Can Christianity Save the Humanities?
Douglas Jacobsen and Rhonda Hustedt Jacobsen

In 1995, the book How the Irish Saved Civilization became a best-seller by boldly claiming that Western civilization was preserved from utter destruction when the Roman Empire collapsed only through the holy resolve of heroic monks like Saint Columba and his co-laborers in Ireland. Historians have questioned the grandiosity of the book’s claim, but the book’s provocative title provides an apt metaphor for the potential relationship that exists between Christianity and the humanities in contemporary American higher education. In a time when the values of the humanities are being questioned, might Christianity offer a way to “save” the humanities from academic oblivion?

The status of the humanities is undoubtedly in decline in the contemporary academy, at least in comparison to the burgeoning STEM disciplines (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) that are perceived as promising greater employment opportunities and future earnings while also contributing to national strength and security. On many campuses, courses in the humanities are under-enrolled, and departments and majors in the humanities are being eliminated. For many families, forking over tuition dollars to pay for classes about poetry, philosophy, literature, history, and the arts—disciplines that might seem like nice avocational pursuits for some people later in life, perhaps as hobbies in retirement, but which may not appear to provide young adults with the skills and knowledge that will lead to a lucrative professional trajectory—can seem like an expensive and unnecessary diversion from the core goal of preparing a student for profitable employment.

In their attempts to defend the humanities, some professors and administrators have suggested that acquiring a little seasoning from the humanities makes graduates more attractive as potential employees. Reading Shakespeare, learning how to appreciate art, and thinking deep thoughts with Plato can make a job candidate better attuned to the “human factors” involved in business relationships with coworkers and clients. Similarly, the abilities to read intelligently and to write clearly are handy when trying to craft public announcements or decode company memos. Furthermore, exposure to the humanities may save people from becoming isolated misfits in the workplace. The hope is that the humanities will help to humanize people, giving them the kind of affective self-awareness and understanding that employers find advantageous.

All of this may be true, but in some sense these arguments sell the horse to repair the barn—and if the horse is gone, who needs a barn? They buy into the notion that the humanities are peripheral to the real work of higher education, and they are usually offered as arguments to maintain some remnant of humanities graduation requirements. It is not clear that this is a long-term winning strategy for keeping the humanities alive either at American colleges and universities or in American culture at large. In contrast, Christianity has historically valued the humanities not for their instrumental benefits, but because the kind of thinking that the humanities inspires is necessary for the maturation of faith. At this moment in American higher education, we believe that Christianity also offers the kinds of values and virtues needed by the humanities themselves if they are to survive and flourish.

What Are the Humanities?

In order to save the humanities, the humanities first need to be defined. Currently, there is little agreement about how the humanities should be delineated. The Oxford Dictionaries, the online incarnation of the old Oxford English Dictionary, classify the humanities as “learning concerned with human culture, especially literature, history, art, music, and philosophy.” This definition, while adequate, seems rather terse and limited. To arrive at a fuller understanding, it is necessary to look at how the term is actually used both in the academy and in contemporary public discourse today.

A quick Google search shows how different groups define the humanities in varied and sometimes conflicting ways. Not surprisingly, Google first leads us to Wikipedia, where the humanities are largely defined by what they are not. Wikipedia contributors have posited that the humanities are not the “natural, physical, and sometimes social sciences [or] professional training.” Instead, the humanities focus on “subject matters that the experimental method does not apply to—and instead mainly use the comparative method and comparative research.” This definition is inelegant, at least, and anemic, at best, and it will undoubtedly depress anyone actually engaged in the humanities. While other people in the academy are experimentally discovering things or offering sage advice to practitioners, scholars in the humanities merely compare things and express their opinions.

