Rankin File

Ruminations, fulminations, and cogitations on the spiritual life

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.

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December 2, 2011 Posted by | Higher and Theological Education, Religion, The Church, United Methodism | , , , , , | 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

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

“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