Pursuing Faith-based Learning and Faith-affirming Learning
TWU Core Values Statement Series No. 2 (May 31, 1999)
Our starting point for the goal of learning is that God calls humans to be (1) stewards of His creation; (2) doers of good towards all people; and (3) agents of His reconciliation.
WHAT IS FAITH-BASED LEARNING?
FAITH-BASED LEARNING BEGINS WITH FAITH IN GOD THE CREATOR AND REDEEMER WHO REVEALED HIMSELF IN THE BIBLE, HIS AUTHORITATIVE WORD FOR LIFE:
- God called the cosmos into existence by His Word and keeps it in existence. In Jesus Christ all things hold together and are sustained (Ps 19; 33:9; 147:15-20; Ge 2:15; 2Pe 3:5-7; Co 1:16-17; He 1:3).
- God provides a framework for human activity through physical laws and precepts for human living and calls us to explore and unfold His natural world and all aspects of human culture.
- Christian ethical principles such as righteousness, justice, compassion, peace, and respect for the dignity of humans form an indispensable basis of a functional society.
- Our faith leads us to examine the cultural role of Christianity itself (as well as of other faiths).
WHAT IS FAITH-AFFIRMING LEARNING?
FAITH-AFFIRMING LEARNING SEEKS GOD'S HIDDEN WISDOM AS IT LIFTS UP OUR LEARNING TO OUR FAITH:
- We base our teaching and scholarship on revealed truth, and encourage our students to consider carefully the basic worldview tenets of a biblical Christian faith.
- We are committed to give fair and balanced representations of a wide diversity of viewpoints, and have a high regard for honest investigation. Arbitrary indoctrination and simplistic answers are incompatible with a Christian respect for truth.
- Faith-affirming learning transmits the evangelical tradition but also allows for critique and renewal of that heritage.
WHAT DOES IT MEAN TO BE AGENTS OF LEARNING IN COMMUNITY?
- Staff and faculty are learning agents who guide students through mentoring, unfolding, structuring, and enabling.
- Theory, experience and reflection must be closely interrelated.
- Having a thorough grasp of disciplines and their key issues helps us hold out the Word of life humbly and with compassion to those around us as we address the needs of the world.
Faith-based and faith-affirming learning does not aim to nurture replicas of ourselves but persons who consider our vision and then embark on their own faith-based quest.
God calls humans to take care of His world (Genesis 1:28; 2:15). Fulfilling this call includes showing loving action towards those around us (Matthew 22:37-39; James 2:14-17). Further, Christs Great Commission holds that making disciples involves that we teach others what Christ has commanded us (Matthew 28:20). We study the implications of these injunctions so that we can be more effective ambassadors of God's reconciliation in Jesus Christ (2 Corinthians 5:16-21).
Faith-based and faith-affirming learning help us carry out these God-given mandates. Psalms 19 and 111 point out, for instance, that we need to investigate our God-given physical reality and God's precepts if we are to have good understanding. We recognize in our learning that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom and knowledge. God's righteousness, compassion, faithfulness and redemption set the stage for godly discernment and wisdom (Psalm 111; Proverbs 8, 9). When such learning also probes our cultural context, it helps us understand what it means to contribute to the welfare of all people (1 Chronicles 12:32; Galatians 6:10; Jeremiah 29:7).
Learning on this basis contributes to faithful obedience and witness. Its scope includes all of God's creation. We deepen our insight into the spiritual, moral, historical, political, economic, social, lingual, aesthetic, psychological, biological, physical, and mathematical dimensions of life. Through learning, we deepen our understanding of our world, of ourselves, and of others. We increase our ability to discern truth and make wise decisions, especially as we strive for excellence in learning. In this way, both individually and as a Christian community we speak more responsibly and authoritatively about the issues that face society.
