Monday, October 17, 2022

by Dr. Benjamin K. Forrest

Progression is natural. My youngest son is learning the alphabet with his mom before he learns to read at school. My grade school daughter is learning the commutative property of addition before she learns algebra. Learning is always built upon prior knowledge. Progression is natural, it is good, and if done well, wise teachers can harness it to bury learning deep into the hearts and minds of their students.

This progression is as important for persons in primary school as it is for the college co-ed. Life is education, and people learn for life. Formal education usually has semi-distinct beginnings and ends. The beginning comes at home and the intensity builds as children move from home to some sort of classroom. At the graduation junctures of life, students have the option to continue their education at another level or move out and into the job force. I have posited elsewhere that Christian education is by nature constructive. [1] It builds on itself and for an ultimate telos.

Each student has a unique goal/end in mind for their education and thus it is the teacher’s role to push them toward the goals that they have, and even those beyond.

A Theology of the Christian Life

What follows is a proposal specifically for a Christian education context. Christian teachers, at various levels, have sought to give students the educational competencies and understanding necessary to move from their classroom to the next classroom, and, eventually, to their vocational field. During this educational “journey” teachers and professors seek to impart theological grace and wisdom to their pupils. Usually the theology taught in the Christian classroom is a theology of the Christian life and a theology for the Christian. In the spirit of progressing in our function as professors, perhaps there is another level to which we could aspire to reach in our teaching. Perhaps as much as we want our students to continue to learn through life, we too might have something to learn about our own theological task.

The role of a Christian professor is to, like Paul, charge to students with the refrain, “Follow me as I follow Christ” (1 Cor 11: 1). This perhaps is the simplest way to grasp the spiritual importance of a professor’s discipleship of a student. In living out this Pauline admonition (whether consciously realized or not), professors daily say, “Follow me as I follow Christ” OR more specifically, “Follow [the way I love others], as I follow Christ,” OR “Follow [how I speak of my faith] as I follow Christ,” OR even “Follow [my service to my church] as I follow Christ.”

These are all powerful and important lessons for faculty members to impart to their students, regardless of the content of their classroom. This is theology for the Christian life, and doing this is enough to make a professor excellent at their theological task. However, just as we want our students to pursue more than the rudimentary aspects of their academic fields, let us not simply end our professorial task at this Pauline admonition. Let us, along with our students, learn throughout life and ask how we might mature in our own calling as professors. Thus, if life is education, then surely we as teachers must continually model a life of learning, even when at first it might feel uncomfortable for those of us who have made our home within the guild.

My challenge is this: Christian professions should continually examine their discipline and their educational practice evaluating whether or not they have matured over the years in the theologically educative task before them. At first, this may come across as a foreign challenge for those teaching in a non-theological sphere. But the challenge is the same. Professors in a Christian university should see their discipline and communicate the truths of these disciplines theologically as is hermeneutically faithful.

Surely, a Christian university wants to create graduates who are confessionally Christian. This means we want to make Christian teachers, Christian doctors, Christian lawyers, etc. Teaching students to love the Lord their God and how to do the academic tasks presented to them daily in their various fields, will generally create Christians in these various disciplines and vocations. However, what if we also set before ourselves the goal of making Christian doctors who doctor Christian-ly? Or Christian lawyers who lawyer Christian-ly? And Christian teachers who teach Christian-ly, regardless of the type of school in which they teach? What should a Christian doctor do differently than a non-Christian doctor, and how do we teach students this method of doctoring?

To answer this question, I propose a two-step reflection as we progress our students through their educational journeys for a life of learning rooted in robust theological reflection.

Christian education begins with the formation of students as people who love and who live in a context; they are “not” simply, as James K. A. Smith has said, “thinking things.” [2] The formation of a being, in the context of a Christian university education, should progress from a theology of the Christian life, to a theology of the various disciplines which we study. While we are not simply thinking things, we are individuals given the opportunity for reflection, and this reflection should be done as stewards of a discipline. However, our theological task as educators should also not end here. We must continue our maturation and progression in considering theology for our vocation. For our lives are in the context of where we live, and stewarding these opportunities becomes an expression and culmination of our theological reflection and commitment. What I am suggesting here is not a hierarchy of theological maturations, but it is a process that will help the maturation of Christian students as we equip them to engage their world in their calling.

A Theology of the Disciplines

For faculty members who want to mature their theological instruction beyond a theology of the Christ-like life, I would encourage them to think through and then communicate clearly a theology of their discipline. This is easier for some fields to recognize and construct than others. Christian nurses should readily be able to see how patient care appropriates Christian concern and empathy for those they serve. Thus, a “theology of nursing” is rooted in the imago dei and the picture of Christ’s compassion on the many people whom he healed. Similarly, engineers can look to scripture and see the creational God who orchestrated the events of creation through logical and sequential steps. Here we see the foundations for a “theology of engineering.” However, for some disciplines, these obvious and overt connections are harder to find.

Perhaps the largest challenge for faculty to cultivate a theology of their discipline is within mathematics. Surely there is no such theologizing math, and it would likely be hermeneutically and theologically irresponsible to suggest such a thing. This product would likely bend math or theology beyond its limitations, distorting one or the other so that neither comports with its natural form. The guild would never accept such a proposal, and Christian mathematicians must maintain fidelity to the natural revelation within their discipline in order to be faithful to special revelation in Scripture. Forcing theology to speak into the field of mathematics seems like it would require inappropriate theological gymnastics.

