The Rich Academic Legacy of the Christian Church

by Gayle D. Beebe, Ph.D.

Why do students choose to attend Westmont? Our Christian identity is one of the top three reasons they cite for their decision. But their backgrounds vary greatly. Some possess a deep faith, and some come with no faith at all. We have the marvelous privilege of giving every student the opportunity to accept Christ and to grow in their understanding and faith.

In our program, we draw on the rich legacy of great thinkers throughout church history, and we seek to embed this tradition in our students. We expose them to the work of people such as Augustine, Hugh of Saint Victor and Calvin, to name a few.

Clement of Alexandria, who’s one of my favorites, lived in the second century. He developed an early understanding of a liberal arts education and our unique Christian approach to it. He saw the framework for the liberal arts as a way for believers to gain mastery of human knowledge and learn how to think properly about God. Living during one of the great waves of persecution against the early church, Clement understood that if Christians were going to sustain themselves as a movement, they had to outthink the pagan opposition. He understood that a liberal arts education could equip the church to make discerning judgments between right thoughts about God and pagan thoughts that were undermining society.

A few years ago I discovered Ignatius of Loyola. I had read his spiritual exercises and gone on a retreat to learn about the spiritual disciplines he wanted us to understand. But I had never paused to think about when he lived; he’s a contemporary of Luther and Calvin. Ignatius argued for a disciplined approach to God at the same time other parts of Europe went through the uproar of the Reformation and the push to return Christians to authentic Christian faith.

As I read about Ignatius, I found many things to like about him and a few we should uphold. His spiritual autobiography, where he goes back through the history of his life, particularly impressed me. He unveils so many wonderful insights into our life with Christ. He spent the first 30 years of his life being vain and impressed with himself, living in wanton self-indulgence. He loved going to war and served as a mercenary. Then he suffered a wound in battle and took two years to convalesce, nearly losing a leg. During this time he began to think about his life and came to a realization: “If I were to die today, I would have lived with my life never having mattered.”

At this point of conviction and conversion he considered his entire existence. Seeking guidance, he looked to the right and saw all the religious enthusiasts who chased one religious experience after another but had no sustaining life with God. He looked to the left and saw all the dead intellects, the people who had great thoughts about God but no evidence of the living presence of Christ in their life. Ignatius wanted a foundation for his life, so he decided to pursue the great middle way and combine passionate love for God with rigorous academic understanding. Such a life balances the experiences of God with great thoughts of God and prepares people to serve society faithfully. The most dominant theme in Ignatius is the way he balanced his life with God with his intellectual life.

As a result, Ignatius launched the Jesuit movement and spent the next 10 years producing people who could go out into society — go anywhere in the world — and learn to function effectively. That’s what we want to do at Westmont: offer the kind of education and transformation that allows our students to go anywhere in the world and function and lead effectively.

We also want our students to learn about contemporary thinking about faith. For example, I read a book last spring that fascinated me: “How God Changes Our Brain.” Andrew Newberg, who runs the neuroscience and spirituality clinic at the University of Pennsylvania, and his associate, Mark Waldman, co-wrote the work. They say they’re not particularly religious people. But they can prove through their studies that belief in God contributes to a mental, physical and spiritual well-being in a way nothing else can. They concluded that believing in God has so many more positive affects on our life than not believing in God. I’m always anxious to see science and other disciplines begin to discover the wonderful ways in which God as a present reality in our life gives us a great life and great purpose for our life.

We don’t expect every student who comes to Westmont to be a Christian, but we do expect them to abide by our Christian standards. As students get exposed to the truth of Christ, we believe it draws them to Christ. This is the mission we commit ourselves to so deeply, and it’s the enduring vision of our founder, Ruth Kerr, and our first president, Wallace Emerson. It captures the richness and history of the Christian tradition as we cultivate in our students this deep love for God and prepare them for leadership and service in the 21st century through rigorous academic training.

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