In our learning, we share many explorations and conclusions with other scholars, including ones who do not accept our Christian faith. Yet faith in something or other informs all scholarship, whether explicitly or implicitly: for instance, the faith that truth and values are personal human constructions. Trinity Western University's faculty and staff pursue a thoughtfully chosen faith-based approach to learning. Our starting point is that God created our world and redeems those who confess that Jesus is Lord. We believe that the Bible is God's inspired and authoritative Word for life. Our theory and practice find their roots in God's revelation in His Word, in Jesus Christ, in His creation, and through His Spirit as it moves through history and guides us today. All this shapes our analyses and interpretations.
Learning at TWU is also faith-affirming. It invites students to consider and embrace evangelical Christian faith. One goal of our mission is to develop thoroughly Christian minds. To do so, we explore the breadth and depth of knowledge. We evaluate the foundations, practices, and key issues of our fields. What is crucial is that we base all such investigation on a platform of biblical norms and values. We encourage our students to join us in that quest. Together we want to "grow in wisdom and stature, and in favour with God and humans" (Luke 2:52).
A Christian mind is inquiring and active. It is committed to the rigorous exploration of truth. It helps learners gain a thorough grasp of a discipline and its key issues. It uses and applies what is learned in academically, socially, morally and spiritually responsible ways. It helps us hold out the Word of Life humbly and with compassion as we address the needs of the world. In this way, we affirm the authenticity and the power of the Christian faith.
TWU is a Christian community for learning. Teaching is a crucial means to bring about learning. Indeed, the intent of good teaching is successful learning. What we have to keep in mind is that learning is our chief aim. Our end is not to have professors perform in engaging ways. Rather, it is to empower students to find out, to catch on, to put to use, and to respond personally and creatively: in short, to learn. Research and scholarship similarly contribute to learning for the partners in community.
In a learning community professors and staff see mentoring students as a significant role. We allow students to respond actively, reflectively, authentically and normatively to what they learn. We help them develop their gifts in a context of mutual support and trust. Mentors and students together seek truth and justice and shalom. We learn together, even when we are at different stages in our journeys.
Students are more than customers. This marketplace metaphor reduces education to a bag stuffed with information and skills that students take with them when they graduate. TWU emphasizes "whole person development." We guide, encourage, challenge and stretch students, sometimes even making them feel uncomfortable. We help them apply knowledge with insight, and to act discerningly in their lives. We help them be and become responsible disciples of Christ, not just satisfied customers.
WHAT IS FAITH-BASED LEARNING?
Our faith gives us a number of starting points for learning. God created the cosmos and keeps it in existence (Psalm 33:9; 2 Peter 3:5-7). In Jesus Christ all things hold together, and He sustains all things by His powerful word (Colossians 1:17; Hebrews 1:3). God in His sovereignty gives us physical laws as well as precepts for human living (Psalm 19). We need to show that responsible learning and scholarship can take place on the premise that God has created an ordered reality. Further, Christian ethical principles such as integrity, justice, compassion, peace, and respect for the dignity of humans form an indispensable basis of a righteous and just society. Our faith informs the foundations and meanings of our disciplines as well as which parts we examine.
God calls us to unfold His natural world. For example, we investigate cosmological questions in physics, the structure of polymers in chemistry, and cell structure in biology. Together with our students we marvel at the glory of the work of God's hand. God also calls us to explore ethical principles and applications, the structures and institutions of society, the world of art, and the norms for education itself. All these, too, are grounded in God's creation order even when affected by the power of sin.
Our learning helps us see the meaning of the Lordship of Christ over all of creation and how we can be trustworthy stewards. It spurs us to be instruments of God's Spirit in "preaching the Good News to the poor, proclaiming freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lords favour" (Luke 4:18-21). Learning at TWU, whether it involves the natural world or social or aesthetic endeavors, invites all members of the community "to act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with God" (Micah 6:8). Our reason, our knowledge, and our intelligence are not ends in themselves.
