Jim Taylor’s Spring 2012 Sabbatical Leave Report

  1. Period of sabbatical leave: spring semester 2012
  2. Title of project: Learning, Wisdom, and the Good Life: A Philosophical Introduction to the Christian Liberal Arts
  3. Name of the sabbatical leave recipient: Jim Taylor
  4. One or two sentences summarizing my activities: During my sabbatical I wrote a book entitled, Learning, Wisdom, and the Good Life: A Philosophical Introduction to the Christian Liberal Arts and I spent two weeks in Santa Fe, New Mexico so that I could learn more about the liberal arts program at St. John’s College there. I also attended three professional conferences (the 2012 meeting of the Mountain-Pacific Division of the Society of Christian Philosophers at Westmont, the 2012 meeting of the Central Division of the American Philosophical Association Conference in Chicago, and the 2012 Association of Core Texts and Courses annual conference in Milwaukee.
  5. Full description of project activity: (Please see the book proposal that accompanies this report.)
  6. Assessment of if/how the original project objectives were met: In my original proposal I stated that, “My plan is to write a book that covers the material included in a standard introduction to philosophy but in such a way as to include a section in each chapter that discusses connections between the philosophical issues addressed and the broader Christian liberal arts education the student is receiving.” However, instead of writing an introduction to philosophy designed to show students the relationship between philosophy and the Christian liberal arts in general, I ended up writing a philosophical introduction to the Christian liberal arts. As a result, the standard philosophical issues took a backseat to a philosophical defense of the possibility and value of the Christian liberal arts by means of a discussion of the nature and purpose of the Christian liberal arts.
  7. List of specific outcomes/achievements: In addition to the book, I also wrote a paper entitled, “Are Academic Disciplinary Distinctions Natural, Conventional, or Both?” (which I wrote to present at the Society of Christian Philosophers meeting here but ended up not doing so) and a paper entitled, “Can Theology Still be Queen?: Newman’s University in Today’s World” (which I presented at the annual conference of the Association of Core Texts and Courses). I also wrote 59 100-word essays on various topics related to the Christian liberal arts on my blog. All of these written works are available on request.
  8. Suggested time and format for a report to the faculty: I would be happy to report on my sabbatical to the faculty at any upcoming faculty forum.


Learning, Wisdom, and the Good Life:

A Philosophical Introduction to the Christian Liberal Arts

James E. Taylor

Westmont College

The Book’s Purpose: The purpose of this book is to help students at Christian liberal arts colleges and universities understand and appreciate the nature and purpose of a Christian liberal arts education. Many students who attend these institutions fail to grasp and value the distinctive characteristics and goals of Christian liberal learning. As a result, they are not able to take full advantage of the kind of education offered to them in these learning communities.

Moreover, students often have two main concerns about the idea of a Christian approach to the liberal arts. The first concern is that a Christian liberal arts education is not desirable. This view frequently stems from a preference for vocational over liberal education. The second concern is that a Christian liberal arts education is not possible. This worry is based on the assumption that the goals of the Christian faith and liberal learning are incompatible.

The thesis of this book is that a Christian liberal arts education is both valuable and possible. My defense of this claim will be based on a discussion of the nature and goals of both liberal learning and Christian discipleship. An immediate goal of both of these activities is the cultivation of wisdom - a “renewal of mind” (Romans 12:2). Moreover, for both, this wisdom is meant to lead to individual and societal flourishing. So a Christian liberal arts education has worthwhile goals.

But there are also tensions between liberal learning in some of its manifestations and Christian discipleship as it is portrayed in the Bible. I use Tertullian’s question about the relationship between Jerusalem and Athens to highlight three of these conflicts: (1) A liberal arts education emphasizes critical inquiry, open-mindedness, and academic freedom; Christian living emphasizes confident faith, commitment, and submission to God. (2) Liberal learners achieve human wisdom on the basis of natural reason; Christian disciples receive divine wisdom on the basis of supernatural faith. (3) A liberal education requires mastery of a set of academic disciplines; Christian devotion requires being mastered by the Holy Spirit through the practice of spiritual disciplines. I draw on the thought of St. Augustine to show students how these tensions can be resolved.

The book encourages students to think philosophically, comprehensively, and systematically about the Christian liberal arts. It aims to help students transcend the limitations of narrow, specialized, and compartmentalized disciplinary thinking to see the Christian liberal arts as an integrated interdisciplinary pursuit of truth, goodness, and beauty in the service of and to the glory of God. My main goal in writing this book is to provide readers with a perspective that will ease their concerns about and strengthen their enthusiasms for Christian liberal learning.

