Defining the Integration of Faith and Learning
A conversation with Esau McCaulley, Todd Ream, Derek Schuurman, and Andrea Scott
The cornerstone of Christian higher education is the commitment to the practice of infusing the higher education learning experience with the theology, doctrines, and practices of the orthodox Christian faith – in simpler terms, the integration of faith and learning.
What, exactly, does this union of faith and education look like on a Christian college campus? In the wake of the trends of the last few decades and especially the disruption caused by the pandemic, what does faith-integrated learning look like in our current context?
Morgan Feddes Satre, the managing editor for Advance, brought together several scholar-practitioners who come from a broad spectrum of professional backgrounds and who serve at several CCCU institutions across the U.S. for a conversation on these questions. The full conversation (including an additional question) is available on the CCCU’s YouTube channel; this version has been edited for length and clarity.
Esau McCaulley is associate professor of New Testament at Wheaton College (Wheaton, IL). He is the author of several books, including the forthcoming How Far to the Promised Land: One Black Family’s Story of Hope and Survival in the American South (Convergent Books, September 2023).
Todd Ream serves at Indiana Wesleyan University (Marion, IN) as a professor of humanities, as the executive director of faculty research and scholarship, and as senior fellow for programming for the Lumen Research Institute. He’s also the CCCU’S senior fellow for public engagement and the publisher for Christian Scholar’s Review.
Derek Schuurman is a professor of computer science at Calvin University (Grand Rapids, MI). He has industry experience and is interested in issues related to faith and technology. He’s the author of Shaping a Digital World and co-author of A Christian Field Guide to Technology for Engineers and Designers.
Andrea Scott is an academic leader with extensive experience in the business world. She currently serves as provost at George Fox University (Newberg, OR), previously served as a dean and professor of marketing, and she’s also a former Fulbright Scholar.
Morgan Feddes Satre: I want to start by asking how each of you would describe what “the integration of faith and learning” looks like in your classroom or on your campus. How would you describe what this is to students or to their parents?
Esau McCaulley: It’s a little bit tricky for me because I actually teach Bible, and so the integration of faith and learning takes on a different vibe. I know when I talk to my colleagues in math and science and other places, they’re struggling — “should I do a devotional, or should I try to tie some theological concept to what we’re studying?” For me, my content is all biblical studies. So what I’m doing is showing that learning is actually related to faith, [whereas] everyone else is asking, “How does faith come into learning?” As a Bible scholar, I try to teach my students that biblical studies is an academic discipline — there are certain questions [we’re exploring], and we’re not in simply an extended devotional when we’re doing Bible and theology classes.
The other thing that I try to say to them is that in biblical studies, while we’re studying the material, the material is also studying us. Students are engaging in an academic discipline that is asking you at every page the existential questions: Who am I? What does it mean to be human? What is the good life? All of these questions come up in biblical studies, and that’s part of what it means to do faith and learning on my side.
Derek Schuurman: I’ll add that I chafe a little bit at the phrase “integration of faith and learning,” in part because there are always hidden assumptions and presuppositions in every single discipline in every single classroom. And so this idea that you have to take some religious content and somehow bolt it on to your course is an artificial notion. Even in secular settings where people have this sort of idea that it’s completely neutral, I think they’re wrong. Like Esau said, there are ideas about what does it mean to be human? What’s wrong with the world? What’s the remedy?
These things are always floating below the surface, often implicit. In fact, looking back to my undergraduate education in a large secular school, it’s only now that l’m able to see that while none of these questions were answered explicitly, it was implicit throughout the curriculum. There was a certain idea about what flourishing was and how to achieve that. In engineering, there was this technological worldview that the world is a machine that can be manipulated and optimized.
So integrating faith and learning isn’t something that you artificially have to do. It’s always there. The neat thing about a Christian college is that we can be very explicit about the biblical story animating every single thing in our discipline, including computer science and engineering topics where people think, “Oh, isn’t that just cold, hard math?” Well, no — technology’s not neutral, and faith has a lot to say about how we use these tools.