Our faith also leads us to examine the cultural role of Christianity itself (as well as of other faiths). How has Christian faith influenced or been influenced by human activity? How has it affected movements and social situations, both past and present? What is the basis for and what are the implications of the historicity of Jesus? What does Christian faith imply for ethical issues, political justice, economic stewardship, or the fine arts? How have Christian themes manifested themselves in literature? How have faith-based worldviews shaped the development of science and mathematics? As Christian "insiders," we can shed new light on such questions. We can help society come to more trustworthy interpretations of the role of religion in society. While we expose our students to all points of view, we ensure that they are abreast of credible and scholarly Christian viewpoints where those exist. The basis and intent for learning at TWU is distinct. However, the learning, teaching and scholarship that take place do not always set us apart from everyone else. We may well use the same methods and come to the same conclusions as scholars who are not Christians when we solve problems in mathematics, for instance. Distinctive Christian approaches are usually more evident in the humanities than in the natural sciences. But even for the latter we are engaged in faith-based learning.Our faith inevitably impacts our scholarly agendas and how we relate our subjects to the larger issues of life. It is the coherence, vitality and relevance of a Christian worldview that allow us to explore, celebrate and apply the knowledge we gain in all aspects of life. For us, the end purpose of knowledge is that it be to the praise of God's glory.
On some basics we can speak of "the" biblical or Christian view. For instance, Christians hold to the truth that God created the world. But for human interpretations and conclusions, several possible Christian points of view often exist. For instance, is it ever justifiable to wage war? In such cases we need to avoid speaking of "the" Christian view. Rather, we allow students to consider the differing Christian positions while pointing them back to biblical principles. We search for truth and for valid interpretations and applications, but we have limited understanding and insight (1 Corinthians 12:13). Moreover, we are influenced a great deal by our cultural context and our traditions. We therefore need to be humble in our teaching and scholarship and be critical of our traditions and our own work (Matthew 18:4; Romans 12:3).
WHAT IS FAITH-AFFIRMING LEARNING?
Learning at TWU is also faith-affirming. We confess profound mystery and deep humility. Yet the hope of redemption in our learning is that our ultimate answers will be life-giving and full of light (1 Corinthians 1). We seek "God's hidden wisdom." We help students think about things that are noble, pure, lovely, admirable, excellent and praiseworthy (Philippians 4:8). Then we can be free from the fear that learning will threaten faith. Living in the Spirit, we may explore and make judgments about all things (1 Corinthians 2). We penetrate the critical thought of culture and offer Christian wisdom for public application. The intent of our learning is that students become discerning and responsible persons who may choose to follow Jesus Christ and transform their minds by lifting up their learning to their faith. We thus encourage our students to proffer themselves into the arms of a gracious and awesome God.
As we teach and learn, we may use empirical evidence and analytic reasoning to bolster our beliefs.Ultimately, however, we base teaching and scholarship on biblically-based truths and moral commitments that we hold to be certain. For instance, we cannot empirically prove that God is the Creator (nor can we prove the falsity of this statement). We accept this and other claims in faith. Our investigations and our reasoning take place within the framework of the basic religious beliefs that we accept. Moreover, our teaching encourages students to consider carefully the basic worldview tenets of a biblical Christian faith. In short, we invite but we do not force or require students to accept a Christian point of view.
Faith-affirming learning does not mean doctrinaire learning. We have a high regard for honest investigation. We present and investigate and evaluate the work of a wide diversity of scholars and leaders. We are committed to give fair and balanced access to a broad spectrum of representative viewpoints. We do not hesitate to criticize shoddy or skewed scholarship and application even when its source is Christian. We respect students holding differing convictions and allow them to develop their thinking and the implications of their particular framework of beliefs. Simplistic answers and indoctrination that curtails in-depth scrutiny are incompatible with a Christian respect for truth, a Christian understanding of human dignity, and quality Christian educational techniques and objectives.
At the same time, our teaching necessarily transmits certain traditions and preserves them for the next generation. Our learning involves faith-affirming initiation and socialization. But it also includes the possibility of renewing and advancing our traditions. As we uphold our evangelical tradition we also subject it to constructive criticism that may lead to re-formation. If conservation is not balanced with critical renewal, there is a danger of stagnation of the tradition. Learning at TWU must balance faithfulness to its heritage with its responsible and creative renewal. There will always be some tension in reconciling these two, a tension that will require wisdom and sensitivity to diverse viewpoints within the evangelical community.
