Letters to a Church Father

I tried something in class yesterday with wonderful results. In an upper level theology letter writingcourse we came to the end of several days grappling with writings from a handful of early church figures on the topic of Christology: Irenaeus, Arius, Athanasius, Apollinarius, Gregory of Nazianzus,  Gregory of Nyssa, and Cyril of Jerusalem. We had walked through these readings together, and along the way I  sprinkled our conversations with background information, pointed out doctrinal connections they might not have seen, and drew their attention to particularly salient points.

Yesterday, as we pulled the threads together, I asked my students to write a letter. “Chose one of these ancient figures and reach back across the centuries” I told them. “They, like us, sought to contend for the Gospel – can you express to them how their Christology benefits you today? And they, like us, did so imperfectly – even if you disagree with their Christology, could you receive them as a legitimate conversation partner?”

Their letters were immensely encouraging and showed theological maturation on many different levels. The points of agreement and disagreement between the ancient figures did not go unnoticed, and many were able – without being asked in the assignment – to articulate the rationale which motivated the arguments. They drew wisely upon relevant biblical material, were sensitive to their place within the tradition of faith, and showed surprising maturity related to the pastoral issues connected to the doctrinal debates. These are all good and show the development of the technical skills required for theologians, but, frankly, more encouraging to me was the tone of the letters.

“Bravo!” I said to them today, “My young theologians, you sought to genuinely hear from these figures, to enter into dialogue with them, and not merely stand over them.” For instance, many more than I expected wrote to Apollinarius, Continue reading

Adam: God’s Beloved

The topic of senior seminar in the Bible and Religion department this spring has been disability theology. Together we engage relevant biblical material and consider important contemporary figures. The seminar is entirely student-led which is a real treat, and not just because I don’t carry the same preparation load. It is a unique opportunity for me to explicitly take the position of learner alongside my students and colleagues in the department. What I find shouldn’t surprise me: they consistently have something to teach me.

Our biblical texts this week were from Luke (Jesus’ sending of the 72) and the reading was Nouwen’s Adam: God’s Beloved. The book is an extended reflection on a man Nouwen knew from his time at the L’Arche Daybreak Community. As the book jacket describes, “In the eyes of the world [Adam] was a complete nobody. And yet, for Henri Nouwen he became ‘my friend, my teacher, and my guide.’ It was Adam who led Nouwen to a new understanding of his Christian faith and what it means to be Beloved of God.”

The student who led us through the material works in group homes for the mentally disabled, so his engagement with the reading was intensely personal. I found my reading of the text no less personal but for different reasons. The acceptance of God and his unconditional love which Nouwen learned from Adam resonates deeply with my own struggles as a scholar. Vocational expectations and career comparison so quickly threaten to overwhelm my sense of self. As Nouwen says, “While I was preoccupied with the way I was talked about or written about, Adam was quietly telling me that “God’s love is more important than the praise of people.” A timely reminder.

Could Adam pray? Did he know who God is and what the Name of Jesus means? Did he Adam.God's Belovedunderstand the mystery of God among us? For a long time I thought about these questions. For a long time I was curious about how much of what I knew, Adam could know, and how much of what I understood, Adam could understand. But now I see these were for me questions from “below,” questions that reflected more about my anxiety and uncertainty than God’s love. God’s questions, the questions from “above” were, “Can you let Adam lead you in prayer? Can you believe that I am in deep communion with Adam and that his life is a prayer? Can you let Adam be a living prayer at your table? Can you see my face in the face of Adam?”

And while I, a so-called “normal” person, kept wondering how much Adam was life me, he had no ability or need to make any comparisons. He simply lived and by his life invited me to receive his unique gift, wrapped in weakness but given for my transformation. While I tended to worry about what I did and how much I could produce, Adam was announcing to me that “being is more important than doing.” While I was preoccupied with the way I was talked about or written about, Adam was quietly telling me that “God’s love is more important than the praise of people.” While I was concerned about my individual accomplishments, Adam was reminding me that “doing things together is more important than doing things alone.” Adam couldn’t produce anything, had no fame to be proud of, couldn’t brag of any award or trophy. But by his very life, he was the most radical witness to the truth of our lives that I have ever encountered” (Adam: God’s Beloved, p. 55-56).

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/.

Evil in the Classroom

A colleague and I just published an essay at The Other Journal which uses the seven capital vices as a template to explore the impulses which lay at the heart of academic plagiarism. Here is an excerpt, and you can read the rest of the essay here.