Andrea Scott: I often encountered a similar frustration in the discipline of business — because [there’s an idea], “Of course God is nowhere in business.” But that is not how my Bible reads. So when I thought about this question, I went back to the Westminster Catechism, where it says, “Man’s chief end is to glorify God and worship him forever.” To me, that permeates the worldview, the perspective that I take to anything that I’m preparing for my students. I love what you said, Esau, about being under examination [by the discipline]. What permeates my thinking is the end purpose — my end purpose to glorify God and enjoy him forever. And that colors how I view anything that I read, that I digest. That’s the way that I’ve tried to frame it for myself and whenever possible for students.
Todd Ream: As a parent of one college student and a second who will start this fall, both at CCCU schools, l’ll take this question from the perspective of how to communicate with parents. … What I enjoy when I talk with parents is that the integration of faith and learning is about the fact that I live first and foremost with the responsibility of trying to understand God’s story in the largest possible sense. I’m not going to be able to do that in full likely this side of eternity, but that is my first commitment to you all as parents. And in order to do that well, I have to take the responsibility of getting to know your son or daughter as a whole person. And no offense to my friends who teach at state universities, but students are not simply minds in a classroom or potential citizens. Those are characteristics of students that come into the classroom — and I do have friends at state universities who care about them more than just in those ways but we, by virtue of how we see students, see them as whole people. … My colleagues will occasionally say that your discipline, first and foremost, is an end — it’s not. It’s a means to shape certain virtues. It’s a means to address certain vices, but it’s a means. And we do hope that in those disciplines, students go on to flourish professionally as a result of what we teach them. But if those characteristics are not there, then we’re not going to be able to help students live in the largest possible story, and in the end, that’s our first commitment.
Let’s discuss the changes in our incoming student population — not so much the demographic changes, though those are important — but the growing awareness that there’s a lack of familiarity of the basic tenets of Christian doctrine and theology as the American culture continues to secularize. Should faculty and administrators be rethinking the approach to the integration of faith and learning in light of this transition? And if so, how?
Ream: I think it’s always good to be returning to this question each year, if for no other reason than we have a new class of newly minted colleagues coming into the institution. … Thinking about that logic of the nature of the story and the expansive nature of God’s story, I think in this recent period in time — and it was coming before the pandemic, but the pandemic really accelerated this — we’ve become very fearful people. We are fearful people in part because our understanding of the Gospel has become cramped, self-referential, and defensive. I think that’s what we need to check right now and what we need to be looking at when we speak with one another. We have a faculty meeting tomorrow what will be the nature of our dialogue when we’re sharing with one another? Will it reflect those qualities of a Gospel that’s cramped, self-referential, and defensive? Or will it reflect qualities of hope and the redemptive power of God’s grace in all that we are called to do and all that and all who are called to be?
Those are the things that we need to be asking ourselves. I’m fortunate to work with colleagues who are prayerfully straining into what a hopeful posture is, but our students are acutely aware of that [sense of fear]. So if we are selling them nothing more than what to be afraid of and who’s to blame for it, then we’ve got bigger problems than we even think we do right now. Culturally, we have the opportunity — and I think it’s a blessed opportunity in a number of ways — to be stewards of a hopeful story and an expansive story with our students.
McCaulley: My hope would be that if we understand that we’re coming into a less biblically literate age, CCCU schools would be places where there’s more robust biblical and theological education. I worry sometimes that market forces are causing us to sell everything except for the part that makes us unique, which is the Christian heritage. So my wish is that we would make space in the curriculum to make sure we give people the opportunity to be really formed and shaped, and that we would also invest in that real development for our faculty — because they’re also coming with the lack and the same potential opportunity for formation.
All ideas have consequences. A couple of decades ago, graduate theological education began to remove Greek and Hebrew and reduce other requirements. Market forces drove them to do that, which means you have less well-formed pastors, which then filters all the way down into churches, which filters all the way down into our students. So each time we make a market compromise for the sake of holding a share, those ideas always have consequences. And if we are going to say that we value these things, that needs to be reflected in how we train our faculty and how we train our students.
