Doxology does not easily fit our grid.—John H. Yoder
Never consent to being completely comfortable with your own certainties.—Michel Foucault
Ever since Babel, humans have contended with the plurality of languages and thus many ways of reading the world. This has entrenched human limits, making bias essential and neutrality impossible. Only God knows the world, we are confined to reading it. A hypothetical dialogue between the Chief Prophet of Baal and Elijah demonstrates the human conundrum.
I think we really ought to get together and pray over this squabble,suggested the Chief Prophet of Baal.
That's alright with me,said Elijah.Just come to the altar of Yahweh any old time, at your convenience, and I'll be glad to join you.
That would be selling out,pouted the Chief Prophet of Baal.Nix. We'll go to neutral ground.
Just pick your spot,said Elijah.You may think it's neutral ground, if that makes you comfortable, but all Israel is Yahweh's.
We have to reach some sort of agreement about the praying, too,said the Chief Prophet of Baal.
How do you mean?asked Elijah.
Some sort of compromise,said the Chief Prophet of Baal.So nobody will have the advantage. If we pray in Hebrew, you'll have the advantage; if we pray in Phoenician, I will.
What do you have in mind?asked Elijah.I don't know Latin.
Very funny,said the Chief Prophet of Baal.Well, Hebrew and Phoenician are both Semitic languages. How about we just pray in Semitic?
Nice try,said Elijah.You would have made a good diplomat. It just happens that there isn't any such thing as Semitic.
You're a hard man to please,said the Chief Prophet of Baal.1
With the juxtaposition of two languages, neither reducible to the other, neither entirely unconnected to the other (one wonders, for example, in what language the debate was conducted), John Meagher demonstrates the human limitations of the particularity of speech. It is an apt reminder of the world we live in, only ours seems even more entangled still. Rather than two languages we live in a world with a plethora of competing discourses each vying for authority. This is true especially in academia where multiple languages, and hence multiple authorities, are givens. But before I elaborate I will simply state without comment the following assumptive claims that will serve as the backdrop to this discussion:
- We cannot speak/write/think/teach from a tabula rasa; we do so from somewhere, in some language. The slate on which we work already has content.
- We can re-read and re-think our legacies; our traditions. We have an imagination.
- We are biased creatures and we cannot be neutral. We may know something but we cannot know everything.
- We are not always aware of our own epistemological limits. We need to be.
- We tend to believe that our own language can handle the truth, perhaps even better than other languages.
- Language and power are intimately intertwined.
- Specific languages are usually contaminated by the existence of other languages.
- Teaching and learning are largely language based.
Framing the question
Recent literature reveals significant analysis and discussion regarding the forces of secularization within Christian colleges. There are several studies that chronicle why some institutions have managed to remain church colleges and others have not.2 These are very helpful studies for the larger issues, but I have been assigned a narrower focus. I have been asked to explore how the Christian faith should properly interact with the disciplines of today's liberal arts curriculum.
It is not easy to know how to be Christian university teachers. There are so many competing voices shouting, "do it this way;" the culture around us, the academic disciplines, other universities, the professional guilds, concepts like academic freedom, even the work force. This essay is written in the awareness that Christian teachers are obliged to interact with all of these forces. We teach in particular settings; we teach from a particular place and culture. A specific and well-honed discourse and logic have shaped our minds, we are disciplined by a methodology, we have become convinced of a perspective, we prefer certain books, certain authors. We are not just Christians, if that be an intelligible notion at all; we are Christians in a particular place and with particular training.
The challenge before us is to consider how Christian educators teach, qua Christian. What skills or qualities should a Christian educator cultivate? Or, if you like, how should a Christian school present itself as Christian school? How, if at all, should our teaching be different from other modes of teaching, or perhaps even more basic, how should the character of our schools be different? To ask it differently still, and perhaps most poignantly, what is the mode of engagement among the competing languages in the Christian academy and how does the language of faith "play" in that engagement? Notice two things about this way of asking it. First, it assumes that we can speak of the language of faith apart from the other languages (that in itself can and should be questioned) and second, even the choice of the word "play" as a metaphor of the engagement is a particular way of putting it. I could have asked "how does the language of the faith 'determine' or 'shape' or 'colour' the other languages?" I could also have presented the issue using other than the "language metaphor." Belief, feeling, experience, narrative, political structure, tradition are all possible other metaphors for the castings of the issue. But regardless of how it is cast, the issue before us is clear: we want to explore what difference it makes that we are a Christian/Mennonite university/college for teaching and studying psychology or mathematics?3 Unless this process results in learning to see the world differently, we will have failed in our task.
