How the Christian Faith Can Sustain the Life of the Mind: A New Book to Be Widely Shared
I truly like books which are passionate, books which are compelling and try hard to pull me in and win me over. I am sometimes teased for being too enthusiastic when I teach about developing a Christian worldview, or when I recommend particularly good authors; I get excited about writers who brim with commitment. I like to think of myself as passionate about God's glory, about helping others explore the implication of God's will for planet Earth, about discovering new ways to faithfully live out of--or into--the presence of the Holy in the ordinariness of life and times. Even the most gaudy televangelists oddly intrigue me--what passion! What cadence! What vision! Among friends, I rarely shy away from a good argument about Scripture or Kingdom living. I especially like books with extravagant Christian claims.
And yet, polemical books, even at their most sound and solid, sometimes presume too much from some readers. And most evangelical authors--including those who argue for integral Christian scholarship like the ones I often mention here, such as James Sire, Harry Blamires, George Marsden or Mark Noll--sometimes are just a tad too religiously specific to share with non-evangelicals. Brilliant as they may be, they may not be the most appropriate to give out to some who may be skeptical of our project of raising concerns about intentionally integrated Christian thinking.
For instance, Jim Sire's recent and altogether marvelous Habits of the Mind: Intellectual Life as a Christian Calling I would easily share with any campus intellectual or professor whose heart is even halfway open. He shares his own love of learning, his passion for good books, and his sources are wildly diverse. Sire's earlier great and very useful book, Discipleship of the Mind: Learning to Love God in the Ways We Think, however, seems more directly aimed at fellow evangelicals; it includes good Bible study and is written in clearly religious vocabulary. It may not be as easily accepted by those who are less familiar with our evangelical lingo and approaches. Its clarity, passion and impeccable call to overtly Christian thoughtfulness makes it ideal for those with whom we are in mentoring relations: it makes it's case biblically and insists on a culturally-wise, whole-life response to God's truth. But you can see (unless you're bolder than most) why such a book may not be the one to give to your typical, mildly curious professor (church-going or not) who has never thought much about a uniquely Christian sense of chemistry, journalism, athropology or marketing. No, not every polemic works, and not everyone responds to the full-throttle call to Godly obedience and Christian discipleship.
Now this is the point in the essay where, if you're used to my style and flow, you will say to yourself, "Here comes the clincher: see Borger deftly segue into (a) why Walsh & Middleton can solve this mess, if only we would read and reread The Transforming Vision, or (b) Os Guinness is such a fine writer that you can give his work to any book-lover on campus, or (c) 'Boy, do I have a new book for you!'"
And of course the answer is, well, (a) and (b)--but you all know that already. So: "Boy, do I have a new book for you!"Â
Let me explain again. If you need a book to give to that uninitiated Christian or seeking professor or administrator or residence life staff or serious-minded student who may not necessarily warm up to a polemical, evangelical call to "take every thought captive"Â and claim "every square inch of creation"Â by serving as a uniquely Christian scholar with a full-orbed Kingdom perspective of the Lordship of Christ, yada, yada yada, yada, let me tell you instead about How Christian Faith Can Sustain the Life of the Mind by Richard T. Hughes (Eerdmans, $18.00). Unashamedly Christian but without the in-house feel of many well-intended books on the same topic, this wonderful book helps encourage intellectual inquiry done in the context of faith and should earn a wide readership within the typical collegiate setting. It is very, very good.
How can I tell you how utterly sweet this nicely written reflection is? It is serious--at times radical, even--but always with a light touch. Delightfully, it is quite overtly Christian without being the least bit pompous or preachy. Hughes explores and meanders and examines religious faith and its expression in higher education without condescension or evangelical ideology. It is a gentle book written by, I can only imagine, a true gentleman.
Perhaps one of the great strengths of this extraordinary little hardback is its ecumenicity. That is, he happily is quite familiar with a variety of Christian traditions and regularly illustrates how these denominational heritages can undergird and support the intention of being a Christian in the world of learned culture, higher education and the professions. Hughes is a Lutheran who is deeply appreciative of the anabaptist ethos of the Mennonites; he quotes Kuyper in his discussion of the Reformed tradition and its contributions to the development of Christian thinking; his work at Pepperdine puts him amidst Churches of Christ folk. It is rare to see someone of his stature who really gets around this much, learning from those with whom he journeys.
