Faith in Learning: Integrative Education and Incarnational Theology

by Jerry H. Gill

Dr. Gill is professor of Christianity and Contemporary culture at Eastern College, Saint Davids, Pennsylvania.

This article appeared in the Christian Century October 17, 1979, p. 1009. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


There remain the differences among those who advocate a faith above learning, those who simply place faith and learning side by side, and those who affirm a faith for learning.

The integration of faith and learning is the raison d’être of Christian higher education. On this point most people involved with Christian and/or church-related colleges agree. On the mode of this integration, however, there is a good deal of disagreement.

Setting aside those persons who would insist, whether explicitly or implicitly, on a choice between faith and learning, there remain the differences among those who advocate a faith above learning, those who simply place faith and learning side by side, and those who affirm a faith for learning. The latter maintain both that faith is the necessary foundation for learning and that Christian higher education ought to take place within a systematic, Christian world view. The stress here is generally placed on working out the implications of the doctrine of creation and specific “Christian” stances with respect to the major issues in the various academic disciplines.

Against this backdrop, I should like to propose yet another, and I believe more fruitful, approach to the integration of faith and learning. My own emphasis will be on faith in learning, and the axis around which my musings cluster is what I take to be the central notion of the Christian faith; namely, the incarnation. As will become increasingly clear, the posture which seems to me to flow from an incarnational approach is more concerned with method and/or process than with content and systematized product. To a large degree, the message of the incarnation is found in its medium; revelation is more a matter of action than of propositional truth.

The incarnation, the affirmation that “God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto himself,” serves as the “entry point” for Christian belief. Beginning with the doctrine of creation makes sense from a systematic, logical point of view, after one has worked out the ramifications of faith for the big issues of life from within a posture of commitment. Learning and knowing, however, are primarily matters of experience and relationship -- as is faith. Thus a sound approach to Christian higher education ought to be characterized by an incarnational motif which focuses on process and interaction rather than on content and results.

There are at least five facets of the Christian notion of incarnation which carry important implications for the relationship between faith and learning in higher education. I shall introduce and briefly explore these facets, first from a theological point of view. Then I shall make some concrete proposals as to the significance of these incarnational facets for the college curriculum and teaching methodology. Some of these proposals will be familiar and fairly obvious, while others may seem one-sided and outlandish. I take comfort in the thought that while many outlandish ideas turn out to be worthless, some do not.

The Human Context

To begin with, the Christian notion of incarnation is holistic and integrative. Jesus Christ came into the world as a whole, integrated person -- not as a “pretend” person, a la Clark Kent. Moreover, he was involved in all of life, not just its so-called “sacred” aspects. In his relationships with other persons he took an active interest in the physical, social and emotional well-being of those whom he met. Jesus himself was not divided, nor was his approach to the world. The primary theological significance of this holistic and integrative involvement is not just to qualify him as the Second Adam and make retribution for our fragmented relationship to God. Rather, it is in and by such involvement that God enters into our lives and we into God’s; such involvement itself constitutes salvation.

It is especially important to bear this unitary quality of the incarnation in mind when thinking about the development of a Christian stance toward the world in which we live. Such a stance must not be fragmentary or dualistic, separating and alienating the dimensions of the created order and human existence from one another. Paul does not exhort us to give Christ the pre-eminence above or beyond all things, but “in all things” (Col. 1:18). The Word became flesh, and like salt or yeast it interpenetrated all of life; Christians must do the same. An incarnational ethic is holistic and integrative.

Second, there is a contextual character to the Christian notion of incarnation. Jesus Christ came into a real world, into a specific time and place; he interacted with actual people and participated in concrete events. According to the Christian faith, God’s involvement in human existence is not in terms of abstract truths and generalized principles, but is rather a matter of interactive sanctification of the actual context in which humans live. The Christian message does not denigrate the “here and now” as mere illusion or preparation. On the contrary, it affirms the essential goodness and worth of God’s created order, distorted though it may be, seeking to redeem it by working in and through it. Time, place and people constitute the medium of the incarnation, and its meaning cannot be separated from them.

This contextuality also means that the divine nature has adapted itself to our mode of existence. Jesus Christ came to humankind speaking our language and concerning himself with our needs, not his own. This is indeed a radical idea. Certain pre-existent attributes and divine prerogatives were set aside -- in fact, the whole notion of superiority was exchanged for one of servanthood. Transposed into an ethical mode, this contextual quality of the Christian notion of incarnation entails an adaptive self-giving, a presenting of our bodies as “living sacrifices.” Such a posture neither ignores nor conforms to the human context; rather, it transforms that context by entering into it.

