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A Churchman Looks at the Liberal Arts
First published in February 1960
O. P. Kretzmann

Wherever and whenever academic minds gather, the conversation can always be kept alive by a discussion of the future of the liberal arts in America. By liberal arts we mean those intellectual disciplines and subject matters which are truly liberating, which free the mind from ignorance and prejudice and narrowness and hate. The liberal arts are the only subjects in education which make man really man and not a machine or an economic unit or an animal. They are involved in all those disciplines which truly make an educated, liberated, disciplined man or woman.

I have long contended in these discussions that there is a deep intimate connection between religion and the liberal arts. The highest possible effectiveness of the liberal arts, the point where they become most relevant, most necessary, and most wise is when they are informed, illuminated, and dominated by high religion. By “high religion” I mean the Christian reading of the ultimate realities of life and living, the realization of the sudden brilliant lighting of the landscape of life and history by the mystery of the Incarnation. the miracle of Jesus Christ and the resulting new understanding of God and man, man and man, man and the universe, man and his origin, destiny, and nature. This is finally the heart of the matter, this meeting on a Cross of the timely and the timeless, the temporal and the eternal, the human quest and the divine quest, the human question and the eternal answer. This is the only kind of religion which does not make God the prisoner of a certain inherited way of thinking and feeling.

The relationship between this high religion and the liberal arts is exceedingly complex. It is basically the relationship between Athens and Calvary. The divine Word enters into human culture, imparting new creative power to it. It is a curious fact that the Gospel condemns certain pretensions of human culture but also renews it. Here the Church and the world intermingle. The Gospel sends out vital shoots into all human learning and art. It presents the Christological understanding of man. It requires us to see a connection between the creative, inquiring, liberating spirit and the Holy Spirit of the living God. It tells us that man created in the image of God even though lost can inquire and create but it demonstrates that by reason of sin his works are always ambiguous, wrought out of insecurity and marked with a tragic sense of incompleteness.

And yet he is on a great quest. Even though the ultimate vision is denied, the aspirations are there. Religion, high and intelligent, always reminds man that the culture of the world is like Belshazzar’s feast. There is handwriting on the wall, change and decay in the air. The Church must always be crying to all life and learning, to all the Athenses and Romes of time: “Remember the end.” All things purely human, also knowledge and beauty, are under the law of the dust, and all that is finally left is God and the Gospel and the eternal wisdom of heaven.

Religion, therefore, exercises a limiting, illuminating, and sobering influence on the liberal arts. It places them “sub specie aeternitatis.” While it readily admits that the goal of all liberal arts education is to produce the informed, independent, and critical mind, it also says more definitely than anything else that living is understanding and that this has never been more clearly expressed than by the man who was trained at Tarsus: “Prove all things; hold fast that which is good.” The critical mind knows that our judgment is never quite independent of the approval of past and present authority. Both the liberal arts and high religion insist, however, that it be a tested authority, one that has been refined in the crucible of history and experience and revelation, and the last of these is the ­greatest.

The proper relation between freedom and responsibility, so important for the life and thought of the modern world, can be ­established most effectively by a fusion of the liberal arts and high religion. Many of the problems confronting the afternoon of the twentieth century are intellectual and spiritual at the same time. It means, therefore, that the liberal arts and high religion must be studied together and in the same way, by long, lonely hours of study and meditation. Neither comes at a low price. Faith is the free gift of a pitying God, but what is done with that faith in the academic grove and the marketplace requires hard work and profound thought, testing and trial, thought and meditation. In this respect the liberal arts and high religion are very close to each other.

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