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Education From a Christian View of Man8 min read

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desiring_the_kingdomAuthor James K.A. Smith is a bit of an anomaly to me – a Pentecostal, Reformed philosopher with impeccable intellectual credentials and mindbendingly erudite prose that presents profound ideas for the thinker. In short, I love this guy.

In his award winning Desiring the Kingdom, Smith broadens, if not refocuses Christian education to include the whole person. His definition of education is pretty great, as is his contention that our methods of teaching are formed from our view of how humans work (philosophical anthropology!):

Education is a holistic endeavor that involves the whole person, including our bodies, in a process of formation that aims our desires, primes our imagination, and orients us to the world – all before we ever starting thinking about it. (p. 39)

Behind every pedagogy is a philosophical anthropology, a model or picture of the human person. (p. 40)

His approach to education is by understanding the loci of human becoming (education) as beyond merely thinking or believing, but as primarily focused in the third attribute of INTENTION, or loving.  Smith does not reject the first two modes of learning, but proposes a more complete ‘philosophical anthropology’ of the whole person through adding this third loci, one of the heart and it’s desires. But if that sounds touchy-feely to you, don’t worry, it is grounded in an intellectual depth, reflecting not the primacy of feeling, but of the desires of the heart that move us to action.

To summarize Smith’s locuses of the learning human:

1. The Person as Thinker (homo rationalis)

This first tier, often adopted by secularists, perceives man mostly as a rational being, and education is therefore mostly about presenting ideas for understanding. Regarding the Church’s uncritical adoption of this view of man, Smith remarks:

While this model of the person as thinking thing assumed different forms throughout modernity (e.g. in Kant, Hegel), this rationalist picture was absorbed particularly by Protestant Christianity (whether liberal or conservative), which tends to operate with an overly cognitivist picture of the human person and thus tends to foster an overly intellectualist account of what it means to be or become a Christian….We could describe this as “bobble head” Christianity, so fixated on teh cognitive that is assumes a picture of human beings that look like bobble heads: mammoth heads that dwarf an almost nonexistent body. In sum, because the church buys into a cognitivist anthropology it adopts a stunted pedagogy that is fixated on the mind. (p. 42-43)

2. The Person as Believer (homo religiosis)

Traditionally, Christian higher education has adopted this first reductionist view, but added a Christian world view beneath it. Knowing that people make meaning through their interpretive narrative framework, Protestants especially have continued the emphasis on the intellect, but have gone deeper to consciously add foundational beliefs, choosing a Christian view that affects our interpretation and orthopraxy of ideas. Regarding this approach, Smith writes:

While the Reformed tradition of worldview-thinking generates a radical critique of rationalism and its attendant claims to objectivity and secuarlity, the critique still feels reductionistic insofar as it fails to accord a central role to embodiment and practice. Because of this blind spot, it continues to yield a quasi-rationalist pedagogy. (p. 51)

While secularists may do this unconsciously, employing a Biblical world view can lead to better education – IF the Biblical views are correct (as well as our understandings of them!). If true, this worldview will lead to greater understanding of the subjects encountered, from science and cosmology, to psychology and art. However, if our narrative is incorrect, it may actually impede our progress in knowledge.

In fact, we can look at history and see how poor world views, such as Darwinism, have more than likely hindered science and human ethical progress (e.g. vestigial organs, junk DNA, and eugenics), so whether or not we consciously employ a world view, it does impact us. I find the Christian world view leads us to great understandings of history, ethics, cosmology (e.g. the universe had a beginning), but we must be careful to not too narrowly apply our inductive understanding, and be open to new data helping us modify our world view.

3. The Person as Habitually Moving Towards What She Loves (homo liturgicus)

Smith argues that even the person-as-believer view (#2 above) is still reductionist, seeing mankind primarily as an intellect who thinks and believes.  While such an approach is pretty fantastic compared to the mere rationalist perspective (#1 above), and teaching at the level of belief gets deeper into our intuitions about truth rather than staying merely in the reason, it is still incomplete.

Smith argues that education of the whole person must incorporate our motives and desires – that is, we are primarily people who love and move towards the things we love, mediated by a motivating vision of our perception of the good life. And, this desire becomes embodied, that is, moves from our hearts (or spirits, as a tripartist like myself might say) into the real world through our actions – the regular, habitual actions that we employ in order to move closer to what we love.

We are essentially and ultimately desiring animals, which is simply to say that we are essentially and ultimately lovers. To be human is to love, and it is what we love that defines who we are. Our (ultimate) love is constitutive of our identity….we are talking about ultimate loves-that to which we are fundamentally oriented, what ultimately governs our vision of the good life, what shapes and molds our being-in-the-world-in other words, what we desire above all else, the ultimate desire that shapes and positions and makes sense of all our penultimate desires and actions. This sort of ultimate love could also be described as that to which we ultimately pledge allegiance; or, to evoke language that is both religious and ancient, our ultimate love is what we worship. (p. 51)

The telos to which our love is aimed is not a list of ideas or propositions or doctrines; it is not a list of abstract, disembodied concepts or values. Rather, the reason that this vision of the good life moves us is because it is a more affective, sensible, even aesthetic picture of what the good life looks like. A vision of the good life captures our hearts and imaginations not by providing a set of rules or ideas, but by painting a picture of what it looks like for us to flourish and live well. This is why such pictures are communicated most powerfully in stories, legends, myths, plays, novels, and films rather than dissertations, messages, and monographs. (p. 53)

This view of teaching with the view of human desire in mind not only means that we are to present a motivating vision of human flourishing, we are to encourage habits of action that move us towards those desires. That is, we want to educate people in how to take habitual action towards what is good. These actions include developing habits of contemplation, kindness, service to others, prayer, listening, among others. These habits form what Smith calls ‘liturgy,’ in that these habits are not only spiritual, but a form of worship as they move us towards the objects of our desire.

This is a mind-blowingly awesome way to consider the root of the person, and to educate at this level seems like a fuller, if not more noble and impactful way to educate.

I think this view of person-as-lover is something Jesus addressed when on many occasions, he asked people ‘what do you want’? Not that he didn’t know, but perhaps THEY didn’t really think about it. And perhaps Christian education is about helping people find and realize

  1. what they want, and
  2. what is worth striving after so that they may adjust their desires via a motivating vision

I am letting this idea settle into my mind and heart, it is profound.