Rankin File

Ruminations, fulminations, and cogitations on the spiritual life

The Clumsiness of Categories

Today, I worry about  sounding downright ungenerous and small-souled.  Even more, I worry because the topic I’m about to join cuts a little too close to the bone for me personally.  I’m going to try to use parts of my life experience as a means of illustrating a problem in our church (United Methodist) that looms ever larger.  Doing so touches a nerve.

Having attended two annual conferences, as well as following tweets, blogs and news pieces on General Conference, I have noticed how much we talk about people by reference to the categories they fit – or don’t.  My category: a 57 year old, well-educated, white male, who enjoys a comfortable income.  White, male, 50s, middle class.  Privileged.  Too many of my type still holding power.

Race, gender, age: these are the categories of reference most often put to use in our opinion-making about how things go in the church.  (Notice how they come from social science and not from theology or the language of the church.  But that thought will have to wait for another time.)

I have long understood the subtleties of race bias even when overt racism has curtailed some.  I remember a former colleague – African-American woman, a professional in higher education with a Ph.D. from an Ivy League university – once telling me how she had been shadowed in the local iteration of a national discount store.  She had been working in the yard and was in her grubbies and looking a little scruffy.  African-American, a little dirty (it was a sweaty summer day) and voila, you just might be a shoplifter.  So an employee, pretending to be a shopper, hangs around and watches you.    When I think of her experience, I remember why we need to continue to pay attention to race.

Likewise with the category of age.  I work with university students.  I love talking to them, listening to them, hanging out with them, mentoring them, teaching them.  I am an advocate for young people in the church.  But I’m starting to worry and even, I admit, feel a little resentful.  During these recent conference sessions near and far, I have heard both old and young make repeated reference to how we don’t listen to young people, it’s time to listen to young people, it’s time for some of us old folk to get out of the way and make room for young people.  Older people are hogging the power and clogging the church’s vitality with worn-out, dull, irrelevant ideas and concerns.

I want to make clear, my problem is not with young people.  In fact, I have made my own criticisms of how we treat young people in the church.  The problem lies not with young people or old people.  The problem lies in the way we think and talk – in categories!  In the heat of trying to get things done and make things better, we United Methodists lapse into “category-think,” a version of “group-think.”

And so, by way of personal illustration, I want to show why I worry about over-using categories, why I don’t like categories so much.  Here is what the categories don’t tell you about me.

I’m well-educated and live comfortably now, but I grew up poor.  Not destitute poor, just always tight, going-without, worried-about-money poor.  We always had plenty to eat, but partly that depended on good church folks “pounding” the preacher (my dad), or a local farmer butchering a steer or hog and sharing some meat with us.  I also always had decent, clean clothes to wear, but from the bargain rack.  We didn’t buy if it wasn’t on sale.  No shame in that, but, as a kid, I lived with that constant feeling of financial tightness.  And of not being able to do what others were doing.  Of being different.  I know how it feels to be different.

After chasing one job after another, my father finally said yes to a call to preach that he had felt for a long time.  At age 50 and with only a high school diploma, he entered (then) Methodist pastoral ministry.  His first year in this role (1962), he made $2,700.  For the whole year.  The church provided housing, of course, so $2,700 could stretch a little further, but not much.  Median household income at that time approached $6,000.  According to 1962 standards, we lived right at the poverty level.

I also grew up a transient.  Back then, Dad would go off to annual conference in September (after the school year started) and we would not know till he came home whether we were moving or staying.  I remember the announcement, “We’re moving,” and in a matter of a couple of weeks, we’d be packed up and gone to the new appointment.  We moved 4 times in 4 years during the middle school phase of my childhood.  The longest I ever lived in one place – before going off to college – was 3 years.  I went to two high schools.  I was always “the new kid” where new kids stood out.  And I knew we’d be leaving soon.

Was my life as transient as some of the field workers picking cotton in Texas or vegetables on truck farms in Colorado?  Of course not.  But it was more like their life than you could ever imagine if you look at me only through the category I now fit.  And that’s the problem with categories.  Categories hide people.