Who is asking
In order to address our guiding question it is important to consider who is asking. And in this case it is twenty-first century Mennonite Christians. But not only is it important to ask who but it is equally important to ask where they are asking from. For we are creatures both of our histories and of our cultural environments.
Remembering our culture: Thomas de Zengotita in a recent Harper's Magazine article called "The Numbing of the American Mind: Culture as Anesthetic," suggests that especially since "9/11"--itself a new "word" that has had a narcotic effect on us all--North Americans have been mesmerized with mediocrity and superficiality. Not that this event brought it on; it was only an occasion which conveniently took us further down the path. A facile reading of culture has been with us for a long time. Zengotita quotes from probably the most insightful reader of modernity, Friedrich Nietzsche, who said that "the massive influx of impressions is so great; surprising, barbaric, and violent things press so overpoweringly-'balled up into hideous clumps'-in the youthful soul; that it can save itself only by taking recourse in premeditated stupidity."4 Nietzsche did not mean that our youth are dumb, that their average IQ has gone down, but that they are being suffocated "in a vast goo of meaningless stimulation."5 It is meaningless because it cannot answer the basic questions of life.
The best our culture offers is an endless number of options to choose from. Why? Because we believe that at bottom our ability to choose freely is what defines us and hence this appetite must be fed and reinforced endlessly. So we offer a myriad of cereal and juice options at superstores, hundreds of car models, drugs, TV channels, information sites, etc. When we stop to think about it-if we find time to stop-we realize that the differences among these options are miniscule and not real. Yet we pretend otherwise. Living amidst this "tapestry of virtuality"6 takes its toll on how we see reality. Soap operas and extraterrestrial shows and so-called Reality TV all blur together as the same thing. They all serve to entertain by providing an alternative gaze for us, one that could have been ours if we had but chosen differently. We bring ourselves into this fabricated world in still another way: with the invention of new forms of self-exemption. Who we are and what we do is justified with appeal to complex psychological and chemical processes. Astrological signs determine our dispositions, moods, our love lives, and our fate. Greedy and manipulative people think of themselves as aggressive, fat people are stocky, lazy people are patient and reflective, drunks are free spirits, and hormones get blamed for all kinds of things. We live in a world where things can have any number of meanings because the traditional canons of meaning have lost their power. Everyone nowadays has the right to give meanings. Zengotita contrasts this "any-number-of-meanings" notion with "depth." He says that, "the any-number-of-meanings quality keeps you in motion, but depth asks you to stop."7 And in this life there is no time for depth. Busyness, numbness, and stress all play on each other. "The (absence of) sensation that is physical numbness is constituted by a multitude of thrills and tingles at a frequency beyond which you feel nothing."8 It's all a function of speed. Even in our downtime we "rest" by watching stress-filled action packed dramas.
We do not understand our culture if we do not note this "rationalism fatigue," (Mark Kingwell's term), or a depth dearth. It is difficult for teachers of Christian sophia to teach in this milieu. Many of us succumb to it ourselves and throw knowledge nuggets or information bites at our students. We enthrall them with animated presentations, and then we ask them at lightning speed (two-hour exam) to throw it all back. It is scary that we call this education. Yet this is the culture of our students, and dare I say ours! While we are condemned to teach within it, we should not succumb to its imagination.
Remembering our heritage: We are Mennonite schools. We have a history/tradition, we have interests and we have convictions. Do we have a distinct Mennonite theology? Well, there is a debate here. I see it as follows: we are Christians and as Christians we have an interest in articulating the best Christian theology. There is no real value in our theology being Mennonite except that we believe that our forebears have said some things about being Christian that others have either neglected to say or have denied. Yet it would be unwise to see Mennonite distinctiveness as needing to be preserved at all costs. We believe that we have something important to say about faithful Christianity and that it applies to all Christians. And we believe that the story of our people is the story of faithfulness. There is no value in preserving a heritage that is not faithful, and if it is faithful then it is so for all Christians.