It is also crucial to bear in mind that embodiment is inherent in the Christian idea of incarnation. The Word became flesh, God indwelt human form, not in appearance only (or merely momentarily), but from birth to death. And even his death gains its primary significance from the manner in which he died, not from the mere fact that he died.

Human existence is embodied existence, and God’s involvement and interaction with us have come in this mode. In the Judeo-Christian tradition the body is basic and good, in contrast to the dualism of classical Greek philosophy (which, unfortunately, has influenced too much of traditional Christian theology). By indwelling (not just “borrowing”) a body, God made a statement about the nature and worth of human existence -- and about divine character as well. Moreover, the Christian hope is for a resurrected body, as well as a new heaven and earth, not for the immortality of a disembodied soul.

The Quality of Life

Additionally important is the mediated character of God’s self-revelation in the incarnation. As Paul puts it: “For now we see through a glass, darkly” (I Cor. 13:12). Even though God’s self-revelation in Christ is both necessary and sufficient, it is not exhaustive. As much of God’s reality and nature remains hidden in the incarnation as is revealed. More important, God chose an indirect mode of expression in communicating with humankind in and through the tangible dimensions of our existence. By extending the divine personhood to us through physical, social and historical means, God elected a mediated rather than an immediate mode of self-expression.

The indirect or “soft” quality of incarnational communication is highlighted, by Christ’s almost exclusive use of parable, dialogue and metaphor in his ministry. There are two important features of this approach. One is that in choosing an indirect mode of self-revelation, God preserves human freedom by not coercing us into a trusting relationship. Another important feature of the mediated approach is that while not coercing human agents into belief, it does urge and stimulate engagement and reciprocity. There is a kind of challenge and/or enticement. about what might be czlled the parabolic or metaphoric mode, an invitation to become involved.

Finally, the God revealed by the incarnation can be known only through participation. Relational truths, whether in the form of physical laws (such as gravity), social convention (as with mores) or personal reality (such as friendship), are known only by engagement and interaction. The meaning and truth of God’s self-revelation in Christ is known through identification with the incarnation, both in sacrificial living and in significant dying.

Truth which is known through participation is best expressed, and perhaps can only be expressed, in the quality of one’s life. There are some realities and truths which, while they cannot be spoken, can and must be known. Faith without works is not dead; it is a contradiction in terms. To know the meaning of the incarnation is to participate in its reality day by day. This is the thrust of Jesus’ comment, “By their fruits you shall know them.” Truth which is mediated through concrete embodiment must be “bodied forth” -- incorporated -- or it remains unknown.

From Theory to Practice

The foregoing incarnational model of the relationship between revelation and faith can now be fleshed out with respect to educational theory and practice. Five features of an incarnational approach to faith and learning correspond to the five facets of the incarnation sketched out above.

First, an incarnational posture toward Christian higher education would necessarily be interdisciplinary. Since the nature, quality and thrust of God’s incarnation in Christ is holistic and integrative, a corresponding educative stance would be opposed to the sort of compartmentalization and specialization which characterize most higher education today. Fortunately, there seems to be a movement afoot toward more generalized and integrative courses which emphasize overviews and the interconnectedness of all knowledge. One way to achieve this sort of interdisciplinary and synthesizing quality is to focus on methodology rather than on content.

Team teaching is another means of stressing the integrative nature of learning. This is an idea that almost everyone favors in theory but almost no one practices. In addition to its obvious advantages, team teaching provides the opportunity for students to experience faculty members in dialogue, and even disagreement, with one another. Such experience should heighten the student’s awareness of issues and approaches, as well as encouraging responsible thought and choice. Furthermore, sharing the responsibility for a course and jointly communicating with students has the effect of keeping professors “honest” as individuals and as representatives of their various disciplines. Teachers may even learn something from each other!

The contextual character of the incarnation suggests a second important educative quality; namely relevance. I am not unaware of the abuse this term has received, but perhaps the best way to correct the situation is to begin to use it again in a responsible manner. Even as God chose to be revealed in our world in embodied form, on our “turf,” so an incarnational approach to learning must begin where the student is. To remain where the student is would be both irresponsible and disrespectful toward him or her, but not to begin there is equally so. In my own experience, I have found that a healthy mix of vocabulary and knowledge from the student world (slang, music, sports, etc), along with that of my more specialized disciplinary concerns, builds helpful bridges for learning.