I thus have two strong and offsetting opinions about the categories we use over-much in the United Methodist Church.  I am very sympathetic to people who find themselves disadvantaged, on the margins.  I have some sense of what it’s like to be in that condition.  But on the other hand, I feel more resentment than I’d like to admit when people stick me in a category and make easy, breezy generalizations about me.  And I’ve heard a few over the years.  (I once was called a “pretty little white boy” by a seminary classmate.)  They distort and hide as much as they reveal.

Some of the big troubles we are now facing in the United Methodist Church stem precisely from thinking too much in categories.  They work well when we are generalizing and they are far too clumsy when we need to pay attention to on-the-ground circumstances.  When we use them wrongly, we are like a surgeon wearing boxing gloves while trying to perform a delicate operation.

Categories tell us something we need to know, but, honestly, they don’t tell us much.  Especially in the church, we should be very careful how we use them.

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June 7, 2012 Posted by | Christian Spirituality, emerging adults, Ministry, Religion, The Church, United Methodism | , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Needing Real Tolerance

I mentioned in the previous post my beef with the faux tolerance on college campuses.  (I generalize without demeaning examples of real tolerance.)  Desiring to think a bit more closely about what tolerance actually is, I hied myself to the trusty Oxford English Dictionary.

For the verb “tolerate,” this part of the definition comes closest: “To bear without repugnance; to allow intellectually, or in taste, sentiment, or principle; to put up with.”  The first infinitive caught my attention.

What does it mean “to bear” something?  Well, it means “to carry” it, which suggests that you have to come into close contact with it.  Tolerating something, tolerating a person, assumes close contact and interaction.  It also assumes some degree of discomfort with the bearing.

A college campus – even a small one – is a big place.  We can go about our business largely without having to interact seriously with ideological differences.  We thus need not tolerate one another even when we’re in close proximity.  We don’t have “to bear” anybody’s outrageous ideas because we don’t take the time seriously to engage them.

Remember higher education’s stated mission and the problem comes into plain view.  It is to help young people prepare intellectually and ethically for the (“adult”) world of ambiguities, difficulties, tragedies and hard choices.  I worry that we largely fail on this aim.  Why?  Precisely because we do not sustain activities that challenge students to grapple courageously and sensitively with anything very troubling.

Time for an example: as part of our 9/11 remembrances at the university where I work, we had a number of lectures, panel discussions and ceremonies.  As chaplain, I participated on a panel dealing with religious diversity and the need to live with one another in peace.  I believe deeply in the truth and goodness of this theme.  As I studied this gathering, though we were somewhat ethnically and religiously diverse, we were, for all I could tell, ideologically the same.

I speculate, of course, because I did not poll everyone in the room, but I did pay attention. Questions, comments and the general “vibe” in the room signaled virtual consensus on what the problems are and what we need to do to fix them.  Thus, when fellow panel members said, in a couple of different ways, that religions all essentially work for the same ends, nobody questioned that claim (except me) and numerous heads nodded assent.

When another panel member said that the reason for religion-related violence is ignorance and that we just “need to educate people,” again the general tenor of the room exhibited agreement.

Except for me.  I challenged the empty platitudes.    I’m not painting myself as the hero.  I was just trying to do what I think panel discussants are supposed to do.  We are different.  Let’s talk about our differences in a peaceful, even loving, way.

No, we didn’t do that.  Thus, we had no need for tolerance.

I am talking about a very common problem on college campuses.  We talk much about tolerance.  We actually demonstrate it very little.  We have events, we “engage” in “dialogue” and we all go home feeling good that we “tackled” some difficult topic.  But there was no real debate.  If anyone in the room disagrees, he/she/they stay silent.  Only the boldest of contrarians speak their minds.

This happens within the (college) environment that prides itself on upholding intellectual engagement, on being open and tolerant and courageously tackling the major issues of the day.  We still need real tolerance.

November 17, 2011 Posted by | emerging adults, Higher and Theological Education | Leave a comment

A Tragic Failure in Higher Education

I recently had an encounter with a student who expressed irritation with “judgmental Christians” who tell people they are going to hell.  This attitude is  common on college campuses.  Therefore, our brief conversation nicely illustrates how we are largely failing to grow thoughtful, self-aware  young adults.  To use academic speak: we are not teaching students how to think critically, even though we talk about critical thinking all the time.  Dirty little secret: “thinking critically” often turns out to mean demonstrating agreement with the professor on tests and in papers.  Students figure this one out quickly.