Though there are other books that cover some of the same ground (see below for a list and discussion of a few of them), there is need at present for a new emphasis. I believe attention to the virtue of wisdom can be a valuable way to meet that need. A number of recent Christian authors have called us to rethink both the academic vocation and the mission of the church in the midst of intellectual and cultural trends these writers argue have gotten us off track. Mark R. Schwehn, in Exiles from Eden: Religion and the Academic Vocation in America, encourages academics to resist the forces of modernism and to recover the centrality of teaching, community, and virtue in the academic vocation. James K. A. Smith, in Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation, urges us to replace an overly intellectualistic stress on the education of the mind with an Augustinian accent on the formation of the heart for a life of love. Dallas Willard, in Knowing Christ Today: Why We Can Trust Spiritual Knowledge, decries the secularization that has caused even Christians to become skeptical about the claims of the Christian faith and argues that moral and theological knowledge is possible. Finally, James Davison Hunter, in To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, & Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World, advises Christians to resist the current overly optimistic reliance on politics as a tool to change the world and invites us instead to live lives characterized by faithful presence. As I see it, the virtue of wisdom is an essential component of an effective response to each of these recommendations. In the academic context, we need to focus on wisdom as the primary goal of our learning in order to restore the goal of character formation (virtue and the heart) to our educational aspirations. In the context of the church in the world, we need disciples of Jesus whose wisdom and knowledge make them both confident and authoritative “teachers of the nations” and discerning and faithful “light and salt” in the world.

Another advantage of the wisdom theme is that it provides a common point of contact between the biblical tradition and various non-biblical traditions. The Christian liberal arts tradition in the Western world has already made much of the similarities between Greco-Roman and biblical conceptions of wisdom. I will discuss some of these concordances in the book. But there are also interesting and exciting prospects for making connections with ancient Chinese wisdom traditions as well – especially in the philosophy of Confucius but also in the thought of Lao Tsu. I invite my student readers to explore these traditions from a Christian standpoint in the Augustinian spirit of “stealing Egyptian gold.” In introducing my readers to the Greco-Roman, Judeo-Christian, and Chinese wisdom traditions I also encourage them to become acquainted with the core texts that preserve and convey these traditions to us. These texts include works by Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, Aquinas, Confucius, Lao Tzu, and others.

The primary audience for the book: The main audience for the book is undergraduate students at Christian liberal arts colleges and universities. The book is intended as a text for first-year seminars, though it would also be appropriate for senior-level capstone courses. In addition, it could be used as a supplementary text in introductory humanities courses to provide students with a larger context within which to situate the main content of the course. The book can be understood and enjoyed without specialized knowledge or skills; technical terms are avoided whenever possible and clearly defined when used. Each chapter will be prefaced by an outline and a list of key terms. There will also be a summary, discussion questions, and suggestions for further reading at the end of each chapter. In addition, the book will have a glossary, a bibliography, and an index.

Though the book is written for undergraduate students at Christian liberal arts colleges and universities, its readership could potentially include anyone who is interested in a defense of the possibility and value of a Christian liberal arts education. Accordingly, in addition to teachers and students who use it in a course, it should appeal to many faculty, administrators, trustees, parents, prospective students, graduate students, and donors. However, since it is written primarily for a general academic audience, it will likely not garner much attention from people outside the academy interested in a more popular treatment of the topics addressed in the book.

I hired one of Westmont’s recent top graduates to read the entire manuscript. She told me that she thinks the book would be suitable for a first-year seminar at a Christian liberal arts college like Westmont. She also said that she believes it would provide an accessible, engaging, informative, and inspiring introduction to the Christian liberal arts that clarifies the nature, purpose, and value of this sort of education. Moreover, she agreed that my book would encourage students to begin doing the kind of foundational, interdisciplinary, and integrative thinking that we encourage them to do in their Christian liberal arts courses. Finally, she concurred that my book would prepare students to take full advantage of their Christian liberal arts education so that they would be able to acquire as much wisdom from it as possible.

I have also been in conversation about my book with Gregg Ten Elshof who chairs the Biola philosophy department. Gregg told me that their department is planning to revise their major substantially so as to focus on “wisdom traditions,” and he expressed interest in the possibility of using a book like mine for some of their courses.

Books with which it will compete. The main recent books with which my book will compete are single-author texts (rather than anthologies), about the Christian liberal arts (rather than either the liberal arts in general or Christian higher education in general) that are written primarily for students (rather than primarily for faculty, parents, administrators, and/or trustees).

Here arethree recent books that satisfy these criteria:

Fant, Jr., Gene C. The Liberal Arts: A Student’s Guide. Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, forthcoming in May 2012 (128 pp.).

Holmes, Arthur. The Idea of a Christian College, Revised Edition. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1987 (106 pp.).

Ostrander, Richard. Why College Matters to God: A Student’s Introduction to the Christian College Experience. Abilene, TX: Abilene Christian University Press, 2009 (128 pp.).

Here are three other recent single-author texts about the Christian liberal arts that are not written primarily for students:

Dockery, David S. Renewing Minds: Serving Church and Society through Christian Higher Education. Rev. ed. Nashville, TN: B&H Academic, 2008 (214 pp.)

