Spring 2008 · Vol. 37 No. 1 · pp. 2–6 

From the Editors: Faith and Learning

John D. Friesen and John H. Redekop

What has Jerusalem to do with Athens? Or, what has faith to do with learning? The articles in this issue of Direction are guided in part by Tertullian’s famous question, “what have the classical Greek philosophers to offer to the life and thought of the church?” Jerusalem and Athens stand for different ways of viewing the world. Athens refers to the ability of the human mind to grasp reality by thinking, by reason, by experimentation, and by discovery. In contrast, Jerusalem symbolizes the spiritual gift of life from God who cares about humanity and intervenes to give personal direction and meaning. Each perspective has its own culture, set of values, and historical traditions.

While these two traditions worked together in reasonable harmony for many centuries, they have in the last few centuries become increasingly suspicious and conflicted in relationship to each other. Postsecondary learning has become largely secular and defenders of the Christian faith have largely withdrawn from the academy. This is in marked contrast to earlier periods in the history of the church. What about the future?

Mennonite Brethren have had few prophetic voices that address the relationship between faith and learning. Unlike Abraham Kuyper of the Reformed tradition or Cardinal Newman, a Catholic spokesman, we have been die Stillen im Lande. We have largely abandoned the scholarly debate in the academy. It is surely time we rejoin the conversation. We need to become vocal in the marketplace of ideas. We need to articulate an informed Christian perspective. Such involvement does not, however, give us permission to misrepresent or antagonize opposing viewpoints. Such practices will result in the banishment of our voice from the academy. Rather, we need to develop clear and articulate arguments in support of a firm relationship between faith and learning. This is our challenge. This issue of Direction addresses this challenge.

I wish to express my thanks to John H. Redekop for his significant editorial assistance with this issue. He reviewed and edited all its feature articles. We owe him much for his many hours of tireless labor. I thought it fitting to recognize his many contributions by asking him to write the following editorial introduction to the fine articles that are included in this edition. I also thank the other outside reviewers for their valuable comments.

John D. Friesen, Guest Editor
Professor Emeritus
University of British Columbia

You are fortunate. You will become informed. You will think new thoughts. As you read the eleven essays in this edition of Direction you will also be challenged and blessed.

In the first essay Gay Lynn Voth asserts that “Integrating faith and learning is thus a matter of knowing who we are as Christians, what we are called to do, and how we are to prepare ourselves to fulfill our vocation.” Reflecting on how Anabaptists/Mennonites have dealt with anticlericalism, pragmatism, and pluralism, and then challenging contemporary believers to move beyond these issues, she argues that “we only live what we imagine.” And part of what we need to imagine—and understand—is that God is God of the whole world, including knowledge and the academy, and not only the God of the church.

Zeroing in on challenges facing Christian universities, Jens Zimmermann argues that these schools “have accommodated culture much more than they know or care to admit.” One result of this accommodation, he believes, is that “developing a Christian mind often turns out to be some kind of schizophrenic experience for students.” Zimmermann calls this approach “a self-destructive strategy.” Is he right?

Continuing his analysis, Professor Zimmermann insists that most postsecondary schools, both secular and religious, “have long forgotten the purpose of their existence.” He argues powerfully that “any serious discussion of faith and learning among Christians has to begin with a hard look at the general culture of learning.” Accordingly, the starting point for Christians is an understanding of “the basic dualism between faith and reason at the heart of Western culture.” Having understood the culture, Christians then need to recover “the passion which originally fueled the ideals of Christian education.”

Writing from within the discipline of psychology, Alvin Dueck, Kevin S. Reimer and Lisa Finlay ask, “Is it possible to preserve the integrity of our religious heritage in higher educational systems which must capitulate to secular accreditation, scholarship standards, and alumni expectations?” They argue that in such an environment “we must learn to speak seculareze, a language with its own lexicon, syntax, implicit meanings, and biases.” Further, Christian students and faculty members and especially Christian schools must “recognize secularity as a competing tradition.” They must understand that the “shift to secularity in the modern world represents a kind of revolution.”

These authors believe that the “critical question for us is whether Christian higher education can address the issue of secularity and still hold on to its calling or whether ‘Christian’ is mere gloss on a systematically secular education.” At the very least, you will be intrigued by this innovative analysis.

In the fourth essay John H. Redekop discusses the challenges and intellectual temptations encountered by an eager, young ethno-religious Mennonite student striving to be true to his faith as well as to his commitment to reason and training of the mind. Although he acknowledges some inadequacies in the sheltered community of his childhood and adolescence, his assessment of his heritage is mostly positive. Is he too sanguine in his evaluation?

While readily acknowledging the broad benefits which come to a young student suddenly immersed in a large, secular university, Redekop observes that early on he concluded that he would rather live by the ethic taught and practiced by the largely unschooled clergy in the rural church which nurtured him than by the ethic of most of the secular and sophisticated professors who taught him.

In a largely autobiographical account of his life as a philosophy professor, Elmer Thiessen identifies seven temptations which he encountered and with which he grappled.