Google also directs searchers to several university websites. Stanford University’s Humanities Center defines the humanities as “the study of how people process and document the human experience. Since humans have been able, we have used philosophy, literature, religion, art, music, history, and language to understand and record our world. These modes of expression have become some of the subjects that traditionally fall under the humanities umbrella.” Yale University’s website offers a more succinct but also more encompassing definition, describing the humanities as the “pursuit of fundamental insights into the human condition as they arise in literature, the arts, history, philosophy, and the sciences.” At the University of Chicago, the humanities are described as happening whenever “interdisciplinary research and collaboration” occurs. At Princeton, the humanities are presented as generally synonymous with study of the Western intellectual tradition. These university websites add depth and nuance to the definition of the humanities, but they do not articulate an academic consensus about precisely what the humanities are.

The College Board Examination Program (CLEP), which institutions of higher education use to award humanities credits to matriculating undergraduate students, also makes an early appearance in Google search results. The CLEP definition of the humanities is clear and narrow, emphasizing “general knowledge of literature, art, and music and the other performing arts… with questions on all periods from classical to contemporary and in many different fields: poetry, prose, philosophy, art, architecture, music, dance, theater, and film.” Half of the questions cover literature and half cover the arts, including visual and performing arts, architecture, and music. Many subjects typically included in the humanities—language, philosophy, history, religion, cultural studies—are absent from CLEP’s list.

Outside the bounds of higher education, a number of states have established humanities initiatives for their residents. California Humanities is “a non-profit that promotes the humanities in California in order to help create ‘a state of open mind.’ Through our work, we inspire Californians to learn more, dig deeper, and start conversations that matter among our dramatically diverse people.” The state’s diversity is underscored, and “a state of open mind” also reflects California’s laid-back culture. The Pennsylvania Humanities Council, by contrast, assumes a more pragmatic stance: “We believe the humanities inspire people to make a difference and come together to advance cultural diversity, economic vibrancy, and an equitable society.” The Kansas Humanities Council is even more direct, declaring: “Democracy demands wisdom and vision in its citizens, and the humanities provide a way to gain both. Healthy communities depend on the humanities to provide a forum for the exchange of ideas and viewpoints about historical and contemporary topics, opportunities to deepen understanding of our shared heritage, and encouragement for innovation in civic life.” Similarly, the Alaskan Humanities Forum says its mission is “to connect Alaskans through stories, ideas, and experiences that positively change lives and empower communities.” In the rhetoric of public humanities programs, the ideals of democracy and community development tend to replace more traditional definitions of the humanities.

The National Humanities Center, a private, nonprofit institute located in Durham, North Carolina, has a more expansive definition of the humanities. The Center hosts fellows who are expected to “generate new knowledge and further understanding of all forms of cultural expression, social interaction, and human thought.” The Center’s website states that “in addition to scholars from all fields of the humanities, the Center accepts individuals from the natural and social sciences, the arts, the professions, and public life who are engaged in humanistic projects.” Here, studying any subject in a “humanistic” mode is the criterion for having one’s research included in the humanities.

However expansively defined, a traditional humanistic (that is, human-centered) approach often overlooks the degree to which humanity is subject to forces beyond human control and simultaneously underestimates how much human actions impact the non-human world. Posthumanist and antihumanist scholars have accordingly developed new methodologies for the humanities that question the validity of traditional, anthropocentric views of reality. From their perspective, human experience can be properly understood only by emphasizing humanity’s limitations, faults, obliviousness, and blindness to the destructive impact humans have so often had on other forms of life. A prominent purveyor of this posthumanist approach is the Humanities Without Walls consortium that links the humanities centers at fifteen research universities in the central United States. One of the consortium’s recent initiatives focuses on climate change, studying how the “fictions and visual cultures” of humanity have produced different “material consequences” for the planet as a whole.

The great diversity in these definitions of the humanities informs our own working definition:

The humanities seek to understand human existence, and especially human creativity, in all of the different times, places, cultures, and circumstances in which people have lived. The humanities explore how human beings have suffered, survived, prospered, thrived, and influenced the non-human world around them, seeking to identify and encourage better ways of being human while acknowledging that what constitutes “better” will always be contested.

