To wonder, learn, and love

Christian humanism in the modern university

Brian A. Williams

The university is a convoluted, maddening, and contentious cultural institution that praises novelty, promotes rivalry, and rewards self-promotion. It always has been. It’s also a glorious, inspiring, and beneficial institution that nurtures human flourishing, equips people to serve their neighbors, and gives them more to worship God with. It always has been.  Apocalyptic laments about the university’s irrelevance, decadence, and dis-integration constitute a genre as old as the 800-year-old institution itself. But the hoary pastime of university-worry reminds us that the university is a cultural creation. No platonic form of the university exists at the top of either Diotima’s or Jacob’s ladder. Instead, it is a perennially contested precious endowment of medieval Christian culture shaped by social, political, and economic forces. Even so, there are enduring Christian traditions that can guide how we relate to the university and the knowledge it pursues. In what follows, I explore the basic contours of one I call “didascalic Christian humanism.”

Education and academic institutions are a personal and professional interest of mine. I remember struggling in high school to understand and justify my intellectual appetite for history, numbers, and literature. And I couldn’t. No one had offered me a sufficient framework and I didn’t think to ask anyone, even though I was the son of a college professor and had inhabited the world of academic institutions my entire life. After high school, I earned five degrees in three countries, and eventually became an educator, theologian, ethicist, dean of a “great books” honors college, and director of a unique Master’s program for teachers. So the rhythms of the academy are mine and always have been. The desk I’m sitting at is the boyhood desk I inherited from my grandmother, and though I haven’t always known what to do with it, I’ve never strayed far from it.

Among the books currently strewn across it are four about the contemporary university. The title of one raises the important question, “What are universities for?” but fails to offer an entirely coherent and compelling answer. The other three take up the question, but supply competing answers. One contends that universities should produce ideal citizens for liberal democracies who are cosmopolitan, tolerant, and suspicious of tradition, trained to exclude religious convictions from the public sphere but equipped to mobilize political power for liberative ends. The next book argues that higher education should eschew the muddy world of politics and morals in order to produce disciplinary specialists who pursue idiosyncratic interests in the ivory towers of the research university. The final book subjects education to a strict cost-benefit analysis, insisting that education should create skilled workers for the market economy who can maximize their potential for gainful employment and wealth creation. I like to imagine these books barking at each other after I leave my office each evening.

For some historical perspective, I could invite a shelf of books whose pages substantiate my assertion that academic institutions are malleable and precious endowments of human culture. These trace the history of education from ancient Greece through the Medieval and Renaissance eras to the rise of the university and beyond. They recount the beginning of monastic and cathedral schools, the rise of independent scholars, the gathering of scholars in cathedral and royal cities, and their unionizing to found a new guild or “corporation” called the universitas magistrorum et scholarium. Woven throughout are anecdotes about personal conflicts, licentious students, violent riots, power struggles, and the growth of all the quirky customs, traditions, and titles we associate with the university. These also narrate the births of countless ideas, discoveries, and inventions that altered the way human persons experience themselves and the world. Besides being entertaining reading, this long story convincingly demonstrates that education matters because it informs how people and their cultures think, love, and live.

On the individual level, consider that most people who complete university will have spent at least sixteen years deeply embedded in a nexus of academic customs, curricula, and pedagogy. And they will not be the same for it. I often tell students trying to decide what college or university to attend that their first question should be, “Who do I want to become, and will this college or university help me become that kind of person?” Because many of them are Christians called to love their neighbors and serve the common good, I also tell them that they are responsible to the 28- and 48- and 68-year-old versions of themselves and to the families, businesses, and cultures they will help create along the way. And so where they study and who they become matters.

The teacher I learned much of this from was the unassuming 16th century university professor and theologian named Philip Melanchthon. He was colleague to Martin Luther, author of the Augsburg Confession, and Professor of Greek language and literature at the University of Wittenberg from 1518 to 1560. I have no less than two portraits of him in my office. Upon arriving in Wittenberg at age 21, he delivered an address entitled “On Improving the Studies of Youth.” In this and subsequent speeches, he laments that contemporary universities have abandoned the Muses, neglected the common good, and hindered students’ full intellectual, moral, aesthetic, and spiritual formation. Instead, students were enamored with political power, pursued obscure and idiosyncratic topics, and chased after “mean and gainful arts” that promised wealth. This left them arrogant and shallow, and the church, state, and society impoverished. Melanchthon feared that if the university limited itself to these three goals—political clout, disciplinary specialization, and wealth accumulation—it was risking the humanum, or humanity, of its students and the humane cultures they could create. Clearly, the educational debate happening on my desk is nothing new. Melanchthon then spent his life teaching students in his home, lecturing at the university, writing commentaries, producing textbooks, advocating before town councils, eventually founding or reforming at least seventy schools and universities, while sending his students to teach throughout Europe. It’s no surprise that contemporaries referred to him as “the father of most educated men” and the Praeceptor Germaniae, or “teacher of Germany.”

