Prayers for Overwhelmed Students (from my students)

Student-led prayer is an essential part of the daily repertoire of my theology courses. The prayers are composed in the form of collects, an ancient form still regularly practiced in many churches. For each class one student composes a collect according to the theological content of the day. Following the collect form, the prayer springs out from the day’s content into a fitting address to God that leads to petition. As the preface to our study, it sets our feet on the cadence of lex orandi, lex credendi. The idea for this practice originated years ago with something Ben Myers wrote on the purpose of theological education: “not simply to make students cleverer, but to help them learn better ways to speak to God in prayer, and to one another in witness…In this way, scholarly discipline becomes a form of discipleship; theology becomes an exercise in prayer.

I can hardly emphasize this more: the daily collect prayers my students write time and again amaze and humble me, both in their theological richness and in their sensitivity to the lived moment of the day in which they are spoken.

The following two were recently offered In the midst of semester-end busyness. I reproduce them here for the sake of  students elsewhere who are experiencing the same (the doctrinal topic for the day is in italics).

Image[eschatological hope] Hebrews 10:24-25 – “And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, 25 not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching.” Everlasting God, sovereign creator from the very first day till the very last, as we all look forward to the near horizon of the end of this semester – the day – let us remember not to neglect to meet with one another these last few days, but to hold together both our sadness at departing and our joy of the future, let us hold all of these emotions in the hope of you. In the same way, let us all look to the far horizon – the Day – and let us not neglect to hope for all that you will do for us in the future. You are our hope. Do not be ashamed to be called our God” (W. Stauffer).

[theological interpretation of film] “When we come to the place of exhaustion, where we question the purpose of hard work, and the fruits of our labours, I pray we look to you for our reward. I ask that you help us to persevere not in the hopes of greater recognition, but in the hopes that we are no longer able to depend upon ourselves so that we learn dependency on you, and so that we are humbled by what we accomplished knowing it was all through you and not in ourselves. Let us rejoice in this recognition of your grace and guidance. God be glorified in all things, in our weakness and in our strength. We delight ourselves in you who is our awesome maker and our true source of life” (O. Watkins).

Here is a short reflection from another student on what she sees happening in the process of composing the collect:

What took place was a giving back to God what I thought I had accomplished on my own. I had done the reading. I had answered the questions. I did the learning. But it is God who teaches. He enables me to learn. By praying my learning to him, I praise and acknowledge him for it. Grace encounters even my pride in my studies and begs me to be transformed; to acknowledge and worship God for everything in my life, including my studies (H. Lutton).

 

Lent for Academic Theologians

What are the dangers of academic theology for the theologian? This is something I often think about, so I was keenly interested when I stumbled upon this Lenten meditation from a theologian at Notre Dame. The entire post is worth reading here, but this bit in particular stood out to me.

Lent for the academic theologian is thus not simply an occasion to participate Doctor of Divinitya bit in the practices of the Church. Rather, it is an time for us to realize the fullness of our vocation as those who seek to perceive the world according to the logic of divine love revealed in Christ. It is a moment in the liturgical year in which we are invited to give up our desire to control discourse at all costs, to succeed through fame. Instead, we must learn that the theologian is one who prays, who has undertaken that ascetic practice that enables him or her to perceive the world as a divine gift. The formation of the theologian is not complete with the reception of a degree. Instead, it commences until we begin to mirror that divine love which we study.

Let me add a few thoughts.  It seems to me that one of the principal dangers for the academic theologian is their  vocational self-understanding (by “academic” I mean a theologian, like myself, whose work is formally and primarily, though not exclusively, carried out in the university). What frames the meaning and fitting practices of their vocation? Continue reading

Call for Papers: Virtues, Vices, and Teaching (October 2013)

Kuyers Institute Logo

I am co-chairing a conference in October 2013 that will be hosted by the the Kuyers Institute for Christian teaching and Learning (www.pedagogy.net) on Virtues, Vices, and Teaching. The conference will be held at Calvin College (Grand Rapids, MI), October 3-5. See below for registration information and details for the call for papers.

The purpose of this conference is to explore the implications of a focus on virtues and vices for the way Christian teaching and learning are approached. Discussions of virtues and vices direct our attention away from rules and consequences and toward the role of character.

