Chaos and Order: The Extraordinary Advantages of a Christian Liberal Arts Education

Adapted from: Call to Community Service at CCU August 22, 2019

With the start of any academic year, it is wise for us all to reflect upon the nature and purpose of Christian higher education. Our university stands on the shoulders of those who have thought long and hard about how to educate in a way that both forms and informs students. In what follows I want to think with you about the extraordinary advantages of a Christian liberal arts education.

But first, let’s clear up a misunderstanding. The word “liberal” in the phrase “liberal education,” can easily lead to confusion, especially in our current politically charged climate. Rest assured, the world liberal is not here used in a political or a theological sense; rather, the idea of a liberal arts education and liberal studies can be traced back to medieval and classical times. It refers back to the “seven liberal arts” (grammar, logic, rhetoric, mathematics, geometry, astronomy and music) and to the ordering and integrating of knowledge for the benefit of the free person. Some people refer to this as “humane” education—as the Roman poet Ovid (43-17 BC) once said, “A faithful study of the liberal arts humanizes character and permits it not to be cruel.”[1] Our concern for students at CCU is that we educate them in a way that makes them both knowledgeable and better people.

Some might ask, why should we follow this antiquated way of teaching in the twenty-first century? Should we not be teaching students facts and job skills? Why bother with liberal arts? While there are many benefits in following this approach to teaching and learning, I’d like to highlight a few of them. There are at least four benefits traditionally associated with a liberal arts education.

Four benefits of a liberal arts education

To liberate—The first benefit is that liberal arts are meant to do what the name suggests: liberate. What do we mean by that? On the one hand, this is an education that liberates the learner from the concerns of the world. Such a course of study was meant to be leisurely and residential; it involved the taking of time to get away and discover the world—time to think, to learn, to contemplate and be exposed to wisdom and knowledge. As Catholic thinker Josef Pieper (1904-1997) reminds us, “Every art is called liberal which is ordered to knowing; those which are ordered to some utility to be attained through action are called servile arts.”[2] Thus, some have referred to time away at university as “four charmed years of freedom.”

On this score, the liberal arts are not about vocational training. The purpose was not to prepare a person for a particular job, it was much bigger than this. It was to prepare the student for life in all of its facets. The liberal arts are therefore meant to free us from our own provincialism, whether understood as egoism, our own small thoughts, or misinformed ideas about life and the world.

But this freedom was not only a freedom from, it was also a freedom for. The time spent at university involved exposing students to the classical virtues of goodness, beauty and truth, found perceptively in the humanities, and the Great Tradition. It was believed that such things would liberate one’s mind.

Jesus himself spoke about how truth liberates. He said, “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” (John 8.32).

To Form—A second benefit of a liberal education is formation. Here we are not just thinking about intellectual formation, as important as that is, but also moral and spiritual formation. It has long been recognized that a liberal learning had a higher aim than just feeding the mind, it was to order and form the human soul.

An ordered soul was a soul in sync with the moral order of the universe, with the laws that God embedded into nature. Much of the dislocation that people feel in the twenty-first century is rooted in the loss of the soul’s rootedness. As moderns and postmoderns learn how to order their souls, they will become grounded and obtain a sense of purpose and meaning. Through disciplined study, a liberal education would realize this ordering of the soul by cultivating the mind, the heart, the affections, the will and the imagination. It would lead to “sound reason,” helping students to think right and to love the right things. As the Roman Emperor and Stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius (121-180) once said, “By a tranquil mind I mean nothing else than a mind well ordered.”[3] And an ordered soul will be much the same. In this way, the liberal arts would help us to become more fully human. This may sound strange to modern ears—which only shows how far we have fallen from this robust vision. But there was a time not that long ago when it was widely believed that this kind of soul formation was a key component of education. We don’t have to go as far back as the Greeks and the Romans, the American Founders believed this, and educators well into the nineteenth century believed this.

To conserve—A third benefit of a liberal arts education is that it conserves. What does it conserve? It conserves and in turn transmits knowledge. 

