Monday, December 5, 2022

As part of the first issue of Volume 4 of Faith and the Academy, Duane Litfin took some time to have a conversation with Dr. Benjamin K. Forrest, our managing editor. Litfin holds doctorates from Purdue University (Rhetorical Studies) and Oxford University (New Testament). After two decades as a professor and pastor, Dr. Litfin served for seventeen years as the president of one of America’s leading institutions of Christian higher education, Wheaton College. He is the author of numerous articles and books, including Conceiving the Christian College (Eerdmans) and Paul’s Theology of Preaching (IVP Academic).

Are there any pictures that you think help us to rightfully imagine or understand faith integration?

First, think of the academic silos that typically characterize modern higher education. These silos represent the opposite of any type of integration, much less a Christian version. Our modern universities are not integrated, because there is nothing—and certainly not anything theological—to provide them any unity. These institutions are multi-versities with no unifying vision; they are not, and cannot be, universities.

For Christians, a better (if also imprecise) image may be that of a pie, cut into multiple slices. The pie represents the entire curriculum and the slices represent the various disciplines. In an integrated Christian model, where in this pie does Christian truth fit? If secularists assume it doesn’t belong there at all, what is a Christian response?

One response might be that in a Christian school theological truth plays a legitimate role as one of the slices of the curricular pie. Along with all the standard secular disciplines, Christian institutions also make available some sacred (Bible, theology) education. This is what makes the education Christian.

From the standpoint of genuine integration, however, this is a highly deficient image. Here the image of the pie fails us. Integrative institutions will certainly provide strong biblical and theological instruction as part of the curriculum, but that same Christian truth must also permeate all the other slices of the pie. The goal is not just to think Christianly in Bible and theology courses, but based on this biblical and theological truth, to think in distinctively Christian, Christ-centered ways about all the disciplines.

According to this way of thinking, the hoary old sacred/secular distinction disappears. There is no such thing as a “secular” subject. Nothing we can study in the curriculum is irrelevant to Christ, and there is nothing to which he is irrelevant. In one way or another the Lordship of Christ reaches out to everything humans can know or experience. The goal of the integrative model is to help us think deeply about how this is true throughout the curricular and co-curricular activities of the institution.

Yes! I see the temptation to view integration like this pie, but recognize the deficiencies. Similar to this approach it seems that some schools, like a Baylor or Notre Dame would approach integration like an umbrella, whereas the philosophy for integration at schools like Liberty, Wheaton, and Bob Jones tends to be a more systematic or synergistic approach to integration. How does integration happen between the two models? And how is it unique in a synergistic systemic model?

Integration, as described above, by definition cannot take place at a truly umbrella institution. The task of integration in these settings is largely left up to the student. In umbrella institutions there exists a critical mass of faculty who are teaching from the standpoint of the sponsoring religious tradition. But there are also many others, probably the majority of faculty, who are not. Integration at an institutional level is thus precluded.

This umbrella model usually goes hand in hand with the above mentioned sacred/secular distinction. Christian faculty committed to the sponsoring tradition will certainly teach the “sacred” subjects, but in the “secular” subjects why should it matter? What difference does it matter whether you have a Christian teaching, say, chemistry, or a secularist? Given this sacred/secular division, integration is unnecessary, much less a stated institutional goal.

A curricular-wide vision of integration can only be implemented in systemic institutions. That is what renders them “systemic.” A Christ-centered view of all things (including chemistry: see pages 75-77, 160 of Conceiving the Christian College) permeates every aspect of the institution—root, branch and leaf. It’s certainly given substance and depth in Bible and theology courses, but it also infuses the thinking of every faculty member and the teaching of every subject matter, whether in the humanities, natural sciences, social sciences or the arts.

This infusion is what marks this type of education and this type of institution as truly “systemic.” What is system-wide through it all is a profound understanding of and commitment to the Lordship of Jesus Christ over all we can know, experience, or be.