BEING AGENTS OF LEARNING IN COMMUNITY
TWU advocates total student development. We do not limit learning to the classroom or the library. We recognize that learning takes place throughout the campus, including the residences, the dining hall, the lounges, and at sport and other activities. These different experiences complement each other, ideally as part of a seamless "curriculum." Both faculty and Student Life staff mentor our students. Both work together at developing Christian leaders with thoroughly Christian minds. Moreover, this aim applies to all students, whether resident or commuter, undergraduate or graduate, full- or part-time, and with or without special needs.
Student Life staff know a great deal about our students what they expect from their university experience, how they spend their time, and how we can help them in time management and decision-making. Collaboration between Student Life staff and faculty is therefore important. We help each other assess and plan the TWU experience for students their development needs, in- and out-of-class learning experiences, and desired learning outcomes. Together we identify how we can enhance mission attainment. God calls us to be a community where we all contribute our special gifts as we work towards a common vision.
As mentors and agents of learning, faculty and staff require not only diverse competencies but also a sense of purpose. We shun hollow and deceptive philosophy. We let the Word of Christ dwell in us richly. We strive to make every thought and action obedient to Christ, both in ourselves and in our students (Colossians 2:8; 3:16; 2 Corinthians 10:5). We help students develop their gifts and take on life's calling in more competent and more discerning ways.
Professors are mentors because the goal of classroom learning is formational as well as informational. They guide students in the way of wisdom (Proverbs 4:11). Learning aims to deepen and change students understandings, attitudes and dispositions. Through their mental wrestling with concepts, theories, situations and issues, they want students to find congruity and meaning between their experience and new knowledge. They want them to move beyond their classroom learning with their personal quest of learning and response. A key component of knowledge in the Bible is personal response and application.
Guiding students in this way involves unfolding content, structuring learning in the classroom, and enabling students to take on their roles as knowledgeable servant leaders. First, professors unfold the contours and implications of a biblical vision of life. They deconstruct the mythologies of the world and encourage students to undertake this criticism for themselves. They also profess. Their teaching proclaims God's handiwork in creation, the effects of sin, and the possibilities of reconciliation and restoration (Luke 1:76-79). Their teaching is testimony. They take and justify a stand. They have a thorough grasp of the knowledge they teach. Also, they interpret it authentically, relate it to students experience, and communicate it effectively.
Professors do more than disclose content through presentations, however. They also provide pedagogical structures and strategies that enhance effective learning and allow students to use and develop their own strengths. They use incisive questioning and case studies that stimulate higher order thinking. They use brainstorming activities and simulations. They give students perplexing problems to solve, or ask them to pose problems for other students to solve. They have them unfold and reformulate knowledge themselves through independent reading, assignments and projects. Effective professors use a variety of strategies that suit both the topic and the dynamics of the class.
How professors structure learning helps or hampers how well and how deep students learn. Good instructors provide classrooms where students experience learning in an accepting and respectful environment. Their enthusiasm motivates students and they encourage and support them. They create space in which students may seek and experience truth, depth of insight, discernment, justice, compassion and integrity.
They need a clearer understanding of the importance of their own lives, their calling within the world, and how they can put their deepened faith and knowledge into action. Enabling is a natural consequence of effective structuring and unfolding and overlaps with them. They recognize and celebrate students gifts and their faithful use of them as they enable. They practice servant leadership as they create classrooms where students mature through thoughtful consideration and exploration of content. Gradually but consistently they prod students to take charge of their unfolding, structuring and enabling. Their intent as mentor-guides is that eventually their students function responsibly independent of their guidance.
Student Life staff need to understand and take into account students life experience. They make a significant contribution to student learning, albeit in different ways than faculty. Residence Directors and Assistants, student ministries staff, and commuter and international student directors help set a tone for responsible learning but informally teach through modeling, giving counsel, holding discussions, and implementing programs. They structure an environment where students experience living out of a biblical worldview. Career Centre staff help students to develop a theology of work and to chart a meaningful career path. Student Life staff and faculty complement and support each other. Even though they use different settings, all mentor, unfold, structure, and enable.