Litfin, Duane. Conceiving the Christian College. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2004 (283 pp.).

Mannoia, V. James.Christian Liberal Arts: An Education that Goes Beyond. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2000 (241 pp.).

And here are two single-author books about the liberal arts that are written for students but that are not about the Christian liberal arts:

Schall, James V. A Student’s Guide to Liberal Learning. Wilmington, DE: Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 2000 (54 pp.).

Roche, Mark William. Why Choose the Liberal Arts? South Bend, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2010 (184 pp.).

Finally, there are a number of anthologies with essays that concern liberal learning, both Christian and otherwise (only the Stancil volume is written for students):

Davis, Jeffrey C. and Philip Graham Ryken, eds. Liberal Arts for the Christian Life.Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2012 (320 pp.).

Dockery, David S., ed. Faith and Learning: A Handbook for Christian Higher Education. Nashville, TN: B&H Academic, forthcoming in May 2012 (560 pp.).

Glyer, Diana and David L. Weeks, eds. The Liberal Arts in Higher Education: Challenging Assumptions, Exploring Possibilities. Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1998 (161 pp.).

Stancil, Wilburn T., ed. A Student’s Guide to the Liberal Arts. Bronx, NY: Fordham University Press, 2003 (277 pp.).

Since my book will be in direct competition with only the first three books listed above, I will compare it only to them.

I’ll start with Arthur F. Holmes’ The Idea of a Christian College, which is the oldest and most well known book in that list. My book shares some content and aims with Holmes’s now classic work, but it is different in a number of important respects. First, though our books address many of the same themes (e.g., the liberal arts, faith-learning integration, worldviews, theological foundations, and academic freedom), my book is tightly organized according to a means-end structure (learning as a means to wisdom), whereas the chapters of Holmes’ book are more loosely connected. Second, my book develops (analyzes, explains, evaluates) most of the topics in Holmes’s book much more thoroughly than he does. Third, I introduce a number of other important issues not discussed in Holmes’ work, such as the nature of learning, alternative liberal arts ideals, the challenge of multiculturalism and postmodernism, the relevance of non-Western traditions, and the role of the spiritual disciplines in the Christian liberal arts. Fourth, my book is somewhat more narrowly focused than Holmes’ book in the sense that it emphasizes wisdom as both the primary immediate goal of liberal learning and as an essential tool for living well. Fifth, my book not only covers the important subject of faith-learning integration for the purpose of worldview construction, but also explores the crucial role of spiritual discipline for the purpose of character transformation. Finally, I examine some important passages of scripture and classical (ancient Greek, medieval, and ancient Chinese) philosophical texts that bear on the points I am making.

Rick Ostrander intends for his Why College Matters to God to function for today’s Christian college students the way Holmes’s The Idea of a Christian College did for the previous generation. One of the book’s promoters even states that he sees Ostrander’s volume “as a potential replacement for” Holmes’s book. The two books overlap in content to a large extent, though Ostrander expanded Holmes’s theological foundations chapter into three chapters, added a chapter on the history of Christian colleges in America, and reduced his treatment of some of the topics to which Holmes devoted more space. He also added brief discussions of themes not included in The Idea of a Christian College such as the importance of a global perspective. My book differs from Ostrander’s book in the same general ways it diverges from Holmes’s book.

Gene Fant’s recently published The Liberal Arts: A Student’s Guide, is a volume in the Crossway series entitled Reclaiming the Christian Intellectual Tradition and edited by David S. Dockery. According to the publisher’s blurb, “Professor Gene Fant teaches how to maximize a liberal arts education by outlining its history, criticisms, purposes, and benefits. Ultimately, he shows that liberal learning equips us to become spiritually and intellectually empathetic people who are passionate about serving God, the church, and the world.” This description also applies for the most part to my book. However, though Fant’s text also covers many of the topics my book shares with the Holmes and Ostrander volumes, it differs from my book in most of the ways the latter two books do. One important exception is that Fant includes a chapter entitled, “Wisdom and Liberal Learning,” which touches on some ideas developed in my book. However, his explanation of the role of wisdom in a Christian liberal arts education is substantially less thorough than mine.

The Holmes, Ostrander, and Fant texts are each intended to be concise and accessible introductions to the idea of a Christian college and to serve as supplementary texts when used(as they are primarily intended to be used) in the classroom. My book is also an accessible introduction to the Christian liberal arts, but I wrote it to be a main text that invites its student readers to engage in relatively serious and in-depth philosophical and theological reflection on the general nature of Christian liberal learning, the characteristics of the types of wisdom that collectively constitute the primary immediate goal of Christian liberal learning, and the elements of the interdisciplinary and integrative learning that leads to the sorts of wisdom aimed at in a Christian liberal arts education.