Throughout our history Mennonites have realized how important schools are for the well being of the church. Without our schools some of our Mennonite churches may well have ceased being Mennonite. For the last one hundred years Mennonite post-secondary schools have played a very important role and the fact that we have so many colleges/universities bears testimony to their significance.9 The greatest goal of these schools should be to seek ongoing faithful expressions of the Christian faith as our culture changes. Our universities/colleges have no self-justifying existence. They exist to serve the church. As servants of the church they have been given a task--education; to think clearly about the faith and how it touches all of life and to teach compellingly. It has always been the calling of Mennonite educators to articulate the faith in the presence of its "cultured despisers" as well as in dialogue with other scholars within the Christian tradition.10 Yet narrow intellectual pursuit should not be seen as an end in itself either. What Mennonite universities/colleges "are for" cannot be stated apart from their church mandate which is to assist in the task of creating a people with the resources to live faithful Christian lives in whatever world we find ourselves.
Rooted in the Radical Reformation, Mennonites have emphasized a particular political theology, i. e., an interplay of faith and culture, in which Jesus is seen as normative for all of life. Anabaptist/Mennonite theology is known for its holistic and not dualistic view of the Christian life. This implies that aspects of life such as those studied by psychology, music, art, sociology, chemistry, philosophy, etc. are to be brought under the lordship of Christ. In other words, there are not two normative realms, Christ and the world. All realms of life are equally under Christ's sovereignty. Here the Anabaptists separated themselves from the mainline reformers and Mennonites today need to think carefully about how we engage culture in order not to fall into the ethical dualism quagmire that is a constant temptation. This is not to say that cultural changes around us are irrelevant, but it does suggest that Christ's normativity is not jurisdictional.
H. Richard Niebuhr's work on Christ and culture11 has for a long time been standard fare for how the issue of political theology gets cast. He suggests that church history presents us with a buffet of typologies: Christ against culture, The Christ of culture; Christ and culture in synthesis, Christ and culture in paradox, and Christ the transformer of culture. And like him, most readers of his book gravitate to the last model, Christ the transformer of culture, as the ideal for faithful Christians. But I want to raise a cautionary note. Traditional Anabaptist/Mennonite political theology would have rejected the assumptions behind Niebuhr's way of putting it. Christ and culture are not contrasting notions. Hence they cannot be related as two disparate entities. It is like relating horses with animals, or oranges with fruits. Christ cannot properly be abstracted from culture as Niebuhr's typologies suggest. Christ is already enculturated. He was a first century Palestinian Jew. From within this world he offered a critique, a critique emanating from a cultural imagination alternative to the mainstream. He had a unique politic, and an economic perspective, and a sociology, and a psychology, an ethic, etc. These are all encultured notions. So to present the matter as Christ "relating" to an autonomous culture is to raise the question in a manner that ipso facto rules out of order any politic Christ was espousing. And for the Anabaptist/Mennonites, following Christ meant precisely that Christians would clash with the mainstream. Christ was the model for how to critically engage culture and was not an idea to be integrated into the status quo.
Remembering our creatureliness: Recently a farmer friend told me that years ago they knew they were not in control and they were happy; then they were told that they could be in control if they chose the best technology. Now they are miserable.12 Humans, according to the Christian story, are a special kind of being; we are not brutes and we are not God. Nor are we angels. We are both lesser creatures and greater creatures at the same time. But we are creatures, perhaps creating creatures. We are not creator. Might it be that the single most important teaching and learning for creatures is to learn to live under God's sovereignty? Perhaps the profoundest claim we can make about Christian education is that we must learn what our limits are and learn how to live within these limits. For this alone can keep us in our place. This is a tall order given the massive preoccupation in our society with technology, control, and mastery.
I stress our constraint by limits partly because of the dangers inherent in our conference theme. "Beyond Academic Excellence" sounds in its formal pose at least a lot like "sex beyond marriage," (before and after one could add). And therein lies its danger. Let me explain! The Christian teaching is that sex within marriage is the excellent way for life-long sexual intimacy. And it is excellent precisely because it imposes limits. To want to go beyond this excellence is to want to go beyond where we should go and as we all know this is a common temptation and even a common practice in our society. The Christian tradition teaches us that to go beyond the limits marriage sets would be less than excellent. So I would argue that we ought to resist going beyond excellence in marriage and that we ought to develop practices that keep us from wanting to do that. And the latter involves the cultivation of less, not more. Whether it is that way with academics as well should at least be raised. In other words, the language of "beyond excellence" sounds a bit too much like the craze for moreness as a good in itself so characteristic of our current culture. Moreness is not always better; lessness frequently is. And living with less is more difficult than cultivating more.