The system-wide commitment is what first drew me (Dr. Forrest) to attend Liberty and one of the things I enjoy most about the university. However, as I administrate programs and work toward assessment and accreditation reports, some disciplines find it more challenging to imagine how faith is best integrated into their field. How can we help faculty see the potential for integration even when the process for doing so may not be as clear as other disciplines?

The integrative model is a challenging one all across the curriculum. But what we need to grasp is that this sort of thinking is a challenge for every Christian, whatever his or her calling. The essence of the Christian life is learning how to live out our days in full obedience to Jesus. Along with everything else this calling requires, it means taking “captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ” (2 Corinthians 10:5). This is the task of all believers, whatever their walk in life. But it is especially the responsibility of those called to the intellectual task as a profession.

Long before they arrive in the classroom to teach students, Christian academics should be developing a deeply Christ-centered understanding of their discipline. Rather than passively accepting their (typically secular) professional guild’s take on the discipline, they should be seeking to think Christianly about its every dimension—bottom to top, from its philosophical and epistemological underpinnings, its theoretical framework, its history, all the way through to issues of application and practice.

What difference does it make in my understanding and practice of my discipline, the Christian professor continually asks, that I, unlike the guild in which I was trained, make the astonishing claim that Jesus Christ-the divine Son of God, Creator, Sustainer, Redeemer and Goal of “all things” (Colossians 1:15-20) is the Cosmic Lord of all?

Sophisticated answers to this question—answers that plumb far beyond mere proof texts—will be many and varied and will often take a lifetime to work out. And to be sure, these answers are more challenging to explore in some disciplines than others. But for the Christian who truly understands who Jesus is, the one answer that will never do is: It doesn’t make any difference at all. Our commitment to Christ touches everything we do, think, and are. A failure to appreciate this represents a failure to grasp the full reach of the most profound claim a Christian can utter: Jesus Christ is Lord (Phil. 2:9-11)!

With this all-pervasive perspective flowing through our approach to integration, what advice might you have for moving forward and strengthening integration in a Christian university?

First, build a clear vision of what genuine integrative thinking is. It’s not something esoteric or unique to Christian teachers or academic institutions. It’s what every follower of Christ is called to do. Those who aspire to be Christian academics differ only in that they have taken on the professional responsibility of being well out ahead in modeling and teaching this sort of Christ-centeredness to others.

As Jesus said, “Everyone when he is fully trained will be like his teacher” (Luke 6:40). Helping students think in distinctively Christ-centered ways about their discipline lies at the core of the Christian teacher’s task. It is crucial that faculty at systemically Christian institutions understand and embrace this calling.

Second, the institution needs to find practical ways of helping faculty develop in their integrative work. However lofty the integrative ideal, the truth is that many teachers in Christian institutions arrive with an advanced understanding of their “secular” discipline—often received at the hands of professional guilds openly hostile to Christian thinking—and a Sunday school understanding of Christian truth. They may want to grow in this area but either don’t know how or haven’t had the opportunity to do so.

In the case of younger faculty in particular, they’re often newly on the tenure clock, starting a young family on low pay, all while trying to develop a repertoire of new courses. They often need understanding, patience and practical help from the institution in developing their integrative thinking.

Third, the institution should look for ways of valorizing excellent integrative work across the disciplines. Find leaders on your own faculty who are doing it well and give them a platform to model their work. Bring in effective models from outside to encourage and creatively inspire those within. Make integrative work an important, even critical, aspect of the institution’s standards for hiring and promotion. Create seminars or share resources that provide instruction and provide best practice models of integrative work.

Over time the institution will become known for valuing Christ-centered thinking across the curriculum. This will serve both the students and the institution well. More importantly, it will serve Christ’s Kingdom well.

What are some successful examples you’ve seen regarding faith integration?

When I arrived at Wheaton I inherited an institution where integrative thinking had long been a part of the corporate culture of the institution. Longstanding faculty members such as Arthur Holmes and Mark Noll had both set and modeled the standard for other faculty.

