I occasionally get asked this question from prospective students and their parents who are a bit puzzled to discover that, in addition to courses in biblical studies, the curriculum at the College at Southwestern includes a humanities component in which students read, discuss, and write about the great books of the West—a canon of literature that, despite the disparagement of some detractors, still remains unsurpassed. Answering this question is a challenge. What is often behind the inquiry is a pragmatic concern in the cash value of a humanities education. After all, students generally go to college because a degree will benefit their professional life. What students expect to receive by investing four or more years in a college education is a set of skills enabling them to succeed (usually in financial terms) in some vocation. But when it comes to humanities degrees, many wonder if the investment is prudent. How does studying the great books enable anyone to succeed in a vocation?
This pragmatic concern underlying the question seems to expect a pragmatic answer. If that is what is required, then I would answer, “Studying the great books prepares you to do anything.” What I mean is that studying the great books can help you develop the necessary people skills needed to succeed in any vocation that requires social interaction (including vocational ministry). Of course, some vocations may require that you seek additional training to acquire any technical skills peculiar to that vocation, but I would point out that studying the great books helps you to develop the cognitive abilities needed to grasp the information required to acquire those skills. Given that there is a trend among companies to hire humanities graduates because of their people skills and to compensate for any technical deficiencies by providing them with on-site training, perhaps this is a satisfactory answer to the above question.
But if there are any pragmatic benefits to studying the great books, those benefits are byproducts and not ends. A humanities education is not merely used to develop some set of skills. A humanities education tries to create a unique kind of person—a person who seeks after truth, goodness, and beauty; who is not deceived by the vanity of novelty, but values what is old; who puts a premium on wisdom, not profit; who strives to attain virtus, effectiveness in living according to one’s purpose as a social creature possessing the imago Dei. In short, a humanities education tries to create people who are not driven by what they can get, but by what they can learn. If successful, then education for such people does not end upon graduation.
How does this apply specifically to Christians? What can Christians learn from studying the great books? I suggest that Christians can learn at least four things from the great books.
First, Christians can learn what questions the world is asking. Knowing what is being asked is important if Christians are to provide answers, but sometimes those questions contain potential criticisms that Christians should consider. Thomas More in Utopia asks whether it is just to punish criminals when society helps to create them. If we fail to entertain More’s nuanced argument and respond with platitudes, then we risk our answers being irrelevant. Or consider Aldous Huxley and Neil Postman, who both ask whether religion and entertainment are compatible. Both suggest that if they are compatible, then the unfortunate result will be hedonism. If they are right, then Christians should consider carefully whether their worship can be entertaining, relevant, contemporary, fresh—or whatever other descriptive term might be used to emphasize that quality of popular appeal that many church strategists try to describe—without becoming trivial and juvenile.
Second, by studying the great books, Christians can remember and recover the past. Some of the great books are crucial for seeing why history unfolded as it did—works like René Descartes’ Discourse on Method, Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species and Descent of Man, Sigmund Freud’s Civilization and Its Discontents, and Albert Einstein’s Relativity. But a case could also be made that some of the recent philosophical and theological “discoveries” would not have been needed if past wisdom had not been forgotten. Alvin Plantinga’s reformulation of the central claims of the theory of middle knowledge is one example where this has happened. The theory actually originated with Luis de Molina during the Reformation. In addition, much error could be avoided on certain issues just simply by reading the great books. Consider the disagreement between those who think that being American is equivalent in all respects to being Christian and those who think that America is a purely secular state whose ideals have absolutely no religious basis. Both sides would do well to read the American state papers, John Locke’s Second Treatise of Government, and what Thomas Aquinas says in the Summa Theologiae about law. Finally, Christians could avoid becoming theologically unbalanced if they were to read Athanasius’ description of the dilemma God faces because of human sin in On the Incarnation, Augustine’s recounting of his struggle coming to faith in Confessions, John Wesley’s reflections on Christian perfection, and what John Calvin actually wrote in the Institutes of the Christian Religion.
Third, Christians can learn from the great books how to live. This does not mean that the Bible is not sufficient for faith and practice. The Bible contains all that we need for living as God intended us to live. The problem though is that we do not always see what the Bible is telling us. We are finite, culturally conditioned, sometimes inexperienced, and still recovering from the blindness of sinful habits that quench the Spirit. Because of this, it is wise to see how others thought about the art of living. The authors of the great books many times offer significant ethical insights that could help us overcome our limitations. Simon Wiesenthal’s The Sunflower causes us to consider whether we even understand what it means to forgive those who wrong us. Euripides’ Medea shows us how stupid it is for husbands to scorn their wives. What Blaise Pascal says about distractions and indifference in Pensées reveals a level of enslavement that bedevils many of us unsuspectingly. Such examples show that the great books can be instructive by amplifying what we may tend to overlook.
The fourth thing that Christians can learn from the great books is a bit difficult to describe. This is an aesthetic appreciation. As I see it, there are at least two features of this aesthetic appreciation. In one sense, Christians come to see the beauty of truth expressed well. Consider Anselm’s Proslogion. The work is often referenced for the apologetic value of its ontological argument for God’s existence. It is, however, not an apologetic argument designed to persuade unbelievers; rather, it is Anselm’s own rich meditation on why the Bible is correct in claiming that it is the fool, not the ignorant, who claims that there is no God. Consider also the tragic beauty of William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury describing the folly of clinging to a decadent cultural outlook or the rich allegory of the Christian life in John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress or Plato’s eloquent meditations on the grounding of truth in Republic. It is difficult to read such works and not come away with a better appreciation for what is true, right, and good because of how their authors composed them. An appreciation of beauty is an important aspect of being human, for it is what motivates one to pursue excellence in all things. The other sense of this aesthetic appreciation derives from the Greek origin of the word referring to what is perceived—namely, that the great books help Christians come to appreciate non-Christians who express what they perceive about the world well. This aspect of aesthetic appreciation is crucial if one is to understand the force and appeal of certain non-Christian positions. Oftentimes, the force or appeal is there because the work hits on some aspect of truth. When Friedrich Nietzsche says in The Gay Science that God is dead, he is right, because the god that is dead is the god of Hegel and Schleiermacher, or in a nutshell, the god of theological liberalism. Appreciating non-Christian works like this can help Christians evaluate those works more accurately. Christians can admit that non-Christians have expressed legitimate problems, raised important issues deserving consideration, or simply expressed truths that the church has been ignoring. Having understood what is at stake, Christians can then offer judicious critiques of non-Christian positions and show how Christianity offers a better solution.
These are just a few of the things that you can “do” by studying the great books, and they are illustrative of the kind of person that the College at Southwestern seeks to produce—in addition to producing a person with solid grounding in the Bible, strong theological convictions, and impeccable character. So what can you do with a humanities degree? More specifically, what can you do with a biblical studies and humanities degree from the College at Southwestern? You can become a person who never stops learning—never stops learning about God; never stops learning the truth of the Bible; never stops learning about humanity; never stops learning how to live; never stops learning to appreciate what is old, valuable, and beautiful in our world.