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David R. Hayworth College of Arts and Sciences

A Faith Legacy for Liberal Arts Education

2015.PDLinkedInBy Rev. Preston A. Davis, Minister to the University

Among the aims of liberal arts education is the education of the “whole person.”[1] At High Point University, this kind of learning is often described as “holistic” in the sense of being values-based and experientially oriented.[2] Students’ opportunities for holistic learning occur widely on and off campus, from discussing ethics in classrooms and conducting experiments in laboratories to presenting at academic conferences, serving in the community, and studying abroad.

High Point University has been a Methodist-affiliated institution since its founding,[3] and the Chapel and Religious Life Office, too, plays a significant role in holistic education on campus. What is the role of religious life with respect to this key attribute of the liberal arts–the education of the whole person? And how does religious life draw on the particularity of the Methodist faith and religious and institutional traditions in serving an increasingly religiously pluralistic student body?

 

Methodism as a Living Legacy and Its Role in Holistic Education
From its beginnings, education has been central to Methodism. The founder of Methodism, John Wesley, took piety and lifelong learning as his starting point for a meaningful life. Wesley once remarked to a fellow preacher, “it cannot be that the people should grow in grace unless they give themselves to reading” (Wesley). Education shapes one’s worldview, spiritual or otherwise. Consequently, education is not simply about growing a skill set, but an an ethos–asking to what end and purpose those skills will be used. What kind of world will those skills shape? Whom or what will those skills bless, to use the well-worn Christian term?
Thinking dialectically, our spiritual heritage influences our approach to education, too. There are many ways in which the Chapel and Religious Life Office specifically draws on the United Methodist faith tradition in contributing to students’ development as whole persons. The Office provides pastoral care to students in moments of crisis, deep pain, and great joy. It works to construct a variety of compelling programs and worship services to deepen faith, expand ideas of spirituality, engage in social justice, and lead to authenticity and the transformation of students’ selves and surroundings. Depending on students’ commitments, this may take shape in our weekly chapel service. It may involve students’ immersion in global efforts at reconciliation, in pilgrimage trips to accompany the poor of Haiti or Guatemala, or in a silent retreat to a Benedictine monastery in New Mexico. Or it may simply be the act of breaking bread with faculty and staff and having a rich discussion on issues of justice, inclusion, and meaningful relationships.

Among the most vital contributions of the Office to students’ holistic education is vocational discernment. It is unfortunate that the term “vocation” is commonly and mistakenly understood as having to do with one’s trade or occupation and thus perceived as being in tension with liberal arts education. Here, though, I wish to recover an older notion of vocation as “a calling” (and as listening), which ideally requires of students the involvement of their whole selves and future aspirations.

 

Cultivating Moral Imagination with Respect to Vocation

When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
“Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
“Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you . . .

Harper Collins Study Bible, Matthew 5:1-12 (NRSV)

At the heart of the Christian message, voiced by Jesus of Nazareth here in the Sermon on the Mount, is an alternative way of looking at the world. It is alternative in that we often take for granted that what it means to be “blessed” (literally meaning happy) does not apply to the poor, the meek, or merciful. “Blessed” are those that “get ahead in the world”—such as, blessed are the affluent and secure; blessed are the confident and strong-jawed; blessed are those with a conscience unencumbered with thoughts of mercy. Yet, the Christian understanding of who is blessed, understood through these beatitudes, turns this worldview on its head. These Christian blessings intend to reorient our perspective. They challenge us to rethink our sense of what we value, who we strive to become, how we will live, and even how we learn and educate. They call us, if we would listen to them, to a new way of living. To be blessed is to morally reimagine our purpose in life.

A reimagining of self and the world is deeply woven into the DNA of High Point University because of its faith tradition. Today we live out our sense of Wesleyan piety through this moral reimagining. As President Qubein often says, with hopeful poignancy, “we prepare students not for the world as it is, but for the world as it will be.” This is a vocational statement about seeing the world and one’s self differently. We reimagine the world’s possibilities, our possibilities, just as our ancestors did.

