For too long now, evangelical academics like myself have been reactive when we should have been proactive. Rather than forge a uniquely Christian vision based on the central tenets of the historic creeds and the rich tradition of Christian higher education, we have tended to imitate and then lightly “Christianize” whatever the secular schools of pedagogy have deemed fashionable.
In the past, that meant adapting ourselves to a progressivist view that considers the primary goal of education to be socialization. Indeed, evangelicals have themselves been guilty of criticizing homeschooling on the grounds that it leaves children un-socialized—even though that socialization is into a secular worldview that exalts progress over tradition, utilitarianism over moral and ethical absolutes, empiricism and scientism over a metaphysical view of reality, and forced conformity over the nurture and celebration of unique individuals with unique gifts and talents. That so many evangelicals today take for granted that beauty is relative, that egalitarianism and inclusivism are the core of Jesus’ teaching, and that equity is always to be preferred to elitism and hierarchy offers sad proof to how fully (and uncritically) we have absorbed the progressivism of our schools and colleges.
Is it any wonder then that evangelicals have fallen prey to the latest educational fads? Out of a praiseworthy desire to foster racial reconciliation and advocate for groups that have been historically marginalized, manipulated, or abused, we have opened ourselves to a Critical Race Theory (CRT)-based, resentment studies-based vision of education. In conscious opposition to the biblical teaching that we are all made in God’s image (and therefore have essential value and worth) but are fallen and depraved (and therefore are equally prone to sin, rebellion, and evil), the pedagogical merchants of CRT and resentment divide all groups into oppressor (evil) or oppressed (good), victimizer (irredeemably vicious) or victim (innately virtuous). And they are more than willing to alter our reading of literature, history, philosophy, economics, sociology, psychology, and the arts to prop up their non-biblical identity politics.
Evangelical teachers, administrators, and board members who are sincerely committed to biblically-based education should see through the Marxist, anti-Christian worldview on which CRT is founded, but we don’t; and we don’t for the same two reasons we did not see through the materialistic-naturalistic worldview of progressivism. First, ideologically-driven pedagogies not only possess a contagious visionary energy but can be implemented in a pragmatic, measurable way in real-life curriculum. Second, we have not done the necessary work to generate our own coherent, consistent, workable vision grounded in a biblical view of reality. We have been content to follow secular-social scientific, rather than supernatural-humanistic, theories of education, asking only that we be allowed to supplement them with chapel and a stricter code of moral conduct.
If we are to restore western, liberal-arts education to its foundational Christian roots, we must take a hard look at the way we teach our various disciplines and determine whether our teaching of them reflects a Christian vision of God, man, and the universe. To fail in this endeavor is not only to sever Christian belief from Christian practice; it is to leave a vacuum that will be filled by secular-progressive-Marxist theories that deny—sometimes passively, sometimes actively—the Christian revelation.
In order to begin addressing the need for a distinctively Christian pedagogy, I would like, in what follows, to carry out a thought experiment. What might our teaching look like if we took seriously, really seriously, the central Christian doctrine of the Incarnation. Could the uniquely Christian belief that Christ was fully God and fully man have any bearing on the way we teach English or history or biology? To answer that question, I will first survey what the Incarnation means and then suggest ways that that meaning can be integrated into the classroom. By so doing, I hope to show that the Christian worldview can provide the visionary energy and pragmatic curricular tools to revolutionize our schools and reclaim them from aggressively secular ideologies that promote moral and ethical relativism, institutionalized resentment and ingratitude, and the deconstruction of the human person as a noble but fallen creature made in the image of God
Christianity is a faith that rests on paradoxes, and the greatest of these paradoxes, the one upon which all the others hang, is the one for which the Fathers of the Church fought most fiercely: the Incarnation. Recite the Nicene Creed to yourself, and you will discover that roughly a third of this “mere Christian” document is devoted to proclaiming, in the clearest terms possible, that Jesus of Nazareth was, at once, fully God and fully man. Indeed, the majority of the heresies that have sprung up in the Church—both then and now—ultimately rose out of a rejection of the orthodox doctrine of the Incarnation. Either it is claimed, along with the Arians, that Christ was a man but not God, or it is asserted, along with the Gnostics, that Christ was fully divine but not fully human: he only appeared to wear the flesh. The major religions of the world may also be divided in two around the theological crux of the Incarnation: with Jews and Muslims insisting that God has no Son, and Hindus and Buddhists accepting the Son-ship of Jesus but then hastening to add that we are all Sons of God, if we only knew it.
