Christian Liberal Arts: Education for Freedom in Christ
Beth Felker Jones
The adjective “liberal,” in the phrase “liberal arts” comes from the Latin word for freedom. The word liberal here may be almost unsalvageable in our world, which associates it with a certain kind of politics, but in talk about education it ought to be a pointer to freedom. A classical liberal arts education is one that equips free folk for the responsibilities of citizenship. It is that education that fits with the status of those who are not slaves, those with the power and the privileges of citizens. A Christian liberal arts education builds up and equips people who are free citizens of the kingdom of God.
Freedom is a theme in George R.R. Martin’s bestselling series, which begins with A Game of Thrones. Martin crafts a narrative world of tension between the people of the Seven Kingdoms and the “free folk” of the North. The kingdom people fear the “wildlings,” who mock them as “kneelers.” Martin’s free folk refuse to bow before any king.
Beyond Doing Whatever We Want
The mutual suspicion between Martin’s wildlings and his kneelers is evocative of some of the complexities of freedom as we learn of it Scripture. True freedom is not the wildling freedom to do whatever we want, the sort of freedom theologian Reinhard Hütter calls “the freedom of the Promethean self,” a freedom that insists that anything “that might bind me, that might restrict me, that might direct me without myself having chosen the direction is … estranging and oppressive.” Hütter’s theological assessment of this sort of freedom rings as true in the real world as it does in Martin’s fantasy world; such “must ultimately decline into those substitutes that today reign under the name of autonomy: individual sovereignty, will to power, and license.” In Martin’s wild North there is some sort of “freedom,” but there is also a great deal of fear, of glaring vulnerability, of something like the condemnation found in the ominous refrain of the book of Judges in which, with “no king in Israel,” the people do “what is right in their own eyes” (Judges 17:6). Both in Judges and in Martin’s wilds this means violence and horror. But folk are not free from that violence and horror in Martin’s kingdoms either. Those kingdoms offer a semblance of protection and of civilization, but there we also find the sort of brutality and thirst for power that we find in the biblical condemnation naming the people’s desire for a human king as a rejection of God’s kingship (1 Sam 8:7).
Free From Something and For Something
The freedom we have in Christ, though, is something quite different. Christian freedom cannot be found in unbridled autonomy or in being bound to the fallen kingdoms of this world. Both of these false alternatives are under the tyranny of sin, but Christian freedom—ours in Christ—is different in kind. In Christ we are freed from something and for something. We are freed from sin and death, freed for love and holiness. Ours is that freedom which we may not use “as an opportunity for self-indulgence,” that freedom which opens up the way for us “through love” to “become slaves to one another” (Gal 5:13). Freedom from the bonds of sin and the tyranny of death is Christian freedom, and even the loveliest of liberal arts educations cannot grant these gifts. Jesus alone does so. But Jesus uses education as a means of grace in helping us to grow into our positive Christian freedom, freedom for love, for service, for faithfulness, for Christlikeness, for wisdom. Christian freedom is always oriented outside itself, to the world, for others. We are free to live like this—with all its risks and challenges—because we are secure in Christ. Christian liberal education must attend to the world—its beauties and its horrors, its wisdom and its foolishness—as we prepare to live as free ambassadors of the Kingdom.