Integration: My Pursuit of Coherence and Conviction in Christian University Education

Gordon Matties

Associate Professor of Biblical Studies & Theology

Canadian Mennonite University

“Integrating all aspects of life into one meaningful whole.” I wrote that on the cover of one of my Journals during my undergraduate studies at the University of British Columbia. I am delighted now to offer a hospitable environment to students who are working at that same task—discovering ways in which the great diversity of life finds its centre in Jesus Christ, “in whom all things hold together” (Colossians 1:17). Christian University Education’s unique gift to students is to offer a toolbox for learning to think Christianly in a way that has integrity, that shapes and forms character, and that calls them into a community that lives toward a vision of health, wholeness, justice and peace for all creation.

I had a conversation with a student a few years ago that stands out vividly in my memory. He was lamenting the fact that his educational experience had fragmented his life. His experience was not an experience of a university but of a multiversity. The educational smorgasbord in the university offered him no coherent centre around which he could find his bearings. University education offers students the ability to develop critical thinking skills, but seldom provides them with a way of relating one thing to another. I find that students often find themselves studying with a fractured understanding of their world. Although some universities, like McMaster with its motto “All things cohere in Christ,” began with a unified vision for exploration and discovery of God's good world, the contemporary pluralistic environment does not allow for discernment of the web of meaning that draws all things together.

A few years ago the UBC Chronicle published an article with the heading “Integrated Science, 311: Science with a Difference.” That article described four new “Integrated Science” courses that “are interdepartmental courses, designed to develop an understanding of links between disciplines and their impact on society.” Such developments in a public university emerge from a growing recognition that disciplinary boundaries have tended to prevent discovery at the interface between the disciplines: “The underlying philosophy is that modern science increasingly is occurring at the interface between the traditional disciplines.” That is not to say that disciplines do not have their proper sphere of inquiry; it is to say, however, that cross-disciplinary reflection is often fruitful and necessary.

One sign of such cross-disciplinary reflection is the proliferation of methodologies in all disciplines, including Biblical Studies and Theology. Unfortunately what has happened in that rush to bring new insights to bear and to hear the voices (perspectives) of others, is either a failure (or refusal) to communicate with one another, or the assertion of power and along with that, the putting down of those deemed less respectable.

If it is indeed true that Christian University Education assumes a coherent centre of reflection that brings wisdom to bear on the multiplicity of disciplines and methodologies, it also stands firmly on the conviction that perspectival and personal knowledge is part of the web of creation in which we live. If it is true that Christ is the still point in the multiversity of ideas and ideologies, then it is possible to craft a university in which students are invited to view all their learning as the work of discipleship. Theology, literature, psychology, business, biology-all find their centre in Christ. All hold together not as separate disciplines, but as arenas in which to discover and experience the reconciling and transforming wonder of God's presence. Yet each discipline also contributes to the whole. An holistic approach to education can recognize the priority of Scripture for Christian formation, for shaping the identity and mission of the community of Jesus, and for reflecting theologically on life in the world. But it also recognizes that the interface is fuzzy between what we do in Scripture study/theological reflection and other areas of exploration. Not that Mathematics should now replace the Exodus narrative. But we do well to affirm that the gospel narrative be embodied in and through the weaving of our lives into an integrated whole (to use the image developed in Steven Garber's book The Fabric of Faithfulness). Biblical Studies by itself cannot shape a worldview without participation in the conversations at the interface of the traditional disciplines.

I am committed to fostering a holistic spirituality of education that includes at its centre the discipleship of the mind. It will nourish a relational spirituality of the heart so that students learn not only to love God, but also to love what they learn and learn what they love. And it will assume that learning happens best when one embodies what one learns. As Parker Palmer puts it, “To teach is to create a space in which obedience to the truth can be practiced” (To Know as We are Known, p. 69). Education will therefore be an exploration that is critical, constructive, personal and relational.

I do that task, however, in a context where we confess certain things as given within a faith community. That means we have an agenda; we are interested participants in the search for learning and practicing the truth. We also have a way of operating, which is committed to dialogue and that eschews violence and power as means of reaching our goal. I recognize, as the Jewish philosopher Abraham Heschel has said, that ultimately truth is in search of us. Given that stance, I am committed to four basic commitments that inform my work.

1.      I am committed to the unity of all truth, which is rooted in the God of the universe. I discover myself as I find myself part of God's kingdom, sharing in the transformation and re-creation that God is involved in through Jesus Christ and his partners in that joyful prospect.

2.      I am committed to a process of personal and social transformation and creation-mending that is based in a vision of peace and justice and that finds its centre in Jesus Christ, who serves as model, initiator and enabler of the new reality that God is bringing into being.

3.      I am committed to the academic task of searching for the truth and doing the truth within an ongoing community of faith that is rooted in tradition and empowered by the Spirit to discover more of what it means to be human and to be God's people in God's world.

4.      I am committed to the mentoring and pastoral task. I see myself as a coach. I do not teach simply to transfer information, nor to create technicians of truth, but to be an agent of transformation and reconciliation that occurs as an act of God's grace.

A few years ago in a chapel presentation I invited students to accept for themselves this model of Christian University Education:

“Education in a Christian University setting will invite you to explore God's world—to know its beauty, to wonder at its complexity, to feel its pain, and to long for and work toward its wholeness. A spirituality for education will include inviting God to shape your thinking so that your character is formed in keeping with the character of Jesus, with your passion directed toward the healing and reconciling work of God in the world. This is a work you share as you are empowered by the Spirit in community, joyfully transformed for faithful obedience and reconciling service in the world.”

I have friends who have become cynical of that enterprise. I am convinced that Christian University education can offer students an alternative to cynicism: integrity of character, skills, habits, and vision for a lifetime of reflection and action that is intellectually coherent and has integrity in every arena of life, that is rooted in a community of hope, and that is rich with conviction and passion. Steven Garber's book The Fabric of Faithfulness says many of the things I have been teaching over the years. I am convinced, with him, that “the challenge for the contemporary college student . . . whose creedal commitments are rooted in the possibility and reality of truth—is to form a worldview that will be coherent across the whole of life because it addresses the whole of life” (p. 124).

My particular contribution to that enterprise, as a faculty member in Biblical Studies and Theology, is to nurture the following in the educational journey with my students:

1.      Developing a profound understanding of how Scripture functions in the life of the believing community and in the life of the individual;

2.      Situating oneself and one’s church tradition in the stream of history and discovering the strengths and limitations of that tradition;

3.      Inhabiting the story of God's redemptive work in Israel and in Jesus so that one’s character is shaped by the contours of the story;

4.      Developing a conviction that in all of life one seeks to embody the alternative vision of justice and peace, which will involve restoring and reconciling all relationships (with God, others, and creation);

5.      Engaging critically and constructively with all areas of one’s academic endeavour so that one is able to bring one’s Christian conviction to bear on all things in the hope that we will (to use images from the Apostle Paul) allow our minds to be transformed, as we examine everything carefully, thereby discerning how all things cohere in Christ.

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