Editors’ Note: This week, we published a four-part series on the necessity of beauty across contexts: art, homemaking, architecture, and education. This series critically examines the role of beauty in renewing culture. This is the fourth and final essay, in which Nathaniel Peters explores how the study of the humanities can be a path to spiritual growth.

The earliest Christian sources seem skeptical of the value of what we would now call humanistic learning. St. Paul asks: “Where is the wise man? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?” (I Corinthians 1:20). And in his Prescription against Heretics, Tertullian describes Paul’s encounter on the Areopagus with a human wisdom corrupted and divided into heresy. “What indeed has Athens to do with Jerusalem?” he writes, “What concord is there between the Academy and the Church?” Some Christians share these concerns today and fear that studying the humanities can damage one’s faith, while others question their usefulness for the rest of life. But a deeper look at scripture and Christian history can help us understand why and how to study the humanities fruitfully.

In Genesis 1:27–28, Adam and Eve are created in the image of God and told to be fruitful and multiply, to fill the earth and subdue it. But the first activity we see Adam perform is in Genesis 2:19, where God has formed the animals and brought them to Adam “to see what he would call them; and whatever the man called every living creature, that was its name.” 

Adam’s first activity—the first thing he does in the image of God and as part of his vocation as steward of creation—is to name the animals. Names are important in the Old Testament. They are a sign of who you are and what God made you to be. Abram becomes Abraham, the father of many nations, and Jacob becomes Israel, he who wrestles with God. In the act of naming, Adam helps order the animals toward his own comprehension and toward the glory of God, bestowing a kind of dignity on them.

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In the Gospel of John, as in Genesis, we are taught that the world is created by God. The Word is God, and is with God, and is God. All things were made by him, and without him was not anything made that was made. This gives us a picture of the relations between the Word and the Father. Words exist primarily in our minds, so the Word exists eternally in the mind of the Father. And creation is a kind of outpouring from God according to the Word or idea that exists in his mind. Creation comes into being according to the Word. This means that the world is ordered and united, and that people made in the image of God can understand both. When we combine these ideas from Genesis and John, we get the following key points. First, our knowing and understanding is an essential human activity, part of what it means to be made in the image of God. Second, our knowing of creation is a participation in God’s knowing of creation, the very knowing that made the world and sustains it in being. To put it another way, we were made by God to know and love the truth—both himself as Truth itself, and also the many truths about the things he made. And our knowledge of the truth makes our minds operate in tune with God’s. Third, the truths that we know are ultimately united in the world, as they are united and ordered in the mind of God, and therefore the truth as we apprehend it is one and unified. Truth can’t contradict truth; it can illuminate it in a new way, or correct something we incorrectly think, or teach us to hold something we rightly think with greater nuance and clarity. But if our right understanding is a participation in God’s knowledge of himself and creation, it is not fragmented.

It’s important to acknowledge that this is not how elite, secular universities see the pursuit of knowledge, nor how they see the relations of the disciplines to one another. It’s much more common to have people siloed in their particular fields of study. We come to certain conclusions in physics, others in literature, and still others in philosophy, and we never try to fit them into an overarching framework. But Christianity gives us a reason and framework for the search for truth and the life of the university. 

So why should a Christian study? Because by doing so, you do what God made human beings to do. You participate in the knowledge of God, imitate God, and hopefully come to understand better the world God made—maybe God himself.

Why then should we study the humanities? The humanities are ways of coming to know the truth about ourselves, the world, and God through art, music, literature, history, philosophy, theology, etc. At its best, the practice of writing well or producing art is a kind of co-creation of beauty, or a discernment of the order of truth in an aspect of human life or the world. And this is something that we not only have an ability but also a desire to do. In his address “Learning in Wartime,” C. S. Lewis writes:

An appetite for these things exists in the human mind, and God makes no appetite in vain. We can therefore pursue knowledge as such, and beauty as such, in the sure confidence that by so doing we are either advancing to the vision of God ourselves or indirectly helping others to do so. Humility, no less than the appetite, encourages us to concentrate simply on the knowledge or the beauty, not too much concerning ourselves with their ultimate relevance to the vision of God. That relevance may not be intended for us but for our betters—for men who come after and find the spiritual significance of what we dug out in blind and humble obedience to our vocation. This is the teleological argument that the existence of the impulse and the faculty prove that they must have a proper function in God’s scheme. . . . The intellectual life is not the only road to God, nor the safest, but we find it to be a road, and it may be the appointed road for us.

