Christian Liberal Arts Education
In his poem “Praise”, George Herbert speaks of God’s design for human beings.
Of all the creatures both in sea and land
Only to man Thou hast made known Thy ways,
And put the pen alone into his hand,
And made him secretary of Thy praise.
According to Herbert, this secretarial work is priestly, because the praise is offered on behalf of the rest of the creation, which is mute and so incapable of praising without help.
Man is the world’s high priest: he doth present
The sacrifice for all; while they below
Unto the service mutter an assent,
Such as springs use that fall, and winds that blow.
Therefore, Herbert says, when we “refrain” from praising God, we not only withhold the praises that we owe to Him, but we also rob the creation of its ability to praise its Creator, making us guilty of “a world of sin” in one act of reticence.
Herbert didn’t invent the idea that human beings are made to be priests for the world. It is an idea found in the first chapters of Genesis, where we learn about the creation of human beings. Adam and Eve are made to fill a mediatorial function in the world. They are the ones who stand between, being made both of the dust of the earth and also of God’s own breath. They are created to represent God’s helping presence to one another and to the world, which they can do both because they have God’s breath within them and also because, unlike God, they are consubstantial with the world, being bone and flesh. They are also created to lift up the praise of the creation to God. That side of the priestly equation requires acts of attention: noticing, knowing, and naming. It requires seeing and loving the creation for its own sake, not as something to be dominated or transformed, but something to be nurtured, stewarded, and loved. It requires bringing each fellow creature into the light of loving attention, so that its praise of God can be recognized and so that God can be praised for it.
A liberal arts education is about that sort of seeing and loving; it is about paying attention, noticing, knowing, and naming. Whereas professional programs train students to produce and to work, the liberal arts train students in living as full human beings, in freedom and leisure, worshipping, glorifying and enjoying God. A liberal arts education is precisely about knowing things just because they are worth knowing, understanding the world just because it is worth understanding. A liberal arts education helps us become the sort of people who can be priests to the world.
A liberal arts education is naturally grounded in language: in reading, writing, and speaking, traditionally cultivated through the trivium of grammar, rhetoric, and logic. Already in Eden, Adam’s first priestly act was to name the world around him. Language was the first mark differentiating those made in God’s image from those who were not. For us, as fallen creatures, our only hope of fulfilling our priestly calling is through participation in the life and mind of Jesus, who is the Word made flesh and our great High Priest. It is not an accident that Jesus has both those titles: He is our High Priest because He is the Word by whom we were created. He is the one who will give to each of us our true name, the one who calls us by that name and summons us to our true identity. He is the one in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and understanding, so that when the Spirit leads us into all truth we are led to union with Jesus. The heart of priestly work is not pain, blood, and sacrifice – though as a result of the fall it required that shape for a time. The heart of priestly work is twofold: bringing God’s blessing to the world, which Jesus does as Immanuel, the revelation of God’s glory, and offering the world back to God in thanksgiving and praise, which Jesus does as bone of our bone, flesh of our flesh, the one like us in every way but sin. Augustine was one of the great rhetoricians of his day, but when he was converted to Christianity he discovered that his ability to manipulate language was a hollow game unless he submitted that ability to the lordship of the One who is the source of language, the Word Himself. Within Christian tradition, the study of language culminates in the study of theology grounded in Scripture, the normative written Word. It is in the written Word that we encounter the Word made flesh, so as to be transformed into His likeness, from one degree of glory to another.
The liberal arts also include disciplines that extend knowledge beyond language. Traditionally this is the quadrivium of arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy. In our world of ever-expanding knowledge, other disciplines may be added to the list. The mark of a liberal arts education is not so much a particular set of disciplines to be mastered as it is the attitude brought to their study. A liberal approach to education sees learning as autotelic. Learning is a good in itself. It is in itself an act of love and praise that needs no further justification or product. This doesn’t mean that productive learning is bad. It’s a good thing to make the world safer, healthier, more just, and more ordered. But those approaches must be secondary, things we do in order to make space for the quintessentially human action of knowing in order to know.
Our society teaches us that the order should be the other way around. That leisure must serve work. That the liberal arts must serve utilitarian knowledge. That rest must serve labor. As if the reason for our life is production. As if our value as human beings is measured by how much we can make or do. As if times of rest and leisure and freedom are only valuable if they make us better workers. But this way of understanding human life is a lie, and Christian higher education must offer an alternative vision. The purpose of our life is to rest in God, to glorify Him and to enjoy Him forever. The work we do must be in service of that rest. The production in which we engage must be in service of times of leisure, which make possible acts of priestly knowing, the offering of praise and prayer, and the celebration of worship.
A Christian liberal arts education is necessarily connected with virtue. It is not enough to learn arithmetic, or rhetoric, or music. These things must be learned in a way that fosters truth and virtue. The knowledge that we acquire is not to be external only, but rather something that we internalize and that then transforms us into virtuous people living in harmony with God’s design for humanity. Traditionally the virtue that is shaped by this sort of knowing is magnanimity, about which I wrote last month. This is the virtue that C. S. Lewis identifies as central to education in his book The Abolition of Man. Magnanimity is the integrating virtue that unites intellect and appetite. It is the virtue of disciplined, stable, ordered emotion or desire. A liberal arts education is intended to result in the development of this faculty of trained emotion, disciplined desire. Our desires are trained by means of the imagination, which Lewis calls “the organ of meaning.” Our intellect is the organ of truth, but truth needs to be imaginatively appropriated in order to control our appetites and actions. A liberal arts education that lacks this emphasis on virtue will produce only clever people who are good at manipulating words, who appreciate the finer things of life, and are uninterested in being productive. A Christian liberal arts education must focus on the transformation of students into magnanimous people via the imaginative appropriation of truth.