Rankin File

Ruminations, fulminations, and cogitations on the spiritual life

Needed: A Good Dose of Self-Awareness

In a recent post,  I took a swing at the problem of using the rhetoric of critical thinking without actually employing it ourselves in higher education.  So, let me try to explain a little more of what I mean by critical thinking.  It’s a complex concept, so I’ll try just one piece.

Critical thinking starts with self-awareness.  It entails the intellectual virtue of humility, a virtue not easily won.  To think well, one must practice noticing the contours of one’s perspective. It means thinking about the way we think.  It means asking ourselves (and being open to others asking us) what biases and assumptions are already at work as soon as we start the act of thinking.  Recognizing our biases and background beliefs and exposing them for evaluation is fundamental to critical thinking.  This is what I mean by self-awareness.

An exceedingly important example has to do with recognizing our own social location in the ways we read the Bible.  The reader admits to being situated in a particular place, time, culture and language.  Race, gender, educational level and socio-economic status influence how we read.  There is no neutral ground, no way of reading the Bible without bias.  The Bible, likewise, is situated in a similar way.

This kind of self-awareness is liberating, not limiting.  (It has nothing to do with one’s commitment to biblical authority.)  I will get far more out of reading the Bible if I pay attention to how my context affects the way I read.  If I am aware of my assumptions, I can practice avoiding the automatic, default conclusions, thereby learning to let the text speak more on its own terms.  This is the liberating effect that self-awareness can bring.

On this topic (of Bible reading) the easy target for people inside the academy is “literalism.”  We regularly lament how it distorts people’s understanding and, with no little indignation, verbally shake our fingers at literalists.  We accuse them of not being appropriately self-aware, of not paying attention to social location; in short, of not thinking critically.

But, as the old childhood admonition goes, pointing a finger at someone else turns three back at us.  We in the academy can be guilty of simplistic readings ourselves, using the very tools we believe so powerfully illuminate.  I have read too many scholarly articles to count, in which the author identifies herself or himself by virtue of this social location paradigm.  Let me illustrate: I am a white, male, middle class, well-educated, married heterosexual, academic, from the rural high plains are of the United States.

The problem, I hasten to say, is not the description of social location, which, to the good, gives you (and me) the opportunity to assess how it might influence my perspectives on any given topic.  The problem, rather, is that we’ve come to think that simply by describing our social location, we have proven that  we are self-aware, as if the mere naming of a handful of socio-economic categories proves our scholarly legitimacy.  it can easily serve as an academic shibboleth.

I have to admit, I have begun to worry more about this latter problem than I do about the literalists.  We academicians are supposed to be the self-aware critical thinkers.  It’s part of our job.  But, because we have grown so confident in how we use the tools of our trade, we often sound self-congratulatory and complacent.  We can make astute-sounding references to critical thinking while displaying a shocking lack of it ourselves.  We should not miss the irony.

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December 6, 2011 Posted by | Bible, Christian Spirituality, Doctrine/Theology, Higher and Theological Education, Religion | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Cost of Failing to Think

A news item about Shorter University, a Baptist school associated with the Georgia Baptist Convention, has given me another opportunity to worry about the way we talk to one another about contentious matters.  The school apparently has made a policy that all employees will sign and adhere to a personal lifestyle statement, thereby creating another barrage of online commentary.  (See http://www.insidehighered.com/news/2011/12/01.)

I’ll leave the facts of the case aside to focus on the comments that illustrate my concern.  To get right to it, the most heated criticism depends on a moral tradition that stands outside the one it is criticizing.  (This problem Alisdair MacIntyre has described in his book, Three Rival Versions of Moral Enquiry.)  Taking the policy at face value, for the moment, Shorter University is seeking to apply a set of practices faithful to their view of Christian discipleship.  Some of the most critical comments seem oblivious to this intention.  In the name of a certain view of individual freedom that Shorter U. has offended, some commenters offer censure and condemnation.

I am not bothered by competing moral visions.  They exhibit the simple fact of human diversity.  I am worried, rather, by the lack of  self-awareness associated with the inability to have a serious, productive conversation.  That ignorance inevitably leads to some form of ad hominem attack on any person or group that would deign disagree.

