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