Of all the evils we could talk about, why focus on plagiarism? Someone might say that plagiarism is like a gateway drug because it leads to more addictive and destructive actions—“Don’t plagiarize because you might eventually find yourself addicted to pornography, fudging on your taxes, cheating on your wife, et cetera,” they might claim. This is not our argument. Instead, we suggest that plagiarism is not so much a gateway drug as a window for the professor and student to access the various beliefs, desires, and loves that give rise to plagiarism. Plagiarism is merely a symptom of a disordered heart; the patterns of desiring wrongly which gave rise to plagiarism are the real issue. If we focus only on the symptom–plagiarism–the student misses the opportunity for becoming attentive to the power of those desires to surface in non-academic matters: relationships, finances, sexuality, civic participation, et cetera. It is not that this “small” sin leads to “greater” sins (as the gateway drug theory might suggest) but that plagiarism hints at the destructive potential of a disordered heart.

Plagiarism thus provides a unique opportunity for professors to speak into the lives of students. We engage our students in one of the many roles they occupy: sons and daughters, sisters and brothers, friends, employees, boyfriends and girlfriends. We encounter them as students, so our relationship with them is unique and thereby offers unique windows into their lives and hearts. Every role in our students’ lives presents them with daily opportunities to act well or poorly, virtuously or viciously. Being a student is no exception. The issue of plagiarism, although not the most heinous crime a person can commit, is a wrong that is tailor-made for students. As Christian professors, we have a crucial part to play in assisting them to virtuously fulfill their role as students, to flourish. Such flourishing, we suggest, begins with a rightly ordered heart.

Any thoughts or reactions? How else do you think a disordered heart would lead to sin specifically related to a student’s vocation?

Lament and Celebration as Fitting Practices of Christian Pedagogy

I was invited to offer the meditation one morning last week at the CCCU New Faculty Institute. I took 1 John 1:1-4 as our text, and after briefly reflecting on it I developed my remarks toward the following question, “What does the Incarnation have to do with teaching and learning that is distinctly Christian?” What I am posting here (for brevity) is the final third of my remarks without the  discussion of 1 John and other New Testament texts that set up the theological vantage point of the Incarnation

“What does the incarnation have to do with teaching and learning that is distinctly Christian?” If John so closely links the physical reality of Jesus’ bodily existence to the shape of the Christian life, then we might extend the question to the arena of Christian teaching and learning. I don’t mean teaching and learning that might take up Christian topics or that which aims toward salvation – surely these would have much to do with the incarnation. Rather, I am interesting in teaching and learning, regardless of its subject or field of study, that seeks to conform itself to the logic of the incarnation. At the center of the Christian witness we proclaim that God took on human flesh–not the illusion of human flesh–in order to redeem human existence.  How is distinctly Christian teaching and learning informed and directed by this reality that we confess is the beginning of God’s restoration of the world?

Let me suggest one way that I believe the incarnation can inform our vocation as Christian educators. In order to redeem creation, God sent his Son, born of a woman in order that he might restore and heal everything that makes us human. I suspect that this should aim our educational practices, regardless of the subject, toward the whole person– intellect, heart, body. Said differently: the doctrine of the incarnation directs Christian teaching and learning to be concerned with the flourishing of the whole person. I am sure many of us have thought about this before, but perhaps not from this vantage point

If God cared so much for his good creation that he would take it on in order to redeem it, we too should be concerned with the whole person in all of its complexity and beauty.

FITTING PRACTICES OF CHRISTIAN PEDAGOGY

The incarnation might take us one step further and spur us to think about practices that are appropriate for a pedagogy which is self-consciously informed by the incarnation. Let me offer two: Continue reading

Simone Weil on Study & Prayer (more thoughts on theological education and “attention”)

I posted recently on theological education and explored the importance of attending to the thoughts of others. I am continuing that line of thought here, and I want to look at an essay by Simone Weil (“Reflections on the Right Use of School Studies with a View to the Love of God” in Waiting for God (pp. 57-66).

Weil suggests that giving our attention to academic studies forms and cultivates our capacities for loving God. Whether it be geometry or Latin, training my attention upon the subject develops my capacity for attending to God in prayer. This makes sense because, for Weil, prayer consists of attention: “the orientation of all the attention of which the soul is capable toward God.”

In other words, attention is like a necessary muscle for prayer, and academic  studies train that muscle through requiring me to give my attention to various tasks. So, the value of academic study related to prayer is simply that it cultivates my capacity to give attention to God.

This adds a spiritual dimension to our discussion about the place of careful, patient, and deliberate attention to the thoughts of others in the process of theological education. For Weil, a Christian view of studies will define the  ultimate purpose of study as training in the love of God, and it will therefore understand activities that require attention as opportunities to develop the capacities necessary for that end.

For example, what might working hard on a geometry problem have to do with prayer? Weil explains, Continue reading

Theological Education and Attention

I opened one of my favorite academic journals recently and was intrigued to see an editorial by Stephen Holmes on theological education. He observes that students in theological studies (especially postgraduate) are often directed to spend the majority of their efforts attending to the ideas of others. In doing so they defer the work of actually speaking well about God themselves.

