A Wonderful Education

Published Aug 04, 2010
A Wonderful Education

EDITOR'S NOTE: The following is an excerpt from Against All Gods: What's Right and Wrong about the New Atheism by Phillip E. Johnson and John Mark Reynolds. This chapter is written by John Mark Reynolds (IVP).

A Wonderful Education 

The best thing about the new atheists is that they are starting some good conversations. For too long "religion" has been treated as totally private and not subject to scrutiny inside of education. That is too bad, because it infantilizes religion and cuts off a great many interesting conversations.

Conversations about religion can be wonderful and help us all shape a better life for ourselves.

Writing for outlets like the Washington Post leads to lots of interesting email. Some critics claim that my job as an educator at a religious institution is hopelessly impractical and a bad deal for my students. Whenever a critic wishes to really let me have it, he or she will point out that I work at Biola University (formerly the Bible Institute of Los Angeles) where the faculty is required to agree with a creedal statement. How can I do philosophy or even real education in such a constricting environment?

Leaving aside the fact that Biola University has not been a Bible institute for over half a century, the critic is really concerned about the compatibility of faith with reason. Isn't faith the opposite of reason? As one email put it: Christians believe things despite the evidence. If true, that obviously makes living a rational life impossible. For the critic, faith is a set of opinions, and though you can repeat opinions, perhaps in a clever way, you do not need an education to have them.

The critic of religious education argues that it is impossible to be educated without cultivating a spirit of skepticism, but skepticism is antithetical to the religious spirit. Skepticism needs doubt, and doubt is the opposite of faith. Science, philosophy and reason require a Doubting Thomas, while religion wishes to cure Thomas of all his doubts. In the Los Angeles Times, biologist P. Z. Myers put it this way:

It's hard not to take seriously a bizarre collection of antiquated superstitions that are furiously waved in our faces in our schools, on television, in our politics and even on newspaper editorial pages. That we take the intellectually bankrupt beliefs of religion seriously is precisely why we do question it, and will continue to question it, in our boring way: by simply speaking out.1 

If this series of insults directed at the very idea of religious knowledge and an education with a basis in religion were not enough, there is the idea that education should be practical.

The practical person points out that in the modern world most people get education for good jobs or to open up opportunities for better jobs. Religion is not very practical, and at least for most people, it is not very lucrative, and so the practical person pushes it to the side. College is too expensive to spend good money thinking about religion.

Students are reduced to mere consumers in a university dominated either by skepticism or an obsession with moneymaking (or both). There is no energy or time left for faith. But this very combination of critics and their ability to live cozily together should make us consider whether there is not a better way. Surely there is more to life than cynicism, debunking and anger. Most of us know from bitter experience that this "something more," happiness, cannot be found in accumulating things. If he who dies with the most toys wins, then it must have been a pretty stupid game to play.

But don't take my word for it or even your own experience. Pick up any catalog from a liberal arts college and read its goals. The college promises so much more than teaching skepticism and moneymaking in return for their expensive tuitions. Is there a better way? There is, and it is the reason that college catalogs still read as if education were about human beings, virtues and is wonderful.

Wonder Instead of Doubt 

The first way to restore beauty and wonder to education is to put skepticism in its place. Skepticism, like gay, is a word that used to mean one thing and now means something else entirely. It is hard to use it meaningfully at all. Skepticism was a good thing, but now it stands for a toxic attitude that makes genuine happiness difficult.

When Socrates told his young followers to inquire for themselves and not just blindly accept the platitudes of their elders, he was advancing a noble form of skepticism. Socrates thought there was truth and that it was knowable, but that people should look for this truth.2 The old Athenian recognized that even when we have the right opinions, it is better to examine those opinions and ground them in greater certainty through the use of reason than to stay blissfully ignorant about the basis for our beliefs.

Socrates knew sophists—intellectuals for hire—who attacked the possibility of morality and advocated living for power or pleasure, but he did not give up on either morality or religion. His day was not so different from our own. Socrates looked for a god that was moral and a morality that could make him a better teacher and citizen of Athens. Sophists were skeptical in a caustic way. They mocked Athenian customs when they could not see good reasons for them. Socrates sought to understand what he loved. This was a different kind of skepticism.