The various insights and contributions of these different Christian movements are mentioned so matter-of-factly that no one is slighted and, surely, no one put upon or off. Unless some scholar somewhere is utterly tone-deaf to the role of religion in America (and I know some of these hard-boiled types are out there), this book would be a delightful introduction to what we mean when we discuss the "integration of faith and learning"Â or "biblically-informed scholarship"Â or "developing the Christian mind"Â to gain a "Christian perspective."Â It would be a fine book to help explain to folks what the CCO is about and it certainly is a great book to better appreciate more of the vision which sustains our work in the bookstore.
How the Christian Faith Can Sustain the Life of the Mind has become, quite by surprise, one of my favorite books of the year, in part due to just how easily it can be shared with those unfamiliar with thinking about such matters, and how much faith-infused common decency it carries. Like, say, Parker Palmer, he is able to discuss faith and the meaning of education without any sensationalism or preachiness, making it truly a delight to read and ponder.
Of the many striking features of this graceful book I shall mention three. Firstly, I am impressed with Hughes' unapologetic claim (I almost said "insistence,"Â but that sounds too strident) that Christian scholarship is for the sake of peace and justice. Drawing briefly on the work of activist historian Howard Zinn (People's History of the U.S.), he illustrates that teaching and learning is never socially neutral and the victims of war and poverty and injustice are important voices in and for our studies. Learning matters and, with gentle but firm examples, Hughes asks teachers to reflect on the impact their teaching has upon the real lives and commitments and values of their students. He thinks that teaching can help form young lives into agents of social change on behalf of the "upside down"Â values of Christ's Kingdom. I am sure there are other conscientious professors who share similar ideals who may not have seen their care as a manifestation of Christian mission; reading and discussing Hughes will surely help them be more clear about the meaning and task of teaching Christianly.
Alas, a minor disappointment: I can't believe he didn't cite Steve Garber here. Garber's Fabric of Faithfulness: Weaving Toegther Belief and Behavior in the University Years surely has reflected on this matter better than any other book and it is a shame that Hughes didn't point readers to it. Their visions and sensibilities, though, seem remarkably similar and I am confident that Hughes and Garber see themselves as allies. Surely Hughes means to say, as Garber often does, that to know is to care is to be responsible for...
A second striking contribution: Hughes obviously has lived into the tensions and questions that circle around those who raise the matter of Christian thinking in various academic areas. (He has written on this topic before, even, although the important Models of Christian Higher Education, which he co-edited, is a collection of institutional narratives, telling the stories of various church-related colleges and how their denominational identities shaped their respective institutional ethos.) In the new book, written more for the actual teacher and scholar, he gets regularly specific in delightful ways. For instance, he reflects on just what exactly we mean by "Christian scholarship"Â and what that might look like to others. (Parker Palmer's Courage to Teach is examined as a thoroughly Christian bit of scholarship, even though neither Christ nor God are even mentioned!) He wonders if uniquely biblical insights, when presented fairly and without unnecessary jargon, might just be accepted by others (and, if that is the case, why all the mental and spiritual gymnastics to try to get to a position called "Christian scholarship"Â?).
Conversely, he asks what sort of proclamation typical academics might be able to make--despite his desire for mutually respectable collegiality, he knows enough of the biblical witness to know that believers are called upon to share their faith when appropriate. His examinations of these and other concrete questions about the practical matters of being a Christian professor, especially at a public university, are convincingly posed and helpfully answered, if only provisionally. As you might guess, he does not think we need to wear our faith on our sleeves, nor be ostentatious about our piety. Yet he is a strong advocate for nurturing uniquely Christian frameworks and invites us to strive for integrity as people of deep faith amidst secularized institutions. In other, more ostentatious words than he might use, I think he's got the whole in-the-world-but-not-of-it "roaring lambs" thing going on big time. If only we could get other faculty and staff thinking about such things with such clarity, care and prudence.
A final contribution that I shall mention is an original but wise insight for a book such as this. He argues that we need, ultimately, to do our scholarly work in light of the painful reality of tragedy. Without a moment of sentimentality, he draws on the warm story of Tuesdays With Morrie. I won't spoil the narrative, but Hughes, deeply moved by that remarkable book about a student and his dying college mentor, has his own story to tell. Beautifully written, How Christian Faith Can Sustain the Life of the Mind is solidly academic yet utterly humane. And is that not a key insight for those of us in campus ministry? Even the professors and administrators with whom we work are more than their jobs or titles--even if they may not want to admit it. Scholars are first of all human beings, bearers of God's image.