This working definition is somewhat cumbersome, but it describes a zone of academic activity within which most scholars in the humanities can locate their work. It distinguishes the humanities from the arts, which focus much more directly on the process of being humanly creative; from the sciences, which seek to understand the world in much more objective and much less anthropocentric ways; and also from professional studies that prepare individuals to provide personal and social services. When scientists, artists, or professionals outside the academy reflect on the meaning and significance (as opposed to simply the content) of their work, they step away from their disciplines and use the lens of the humanities to examine their efforts. Thus, within the world of higher education, the humanities exist both as a distinct zone of inquiry and as a general approach to study and reflection that is open to people in all fields and disciplines.

The Relationship between the Humanities and Faith

Faith is the way people orient themselves to the complex realities of life. The word “faith” refers to how people respond to what they see as the deepest and most important truths about the world. Faith involves beliefs, but it is more than that. It is a holistic life stance that includes affectivity and action alongside beliefs and convictions. Understood this way, faith is never either fully present or fully absent. Faith can be stronger or weaker, more robust or less. It can be more comprehensive and coherent or less so. It can also be healthier or less healthy, with healthiness defined in terms of both personal sanity and flourishing, and the positive or negative influence of the individual on the people (and other living things) with whom that individual interacts. Finally, faith can be either more or less firm, more prone to doubt and possible revision or less so, at any given point in time. Faith has this dynamic character because faith is part of being human, and faith ebbs and flows alongside other experiences over the course of a lifetime. 

Most individuals initially inherit their faith from other people—from their parents, teachers, and other mentors—and the result is that childhood faith is typically naïve in the sense that the person has little or no self-consciousness of having any faith at all. Part of maturing as a human being and as a person of faith involves becoming self-consciously aware of one’s faith. This awareness allows ownership of one’s faith in a way that is not possible when faith is merely taken for granted.

The humanities can play a crucial role in this process of dawning self-awareness and maturation of faith, because the humanities seek to introduce people to the full diversity of human experience. People discover who they are by encountering people who are truly and genuinely different from themselves, and this is precisely what the humanities do so well. Study in the humanities involves the constant, ongoing, repetitious exposure of students to “the other.” It is the steady drip, drip, drip of engaging other people, other cultures, other languages, other stories, other historical epochs, and other ways of thinking that slowly changes people over time, making them more open to new ideas and to new relationships with individuals who are different from themselves. At times, the encounter with otherness can be disorienting, and this kind of shock can be a necessary step toward self-awareness of the particularity of one’s own faith.

We use the term “critical unsettling” to describe this disorienting engagement with the other (Jacobsen and Jacobsen, 2012: 129-32). It often occurs in tandem with “critical thinking,” and it can be used purposefully within undergraduate education to raise doubts about students’ convictions so that they are forced to discard ideas and beliefs they find inadequate or unworthy. When individuals experience this unsettling through systematic questioning or exposure to new and different ideas, it can be painful. If the inadequacies of existing beliefs and commitments are exposed and nothing emerges to fill the void, then the end result can be cynicism or even despair. This is certainly not the desired outcome of critical unsettling, since the educational goal is for students to develop deeper and more robust ways of making meaning in their lives. The intention is for exposure to new ideas and experiences to prompt learners either to modify or to reaffirm their prior convictions, but with greater self-awareness, more nuance, and heightened respect for alternative ways of thinking and living.

Critical and creative thinking, rational reflection, awareness and understanding of the other, acceptance of diversity, appreciation of paradox and ambiguity, and self-awareness—all hallmarks of robust education in the humanities—are sometimes seen as antithetical to faith and to simple trust in God, and when students internalize these dispositions it can sometimes become difficult to feel at home in the churches where they have been raised. Consequently, some church-related colleges and universities, at least during the admissions process, seek to assure potential students and their parents that nothing students learn at their school will push them to question or reconsider anything about their faith. “Whatever ideas or convictions you bring with you into this college will be respected by its professors and staff,” they seem to say “Your faith is safe from challenge here. We will help you to grow as people of faith, but you can graduate as exactly the same kind of person you are when entering this school.”

