by Davina C. Lopez and Todd Penner
Since 2012, a select group of chaplains and Bible professors at Presbyterian-related colleges has explored the relationship of the Bible and the liberal arts across vocational and institutional locations. These discussions have focused on values identification, critical thinking and civic engagement.
The project originated in conversations among the two of us and Doug McMahon, director of the Center for Spiritual Life and chaplain at Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, Florida. The Center’s program, “Faculty Fellows,” draws on faculty members from across the disciplines who engage students in conversations related to the intersection of academics and questions of meaning, purpose and spirituality — the so-called “big questions” that are highly relevant to undergraduate students. We thought this model would be ideal for a larger project that could draw the interest of other liberal arts colleges. We also thought that both biblical scholars and chaplains might benefit from increased awareness of how each of us interacts with the “big questions” from our different standpoints.
The Presbyterian tradition has played a critical role in the development of liberal arts education in the United States. It has promoted the development of biblical inquiry in undergraduate education and also pressed larger questions concerning the relationship of a liberal arts orientation to the growth and development of young men and women.
McMahon stressed how critical it was, given the success of the Faculty Fellows program, that spiritual life programs be incorporated into this larger conversation. We agreed. It seemed intuitive that the key role in transformative education in small colleges was precisely the intersection of ideas in the classroom with life outside of the classroom. While chaplains and professors may enter the “room” through different “doors,” they occupy the same space by virtue of having similar types of conversations.
Eckerd College hosted an initial “Bible and the Liberal Arts” meeting in the spring of 2012. Along with Eckerd, participants included Austin College (Sherman, Texas), Rhodes College (Memphis, Tennessee) and Agnes Scott College (Decatur, Georgia). Last spring, a follow-up meeting took place at Austin College with participants from Eckerd, Austin, Rhodes and Queens University of Charlotte. At both, professors and chaplains explored the diverse issues facing the Bible as a site for academic and spiritual life inquiry.
In our conversations, we heard again and again that Bible professors and chaplains, despite having so much overlap in interest and student engagement, seldom find the time to engage in prolonged conversations even though so many topics beg to be discussed. One cannot address the role of the Bible in a liberal arts context without acknowledging that what professors and chaplains do frequently intersects with the lives of students in similar ways. Our participants agreed that not only were these conversations illuminating because of what we learned about other PC(USA) schools, but also because we learned much about our own institutional histories, practices and colleagues.
We did see together that we shared a central vision for a liberal arts education that profoundly shapes students’ maturation throughout their undergraduate years and beyond. We affirmed that one of the unique and central contributions made by liberal arts colleges is a commitment to “whole person” education — a more fully integrated undergraduate experience that draws faculty and student life professionals into conversation. Our two vocations — professors and chaplains — came away from these conversations appreciating new insights on how to better serve students in a formative period of their lives.
The conversations continue.
DAVINA C. LOPEZ is associate professor of religious studies at Eckerd College. TODD PENNER is the Gould H. and Marie Cloud Professor of religious studies at Austin College.