This problem has become appallingly prominent in the blogosphere, ironically, as often as not among those of us who consider ourselves well-educated.  I’m distressed, for example, at the snippy, censorious, presumptuous, comments regularly posted on the Chronicle of Higher Education’s pages.  To overstate the problem only slightly: too often one finds there an assertion followed by a counter-assertion, followed in turn by a more pointed counter to the counter and the slight hint of the opponent’s ignorance or bad motive. And on it goes.

We thus live in a society in which, in far too many venues, ad hominems supersede respectful, even if pointed, debate, even while we continue to talk about tolerance and respect.  What are we to do if the rising generation as a whole (again, acknowledging the hopeful, if comparatively rare, counterexamples) cannot tell the difference between serious debate and rhetorical violence?  This is a critical moral, educational question.

Which brings me back to the work of higher education.  I have blogged recently about how we use the term “critical thinking,” while largely failing to help students recognize and practice it.  Parker Palmer calls us out: “In my judgment, one of the saddest and most self-contradictory features of academic culture is the way it tends to run away from criticism.  Academic culture celebrates ‘critical thinking’…but is sometimes dominated by orthodoxy as profoundly as any church I know,” (Palmer and Zajonc, The Heart of Higher Education, 23).  In another place he calls this view “pedagogical fundamentalism.”

The “orthodoxy” to which he refers has become so self-evident to many in higher education that dissidents are sometimes looked at as if they had come from another planet.  As one who readily identifies with theological and moral beliefs considered orthodox or traditional or (sometimes) conservative, I find this scenario (sometimes) humorously ironic.

However we describe ourselves on any ideological spectrum, we need to care about this problem.  Our lack of awareness about how we argue runs the risk of pulling the house down around us.

December 2, 2011 Posted by | Higher and Theological Education, 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

Our Backsides are Showing

I don’t know whether to feel encouraged or discouraged.  Maybe a little of both.

Because of my work (and my interest), I regularly read the Chronicle of Higher Education online.  I try to keep up on news and trends “in the industry,” but I also like to see what the bloggers are blogging.

The bloggers on the site are mostly well-known scholars in their academic disciplines.  They write about current concerns and cutting-edge issues.  Like blogging is supposed to do, they stimulate debate and provoke comments.

Blogging is thus about stating opinions.  It’s like the op-ed page of the newspaper.  It ought to pithy and provocative.  By design, then, it’s looser and more free-wheeling than the usual scholarly writing.  I rather like the moxey of many of the writers, even the swashbucklers.  I enjoy the alliteration, the catchy turn of phrase, the well-played irony, the playfulness, the wit.  I enjoy the pointed give-and-take that goes with the territory and I respect people who enter the fray with a little swagger.

Alas, academics are often no better than “normal people” at having a fair and open argument.  I know this is no big surprise, but it is discouraging, nonetheless.  That’s because argument is a big part of what academics are supposed to do.  Because we are engaged in helping students become well-educated, we ought to engage in pointed back-and forth.  We are supposed to demonstrate both courage and skill in analyzing arguments (exposing silly or spurious ones and showing why others are strong).  We (and students) must have the guts to stick our necks out and evaluate.  Which means more than just stating an opinion.  It means not making nice.  So it can get a little brutal at times.

Still, we also should have the moral restraint and the self-awareness to recognize our own biases and maintain an openness to people who disagree with us.  We should not attribute bad motive or benighted obstinance to other people, even if we suspect that they are.  I might be paranoid, but even paranoids can make good arguments.

The Chronicle blog that I read today and some of the comments that follow largely fail on this scale.  Some of the comments got nasty and personal.  As I said, no big surprise.  Academics are people, after all, and we all can get carried away and say things we later wish we would either not have said or said differently.  In this sense, it’s encouraging to realize that academics are just people.  With the trappings of academe, we can forget this simple truth.

But, on the other hand, it’s very discouraging.  The sneering, snarky, back-and-forth fails to hold true to what academics say they are about.  This failure is the academic hypocrisy akin to the preacher (I get a double whammy here: I’m both an academic and a preacher) who manifests the maddening “do as I say, not as I do” inconsistency.  There are plenty of examples – because it’s become like a favorite parlor game – of preachers to take aim at, pointing out the moral failings of those who presume to be moral guides.  Our pop culture loves to expose the inconsistencies of vocal (sometimes obnoxious) well-known Christian leaders.