Responding to concerns about faith with this kind of promise is not only bad for the humanities, it is also against any respectable understanding of higher learning and it is ultimately bad for faith. Most American educators (and especially those in the humanities) would argue that the core purpose of higher learning is to make students more self-aware, more aware of and more understanding of others, more inquisitive, more reflective, and ultimately more grounded in their own sense of who they are, how they think the world is put together, and what they may or may not be called to do in life. These are precisely the same skills and dispositions required to become a faithful, mature Christian. Higher education, and especially Christian higher education, should change people. The humanities play a special and necessary role in that process of growth and transformation.

Critical unsettling is not, however, the only way that study in the humanities can encourage individuals to reexamine their current faith orientations and open paths toward greater maturity. Perhaps even more powerful and effective are moments of “transcendent unsettling” that occur when a student encounters another person, perspective, or posture in life that seems not just different but in some ways better. Think perhaps of the words and lives of Martin Luther King, Jr., Mahatma Gandhi, Mother Teresa, Nelson Mandela, Malala Yousafzai, or the first responders who ran into the burning World Trade Center in 2001. The courage and compassion of their words and actions inspire us and simultaneously shame us by starkly revealing our own relative self-interestedness and moral hesitancy. Transcendent unsettling challenges faith in a way that is far different from critical unsettling. It is not so much a shaking of foundations as an exposé of moral and spiritual smallness, a revelation that can compel individuals toward becoming less small and self-focused in their faith and convictions. This is the kind of unsettling that the saints have long played in the Christian tradition, underscoring humanity’s cramped and self-focused tendencies and highlighting pathways for becoming more fully alive and more deeply engaged with God and others.

While the humanities can play an important role in helping an individual mature in his or her faith, resources from within the Christian tradition (as well as other religious traditions) can also serve as a corrective to some unhealthy predilections of the humanities. In particular, an engagement with faith can help the humanities to remember to ask genuinely “big questions” about the human condition. A recent article in The Chronicle Review about Michelle Alexander, author of the highly acclaimed book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in an Age of Colorblindness, illustrates the point. Alexander explains her move from the secular academy (a position at the law school of Ohio State University) to a religious setting (Union Theological Seminary in New York City) in this way: “I’m shifting my focus from questions of law to questions of justice,” and Union seemed like a better place to do that. “[I]n my experience, in policy roundtables, in legal conferences, even in law-school classrooms, it’s relatively rare to have deep, searching dialogues about the meaning of justice” (Kafka, 2016: B11).

What is true about discussions in law-school classrooms is also true about discussions in many humanities classrooms. Rather than grappling with the really big questions presented in a particular text or raised by a particular historical event, discussions in humanities classes may focus instead on more controlled questions about, for example, fine points of literary structure or the many different historical factors that have shaped a particular event or development. In the process, the big questions that could have been addressed are sometimes obscured. They are left unasked and unanswered. Giving new attention to faith, not as a body of doctrine but rather as a mode of being in the world, is a potential remedy. Faith is a life orientation that focuses specifically on big questions of human meaning, purpose, values, and life choices. Approaching the various topics that are studied in the humanities through the eyes of faith is one important way of keeping the core purposes of the humanities alive and of avoiding their captivity to the endless examination of peripheral minutia. Detailed study is incredibly important, but detailed study can also sometimes be a distraction from basic humanistic questions.

Christian Virtues and the Humanities

Big questions of human meaning and purpose have gone missing not only from many humanities classrooms, but also from much of the scholarly work in the humanities. Look at the programs for any of the regional or national academic meetings of the major humanities organizations—the Modern Language Association, the American Academy of Religion, the American Philosophical Society, the American Historical Association—and it is readily apparent that miniature frames of reference and tiny differences of methodology or ideology are characteristic of many sessions. The current system of academic rewards is partly to blame for this tendency, where “least publishable units” ensure the thickest vitae for tenure reviews. Scholarship in the humanities undertaken by Christians may at times focus by necessity on specific and even narrow topics, but Christians will likely find the bigger questions surrounding those topics harder to ignore. Christianity does not give Christian scholars in the humanities an intellectual leg up on anyone else involved in the field, but Christianity may help all scholars in the humanities, not just Christians, remain in touch with the methodological virtues that have traditionally made the humanities so important within higher education and human history generally.

