Nicholas Wolterstorff. Educating for Shalom: Essays on Christian Higher Education. Clarence W. Joldersma and Gloria Goris Stronks, eds. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005.
FOR THREE DECADES, NICHOLAS Wolterstorff has been among the most original and important scholars who have examined the aims and ethos of Christian higher education. In Educating for Shalom, Clarence W. Joldersma and Gloria Goris Stronks collect nineteen of Wolterstorffs most important essays addressing this question. The book also includes a Preface and Introduction to Wolterstorff's thought on these issues by Joldersma and Stronks as well as an autobiographical Afterword by Wolterstorff.
The essays are certainly wide-ranging, offering, among other things, an historical and critical survey of the different approaches to Christian higher education and a survey of epistemological, theological, and hermeneutical reflections on learning ranging from Augustine, through Descartes, Kant, and Locke, and on to Kuhn, Popper, and Abraham Kuyper. What holds these essays together, however, is Wolterstorffs insistence that a vision of Christian learning should not simply be distinctive for distinctiveness's sake; neither should it blindly integrate faith and reason in such a way that faith follows reason or vice versa. Rather, a Christian view of higher education should be faithful both to the central concepts of the Christian faith and to the practice of bringing social justice and human flourishing—shalom—to a broken world. In making the claim that Christian learning or research is marked by faithfulness rather than distinctiveness, and that teaching be aimed at social practice rather than solely at developing a Christian worldview, Wolterstorff offers a compelling suggestion to how Christian scholars can integrate research and teaching by seeing themselves and their students as people who practice faithful learning directed at bringing shalom to the world.
Before exploring how Wolterstorff applies his notion of faithfulness and shalom to teaching, let us consider how Wolterstorff thinks about faithfulness regarding Christian scholars in their roles as researchers and administrators of Christian schools—in short, how they should see themselves as Christian learners.
Wolterstorff asserts, again, that Christian scholarship should be faithful, not merely distinctive or undifferentiated from secular scholarship. To unpack why he stresses faithfulness, we need to see that, over time, Wolterstorff has developed a via media between other approaches to Christian scholarship: strategies stemming from integrationism and those stemming from perspectivalism.
First, Wolterstorff rejects attempts to connect faith and learning through integrationist strategies of harmonization or compatibilism. By harmonization, Wolterstorff means strategies in which faith acquiesces to reason or science. Compatibilism refers to the strategy of imagining, based on an uncritical foundationalism, the essential compatibility of all knowledge, including faith- and reason-based claims. For Wolterstorff, both strategies, which are rooted in medieval and especially enlightenment "all truth is God's truth" foundationalism, either give undue credence to reason or science or inadequate attention to the demands of the gospel—especially the realization that a damaged society needs the proclamation of the Christian message and the social practice of actual Christians.
In rejecting compatibilism and harmonization, and, given Wolterstorffs Reformed theological leanings, we might expect him to accept the Christian perspectivalism of Abraham Kuyper, the Dutch theologian many Reformed folk consider a forerunner to postmodern thinkers like Thomas Kuhn. Kuyper and his followers, going back to Augustine, argue that only the redeemed can apprehend reality; hence, Christian scholarship will by necessity be different from scholarship based in a secular perspective. The aim of education from this Kuyperian vantage point is to produce a uniquely Christian worldview that expresses a distinctive understanding of physical and metaphysical reality.
Wolterstorff indeed finds much to like about Kuyper's critique of foundationalism, but he worries that this approach stresses the distinctiveness or difference of the Christian perspective merely for the sake of being distinctive or at the expense of dialogue. In other words, like the integrationist strategies, perspectivalism seems to settle for carving out a niche within the academy—protecting one's own beliefs or stressing one's distinctiveness—without creatively engaging academic culture or society at large. For Wolterstorff, both of these strategies separate Christians from the world or stultify engagement with other scholars. If Christian scholars are called to bring shalom to the world, such a call requires engagement.
