Rankin File

Ruminations, fulminations, and cogitations on the spiritual life

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.

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

“Have to” Questions, “How Do You Know” Questions

I’m helping to teach a class that affords me opportunity to interact with college students about spirituality. In such venues two sets of questions alway arise. I’m thinking about the unhelpful ways we in the ministry often answer them

I call the two categories “have to” questions and “how do you know” questions. An example of the “have to” question: “Do I have to go to church in order to be a (good) Christian?”

To the “have to” question I can give a pat answer: “Well, no, of course you don’t have to go to church in order to be a good Christian. But good Christians want to do what helps them grow, and going to church helps us grow and…” Though true, I think this common answer is wide of the mark.

College students ask “have to” questions because they’re trying to figure out how to handle freedom. Hence, it not a question driven by rebellion, which is typically how we assess it. They are trying to make sense of the multifaceted nature of their desires. They want to be Christian. They don’t want to waste time doing something boring and unhelpful or being where they don’t feel connected or known. In other words, there might be a lot more to the “have to” question than the standard answer permits.

So, instead of answering with the somewhat expected (and superficial) answer, I think we ought to ask students why they want to know. What other thoughts are connected to the “have to” question? What’s driving them to be concerned? The important question: What is it like to be a grown-up Christian where “have to” is irrelevant? I’m reminded again (I’m a slow learner sometimes) of the importance of letting “have to” questions become the staging ground for transformative interaction.

An example of the “how do you know” question: “How do you know that your religion is the right one?” Students face a staggering array of options. After all, they Google something and they get seemingly limitless hits and a head-spinning range of possibilities. How do they know which option to pursue?

If, in response, I switch to “apologetics” mode and launch my vast intellectual armaments in defense of the faith (a very important task, to be sure, but misdirected here), I will lock on to what sounds like skepticism and completely miss the fragile openness, the hesitant vulnerability standing before me. I dare not stomp on the tenderness of this holy moment!

Now, I’m not advocating some version of the high brow liberalism (pardon the term) I got as a seminary student: you know, the “It’s not the answer but the question that matters” claptrap, which is superficially true, but usually intellectually dishonest. Sooner or later, everybody wants a satisfying answer, even while recognizing it’s only partial.

That point accepted, I still must recognize that the “have to” and the “how do you know” questions are golden opportunities for God’s grace to be poured out. If we care about evangelism; if we feel called to apologetics, let us please hold gently in our hearts the people asking the questions.

April 2, 2009 Posted by | Christian Spirituality, Doctrine/Theology, Higher and Theological Education, Ministry, Pop Culture, Religion | , , , , , , , | 2 Comments