The scope of the conference is not restricted to moral education per se; papers are invited on topics that connect virtue/vice in general or specific virtues and vices with learning in any discipline or area of educational activity. Papers should focus on some aspect of pedagogy; both theoretical studies and accounts of practice are welcome. Questions that might be explored include, but are not restricted to, the following:

  • What virtues and vices are evident in, or influence, our teaching and students’ learning?
  • Can we teach virtues? Do we teach vices?
  • How might a focus on virtues and vices help students in their vocation as Christian learners?
  • How might a focus on virtues and vices affect our approach to curriculum and pedagogy?
  • In what ways might the question of virtues and vices arise within the pedagogy of various disciplines?

Plenary Speakers include:

Jennifer Herdt (Yale), author of Putting On Virtue: The Legacy of the Splendid Vices

L. Gregory Jones (Duke), author of Forgiving As We’ve Been Forgiven: Community Practices for Making Peace

David Naugle (Dallas Baptist), author of Reordered Love, Reordered Lives:Learning the Deep Meaning of Happiness

Paper proposals of 1-2 pages, including 100-word abstracts‚ should be sent via e-mail to seminars@calvin.edu no later than May 15, 2013.  Notification of acceptance will be made by June 3, 2013.  Additional information is available under the Conferences section at www.calvin.edu/scs/.

Questioning Theological Education

To start this post, let me begin with several qualifications: First, I think that theological education has some serious meditation to do concerning its task. Second, I think the overall model / approach upon which we’ve built is flawed. Third, I am excited about virtually anything that seeks to think creatively about this. In comes Mike Breen. Mike Breen, who I know little about but have heard good things, posted this back in November. It is a wholesale engagement with the kinds of worries I have. In light of that, let me again state some qualifications: First, I know nothing about this other than this post. Second, if I saw this right when I graduated seminary I probably would have called him up and said, “Sign me up and tell me what to do.” Third, I have some doubts about some of the statistics in the video, but for the purpose of this discussion lets assume they are true.

Now, qualifications aside, I was left frustrated by this post. But why? Why would I be frustrated by someone who is, for all practical purposes, hitting all of my sweet-spots? I actually found myself asking this exact question at times. Let me try and point to some issues I think are inherent to this project (keeping in mind how limited my knowledge of it is). Continue reading

Living in God’s Two Kingdoms

David VanDrunen’s Living in God’s Two Kingdoms: A Biblical Vision for Christianity and Culture (Crossway, 2010) represents his latest in a string of works on this issue, including Natural Law and the Two Kingdoms: A Study in the Development of Reformed Social Thought (Eerdmans, 2010) and Bioethics and the Christian Life: A Guide to Making Difficult Decisions (Crossway, 2009).  In this volume he ventures an exposition of the two-kingdoms doctrine that aims to clarify its biblical and theological roots and to unfold some of its practical implications in relation to knotty issues like mission, education, and politics.

In the introduction VanDrunen recognizes the helpful emphases of much of the recent literature on the Christianity-and-culture question: God as the Creator and Ruler of all things (including material things), the universality of human accountability to God, the viability of Christians’ involvement in cultural pursuits, the wide-ranging effects of sin, and the hope of resurrection and new creation.  However, he also registers his hesitation about talk of ‘redeeming’ or ‘transforming’ culture in a gradual process that will, with little discontinuity, culminate in the establishment of the new creation wherein ‘our cultural products will adorn the eternal city’ (p. 13).  VanDrunen then states his intention to propound the two-kingdoms alternative, in which ‘God is not redeeming the cultural activities and institutions of this world, but is preserving them through the covenant he made with all creatures through Noah in Genesis 8:20-9:17’ (p. 15).  To illumine the features of the two-kingdoms approach, VanDrunen outlines the transformational approach as instantiated in the concerns of neo-Calvinism, N. T. Wright, and Brian McLaren.  From here, he pledges to develop a two-kingdoms doctrine that respects the goodness of creation but resists ‘dualism-phobia’ and instead makes the distinction between a redemptive kingdom and a common kingdom (p. 26).  Before commencing with the body of the book, he also clarifies that he’s not using the term ‘culture’ in a technical manner:

culture refers to all the various human activities and their products, as well as the way in which we interpret them and the language we use to describe them….The popular expression, ‘Christianity and culture’, which appears in the subtitle of this book, simply refers to the variety of questions that emerge when we consider how Christians and the church are to relate to these broad activities of human culture and how Christian faith affects our interpretation of them (p. 32).