Wolterstorff's via media is to stress scholarship and scholars that are faithful to thoughts and activities of Christianity. By being faithful in thought, Wolterstorff argues that Christian scholars should be guided in their learning by certain "control beliefs" that invigorate a Christian hermeneutic or understanding of culture and society. By taking a hermeneutical approach, Wolterstorff attempts to modify Kuyperian perspectivalism by arguing that, while conversion certainly opens a new way of reading, comprehending, and understanding reality, we are nevertheless seeing and understanding the same physical and ontological reality secularists see. Moreover, in stressing that humans are fallen rather than maintaining Kuyper's stress on human sinfulness, Wolterstorff insists that all human pursuit of truth is part of the created order—that humans long to understand the realities a Christian hermeneutic illuminates. In stressing this hermeneutical approach and humans as fallen parts of God's created order, then, Wolterstorff aims at dialogue rather than distinctiveness, keeping open lines of understanding between Christian scholars, secular scholars, and students.
Moreover, this stress on dialogue opens the way for Christian scholarship that is creatively engaging other scholars and human society more broadly. For example, Wolterstorff argues that while an integrationist might accept Skinnerian behaviorism uncritically and a perspectivalist might reject Skinner as un-Christian, being faithful would mean, based on certain controlling beliefs, that one reject Skinner's psychological determinism but also that one, in seeking a common understanding of human behavior, might examine the same material to articulate a Christian understanding of the phenomena Skinner is trying to comprehend. In addition, and in response to Kuyper, Wolterstorff notes that certain examinations might even push us to change some of our faith claims.
Again, the aim of Christian scholarship must be to learn and thereby understand the great traditions of art and literature that reflect this human quest for understanding, to understand the call of justice in society, and rightly to apprehend the social and cultural structures that constitute fallen human society. Importantly, Wolterstorff believes that such scholarship reveals a broken world—disenchanted, ravaged by competitive capitalism, and torn by competing logics. Because this world, which includes college students, is so broken, the call of the gospel demands that faithful assessment of society not be the end of scholarship; the aim is, rather, Christian praxis, or, to use Alasdair Maclntyre's word—social practice. And for scholars, the most immediate point of social contact is the student, which brings us to Wolterstorff's reflections on teaching. As with scholarship, Wolterstorff examines the competing models of Christian teaching that have marked Christian higher education. Wolterstorff argues that all of these approaches depend on strategies similar to those that he explores in thinking about scholarship—integration of faith and learning on the one hand or Christian distinctiveness on the other. In either case, these models lack the vision to equip and energize students to practice faithful Christianity in the world. Wolterstorff especially stresses the limits in seeing the integration of faith and learning as the aim of Christian education, arguing that such integration is only the means, not the goal, of faithful teaching; the goal should be to lead students to social practice—to educate students to bring shalom to the world.
Part of educating for shalom will involve students developing a Christian hermeneutic—acquiring the necessary control beliefs and thereby rightly understanding society. On this point too Wolterstorff gets quite precise, arguing that students should be well-versed in older hermeneutics (Christian or not), the arts and culture (without these we could not flourish—experience shalom), and the means for understanding social relations—especially that they see the problems inherent in capitalism and that they utilize a "world systems" (Immanuel Wallerstein) approach to geopolitical and economic relationships. But even with a Christian hermeneutic in place, students must again be inspired towards the social practice of bringing shalom to a broken humanity. In places Wolterstorff also calls such education "teaching for justice," as justice, along with general human flourishing, is what being in a place of shalom means.
In the end, Wolterstorff offers a vision of Christian higher education that is both faithful to Christian thought and radical in its social vision. One can imagine that Wolterstorffs bold and often precise claims might lose some of his readers. His critiques of capitalism and nationalism in particular will be hard for some to swallow. Moreover, one can see the architecture of the Reformed theological tradition throughout the essay. But the beauty here in Wolterstorffs work is his commitment to a unique Christian perspective as well as open engagement with the world both within and outside the boundaries of the academy—engagement as scholars and engagement by proxy through students.