In response to his own near-death episode, Hughes writes:
"The question that faces me now is simply this: How can I translate these experientially deepened convictions into my work as a teacher and scholar? Can I translate my heightened sense of finitude into a more determined search for truth? Can I translate my newfound sense of radical limitations into genuine intellectual humility? Because I have peered into the abyss that all men and women will eventually confront, can I find a deeper sense of kinship with other human beings, even those who come from cultures and religious traditions radically different from my own? And now that I have an even greater sense of the paradox of the Christian gospel, can I employ that sense of paradox as a fulcrum, allowing me to find truth in conflicting perspectives and enabling me, as a teacher, to encourage my students to do the same?"Â
He continues for a few rich pages--pages I have already reread-- reflecting on being pulled from the jaws of death and the resultant gift of gratitude. And, significantly, he wonders how to help his students receive a similar grace.
Is it possible that a book about being a serious Christian scholar can be widely read as both a call to be God's salt and light in the professions and institutions of our modern world and also as a devotional filled with reminders of God's grace and sustaining presence? Without devolving into a piety abstracted from the life of the mind, this fine book is itself, finally, a gift of grace.
Now this is the point in the essay where, if you're used to my style and flow, you will say to yourself, "Now here comes the big ending: the impassioned reviewer will tell everyone to buy this book and share it with one and all, blessing many, advancing the cause of Christ and helping said reviewer to pay his bills. See Borger deftly segue into the earnest sales pitch, insisting that this book really, truly needs to be ordered as soon as possible."
Yep, you got that right. I am fired up about this gentle and wise book. Richard Hughes has just become one of my new heroes, and this gem is a pleasure to hold and to ponder. But dear readers, you more than I can get it into the right hands within the unreached people group of academia. Although Hughes might not be as idealistically grandiose as I, this could literally save the lives of those who are dying from lack of such substance in their book diet. Hearts & Minds eagerly awaits the privilege of receiving your orders.
Those of us in the CCO should be aware of a very, very important issue of the important journal The Christian Scholars Review. (Get your college library to stock this heady journal if they don't already!) The Summer 2001 issue--a "theme"Â issue on the prospects and projects of Christian scholarship--has a very, very interesting and well-written piece by D.G. Hart which is quite critical of the Kuyperian and neo-Calvinist worldview approach to the doing of Christian scholarship within the secular univeristy. I found it quite provacative--it provoked me, all right! Obviously, I take immense issue with much of it, especially as it goes after Mark Noll, George Marsden's Outrageous Idea of Christian Scholarship, Al Wolters, Walsh & Middleton and writers of that ilk. It is surely something we should be discussing carefully, honing our arguments and seeking God's guidance.
Further, and cause for in-house jubilation and the like, our own Derk Woodard-Lehman also has a piece with a cool title published in this same issue, where he takes issue with the whole point of much so-called Christian higher education which, as he sees it, has been co-opted by the pagan culture (and I thought the Hart piece was provacative!). If you've followed any of Derek's important critique of the CCO perspective lately, you'll know it is a seriously-written and deep bit of theological criticism. That it was accepted for publication in such a prestigious venue speaks of his scholarly contribution. Since Derek is a good friend of many of us and a colleague within the CCO, it goes without saying that this is an article we really should discuss amongst ourselves. I encourage you to get it ASAP.
Lastly--and this, too, deserves a big, loud WHOO-HOOO--professors Don Opitz and Dave Guthrie, formerly of the CCO Hall of Fame and now of Geneva College, wrote a great little story (yes, it is a fable!) about institutions of higher learning caring for their faculty. Although aimed at those within colleges, it really speaks volumes for many of us who care for and resource other's professional and spiritual development. If only they would have mentioned Hearts & Minds somehow.
Congratulations one and all. Let's honor their work by getting a hold of this issue of the CSR, even subscribing. It is, after all, the premier tool of its kind. And while we're applauding friends and co-workers, you should know that former CCO staffer Todd Steen, now professor of economics at Hope College, is the quite competant managing editor of said journal. When you subscribe, tell him you said hi.
The Review has less expensive student rates, so email Todd at firstname.lastname@example.org.