Holmes wonders if this should be lamented. Could educational practices focused on careful, lengthy attention to the ideas of others actually work against the ends and purposes of our discipline? Maybe we should just get down to the business of constructive theology more quickly. Holmes describes the situation this way:

Faced with a potential research student, passionate about understanding divine providence, we advise her to study the doctrine of providence in Barth or Calvin or Thomas Aquinas; when we set ourselves to write on God’s final intentions for the saints, we fill chapters with careful expositions of Gregory Palamas on deification. We trace the ideas of others in their particular context, and defer the task of making a theological proposal of our own.[...]

If the heart of our discipline lies somewhere between this disputed territory between speaking well about God and living well before God, our seemingly endless reflections on other writers demand defense; are we in fact evading our proper calling, practicing our discipline inadequately (or even refusing to practice it)?

It is a fair question, and my postgraduate studies followed a similar pattern. In fact, when I supervise independent studies with our best undergraduate students I shape the project along the same lines Holmes describes: we select an important figure, read him or her carefully and together, trace the lines of their thought, then communicate the findings orally and in writing. Could I be unintentionally trapping these budding theologians in an endless circle of attending to others when they should be giving their own account of the living God?

Before I share Holmes’ answer, how do you see it? For those of us who care about theological education, should we lament the fact that we often focus heavily on attending to the work of others? Should we just get down to the business of speaking well about God?

Continue reading

What is a theology exam for, anyway?

In the midst of semester-end examinations I look for inspiration wherever possible (perhaps you find yourself in the same academic malaise). Here Barth gives a lovely account of the value and purpose of theological exams. I close my two semester, undergraduate theology cycle with oral exams for reasons similar to this:

When properly understood, an examination is a friendly conversation of older students of theology with younger ones, concerning certain themes in which they share a common interest. The purpose of this conversation is to give younger participants an opportunity to exhibit whether and to what extent they appear to give promise of doing so in the future. The real value of a doctorate, even when earned with the greatest distinction, is totally dependent on the degree to which its recipient has conducted and maintained himself as a learner. Its worth depends, as well, entirely on the extent to which he further conducts and maintains himself as such. Only by his qualification as a learner can he show himself qualified to become a teacher. Whoever studies theology does so because to study it is (quite apart from any personal aims of the student) necessary, good, and beautiful in relationship to the service to which he has been called. Theology must possess him so completely that he can be concerned with it only in the manner of a studiosus (Evangelical Theology, 172).

Following Barth’s Thought: 4 Handles

My last post on reading Barth received so much traffic that I thought I would post another section from the little “primer” I put together for students in senior seminar. These four are meant to give readers of Barth useful  “handles” on his thought, like tips for catching the musical tendencies of a great composer:

1.  Music – The flow of Barth’s theology is often likened to music, “the announcement of a theme, and its further extension in a long series of developments and recapitulations, through which the reader is invited to consider the theme from a number of different angles and in a number of different relations. No one stage of the argument is definitive; rather, it is the whole which conveys the substance of what he has to say” (J. Webster, Barth, 13).

George Hunsinger expands on the point: “What first appears like repetition turns out on closer inspection to function rather like repetition in sonata form. It is [Barth’s] method of alluding to themes previously developed while constantly enriching the score with new ideas. . . . The more one reads Barth, the more one senses that his use of repetition is never pointless. Rather, it serves as a principle of organization and development within an ever forward spiraling theological whole” (G. Hunsinger, How to Read Karl Barth, 28).

The first section of CD IV.1 (pp. 1-19) is a great example. Barth begins by describing the center of the Christian gospel as “God with us” (pp. 1-4), then builds, expands, develops this throughout the next 19 pages. It culminates on p. 14 with Barth’s assertion that “God with us” concretely means “Jesus Christ.”

2.  Orbit – It has been my sense that, similar to the musical metaphor, following Barth’s thought is often like tracking something that orbits around a center. Whatever the “center” might be for Barth at the moment of reading, his thought will orbit that center. The result, for the reader, is that the center can be viewed from a great many different angles or perspectives, but they must always be attentive and aware of the center around which the orbit is set.

3.  DialecticContinue reading

Reading Karl Barth: Hallmarks

I am leading a seminar this semester on Karl Barth, and we are reading the first part volume of Barth’s Doctrine of Reconciliation (CD IV.1).  Reading Barth can be a disorienting experience at first, so I put together a little  “primer” for my students. I thought back to what I found helpful when first encountering Barth, and I remembered Busch’s introduction The Great Passion. This is a fantastic read on many levels, but it was his manner of describing Barth’s theology in terms of characteristics or hallmarks that served me well at the beginning. Much like Hunsinger’s approach in How to Read Karl Barth (although the formats differ),  Busch gives the reader a sense for how Barth’s theology operates, its flavor and feeling, and how one might orient themselves within it.