Although he argues rather forcefully that Christian instructors should avoid indoctrination, he nonetheless also asserts that we should be “teaching from and for commitment.” We should resist the temptation of neutrality. Is it really the task of Christian professors to teach for Christian commitment in a secular college or university? Some colleagues may disagree with Thiessen on this point.

Professor Thiessen’s prescription for Christian teachers also includes the warning that they must resist the temptations of “academic worldliness,” “Christian isolationism,” “arrogance,” “misplaced priorities,” separating teaching from discipleship, and seeking to avoid suffering.

In a novel undertaking Tim Rogalsky discusses “the possibility of mathematical instruction that is distinctively Christian.” He identifies five dimensions of Christian teaching of mathematics. In “Mathematics and Creation” he observes that if we believe that God made all things, “then naturally the study of mathematics is itself sacred.” In “Mathematics and Religion” he deals with broad ethical choices in applied mathematics. In the more narrowly focused section, “Mathematics and Christianity,” he analyzes chaos theory as well as mathematical exegesis of Biblical texts. Finally, in an even more narrowly defined section, “Mathematics and Anabaptism,” he present his “mathematical narrative theology.”

Having stretched the reader’s mind concerning the impact of Christianity in the understanding and teaching of mathematics, Professor Rogalsky hastens to add that while progress is being made, “The destination is still nowhere in sight.”

Sue Sorensen begins her essay by affirming that reading with faith is basic but “How exactly is one to do this genuinely in a contemporary university setting?” She rephrases her basic question: “Is it time again to read with faith . . . after several decades of reading with suspicion, of using the techniques of deconstruction and the ideas of post-structuralism?”

Professor Sorensen explains how she “had to invent” a “certain kind of pedagogical approach to literature.” In her search for better pedagogy she faced “tough questions,” challenges which have “prompted” her “toward more loving readings of a text,” a more “charitable reading of literature” generally. Her advice to all students and instructors who seek to bring their Christian convictions to bear on the literature of the ages is that “We should be aware of the giftedness of literary creation, preserve differences peacefully, and continually practice being in dialogue—with books, with authors, with other readers.” Her analysis would have helped me greatly in English 200 more than fifty years ago!

Lawrence Ressler reminds us that while many scholars have contributed towards the shaping of an integrated Christian worldview, athletics, a major component of modern society, have generally been ignored, “as if athletics do not exist in Christian higher education.” “Little thought seems to be taking place with respect to the relationship of faith and athletics.”

Given “the prominence of sports in society in general as well as within the academy,” such neglect is truly lamentable. An encompassing Christian worldview should address “the purpose and meaning of sports.” Professor Ressler argues convincingly that “It is time to move beyond the two-realm model when it comes to faith and athletics.”

In her essay on the arts Rosie Perera observes that “There has been an uneasy relationship between the church and the arts in the past, but a new renaissance appears to be underway.” Is she right? Is she right on both counts?

In this provocative study Ms. Perera states that art is not only “approved by God,” but that “art plays a vital role for humanity, we need it in the church and in the world, more of us ought to develop our artistic gifts and our ability to thoughtfully interact with art from a Christian perspective, and we need to support the artists in our midst, both spiritually and through our patronage.” Too many of us have forgotten that “creativity is a gift from God.” Unfortunately many artists, after “a long history of feeling feared and rejected or at least underappreciated by the church . . . have left to do their work elsewhere. They have missed out on nurture and discipleship in the faith, and the church has been impoverished in their absence.” The author makes a convincing case.

In his largely biographical account Dean Peachey says that just as “your background determines your politics,” so also “professors’ institutional environments similarly shape their pedagogical philosophies.” In developing a Christian educational environment, he insists, we ought to emphasize “a philosophy of teaching centered in education as building understanding.”

Professor Peachey would like to see “an enduring, creative tension.” The goal should be that students “gain a deeper understanding of themselves, other people, and the worldviews and cultures in which they find themselves.” And if this enterprise succeeds, then we will see that “seeking understanding is not only an educational endeavor, it is a spiritual journey.”

In the concluding essay John Friesen summarizes and analyzes the various initiatives, the modest successes, the frustrations and, it must be acknowledged, the ultimate failure of the well-intentioned British Columbia Mennonite Brethren Conference to establish a lasting ministry to university students in Greater Vancouver. Having reviewed the conference records from 1950 to 2006, Professor Friesen finds that during the years from 1958 to 1971 the many discussions and motions actually produced specific plans for student retreats, on-campus ministries, student chaplaincy, home church responsibility, and the establishment of a university area congregation. For various reasons these initiatives all floundered. After 1971 the issue ceased being on the conference agenda; fortunately a quite successful, although modest, private initiative was soon launched.

As Professor Friesen puts it, “Our record is not particularly compelling.” He adds this timely challenge: “Mennonites will need to develop models of faith and learning which are much less polemic and adversarial and much more complementary of the relationship between faith and learning. The conflict stance will prove unsatisfactory.” Friesen concludes with the basic reminder that “the implementation of effective programs in student ministry is an important challenge for the Mennonite community in the future.”

That is, indeed, also the theme of this issue of Direction.

John H. Redekop, Associate Editor
Professor Emeritus, Wilfrid Laurier University
Adjunct Professor of Political Science, Trinity Western University