The school where I teach, Taylor University, is a Christian liberal arts college. Sometimes I am asked for a rationale for the liberal arts and, specifically, why a liberal arts education is important from a Christian point of view. In this and my next post, I will provide such a rationale.
I considered giving my reasons in the form of a top ten list. But top ten lists are cliché. So I’m going to do something completely different. I’m going to use a top seven list. I will propose seven good reasons for studying the liberal arts—seven reasons why disciples of Jesus should be intellectually versatile.
By “liberal arts” I mean, of course, that wide range of studies that includes the humanities and sciences, from art to zoology. So why as Christians should we be committed to liberal arts learning?
Reason #1: Studying the liberal arts enables you to better appreciate the wisdom and beauty of God. God is the source of all truths of science, math, history, psychology, theology, and every other discipline. As the apostle Paul says, in Christ “are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” (Col. 2:3). So to study in literally any discipline is to understand Christ better. Even the most abstract or minute insights about differential equations, mallard migration patterns, or the history of the French Revolution reveal something about the genius of God. And any insight into the divine is a profound insight.
Also, all of the beauty found in the creative arts, from painting to poetry to music and theater, is ultimately derived from the beauty of God. As Alain de Botton puts it, “beauty…is a fragment of the divine… The qualities of beautiful objects are those of a God from whom we live far removed, in a world mired in sin . . . but bittersweet tokens of a goodness to which we still aspire.” God is the source of all aesthetic excellence wherever it might be found, so to experience beauty in any domain is to indirectly experience God’s beauty. And liberal arts training gives us the greatest exposure to that beauty.
Reason #2: Studying the liberal arts helps you to avoid embarrassing your faith. To explain what I mean, consider these words from St. Augustine that are just as relevant today as they were when he wrote them 1600 years ago:
Usually, even a non-Christian knows something about the earth, the heavens, and other elements of this world, about the motion and orbit of the stars an even their size . . . , and this knowledge he holds to as being certain from reason and experience. Now it is a disgraceful and dangerous thing for an infidel to hear a Christian, presumably giving the meaning of the Holy Scripture, talking nonsense on these topics; and we should take all means to prevent such an embarrassing situation, in which people show up vast ignorance in a Christian and laugh it to scorn . . . . If they find a Christian mistaken in a field which they themselves know well and hear him maintaining his foolish opinions about our books, how are they going to believe those books in matters concerning the resurrection of the dead, the hope of eternal life, and the kingdom of heaven . . . ?”
Augustine’s concern here is that fellow Christians in his day were reflecting poorly on Christ by announcing false and uninformed views about various issues—issues that today we would call scientific. By publicly sharing their ignorance, these Christians undermined any credibility they might have had in proclaiming the Gospel. For if a person is easily duped about geology and astronomy, then they are just as vulnerable and untrustworthy when it comes to theology.
By giving you a substantive exposure to all of the disciplines, a liberal arts education prevents this sort of thing. You will be less likely to ignorantly pontificate about a subject because, well, you won’t be ignorant about it. So liberal arts training helps you to avoid associating the Gospel with ignorance and thus tarnishing the name of Christ. That’s a big deal. But now let me expand on this a bit more positively.
Reason #3: Studying the liberal arts makes you a better ambassador for Christ. By becoming broadly knowledgeable, you make yourself a more interesting and circumspect person, and thereby you become a more compelling witness for Jesus. There are a lot of evangelistic “methods” and programs out there, and all of them attempt a shortcut past the best and most biblical way of drawing others to Christ.
The apostle Peter sums it up like this: “Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us” (1 Pet. 2:12). A Christian liberal arts education doesn’t just equip you for this or that vocation or set of tasks. Rather, it turns you into a certain kind of person—a person who is a good thinker, imaginative, and intellectually versatile; you will become a person who has more interests and is therefore more interesting. In short, you will become a person such that people will want to know what your ultimate life commitments are. And no evangelistic method or program can match the power of that.