Continue reading

Theology as Apprenticeship

In his memoir, Hannah’s Child, Duke theologian Stanley Hauerwas reflects on the relationship between the crafts of brick laying and theologian (the initial quotation is from Seamus Murphy’s memoir Stone Mad).

‘With hammer mallet and chisel we have shaped and fashioned rough boulders. We often curse our material, and often we speak to it kindly – we have come to terms with it in order to master it, and in has a way of dictating to us sometimes – and then the struggle begins. We try to impose ourselves on it, but we know our material and respect it. We will often take a suggestion from it, and our work will be the better for it.’ In like manner, I think of theology as a craft requiring years of training. Like stonecutters and bricklayers, theologians must come to terms with the material upon which they work. In particular, they must learn to respect the simple complexity of the language of the faith, so that they might reflect that radical character of orthodoxy. . . . Karl Barth’s work represented for me an uncompromising demand to submit to a master bricklayer, with the hope that in the process one might learn some of the ‘tricks of the trade’ (p. 37)

I resonate with Hauerwas’s description (see here), and it makes an apt metaphor for the professor.   I step into the classroom as a theologian and stand among young men and women who are themselves theologians (whether they know it or not). That they hone the craft of speaking to and about God under my watch and under my care is profoundly humbling. How I interact with the Christian Scriptures, which “masters” I direct them to look with me, and how my life takes shape under the Cross all has a part in their apprenticeship.

Perhaps more humbling is the apprenticeship of my children. Their theological instincts are  shaped through our everyday life together: our prayers, walks, my discipline or lack thereof, my tender or hurried embraces, the way I hold my wife, the look in my eye when they disappoint me. Whether I like it or not—whether I seize the opportunities or not—each are “showings” of life with God, living speech of an ongoing conversation. That is humbling.

Choosing a Theology Textbook: Primer on Biblical Methods

Most Christian universities or colleges have introductory courses on the Bible, and this is true for a great many secular institutions as well. In giving students an “introduction” to the Bible these courses take any number of different angles or approaches. Some focus on the historical settings in which the Bible was written, its diversity of literature (genres), the history of its oral transmission, production and canonization, etc. Another approach might be to concentrate less on theories about the Bible and direct students toward the Bible itself, its central themes, story line, etc. Or various combinations of the two.

All this presents the daunting challenge of choosing the proper textbooks. I leave questions about the best angle up to you, but I will highlight a text that could efficiently introduce students to the many methods of biblical study. Even with the most eager students, nothing sucks the life from a room like the words “redaction criticism”, “form criticism”, “ideological criticism”, and “materialist readings.”  On these topics many of the textbooks I have reviewed frustratingly seem more geared toward graduate students than first year undergraduates. So I was pleased to see Corine Carvalho’s new Primer on Biblical Methods. Continue reading

Theological Educator As…(Ruminations of a Novice. Pt. 3)

I came across this quote by C.S. Lewis some time ago and have been mulling over what it might mean for an educator to take this to heart.  Certainly Lewis’ point applies to teachers of any sort, but what would it mean specifically for a theological educator?

It often happens that two schoolboys can solve difficulties in their work for one another better than a master can. When you took the problem to a master, as we all remember, he was very likely to explain what you understood already, to add a great deal of information which you didn’t want, and say nothing at all about the thing that was puzzling you. I have watched this from both sides of the net; for when, as a teacher myself, I have tried to answer questions brought to me by my pupils, I have sometimes, after a minute, seen that expression settle down on their faces which assured me that they were suffering exactly the same frustration which I had suffered from my own teachers. The fellow-pupil can help more than the master because he knows less. The difficulty we want to explain is one he has recently met. The expert met it so long ago that he has forgotten. He sees the whole subject, by now, in such a different light that he cannot conceive what is really troubling the pupil; he sees a dozen other difficulties which ought to be troubling him but aren’t (Reflections on the Psalms [Harcourt, Brace & World: New York, 1958], 1-2).