Maybe even more discouraging is that few people in popular culture ever notice this bad behavior, because what academics say, write and do happens behind closed doors, out of the public light.  Which is to say, it’s pretty much irrelevant.

August 8, 2011 Posted by | Higher and Theological Education, Pop Culture | , , | 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

Should Church-Related Schools Be Concerned?

A recent Christian Century article raises a pressing topic for church-related higher education.  Manhattan College, a Catholic school in New York, has become the center for a controversial decision by the National Labor Relations Board.  The presenting issue has to do with whether part-time faculty can unionize (a very important matter), but, in the explanation of the ruling the NLRB has forced the question of what identifies a church-related college.  As the Century article says in the first paragraph: “The [NLRB] isn’t convinced that the Catholic school is actually Catholic.”

The school apparently had used the argument of religious liberty as a way of defending their wish to avoid permitting part-time faculty to unionize.  But in the ruling, the Board argued that “federal oversight would not compromise the school’s religious freedom because its ‘stated purpose does not involve the propagation of a religious faith, teachers are not required to adhere to or promote religious tenets, [and] a religious order does not exercise control over hiring, firing, or day-to-day operations.'”

By this definition, Southern Methodist University, where I work as Chaplain, would also not qualify as a school with a religious mission.  Yet, I just gave a talk here on campus that emphasized the very point that this regional NLRB’s definition seems not to allow: the importance of integrating faith with the academic mission, while protecting academic freedom and individual prerogative to express a particular faith, or to forego expression of any particular religious tradition.

So, we face at least two challenges.  First, if the Century article’s description is accurate, then the NLRB has used a far too narrow definition of what a religiously-affiliated school must do to “prove” that it is in fact religiously-affiliated.  There is much more to the vision of a faith-driven and high-quality college education than “propagation of the faith” and requiring professors to adhere to said faith (these criteria were in their definition).  A school like SMU can be actively engaged in realizing a vision of our academic mission on the basis of the robust practice of the Christian faith (since SMU is connected to a Protestant Christian denomination) that nonetheless does not set up control conditions like the ones the NLRB is demanding.

The second challenge is how to come up with a definition that works well for all considered.  More importantly, who gets to participate in such a definition?  Must a government agency do this work without any input from religious groups?  Of course not. Agreed, the principle of separation of church and state must be upheld, but to what degree and in what manner?  Who is responsible (therefore has authority) to monitor the definitional boundaries here?

A slightly more than one page article in a magazine obviously has limitations with regard to exploring such difficult questions.  Still, I do not see anyone questioning the assumptions about how a word (or a school) is defined and identified.  It’s time to question these assumptions.

March 18, 2011 Posted by | Higher and Theological Education, Religion, The Church | , , , , , | 3 Comments

Has “Spiritual Maturity” Lost Its Meaning?

In research for a book project on spiritual maturity, I fear I am discovering that “spiritual maturity” as a term no longer has any currency in Christian talk.  I spent some time in a bookstore yesterday, talking with the manager about this matter and looking at books on the shelves.  “Spirituality” has become the generic term, which, of course, I knew, but the idea that people don’t recognize “spiritual maturity” is more than a little worrisome.

I think I’ve blogged before (I admit, I didn’t check my archives) about the Barna Group – now over a year ago – doing a phone survey on this very matter.  They discovered that neither church leaders nor rank-and-file Christians know how to define “spiritual maturity.”  In fact, the most commonly offered attempt at a definition was “following the rules” (See “Barna Update” for May 11, 2009, http://www.barna.org/barna-update/article/12).  To say the least, we ought to be concerned about this shocking lack of awareness.

I don’t remember which Supreme Court justice said it, but, in hearing the challenges of obscenity laws back in the 1960s, said something like, “I don’t know how to define ‘obscenity,’ but I recognize it when I see it.”   I think the same could be said for spiritual maturity, or, at least, I’d like to be able to say it.  Can we recognize spiritual maturity when we see it even if we can’t define it?  Or do we really think that merely “following the rules” satisfies?  If this is the case, we have drifted a far, far distance from the mark.