Unlike many educators, Melanchthon was attentive to whole persons, that is, to the integrated intellectual, moral, aesthetic, spiritual, and practical formation of his university students. For him, the telos of education and the telos of human nature should be aligned so that education contributes to the holistic flourishing of individuals and institutions. Therefore, his curriculum included not only Scripture and the great works of history, literature, theology, ethics, and philosophy, but also mathematical disciplines like physics, geometry, astronomy, and a nascent economics, as well as natural sciences like anatomy, physiology, early psychology, and another of his passions, medicine. According to Melanchthon, every art and science is a gift of God given to benefit humanity, and to study them is a form of godliness. Hence, he wanted the full humanity of his students nurtured in classroom and chapel together.

Melanchthon finds his place in a long tradition that stretches back through Erasmus and Hugh of St. Victor, to Alcuin of York, Rhabanus Maurus, Cassiodorus, and many others. And he inhabits a tradition that stretches forward through Calvin and Comenius, to John Henry Newman, Dorothy Sayers, Stratford Caldecott, and, again, many others. This tradition, in which I place myself, could be broadly described as “didascalic Christian humanism.” This is not modern secularist “humanism” that scorns religious conviction, nor is it merely the Humanism of the Italian Renaissance. Instead, didascalic Christian humanism refers to the perennial concern for human and humane knowledge and culture, the integrated formation of students, the comprehensive flourishing of individuals and communities, and worship of the triune God through whom, by whom, and for whom all things were made.

Several distinct features characterize this venerable tradition. Together, they help me answer my late-teen questions about the value of learning and education. Christian students and scholars looking for a conceptual framework to make sense of their intellectual appetites, university years, or academic careers could do worse than start with these.


Though the intellectual appetite can be aroused by many things, it is often provoked by sheer stupefied wonder, that basic human experience of being astonished or puzzled by something and wanting to discover what it is and why it is the way it is. This is not the ‘wonder’ of Wonder Bread or the Wonderful World of Disney that fed and entertained me as a boy. Instead, the paradigm case for “wonder” is that educated Israelite who is astonished to see a bush burning but not consumed, who says, “I will go over and see this strange sight—why this bush does not burn up” (Exodus 3:3). Or the newly converted Augustine, who declares, “I love nothing but God and the soul, and I know neither,” and sets the rest of his life to discovering both.[1] Or Melanchthon, an amateur astronomer, who writes: “Who is so hard-hearted … that he does not sometimes, looking up at the sky and beholding the most beautiful stars in it, wonder at these varied alterations … and desire to know the traces … of their motions?”[2] If not the stars, consider the human eye. It need not have the 120 million rods and six million cones that enable it to see approximately seven million colors. There need not be 10,000 species of birds, 400,000 types of beetles, or 100 billion planets in the Milky Way. The universe would endure without the dumbo octopus, pink fairy armadillo, or naked mole rat, yet they are there, along with Egyptian hieroglyphs, Benin masks, Machu Picchu, and Dante’s Comedy. And, of course, there is chaos and disorder in our souls and the world, and we wonder at these, as well.

This wondering inquiry is the beginning of knowledge, because like the theologian’s faith, it seeks understanding. And it is “holy” wonder when the wonderer experiences it coram deo, before God, acknowledging his or her finite place within a capacious creation.


However, we do not just passively wonder at phenomena, we also want to peel back the appearances and understand the causes. Wonder whets our appetite to learn, and so the tradition affirms learning as one important way we participate in the world. We walk through the world, see it, eat it, breathe it, meet its residents, and make things with it. We also wonder at it and want to understand it, entering it with our minds as well as our hands and eyes. Thus, learning is a creaturely good that partially fulfills our nature, delights us, and helps us feel more at home in the spaces and places we occupy. At their best, schools nurture wonder and teach students how to learn.

However, didascalic Christian humanists also remind us that the intellectual appetite can be disordered. Therefore, it cautions against the moral vice of curiositas that misuses the intellect by pursuing knowledge through disordered means like manipulation or cheating; pursues it for disordered ends like propaganda, violence, or prestige; lusts after knowledge as if it were one’s highest good; or abandons more profitable studies and activities for lesser ones. It drives the gossip, the tabloid, the utilitarian careerist, and the person who desires to appear rather than to be wise. Think Adam and Eve, Icarus, Dante’s Ulysses, the sorcerer’s apprentice, Dr. Faustus, Hans Christian Anderson’s little mermaid, or, of course, the proverbial cat. The opposite virtue is sometimes referred to as studiositas, a moral virtue that directs the intellectual appetite toward good ends through ordered means. It describes a grateful and humble desire for knowledge that respects the thing known and desires knowledge that nurtures human and non-human flourishing. It is driven not by cupidity, but by love.


