What are universities for? The answer one gives to this question will depend on what one sees as the role of education more generally. Education, from the Latin “educare,” has to do with leading a student out of the darkness of ignorance into the light of truth. Learning has fundamentally to do with illumination. My alma mater, the University of Oxford, has as its motto “dominus illuminatio mea” – “the Lord is my light” – which is taken from the Biblical passage of Psalm 27 verse 1. It is a deeply historical part of the Christian tradition to found institutions of learning in view of the fact that the Creator of the wide and wonder-filled world has entrusted humanity to explore, enjoy, and engage this world – and a most necessary way to carry out this task is to educate ourselves about it.
An immediate implication of Ps. 27.1 is that the Lord – who he is, what he has to say – can and ought to illuminate our education. The Lord who is our light illumines our path as we navigate this wild, often wearying, and wonderful world. Being in relationship with our God is critical to our learning well. Education is an extension of our devotion; and education further results in bringing about a world aligned with the purposes of its Creator. So perhaps this triad amounts to something like a Christian view of education: illumination, integration, impact.
In classical terms (for example for Aristotle), technê, or craft, is something done for the sake of some other end: e.g., the technique used in medicine for the end of making someone healthy; the technique used in shipbuilding for the end of building a ship; etc. Whereas praxis, or action, is done for its own sake: e.g., playing a flute for the sound it makes. This distinction between making and acting helps to clarify another distinction important to Aristotle: that between technê (craft) and aretê, or virtue, where virtue is the having of a certain disposition for acting. To pursue and possess a virtue, i.e., an excellence or mastery of an art, is to have a certain (proper) disposition to act. The distinction carries over to today’s usage of the terms, for example, of a “technical institute,” which trains students in specific trades or crafts or techniques, and a “liberal arts college,” which focuses on training students to master various arts or disciplines, mastered for the sake of becoming fully flourishing human persons. And this training, for us Christians, simply means becoming the kind of being God intended us to be: beings made in the image of God (Gen. 1.27), imitating Christ “who is the image of the invisible God” (Col. 1.15).
So a liberal arts education is education wherein students learn about and take on certain dispositions of acting – the virtues, the arts – which are attendant to a life that is liberated to flourish in the human goods: hence, liberal arts education. In other words, liberal arts education is about learning to flourish according to what it means to be human. Again, in view of our last lecture, we see how education and devotion, word (logos) and worship, are intertwined: worshipping is an integral part of what it means to flourish; therefore, a liberal arts education is essential to a life well-lived which in turn is requisite to a worshipful life. What does this mean practically? What does worshipful liberal arts learning look like? It is learning built on faith; it is learning to think through all of the academic disciplines – psychology, political science, sociology, nursing, and the rest – Christianly, Kingdomly, Biblically.
Why Christian liberal arts? … well, liberal because we want an education, which hones in on and hones the arts, which in turn frees us to be as fully human as possible; and Christian because we realize that the ideal educational method for humanity maps onto and makes use of the Christian theological worldview, which takes seriously how humanity is actually made and what we are made for.