I know that colleges and universities all have professors who don’t fit what I just said.  They are careful, compassionate, pedagogues.  But let’s not miss the forest for the trees.

Walk with me, for a moment, through the conversation.  After telling me how bothered the student was by those judgmental Christians, I replied (trying to prompt thought), “So, you have an opinion about other people having an opinion.  What makes your opinion superior?”

I don’t want to get sidetracked on the theology of this question.  I know that thoughtful people disagree about people’s eternal destinies.  And I am not one who thinks going around telling people they’re going to hell represents a good Christian witness.  Rather, I want to look at the logical problem this student has.

It became clear to me that the student could not recognize that her opinion was not self-evidently true.  Merely making the assertion seemed sufficient to settle the matter.  Again, I don’t have a problem with the view.  I have a problem with the student’s inability to articulate reasons for thinking it superior to the one she was criticizing.

Why?  Not because she is intellectually slow (in fact, she is quite intelligent), but because most of us have lost the ability to have a truly open dialogue.  She assumed some moral high ground without having to think about whether this assumption is defendable.  She has learned – surreptitiously – that telling people they’re going to hell is wrong and offensive.  She learned this, most likely, not through careful thinking, but through rhetorical power plays from people she admires and respects.   They are her teachers, whether they hold the title or not.  (And we should remember what the book of James says about teachers.  See 3:1.)

In higher education, we are supposed to be in the business of helping students learn to think well.  This is not all we’re supposed to do, but certainly it is one of our main jobs.  We are to help students become self-aware and reflective about how they develop their opinions, where they get their ideas and how they support them.  We are to give them the intellectual tools to evaluate well their own thinking.  Then they’ll be able to fairly evaluate others’.

But we do not teach them.  Maybe we don’t have time.  Maybe we don’t care.  Good dialogue requires real tolerance and respect, not the mere mouthing of these words.  For all our talk about tolerance (which I support wholeheartedly), I see precious little of it on college campuses.  It’s more like we’ve declared a truce.  We don’t, in fact, tolerate each other, we just co-exist in the same general space.  We may call this arrangement “tolerance,” but it is a sham tolerance.  We tacitly make a deal not to talk to each other about controversial things.  Instead, we divide into self-selected groups and talk only to those who already agree with us.

So, nobody has to think critically, not even the professors.

To the extent that what I have said is true, to that extent we are failing to educate young people.   God forgive us.

November 14, 2011 Posted by | emerging adults, Higher and Theological Education | , , , , , , , | 7 Comments

What Retching Has to Do with Moral Vision

(Warning: this blog contains graphic material not suitable for weak stomachs.)

Since when did watching people vomit become funny?

I admit, I do not watch these TV shows, so maybe it was just a coincidence. Last week, I watched my first episode of “Campus PD” on one of the cable channels. I have known about the show for some time, but since I work with college students, I frankly could not bring myself to watch it. Last week I worked up the courage. A couple of days later, I happened on “Tosh.0” (I think is the name).

Of course, with “Campus PD,” the viewers were regaled by a constant barrage of drunk college kids. In one scene, two young men are sitting, completely stupefied, on the curb (kerb, if you are an Anglophile) outside a hotel. Both of them have vomit between their feet.

A couple of days later, I just happened to be passing by “Tosh.0” as I channel surfaced and witnessed another scene involving someone puking. This time it was a guy in the buddy position of a hang glider. Apparently, he wasn’t taking too well to the ride. The host, Mr. Tosh, played and replayed the emetic episode, clearly enjoying the man’s discomfort and the awkwardness of the moment. Do his viewers really enjoy this fare?

I’ve seen similar things on “Jackass.” Please remember, I do not watch any of these shows. In each case, I happened upon them as I was passing on to somewhere else in Cable World. I thus conclude that, if I see this much vomiting on television in such brief moments, they must be happening quite a bit. And somebody must think it’s funny.