Still, when we approached our first major capital campaign one of our top priorities was the enhancement of our faculty. When I created a faculty-led taskforce to help flesh out what that might mean, the team came back with five recommendations. Second on the list was strengthening faculty salaries; the first item on the list was to find ways to help faculty in the integration of their faith and learning. In an institution like Wheaton College, our faculty understood this crucial task and only wanted to become better at it.

Have you also seen pot-holes or practices that should be avoided?

Yes, several.

  • First is the danger of institutions not practicing what they preach. Christ-centered thinking, decisions, and practices must be modeled by the institutional leadership if they expect this same sort of thinking to permeate in the classroom. The Lordship of Christ covers everything we do, not just our intellectual work.
  • Second is settling into the old sacred/secular mode by recruiting otherwise impressively-credentialed Christian faculty who nonetheless show neither interest in nor a track record of integrative thinking. Keep the integrative mission clear, then hire to mission. Failure to do so undermines the entire enterprise.
  • Third is recruiting warm-hearted, well-intentioned Christians as faculty, and then assuming this will guarantee integrative instruction in the classroom. This is a naïve assumption. As noted above, there are too many ways this assumption can fail. The first rule for leadership in this area is to “inspect what we expect,” not so as to criticize but so as to come alongside with help and encouragement.
What additional questions should we be asking about faith integration?

Liftin: As one might guess from what I’ve already said, the question that stands out to me after all these years is this one: How well do we understand who Jesus Christ really is?

I spent an entire chapter directly addressing this question in my book and I have often been told by readers in the years since that this chapter alone was worth the price of the book. This observation has always surprised me because the chapter doesn’t do much beyond simply summarizing some of what the Bible says about Jesus. Apparently even many mature Christians have never thought through the full range of what the Bible means when it declares: “Jesus Christ is Lord” (e.g., Acts 2:36, 1 Corinthians 12:3).

Many believers, it seems, even among Christian college administrators, have never thought much beyond a Jesus-as-sin-bearer understanding of who he is. They eagerly confess that he died for them on the cross, but they lack a full biblical picture of who it was who was hanging on that cross.

A generation ago J. B. Phillips published a little book entitled Your God Is Too Small. There he explored how impoverished our view of who God is may be. In the same way, our vision of Jesus may also be too small. We surely see how Jesus is relevant to the business of evangelism, Christian living, or church ministry, but without the Bible’s fuller vision of his universal Lordship we can’t seem to imagine how or why he should be relevant to every nook and cranny of the curriculum.

I’ve come to think that a truncated view of Christ constitutes probably the single greatest impediment to genuine integrative thinking.

In your estimation, what do you think are important tethers for Christian Higher Education Institutions who want to deeply and purposefully integrate faith in their training and education in our secular age?

Liftin: The primary tethers are inevitably the Scriptures and the church’s understanding of the fully Trinitarian view of God taught there. Without these the integrative model is impossible.

Moreover, essential to this Trinitarian teaching is the high Christology that marks all distinctively Christian thinking. There are many things Christians hold that are not distinctively Christian. For example, Christians believe all are created equal and endowed by their Creator with unalienable rights. But this conviction is not distinctively Christian; many non-Christians hold it as well. It’s not until we are thinking in trinitarian terms—and in particular, in terms of the Christ-centeredness of all things—that our thinking becomes distinctively Christian.

According to the Bible, we live in a profoundly Son-centered universe. This is a weighty truth clearly taught in the Bible (see CCC, pp. 34-84), but I have found it is also often an underappreciated truth in Christian higher education circles. A deep conviction about the Christ-centeredness of all things is crucial to the integrative task.

This issue is inevitably complex and we lack the space to explore it here, but wrestling with what this means and how it works was one of my primary purposes in writing Conceiving the Christian College. Those with questions or who may wish to look deeper can consult those pages for more on this crucial subject.