Liberal Learning and the Great Christian Traditions.
Edited by Gary W. Jenkins and Jonathan Yonan.
Pickwick Publications, 2015.
Paperback, 168 pages, $22.

The reality and definition of the “Christian mind” has become rather tenuous. There are different points of friction based on the value of the sciences on one hand and the humanities on the other. In an increasingly utilitarian educational system, a liberal arts education has become difficult to defend as a vocation. The debate of utility reveals another point of discrepancy—the proper place of religion within higher education. It is a debate often trapped between the secularized Western world and the contemporary evangelical community. Both sides have the ability to offer extreme reactions to intellectualism. Secularism removes any religious influence, not only Christian, from the pursuit of knowledge. Evangelicals are often anti-intellectual due to their suspicion of knowledge that does not reflect religious conviction (e.g. evolution versus creationism). The two extremes continue to butt heads over the sovereignty of man and God in the classroom, but a number of Christian traditions are still committed to the pursuit of wisdom through a healthy relationship between faith and liberal learning.

The idea of the Christian mind is indeed a scandalous one. Christianity is a religion with ever-increasing levels of sectarian divide. With the rise of non-denominational churches, there is often a lack of focus on catechism in the typically foundational pillars of tradition, dogma, and doctrine. While congregants are enthusiastic about their spirituality, the idea of the Christian mind is neglected and, in some cases, deemed non-essential. The liberal arts have received blows on both sides as well—secular and religious.

Professors Gary Jenkins and Jonathan Yonan recognize the present crisis of liberal learning within the church. Out of a series of lectures at Eastern University’s Templeton Honors College, they have compiled seven essays on the approach to liberal learning from seven different Christian traditions (Orthodox, Catholic, Lutheran, Covenant, Anglican, Mennonite, and Methodist). Each tradition shares a number of similarities, but the compilation makes it clear that the definition of the Christian mind is not universal.

Denominational differences are no longer solved in the streets or on fields of battle, but they still cause a level of animosity within the church. The purpose of the lectures is twofold: they explain the similarities and differences among the traditions and, perhaps more importantly, they instruct on the manner and benefits of collegial dialogue. A book of this nature could very easily carry an agenda and serve as an exercise in finger-pointing. Instead, the hope in the book is palpable—reconciliation. With increased dialogue and understanding, the church as a whole can reconcile interdisciplinary liberal learning with the Christian faith and its various traditions. The clarity of the dialogue produces a shared understanding of key terms and concepts—most notably beauty, truth, and goodness in the Great Tradition.

The book benefits greatly from the foreword penned just before his death by Stratford Caldecott, a recognized author on matters of faith and culture, known specifically for bringing to light the benefits of liberal learning and the pursuit of wisdom in the classical sense (Beauty for Truth’s Sake). The tone of unity is set by such simple distinctions as the use of the word “tradition” due to his personal distaste for “denomination.” Caldecott notes the unique responsibility of education because of its meaning—“leading out.” It is not simply the conveyance of facts from one person to another or one generation to another, but it is the dialogue behind the purpose of humanity. The disciplines aid humanity in the discovery of its core principles. However, liberal learning is not enough. The element of faith needs to be present even in academic endeavor. For Caldecott, the removal of faith from learning and vice versa closes humanity off from the light of God and our true nature.

The introduction by Jenkins and Yonan directs the reader to take into account the possibility that disparate voices can lead to contemplation and collegial dialogue. The crisis of the church’s presence in the modern secular world is an obvious one, but the crisis of the mind accompanying the spread of the gospel is surprisingly overlooked. The activism and emotionalism of the evangelical movement very often leaves little room for a commitment to a life of the mind. Relying on Mark Noll’s The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind for the historical roots of the crisis, the introduction diagnoses problems of competition, attractiveness, and activity versus contemplation among the tangible causes of the present state of liberal learning in the modern church. Evangelicals are often preoccupied with aspects of missions and service, neglecting the instruction and formation “into an entire system of faith and life.”

The essays that follow are shaped by the two questions posed to each contributor: 1) What is the distinctive vision of the good life and good society that is proper to your theological stream with the Christian tradition? 2) What sort of education liberates students to live such a life for such a society? The questions reveal that some traditions are more affected by these issues than others, thus making the need for conversation a pressing reality.

Four of the seven essays—the Orthodox, Catholic, Lutheran, and Methodist—reveal significant similarities in their description of perspectives on liberal learning. In an attempt to examine similarities in the traditions, the relationship between faith and liberal learning is the most seamless in these essays despite obvious theological differences. Each author displays a comfort and familiarity in connecting the benefits of humane letters with the tenets of Christianity. All four are committed to a life of the mind cultivated by the Aristotelian idea that all men, by nature, desire to know. This does not mean that relativism is a valid conclusion. Instead, each tradition seeks the reflection of the imago dei in the pursuit of wisdom. A great cloud of witnesses, alive and dead, classical and Christian, cultivate the reason of each author and the tradition they represent—James Carey (Orthodox), R. J. Snell (Catholic), Korey Maas (Lutheran), and W. Stephen Gunter (Methodist). Snell simplifies the natural relationship between the faithful individual and liberal learning, saying: “For the non-Catholic and non-Christian, even for those not in right relationship with God, intellectual work remains a place of possible encounter with God …”

The Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century grew out of the activities of Martin Luther, yet the Lutheran and Methodist authors do not read all that differently from the Orthodox and Catholic contributors. The other three essays, however, do come across as uninterested in: “learning for its own sake” (Anglican), learning only as it informs activism and service (Mennonite), or an educational ethos in conflict with the tradition’s idea of liberal learning and faith (Covenant). The intention is not to dissect the tradition and its reflection of the Christian faith. The book shows that each tradition contributes to the conversation of liberal learning and faith. A series of lectures from different perspectives creates a platform to evaluate the flaws and benefits of each approach. It is not always clear as to whether some of the traditions understand the vernacular of liberal learning or the Great Tradition, but that is precisely the point of the collection. It may prove more difficult to cultivate and grow the Christian mind without the conversation between disparate voices.

Much like Caldecott’s foreword, Phillip Cary’s epilogue reiterates the importance of connecting similarities, rather than pointing out the obvious or insurmountable differences. Ultimately, Cary’s conclusion bolsters the purpose of the editors’ desire to diagnose American evangelicalism with an external dilemma, rather than a systemic one. He provides brief, yet insightful analyses on each tradition. The contribution of each tradition to the good of the kingdom of God, and to one another, points in the direction of a conscious reconciliation. The commitment to the possible reconciliation within the church itself and the “secular” disciplines, although unlikely, reflects the hope in the “good work” found within liberal learning and the Christian mind.  

Christopher Butynskyi teaches in the history department at Eastern University.