Resisting Reductionism in a Fragmented Age

Resisting Reductionism in a Fragmented Age

Spring 2024

A conversation with Matthew Kaemingk, Katie Kresser, Justin Ariel Bailey, and David Smith

Christian institutions of higher education seek to do more than just fill their students’ heads with facts and figures. Those are important, but the faculty and staff at these institutions are dedicated to shaping the whole of their students — helping them integrate their faith into their academics, family life, communities, personal interests, and more.

That can be difficult within a culture that constantly reduces people to one facet of their identity, narrows abstract outcomes to sole measurements, and confines complex concepts like flourishing to a single, material definition. That’s why this year, for their 10th annual conference on teaching and learning, the Kuyers Institute is teaming up with the International Network for Christian Higher Education (INCHE) and the de Vries Institute for Global Faculty Development to ask, “How do we honor the coherence of the Christian faith and life in teaching, learning, scholarship, and service in a reductionist age?”

The conference, which takes place from October 10 through October 12 at Calvin University (Grand Rapids, MI), is currently accepting paper proposals until June 14. To highlight the conference and its theme — integrated education in a reductionist age — Kuyers Institute Director David I. Smith spoke with plenary speakers Matthew Kaemingk, Katie Kresser, and Justin Ariel Bailey about the pressures reductionism places on students and teachers, ways to resist those pressures, and where to find hope that we can overcome reductionism in pursuit of more holistic flourishing.

Dr. Matthew Kaemingk is the Richard John Mouw Assistant Professor of Faith and Public Life at Fuller Theological Seminary (Pasadena, CA).

Dr. Katie Kresser is a professor of art history and visual studies at Seattle Pacific University (Seattle, WA).

Dr. Justin Ariel Bailey is associate professor and chair of the theological department at Dordt University (Sioux Center, IA).

Dr. David I. Smith: Our conference theme highlights a range of pressures that push us toward reducing education to some limited facet. Where do you see the most danger? Which of the various stresses on education most has your attention right now?

Dr. Matthew Kaemingk: There are, of course, many different cultural forces contributing to educational reductionism in our world today. For the moment, I will limit myself to four which are currently top of mind.

First, economics. Educators are being forced to narrowly focus their educational goals toward equipping students for lives of economic power and progress. According to this reductionism, the “successful” graduate is the one who can achieve economic independence.

Second, measurement. While a powerful educational experience involves thousands of intangible, imperceptible, and unmeasurable elements, educators are increasingly forced to measure, notate, and evaluate their educational outcomes using numbers, graphs, and piles of administrative data. Empowering educators to lead with imagination, relationality, agility, and a variety of soft skills is being lost in the name of measurement.

Third, religiosity. In the realm of Christian education, pedagogical goals can become reduced to mere religious recitation. Here the “successful” graduate is measured by their ability to recite a selected canon of Bible verses, church history figures, and Christian doctrines. Rather than introducing them to a complex Christian imagination and way of thinking, being, and feeling in the world, the faith is reduced to a cognitive mastery of facts and doctrine. And this leads us to the fourth reductionism.

Fourth, mastery. Here education is reduced to a command over knowledge. Herein the “successful” graduate is the one who can exercise dominion over the intellectual life; they are a steward of informational power. With this reductionism students fail to learn how to relate to knowledge with a posture of service, reconciliation, wonder, and imagination.

Dr. Katie Kresser: As I write this, I think about all the responsibilities I have to fulfill in the next week, including work responsibilities, church commitments, managing my kids’ extracurricular activities, and trying to stay in relationship with people I care about… not to mention doing academic writing and research! I’m pulled in so many directions that I want a reductive shortcut for answering this question right now!

The availability of desirable “goods” out there today means we’re all trying to do a lot of things shallowly, myself included. I know my students are in this boat, too. They have a sport or consuming hobby. They have a job. They have an internship. They have a demanding, carefully curated (and, of course, reductive) social media identity they have to maintain. And increasingly, they have heavy family commitments. There is simply no time to do anything properly — to just soak with something and let it nourish you. The very idea is almost absurd.

There’s also FOMO (fear of missing out), and just the extreme chaos of the times in terms of purpose and priorities. In fact, the FOMO and the chaos work together. When you don’t have your priorities straight, “fear of missing out” becomes a lot more intense. The thing you’re neglecting could be the one mysterious thing you deeply, existentially needed!

In a climate like this, to deeply invest in something is risky. Being attentive in a classroom, instead of frantically (but discreetly) multitasking on your various devices, feels like a bad investment. The threads of your whole world — the whole world — are coming loose, and you have to hold onto as many of them as tightly as you can for as long as you can, at every moment. Otherwise, it all unravels.