His skepticism was one of wonder. He saw goodness, truth and beauty, and wondered what was behind it. He loved the divine; he did not want to debunk it, but his love led him to the natural desire to understand what could be understood. For Socrates, skepticism was wondering about the wonderful.

The skepticism of the sophists tried to take things apart or refute. Socrates might eventually find that a traditional idea was wrong, but sorrowfully. Sophistical skepticism could be initially valuable because it would tear down the pretensions of thoughtless Greek leaders, but it was ultimately parasitic. It could only refute what others asserted. Socratic skepticism would sometimes refute, but in refutation it would try to save what could be saved in the old idea by modifying it. It was constructive and not merely destructive.

In the hands of his greatest student, Plato, education was motivated by love that was produced by wonder at the good, true and beautiful in the cosmos. This love sought to understand the beloved and in doing so often learned painful things, but always sought to save what could be saved of the initial lovely impulse to study. Christianity picked up this idea, so compatible with the life of Jesus Christ, when it came into contact with classical philosophy.3

Both dead certainty and endless skepticism tend to crush wonder. Certainty takes the beloved for granted and so never produces motion toward the object of interest. That makes education impossible. Skepticism destroys the love that motivated the desire to learn in the first place. Wonder wants to believe in order to see what is actually true.

Belief is fundamental to education because it provides a hypothesis that can be tested against experience and reason. Experience is gained through life and experiments. Reason, in traditional Christian education, uses open-ended dialogue and examination to test and modify beliefs. Of course, revelation from God provides one kind of experience and data for dialectical discussion in the life of an educated Christian.

Belief combined with wonder allows for faith without foolish certainty. Faith is the best belief that retains what is hoped for within the bounds of best reason and experience. Education is the process of grounding our religious and cultural hopes in long discourse, reason and life experience. The educated religious person is a person of a reasonable and passionate faith. From the compromise between Socratic wonder and Christian theology came the traditional liberal arts curriculum of the English-speaking world in flagship institutions such as Oxford and Cambridge.

These institutions produced leaders for Christ's Kingdom, called by some Christendom. Christendom is the way Christians live inside an imperfect world, before Christ returns and ends time. It is a messy place, but it allows for the best possible life for all people.

An Elite Education for the Rest of Us 

When most people were farmers, the majority did not need much formal education to gain the virtues necessary to live the good life in their communities. The virtues of a farmer were not complex and (it was believed) did not require the elaborate education of the colleges. As late as the 1920s my grandparents went to school through the eighth grade and could earn respectable middle-class wages and retire in relative comfort. They were educated by the church and by the community to the virtues of their station. Leaders in the culture received more intensive mentoring and training in the liberal arts to prepare them for the ruling class.

Times have changed, thank goodness, and now many people have an opportunity for societal leadership if they have the inclination and ability. The education of the small church or the neighborhood of my grandparents' time is inadequate for the demands of excellence required through the greater responsibilities of leadership.

Sadly, instead of giving more of the rising middle class the traditional, and expensive, education created by Christians in Oxford, Cambridge and other traditional centers of learning, my parents' generation was given job training. There was no confidence that a market economy could expand enough to accommodate the desires of everyone capable of an upper-class education.

College was commoditized and changed to prepare an upper-middle class of compliant middle managers and consumers. Large lecture classes replaced intimate tutorials, and career advisement in factory-sized universities replaced mentoring.

Of course, much good was still done in these schools, as many noble professors worked within the old liberal arts framework, which still existed, to give the best education they could to their students. Large schools also allowed for more efficient research, and all of us have benefited from this change. However, the very success of scientific research tended to overshadow the more pedestrian value of education in the "examined life."

Traditional Christian education has a well-lived life as its goal, but it has death always in mind. For a Christian the good life is a preparation for eternity, but eternity receded in minds trained only to think about their role in the consumer economy. Time magazine recently claimed that this generation is consumed with "amortality," the belief that though we will die, it is best to behave as if we never will.

Modern, pragmatic and sophistic education ignores the most important fact known about humans: we are mortal but have eternity in our heart. It is a common contemporary conceit that today's students are much more realistic than the students of the Middle Ages, but the opposite is true. The modern student does not believe in unicorns or death. The medieval student might have believed in unicorns (or not!) but was not stupid enough to doubt that he was mortal. The medieval student was constantly aware of the reality of death and suffering and never ignored it. He was not morbid, but he was not foolish enough to forget how he would end. Modern education creates the magical notion that if death is ignored, it will go away or will not need to be faced. As for eternity, surely if P. Z. Meyers asserts that it does not exist loudly enough, we need not fear it!