Lewis’s point is this: God wouldn’t give us a desire for something, and an ability to do it, for no reason. God made us desire beauty and knowledge and gave us the ability to delight in them. If we’re given the opportunity to do so, we should glorify him by pursuing and enjoying them.

But aren’t many parts of the humanities a partial or entire rejection of God? A Christian isn’t going to model himself on Achilles or Aphrodite—or Nietzsche for that matter—so why read the Iliad or the Genealogy of Morals? Augustine and the monks of the Middle Ages give us a good example in this regard. Many of them approached classical authors with the perspective of the Israelites in Exodus. When God tells Moses from the burning bush to lead his people out of Egypt, he says that each woman shall ask her neighbors for jewelry and clothing, and they will put them on their sons and daughters, “and so you shall plunder the Egyptians” (Ex 3:22, 12:36). 

This image of plundering the Egyptians became the image for how Christian authors would take the best of pagan literature and philosophy captive and, as Paul says in 2 Corinthians 10:5, make it obedient to Christ. So, for example, St. Boniface, the monk who evangelized Germany, wrote a handbook on Latin poetic meter and a treatise on grammar. In The Love of Learning and the Desire for God, Jean Leclercq writes:

As he brings this prologue to an end, St. Boniface explains why he placed at the head of his treatise, in a circle, a cross and the name of the Lord Jesus: just as the whole Old Testament led to Christ and already contained, under veiled images, the realities of the mysteries of salvation, all the good that can be found in reading and “scrutinizing” the grammarians, poets, historians, and the writings of both Testaments must be referred to Christ in accordance with the advice of St. Paul: “Try everything, keep what is good.”

Rabanus Marus, a ninth-century monk and bishop, used a different Old Testament metaphor to describe this kind of humanistic study. According to the principle in Deuteronomy 21:11–13—that an Israelite could, under certain conditions, marry a pagan woman taken in battle—Rabanus writes: “This is what we customarily do, and what we ought to do, when we read pagan poets, when books of worldly wisdom fall into our hands. If we meet therein something useful, we convert it to our own dogma.”

Many monastic thinkers demonstrated a kind of optimism in their interpretation of pagan authors, even to the point of seeing them as authorities who cannot err, deceive, or contradict themselves. This required a good deal of allegorizing in some cases. Ovid and Horace were not naughty love poets, some Christian authors thought, but moralists who intended to teach chastity and lawful love. Ovid was thought to have become a Christian on his deathbed, and Virgil’s Eclogues prophesy the coming of Christ. Leclercq notes that Ovid, Horace, and Virgil “belonged to these men as personal property; they were not an alien possession to which to refer and quote with reverence. . . .” Thus, in the tympanum of the twelfth-century Abbey of Vézélay, Christ is depicted as sending the apostles forth to evangelize and convert the nations of the world, some of whom are depicted with various deformities and diseases as described by Herodotus. The monks read Herodotus, and they used his history as a way to show the healing power of the Gospel as it spread throughout the world.

So, why should a Christian study the humanities? Because even in authors who were not Christian, or who were opposed to Christianity, there are gems of beauty and truth that you can cherish and enjoy and think about with respect to Christ. Let me be clear: I would advise that students follow Lewis and pursue their studies for their own sake, not for the sake of explicitly referring everything they learn back to Christ in their papers. But we should think about Mozart, Virginia Woolf, and Herodotus and ask where they fit into our understanding of the world God made. What insights can they offer us? What beauty of theirs can we cherish that we couldn’t otherwise? How can Nietzsche help us understand what the world would look like without Christ?

We should study so that when we encounter an equation or sculpture of great beauty, or an exquisitely crafted sentence, our response is one of praise or thanksgiving.


Let me also propose that Christians should study the humanities because study can be a means of spiritual growth. At the beginning of Romans 12, Paul urges us to offer our bodies as a living sacrifice to God. He then writes: “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.” Of course our mind is transformed by what we study, but also by how we study. 