Which brings me back to my question: does the term “spiritual maturity,” or “spiritually mature” mean nothing any more?  If so, what word goes in its stead?  “Spirituality” does not cut it for me.  I work in higher education and “spirituality” has crept into our discourse as a replacement for “religion.”  Generally, writings from this quadrant oppose the terms “spirituality” and “religion.”  “Religion,” it is said, has to do with external, institutional and legal matters.  “Spirituality,” on the other hand, refers to expanded consciousness, compassion, openness toward (the omnipresent) “other,” justice, and the like.  To be too blunt (I admit, I’ve become quite frustrated with this constant and ironic barrage about “bad religion,” “good spirituality”), most of the stuff I’ve read in this genre is incoherent and badly argued, filled with sweeping assumptions and redefinitions.  Maybe I’m just reading the wrong stuff.

So, I don’t like “spirituality” as a replacement for “spiritual maturity.”  And I’m worried that most Christians – if the Barna Update is accurate – don’t understand an absolutely fundamental aim of the Christian life.  Golly, if we don’t understand this point, what do we think being Christian is all about?

My question offered to anyone willing to respond: does “spiritual maturity” no longer have meaning for Christians?

June 19, 2010 Posted by | Christian Spirituality, Higher and Theological Education, Ministry, Pop Culture, Religion, The Church | , , | 14 Comments

Academic Moral Equivalency and Christian Perfection

I have been seriously pondering John Wesley’s doctrine of Christian perfection for several years.  Have we his heirs advanced or retreated in our understanding of Methodism’s “grand depositum” as he put it?  I don’t know.  We certainly don’t like the word “perfection,” a problem Wesley himself had to face.  Still, if he considered it the reason “Methodists were chiefly called into existence,” then it seems like we ought to figure out if there is a 21st century version of it that can be called legitimately Wesleyan.

The idea of spiritual maturity suggests that some people are further along the path toward it than others.  Already we sense the danger of making a judgment, yet the Bible makes it.  One recalls, for example, that word about some still needing milk while they should be ready for meat.  In the Christian life, there is a trajectory toward a telos, a goal.  We can argue about whether or not we ever reach the goal, but it’s a goal we envision.

We do the same in education.  A college senior should be more mature than a freshman.  The very terms we use for undergraduate classification points this way.  Educational theory includes the telos.  I’ve been scouring through Fowler’s stages of faith lately.  He and his main authorities (Piaget, Erikson, Kohlberg) all include a view of maturity.  They believe that they have empirically demonstrated that some people are more mature than others.

We tend to assume, do we not, that a college-educated person is better educated than someone who has no college?  We assume, don’t we, that going to college challenges people to become more self- and world-aware, which is better than not being aware?  One of the major goals of a college education is to help develop whole people, not just skillful people who are good at doing certain jobs.  This is supposedly the difference between a college degree and a technical school degree.

So, in addition to skills, we expect a college education to develop appropriate attitudes and behaviors.  A well-educated person is more than a skilled person.  A well-educated person has some of the right…virtues.  A well-educated person should also be a wise person, no?  Everything I’ve said so far about a college education can be applied to theological education.  Don’t we expect advance in a theological education?  A person with a Master of Divinity should have the skill and the character, by virtue of the education, to lead a congregation, right?

Most academic institutions assume that by merely having the experience, these virtues will emerge in our students.  Yet the academy prizes and rewards skill and achievement rather than good attitudes and behavior.  We tend to assume moral equivalency.  More educated people are supposed to be likewise more trustworthy, more wise, because more aware of “the issues.”

I’m not sure we Methodists have gotten Mr. Wesley right on Christian perfection.  Yet, in higher and theological education, we have taken up this very endeavor, only in academic terms and with academic values rather than Christian ones.  We assume that something like an academic version of that fruit of the Spirit will happen by virtue of the experience.

I think we have something still to learn from Mr. Wesley…

December 7, 2009 Posted by | Christian Spirituality, Doctrine/Theology, Higher and Theological Education, Religion | , , , , , | 2 Comments