Educating holistically means incorporating a moral imagination into education, an imagination that equips and encourages students to think about how their skills are going to help shape a rapidly changing world. Will those skills be used for a more just world or will they exacerbate the injustices of our time? We hope not simply to make our students intelligent but to make them wise. Wisdom is princely knowledge with this moral imagination. It is the hope that in sharpening one’s intellect one also sharpens, in the words of Anglican Bishop Rowan Williams, “our moral discomfort in the world” (202). One becomes uncomfortable with the status quo, or the world as it is, as he or she begins to learn in line with these reimagined beatitudes. Education is not simply a means toward success in a narrow sense. It is the process by which one may become a peacemaker, pure in heart, may become the merciful. One seeks to bless and be blessed by embodying this reimagined ethos.

This holistic, values-based approach might simply be called a vocational approach to education. Because of our Christian underpinnings, vocation is not simplified or collapsed into a skill or trade. No. It possesses a more dynamic meaning. Vocation is understood through its Latin root, vocatio, meaning “a calling.” This is something more profound. One’s vocation is not simply about what he or she does. It is about who the student will be. It is about his or her whole self, and his or her purpose in the world. Thus, to be mindful of a calling is at once to be mindful of one’s gifts and skills (equipment for living), but it also means coming into fuller consideration of one’s unique self and how one’s unique self (and skills) come to serve the world. High Point University seeks to draw students into deeper understanding of who they are called to be. This is in keeping with the wider United Methodist Church, which stated in its 1999 Methodist Conference Report, “The Essence of Education”:

The educated person is one who has most nearly attained the potential which he or she has it within them to become, morally, culturally, and spiritually as well as intellectually and physically . . . Education is not ultimately about training people to be clever or successful, but about discovering what it is to be the full human beings God intended us to be. (7, 10)

The Chapel and Religious Life Office carries out this vocational mission today. Through practices of worship, interfaith engagement and service, spiritual formation, vocational discernment, and domestic as well as international pilgrimage and service trips, we help students become more attuned to their inner life. In a word, we help students better hear their calling. Frederick Buechner has written, quite rightly, that one’s calling is where “your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet” (95). We are teaching students to discover their deep gladness, what makes the student uniquely him- or herself so that he or she may best serve the world.

Much of that work, in its many variegated forms, comes back to the beatitudes above, and their imaginative ethos. For it is ethos that shapes ethics, and it is one’s ethics that shapes one’s actions and one’s world. They are a guide as students ask the ancient and pressing question, “Who will I become?” When shaped by our faith tradition this question is less concerned with success, or “gaining the world” as Jesus put it; rather, it is concerned with a life wisely and well lived. It is concerned with the very nature of one’s soul.

The institution that pays heed to this question does not simply prepare students to be actors in a competitive world. It is instead an institution that instills in its students a more profound outlook on the world, and encourages the student not to maintain the status quo, but to intentionally shift the world because they’ve shifted their own inner compass. As the student considers whom they shall become, they may also reimagine what the world can become. They can reimagine what a just society can look like and what a flourishing economy can look like because they have asked, “what is of real value? What kind of world will my ethos and ethics make?” In a word, what do I ultimately consider blessed? And what shall I bless, in the words of Mary Oliver with “my one wild and precious life”?

 

Catholics, Jews, Methodists, Muslims, and “Nones”: Connecting Faith with Pluralism

Living out our Methodist heritage in an increasingly globalized world and campus brings unique opportunities and challenges. Yet living out the particularity of our Methodist identity and inclusive ethos that all people should be welcome here is nothing new for High Point University. Though long affiliated with the Methodist church, High Point University has been religiously pluralistic for much of its history. By the late 1940s, less than half of the student body identified as Methodist (McCaslin 48). And a 1945 survey revealed that of the 100 alumni who were ordained clergy, only 14 were Methodist clergy (126).

These days, we are committed to both our Methodist heritage and being a place of religious and cultural inclusivity. The university’s student body is increasingly culturally and religiously diverse, including Catholics, Jews, and Muslims, as well as students who do not identify religiously (the “nones”), who sometimes reject religion altogether, or consider themselves more spiritual than religious. In our past and present, we have sought and we seek to be faithful to our history and tradition, while also defying the tendency toward dualistic thinking or religious or ideological pride that creates barriers between peoples. We are attempting to walk a new path that retains the best of our spiritual heritage while fostering a religiously dialogical ethos that deconstructs binary thinking that sets people of difference at odds with one another. In fact, High Point University was recognized by Interfaith Youth Core, a leader in college interfaith engagement and service, as the 2015 Rookie of the Year for its nascent but robust interfaith movement. We therefore are deepening the Methodist roots of High Point University while cultivating a pluralistic community that raises the level of religious literacy and student consciousness for how religious and spiritual commitments drive humans to positively engage the world and overturn global injustices. In a word, High Point University is United Methodist by tradition (and committed to that tradition) and interfaith in vision (not despite, but because of its Methodist tradition).

