International Forum on Christian Higher Education: Character and Curriculum


This was the thrid of Dr. Willard's three presentations at the Council of Christian Colleges and Universities' International Forum on Christian Higher Education. The overarching theme of all his presentations was "Realism About Christian Character Formation in the College Years," and the complete title of this session was "Character and Curriculum: The Impact of Classroom Content on Spiritual Formation."



A discussion of where we are today with respect to character formation in college, and how we got there. In particular, how responsibility for moral leadership and character formation moved from the faculty and "course content" to "student life." two primary motifs:

(1). In the secular schools, competence in every area of knowledge developed in such a way that it required no knowledge of God and no knowledge or practice of morality. As Julie Rueben convincingly portrays in The Making of The Modern University, the emergence of scientific research, as the highest aim of university life, redefined knowledge in a way that both religion and morality could not be knowledge. Without knowledge as a basis, how can a practice of character development be carried out?

(2). In the evangelical Christian schools, Christ as moral teacher was eliminated in the battle against liberalism, and any serious efforts at character transformation came to be thought of as "works," not grace. Genuine character transformation into Christlikeness was regarded as a curious option, likely to be realized only in cases of revivalistic experiences or deep personal experiences. Individuals were often held up as ideas. Serious programs of holiness, often governed by denominational traditions, usually existed as legalistic and morally oppressive systems of social control.


I am glad to have this opportunity to talk to you about what I would call the most important issue in Christian Education today. The people who invited me to talk gave me these words: “Theme: This session could be your opportunity to challenge CCCU campus leaders regarding the spiritual formation of faculty, students and staff — What does the Christian college or university campus need to be doing in order to develop Christ-like character in all those who work, live and learn within the academic community? How are we preparing students for meaningful lives of service, to be moral agents for change? What does the future hold for this work? What are the challenges we must face and overcome? What role do we have in relating our work to the mission and work of the church?”

Now obviously there are many more issues here than I can take on in this session, even if I knew what to say about them. So I shall take a few of those I regard as most central to the whole set of issues and try to do something with them. Many details of what I think must be said were covered into two previous sessions at this meeting (see below).

So what, according to me, is the most important issue Christian schools must deal with if they are to accomplish what they promise in the way of spiritual formation? It is, very simply, whether or not they know what they talk about. In other words, do Christians possess a unique body of communicable knowledge about reality and life, about what is the case and what is good and right?

Every teaching and teacher of humankind must deal with four great questions:


What is real, and what is not? What is the case?
Who is well off? Who “has it made” or has the good life?
Who is a really good person or lives a truly praiseworthy existence?
How does one become a really good person?










I am compelled to believe that Jesus Christ and his followers have answers to these questions that qualify as knowledge. But the question facing Christians in the educational context today is whether or not that is true. Do we have a communicable body of knowledge in answer to these questions? Or is “diversity” our only plea in the intellectual arena?

In the context of modern life—and especially in the academic setting, but far beyond—there is an additional question:

What is knowledge and what kinds of things can one know?

It is what has happened with this latter question over the last two centuries that has made the question I have posed above into the central one. I want to refer you to the discussion of the disappearance of moral knowledge from the university curriculum in Julie Reuben’s book, The Making of the Modern University. As an historian she helps us see how knowledge has been redefined, primarily within the universities, over the last century or so, in such a way that it rules not only theology, but also moral matters, out of the domain of knowledge. Consider the following:


If one leaves it for the secular mind to define what counts as knowledge, what would you expect to happen? Exactly what has happened!

What the Christian Institutions are up against is not a discovery of the irrelevance of God and morality to knowledge, nor of knowledge to them. It was a decision, one that for various reasons was allowed to solidify and take on the appearance truth. We are up against social force now, not logic or reason.

Is there a conception of knowledge that fits the cases and leaves it open, at least, for theology and morality, as well as Physics and Sociology and Aesthetics, etc., to be areas of knowledge?

Try this: We have knowledge of a given subject matter when we are able to represent it as it is on an appropriate basis of thought and experience.

This draws the distinction between what is known and what is not know in all areas of life. Common practice. Does not guarantee knowledge in any area. Does not automatically rule any area out. The traditional understanding of “science” as a logically organized and evidentially grounded body of thought. The standardly undertaken effort to make ethics a “science” up through G. E. Moore.

