Jesus Christ and the Life of the Mind
Mark A. Noll
196 pp., $25.00
Christology, Christian Learning, and Christian Formation
Of course, from the fact that Christians should engage in what Noll calls "serious learning" it does not follow that they should engage in learning as it is practiced in the contemporary academy. In principle there might be something deeply misguided about contemporary academic learning; in principle it might be the case that, rather than engaging in it, Christians should go off by themselves and engage in an alternative form of learning.
Noll does not address this matter. I wish he had, since I frequently come across Christians who seem to me not opposed to serious learning as such but rather to what goes on, or what they think goes on, in the contemporary academy. Clearly Noll is of the view that though what goes on in the contemporary academy is to be criticized at many points and for many reasons—along the way he himself offers a considerable number of criticisms—it is not, in general, so misguided that Christians must, in good conscience, pull out. I agree with him on that.
I have said that I admire the Christological case that Noll develops for Christians engaging in serious learning. I am less happy with the Christological guidelines that he offers for engaging in such learning. To explain why, let me offer a brief indication of my own views on the matter of how Christians are to engage in serious learning.
We human beings do not just react to what we experience; we interpret it, as we do the experience itself and reality more generally. And to some of what we experience we ascribe value of one sort and another, as we do to some of our experience itself and to some parts of reality more generally; we valorize these.
Consider, for example, our engagement with music. We don't just react to music. We interpret music; and we valorize both the music we hear and our modes of engagement with it. We learn what to listen for, what to attend to. We acquire concepts that apply to what we hear, these concepts not only enabling us to describe what we hear but also shaping our auditory perception so that we don't just hear some passage of music but hear it as so-and-so—hear it as a fugue, for example. We learn to evaluate one passage of music as better in certain respects than another passage. We acquire capacities for delight; we learn to love certain works of music. All of this, and more, goes into our learning to interpret and valorize music. We acquire what one might call a musical formation, that is, a formation for interpreting and valorizing music and one's experience of music.
Just as we each acquire a particular way of interpreting and valorizing music and our experience of music, so too those of us who are Christians have acquired a Christian way of interpreting and valorizing what we experience, our experience itself, and reality more generally. We have acquired a Christian formation. Such a formation includes doctrines, principles, views. But it is not to be identified with these; in particular, it is not to be identified with what is often nowadays called "a Christian worldview." It also includes habits of attention, modes of perception, habits of evaluation, capacities for delight and love, virtues and attachments of many sorts. A Christian formation is like a musical formation.
I hold that the calling of the Christian scholar is to allow her Christian formation to shape how she thinks and acts within her academic discipline and within the academy generally.
Let me offer one example of how this worked out in my own case. It is generally agreed that a revolutionary development took place in the arts in 18th-century Europe. Europeans had, of course, always had liturgical art of one sort and another: icons, altarpieces, statuary, hymns, etc. What happened in the 18th century was that the emerging middle class began more and more to prize art for disinterested contemplation. Parallel to that development in how people engaged art was a development in how writers thought and wrote about art: art, they said, comes into its own when works of art are engaged as objects of disinterested contemplation and when they are created for that mode of engagement; art has not come into its own when it functions liturgically.