Integration of Faith and Knowledge in the University

One of the more contentious topics that can be raised among Christian university faculty is that of the integration of faith with one’s particular discipline or area of knowledge.   The reasons are not too difficult to discern.  Mainly, most faculty at such institutions today (as opposed to a generation ago) have obtained their terminal degrees (Ph.D., J.D., M.F.A., D. Music, etc.) at secular universities, since those are the universities almost exclusively offering such degrees (with a few exceptions).  We seldom see faculty outside of theology actually coming in with sound theological preparation and also the effort made to make the leap from the Biblical data to its appropriate use in a discipline.  So they are at a disadvantage coming to a university that stresses integration.  But we are seeing many more of these types of faculty than before, probably the overwhelming majority.

Sometimes when faculty are confronted with these shortcomings, as for example, when they have been tested for Christian worldview knowledge, they react rather negatively.  I have seen this happen more than once.  This reaction of course exacerbates the problem, since now pressure arises to “back off” any continued strong emphasis on integration.  But the issue goes beyond that.  It extends to the question of what integration itself is.  That is the question I wish to explore here.  In the process I will also address the process by which integration ought ideally occur.

As I said integration as I am using the term here is the application of Biblical truth to any and all disciplines and to all intellectual life at a Christian university.  But we need more detail to understand that definition fully.  First, integration is not the application of natural or general revelation to a discipline.  That has in many cases or most already occurred as the discipline was studied in graduate school at the typical secular institution and even at some Christian institutions.  What I mean is that in any given discipline the epistemological basis is not special revelation in the secular academy.  It is obviously an empirical or some other authoritative basis (rationalist philosophy for example, whether Continental or Analytic) as the foundation both methodologically and substantively of that knowledge base.  So when the knowledge content of that discipline has then been fully constructed, it will not yet have been evaluated externally by the standard of special revelation.  For a Christian university stressing the integration of the Biblical content of the faith with alleged knowledge, this element is vital.  What passes for knowledge cannot be allowed to do so until or unless it has been “verified” as it were by special revelation, properly interpreted.  The general revelation may or may not be actually true in the light of comparison.  That is not to say all knowledge attained through general revelation is false or useless.  On he contrary, much of it will be found to be validated. But we will not know that as Christians until we make the actual comparison.  And if we insist that no comparison of special revelation is necessary, then we are in effect saying that general revelation is self-attesting or self-validating as true if we have used the methods of general revelation itself.   This is to seek knowledge apart from God and to accept the results without reference to any criteria related to God.  This then is the very definition of autonomy.

Integration is not autonomous.  But neither does it ignore the results of the application of empirical or rationalist methods.  It only seeks to verify their assertions.  If they fall short, they must be rejected or modified.  If they are found to be consistent, that is not contradictory, with special revelation, then we may confidently use the results.  Of course even those results are only potentially true in some cases, as the methods or the data have not been thorough enough or some other error has occurred.  But at least those results would not be antithetical to special revelation.  It is important to note here that to be consistent with Scripture does not require that some alleged truth be directly or explicitly validated in special revelation, only that in principle it would not oppose special revelation as it is properly interpreted and its principles drawn out.

Integration in practice requires first a well-grounded knowledge of Scripture in all of its aspects—bibliology, human nature, sin and the Fall, salvation  in all of its aspects, even eschatology, especially when one thinks about secular variations on that doctrine.  Then when one has this data, he/she must “collate” it as to category, where it fits into theological categories.  Then the data under each category will be correlated so that one can see the relations between the parts.  Then one can put together an entire theology.  BUT, crucially, that is only part of the process.  Our goal is to construct a “theology” for each and every aspect of human knowledge—a Christian worldview—that can then be utilized in teaching.

At this stage we have to ask questions of our disciplinary knowledge base.  To what aspect of reality does it have to do?  Is it about natural phenomena, human action, etc.?  If the discipline is for example, politics, we are most often concerned with human actions/behavior in certain institutional contexts.  Therefore we need to be looking for categories of biblical data having to do with human nature, first and foremost, though not exclusively.  We will already have that data, regarding human nature, pre-Fall, after the Fall, and its implications for generalization to human behavior.  That in turn enables us to make reasonable statements about the best, better, worst or worse forms of government.  In addition, we have texts that address the relation of the Christian to government, in terms of obedience and the limits of obedience.  We have texts on justice which help us define what it is and what it is not and how it is to be applied in the context of governing.  Within the framework of the Biblical data we still have much latitude for prudence to be exercised in policy choice and governing situations.  Sometimes the choices we make between two alternatives are not between one wrong and one ethically right, but between two that are not unethical, but one of which may increase human flourishing without harm and one less able to do that.  Here we have to invoke the purpose for government in general, something we can once more find in the Biblical data.

As one proceeds to ask more questions and finds more answers in the Biblical/theological data, a more comprehensive picture of one’s discipline emerges.  When the process is complete, one will have a more or less (no system is perfectly comprehensive) comprehensive worldview of that area of knowledge.  It amounts to a theology of that particular discipline.  As we teach and research we are then able to bring this integration content to bear in our interaction with students—and without skimping on material frequently thought to be more important for “getting a job.”

But we all need to emphasize this approach strenuously.   What happened to Christian colleges who began to de-emphasize it in the past?  We have ample evidence of their precipitous fall from any semblance of orthodoxy (see Burchaell, Marsden and others, well documented historical analyses of the decline of Christian higher education).  If a Christian university wishes to maintain its distinctive, integration—properly done of course—must be at the heart of its mission and must be deliberately emphasized continually.  Integration should be encouraged that is accurate and scholarly, work that we need not be ashamed of showing to the academic world and that reasonable scholars, while disagreeing vehemently, will say is quality work.  If we are to be the light that shines in intellectual darkness, we have a duty to integrate deeply and widely.