It should not surprise us that liberal learning has a conservative purpose! It conserves and keeps alive the best of the past so that it can be handed on to future generations. It takes the wisdom of our culture, the inheritance of our forefathers, and transmits it to future generations. If, as Edmund Burke says, that conservativism is about respecting those who have gone before us and considering the needs of those who will come after us, then a liberal education is a primary means to do this. In the worlds of the Victorian poet Matthew Arnold (1822-1888), it exposes students to “the best that has been thought and said” in literature, philosophy, and our Western heritage.[4] In this way it defends against disorder.

In our day, as reflected in many school curricula, we don’t see a need to preserve order, whether a kind of ultimate, higher order, an order of the soul or the state or the curriculum! Nor can our thought leaders and educators appreciate or agree upon what actually constitutes the best of our tradition. In a relativistic society, if you claim there are great books, or great lives, it is implied that there are not-great books and not-great lives. Thus liberal educators will inevitably be accused of elitism, let alone all the other scare words like—ethnocentrism, colonialism, and racism. Should an appreciation and appropriation of the past warrant such slander? If we bow to such a feverish egalitarianism, we risk undermining the very idea of excellence and greatness on college campuses throughout the nation.

To leaven—Relatedly, a fourth benefit of a liberal arts education is that it was intended to leaven the wider society. Its benefits of course were to the individual learner, but this was to a greater, more expansive purpose. Namely, that the people of a nation would benefit from such learners collectively. This certainly was the expectation of the founders of our early American colleges like Harvard and Yale. They wanted students to be “soundly schooled” in old intellectual disciplines stemming back to the classical period, so that they would leaven the lump of our rough expanding nation and bring order to the republic. They hoped that students schooled in the best of liberal learning would leaven our churches, our schools, our free market economy, and our constitutional order, so that all would operate optimally and for the greater good of all people.

So these are the four traditional benefits that many thinkers have recognized that a liberal education brings to students, but there is more. A fifth benefit is arguably the most important: liberal arts education was fundamentally meant to ground students in moral and religious truth. This was understood to be the foundation of all that the students were to learn. Such truth was the source of freedom, the means of soul-formation, the impetus for conserving, and would be of most benefit to society. Students needed and will always need moral wisdom. This is not mere intellectual ability, but a wisdom that involved the knowledge of permanent transcendent things. Such knowledge answered to the deep, significant questions of life, and formed the impetus for right living in the world.

Such moral truth was grounded in the wisdom of the Judeo-Christian tradition, rooted firmly in Scripture and the best of theological reflection. It was believed by thinkers like St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas that at the heart of reality there is a personal, sovereign, triune God who gives order and purpose to the universe. Knowledge of this God is the most important knowledge in the world and all liberal education must be grounded in and flow forth from this knowledge. It viewed Jesus Christ as, not only the eternal son of God, but as the integrating center of the university. As St. Paul in Colossians so aptly expressed it, that “in him all things hold together.” That is why theology was not a mere course of study alongside the other disciplines, but was at the center of the earliest universities and grounded all of the disciplines. It was, along with philosophy, considered to be the queen of the sciences—the core and beating heart of the Christian university.

With such an understanding of the nature and benefits of a traditional liberal arts education, one can see the mission of Christ-centered higher education is on the mark. It is sad to say, however, that the state of so much higher education in our nation is very far from this noble mark.

Higher education is in trouble

Every week seems to bring a new story about the deteriorating state of American higher education. Our universities not only lack a unifying center, but they are disoriented. They appear to be descending into a moral, spiritual, and intellectual chaos thus undermining the entire educational enterprise of our nation. It is common to find in university professors a skepticism about truth, virtue, meaning, excellence and reason. There is a growing hostility toward the entire western tradition upon which the university was built. As the late British philosopher Roger Scruton put it, “The university, instead of transmitting culture, exists to deconstruct it, to remove its ‘aura,” and to leave the student, after four years of intellectual dissipation, with the view that anything goes and nothing matters.”[5]

By and large, our universities are committedly anything with the prefix “post” attached to it— post-truth (outside of the sciences, the existence of objective truth is largely denied), post-virtue (moral relativism is widely taught and embraced), post-meaning (the question of life’s meaning is not addressed), not to mention post-Christian. There is hostility toward great conversation centered on ultimate matters, as well as, great ideas and great lives. Why? Because such tradition is said, by naysayers, to be rooted in the intellectual and artistic achievements of the west, and since all viewpoints are said to be equally valid, advocates of liberal education are denounced as elitist.