I have heard it said anecdotally, the best Christian mathematician is the one who knows their mathematical proofs and theorems the best. Bringing scripture into the mathematical tasks at hand then is not like bringing the concern of Christ into the hospital room. For mathematicians, coherence and consistency is the output they desire for their students and for their Christian, mathematical classrooms. Therefore, a theology of math may not be what is needed in the classroom.

A Theology FOR Vocation

In light of this mathematical rebuttal, I propose the following nuance for faculty working to integrate faith into the learning of their classrooms. For in considering these challenges levied against the task of theologizing math, we find two realities that may in fact form a simple, yet valuable truth that can encourage not a theology of mathematics, but perhaps a theology for mathematicians. In Proverbs we are told that a good name is to be more desired than great riches (22:1). Paul, in writing to slaves, charges his readers to obey those in authority over you.

However, he says, “Obey them not only to win their favor when their eye is on you, but as slaves of Christ, doing the will of God from your heart” (Eph 6:6, NIV). Here we see that a biblical case can be made for that which my mathematician friends tell me is the penultimate representation of a Christian mathematician. If being the best mathematician is the best way to reflect Christ in the field of mathematics, then Christians who happen to do math well model Christ within the guild. [3] This, then, is a theology for the vocation which students will find themselves in the days following graduation.

A Disciplinary and Vocational Case Study

I am making much of prepositions here.

A theology of an academic discipline focuses on how we understand that field in light of scripture. It may be a practical theology touching upon the hands of the discipline as they are put to work in the task of the field. It may be a cognitive theology that impacts how students should understand their field in relation to Scripture. Or perhaps it is a theology that undergirds the discipline or walks arm-in-arm along with the discipline. The relationship between theology and the academic disciplines looks different based on the content and goals of each field. A theology for vocation launches students from the classroom and into the vocation with pre-reflected theological applications for how to be a Christian in this profession.

Perhaps a short example might provide greater clarity as I conclude my case.

We all recognize the importance of government and the need for Christians to participate in governing. We want our students to learn from the modeling of our fellow faculty members and get an education that is theologically robust, but in addition to learning these traits of Christian practice, we hope that students will learn what God has said about government, i.e, a theology of government. We also want students to study the sacred text of Scripture in addition to the various texts that have been formed to govern our land. We want for these students to be able to reflect thoughtfully and keenly about how government should operate in relation to those who it serves. But a proper-theology-of-government is not the context in which students find themselves upon graduation and employment. We want their faculty members to cultivate the imagination of students and to train them to be “Christian-governors” capable of taking theology and using it to form the basis for how they think about their academic discipline.

Yet, this is not enough. For if our education ends here, students will quickly leave and likely grow disenfranchised when they reach the context of their vocation. All that they have theologized in the confines of the classroom becomes difficult if not impossible to apply in the context of a bureaucratic government. Their theology of government is an important foundation for students to conceptualize how Christians should interact in governance, but students need more than just a theology of government, they need a theology for government, one that is replete with a committed vision that all is not lost and where death can be turned into life. Once students leave the classroom their case studies are only as effective as students are able to apply them to the context of a working government. No longer are they writing to a reactionless test-prompt, but instead they are living their theology and working to implement their theology in a context that might often disregard its very existence. Professors must do more than provide them a location to consider a theology of government, but an opportunity to consider how this foundational theology of their discipline gives way and leads to a theology for governing.

The professorial task of theologizing in the classroom begins with a theology for the Christian life, and then a theology of the discipline. For these two will encourage students onwards when the road gets rough and they constantly recognize the fallen nature of themselves and those around them. But by offering them a theology for their vocation, we equip students for the realities we know they will face, and we equip them with more than a lecture, but with a vision of truth which will sustain and encourage through various trials.

The Next Necessary Progression

Progression is natural. And, I hope that students from my classroom will eventually move on from my classroom toward the calling that has been placed upon their lives. I hope that they will heed the admonition of Paul to put away childish things (1 Cor 13:11). I hope that what begins in my classroom eventually matures. These hopes, however, have a far better chance of actualization if I concertedly cultivate this type of vision in the minds of my students while I have their attention today. Thus, my task as a professor is to not only cultivate within them a recognition that they are to walk through life worthy of the gospel (Phil 1:27), but also to challenge them to see how theology informs their academic discipline and then how it launches them into a lived theology for their vocation. A theology for vocation is not simply learned in a lecture but it is painted like a picture as we imagine what the Christian life looks like in the context of vocation, regardless of one’s field.

This article was taken from the sixth volume of Faith and the Academy, a journal published by the Center for Apologetics and Cultural Engagement. Read more at this link.

[1] Benjamin Forrest and Sean Turchin, “Constructive Teaching: Cultivating an Education that is Christian,” Faith and the Academy 4, no. 1 (2019), 26-28.
[2] James K. A. Smith, You are what you Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit, (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2016), 3.
[3] After a review from a colleague, I want to offer at least a brief nuance to my use of the word “best” in this context. Many Christian mathematicians would likely (and rightfully) offer a caveat here regarding my usage of the word so that it does not only connote a hierarchical best. Such a definition, where only a select few can be at the top of their field, is likely more Darwinian than Christian. For it does not take into context the plurality of values a Christian mathematician (or any Christian) should value. Therefore, best is better nuanced as to imply “best stewardship” of the opportunities provided to each individual in their given vocation and location.