Why do people still read Plato? Aristotle? The Bible? Augustine? Thomas Aquinas? John Locke? Immanuel Kant (well, maybe not so much)? What unifies them? It isn’t religion. Plato and Aristotle were most certainly not Christians. Augustine and Aquinas would have disagreed on the extent of man’s capacity to know and to will the good. The Bible seems so different from the more philosophical treatises of those mentioned along with it above.
The common element is that they all addressed the most important questions of life, and continue to do so to those who read them. They weren’t technicians, though that kind of vocation is as God-given as any other. But technicians don’t make us think deeply, as a rule, though they may be very proficient at fixing many things. The individuals and works I listed above ranged far and wide with their reflections and teaching on those most important issues that face anyone—is there a God? What is He like? What is right and wrong? How do I know anything? What is reality like? What is beauty? What is justice? What does it mean to be human? What is human nature? These questions and their answers don’t fix sinks in the short run, nor make cars run, not airplanes fly, nor prepare our food, nor design and build our technological devices. What good are they then?
Some people, all too many don’t think reading and thinking on these people’s works is of much use. They want immediate utilitarian value. I understand that. It wouldn’t do much good to sit and read Plato while I had no food, shelter, clothing, or any conveniences that make life bearable and even enjoyable. I can’t live on Augustine—unless I ate his City of God out of desperate hunger, since it would make a pretty filling meal (1500 pages in one edition). But in another sense, we need these people as much or more than our daily sustenance. They help us, if properly used, become more authentically human, and, ultimately, if properly balanced, better Christians.
What I am also trying to say is that these and others that continue to resonate down through the centuries are part of the liberal arts. They form the body of what we need to think on to be real Christian humans. But as I have implied, they are themselves not nearly so good without God in them, which is why I included the Bible in liberal arts and not just theology.
As a Christian faculty at an evangelical university, I must add that the Bible is at the core of the liberal arts, and that the liberal arts cannot be studied with nearly so much benefit without it. On the other hand, with the Bible at the core, the liberal arts can make for a much richer and purposeful life than one can imagine. I argue that the two go inseparably together. Let me here quote Gene Fant from First Things, July 2011:
“Contemporary liberal arts education tends to harvest the fruit of the classical liberal arts and ferment it into an intoxicating, and even deadly, elixir, even as it tries to dig out the roots of the tradition and burn them, making a future harvest impossible. Or nearly so, for the roots have a habit of spreading out and popping up as fresh shoots in all sorts of locations. Augustine’s famous declaration is instructive in this matter:
‘Thou hast formed us for Thyself, and our hearts are restless till they find rest in Thee’ (Confessions, Book One).”
Without the Bible—without God that is—the world is insufferably worse than it might be. In fact it might be downright bad. I am reminded of Thomas Hobbes’ picture of the world without order (in his case, only political order): “Nasty, short and brutish.” And more ignorant of truth and good and beauty and right. As Fant puts it, without God, and the Bible, Augustine’s dictum above is chopped to, “Our hearts are restless.” But we don’t know what we need.
So as important and as valuable the liberal arts are, they must be studied within the context of the Christian way of thinking that derives from the Bible, from which we in turn know who God is and what He wishes. But still, the liberal arts must be studied, or else we tend to be truncated versions of human.
In the end, I am making a pitch that at any Christian institution the liberal arts are absolutely necessary. Not to get more students in a major, but in themselves and always in connection with the ultimate source of truth, the Scriptures.