It is up to Christians to understand knowledge in such a way that it does justice to real life, and not just to the prejudices of an age in flight from God and from good.

If there is indeed no moral knowledge, then the claims of Christian colleges and universities about their contribution to moral development is humbug. Such a project can only be carried out on the basis of knowledge, just as in any other area of activity. What is the knowledge required? It is specified by the four major questions—now five—that we mentioned above.

The first question, What is reality?, always takes priority. This is the domain of all our fields in the humanities, social sciences and sciences. Christian intellectuals have the responsibility and opportunity of presenting their subject matter and doing their research in honest intellectual contiquity with the “Apostle’s Creed” or something like it:

“I believe in God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth: And in Jesus Christ his only Son our Lord: Who was conceived by the Holy Ghost, Born of the Virgin Mary: Suffered under Pontius Pilate, Was crucified, dead, and buried: The third day he rose again from the dead: He ascended into heaven, And sitteth on the right hand of God the Father Almighty: From thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead. I believe in the Holy Ghost: The holy Catholic Church: The Communion of Saints: The Forgiveness of sins: The Resurrection of the body: and the Life everlasting.”


Not to preach, nor do anything except with utter intellectual and scholarly honesty and thoroughness. We are talking of knowledge and of its discovery, certification and presentation.

Our students come to us basically professing a lot of stuff they do not believe or even, in many cases, know the meaning of. They have profound doubts about the nature and existence of God, the presence of God with them here and now, about the goodness of rightness, about their safety in doing what is good, about the sources of their religion and guidance. We cannot help them if we present them with the fields of learning as if they had nothing to do with God nor God with them. Their spiritual formation rests upon a vision of the reality of God and of the goodness of their life in God’s hands. That involves Chemistry and French Literature, etc. What do we have to say on such matters? How does our institution support us in efforts to have something significant to say about them? Is our treatment adequate without relating it to God?

Adequacy of our teaching and research to our subject matter? This must not be assessed simply by what our professional colleagues approve of or call “adequate.” Adequacy to human need? How judge that? Surely: Adequacy to the subject matter: covering its essential nature and relationship?

Richard Rorty: “Truth is what your colleagues allow you to get away with.” That’s the postmodern take, but clearly false. Reason is a weak though crucial human power. It is subject to social corruption. Reason has to be redeemed. (See my “Redemption of Reason.")

And what of the other questions? Do Christian Institutions have knowledge with regard to them? Very specifically, do we really understand the spiritual life in Christ and how one grows in it? Are we applying that knowledge in our institutional arrangements? Do we exemplify it before our students? Of course if we don’t they will do what we do, not what we say. What does “faculty development” as an institutional arrangement mean with reference to the spiritual life and spiritual life? Or does a Ph. D. mean your are done with your spiritual growing?

Our students also come to us struggling with bad habits of all kinds, and failures and wounds from their past. They are struggling with their physical appearance, fear of disapproval and rejection, uncertainly about their abilities, loneliness, dependencies of all kinds, and addictions (not just the disrespectable ones). Do we have knowledge that can be used to direct them in the to fullness of the Christ life as a simple course of existence, no hype? Can we answer the questions: Who is Blessed? Who is a really good person? And how does one become a really good person? And answer them with knowledge as above described? Do our campus arrangements, including our course work, lead by sensible steps into strong and confident participation in eternal life now and to a moral character that does not have to stop and think about whether we will do wrong?

We can do this. To not do it is a gross failure of intellect, among other things. It will have to be intellect and Spirit of the highest order. Nothing else can integrate faith and learning. No bluffing or pooh-poohing. It will have to be institutional, creating an alternative social wave in the intellectual/professional world. And it can only rest on confidence in the greatness of Jesus Christ. The answer to the question is an emphatic “Yes!”


More from the International Forum on Christian Higher Education

Session One:
Measuring Matters of the Heart: Spiritual Formation in the Age of Accountability

Session Two:
Graduating “Good” People - How Do We Facilitate Character Formation and Teach Morality in Today’s Christian College?

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