In addition to serving as a technique, keeping in touch with where students are in their own experience also provides an opportunity for the teacher to learn something for himself or herself. Often I have received important insights and helpful suggestions for my courses (as well as for my life) from my students. An incarnational approach to education might just require us to set aside some of our “professorial prerogatives” and “professional prestige” (i.e., academic arrogance) in order really to teach -- as well as to learn.

Incarnational education ought also to involve event-centeredness. The embodied nature of human existence requires that both our awareness (intake) and our activity (output) be anchored in social interaction and public performance. Thus the focus of learning ought to be on the process and not the product of knowing; on how to learn, not on what is learned. For too long we have proceeded as though knowledge is a substance, like information, which can be handed from one person to another and stored up in our memory banks (Or in the registrar’s office). At best we tend to encourage students to learn the results of other people’s investigations and formulations, rather than experiencing the disciplined activity for themselves.

It is possible to teach chemistry, history, literature, psychology and mathematics (as well as the arts) primarily as disciplines rather than as compiled information and/or intellectual history. The activity or event of knowing is, after all, both the necessary and the sufficient condition of education. It is necessary because unless students learn to learn, they will never really learn anything at all. It is sufficient because once a student has learned to learn, knowing is already taking place. The educated person is the one who knows how to go about acquiring and using information in ways which are appropriate to the situation. Such knowledge is a skill or an art, and can be obtained only through apprenticeship with one who practices it.

A Drastic Change

At this point, in conjunction with the mediated character of an incarnational posture, I should like to propose what may seem like a “wild and crazy” idea. To focus on knowing as a skill or an art is to conceive of it as an intangible reality which is not subject to straightforward explication and acquisition. Thus knowledge in this sense can only be approached indirectly. What this could mean for education is that perhaps the entire college curriculum and methodology should be organized around the studio and performing arts. Since these subjects tend to stress formulating rather than formulations, all other disciplines could take their cue from the arts. It is certainly the case that traditionally the arts have been second-class citizens in academia, the last offered and the first dropped. Perhaps it’s time for a change.

Another way of putting the point is to suggest that the arts rely heavily on intuition and tacit knowing, whereas the more discursive disciplines stress sequential and explicit thought. A case can be made for affirming the logical priority of the former with respect to the latter, and thus a parallel case can be made for placing the arts at the fulcrum of the educative process. There is an ever-growing body of research on the two hemispheres of the brain and their fulfilling of different functions -- functions which correspond to the intuitive (integrative) and discursive (analytic) modes of thought. It has been argued with some cogency that our culture overreinforces the discursive mode while practically ignoring intuition. It can also be argued that such things as values and religious commitments flow from the intuitive rather than the explicit dimension. Perhaps this situation has something to do with the breakdown of values and commitment in our culture -- and perhaps colleges have something to do with this breakdown.

Finally, incarnational education must be lived. With respect to the faculty of an institution, whom I prefer to think of as “senior colleagues,” this necessity would mean that the enfleshment of commitment and knowledge must be widely evident. Teachers must be paradigms of that which we “profess” both academically and religiously. In a word, professors must be “doers,” both in the classroom and out of it. Far too often we take the attitude that because we have earned advanced degrees we have already paid our dues; we forget that dues must be paid every year. Students -- junior colleagues -- need to see their teachers developing new ideas and skills, and they need to share in that developmental process.

Although there is room for, indeed a need for, a wide variety of professorial styles within the college setting, the sine qua non of an educator is the ability to communicate through embodiment. Presenting ideas and questions clearly, listening attentively, evidencing continued growth, and integrating faith in learning are priorities. Such criteria place a necessary premium on selectivity in faculty recruitment. Moreover, continual faculty development must provide models and skills for educational growth. Here again it is the fruits that count – learning as participation rather than as accumulation.

From the student’s perspective, the living-out of an incarnational approach to education will involve active participation in the learning process. The passive reception of information and someone else’s ideas does not constitute education any more than merely giving mental assent to a set of doctrines constitutes Christian faith. Students must take responsibility for their own education as well as for their faith. They must search and sift, think and feel, create and synthesize; moreover, they too must apply and incorporate their learning in order for it to become an actuality.

Sounding this note is not popular in a day of real yet excessive concern with the job market. The purpose of a college is to help educate, not to train people for specific tasks. Furthermore, the integration of faith and learning is a connection that must be forged: it will not come about by itself or by the accumulation of disembodied information and specific techniques. Forging that bond should be the goal of religious or church-related institutions of higher learning.