Every academic field of inquiry has its own distinctive methods for ensuring scholarly excellence, and every discipline has its own distinctive academic virtues that must be internalized by its practitioners if they seek to do good work in that area of study. For example, artists and musicians need to develop the virtue of patience, the ability to slowly and methodically master techniques that will eventually allow them to express themselves in ways that would otherwise be impossible. It takes years of working with paint, stone, wood, or fabric to become an accomplished artist, and it takes years of practice to master any musical instrument. In the sciences, the chief virtue perhaps is accuracy, the ability and willingness to measure the world in a manner that is as precise and replicable as possible. If accuracy seems too mundane to be considered a virtue, consider its opposite. Clearly sloppiness of measurement is the greatest of all scientific sins, and if sloppiness is a sin, then accuracy is almost by default a scientific virtue.

The virtues that inform study in the humanities are varied and complicated because the focus in the humanities is on human existence itself. This means that almost every human virtue has a potential role to play in the humanities. Being intellectually empathic, kind, hospitable, and generous can help scholars in the humanities to engage their subjects in ways that are appropriately respectful. But there are three particular virtues that are undeniably crucial to scholarship in the humanities: honesty, humility, and hope. These three virtues are also essential elements in maturity of faith. There is deep consonance between Christian faith and study in the humanities at its best, because faithful scholarship is built on the virtues of honesty, humility, and hope.

Honesty: Honesty is a virtue in the humanities because the humanities are always to some degree confessional. Scholars in the humanities are not disembodied observers or objective analysts of the people and cultures they study. The humanities involve people studying other people, and the particularities of those on both sides of that equation—both the observers and the observed—need to be taken into account. This requires a kind of self-honesty on the part of humanities scholars that is different from what is required of artists or scientists. The experiences, perspectives, propensities, and preferences of scholars in the humanities affect how they view others and how they interpret the words and actions of other people, so scholars in the humanities are always simultaneously seeking to understand themselves and others, and that requires an honest assessment of one’s own analytic lenses and biases.

The work of Brazilian theologian Ivone Gebara focuses on honesty and confession in the Christian life, but everything she says applies equally to the humanities. Gebara argues that any decent attempt to understand the lived experience of another human being must necessarily begin with awareness of one’s own experience of “burdens, suffering, difficulty, hopes, and joy” (Gebara, 2002: 45). That kind of transparent self-awareness includes acknowledging one’s own faults and inner contradictoriness. She says each of us has a “wound deep inside” (91), a distance between who we are and who we want to be, and an internal discord of ideals and impulses, that makes all of us hypocrites to some degree. “We human beings,” she explains, “are always this mixture of greatness and pettiness, of good and evil, of hot and cold” (178).

The honesty required in the humanities (and in mature Christian faith) is not, however, merely about our fallibilities. It also involves a candid recounting of privileges that have come to each of us through inheritance (both biological and social), in the form of unearned social capital, and via sheer luck. There is a human tendency to downplay these privileges. People are attracted to the myth that one can always, with enough hard work, pull oneself up by the bootstraps. Gebara reminds us that there is an undeniable “interdependence that exists between and among all things . . . similar to a spider web, but at the same time more open, more interlinked, everything connected with everything else” (Gebara, 2002: 133). In reality, we all depend on the help and kindness of others, and Christians add we all depend on God’s grace. Good work in the humanities (and maturity of faith) requires
honesty about these advantages in the same way that it requires honesty about the disadvantages that may place limits on us or others.

Humility: Scholars in the humanities readily admit that a full comprehension of the subjects they study is forever beyond reach. Christians similarly affirm that everything we know about ourselves and others we can know only in part. Full knowledge of self and of others remains inaccessible in this life. No matter how carefully people are observed and interrogated, the full being of other people remains shrouded in mystery.