And the second thing that I will say is that if we’re going to be a Christian institution, we should make Jesus central. Sometimes I worry that in place of a clear conviction about the person and work of Jesus, we are tempted to convince our prospective parents that we will give a certain ideological formation instead of a spiritual formation. I would pray and hope that we would say, “We want your students to be more deeply in love with God and his word and historic teachings of the church, even though we might be diffuse in some of our political leanings.” But I worry that in place of, “you can go here and get a good dose of scripture and theology and church history and spiritual formation and ethics,” we’re saying, “Come here and you’ll get complete ideological conformity.” And that’s just simply not what the church is. And so I would hope – this will sound overly superficial — that Christian schools would stay Christian.
Scott: I really appreciate both of those responses, and what keeps coming to me is the role of discipleship. I think we have walked away from that a bit. Jesus calls us to make disciples. So often we think about that primarily as evangelism, but I think it’s bigger than that. I know that God has called us into discipleship via serving others, and that is part of the burden. When you talk about spiritual formation, we need to have fewer assumptions about what people know before we start questioning what they believe. So there is a call for discipleship, to teach, to coach, and hold accountable — it is both exciting and a little surprising the extent to which we need to walk alongside colleagues and students — that puts an obligation on [campus] leadership to be discipled by the Lord Jesus daily in order to be in a position to pour into students, staff, and faculty.
Schuurman: I would add that the fact that there’s a declining the logical fluency in our students is also an opportunity to knock their socks off with this sort of comprehensive Christian worldview. There’s this phrase that I love from Gordon Spykman, a former theology professor [at Calvin] who said, “Nothing matters but the kingdom. But because of the kingdom, everything matters.” This cosmic scope of redemption is really exciting. If students come in thinking, well, Christian education means attending chapel and not drinking in the dorms, that’s a very narrow, not very exciting view of what faith is. But if right from the beginning you could knock their socks off with this cosmic view of the Gospel’s implications for all of life — I’ve seen students light up.
I would echo, too, the need for faculty mentoring and training. I mean, realistically, all of our faculty, perhaps with the exception of theology faculty, are in secular higher education getting their Ph.Ds. They’re basically catechized for seven years in the worldview thinking of their particular discipline, and they get their Ph.D. by being able to articulate the paradigm of their discipline in an acceptable way. Then you bring them into your Christian college, and they really need to be challenged and equipped to question the hidden assumptions in their discipline, the philosophical presuppositions that they’ve been trained in and mentored in for six or seven years, and sift them through this comprehensive Christian worldview. Faculty really are at the heart of that mission of this comprehensive view. And in order for them to articulate that to students, we need to spend a lot of effort and resources on equipping our faculty.
Ream: That’s exactly what I thought when Esau said that he hoped that the Christian college would stay Christian. We live in an era where financial margins need to be watched quite carefully in any number of ways. As a result, things that tend to be perceived as proactive are being cut, and faculty development and formation tends to be one of those things — it’s perceived as proactive. So we’re seeing declining investment in that at the exact same time we need to be actually increasing it in its quality and its quantity. And it needs to be lifelong in terms of one’s commitment to the academic location. I think we’ve done an adequate job of a first-year course for faculty. But how do we keep resourcing faculty in such a way that they can be models to their junior colleagues and also stay passionate and engaged over the course of their lifespan? And so one of the things that has been growing in concern for me is how we’re cutting these things at the exact same time we need to be increasing them.
When we think about the pandemic transitions, one of the biggest was that sudden, sometimes traumatic shift from in-person to online, and then back to in-person. As we see a growing trend toward a hybrid model, how do we keep the faith-integrated learning when we’re having increased physical distance from each other? How do we keep the humanity in our technology?