Like the doctrine of Christ Crucified, the doctrine of Christ Incarnate has ever proven a stumbling block to the religious minded and rank foolishness to the secular minded. It embodies a mystery that the wise have dismissed as illogical and irrational. And yet, the paradox of the Incarnation (the 2-into-1) is a paradox that runs through the very fabric of our world. God created beings of pure spirit (the angels) and pure physicality (the beasts), but we, as human beings, are the great amphibians of the universe: not just part soul and part body, but fully spiritual and fully physical. Marriage is not merely a social institution but a mystical fusion of husband and wife. Sexuality, too, is more than a vehicle for propagation; in the sexual act, husband and wife truly become one flesh.
Even in heaven, the paradox of the 2-into-1 will continue. First, our eternal destiny is not to exist as bodiless souls, but to exist, as Christ himself now exists, clothed incarnationally in a Resurrection Body. Second, we, as the Bride of Christ, will be fully one with Christ the Bridegroom, while yet retaining our individual identity. The Incarnation is what prevents heaven from devolving into a nebulous One Soul, in which individuality is annihilated as the integrity of the raindrop is annihilated when it falls into the ocean. The Incarnation is also, I would argue, what holds nature together and prevents seen, physical matter and unseen, “spiritual” energy from either obliterating or swallowing each other. It is by Christ, Paul assures us in Colossians, that “all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things were created by him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together” (1:16-7; NIV 1984 throughout).
Surely “all things” includes our grade schools, colleges, and universities, and surely the nature of the eternal-historical Incarnate One who holds all those things together should exert an influence on the way programs are conceived and classes are taught. No matter the class, I believe, a connection can and should be forged between what is being taught and the unique Christian doctrine that at a specific moment in history, the invisible God took on human form and became a man. That is not to say that the Incarnation will necessarily be mentioned or even alluded to in the classroom, but its paradoxical truth should be there to guide, enlighten, and undergird.
To substantiate this admittedly bold claim, I would like to survey a number of disciplines that can not only be enlivened by contact with the metaphysical reality of the Incarnation but whose traditional foundational truths can be strengthened and confirmed by the mystery of the 2-into-1. Though I write as a college professor, what I say below applies equally to teachers at all educational levels and to homeschooling parents.
English. For many decades now, language itself has been under assault in the Academy. Postmodern theories like deconstruction have questioned the ability of literature—and, ultimately, of all language—to embody or express meaning. Even the traditional belief that poetry offers a purer kind of language that draws its reader closer to divine and timeless truths has been rejected in favor of a radically egalitarian view that consigns all forms of writing—from poetry to novels, advertisements to newspaper articles, comic books to pornography—to the same neutral designation: text. No one text is to be given a special status or to be privileged over another. All texts are equally meaningful, which, of course, is just another way of saying that all are equally meaningless.
To educators who wish to reclaim meaning and truth for the literature they teach, the Incarnation offers a way back to academic sanity. In the Prologue to his Gospel (1:1-18), John sings a beautiful hymn of praise to the Incarnation that celebrates Christ as the Word (or Logos) of God. Although no one has seen God at any time, the closing verse asserts, the Logos has made him known. The Greek for “made him known” can also be translated as explained or narrated, a point that has great bearing on the way literature is taught in our grade schools and colleges. If the unseen God can speak to us clearly through the mediation of the Incarnate Logos, then hope remains that divine and eternal truths can be expressed through human language. It is no coincidence that both Christ and the Bible are referred to as the Word of God. Both are vehicles of divine revelation, and, as such, they attest to the possibility of revelation. Meaning exists, and it can be communicated through words.