One cannot help but think of lines penned by the Irish poet William Butler Yeats (1865-1939) in his poem, “The Second Coming.” 

Turning and turning in the widening gyre   
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world………
The best lack all conviction, while the worst   
Are full of passionate intensity.[6]

Yeats was right. In such a state of affairs that we see today, the center cannot possibly hold. Why is there such a growing moral and intellectual anarchy in higher education? Because there is no longer anything higher about it. Nihilism has taken hold, and nihilism—the belief that there is ultimately no meaning—holds nothing together. This is why “the center cannot hold,” because there is nothing to hold it together. When it comes to education, there is no “uni” in the university. Those convictions about liberal learning articulated above, have long since faded away, the disciplines are no longer integrated. No deep purpose compels higher learning. Consequently, we see this growing educational disorientation.

Three, no, four bad ideas          

To top it all off, much of higher education is preoccupied with the coddling (i.e. overprotecting) of students. We hear of trigger warnings and safe spaces to protect students from ideas or opinions they may find objectionable. We hear of “micro aggressions” and of speakers shouted down or even assaulted.

In their remarkable book, The Coddling of the American Mind: How good intentions and Bad ideas are setting up a generation for failure, authors Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt identify and analyze three “bad ideas” that undermine higher learning. They describe these ideas in strong terms such as “terrible,” “foolish,” and “intellectually devastating.”  What are these bad ideas?

The first is what they call safetyism. This is the faulty assumption that students are emotionally fragile and so it is the educator’s duty to protect them intellectually from ideas that might challenge them. The authors criticize the “concept creep” where the safety called for here is not just physical safety (which is an appropriate safety to be protected) but emotional safety from difficult ideas. Educators end up therefore over-protecting students by providing emotional and intellectual safe spaces where they will not be challenged. This has the inevitable effect of undermining education, because learning is meant to be challenging, not to mention the fact that it does not prepare them for a world beset with difficulties. 

Instead of safetyism, we need to expose students to issues, ideas and events and help them work through such matters so they are prepared for the world beyond the university walls. Education should not aim to make students comfortable, but to make them think so they can develop a resilience that will enable them to flourish after they graduate.

A second bad idea articulated by Lukiuanoff and Haidt is emotionalism. They argue that in today’s culture, and increasingly in higher education, emotion-driven thinking takes the place of critical thought.

Of course, feelings are important and even contribute to intellectual development. Emotions can be compelling and drive us to want to learn more about the world we love. But emotions are not always reliable and must be tested against reality. Therefore they cannot be allowed to take the place of critical thinking. Sadly, in the universities and in the culture at large, emotional reasoning is on the ascendency. Rather than talking about things rationally, our society has moved from expressions of “I think” to “I feel.” Such thinking often distorts reality and leads us astray. What is needed is thought—critical thought. We need to examine claims and evidence to find the truth behind them, rather than groveling at the behest of what we feel.

A third bad idea is the “us vs. them” mentality that is stifling our civic discourse. It is almost a commonplace in the universities to fit everyone into one of two categories: either the victim or the oppressor. All of life is viewed through this reductionistic lens, the categories which some are calling “cultural Marxism” (Marx’s categories applied not to economics but social issues). This is what now drives identity politics. A variation on this is to reduce everything to racial categories. Of course, racism is a sin and needs to be addressed as such, but to view everything through the lens of race is to do a further injustice to people of all colors as we fail to see them fundamentally as humans.