Some of us who work in the university have been reading a book, lately: Getting Wasted, by sociologist and college professor Thomas Vander Venn. In describing the various kinds of motives and means of social support that college students give one another while engaging in binge drinking, he reflected on how students describe even being hung over together as “fun” or “a good time.” He also mentioned one study in which neophyte pot smokers had to learn how to enjoy the sensation of being high, then alluded to the same pedagogical principle at work among college drinkers.

In other words, the “fun” associated with being drunk or high is in some significant ways, a learned behavior. You can learn that vomiting and passing out is actually fun. Hm.

Most importantly, what we’re not noticing is the implicit moral community associated with such fun. In interviews with Vander Venn, students explained repeatedly that having fun and good times is supremely important, worth the risks and consequences of blackouts and alcohol poisoning. They actually experience a kind of community, through the “drunk support” (his term) and consequence management associated with college party scenes.

Here’s the moral dimension: Students who believe this kind of behavior is “fun” and “good times,” are committed to what they perceive as a good – the pleasure, sociability and feeling of community that goes with the party scene. It goes with what Robert Bellah and other scholars have described as “expressivist individualism:” that “being myself,” no matter what anyone thinks and “following my own dreams” and “doing what feels right to me” are paramount. In fact, I have heard this sentiment from students. They actually say that they “do not care” what other people think. Of course, they do care, but they have been taught (subtlely, of course) to think that they shouldn’t care. Notice the ought in “shouldn’t.”

Another way to notice the moral vision of this behavior: how often do we talk with students about peer pressure? What is peer pressure, but moral pressure? “It’s fun. Come on! Don’t be a loser!” We need to notice the moral tone, perverse as it seems.

So, students believe that cutting loose, having fun, getting wasted, is a good. It is one that they fight to keep. They believe in the freedom associated with partying. They are in college. It is “their time.” Again, notice the moral vision.

If you’d like to look at this matter in some detail, see Christian Smith, et. al., Lost in Transition: The Dark Side of Emerging Adulthood (Oxford University Press, 2011), especially the chapter, “Intoxication‘s Fake Feeling of Happiness.” It’s pretty sobering stuff.

November 8, 2011 Posted by | emerging adults, General, Pop Culture, Religion, The Church | , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Self-Fulfilling Prophecy?

Perhaps I too easily take to heart the coffee cup “de-motivator” I have about blogging: “Never before have so many people with so little to say said so much to so few.”  As a delinquent blogger, this saying makes me laugh.  But it also makes me hesitate.

That’s not the only reason I’ve been silent on this blog.  When I don’t know my own mind on some topic about which I feel deep importance, I hunker down for awhile, feeling that I have nothing to say.  This is the case with a topic that has become high profile on college campuses – the interest in spirituality.

Many people who work with college students (especially on the Student Affairs side) know about the extensive research from the Higher Education Research at UCLA (to name only one source) on this subject.  Even though students fiercely protect their prerogatives, they are not the free-thinking skeptics people often associate with higher education.  In fact, they are very interested in questions that we have come to associate with spirituality or faith.  If you pay attention to the literature that has become mainstream, however, students are not all that interested in getting boxed in by “organized religion.”

It’s no wonder.  We’ve been teaching young people to think this way about religion and spirituality for at least a generation.  No time for a long foray into history, but consider: thirty years ago Paul Vitz did a study of the references to religion in elementary school social science textbooks.  He concluded that, given how these references were handled, students would easily conclude that religious practice is either something that “primitive” people do in other parts of the world or (for this country, especially) it is something people did in the past.  Here, insert the Puritans.  You know how they fare in popular sentiment.

Add in the public-private constitutional divide long-established in our society.  Religion is “private,” something that people are free to do with their associates without government interference.  But religious faith must stay in the private realm, which allows it to deal with personal values of all sorts, but does not allow people to be part of public debates (even though religion is always very much in the news).  There are important questions involved, here, but the big thing is that we don’t want anyone “imposing” some brand of religion on us.  The result has been that another vision has been “imposed.”  And it’s not a neutral one.