Of course, the Incarnation does not mark the only instance in human history when God spoke. According to Hebrews, God spoke in the past “to our forefathers through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son” (1:1-2). All speech is not the same; there is a natural hierarchy of revelation which culminates and finds its perfection in the Incarnation. Just so, there are certain works of literature—those traditionally referred to as the Great Books—that come closer than others to embodying Truth and Beauty and that possess a greater power to transcend the place and time in which they were written. These Great Books, though they do not share the same authority as the Bible, do bear evidence of being inspired, of being a channel by which unseen realities can be expressed through concrete words and symbols. That is why they continue to be read and discussed. If English teachers could only reclaim this richly orthodox vision for the incarnational nature of great literature, imagine how energized they and their students would be.
Indeed, as the academic climate, even in supposedly Christian schools, becomes more heated against the centrality of the Great Books, we would do well to mount a specifically Christian defense of the long-held belief that certain works must be read by students because they embody issues and themes that transcend our given historical-social-political-economic moment.
Communications: English professors are not the only educators for whom John’s celebration of the Logos bears special relevance. Those who teach in Speech and Mass Communication departments can also be challenged and uplifted by wrestling academically with the doctrine of the Incarnate Word. Neither a removed God who keeps his distance from the world he made, nor an amorphous God who is identical with the world, the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ is supremely a bridge builder. He desires to communicate intimately with his creation, and the Incarnation is the means by which he effected this desire.
Communications professors who would teach their students how to overcome barriers in interpersonal and cross-cultural communication would do well to meditate on how God broke down—or, better, transcended—all barriers on that first Christmas morning. If the most effective speech, the highest form of communication, is to find a way to embody one’s thoughts and ideas in a form that all people can understand and relate to, then God is the greatest communicator of all. For in Christ, he communicated his boundless and eternal being to a world that is limited by both time and space.
Over the last two years, communication between opposing parties, even and especially within the church, has broken down, giving way to polarization, demonization, and often libelous acrimony. A wrestling with the full meaning of the Incarnation would help restore communication within our churches, our schools, and our society.
Art. When, through the divine mystery of the Incarnation, the Word was made flesh (John 1:14), a great change occurred in the status of the arts, both sacred and profane. By assuming our flesh, the Incarnate Son baptized physical matter as a fit container for divine presence. Henceforth, physical things could bear, if imperfectly, traces of God’s power, truth, beauty and holiness.
I can think of no better impetus to spur on the creativity of art teachers and their students than this vision of the possibility of divine presence. In the light of the Incarnation, the arts can be freed from their Babylonian captivity to abstraction and nihilism and reclaim both the spiritual and the humanistic legacy that they have lost. Self-expression, the Incarnation promises, need no longer be an end in itself, but can be used by God for higher purposes. Paintings that celebrate, rather than parody and deconstruct, the human form can receive a second birth (a re-naissance) when mediated through the triumphant message that God himself did not think it an indignity to take to himself a creaturely body.
Indeed, as radical forces within our government, media, schools, and health centers seek to dismantle and even disassemble our God-given masculinity and femininity, a vision of art grounded in the Incarnation can help restore society’s lost vision of the human person.
History: The Incarnation marks the central and defining moment of human history. Remove it, and history risks deteriorating into a meaningless succession of dates and events with no higher end to give them purpose and direction. Restore it, and history springs to life as both a human drama and a sacred narrative with a beginning, a middle, and an end. The Church was right to designate Christmas, rather than Easter, as the nodal point, the nexus between BC and AD. It was when Christ came into the world, rather than when he left it, that the old world ended and the new world began. Viewed from the perspective of the Incarnation, the kingdoms of Babylon, Persia, Greece, and Rome are transformed from brutal empires into God-ordained precursors of something greater (as was prophesied in Nebuchadnezzar’s Dream of the Giant in Daniel 2). Jesus’ birth was not a haphazard event. He came, Paul tells us, in the fullness of time (Galatians 4:4), at a precise moment when the world—partly through the efforts of the four kingdoms just listed—had been made ready for his coming.