The humility required in the humanities is not, however, limited to the realm of perception. It includes acknowledgement of our inability to fully articulate even those limited insights about others that we do possess. T. S. Eliot is the unofficial poet laureate for this kind of humility. In his Four Quartets, he repeatedly voices his frustration that words are inadequate to convey what he wants them to say. They “strain, crack, and sometimes break under the burden” (Eliot, 1943: 19). They slip and slide and “will not stay in place” (30). Words “decay with imprecision”; they are “shabby equipment”; every attempt to understand the world is a new “raid on the inarticulate” (31). Eliot concludes that the only life that makes sense is one of unending exploration. The goal is not knowledge, but a deep and ever deepening sense of humility: “The only wisdom we can hope to acquire is the wisdom of humility” (27).

Eliot’s Four Quartets were, of course, not written to explain the humanities. They were written to describe the human condition from a Christian perspective. All human efforts to improve the world, including even the best work in the humanities, are limited by human fallibility. Any success will be merely a small step forward, an adjustment of nuance, a tweaking of interpretation, a little correction here or there. Today’s breakthroughs and triumphs are often largely undone or overthrown by the next generation.

The humanities remain essential because they remind us over and over again of that human reality. However grand and insightful one’s thinking might be, much of it will be either ignored from the start or eventually discarded as misguided and obsolete. But each person’s contribution to the conversation still matters. Humility is the soil in which the persistence and perseverance required for scholarly work in the humanities must germinate and survive. This same kind of patience is also a prerequisite for maturity of faith, for learning how to live faithfully in the gap between the expansiveness of spiritual ideals and the often limited results that our efforts produce.

Hope: A third virtue of scholars in the humanities is hope. This may seem odd at first. The humanities typically are not action-oriented, and their primary goal is not to change the world. Instead, the humanities are descriptive and analytic, trying to make sense of human experience in all of its present and historic diversity. The humanities do not tell people who they ought to be. They reflect on who people are, and a good bit of that story is tragic. Many studies in the humanities seem almost totally devoid of hope, cataloging and criticizing the different ways that individuals and groups have been oppressed, repressed, and depressed. Nonetheless, hope is the hidden fuel that keeps the humanities going, and without hope the humanities would die.

The mid-twentieth century French Catholic philosopher Gabriel Marcel ruminated in his book Homo Viator about how to describe the virtue of hope. Like many authors who have written on the topic, Marcel makes a sharp distinction between optimism and hope. Optimism, he says, is the belief that things almost always turn out better than we expect. Based on empirical assessments, the optimist genuinely believes that facts point in the direction of better outcomes rather than worse outcomes. For Marcel, this reliance on facts puts optimism in the same category as despair. If facts irrefutably point in the direction of a negative outcome, the only realistic response is to accept the inevitability of that undesirable outcome. Both optimists and pessimists study the facts and see the logical flow of events. Optimists expect something good and pessimists expect something bad to happen, but for both the outcome is predetermined.

For Marcel, hope is different. Hope is a matter of faith, not facts. Hope is the refusal to capitulate “before a certain factum laid down by our judgment” (Marcel, 1962: 37). It is a denial of the accumulated wisdom of past experience that says certain outcomes are inevitable, that nothing can be done other than to accept the inevitable. Rather than acquiescing to this locked-in, cause-inevitably-leading-to-effect manner of thinking about the future, Marcel says that hope has the power to open up the future in new ways. Hope “make[s] things fluid” (41), and what seemed inevitable becomes merely one option among many. When facts seem ineluctably to point in a less than optimal direction, hope springs into action. In the language of the New Testament, hope is linked to faith, and the two together provide the “assurance of things unseen” (Hebrews 11:1).