This is magical thinking no medieval scholar such as Aquinas would have indulged in for a moment.

Christian education is not to be confused with an apprenticeship program. There is nothing wrong with learning a job skill or the practical skills needed to live in the particular culture in which we find ourselves, but this is not education. Education gives people the capability to do some good with the money that an apprenticeship provides them. It teaches a student virtue. What are these virtues that are missing in so much of our cynical and pragmatic education?

Virtue: Preparing Souls for Happiness 

Virtues are the characteristics that allow a human to be excellent at being a human. It might be useful for Joe to be a plumber or a professor, but if Joe is a bad man then his usefulness will be limited, however good he is at fixing pipes or grading exams.

What are the virtues? Christian educators found four in classical philosophy and three from the Bible. The classical virtues are courage, prudence, moderation and justice. The Christian virtues are hope, faith and charity. These are excellences of the soul that come from God, but can be cultivated and strengthened through proper education.

Students are taught to be courageous and moderate through practical guidance and history. Courage is the desire to do what must be done when it is dangerous or particularly difficult to do it. It is taught through physical training and the examples of courageous people from the past. Moderation is the governing principle of the well-lived life. It is taught by a mentor guiding a student in the student's own moral decisions and in looking at great men and women of the past and their decisions.

Prudence and justice are the great virtues of the civilized person. Prudence, or practical wisdom, teaches a person what it is he or she must do. It is taught through experience guided by mentors and by developing a general knowledge of the culture in which a student lives. Justice is treating the equal equally and the unequal unequally. An experience of a wide variety of people and an appreciation of their different qualities through life experience and reading is part of this training. This might provide some common ground in our conversations with nontheists.

In a fallen world classical virtue taken straight can be too strong; however, God reminds us of greater virtues through the revelation of himself in Jesus Christ.

The existence of a good God and an orderly creation is a basis for hope in education. Students do not need to fear any question because the universe is essentially good. They can pursue their studies with hope. Hope grounded in reason and experience becomes faith.

Faith is being willing to act when certainty is impossible. Faith is not certainty but a willingness to follow the argument where it leads. It knows this basic truth: we must commit ourselves, and only then do we see.

All of these virtues are powered by one great virtue: love. A human sees goodness, truth or beauty and loves it. This love drives him or her to know more about the beloved. Fundamentally, Christian education is driven by love to find the object of love and know all that is knowable about the beloved. As a result it is impossible for a Christian, in love with a God he or she believes is good, true and beautiful, to ignore education. Just as any lover will long to know everything there is to know to about the beloved and all his or her works, so the Christian will be passionate to know everything there is to know about God and all his works.

How to Teach Virtue: Mentoring 

How are these virtues taught? In classical Christian education they are taught by example. Following the example of Jesus, who walked and taught a group of disciples, the Christian world places a strong emphasis on discipleship. The primary examples come from the mentors or teachers who disciple their students and walk with them toward virtue. The secondary examples are found in the great works of art. These books, movies, paintings and other expressions are, at their best, windows into the image of God found in the great men and women who made them.

Of course, for a Christian this education is centered in coming to know the God-man, Jesus Christ. He is introduced to his student in the pages of the Bible and known by the deepest intellectual and emotional capacities of humankind.

How to Teach Virtue: Seeing for Oneself 

Knowing this good person, Jesus, helps us become like him. The central story that explains this education of the soul is found in the biblical book written by Luke. In chapter twenty-four of his account of the ministry of Jesus, Luke tells of two disappointed disciples who were walking home after the crucifixion of Jesus. Jesus comes to them, but hides his identity from them. He asks them questions about their feelings and allows them to express their great sorrow and bewilderment. Jesus then teaches them from the Scriptures how his suffering and death were predicted and was the culmination of history to that point.

When I was a child, I did not understand why Jesus hid his identity from these disciples. Why didn't he just heal their pain by appearing to them? One day sitting in church, I realized an answer to this question: if Jesus had ministered to their felt needs by appearing to them in glory, he would have ended all discussion. He could have healed the surface wounds of his disciples, an important thing to do, but his glory would have left the disciples unable to do anything but marvel, and Jesus wanted them to think and assent to his message with all their heart, soul and mind.