Too often, the history that is taught today in our schools and universities lacks this sense of drama, of the slow working out of an over-arching plan that yet leaves room for human glory and folly, triumph and tragedy. The message that the Incarnation speaks to professors of history is that God’s presence and purposes can be discerned in and through the seemingly arbitrary progression of time and events. The Bible may perhaps best be defined as a record or chronicle of God’s actions and interactions in human history, culminating with his physical entry into history. As part of that account, we are given frequent glimpses, as in Daniel 2, of how God’s actions towards Israel necessitate his (generally anonymous) interactions with her pagan neighbors. Just as God works through those who praise him and those who know him not, so he guides the destinies both of peoples that serve him and kingdoms that reject him.
There have been many historians of America who have caught this vision and sought to discern the hand of providence in the life of our nation. But there is no reason to confine this providential history to America. The Incarnation, as the journey of the Magi suggests, was the true shot heard round the world. Only by immersing our students in such providential history can we protect them from programs like the 1619 initiative that would reduce history to a hopeless tale of oppression, racism, and slavery.
By such methods may the central Christian doctrine of the Incarnation be integrated into the Arts and Humanities. But what of the natural and social sciences? Can they too benefit from an academic wrestling with the Word made flesh? I think they can.
Biology: When evangelicals consider the interplay between faith and learning in the sciences, they tend to think in terms of the debate between naturalistic evolution and intelligent design. I am strongly supportive of intelligent design and believe that science classes across the country would be invigorated and transformed if the inherent design and purpose in nature were allowed to shine through textbooks and lectures. But we need not stop there. If biology professors would factor in as well the implications inherent in the Incarnation, they might find an even richer world opening before their eyes.
According to the Psalms, we are “fearfully and wonderfully made” (139:14): a radical claim indeed, and one made even more radical when we consider that God chose to enter and inhabit that fearful and wonderful flesh he made. In the light of such a revelation, those who study and teach human biology should feel not just scientific curiosity but something akin to religious awe when they contemplate the cells and organs and limbs that make up our God-crafted form. Modern science tends to think of the human form as the end product of a material, evolutionary process; the Incarnation, along with its logical corollary, the Resurrection, speaks of a final state of restoration and regeneration in which the human form, now fallen, will be perfected and glorified. Jesus’ miracles of healing and of control over nature—also logical offshoots of the Incarnation—point to a potential both in man and nature that has yet to be fully explored in anatomy, chemistry, and geology classes.
At the core of the LGBTQ+ agenda lies a postmodern theory of personhood that denies any incarnational link between our bodies and our souls. If our great universities and medical centers could only reclaim the incarnational truth that we are enfleshed souls, not souls trapped in bodies, they would be better equipped to resist the destructive encroachment of transgenderism into our high, middle, and even grammar schools.
Physics: Not just for the biological sciences, but for all those theoretical sciences that are built on an invisible foundation of numbers, the evidence for intelligent design lies all around us. How can there fail to be purpose and order in a universe so finely tuned, so perfectly poised? And yet it is not only in the intricately balanced laws of nature that God shows his presence. He can be seen as well in the mysteries and paradoxes that continue to befuddle our most brilliant minds.
Of all scientists, physicists are perhaps the most open to such mysteries and paradoxes. What better conundrum for these number-crunching gamesters to unpack than the 2-in-1 (Incarnation) inscribed within the 3-in-1 (Trinity). If the Incarnation is real, then it bends time and space in a new and thrilling way that no self-respecting physicist could ignore. The doctrines of the Nicene Creed, when rightly understood, do not halt research into the unknown but beckon it on.