One way the tradition resists curiositas is by framing learning as a way to love and serve one’s near and distant neighbors. This is rooted in the belief that God loves and desires the good of people and societies, but that God rarely chooses to be God in isolation from us. Instead, he equips and calls people to use their gifts, passions, and possibilities in order to partner with him. Hence the tradition frames learning as one great but ordinary means through which we can love our neighbors and “keep” our world as a well-tended garden. Thus we ask not only how education will benefit us, but also how we might employ it to benefit others.

Of course, not everything we learn has to be channeled toward an immediate application, and not every kind of good work requires advanced knowledge. But some do. For example, it is one thing to protest human trafficking with a picket sign, and another to become a human rights lawyer prosecuting international traffickers. It is one thing to console a terminally ill cancer patient, and another to pursue a degree in pluripotent stem cells in order to cure that cancer. Both acts in each pair are good, but only a person who has been educated is free to perform the latter as a work of love. And people can be impoverished and threatened in many ways: physically and economically, of course, but also intellectually, culturally, morally, aesthetically, and spiritually. Hence, the Christian tradition asks us to consider how learning equips us to bring salt and light wherever it’s needed in the world in whatever ways we can. To do so is to adopt as our own Hugh of St. Victor’s wonderful phrase: “Each one does not have for himself alone even that which he alone has.”[3]


Finally, wonder, learning, and love should ultimately be framed by and lead us to worship the God who graciously offers us the opportunity to explore the world, know it, make things with it, and dwell in it together. Hugh relates knowledge and worship when he insists that “God would not be praised in all His works by the rational creature, if all the works of God were not known by the rational creature.”[4] To know enables us to praise. It gives us more to praise God with and more desire to do it. Adopting the posture whereby one is quick to worship with any means ready to hand prepares each observation, discovery, insight, pleasure, or person to be a conduit of our adoration. And according to several representatives of this tradition, these moments of wonder, learning, love, and worship anticipate the eschatological leisure of eternal life in the new heavens and earth.

Now, all this might sound a little grandiose to a bleary-eyed student struggling to finish an essay or to a professor hours deep in a policy meeting.  Even now, it sounds so to me as I edit this paragraph. Still, we ought not assume that reality fully manifests itself in appearance. The Christian faith apprentices us to see human beings as images of God, washing in a river as dying and rising, and the church as the body of a cosmic Christ. So the suggestion that schools, colleges, and universities can assist people to become more fully human, love their neighbors, worship God, and prepare for eternity should not be dismissed too quickly. Instead, I hope that Christian scholars and students might find their way into this older tradition of didascalic Christian humanism and remind each other that classrooms can be holy places where sacraments of eschatological joy are shared and even a childhood desk littered with books can be the site of profound worship.

Discussion questions

  1. Where you live, when are universities at their best? When are they at their worst?
  2. What would it mean to be a Christian humanist? Is such a thing possible?
  3. When do you wonder about the world? What distracts or inhibits you from wondering?
  4. How can someone learn in a grateful and humble way? How can someone learn in a sinful or vicious way? Do you tend to learn in a grateful way or a sinful way?
  5. How could Job 36–41 nurture humble learning?
  6. When does learning become a way to love and serve? When is learning not about loving or serving? Is your way of learning a way that you show love?
  7. How can knowledge draw someone into praising God? Does learning draw you into worship?
  8. How might Genesis 1–2, Psalm 104, or Psalm 148 inform the posture a scholar adopts toward his or her studies?
  9. Daniel 1 describes four Israelites who showed “aptitude for every kind of learning” and were “well informed” and “quick to understand.” What can we learn from their experience receiving an elite three-year education in the language, literature, and learning of the Babylonians?
  10. Does the fact that the world came into being in and through God’s Son affect the way you relate to the world (John 1:1–3; Colossians 1:15–17; Hebrews 1:1–4)?

Suggested reading

  • Hugh of Saint Victor. The Didascalicon of Hugh of St. Victor: A Medieval Guide to the Arts. New York: Columbia University Press, 1991.
  • Melanchthon, Philipp. Philip Melanchthon: Orations on Philosophy and Education. Edited by Sachiko Kusukawa. Translated by Christine F. Salazar. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999.
  • Axtell, James. Wisdom’s Workshop: The Rise of the Modern University. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2016.


[1] Augustine, The Soliloquies II.7, in Augustine: Earlier Writings, ed. and trans. J. S. H. Burleigh (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2006).

[2] Melanchthon, “Preface to On the Sphere,” in Sachiko Kusukawa, ed., Philip Melanchthon: Orations on Philosophy and Education, trans. Christine F. Salazar (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), 106.

[3] Hugh of Saint Victor on the Sacraments of the Christian Faith: De Sacramentis, trans. Roy Deferrari. (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2007), II.ii.2.

[4] De Sacramentis, I.VI.v.

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