Schuurman: A residential, Christian liberal arts undergraduate experience is a many splendored thing. I teach a capstone course in Faith in Computing, and we look at digital life and at all kinds of contemporary issues and technology through a Reformed Christian lens. And one of the things I talk about is the importance of physicality. As we build all of these tools, we actually lose something. [These tools] are beautiful — this very meeting, we are in different parts of the country, and we’re able to do it through Teams. There are lots of blessings that come with technology in terms of making connections. But the question about what it means to be human also has to do with our physicality — the Incarnation [of Jesus] being an excellent example of the importance of physically being present. I’ve had students reflect on some of the things that came up during the pandemic, and they realize that there’s a reduction of our ability to live in community and to be able to communicate. So I think it’s been helpful for students to reflect about the limits of digital learning.
On the flip side, a lot of online education allows Christian higher education to be made accessible and obtainable to people who might otherwise not be able to move to a Christian college and live in the dorms for four years. We need a somewhat balanced approach, always understanding the importance of physical community. [The same is true] also when it comes to church. I talk to my students about online worship services, and even now in computer science, a lot of people are talking about VR and Meta and working in the virtual world. Can we actually have the Lord’s Supper in a virtual world, or is that a heretical idea? It’s a philosophically fascinating and rich conversation, especially for people who are creating these digital spaces that we’re going to be living in, but we need to give them a sensitivity to the importance of nudging people into physical community, including in higher education.
Scott: I get excited about the options that the digital space has provided for learning styles. I think that was probably one of the most exciting things coming out of the manic rush to get online — we learned there were people who could experience and understand what they were learning in very different ways. They participated in class differently; they challenged other students to enter into a new way of learning. When I thought about this question, I thought about recently hearing a pastor talk about how we’re so uniquely wired with different ways to worship God – some people need nature, some music, physical activity, conversation, the list goes on and on. In my experience, it has been truly exciting to watch how the online space has created almost a new language for people to enter into the learning space and how my “digi-church” and the bonds formed there have strengthened my own faith. Experiencing a different way of processing, engaging, etcetera, can deepen faith, deepen experience, deepen connection to the institution. What Dr. Ream was talking about before, the fear-driven response, I think we need to really back away from the fear and figure out how we can embrace more [of the change]. As believers, we have such an advantage with the Holy Spirit, we’ve got to leverage it every way we can.
McCaulley: I think it’s a bit tricky. I grew up in a time before online education was normative. Most of us who have this dream of being a liberal arts educator have this visceral memory of the joy of learning in class and the influence our professors had upon us. We want to serve our students in that way. So in-person education is really important, and I still believe that. But I’ll also say that most studies show that the moment that you get flexible delivery systems, it increases the opportunity in ethnic diversity and gender diversity. You get more women, at least in graduate school, more women and more ethnic minorities who are able to access theological education. It tends to be people with resources who have the money to move and relocate and be in place for three or four years.
One of the advantages that secular institutions have is they have more scholarship money, and they have ease of access. We can’t be inaccessible and more expensive. We need to find ways to make in-person education affordable, and we need to be able to have compelling scholarships for our students so we can bring them in to experience what we have in the CCCU. But we have to understand that there is a justice issue as it relates to access. If we want to be a place that educates everybody, we can’t be so purist that we are not allowed to say, “I will sacrifice a little bit of the dream that I had in my head as to what a professor might be so that I might be that kind of professor for more students in different places.”
Ream: I would agree wholeheartedly with that. This is my 27th year teaching, so not only my student days but my first 15 years or so of teaching and administrative work were necessarily in person. …I think it’s an opportunity for us as educators, to think about what anthropological assumptions we’re bringing about students. The danger is we can flatten students’ identities greatly and [revert] back to an “information dissemination” mode if we simply see them as faces on a screen. So the question becomes, do we recognize the assumptions with which we’re working? What other means does technology, or in- person interaction, or whatever is available to us in the moment, provide us, and do we avail ourselves of those resources? I still think there’s certain blessings to in-person education, but we’ve got to take the time to ask ourselves how deep and how large is the anthropology with which we’re working when we’re interacting with students in certain spaces and in certain ways.