The craft of Christian higher education

Updated: Dec 30, 2021

Dr. Susan FELCH (FELCH) is the Director of Calvin Center for Christian Scholarship and a Professor at the Department of English in Calvin University, USA. Her numerous publications include: Az: Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies (1999); Bakhtin and Religion: A Feeling for Faith (2001); and Spring: A Spiritual Biography of the Season (2006).



FELCH attempts to understand Christian higher education as a craft, being situated within a tradition that extends historically across cultures but that is also locally inflected, counterbalances the abstract notion of "integration" by re-positioning our academic work as skilled labor. A “Craft” focuses our attention on tradition, apprenticeship, well-chosen materials and tools, and artifacts, creating an image that can help to transform the modern University into an inculturation, faithfully Christian academic endeavor. 


FELCH revisits "the integration of faith and learning" and raises three important points. The first point is that this is not the only way that faithful Christians have imagined their mission in higher education. Second, the term is not self-defining. Third, the word "integration" itself is problematic which tends to subtly reinforce the very dualism that it wishes to avoid. In each case, integration itself presumes the existence and coming together of two or more entities. FELCH reiterates that craft was not a master metaphor for Christian higher education. It cannot do all the work of guiding and supporting Christian colleges and universities. It does however open up different ways of thinking about and practising intentional Christian higher education. 


How do we align our Christian faith with the fact that the majority of what we teach and study was discovered, composed, and divided by people who do not share our faith commitments? FELCH looks into the model of "craft" in Exodus. Echoed with Augustine and other commentators, she notes that the Israelites used the gold plundered from Egyptian to craft the Golden calf and later the tabernacle. The raw materials at hand are not in any way distinctively spiritual or other-worldly. Scholar and teacher in every cultural setting excavates his or her learning "out of the Mines of God's providence" which is a creation not of their own making. There are at least three important implications that flow from this fact of the given-ness of creation for our teaching, learning, and scholarship. A Christian university in Hong Kong should use the stuff from the soil of Hong Kong as a Christian College in Michigan should use the stuff from upper Mid-West America. Our scholarship, teaching, and learning however, should conform to the grammar of the Christian faith. 


The word "craft" in English is originally meant as strength, power, might, or force, in addition to the connotations of skills or skillfulness that most cultures associate intuitively with a craft. Understanding ourselves as "credible teachers" and our students as apprentices should shape the ways in which we pay attention to every single detail in our classroom. These details shape apprentices into the masters they will become. FELCH reminds us that we are crafters - of our research, of our students, of our own learning- but we are not the creators. A profound gratitude and humility ought to ground everything we do as teachers and scholars: gratitude that we are invited to touch and mold such wonderful materials. All scholars are to hold our homework lightly, committed to constant revisiting and revising of all we do. We need to choose our tools (that is, our methodologies, our theories etc.) carefully.


FELCH further expounds that every Christian scholar should periodically set aside time to look for knotty problems in the disciplines of professions and to search for resources in the Christian tradition that may need them to a sharper tool that will allow them and the student apprentices to craft a more beautiful, useful, delightful artifact. We become better Christian researchers and teachers to the extent that we intentionally asked about every scholarly project, every lecture, every syllabus, every activity in the classroom - what am I crafting here? what artifact will I hand to my students? What do I help them to make or will I help them to shape? To what extent is this artifact shaped by the grammar of the Christian Faith? FELCH concludes that we would be aware of working within a tradition, the embrace of an apprenticeship model, respect for materials and tools, and the recognition that the educational enterprise makes things have wide-ranging implications. It also reminds us to fully engage what is local. A well-crafted text will fit its local context. A well-crafted Christian University will meet the needs of the culture it serves.