Sadly, one way to reach these overcommitted students is through reductionism — waving your arms and saying something simply and loudly so people sit up and pay attention. The reductive is easy. It smacks you in the face with something immediately comprehensible and actionable. It doesn’t feel as risky as the pedagogical “soak,” because the mental effort it requires is minimal and the payoff is quick.

Thus, education becomes like everything else in our culture: something to check off so you can say “I’ve done that,” even while you quickly move on to the next thing. And teachers — mindful of how busy their students are, and of how much debt their students are racking up — get swept up in the transactional flow.

The state of being I’m describing has emerged from a lot of complex causes: a centuries-old, “modernist” idea that you can apply assemblyline logic to human development; the breakdown of families and institutions; the overwhelming marketplace for goods and information; the rising cost of higher education; the easy availability of addictive time-wasters and distractions (both virtual and physical); and a decline in social skills that makes young people unable to effectively connect and contribute, among other things.

But most of all, I think it’s a lack of clear purpose, of trustworthy values. We are “all dressed up with nowhere to go.” There are so many choices, so many options, and no trusted wisdom for discerning how to choose.

Dr. Justin Ariel Bailey: Not long ago, when discussing a controversial topic, I had a student say, in all seriousness, “I don’t know what that is, but I know I’m against it!” I worry a bit about this anti-intellectual sentiment, but I’m more worried that the educational spaces where we give patient attention to complex issues are shrinking.

Many of my students are so afraid of saying the wrong thing that they are silent in the moments where they need to learn how to speak. To use language from John Palfrey, in the effort to make safe spaces, we have neglected to cultivate brave spaces, where ideas can be handled responsibly.

Smith: What is one resource within the Christian faith that might help us resist reductionism and push for “holistic pursuit of student and teacher flourishing?”

Kaemingk: I will be speaking at the conference on our need for a more multifaceted Christian understanding of educational flourishing. The primary resource Christians have for this is obviously scripture. Therein we find a multifaceted understanding of creation, human persons, and Christ himself. All three of these elements stubbornly resist simplistic reductionism throughout scripture. Scripture simply will not allow us to reduce them.

Kresser: The more than two-millennia-long Christian tradition has repeatedly emphasized the necessity to “be in the world but not of it.” Jesus and his disciples, and later the first apostles, owned nothing and moved independently from place to place. Many of the great saints of the first Christian centuries left the chaotic cities of the late pagan world and founded monasteries.

About a millennium later, St. Francis of Assisi renounced his family fortune to become a wandering preacher. But there is a stream in Christian culture that pushes back against that separationism — maybe especially in American Christian culture. Seattle Pacific University (Seattle, WA) had a longtime tagline that went, “engage the culture, change the world.” A lot of folks at SPU had a problem with that tagline that went, “engage the culture, change the world.” A lot of folks at SPU had a problem with that tagline because it seemed to suggest that “the culture” was a thing separate from both the university and the Christian community.

Why, they wonder, can’t the university be part of “the culture” — in fact, be a leading element within the culture? Why did the (Christian) university have to sit apart from “the culture” and seem to judge it from the outside? Isn’t “all truth God’s truth”? So shouldn’t the Christian university be at the center of whatever “works,” whatever is innovative, whatever is influential? At the very least, the posture of sitting outside “the culture” seemed dreary and uncool.

When the pressures around you are so big, loud, violent, omnipresent, insistent, confident, and unavoidable, you have to get free of them. You have to figure out how to disentangle yourself. Only then can you walk freely. Only then can you see, think, and choose freely. — Dr. Katie Kresser


I think what we’re realizing today, though, is that Christian asceticism by which I mean the type of come-outism exemplified by the early apostles, the desert mothers and fathers, and mendicant preachers like Francis of Assisi — had nothing to do with being dreary and judgmental. It was all about freedom. When the pressures around you are so big, loud, violent, omnipresent, insistent, confident, and unavoidable, you have to get free of them. You have to figure out how to disentangle yourself. Only then can you walk freely. Only then can you see, think, and choose freely.

Today, we are not free. We are so inundated by demands, temptations, implicit expectations, and threats (veiled or overt, social or physical) that we have absolutely lost our spiritual freedom. From a spiritual perspective, we can’t tell up from down, left from right. We are trying to hear the “still small voice” of God in what amounts to a hurricane plus a rock concert plus a street brawl plus a semi-violent political rally.

We have to get out. Like Jesus, the apostles, the desert mothers and fathers, and the medieval mendicants, we have to find a way to get out and get free. This doesn’t mean we have to literally wander off into the desert. But it does mean we have to be intentional and sacrificial, drastically limiting what we consume (both in terms of goods and information) and seeking time to be silent before God. Whatever it takes to find silence, we have to do it. And then we have to grapple with what the silence shows us about our compulsions, our fears, and our wounds in order to find an even deeper freedom.