Marcel says that the main work of hope is to change the present so that the future has the possibility of being different. Hope reweaves “experience now in process” (52). To despair in the face of threatening facts actually makes the reality of that negative outcome more likely, while hope creates space for alternatives to emerge. Marcel is not naïve. He knows that changing expectations does not automatically alter history. And yet, hope matters, not only for our own existence, but for the existence of humanity as a whole. Genuine hope refuses to accept the fact that the “darkness” which seems inevitably about to fall on some particular group or individual is permanent. Instead hope declares this to be “only an eclipse” (48). Light will eventually dawn again even if the eclipse is devastating. This, of course, means that true hope exceeds the reach of any single life. Hope knows it may not see what it desires, but hope carries on nonetheless because hope believes it is tapping into “a certain creative power in the world” (52) that ultimately (to borrow the gospel-drenched language of Martin Luther King, Jr.) bends the world toward justice rather than evil and toward life rather than death. Hope expects results in the long-term, but does not necessarily expect to see results in a lifetime.

It is this kind of deep, almost eschatological hope that nurtures and sustains good work in the humanities. The humanities study human existence in all of its breadth and depth. Many of these dimensions of being human are good and ought to be celebrated, but other dimensions of life are painful, oppressive, and evil. The humanities are called to study both with equal honesty. This means there can be no downplaying of negatives, no turning away from life when it becomes too awful to observe, no sugarcoating of the horrors that befall some individuals and groups, and no masking of despair with cheap optimism or false hope. And yet, the motivation for remembering, recovering, and examining these horrible experiences of life is itself positive. The goal almost always, and even if unacknowledged, is to help nudge the world in a direction that will make it less likely that these kinds of terrible things will repeat themselves.

The humanities do not engage in the disinterested study of human existence. To the contrary, the humanities seek to encourage and sustain human flourishing in all of its diversity. In this task, the virtues of honesty and humility may be necessary, but it is the virtue of hope that gets humanities scholars out of bed in the morning and that sustains them in their work. Without hope, the humanities can easily become nothing more than intelligent voyeurism. Informed by hope, however, scholars in the humanities have the power little by little, one person at a time, to remake the world.

And, of course, the same virtues apply to Christian life. Christian faith demands honesty in evaluating personal strengths and weaknesses (and the strengths and weaknesses of others), and it requires humility about what Christians claim to know. Apart from authentic hope, Christianity can easily become nothing more than escapism that has little if anything good to say about the world as it presently exists. When Christians lose touch with honesty, humility, and hope, history has shown that Christianity can easily become inauthentic, oppressive, and even evil.

By embracing the virtues of honesty, humility, and hope and displaying these virtues in their scholarship and teaching, Christians in the humanities—and Christian scholars outside the humanities who take time to reflect on the human meanings and implications of the subjects they study—provide a great service to their students, their institutions, and the world in general. The service they provide is not immediately translatable into post-graduation employment, and it is not designed to protect students from moral, religious, or intellectual challenges. Instead, engagement with the humanities is an invitation to become more fully human, and becoming more fully human is in turn a prerequisite for becoming more deeply Christian. Scholars of faith who embrace the humanities with honesty, humility, and hope are accordingly doing two things at once: They are deepening their own faith (and the faith of the students they teach), and coincidentally they just might be saving the humanities for generations to come.


Douglas Jacobsen and Rhonda Hustedt Jacobsen both work at Messiah College, where he is distinguished professor of church history and theology, and she is professor of psychology and director of faculty development. They have collaborated together on many publications, including No Longer Invisible: Religion in University Education (Oxford University Press).


Works Cited

Cahill, Thomas. How the Irish Saved Civilization: The Untold Story of Ireland’s Heroic Role from the Fall of Rome to the Rise of Medieval Europe. New York: Doubleday, 1995.

Eliot, T. S. The Four Quartets. New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1943.

Gebara, Ivone. Out of the Depths: Women’s Experience of Evil and Salvation. Minneapolis: Augsburg/Fortress, 2002.

Jacobsen, Douglas and Hustedt Jacobsen, Rhonda. No Longer Invisible: Religion in University Education. New York: Oxford University Press, 2012.

Kafka, Alexander C. “Michelle Alexander’s Leap of Faith,” The Chronicle Review. October 7, 2016.

Marcel, Gabriel. Homo Viator: Introduction to a Metaphysic of Hope. New York: Harper and Brothers, 1962.

Copyright © 2016 | Valparaiso University | Privacy Policy