By Charles Hermesmann
On Tuesday, Feb. 12, Wheaton College celebrated 50 years of the Faith and Learning Seminar for faculty members. The Faith and Learning Seminar is a part of the tenure process for Wheaton professors and involves the writing of an academic paper that integrates the Christian faith and higher education. The celebration was open to the campus and the Wheaton community.
Second-year faculty members participate in the seminar, led by McManis Professor of Christian Thought Timothy Larsen. They later published a paper which, before being sent out, must be approved by both Larsen and Provost Margaret Diddams. On Tuesday, Associate Professor of History Dr. Karen Johnson was recognized for her outstanding paper, “Place Matters: The Vocation of Where We Live and How We Live There.”
Through her paper and lecture, Johnson aimed to integrate faith and learning through a focus on the theology of place. “Where we live and how we live there are vocational questions [that] ought to be considered theologically and historically,” she said. “In short, place matters. It profoundly shapes our callings and we, in turn, can shape places for good or evil.”
English professor Dr. Leland Ryken attended the first Faith and Learning Seminar after finishing his first year as a Wheaton professor. In an interview, Ryken said that the first seminar was characterized by a dream to integrate faith and learning that “eventually emerged in Christian education at all levels. Larsen agreed — during his speech on Tuesday, he said, “I speak at numerous other Christian colleges and what I find again and again is that the Christian scholarship that is produced by Wheaton faculty members is what is shaping the teaching and conversations on their campuses.”
Ryken estimates that around 10 to 12 faculty members originally participated in the lecture, which had a “pioneering spirit.” In the mornings, the faculty members discussed readings and in the afternoons they worked on their papers. While it was a summer seminar when Ryken attended, today Larsen leads a year-long seminar which integrates discussion of the Christian faith into readings of novels, poetry and contemporary theology. He believes the program has helped Wheaton to “produce a very strong culture of thinking Christianly about all that we do.”
Over the years, many Wheaton faculty members have attended the seminar and taken part in its goal of uniting faith with their academic discipline. Ryken spoke to the impact it had on his career. “It is impossible to overstate the importance of the seminar for my career,” he said. “ … the group of colleagues, the guidance to my thinking … the ‘scaffolding’ of needing to produce a major paper and the leisure to do a substantial amount of research and writing. It was a magical experience.”
Larsen described his approach to integrating faith and learning by explaining how a violin student can study their instrument in a Christian context: “They need to answer questions not just, for instance, about the technique of playing the violin, but how, as a Christian, to think about perfectionism, jealousy, time management, success, failure, the sacred, worship and much more.” He hopes the seminar will be a place to cultivate this way of thinking in faculty members, and that as a whole, Wheaton College professors would be “thinking together as Christians with their students about what it all means.”