Christopher Parr is a rising senior studying humanities and minoring in classical education at Boyce College, the undergraduate school of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky. He was a participant in the 2020 Summer Honors Program course on “Liberal Education in an Age of Distraction” taught by Drs. Elizabeth and David Corey.
The ideal of liberal education, learning for the sake of learning, might appear suspect in light of Christian theology. In his essay “On the Theology of the Intellectual Life,” the English theologian John Webster writes that all “created things, including created intellect, are to be understood in terms of the history of fellowship between God and creatures.” He goes on to argue that our intellectual activity, blinded by sin, is often oblivious to truth and impaired by innumerable passions. If Webster is right––and the Christian theological tradition supports him—where does that leave liberal education?
This June, as part of the AEI Summer Honors Program, I participated in “Liberal Education in an Age of Distraction,” taught by Drs. David and Elizabeth Corey. We wrestled with these issues and more, guided by the writings of Josef Pieper and C. S. Lewis, among others. Our class concluded that Christian theology and liberal learning are not only compatible, but actually mutually reinforcing. And to take it even further, we concluded that the intellectual life may even be accurately described as a form of worship.
Liberal education is portrayed as superfluous in the modern world, where work itself is the ideal and productivity is a sacrament. Contemporary American universities idolize the future vocational and monetary success of their students. Furthermore, many professors perceive their mission to be the formation of students into ideologues committed to social change. Liberal education advocates must contend with these twin pillars of careerism and activism, as well as numerous temporal distractions, which is a difficult task. C.S. Lewis describes this tension in his essay “Learning in War Time,” given at Oxford at the beginning of the Second World War, acknowledging how liberal learning might appear to be unimportant in the midst of major social and political crises.
For the Christian who believes in liberal education, there are even more challenges. Throughout the history of the Church, some thinkers have criticized the study of philosophy and other liberal arts as unnecessary and detrimental to spiritual formation. Additionally, many secular scholars have failed to acknowledge the theological relevance of their studies. Since the Enlightenment, philosophers have seen their own discipline as supporting a rejection of tradition and religion as a whole, and this reinforces the religious naysayers’ fear surrounding liberal education.
Both parties are wrong, however. Theology, the study of God’s revelation, precedes philosophy, the concrete study of the world. In Leisure: The Basis of Culture, Pieper asserts that theology gives philosophy its “first impulse and impetus.” But while the liberal arts are not necessary for salvation, human beings don’t merely seek salvation; they also desire an understanding of the world itself. Pieper notes, “To do philosophy is to realize the naturally essential inclination of the human mind towards totality.” Together, the studies of theology and philosophy, along with the other liberal arts, enable students to acquire a comprehensive understanding of God’s creation, both through supernatural revelation and natural knowledge.
This sanctified vision of the liberal arts is necessary and fundamental for the welfare of any society. The liberal arts require leisure. In modernity, leisure is often conceived of as idleness and defined as wasted time distinct from the real satisfaction found in work. But as Pieper explains, leisure has always been associated with religious festivals, in both pagan and Christian cultures. As an act of celebration and sacrifice, the festival is a Sabbath from human activity and “rational utility,” recognizing worship as an end in and of itself.
Pieper applies this vision of worship to his own discipline of philosophy and liberal arts. Distinguished from the servile arts, which consider economic or political ends, the liberal arts create a space for “de-proletarianization,” in which humans can behold transcendence. The modern emphasis on working and productivity becomes detrimental to religious faith. In Pieper’s own words, “an alienation from worship––or even hostility to it––can typify the isolated working-intellect to such a degree, that work itself becomes a cult.” Liberal education exists for its own sake as does worship. Worship is an affirmation of God’s creating and saving work. In contemplating the transcendent, the liberal arts allow humanity to rest and wonder.
In his aforementioned essay, Lewis suggests that contemplative education is critical at a time when the world offers innumerable distractions and activities. Despite what our culture would have us believe, the shadow of death and the reality of heaven and hell are ever-present in the human experience. Living all of life “as to the Lord” does not preclude normal behaviors but rather sanctifies them. When we pursue liberal education in this way, we also pursue God, the source of knowledge and beauty. Both Pieper and Lewis conclude that, while the liberal arts cannot save humanity on their own, they give humanity a vision of divine reality and beauty, an end that needs no justification.
Webster’s essay does not explicitly address liberal education, but his vision of the Christian intellectual life is complementary to those of Pieper and Lewis. For him, theology is a comprehensive discipline that has bearing on all areas of study. One helpful distinction Webster draws is between curiosity and studiousness. The curious student seeks that which he cannot comprehend, considers the natural world apart from its Creator, and seeks new knowledge for selfish purposes. On the other hand, the studious learner seeks that which can be revealed, considers God’s creation with intellectual humility, and gains a transcendent knowledge of God.
The contrast between liberal education and its alternatives is much the same. With an attitude of curiosity centered on self, careerism and hyper-activism treat knowledge as something simply to be used and possessed. Liberal education as practiced by the studious, on the other hand, finds its justification not solely in its utility but also, and primarily, in the opportunity it provides to behold truth, goodness, and beauty beyond the self. Satisfaction lies not in gaining possessions or accomplishing deeds, but in contemplating transcendence. “And,” as Pieper says, “this is worship.”