Christians Need the Liberal Arts Now More Than Ever | Sojourners

Christians Need the Liberal Arts Now More Than Ever

From 'The Seven Liberal Arts.' Francesco Pesellino. 1422-1457 Florence, Italy. 

Are the American people equipped to muster the political, moral, and spiritual resources necessary to sustain our republic during an unprecedented public health crisis? Is there a stockpile of social and political virtue, stored-up over the years, that we can draw upon during this pandemic? What are we supposed to be doing and how do we learn how to do it?

This semester I taught three sections of a course called "Created and Called for Community." The course introduces first-year Messiah College students to the kinds of questions that liberally educated people ask about themselves and the world. As a Christian college, we consider such questions in the context of our shared religious faith. What does it mean to be created in the image of God (Genesis 1:26-27) and how does this belief in human dignity shape our approach to public life and creative work? What does it mean to live in community as friends, as neighbors, as citizens, as Christians? What is the vocation of an educated person and how do we discern God’s specific calling on our life? We think about these questions in conversation with scholars, writers, and activists such as Stanley Hauerwas, Ernest L. Boyer (a Messiah alumnus), John Henry Newman, Alice Walker, James Weldon Johnson, J.R.R. Tolkien, St. Augustine, Martin Luther King Jr., Robert Putnam, Robert Frost, Desmond Tutu, Dorothy Sayers, Plato, and the writers of the Old and New Testament scriptures.

Since this is a required course, and Messiah College has several well-enrolled professional programs, my classes are filled with students majoring in business, education, nursing, and engineering. Messiah’s general education core also requires all students to take over 50 credits in fields such as history, science, math, English, modern languages, theology, the arts, philosophy, social science, and rhetoric. Created and Called for Community is designed to teach students, at the outset of their college experience, how to make meaning of texts, express their ideas in clear prose, and reflect on the importance of the Christian liberal arts.

Recently, in our unit on vocation, we read "I Resolve to Become a Jungle Doctor," chapter nine of Albert Schweitzer's autobiography Out of My Life and Thought (1933). Schweitzer chronicles his decision, at the age of thirty, to leave a promising career as a New Testament scholar and accomplished organist to pursue a life as a medical doctor in Africa. His pledge to serve humanity, informed by his Christian faith, would take him beyond the comforts of his “happy” middle-class life in Germany. His story both inspired and challenged my students.

After watching a short video lecture on Schweitzer, students discussed this reading on online discussion boards. Some students wondered if following God’s call meant that they had to become a missionary, pastor, or global relief worker. Schweitzer’s call to “become a jungle doctor” made them uneasy. Though they admired his decision to devote his life to providing medical care in Africa, and they praised Schweitzer’s criticism of European colonialism, they were quick to argue that not everyone is called to such a life of sacrifice.

My students felt much more comfortable with the vocational thinking of Martin Luther, the Protestant reformer who taught that God is pleased by all work that serves others and the created order. They thought about college as a place to prepare for specialized work as lawyers, filmmakers, teachers, and accountants. Service to humanity is important to them, but so is economic success and security.

All my Luther-inspired students were quick to explain how their future careers could be employed in the service of others. Nurses serve the medical needs of their patients. Businesspeople bring economic vitality to towns and neighborhoods. Engineers strengthen the local, state, and national infrastructure. Professional training and skills-based higher education will enable them to simultaneously pursue an American dream of relative prosperity and advance the common good. The message conveyed on the discussion boards was clear: One does not need to go to Africa to be a good Christian or make a meaningful contribution to society. Whew!

But what makes a job a calling? Such transformations only happen when students integrate their understanding of work with the questions raised by the liberal arts. The church and the larger society need thoughtful Christians to engage the world responsibly. Such action must be guided by a love of neighbor and a thirst for justice. Yes, job-preparation is important, but college is also a time to feed the mind and the soul, build-up the intellectual and spiritual resources necessary to deal with life’s challenges, and practice the kind of faithfulness, strength, courage, clear-thinking and compassion needed in times of crisis. College is a time to nurture empathy, seek wisdom, learn discernment, think contextually, exercise prudence, cultivate reason, and contemplate the complex nature of the human experience.

A nurse can learn how to insert an IV tube in a patient's arm, but how will he develop the fortitude to enter a room filled with people suffering from infectious diseases? A medical doctor may know how to operate on a patient or prescribe medicine, but how does she decide who dies and who lives when ventilators and other essential equipment are at a minimum? A politician may know how to win elections, but where does he find the inner strength to offer hope in anxious and uncertain times? A successful businessman understands how to make money, but where does she learn to serve the common good during a pandemic? Engineers build things, but what motivates them to volunteer their expertise in the construction of a make-shift hospital? How do we sift through the array of COVID-19 information that endlessly crosses our screens? How do we know who to trust?

Some might say that the study of American history, sociology, religion, literature, ethics, statistics, physics, or musicology is irrelevant when people are dying from this terrible virus. This is one of those subjects where Christians and unbelievers share common ground. They tell us that this is a time for practical skills, not abstract theories, or academic luxuries. But such a view is wrong. We need the liberal arts now more than ever. Those who study these subjects, and wrestle with the questions they raise, are pursuing a high and useful calling. If the United States is going to get through this pandemic, and if the church is going to lead the way in a responsible fashion, we need more Christians who can remind us what is good, what is beautiful, what is heroic, what is just, and what is true.