At the very least, Lewis reminds us that good educators model honest inquiry. Fear must not dissuade us from asking tough, uncomfortable questions. This applies not only in preparation for courses, but in the presence of students as well. Nothing is more corrosive to cultivating a love of learning than giving the impression that you have it all figured out—you don’t, and you know it.

But there is more going on here. Lewis pulls out into the open—without naming it—an elusive skill of good educators. It is hard to put your finger on it, but you know it when you see it or when you experience it in the classroom. I don’t know what else to call it but empathy. Good educators empathize with their students’ struggle to learn; they enter into their labor with them, and in doing so they come to understand the students’ questions from their perspective. They come to feel again the tension of it, and are then able to address it.

For the theological educator I think this boils down to loving students. To empathize with them is to enter into the struggle of their unknowing;  I struggle out of my supposed knowing and enter into their place. I suffer the cost of pushing back into those questions that are long-settled in my mind, and this is costly. I would go so far as saying that for the theological educator, empathizing with students is a form of embodying the love of Christ. In me, I hope they see something of Christ’s willingness to suffer the cost of entering into our place as finite, human, unknowing, creatures.

Said differently: for a Christian, theological educator the doctrine of Christ should have a pedagogical function, shaping one’s philosophy of education at a more fundamental, basic level than general theories about teaching, learning, and higher education.

“Theologians, write for the church not just the guild

The second day of the conference I attended in Wheaton featured several excellent papers, not the least of which was Scot McKnight’s. I could comment on any number of his points (and I very well might next week), but for now allow me a few remarks on his thoughts regarding the publishing habits of Christian academics and his call for theologians to write for the church and not just for the academic guild.

Most of you write things no one but specialists can understand. Most of the people in your church, and probably more than most, aren’t reading the sorts of things professors write these days. Some professors think they are writing popular theology because they don’t overload their books with footnotes. Instead, they’ve only got about 100 footnotes in a 200 page book. That’s not popular theology. [...]

The need here is so great that one is tempted to call a moratorium on evangelical theologians writing for the guild, or at least reducing their guild writing and require each theologian, each biblical expert and each church historian to write one book for the church – for ordinary lay people with enough snap to it to make it genuinely readable, pleasurable and inspiring – before they can write academic pieces. [...]

Now let me do some fingerpointing: Continue reading

Theological Educator As…(Ruminations of a Novice, Pt. 2)

One of the roles of a theological educator is to model “theological discernment”: how one goes about theological reasoning with faith, hope, love, and not a little bit of joy.

Ellen Charry describes theology as above all “a discipline of discernment.” Whether one begins by examining the Biblical text,

the doctrinal tradition, a personal encounter with God, a sobering personal experience, or the culture in which one is located theology is thinking through and beyond these points of entry until deeper realization of God’s truth emerge (Inquiring After God, 53).

Charry’s observation that theology is “a discipline of discernment” strikes me as altogether right. Theology, not as a body of knowledge but as a task or craft, necessarily involves the practitioner in a weighing and sifting that is certainly as much art as science: whether they are an everyday Christian confronted by a perplexing cultural text, a pastor preaching on a difficult topic, or one of us strange beings who make our home in the University or seminary and for whom theology very often takes place in preparation for classes or in the presence of students.

Learning theological discernment is certainly more easily “caught” than taught, but some intentional pedagogical strategies can invite students actively into the process. For example, I have my students in systematic theology wrestle throughout the course with Rowan Williams’ thoughts on theological method from the prologue to On Christian Theology. Continue reading

Rowan Williams on the “accessibility” of the church

Rowan_Williams_1110959cThrough various blog links I stumbled upon an interesting interview with Rowan Williams. If you spend any time on TF you know I am an avid  – though novice – reader of the Archbishop. I wouldn’t call it a scholarly investment; I simply find him provoking and refreshing in equal measure. Williams helps get me excited about theology and the church again when I start losing hope in either (his sermons particularly).

The interview touches on the “accessibility” – or relevance – of the church in our contemporary setting. While there is certainly food for discussion on that topic, his comments are illuminating about the “downward spiral” of having low expectations of young people. I see this in the classroom almost every week: so little has been expected of my students in the past that I fear many of them expect little of themselves.

Ian Hislop: How do you balance that attempt to be of the age, to be accessible, and yet not be banal.

