“It is a triumph of science to have, in some degree, described the electron, and preposterous to suggest is has been explained.”
—Marilynne Robinson, The Givenness of Things
Faith integration is a task integral to the vocation of Christian education. It’s become a buzzword and identity marker: good Christian education means robust faith integration. Faith should find ways that intersect, weave into, and develop secular or human thought. William Hasker’s early definition has proven helpful: “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.”1 Such a definition proposes two spheres of knowledge: the human kind and the Christian kind. The integration exists in critiquing, connecting, or affirming the connections between the two spheres.
Central to the task of faith integration is the development of a Christian worldview. From the standpoint of worldview, we go into educational thought and practice able to “ascertain and develop integral relationships” between faith and human knowledge. Integration begins with developing a Christian philosophy to critique or connect or develop non-Christian sources.
While the worldview paradigm of faith integration is necessary, I want to advocate for a deeper, more basic orientation to the world than the modern conceptions of worldview can provide. Before worldview construction begins, we approach the world in a certain way. The posture of approach I want to suggest is a sacramental imagination. In sacramental imagination, learning is less a construction to be created and more of a gift to be discovered—even in unexpected places. The idea of sacramental imagination proposes that before we conceptualize or philosophize about something, we imagine it. Whereas worldview is compared to glasses that one puts on, a sacramental vision is like Lasik surgery that adjusts how we see the world before we put worldview glasses on. Because of the Fall and indwelling sin, we will always need to put the glasses on. But we also need a fundamental shift in how we approach the world. What I’m suggesting is a way of education that is a way of imagining the world before we know it.
Let me take a moment to define “sacrament.” The most popular definition of a sacrament comes from St. Augustine. He asserted that a sacrament is an outward and visible sign of an inward and invisible grace. In Protestantism, the sacraments include two things: baptism and the Lord’s supper. So, in baptism, we have water—an outward visible, thing—that signifies or points to the cleansing power of invisible grace. You are washed from your sins and made clean in Jesus Christ. The visible bread and wine represent the body and blood of Jesus who feeds the church with the grace of Himself. Though important in their materiality, one’s eyes are not focused on water, bread, or wine as the main thing; we are supposed to see through them to the grace that lies behind and beyond them. This idea of seeing through ordinary, visible objects to the sacred reality behind them is key to a sacramental vision. It’s my contention that when we cut out a sacramental imagination from the life of the church, we diminish our full understanding of the world. The world is full of wonder if we have eyes to see.
Because God creates all things, all things are infused with God’s presence. A sacramental understanding of the world is to affirm that “God reveals himself through created things . . . that God can speak through the things He created.”2 In other words, all things shine with light and splendor of God’s grace. The sacraments give educators a new vision of the world. To beckon Marilynne Robinson in the epigraph of this piece, you can describe an electron, but it’s foolish to say you’ve explained it. Robinson pointed out that scientists can describe the movements of electrons, how they function, their relation to protons and neutrons, etc. But electrons also invite wonder and mystery. Scientists can’t exhaustively explain electrons.
In the mystic tradition, nature is God’s book through which He can be contemplated indirectly. While God is most directly known through the Bible and the sacraments, God can also be known indirectly through the material and immaterial things He made. This view stems from passages like Psalm 19, which begins, “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork.” All of creation declares the glory of God. If that’s true, then every human subject declares the glory of God. Romans 1 reads, “For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse” (vv. 19–20). Even for the person who does not have the Scriptures, creation is singing out with evidence of God. If we contemplate creation—slowing down to see the beauty, power, and its divine nature—it can lead us to see the Creator. So, as one Eastern Orthodox writer put it, “It is to see God in all things and all things in God—to discern, in and through each created reality, the divine presence that is within it and at the same time beyond it. It is to treat each thing as a sacrament, to view the whole of nature as God’s book.”3 Everything you see and experience is God’s gift and grace to you, so that you may know and see God both in and through ordinary, material, and immaterial things.
Just as we see through the particular sacraments to the divine grace behind them, so all of created reality is revelatory—it reveals something about God. There is a shared holiness in created things as they share in their Creator. God creates with his imprint in a similar way that pottery bears the mark of the potter. Ordinary things are not to be enjoyed as ultimate but to be used in route to the ultimate enjoyment: God. God speaks through created things, which bestows worth, dignity, and a sense of holiness to those things—even ordinary things like a Tuesday math class or a dissected frog. St. Basil of Caesarea imagined the world as a school where we learn about God. He wrote that all creation is “the school where reasonable souls exercise themselves, the training ground where they learn to know God; since by the sight of visible and sensible things the mind is led, as by a hand, to the contemplation of invisible things.”4 A sacramental imagination invites such training.
A sacramental vision requires a shift in our fundamental approach to the world rather than simply articulating a Christian worldview. It encourages a re-imagination of what life is, and therefore, what the classroom space and learning environment is. In essence, as one sees through the ordinary means of bread, wine, and water to divine reality and grace to which they point, so teachers and students can see through subjects, disciplines, and lessons to the divine creator behind them.
The theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar diagnosed the modern culture as characterized by “a fateful loss of sight” in which “the light of Being no longer shines over the world.”5 In many ways, modern knowing attempts to purge God’s presence from creation and our view of reality (as if such a thing were possible). However, education is an occasion to see God as the light which enlightens everything—not just certain subjects, certain arenas, or certain things. The whole world is an epiphany of God. The particular sacraments are the unveiling of God’s glory hidden in water, bread, and wine, and when eyes turn toward other ordinary objects—a subject, a student, or a classroom—one has the vision to behold divine gifts for what they really are.
We can describe our discoveries as gifts, but we can never explain them. There is an inherent mystery and “more-ness.” By having this sacramental imagination, students can train their eyes to see the world shining like a gift to be discovered. God is still at work hiding and then revealing mysteries. Studying history, science, literature, engineering, or theology should lead you to understand that there is something more there, behind and beyond the subject. God doesn’t just fit in the gap of things we can’t understand but He infuses the whole enterprise. There is something like the mystery of existence—the sublime goodness and absurdity of it all. The restoration of sight requires a re-imagining of the world in which we live.
Education, then, becomes not just a lesson in what we know. Rather, a robust Christian education helps us to see and re-orientates us to how we imagine the world. As professors, we invite students into a world of wonder and awe, contemplation, and imagination. In other words, we introduce students to a world not just worth knowing but worth loving.
* This article takes several insights from my article in the most recent issue of Christian Scholar’s Review (Fall 2022), as well as excerpts from my forthcoming Learning to Love: Christian Higher Education as Pilgrimage (Beaver Falls, PA: Falls City Press, 2023).
- William Hasker, “Faith-Learning Integration: An Overview” in Christian Scholar’s Review 21, no. 3 (March 1992): 231.
- Leonard Vander Zee, Christ Baptism and the Lord’s Supper: Recovering the Sacraments for Evangelical Worship (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2004), 17.
- Kallistos Ware, “Ways of Prayer and Contemplation,” in Christian Spirituality: Origins to the Twelfth Century, Bernard McGinn and John Meyendorff, eds. (New York: Crossroad, 1985), 398.
- Basil of Caesarea, “Hexameron” in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, 2nd series, Bloomfield Jackson, ed. and trans. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1983), 8:52.
- Hans Urs von Balthasar, The Glory of the Lord: A Theological Aesthetics, vol 1. Seeing the Form (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2009), 624.