Two Views: Essay on Faith & Learning

January 22, 2024

Earlier today, in my Humanities 101 class, I led a discussion of On the Nature of Things, by Lucretius.  In it, the Roman poet expounds his Epicurean philosophy, arguing that the universe is purely material; that the soul is mortal, dying together with the body; and that we should find this teaching consoling. It was an easy opportunity to ask students: What, if anything, can a Christian endorse in Lucretius’ account of body and soul?

Sometimes integrating faith and learning in the classroom is that easy.  But not always.  Some days I just want my students to consider why the Supreme Court reached a particular decision or the relative merits of having a single president as opposed to, say, Switzerland’s seven-member executive council.  On those days–which, frankly, are common–is there any integration of faith and learning going on?

I think there is, at two levels.  First, we should not underestimate the Christian essence of a liberal arts education, even when questions of faith are in the background.  Liberal arts education is not just about getting a job, or becoming well-rounded, or even producing good citizens.  It seeks truth.  And Christians believe that all truth is God’s truth.  When we seek truth, of any kind, we are always seeking to understand some aspect of God or his plan for creation.

Second, Christian liberal arts education rests on a kind of gamble: that, however far unaided reason may take us, our understanding of whatever we study will ultimately prove richer, deeper, and more adequate when we see with the eyes of faith.  St. Anselm famously said, “Credo ut intelligam” — I believe so that I may understand.  In every class we teach, again and again, we make the daring and exciting wager that by semester’s end, our students will see just a bit more clearly that Anselm was right.

Peter Meilaender
Dean of Religion, Humanities, and Global Studies;
Professor or Political Science

Peter Meilaender depicted in header image.

When we seek truth, of any kind, we are always seeking to understand some aspect of God or his plan for creation.

Peter Meilaender

Houghton English professor Susan Bruxvoort Lipscomb lecturing to her class.

…the Christian classroom invites use to an exploration of ideas that will be a mix of the admirable and the flawed…

Susan Bruxvoort Lipscomb

In her novel Adam Bede, Victorian novelist George Eliot (the penname of Marianne Evans) takes a chapter to explain why she writes complex characters with both admirable qualities and serious flaws. She responds to a hypothetical reader who wants her to “[l]et your most faulty characters always be on the wrong side, and your virtuous ones on the right. Then we shall see whom we are to condemn, and whom we are to approve.”

Eliot’s hypothetical reader has a lot in common with many of my students—especially those just starting college. Many of them come to me with categories of approval and condemnation. They would like their professors to help them sort ideas, activities and even people into those two boxes. But Eliot goes on to show where the desire for clarity can carry us. In the voice of her hypothetical reader, she says, “Then we shall be able to admire, without the slightest disturbance of our prepossessions; we shall hate and despise with that true ruminant relish which belongs to undoubting confidence.” Eliot responds to a reader who wants to be able to confidently admire, hate and despise by writing characters who are difficult to wholly admire and even harder to wholly hate.

This is also a Christian way of responding to a world of ideas that are both admirable and full of flaws. Jesus modeled this for us in his responses to people. When he sat down to a meal at the house of Zacchaeus, he broke apart one box that it would have been easy to drop Zacchaeus into: the box of condemnation. This is a task I attempt as a Christian teacher when I invite my students to critically examine what they are studying and invite them, instead of simply sorting ideas into the boxes of praise or condemnation, to try to understand them well. Jesus invites us to sit down at the table with those we are tempted to regard with contempt. In a similar way, the Christian classroom invites us to an exploration of ideas that will be a mix of the admirable and the flawed—just like the characters in a complex Victorian novel.

Susan Bruxvoort Lipscomb
Professor of English