Special guest blogger, Mark Thomas, shares from the heart about his journey and intent to integrate faith and learning as a professor at Greenville College. I hope you find his thoughtful reflections both encouraging and challenging. Thank you, Mark, for sharing this compelling exhortation!
Mark Thomas, Assistant Professor
I am not an expert in faith-and-learning integration. But I made the mistake of assuming that I was. For 20 years I worked primarily with small, redeveloping congregations. Most of that time I taught a midweek Bible study, a youth group, and a Sunday School class every week. This was in addition to Lenten and Advent study groups, confirmation classes and the like. My family and educational background thoroughly drilled me in establishing goals and objectives and writing lesson plans that included knowledge of the students, the environment, the resources available and the time. Spiritual development and faith formation were a part of almost everything I taught in the church. So when I was invited to teach a college class at Greenville, I thought the concept of integrating faith and learning would be second nature to me.
One of the first courses was entitled “Principles of Leadership.” The course curriculum was built around a servant-leader model with which I readily identified. Because I could not conceive of leadership apart from the Perfect Example of leadership, I found myself exhorting the students to live a life “worthy of the calling to which you were called” (Eph. 1:1). It was part content-absorption, part spiritual-formation, part pep-rally. The student feedback showed they felt challenged and invited at a deeper level. And this, to me, is the point of faith/learning integration. To fulfill our vision and mission statements requires us to somehow make the Word of God become incarnate in the content of lectures and texbooks.
One of the next classes I was asked to teach was “Values and Ethics.” Here again, the topic seemed to be closely tied to the values of my faith. My rude awakening arrived in the form of student evaluations which essentially said, “I learned that what’s right is in the eye of the beholder.” Students compartmentalized their faith rather than engaging it. How could that have happened, when I intentionally included examples of how a Christian faith-perspective could influence one’s thinking in several of the case studies?
Self-reflection and some analysis of my presentation of the two courses revealed two basic differences: foundational thinking and foundational being. Foundational thinking with respect to faith/learning integration implies that the story of Jesus is somehow fundamental to the course content and its application. This in turn shapes language, and language has value. In the Leadership course, every leadership concept for me found its origin in what Jesus did. My language reflected the incarnational nature of Christ’s body in the invitations I issued to be Christ-like. But while I gave Christ-centered examples in the Ethics class, my language was different. I essentially presented a Christian worldview perspective as one among many worldviews that could be applied to the decision-making models and case studies. In truth, this was the way I was taught ethics in seminary, and it confused me then. This reflects a cultural tendency to compartmentalize various aspects of our lives. Faith/learning integration therefore requires intentionality to achieve. William Hasker has written an excellent article on how integration is more than just adding Christian examples, or using one’s discipline as examples of Christian truth. As instructors, we must do the difficult task of seeing how our disciplines first fit into the overall truth of God’s great story of creation and redemption. It is at that point that our language changes.
Equally, it is at that point that we as instructors may also find ourselves being changed. In my case, I had formerly thought of myself in the role of teacher as primarily a vehicle for information-transmission. Ironically, I just couldn’t see myself as a teacher in the Leadership class – but rather as a leader. I dreamed that others in the class could become leaders, too, and used the very principles being taught in the class to invite leadership. But my natural tendency returned in the Ethics class. From my long history as a pastor, it was easier for me to dream about fostering leaders than ethicists. But if we are truly saints, then by the power of the Holy Spirit, we are carrying on the work of Christ in the world. And that makes us change agents. Information can certainly be transformational. But love is even more so. As Christian instructors, I believe faith-learning integration requires faith-person integration as well, letting the mind of Christ shape our thinking about our students and our vocation.
It is slightly embarrassing to me that I did not learn all of these things in 7 years of seminary training and 20 years of pastoring. I could have intellectually said that when teaching, I was fulfilling an important role of “creating disciples.” But it took a negative review and some God-given help and insight to begin to realize that for us, the college classroom may be the closest equivalent we have to sitting at Jesus’ feet. Having written five paragraphs on this topic now, I am suddenly beginning to wonder if “faith/learning integration” does not perpetuate the myth that faith and learning are two realms that need integrating. Perhaps “faith-drenched learning,” or “learning as a facet of faith” would be more to the point. For me, is a bit like Paul’s exhortation to “pray without ceasing;” we are at our best as instructors when we are constantly aware that we both stand in the presence of the living Christ as we teach, and that we are the Body of Christ as we invite our students to fulfill their best in Him.