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The Integration of Faith and Learning: Problems & Praxis

Gavin Richardson, Associate Professor of English, Union University, Jackson, TN

I teach literature.  For the professor at a Christian liberal arts institution with the mission of integrating faith and learning, the teaching of literature can be the easiest and most difficult endeavor on campus.  Take my world literature course, for example.  If I were so inclined, I could construct an entire syllabus consisting of explicitly Christian masterpieces: Biblical writing, Augustine’s Confessions, Dante’s Divine Comedy, Everyman, Paradise Lost, etc.  However, the reality of my syllabus is otherwise: Vergil’s Aeneid, Augustine’s Confessions, the Koran, Dante’s Divine Comedy, the Bhagavad-Gita, and the poetry of Li Po all have their place in English 201.  If Tertullian wondered what Jerusalem had to do with Athens, he really would have scratched his head over what Krishna had to do with Christ. 

But in teaching works both inside and outside Christian traditions, I opt for a generous interpretation of what it means to integrate faith and learning.  My proof text, Mark 12:30, has become a Christian higher education commonplace: “And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.”  I believe that various forms of intellectual inquiry, if properly motivated, can be pleasing to God because they develop the creative and intellectual gifts God has given us.  Such an integrative understanding can be used in the sciences as well as the humanities.  How is solving a differential equation integrating faith and learning?  The simple answer is that pursuing a goal with excellence is pleasing to God, as Luther’s exemplum of the priestly milkmaid reminds us. 

Of course, sometimes questions of integration in the literature classroom are more challenging.  From time to time I’ve had conversations with high school seniors considering my institution as their college choice.  On one occasion a prospective student remarked, “I really want to major in English at a Christian college because at other schools I’m concerned about being made to read things that don’t square with my faith.”  Her comment reveals significant differences of opinion regarding what it means to study literature at a Christian university.  I responded by saying that, if she majored in English at my institution, I could not promise her that that she would never read a profane word, or encounter a passage in literature that presented values different from her own. I strive to respect the beliefs and standards of my community, but most often I do so not by choosing different content from other institutions, but by providing a different context for its discussion.  If students are reading Flannery O’Connor at Vanderbilt and Rhodes, I don’t think I’m doing my students a service if I omit her from my syllabus due to the foul mouth of the eponymous character in “Parker’s Back,” or the racist vision of Ruby Turpin in “Revelation.” (If you can’t read O’Connor at a Christian school, where can you read her?)  I tell my freshmen what I told this prospective student: that to read works such as “Parker’s Back” simply for the thrill of luxuriating in forbidden language is different from reading “Parker’s Back” and speculating on what the story says about the nature of conversion, about the Pharisaical attitudes of some believers, and about the way in which Christ’s assertion that he did not come “to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance” might play out in contemporary times. 

A generous definition of the integration of faith and learning also serves to guard against “ghettoizing” the integration of faith and learning on my syllabus.  I must admit that, when a new faculty member, I had constructed syllabi in which weeks 13 and 14 were labeled “Integration of Faith & Learning” weeks—periods during which we read works dealing specifically with matters of religion.  While I still assign some of the same texts, I’ve stopped labeling certain weeks in my syllabus in such a self-conscious way.  I recognized that what I was doing was not really integrating faith and learning into my course; it was separating them—“ghettoizing” them into distinct, walled off sectors of the semester.  The word integration has, at its root, the Latin simplex integer, which means “whole.”  To borrow a metaphor from racial integration, my Faith & Learning weeks were “separate but equal”—integrated only in an 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson sense, not in a 1954 Brown v. Board of Education sense.  Shortly after making this realization, I placed my syllabi under a desegregation order.  If weeks 13 and 14 were the integration weeks, what did that label imply about the other 90% of the course?   

I removed such labels from my syllabus and felt my approach more genuinely integrative, though with an unexpected negative effect.  Portions of my course evaluations suffered.  I teach at an institution where the course evaluations include the question, “How well did the instructor integrate faith and learning?”  When the labels were on the syllabus, students were more aware of my integrative approach; when they were removed, students couldn’t recognize my methodology as well.  Indeed, some senior faculty advise junior faculty to use these kinds of signposts with students, and there may indeed be some virtue in them.  But for me, the labels proved problematic to my vision for the course.  I have no easy remedies for the student evaluation effect; suffice it to say that I spend some time at the beginning of the semester explaining what the integration of faith and learning means to me, and I hope that students come to recognize in more subtle yet powerful ways that the integration of faith and learning can, and should, amount to more than token weeks on a syllabus, and that courses of study which are not explicitly religious can still be brought to bear on one’s spiritual life.  I hope my students come to live the advice of the 12th century theologian and mystic Hugh of St. Victor: “Omnia disce, videbis postea nihil esse superfluum”; “Learn everything; afterward you will find that nothing has been superfluous.” 

"The way to be confortable is not by having our barns filled, but our minds quiet."
-Thomas Watson, 17th century English, non-conformist, Puritan preacher