In the us vs. them scheme, the “us” are the oppressed and the “them” are the enemy oppressors. Words become weaponized and are often viewed as “micro aggressions.” Speech becomes an act of violence and as such, it must be curtailed. Tolerance is only for those with whom you agree. Free speech dies. And if you violate the norms of this toxic culture you will be called out and publically shamed. 

Thankfully, Lukianoff and Haidt remind us that there is a better way. In spite of the cultural dominance of these bad ideas, most of the people in our society don’t actually fit into those categories. Thus, there is a way to get back to emphasizing our common humanity and respect for persons. To get to this place, as difficult as it is, requires that we recapture the lost art of listening and talking to each other.

This mutual understanding is fraught with danger, however, because of a yet more dangerous idea that these authors highlight in a later chapter—radical subjectivism. It is closely related to emotionalism, but not quite the same. Radical subjectivism fragments the world by speaking of “your truth” with “my truth,” or “your reality” with “my reality.” There is no straight forward recognition of objective truth and reality that can be known equally be all.

Of course we all have perspectives and experiences that shape our knowing, but the authors remind us nevertheless that there are common facts in the universe and those facts are obtainable for all people. And the traditional purpose, the telos, of a university involved pursuing such truth. Our nation, indeed our civilization, cannot afford a further slide into radical subjectivism.

I lay each of these ideas that undermine higher education out before you for two reasons. First, I want to give you a sense of the downgrade of American higher education so you can see what safetyism, emotionalism, victim vs. oppressor thinking, nihilism, radical subjectivism have done to our schools. Second, I want you to see that CCU really lives by a different vision. And herein lies hope for all higher education.

We are part of a great tradition in higher learning that both affirms and celebrates goodness, meaning, excellence, wisdom, beauty and truth. We aim to produce graduates who will be resilient, prepared for the real world. We train them to become great thinkers and learners. We want them to engage others respectfully based on our common humanity. We want them to be seekers of truth.

Our educational model is different

In what follows, I want to explain how and why our educational model is different. Out attempt to cull the past for the benefit of the future, is based upon what I call, Four Cs:  Competence, Citizenship, Character, and Christ-centeredness.

1          Competence—at CCU we want provide a broad education in core subjects so that students will have the knowledge to prepare them for many jobs, as well as expose them to the amazing variety of God’s world. Our celebrated core curriculum helps us accomplish such a broad approach. We of course want them to be competent in their own disciplines, be it biology, education or psychology. This can be done, because it has been done, with a strong commitment to liberal education.

2          Citizenship—as I noted above, we believe that a liberal education will prepare students to be good citizens of our own nation, but also as global citizens. We insist on teaching history, government, and economics so they have a sense of who we are as a nation, so that students can think through how they fit in with their neighbors. Our heritage also has a lot to offer other nations, and this helps us to be good neighbors on a global stage. This includes training them to engage culture at all levels with both convictional courage and civility.

3          Character is the third C. We recognize that to be a good citizen requires us to shape students to become men and women of integrity. With the moral order explained above in mind, we train not just for career but for character, with an ethical focus, not just an information focus. We educate in order to teach them not just how to make a good living, but how to live a good life.

4          Christ-centered faith—at the root of the other three Cs, however is a foundation of explicit faith. We are unapologetically Christian—it is our name! As our society studiously avoids Jesus and has practically banned his name from all public spaces, including public education, CCU lifts his name high. As society in the west forgets all the blessings that have come from Christ, CCU embraces them with gratitude. Society forgets that, as Colossians 2.3 says, “all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge are hidden in Jesus Christ.” As crazy as it sounds to many, we actually believe these words of Paul.

These four Cs are a short-hand way of reminding us and you of what makes CCU unique.

What students will get at Colorado Christian University is hard to find. We believe it will expand their minds and souls, and will sustain them through very dark times. It will enable them to be salt and light in this world.