Archbishop of Canterbury: The point is often being confident enough about what you are inviting people into, which is not simply an entertainment but a journey and process of change. Continue reading

Simone Weil & Theology’s Invitation

I have not historically found myself at home in the writings of Christian mystics, so I don’t spend a great deal of time in them. However, I find Simone Weil’s description below quite beautiful – and very near the mark for how we might think about the theologian’s practice of “pushing all those who come near into the opening”:

The beauty of the world is the mouth of a labyrinth. The unwary individual who on entering takes a few Simon Weilsteps is soon unable to find the opening. Worn out, with nothing to eat or drink, in the dark, separated from his dear ones, and from everything he loves and is accustomed to, he walks on without knowing anything or hoping anything, incapable even of discovering whether he is really going forward or merly turning round on the same spot. But this affliction is as nothing compared with the danger threatening him. For if he does not lose courage, if he goes on walking, it is absolutely certain that he will finally arrive at the center of the labyrinth. And there God is waiting to eat him. Later he will go out again, but he will be changed, he will have become different, after being eaten and digested by God. Afterward he will stay near the entrance so that he can gently push all those who come near into the opening” (“Forms of the implicit love of God,” in Waiting for God [1951; 2001], p. 103)

We might even view a Christian liberal arts education along the lines of Weil’s thinking here:  Continue reading

Is the spiritual formation movement in theological education wrongheaded?

This question is one of many raised by Edward Farley’s Theologia: The Fragmentation and Unity of Theological Education (one I wish I would have read years ago!). Let me give you Farley’s assertion, then the FarleyEdwardargument that informs it:

[T]heological education has assumed that its unity and subject matter had no relation to the sapiential knowledge which accompanies faith’s concrete existence (piety). The flurry of activity going on these days about ‘formation’ and ‘spirituality’ is no doubt some sort of attempt at the restoration of piety [in theological education] … Because the aim has been to spiritualize the theological school’s life and ethos but not its course of studies, the formation movement perpetuates the inherited separation of piety and intellect. Presupposed here is that spirituality pertains to a realm other than the subject matter and end of studies … Furthermore, formation and spirituality seem to be viewed as to have little to do with faith’s sapiential knowledge (theologia). This may be why it has been so easy to talk about and urge a formation which lacks spirituality’s very essence, namely, discipline. This lack of a cognitive element and the discipline necessary to it may be the reason formation in the present-day sense exports intellect from piety (pp. 160-61).

How does this strike you?

Lying  behind Farley’s statement is a rather detailed historical tracking of theological education’s circuitous route from the patristic age to the present. The result: Continue reading

“Practical” Theology?

I have been talking with one of my new colleagues at Huntington about the nature and tasks of “Practical Theology” and its relationship with other theological subdisciplines (systematic, biblical, historical, etc.). Steeple_croppedShe teaches in the department of Ministry and Missions and wonders if the theological work she does there is best characterized as “practical theology”. In some sense it boils down to how you define practical theology, and that in turn has implications for how you understand the roles of other modes of theological reasoning.

For sake of clarifying the issue, consider the following definitions and weigh in: Which do you find more satisfactory? And, does either map the relationship between practical and “systematic” theology in a compelling way?

As a theological discipline [Practical Theology's] primary purpose is to ensure that the church’s public proclamations and praxis in the world faithfully reflect the nature and purpose of God’s continuing mission to the world and in so doing authentically address the contemporary context into which the church seeks to minister … [Practice theology] extends systematic theology into the life and praxis of the the Christian community (Ray Anderson, The Shape of Practical Theology, pp. 22-3).

[Practical theology] begins and ends with inquiries focused on practices. The ground for this focus is an understanding of faith as a lived entity. Our task is to think through faith and “belief” in terms of their embodiment in life. Thus the primary reference of our theologizing is the lived life in all its contemporary forms. This contrasts with biblical studies’ focus on texts, systematics focus on doctrines, church history’s focus on the history of the community of faith, but relies on these forms of inquiry in understanding what it means for faith to be lived (Brock and Swinton, The Aberdeen School of Practical Theology).

Another part of my interest in defining practical theology is my concern that systematic theology not be understood as a practice sequestered from the lived existence of the church Continue reading