Psychology: As God Incarnate, Jesus Christ invites and challenges us to explore the mysteries that run rampant in our universe and in ourselves. But he also speaks a gentler, quieter message to our world of sorrow, pain, and anguish. In addition to being the Word made flesh, Jesus was also the Second Adam (1 Corinthians 15:45, 47), a living embodiment of what Adam might have been had he not chosen to disobey God and thus rebel against his own created nature and purpose. To put it in the terms of modern psychology, Jesus, as Second Adam, offers us an image, an icon of the total human being—of one who is both integrated and self-actualized.
He was not just a brilliant motivational speaker or a selfless humanitarian or an eastern sage. He was the kind of person—real, whole, complete—that we were all destined to be, the kind of person we know we should be but find we cannot be. And Jesus lived and died as that kind of person, not because of, but in spite of his miraculous powers. Jesus, we must remember, had a real human brain and heart, a real G-I tract that could feel hunger and thirst, and real limbs that could feel soreness and fatigue. As a result of the emptying process of the Incarnation (see Philippians 2:5-8), Jesus, like all of us, was limited to the confines of his anatomy and physiology. His physical and psychological needs were as real and pressing as our own, yet he remained perfectly obedient to the Father.
The current generation of tweens and teens is facing an identity crisis on a massive scale, one that has not only set them at odds with their parents, but with their own physical bodies and their own sense of meaning and purpose. Their anxiety levels are off the charts, and they are desperate for a vision of personhood that can bring them true wholeness and integration. Identity politics and transgenderism enflames rather than resolves their confusion and anxiety. What they need is not further radicalization, but teachers and counselors guided by an image of personhood grounded in the Incarnation.
Anthropology: Jesus, as the perfected Man, the Second Adam, not only embodies what we should have been, but foreshadows what we will become: a dual role that he fulfills on both the historical and mythical level. That is to say, Jesus is the culmination of the highest desires of all nations at all times, whether those desires are expressed in the actual achievements of flesh and blood heroes or the imagined achievements of the heroes of legend.
Students and professors of anthropology know well that the myth of the semi-divine scapegoat king is one that appears in nearly all primitive cultures. Whether he goes by the name of Adonis or Osiris, Balder or Mithras, Tammuz or Bacchus, his status as a god in human form who must suffer, die, and be reborn makes him appear eerily like the Incarnate Son who was crucified and buried, but then rose again on the third day. Although the strongly secular-humanist roots of anthropology have ensured that this cultural phenomenon would be interpreted as proof that the gospel story is essentially a myth, the doctrine of the Incarnation suggests a different reading. To paraphrase C. S. Lewis paraphrasing J. R. R. Tolkien, the gospel story does not simply offer another version of the scapegoat myth; rather, it chronicles the historical enactment of that myth in real time and space. All the greatest and most enduring mythic archetypes find their end and goal in the Second Adam. He is the answer to all of our deepest personal, tribal, and cultural yearnings.
Students, like all people, yearn to be part of a greater story, a meta-narrative that will give meaning to themselves and to their role in the grand drama. The new narrative promulgated by CRT is an anti-humanistic one that reduces individuals to their participation in groups that can only oppress or be oppressed. If Christians, who believe that we are part of a sacred story of creation, fall, redemption, reconciliation, and glorification that hinges on the Incarnation, cannot offer a counter-narrative of hope to those who interpret all of history through the lens of resentment, then nobody can.
Though not all evangelical educators will agree with the specific connections I have made between the Incarnation and their disciplines, my hope is that what we can all agree on is that the Incarnation, if it is true, has wide-ranging implications that cut through and across the various colleges and departments that make up our Christian schools and universities.
“See to it,” Paul warns the Colossians, “that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the basic principles of this world rather than on Christ” (2:8). We need not, as academics and educators, interpret this somber and sobering verse as a blanket condemnation of all disciplines that rest partly on secular assumptions. But we do, again and again, need to test those assumptions, remembering that the only final foundation of truth is the Incarnate Word who both brought truth into the world and was himself the Truth (John 14:6; the founding verse of the University where I have taught for three decades).
*Image credit: Wunderstock