When someone attends a Christian university they should expect their experience to be qualitatively different than educational experiences at other institutions. Even if the level of professional engagement and type of material being used are identical, the Christian university must reflect something radically different. I believe the key difference is love. Love is what has always distinguished Christians from the rest of the world. Scripture demonstrates how radically different Christian’s viewed the concept of love. For example, in John’s first letter to his community the deep connection between Christian love and the person of God is expressed like this:
“Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God.” – 1 John 4:7
John also expresses the fact Christians understand the love they express as a love originating in the divine. He writes:
“We love, because he first loved us” – 1 John 4:19
John’s letter identifies love as a core characteristic of the Christian life because it’s a core characteristic of the Christian God. In fact scripture tells us that God is love (1 John 4:16) and therefore to be a community of love is to be a community that dwells in the midst God himself. A Christian education must have love as part of its educational process if it is to be truly Christian.
The early Christian church understood the importance of loving one another as part of discipleship, the most essential type of education mature Christians provide for those growing in Christ. Their obvious love for one another caused a great social disturbance in the societies in which their communities flourished. This new approach to living, learning, and caring for one another was not only a distinctive mark of who they were but something resented by non-Christians. Tertullian, a well know second century Christian wrote this about the distinctive mark love made on their community:
“It is mainly the deeds of a love so noble that lead many to put a brand upon us. They say, ‘See how they love one another!” . . . and they are angry with us, too, because we call each other brothers.”
It is this author’s argument that a uniquely Christian form of teaching and learning requires the professor to love his or her students in a radically unique way reflecting the same love exemplified in these early Christian communities. That fact however, leads one to ask another important question which is, “What kind of love might that be?”
Sacrificial Love in Teaching
The English language suffers for lack of ways to express the complex experience of love. The New Testament uses a number of words to express the complexity of the love experience. For example, philia is a word found in the New Testament expressing a deep friendship one might share with another. While this is an important word expressing Christian fraternal love, the love Christians are ultimately asked to participate in transcends philia and is a selfless, giving, sacrificial love imitating the love of Christ. The Greek word describing this experience is agape. Agape is required to teach in a uniquely Christian way. There is an old English proverb capturing the essence of this self-giving love distinguishing Christian love from others. The proverb states the following:
“He that plants a tree loves others besides himself.”
Think about that for a moment. Planting a tree becomes a selfless act because the shade, wood, and perhaps fruit of that tree is not just something benefiting the one who plants it, but more often is something benefiting others more profoundly many generations later. This is the kind of love teaching in a Christian setting embraces. To teach for one’s own benefit or because it is professionally lucrative feeds one’s ego and is not much of a sacrificial act. It might be argued one has not only taught improperly, but far from what might be called Christianly. A Christian pedagogy understands one is sharing something they have received, struggled with, and mastered for someone else’s benefit, not their own glory or self-serving purposes. If students never remember the name of the professor who taught them the material of their discipline yet goes on to do great things helping the world overcome its many problems, they have been taught sacrificially by a professor who loved them. Love requires the professor to recognize they are a link in a chain God is creating to transform the world. Sometimes that link is merely teaching others to do simple things well. Professors teach students to think critically, write beautifully, and develop confidence when speaking in front of a group of people. None of these things in themselves are grand bringing great glory to the professor, but simple tasks taken together that can do great things when taught to someone God wants to use marvelously. Mother Teresa captures this approach to teaching when she says:
“In this life we cannot do great things. We can only do small things with great love.”
It is because of sacrificial love one teaches as a Christian. To teach in any other way is to teach for self-promotion. Students may not like their instructor all the time, but one does not teach to be liked or loved, one teaches so that the one being taught may learn and do great things for the kingdom of God. One teaches from a position of love, not to be loved. That does not mean a relationship between students and faculty cannot emerge, it simply means it is not the intended end, merely the effect of caring about one’s students and doing a good job.
Teaching and the Right Order of Love
Vincent van Gogh said, “The best way to know God is to love many things.” While this is indeed true, we can only love God through many things if we love the many things and God in the right order. Saint Augustine understood this when he wrote in his confessions:
“Late have I loved you, beauty so old and so new; late have I loved you. And see, you were within and I was in the external world and sought you there, and in my unlovely state I plunged into those lovely created things which you made.”
To teach Christianly is to show students we love the created things, the disciplines of academia, not for themselves, but for the revelation of God provided through them. The purpose of Christian learning is to allow one to explore the mystery of God himself. If one teaches students to love their disciplines above everything else then they introduce these students to the sin of idolatry and make the academic field being studied God. Christian education teaches the student to love his or her discipline but only as a means to worship, adore, and know God. It is when the order of love is reversed; loving creature above creator, that what is learned draws students away from God. Yet, when approaching the disciplines while loving God above all things, the very subjects studied become conduits to knowing God more deeply. The role of the Christian professor is to teach students how to properly love their disciplines. In an ancient 4th century Christian document called, The Apostolic Constitutions the proper ordering of love between God and one’s trade is described like this:
“Follow your trades as secondary, as something necessary for earning a livelihood. However, make the worship of God your main business.”
A Christian educator takes this one step further making the trade of academic study a type of worship and means for knowing and loving God.
Love, an Act of Humility
When teaching first becomes an act of love for God, then something done for the benefit of students, and lastly something done to contribute to the academic discipline, it perfects itself through the practice of humility. To love God first is to humbly recognize what he has revealed in the Bible as divine truth which guides one’s academic inquiry. To answer questions such as “What is a human being, life’s purpose, and humanity’s final end” requires one to search the Word of God as a primary epistemological source. In this way the truth one pursues is not something constructed in arrogance from an instructor’s experience of the world but rather truth is something discovered guided by the eternal truths of God’s revelation. Teaching students to think Christianly is to teach them to submit themselves in humility to the Word of God as part of their academic inquiry. Otherwise the professor becomes the revealer of all truth and self-love consumes love of God and neighbor. Love of one greater than ourselves leads us to a humble understanding that God’s eternal perspective trumps our temporal observations. Faculty need to not only teach this to their students but model it in their own academic pursuits. It is important students see the tension this causes in academic pursuits but also how Christian scholarship can also be rigorous and academically sound. Love of God first compels the Christian scholar to take what God has revealed through the scriptures seriously and in all humility.
In the End, Christian Education is Uniquely Marked by Love
In summary, to teach Christianly is to teach with love properly ordered toward God first, students next, and the academic discipline last. To teach from the perspective of sacrificial love is to teach in a way that makes the classroom experience a type of worship and adoration of God himself. By sharing in this act of worship and adoration with students, one helps them not only learn course content, but how a particular discipline is a conduit toward understanding the mystery of God. When this is done in love, the professor patiently teaches the student to learn just as one disciples a fellow Christian to live a Christian life. All of this is done in humility to enable both student and professor to see what they do is temporal in the scheme of what God does eternally.
Love is a powerful pedagogical characteristic that must be a part of Christian education. When it expresses itself the world will look upon Christian universities and say as Tertullian stated, “See how they love one another!”