An important point here is that theory informs experience but experience also informs theory.Knowledge without experience remains only head knowledge. Experience without knowledge is uninformed. Reflection without experience or knowledge is superficial and with little meaning. All three therefore need to be an integral part of the learning experience at TWU if it is to affect not only the minds but also the hearts of students. This is true within each course, but Student Life activities as well as other events that do not directly lead to meeting graduation requirements add an essential dimension to learning at TWU. Whole person development requires learning that goes well beyond the classroom.
Faith-based and faith-affirming learning intends to lead students to know God and His world.However, it does not attempt to create replicas of ourselves. Our teaching proposes a vision for life. The impact of that vision will depend to a large extent on our faith, our integrity, and our passion. In the end, however, our aim is not that students just accept our vision. Rather, we want them to understand and consider our vision in order to develop their own. We pray that the Holy Spirit will use them and what they have learned to engage a new generation in its own faith-based quest. We pray that they will erect their own signposts for the coming of the Kingdom of God, and, at God's appointed time, enter into eternal life.
Authors of this paper are Dr. Harro Van Brummelen (editor), Dr. Ken Kush, Dr. Phil Laird, Mr. Dave Stinson, and Mr. Jeff Suderman.
This paper is based in part, both directly and indirectly, on ideas and concepts expressed in the following books:
Marsden, G. (1997). The Outrageous Idea of Christian Scholarship. New York: Oxford.
Moore, S. (ed.) (1998). The University Through the Eyes of Faith. Indianapolis: Light and Life.
Palmer, P. (1998). The Courage to Teach. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Querengesser, N. (ed.) (1996). Pathways of Grace and Knowledge: The Christian Presence in Academia. Edmonton: Concordia College.
Van Brummelen, H. (1998). Walking with God in the Classroom. 2nd ed. Seattle: Alta Vista College Press.
Whitman, N., D. Spendlove, and C. Clark (1986). Increasing Student's Learning. Washington: The Association for Higher Education.
Wolters, A. (1985). Creation Regained: Biblical Basis for a Reformational Worldview. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.
APPENDIX: SOME SUGGESTIONS FOR EFFECTIVE CLASSROOM LEARNING
Teach with excitement and a passion for the significance of your subject. Think and present clearly, contrast different viewpoints, be a participatory explorer with a vision of the path ahead, establish rapport with the class and individual students, use varied strategies, and display a sense of humour. Make learning an adventure.
Listen carefully and attentively to students. Offer them uninterrupted time. The growth of strong relationships between you and your students is an important base for effective learning. Ask questions to extend students thinking. Probe understandings. Respond to what may be stumbling questions.
Encourage self-initiated learning that involves both feelings and intellect. Much significant learning is acquired through doing, both individually and in groups. This is most likely to lead to life-long learning.
Students need to achieve and yet fear failure. When fear of failure exceeds the need to achieve, they will avoid the task. Expecting success is the most powerful single force to motivate students. They like challenging tasks as long as the fear of failure is not too great. Give positive feedback when deserved; give negative feedback when not demeaning. Affirm and encourage your students especially during the first six weeks of Year one. Give immediate feedback on short assignments and small group discussion sessions. Test early and frequently. Give students with a high need for achievement a standard of excellence by which to evaluate their performance. Emphasize the importance of a healthy work ethic.
Interact with students outside the classroom. Be available and open to questions and discussions after class, during office hours, and in the cafeteria. Being late or not available for office hours causes student frustration and anger that may spill over in lower academic achievement.
Good advising is a key to improving student learning. It results in better attitudes, personal development, and academic performance. It requires active listening, both for overt and hidden messages. Such listening explores the significance of what a student is saying and focuses attention on students needs and their strengths.
Actively involve your students. In your classroom, include focused group assignments and teaching topics to groups of peers. Involve students in research. Students who spend extra time and energy on experiential learning, service learning, or field assignments tend to do better academically and become more engaged with courses related to such undertakings.