, spouse, son or daughter, citizen, friend, neighbor, member of the human race and lover of God? What do we do when our efforts to be a good friend conflict with our efforts to be a good spouse? Or what happens when being a lover of God conflicts with what the culture tells us the good citizen or good professional should do? Christian higher education should provide students the type of critical thinking to help them with these identity conflicts that one will be engaged in throughout life. Balancing excellence without idolatry in multiple identities requires God’s wisdom.
Said differently, the fundamental basis for a Christian liberal arts education should be excellence without idolatry. By idolatry, I simply mean the worship of any created thing. When our pursuit of excellence in any field or the development of any human capacity becomes an object of worship it enslaves us. The education we pursue to obtain excellence then transforms into slavish education. This understanding of a Christian education recognizes that every developed human capacity can be used for fallen ends, and only when we pursue excellence in the liberating art of conversion, worship, and love for God can someone properly undertake an education for the free person.
The job of the Christian college and university should be to offer a liberal arts education for the whole person and thus provide students wisdom about how to order our overall loves and identities and be excellent in them. It starts with an education from the Liberating Artist, the Triune God that requires learning the liberating arts of conversion and worship that nurture loving gratitude and obedience to Jesus. Our foundation for a liberal arts education needs Jesus. This foundation provides an education for the free person, the pursuit of manifold excellence without idolatry not only in a particular academic vocation, but in all the other vocations where we seek to be image bearers of God.