His disciples had bad ideas, and Jesus wanted adult followers, not mindless robotic drones. He hid his overwhelming glory from them so they could learn. He taught by questions and discussion, and then revealed himself finally to them in the breaking of the bread.

Jesus Christ is a perfect example for a teacher. He dealt with the deep needs of his students and not just the problems he knew they had. Jesus asked questions and allowed his students to give bad answers. He used a great text that they had read and discussed its meaning with them. Jesus raised his students to a higher level and did not just crush them with his superior understanding and experience.

Luke does not give the details of Jesus' teaching, and so I wondered about this missing part of the story. Why set it up so carefully and then leave out most of what Jesus said? It struck me forcefully one day that Christ wanted to walk with me, allow me to ask questions and also appear to me at the end of this discipleship process in the sacraments of the church. Luke did not short circuit the process for me, either, by telling me the Lord's teaching.

Jesus is the model educator, and Luke imitated his technique in writing his Gospel.

Of course, there were other great teachers who contributed to the Western view of education, including the great philosophers of the ancient world. Their truth was heard and appropriated when discovered by the church. Christianity contributed important ideas to the development of education and will continue to do so, but it does not, in itself, contain all truth. Christian education has benefited from contributions by Islamic, Jewish, pagan and secular thinkers over the centuries. While every generation of Christians has contained purists who were not open to ideas from outside sources, they have rarely dominated the mainstream of Christian education. Examining every idea and appropriating that which was helpful is a long-standing Christian tradition.

Education, Christianity and other Faiths 

I have spent the last fifteen years putting some of these ideas into practice at the Torrey Honors Institute at Biola University. With a dozen highly trained professors, we have educated hundreds of students, and the results have been amazing. We have sent graduates—from opera singers to missionaries—into the entire world. Because we teach ideas that both favor and oppose Christianity, a few have chosen to leave the faith. Most have remained faithful witnesses to the compatibility of a traditional Christian message with an examined life.

The best thing about Torrey has been the creation of an authentic community of learners. Teachers and students are learning together. While I started the program, I am no longer necessary to it, but am able to enjoy the learning that goes on in Torrey every day. It is not some educational paradise, for we often fail to live up to the high standards of the Master, but it is living proof that the Socratic method has nothing to fear from the lordship of Christ.

Jesus is Lord of all creation and of every human, and so we have found joy in learning even from those who do not share our faith. Since all humans are created in God's image, Christians certainly do not have a lock on doing education well. Christianity may have invented the university and put together the principles for best education in the West, but knowing what to do is not, sadly, the same thing as doing it. Torrey has experienced in a small way the hard-earned wisdom of listening to the wise man or woman outside the faith.

I know a man who is almost eighty, but has spent his entire life pursuing wonder, not skepticism. He has lived a good life because he is neither credulous nor cynical. He is full of wonder. Is he a Christian? I do not know, but he lives as a Christian should in his educational philosophy.

Torrey owes him a great debt.

It is therefore more than possible to be a great educator without being a Christian. But can a non-Christian culture sustain an educational system created from the fusion of Christianity and Greco-Roman thought? Perhaps, but it has proven very difficult for even Christians to sustain it, and the present situation does not look hopeful. Without a revival of traditional Christianity, the open-ended quest may deteriorate into mere cynicism, trendiness or practicality with nothing human left at all.

If wonder and a thirst for goodness, truth and beauty are enough to sustain an education, then a Christian has the necessary characteristics to be educated. Of course, this is not a process that a Christian believes will end before death, for then his or her education in even deeper things will just be beginning. Heaven will be utterly wonderful.

Taken from Against All Gods: What's Right and Wrong About the New Atheism by Phillip E. Johnson and John Mark Reynolds. Copyright(c) 2010 by Phillip E. Johnson and John Mark Reynolds. Used by permission of InterVarsity Press PO Box 1400 Downers Grove, IL 60515. www.ivpress.com.


1P. Z. Myers, "Why Is Charlotte Allen so Mad at Atheists?" Los Angeles Times, May 22, 2009.
2I am referring to the "Socrates" found in Plato's dialogues. It is difficult to know what the actual Socrates, who wrote no books, believed himself.
3See my When Athens Met Jerusalem (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 2009).


Christianity / Christian Life / Education / A Wonderful Education