So, in a thousand subtle ways we have taught kids – long before they get to college – that religion is not all that important except for personal values and, furthermore, it may actually be rather dangerous (especially conservative evangelical versions of Christianity).  Churches have gone along with this process.  Here I refer to the “moralistic therapeutic deism” discerned by Christian Smith and others among teenagers and emerging adults.  Religion is for the purpose of helping people be nice and feel good about themselves.

Yet people hunger for transcendence, for contact with the Lifeforce or whatever word you’d like to use if you want to avoid using God.  If religion is more or less ruled out of bounds, what do you have left?  Spirituality.  And it will inevitably look and sound like how people talk in the literature.  Spirituality is about contact with the transcendent, and authenticity, and compassion, and expansiveness and…

I’m not surprised that the social scientists asking college students what they think about spirituality and religion are discovering the “spiritual not religious” response.  We pretty much taught them to think this way.

August 1, 2011 Posted by | Christian Spirituality, emerging adults, Higher and Theological Education, Pop Culture, Religion, The Church | , , , , , | Leave a comment

Worried about Sex, Again

They call it “gender neutral housing,” an ironic term, since it’s anything but gender neutral.   According to the news accounts I’ve read, Rutgers University is trying a pilot project the coming Fall semester in which students can choose roommates of either sex.  In this new arrangement, people will be able to live with their partners (gay or straight) or have roommates of the same or opposite sex based on any other consideration they choose.  As a guy, I could choose a female roommate who is not my girlfriend, or she could be my girlfriend.  As a guy, I could choose a guy who is my boyfriend, or not.  Any way is OK.

The appeal for this change came from the GLBT community and, from their perspective, it makes perfect sense.  It allows for the expression of the most equitable roommate arrangements with regard to as wide a range of sexual expressions as possible.  I see their point, but I’m worried about other consequences.

Mark Regnerus, a sociology professor at the University of Texas, has studied and written about emerging adult sexuality and, if you’re any kind of Christian (liberal or conservative; pick any label you wish) his findings should be a matter of concern.  (To get a sample of his work, go to www.changingsea.org/regnerus.php.)  One study shows that only 16% of adults between the ages of 18 and 23 have not had sexual intercourse.  In the same age group, among those who are romantically involved, only 6% are not having sex of some sort.

As Regnerus points out, this news is really not new news.  In fact, most of us who work with young adults are sick of hearing about it, because we feel 99% hopeless that we can change these statistics.  Aside from the occasional sex-and-dating stuff that some campus ministers still try to do, we have largely abdicated this field.

But the idea that there is not a cost for this approach to sex among college students (to limit my emerging adulthood reference to my work context) is false and dangerous.  And I’m not merely talking about the utilitarian consequences (e.g. STDs) of sexual activity.  I am talking about the emotional/spiritual wounds.

(At this point in the blog, I feel the need to say, “I’m not a prude.  This post is not about pining away for some purer, simpler time, nor is it a right-wing diatribe.”  There, I feel better.)

Another author has written of the “no regrets” mantra of young people (Christian Smith, Souls in Transition).  In interviews, young people, after describing some of the most painful, heartrending experiences, commonly say something like, “But I have no regrets.  It (the painful experience) has made me what I am today.”  Many of the “its” have to do with sexual activity leading to unhealthy relationships, unwanted pregnancies and a list of other collateral damages.  It starts with sex, but it does not end there.

Back to Regnerus: serial monogamy is the thing.  Students are generally not promiscuous.  The free love days are long gone.  They still want to get married (even though they’re marrying much later than earlier generations).  They have one partner at a time and they still have a sense of loyalty and boundaries while in that relationship.  But virtually all are having sex with that partner.  Sexual intercourse.  So, it turns out that sex still is more than just recreational.  It’s relational.  And when the relationship breaks up, it can be and usually is soul-searingly painful.

So, rather than just going with the democratic flow, like Rutgers has done, I think it’s high time for colleges and universities to re-examine our housing practices.  I know.  We are not in loco parentis, but I think this excuse is really a dodge.  We in higher education are held responsible in a million other ways for our young charges, even though we’re supposed to stay the heck out of their private lives.

I don’t have an answer, but I see the problem and we in higher education need to start talking about it.

April 9, 2011 Posted by | emerging adults, Higher and Theological Education, Ministry, Pop Culture | , , , , , | 5 Comments