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College Education as
Spiritual Formation


by Steven D. Mason, Ph.D., Provost & Vice President for Academic Affairs

 

Working in leadership at LeTourneau University affords me the opportunity to greet dozens of prospective college students and their parents who are wrestling with choosing the right college.

A number of important questions bear on that decision. I try to help by asking them to consider the most important question: “Have you thought about a college education as spiritual formation?”

In 1975, Wheaton College professor Arthur Holmes wrote “The Idea of a Christian College,” outlining the purposes and aims of a Christian college that make it distinct from other institutions.

What Holmes and other leading thinkers recognize is that a college education, no matter if it is distinctly Christian or not, is not a neutral enterprise. Unbiased neutrality with respect to life and learning does not exist because every institution and every professor functions by a particular philosophy (or set of philosophies) about how the world works, what human beings are for, how to flourish, and how/if to account for the material and immaterial world.

An attempt to “leave faith and religion at the door” of the classroom is not only practically impossible, but it inherently takes a side.

What we find at a typical university is actually a “multi-versity” where the arts, sciences, humanities, technology and professional fields have no center of gravity relating to one another or faith, since “to each his own.” This is not a neutral statement about God’s world, his ways and his vision for humanity’s vocation.

What makes a Christian university distinct from a secular one is fundamentally the view that education is, at best, incomplete unless considered in light of the life, death, resurrection, ascension of Jesus, and the grand story of his kingdom. The Bible says, “Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made.” John 1:3; “For from him and through him and to him are all things.” Romans 11:36; and “He is before all things, and in him all things hold together.” Colossians 1:17.

Holding these truths out to the side as a sort of infringement upon teaching and learning is no less a distinct philosophy of education.

In “Teaching Christianity,” Augustine writes that the good educator will always move one to action by speaking “so as to teach, to delight, to sway.” The best professors teach with a contagious passion.

Susan Felch, an English professor at Calvin College, argues in her essay “Doubt and the Hermeneutics of Delight” that while doubt is esteemed in higher education for its place in engendering mature and neutral critical thinking, “…we [should] consider delight as an alternative to doubt, that we turn to delight to shape the geography of our classrooms and our own scholarly project. Faith may wend its sway across the landscape of doubt or the landscape of delight, but delight provides us with the richer aesthetic and moral topography through which to chart our course as scholars and teachers.”

If delight is the most compelling attribute to strong teaching, it is critical that these mentors are passionate about the right things.

In this way, a college education is spiritual formation for what is being practiced both inside and outside the classroom. James K.A. Smith calls our patterns of learning and living “liturgies” in “Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview and Cultural Formation.”

He writes, “Liturgies — whether ‘sacred’ or ‘secular’ — shape and constitute our identities by forming our most fundamental desires and our most basic attunement to the world. In short, liturgies make us certain kinds of people, and what defines us is what we love. They do this because we are the sorts of animals whose orientation to the world is shaped from the body up more than from the head down. Liturgies aim our love to different ends precisely by training our hearts through our bodies.”

Sending our kids off to college is a weighty decision because, through the eyes of every professor and the liturgies of their institutions, our students are learning not only how to take account of our world but, even more importantly, who and what to love.

I am convinced, therefore, that there is nothing more important to maintaining our culture and mission as an institution than hiring the right faculty and also creating time and space for them to develop as Christian teacher-scholars. 

Faculty hiring is always a collective effort using collective wisdom, and I am thankful to all on our campus who have a hand in the recruiting, vetting, and hiring of our faculty. It is not easy to find individuals that are leaders in their field and are also called to LeTourneau as their place of academic ministry and discipleship. We look for Christians people worth emulating because they hold sway over malleable students.

And in turn, we work hard to create opportunities for our faculty to grow as Christian scholars, teachers, and academicians since that is a life-long pursuit. I enjoy the workshops and campus colloquiums and seminars we have on campus to share with one another our insights on the integration of faith and learning from the perspective of our own discipline. For, if we desire our students to think deeply and live courageously as a Christian in this world, especially in their field of choice, it starts with a compelling Christian faculty member.

At LeTourneau we understand that a college education is nothing less than spiritual formation. So it is through the grace of God alone, and in humility, that we follow in the footsteps of Paul the Apostle to claim, “Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me — put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you.” Philippians 4:9.