Therefore, in contributing to the education of students as whole persons, the Chapel and Religious Life Office strives to further an ecumenical and interfaith vision for religious life that draws from the university’s United Methodist legacy. These faith commitments–inclusivity and particularity–are not contradictions but the reality of a diverse community in our post-modern, global context. They are enacted on campus in myriad ways: A student attends an interfaith Passover seder, where Jews and non-Jews are invited to hear the Exodus story and its import to Jewish identity today, and to ask, “what stories, religious or otherwise, provide me with my identity?” A student campus ministry leader meets with others of diverse faith traditions as part of a Faith Council to coordinate and share ideas. The student Diversity Council plans a diversity week that introduces various forms of spirituality and their commitment toward the common good.   A student attends a campus Catholic Mass or Hillel service, or prays between classes in the Multifaith Prayer and Meditation Space. A student undertakes a pastoral ministry internship, providing new and engaging forms of ministry to a local United Methodist congregation. A student attends the annual Martin Luther King Jr. Worship Service that intensely shows the connection between spiritual formation and social justice, or the annual Lessons and Carols service or Christmas Prayer Breakfast with members of the wider community, inspired and awakened by a visiting religious figure. Whatever the path taken, the hope is to promote spiritual formation that leads toward positive engagement with the world; increases religious literacy and dialogue that crosses boundaries; entertains new, creative spiritual tensions; and fosters the formation of the whole person, who awakens to and reimagines his or her purpose in life directed toward healing the world.


[1] In his recent book, Beyond the University: Why Liberal Education Matters, Michael S. Roth, president of Wesleyan University, emphasizes the ongoing importance of educating the whole person. Among the prompts offered in the Call for Proposals for its 2015 Annual Meeting, the Association of American Colleges & Universities asks of “‘whole-person’ learning”: “How can it be recovered in US contexts?”

[2] “Indeed, the focus on experiential learning is itself a reflection of High Point University’s commitment to academic excellence, demonstrating as it does the institution’s persistent pursuit of pedagogical models that view education as a holistic, practical, and personally relevant enterprise” (HPU, Quality Enhancement Plan 61). See also the university’s main webpage, which includes various resources for “Holistic Learning” (HPU, “Holistic Learning”).

[3] Protestant Methodists, forerunners to today’s United Methodist Church, a global protestant denomination with which High Point University holds an affiliation, founded High Point College over ninety years ago (in 1924).

Works Cited

  • Buechner, Frederick. Wishful Thinking: A Theological ABC. New York: Harper and Row, 1973. Print.
  • “Call for Proposals: 2015 Annual Meeting.” Association of American Colleges & Universities. AACU, n.d. Web. 20 April 2015.
  • Harper Collins Study Bible. Wayne Meeks, gen. ed. New York: Harper Collins, 1993. Print. New Revised Standard Version.
  • High Point University (HPU). “Holistic Learning.” High Point University, n.d. Web. 20 April 2015. <http://www.highpoint.edu>.
    • Quality Enhancement Plan (Self, Society, World, and Vocation: A Thematic Approach to Experiential Student Learning). High Point, NC: High Point University, 2005. Print.
  • McCaslin, Richard B. Remembered Be Thy Blessings: High Point University–the College Years, 1924-1991. High Point, NC: High Point University, 1995. Print.
  • Methodist Church (Great Britain). The Essence of Education: A Report on the Methodist Conference 1999. Peterborough, England: Methodist Publishing House, 1999. Print.
  • Oliver, Mary. “The Summer Day.” House of Light. Boston: Beacon Press, 1990. Print.
  • Roth, Michael S. Beyond the University: Why Liberal Education Matters. New Haven, CT: Yale UP, 2014. Print.
  • Rowan Williams. “Finding Wisdom.” A Ray of Darkness. Cambridge, England: Cowley Publications, 1995. Print.
  • Wesley, John. Letter to George Holder. 8 Nov 1790. Wesley Center Online. Northwest Nazarene University, n.d. Web. 2 June 2015.

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