Bailey: I would point to the biblical vision of what it means to be human, which is irreducible to power dynamics, biology, economics, or any other aspect. I like the way Andy Crouch puts it, based on the Shema: “Every human person is a heartsoul-mind-strength complex designed for love.” A technological society tends toward reductive visions of humanity, and if we don’t continually work to rehumanize education, our work will increasingly feel like a series of transactions. We need to work to keep this holistic vision at the center as best as we can.

Smith: What is one concrete practice that might help us live out the “holistic pursuit of student and teacher flourishing”?

Kaemingk: I would argue that one of the best practices available to Christian students and educators to resist the forces of reductionism is that of wonder. Cultivating a curious awe for the multifaceted beauty of the world, its complex suffering and groaning, and all of the pluriform ways in which God is moving. This is one of our best communal weapons, wonder.

Christian parents are increasingly recognizing that they have the power and the responsibility to both understand and influence the forms of education that their children receive. This gives me hope. — Dr. Matthew Kaemingk


Kresser: First, I think it’s good to toss the syllabus sometimes and just check in with people and see how they’re doing. I do this in the classroom, as a group (while being wise about people’s sensitivities). When you hear a classmate’s personal story, you’re likely to quit sneaking glances at your device. A space opens up that attracts hearts eager for connection. And then moving forward, when course content gets folded back in, you’re likely to care more about how your peers are responding to that content. An environment of attentiveness and respect is fostered, along with openness to how the course content impacts people’s lives.

Second, I also think it’s good to get out of the classroom and go on field trips, even if they’re just walks. These kinds of activities can break up stale patterns (uncoupling people who always sit next to each other, for example, or silencing that one person who always talks from the front row).

By creating a new setting in which people can move and flow, the field trip can help some students feel more emboldened to participate in ways they haven’t before. Maybe a student walks next to someone they’ve never talked to. Maybe the sunny day makes a shy kid feel like saying something for once. Personalities unfurl and people begin to see each other differently.

Bailey: The practice I will select is pilgrimage. The idol of efficiency compels us to get more done, faster. Efficiency has its place, but an efficient institution is not always an effective one, especially if its mission is defined in terms of holistic formation and service. And many of the most important Christian practices move us towards doing less, more slowly.

Pilgrimage is just this sort of practice. Not long ago, a group of our faculty went on a pilgrimage to visit and learn from one of the elder statesmen of our tradition, Dr. Richard Mouw. We intentionally tried to create a shared experience that would require something from us intellectually, physically, emotionally, and relationally. It required faulty bandwidth to reimagine professional development, and institutional support to find funding for it. But it was the most meaningful professional development experience I’ve ever had.

Smith: What gives you hope for the future of Christian teaching and learning?

Kaemingk: Christians in North America are starting to realize that there is no such thing as a spiritually neutral or agnostic form of public education. Every educational system is shot through with moral commitments, spiritual values, and a set of values, priorities, and commitments that drive them. Every system has an “ideal graduate” they are trying to form. Christian parents are increasingly recognizing that they have the power and the responsibility to both understand and influence the forms of education that their children receive. This gives me hope.

Kresser: The educational landscape can’t continue as it is. I think people at universities everywhere — teachers and students, religious and secular, wealthy and belt-tightening — are unhappy. As particular knowledge sets and skill sets become more easily acquirable through the internet (and just as easily pushed into obsolescence), and as utopian theoretical structures continue to change through ever-more-disillusioning boom-bust cycles, the nature of higher education — of all education — is going to have to change.

Our digital-native students are good at picking up technical skills and trendy concepts, but they are not socially confident, they don’t have a healthy respect for institutional structures of delegation and mutual accountability, and they don’t have a driving sense of purpose. This is a recipe for civilizational collapse.

Moving forward, I think there is going to be a tremendous need for ever-more character development in educational spaces. Not as regards believing the right things, necessarily, but simply as regards being a responsible person in the world. This includes exercising self-discipline. Respecting others and honoring agreements with them. Following through on commitments even when the going gets rough. And above all, achieving freedom — from FOMO, from the addictive lures surrounding us everywhere, from the ego-mangling torture chamber of social media, and from the constant goad to “click and buy.”

Educational institutions need to be free spaces. And in that sense, maybe they need to be almost monastic spaces. Only someone who has achieved a measure of inner freedom can actually go out and truly “engage the culture and change the world.”

Bailey: This line from the old hymn, “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God,” comes to mind: “Did we in our own strength confide, our striving would be losing.” My hope is that God has not
abandoned his creation to corruption but continues to be present and active; He is making all things new. My hope is that despite all the ways that we try to reduce ourselves, there is a creational structure with norms that keep reasserting themselves, pulling us in better directions. If they can help it, healthy humans do not tend to stay long in unhealthy, inhumane structures, and this often leads to reformation and renewal.