Most students who identify themselves in some way as “Christian” have not considered the intersection of faith and learning to a large extent. Most attend a public or secular school and do not think much about the relation of their faith to what they are learning, except in rare occasions where faith explicitly is raised for a topic of discussion, as may be the case in a religion course, or perhaps when evolutionary theory is discussed in a science course. Many of those more serious about faith will learn in a more explicitly Christian environment. These individuals often will not be exposed to or pursue the best of mainstream knowledge. Both of these approaches are fairly extreme, and leave out the possibility of an intersection between the best of faith and learning.
Cornelius Plantinga discusses how Christian students could approach education in his book “Engaging God’s World.” In general, Plantinga notes that “those who follow Christ must bring all the parts and passions of their lives – including education – under the Lordship of Christ.” In other words, Christian students ought to take seriously the idea that part of Jesus’s primary commandment is to love God with all of their minds. There may be no better place to do so than in school.
In fact, Plantinga notes in his book that:
“. . . learning is. . . a spiritual calling: properly done, it attaches us to God. In addition, the learned person has, so to speak, more to be Christian with. The person who studies chemistry, for example, can enter into God’s enthusiasm for the dynamic possibilities of material reality. The student who examines one of the great movements of history has moved into position to praise the goodness of God, or to lament the mystery of evil, or to explore the places where these things intertwine. Further, from persistent study of history a student may develop good judgment, a feature of wisdom that helps us to lead a faithful human life in the midst of a confusing world. And, of course, chemistry and history are only two samples from the wide menu of good things to learn.”
Perhaps part of the reason why so many Christian students do not seek a full engagement of their minds in school is because they believe that all truth comes from the Bible. Christians believe that “all Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting, and training in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3:16). However, no where does Scripture teach that the Bible is the only source of reliable knowledge. For instance, I don’t know anywhere in the Bible to investigate the biochemical causes of schizophrenia, but that doesn’t mean there is no way to reliably study this.
Another possible reason why so many Christian students struggle in school is because of a fear of being proven wrong in their spiritual convictions. Thus, many will seek to take courses, read books, and hang out with people that only reinforce what they believe, rather than to challenge greater thought and development. This is why it is so important that young Christians receive good instruction in apologetics, the defense of the faith, so that they are intellectually grounded. Although it is valuable to be around others with whom we differ, it also is important to be in a Christian community of those with similar beliefs to receive support and to be able to bounce new ideas off of others.
Another aspect of education for the Christian is to discover and prepare for their spiritual callings in life. The notion of a calling basically refers to a summons to do something for someone besides one’s self. Or, as Fredrick Buechner said, a calling is “the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meets.” School is an excellent place to investigate what constitutes one’s deep gladness by taking a variety of courses and pursuing one’s interests. It also is an excellent place to investigate where the world is in need of help.
In seeking a calling, Plantinga suggests that individuals consider a variety of questions: (1) Where in the kingdom does God want me to work?, (2) Where are the needs great? (3) Where are the workers few?, (4) Where are the temptations manageable? (5) With whom would I work? (6) How honest is the work I’m thinking of doing? (7) How necessary and how healthy are the goods or services I would help provide? (8) How smoothly could I combine my proposed career with being a spouse, if that’s also my calling, or a parent, or a faithful child of aging parents? (9) How close would I be to a church in which I could give and take nourishment? (10) Is my proposed career so corrupt that, even with the best intentions, I would end up absorbing a lot more evil than I conquer?”
A calling also may transcend the domain of work. It is possible to pursue a calling as a spouse, parent, volunteer, friend, or caretaker. Here as well, school may help, as it may promote skills that would not have been as attainable without study.
Finally, in his book “Love God with All Your Mind,” J. P. Moreland suggests that most individuals in Western culture – particularly Christians – manifest an “empty self,” as demonstrated by seven traits: (1) Extreme individualism, (2) immaturity, (3) narcissism, (4) passivity, (5) an overly sensate focus, (6) lack of concern about the development of an interior life, and (7) a life of hurry and busyness. Moreland suggests that education should help individuals – especially Christians – to develop themselves beyond these culturally based leanings. In other words, as Richard Foster puts it in his classic book, “The Celebration of Discipline”:
“Superficiality is the curse of our age. The doctrine of instant satisfaction is a primary spiritual problem. The desperate need today is not for a greater number of intelligent people, or gifted people, but for deep people.”
Pursued rightly, school is a place to seek this kind of depth, and thus to glorify God with one’s mind.