So I went back over several years of reading journals and cobbled together a series of my own “hallmarks” of Barth’s theology, many of which I am sure you will find said differently in other introductions:

  • Theology points always toward God and not humanity, an idea, or program (I can’t help but think of Grünewald’s painting, “Crucifixion” (right) which hung next to Barth’s desk).
  • Theology, in light of the greatness of God, is best characterized as human “sighing” and “stammering” —regardless of its sophistication, expansiveness, or insight: “Now we have only a dim perception of him, the living God. There can be no talk of knowing him, of ‘having’ him. What awkward sighing and stammering there is, when we try to say something about him” (Insights, 17; Barth describes prayer the same, CD III.4, 89).
  • Theology is carried out before God; God stands before the theologian and makes possible the theologian’s work.
  • Theology enters into God’s self-mediation to us; it is not humanity’s attempt to mediate God to us; theology is, then, a response not an initiative.
  • Theology’s task is the same as preaching’ task: it stands in the service of God’s ongoing work to sanctify (judging and comforting) the church. Continue reading

Plagiarism & the Seven Deadly Sins

I have been thinking about the relationship between plagiarism and the Seven Deadly Sins. Mainly, I am trying to generate distincly theological ways of speaking about plagiarism, and this was a first crack at it. Let me know your reactions.

Pride - Plagiarism is driven by the refusal of limitation. A student comes up against their own intellectual limits, the time allotted in a busy semester, etc., and, unwilling to accept limitation, compensates by deception.

Acts of plagiarism are little Towers of Babel, constructed and standing coram Deo as refusals of limitation. A healthy doctrine of creation reminds us that limitation is not evil but part and parcel of being made and not maker. In this sense, pride is the refusal to be what I am: created, finite and therefore limited.

There is honor in being God’s creature of course, but what honor we have is the honor given to us by God.  In plagiarizing we refuse God’s honor, and in pride we steal honor for ourselves.  Barth puts it this way: “The modesty about which man is sharply asked whether in his little steps or great, consists in a recognition of the fact that his honour is before God and comes from Him” (CD, III.4, p. 666).

Envy - Plagiarism is fed by desires for the possessions of another, namely the skills, abilities, or understanding that enables someone else to produce work I cannot. As Aquinas describes, “We grieve over a man’s good, in so far as his good surpasses ours; this is envy properly speaking, and is always sinful” (ST, II.2, 158,1). Envying the work of another, the plagiarizer takes the words and creations of another and (in varying degrees) passes it off as their own.

Sloth -  David Naugle describes sloth as

a distinctively spiritual or religious sin that demotes God’s role in our lives and replaces him enthusiastically with other things. It is a sin of spiritual lethargy and dejection. When we are in the throes of spiritual lethargy, God bores us or seems insignificant, whereas other loves capture our interest and attention, excite and energize us. . . . Slothful people forget church, avoid Scripture, refuse repentance, rarely pray, reject fellowship, don’t witness, shun service, deride duty, rebuff suffering, scorn theology, evade thought or meditation, and in general are repulsed by religion and the religious life. . . . Sloth, then, is a sin of omission in that it fails to find God supremely significant and attractive so as to pursue him enthusiastically (Reordered Love, Reordered Lives, p. 71).

The one who plagiarizes finds the academic tasks at hand unworthy of their own creative efforts. More importantly perhaps, they refuse to seek their ultimate good in God through those assignments. 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

Choosing a Theology Textbook: Life in the Trinity – Part 3

This is my final look at Life in the Trinity by Donald Fairbairn. Here, I will briefly mention the remaining chapters in the volume and then pose some thought on the overall use of it in the classroom (or at least my general thoughts on its useability, etc.). Fairbairn continues with a helpful look at Patristic exegesis, focusing his attention on the use of the Old Testament. Next, he tackles the incarnation, focusing on Chalcedon and the emphasis on the identity of the Son of God as the same Lord Jesus who took on flesh. In his words, “The one who is consubstantial with the Father is the same one who is consubstantil with us” (145). Building upon these conclusions, he focuses his next chapter, “Redemption,”  on the idea that God the Son died for humanity. He advances his discussion with a look at natures and persons. Walking through sidebars of Athanasius, Cyril and Irenaeus, Fairbairn addresses the issues of Chalcedon, attempting to allow the “metaphyics” of natures and persons to guide the discussion.

Fairbairn shifts gears a bit in the last two chapters, tackling the issues involved in “becoming Christian” and “being Christian.” Becoming a Christian, for Fairbairn, is entering the Son’s relationship to the Father – in other words, becoming a child of God. In the former, he addresses election, justification and reconciliation, while in the latter he focuses on sanctification, issues of living in a fallen world and the eschatological orientation of the Christian life. Throughout each of these chapters, Fairbairn attempts to weave in theosis as the central thread which holds together the whole. Continue reading