Before embarking on his public ministry, Jesus spent forty days wandering and praying in the desert. At certain points in our studies, we can find ourselves in a similar state. I found writing a dissertation to be much more of a spiritually purifying process than I had expected—a process of stripping away my desire for the prestige and easy, quick achievement in which I found meaning, and of making me confront who I thought I was and what I was trying to do. In Lost in Thought: The Hidden Pleasures of an Intellectual Life, Zena Hitz writes:

Intellectual life turns out to be a sort of asceticism, a turning away from things within ourselves. Our desires for truth, for understanding, for insight are in constant conflict with other desires: our desires for social acceptance or an easy life, a particular personal goal or a desirable political outcome. Hence the retreat that intellectual work requires does not function only as an escape. It is also a place of salutary distance, a place to set aside our agendas to consider things as they really are. When we think and reflect, we struggle to allow our desire for truth to prevail over the desires that conflict with truth. We push aside the soft barriers and chip away at hard accretions of wishful thinking. It is for this reason that intellectual life is a discipline: the product of hard work and practice in a certain sort of self-denial.

When we do our intellectual work well, our study can become a kind of spiritual discipline. We are forced to put our desire for the truth—capital and lowercase T—ahead of our desire for getting a good grade, saying the thing that will make us more popular with our professor or our friends, or achieving another thing that serves as the means of achieving another thing. And when our study becomes difficult, we are forced to ask ourselves why and for whom or what we are working.

As I mentioned above, the goal of our study should be a more accurate apprehension of reality and the one who made it. That can be hard work from which we easily shrink. Hitz thinks about this problem by focusing on Augustine’s distinction between curiositas and studiositas, two kinds of restlessness that she translates as “love of spectacle” and “seriousness.” Love of spectacle flits from object to object seeking the titillation of bare experience—the dopamine hits of the gladiatorial games, cockfights, and pear-stealing. By contrast, seriousness pushes past the surface of things to what is more real. It stays focused on what matters most and moves the inquirer to order his life according to those things. Hitz writes: “I understand the virtue of seriousness to be a desire to seek out what is most important, to get to the bottom of things, to stay focused on what matters. Whereas the lover of spectacle skims over the surfaces of things and is satisfied with mere images and feelings, the serious person looks for depth, reaches for more, longs for reality.” This longing for more reality should be the goal of our study, and it makes sense as a goal for a Christian because we should long for the one who is the ground of reality.

Let me offer one related thought. Today in universities, we are very focused on lived experience as a source of authority, especially the experiences of people who have been historically marginalized or discriminated against, such as women and ethnic or sexual minorities. Experience gets invoked as a kind of trump card, sometimes against the Bible and the ways in which Christians have traditionally interpreted it. But experience is never neutral; it’s always formed by particular ideas and observed through particular lenses. Frequently, our current appeals to experience appeal to an experience shaped by ideas hostile to Christian faith. But the great figures of Christian history were so immersed in faith, and in the tradition and doctrine of the Church, that they experienced life through it. It’s not that they let the Bible squash their own experience or identity; rather, they let it shape who they understood themselves to be and what their place in society was. I would encourage the same of us. We should desire to be so suffused with the beauty of worship and the words of scripture, so shaped by prayer and study, that when we reflect on our own growth and experience, we read not the passing things of our age but the enduring truths of God.

The last reason why a Christian should study the humanities is to cultivate a disposition of wonder, thanksgiving, and praise. These are the proper responses of rational creatures to the creator God. We should study so that when we encounter an equation or sculpture of great beauty, or an exquisitely crafted sentence, our response is one of praise or thanksgiving. So often in the academy, we’re trained to critique, to put ourselves over another author or book or work and make judgments from a position of superiority. This is necessary at times, but when it becomes our default, it can keep us from enjoying a work and allowing it to move us. A properly Christian kind of study leaves room for that vulnerability and enjoyment, for cultivating wonder and praise. After all, praise of God is at its heart restating the truth about who God is and what he has done. Study of the truth should lead to richer, more sustained praise.

So, why should a Christian study the humanities? Because it’s what God made us to do. Because by doing so we do participate in God’s knowing of the world and can thereby come to understand him. Because by study we can better understand scripture and our experience of God. Because it lets us enjoy non-Christian beauty and truth in the light of Christ. Because it can be a means of spiritual growth and shape our experience of the world. And because it can move us to praise God who is the Truth itself.

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