What everyone else is desperate to have

It has been said that a Christian liberal arts education remains the best education available to humanity. Why? For several reasons. Preeminently, it begins with wisdom and permanent things. This provides an integrating coherence and thus educates the whole person. Such an education addresses the question of meaning directly. It also lays the basis for truth, reason and excellence, and points to the source of beauty in God himself. All of this strives toward laying out a better vision of what it means to be human. Fundamentally, this is because it is open to God’s revelation, the Bible, and it is locked into Jesus Christ, the incarnate Word.

A number of years ago, one of our board members, whose son went to Harvard, heard our previous president talking about our educational model at CCU. As it was being described, this board member turned and whispered to me, with some shock and sadness, “Don, I think CCU offers a better education than what my son got at Harvard.” This is remarkable!

Ivy League schools may have a reputation for greatness, but they have lost their center, and it is showing. State schools may get bigger government grants and have better football teams, but they can only focus on one C—competence. And even here one wonders how long they will be able to sustain that, with no integrating center.

A few years ago, New York Times columnist and author David Brooks, delivered an address to the Coalition of Christian Colleges and Universities presidents in Washington, D.C. He spoke of the advantages of what a school like ours offers. He said,

You [Christian colleges] have what everybody else is desperate to have: a way of talking about and educating the human person in a way that integrates faith, emotion, and intellect. You have a recipe to nurture human beings who have a devoted heart, a courageous mind and a purposeful soul. Almost no other set of institutions in American society has that, and everyone wants it. From my point of view, you’re ahead of everybody else and have the potential to influence American culture in a way that could be magnificent. I visit many colleges a year. I teach at a great school, Yale University. These are wonderful places. My students are wonderful; I love them. But these, by and large, are not places that integrate the mind, the heart and the spirit. These places nurture an overdeveloped self and an underdeveloped soul[7].

Regarding his students at Yale, Brooks said,

They assume that the culture of expressive individualism is the eternal order of the universe and that meaning comes from being authentic to self. They have a combination of academic and career competitiveness and a lack of a moral and romantic vocabulary that has created a culture that is professional and not poetic, pragmatic and not romantic. The head is large, and the heart and soul are backstage.[8]

This is utterly fascinating—“[Christian colleges] have what everybody else is desperate to have.”

Why is that? It is because we are moved by a different vision as I have outlined above. Colorado Christian University, in particular, is dedicated to a different outcome than what drives so many educators today. We seek to raise up world changers—students whose minds and hearts are engaged, who grow in grace and in truth, who have the courage to stand for Christ in our age and turn the world right side up!

It was said of the early Christians, that “these men are turning the world upside down.” (Acts 17.6). That is because they found themselves in an inverted world, where down was called up, and wrong was called right. These courageous Christians—average men and women with a sense of God’s call on their lives—were used by God to help set the world right. They were what we might call mere world changers.

Well, our world has been inverted yet again. And today’s inversion calls for a new generation of graduates who will turn it right side up.

We are serious about this task. We hope you will be too.


[1] Ovid, “Ex Ponto,” in G.P Goold, trans., Ovid: Tristia and Ex Ponto, Loeb Classics 151 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1988), 363.

[2] Josef Pieper, Leisure: The Basis of Culture, trans. Gerald Malsbary (South Bend, IN: St Augustine’s Press, 1998), 41. Here Pieper is quoting from Thomas Aquinas, Commentary of Aristotle’s Metaphysics I,3.

[3] Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, IV, 3.

[4] Matthew Arnold, Culture and Anarchy, 1869)

[5] Roger Scruton, “The End of the University,” First Things (April 2015), accessed September 3, 2019, https://www.firstthings.come/article/2015/04/the-end-of-the-university.

[6] William Butler Yeats, “The Second Coming,” Pocket Book of Poetry, Fall River Press, New York, 2014, p. 88.

[7] David Brooks, “The Cultural Value of Christian Higher Education, speech to the CCCU for their 40th anniversary in 2016,  Washington, D.C., https://www.cccu.org/magazine/cultural-value-christian-higher-education/

[8] Ibid.

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