We are creatures. We live within limits. That's why we need to be followers. That's why we live in readiness to receive-from God and others. That's also why we live in readiness to give-to God (worship) and to others (service). We cannot know everything. We cannot do everything. Yet we can live at peace not because we have things under control (our control would count for little in any case) but because we know (we have heard of and experienced) the generosity and graciousness of God. As disciples we follow the master because the master can lead us through valleys that remain dark for us.
Models of Teaching
It is not the goal here to develop the best model of Christian education; say, a Christian/Mennonite philosophy of education. I say this because I'm not convinced that there is such a thing. Christians ought to be able to teach the faith in a variety of settings. Rather I will briefly narrate what I consider to be today's dominant model of university education in North America (although U. S. and Canada have slightly different histories here which we will not discuss) and then I will look at two approaches from which we might glean some additional insights. I do this because I hold it to be important for educators to be aware of the larger pedagogical framework. It makes a difference in which imagination we as educators see ourselves functioning.
Disciplining the mind: Everyone would agree that the academy is the place to learn the discipline of clear thinking. Yet many will quarrel with what this means. Although clear thinking is a virtue that has been upheld throughout the ages, its meaning and function vary vastly. For example, Timothy asks his readers to "Think over what I say, for the Lord will give you understanding in all things" (Timothy 2:7). Notice that for Timothy thinking is not a sui generis act that produces understanding on its own; he speaks of it as a process of opening up the mind to receive understanding from God. Thinking on this model does not generate understanding, but is seen as a medium through which understanding, if God grants it, can be ours. Today we tend to believe that thinking itself generates understanding and that is why we often say that the most important skill students can be taught is how to think. The belief that clear thinking itself will be able to recognize untruth, error, immorality, heresy, etc. is substantially different from the "thinking" of Timothy.
So how did we get to today's view? According to scholars like the Anglican theologian John Milbank,13 a significant change occurred in the late medieval period with scholars like the Franciscan William of Ockham (1280-1348). For reasons too complicated to detail on this occasion, Ockham reinterpreted (if you like, re-languaged, or re-narrated) the being, and hence the power, of God. Whereas late-medieval Christianity saw the power of God expressed in the trinitarian relation of caritas and agape, meaning that God's power was best understood on the model of gift exchange, Ockham saw fit to "re-define" God as a more singular sovereignty. Romand Coles, an American political theorist, summarizes the implications of this "re-narration" of God as follows: "God's omnipotence becomes radically singular and contingent: capable of changing the past, potentially capable of malicious deception. The world in turn sheds the veil of 'gift' and becomes the stuff, place and occasion of deception. As God and the world recede from the terrain of caritas, they elicit more receptivity but intensifying [sic] skepticism and fear."14 And Milbank, reading the shift in the same way, offers this lament: "That it was first of all the church . . . which assumed traits of modern secularity . . . ought to give us pause for thought. In a way, it was the increasing failure of the Church to be the Church, to preserve the 'rule of the Gospel' in the monasteries, and somehow to extend this to the laity which created a moral vacuum."15
So what was going on in this transition to secularity in which Ockham participated? It was the move from describing God via the logic of the given biblical/Christian narrative, namely in the language of the trinitarian relation, to a mode of abstract singular ultimate power, indeed a concept which could be thought without logical inconsistency; however, one that was rent from the tradition. This concept required no reading of texts and no partisanship to a particular tradition. Its appeal lay in its clarity of thought and in its universal access. Everyone with a mind could now "access" God. This made the notion intellectually more palatable. Yet it wrested the language of God away from the particular language of the texts of the tradition to an abstract language of thought.
This was the world that the French Christian philosopher Rene Descartes (1596-1650) inherited as he, ironically commissioned by the church, began to place the human mind on the throne now gradually being vacated by a half-obliterated God. The irony deepens when we realize that it was the mind that was supposed to vanquish human fears and provide the certainty (read: freedom from skepticism) that humans needed in the wake of a re-narrated God of radical singularity. It is noteworthy that trust in the one who, over millennia, sustained a people with generosity and love is now being replaced with trust in the foundational logic of the human mind. Nietzsche saw the implications of this move with such pristine clarity that he could have his Madman shout the offensive yet by now self-evident words "Whither is God" he cried. "I shall tell you. We have killed him-you and I. All of us are his murderers."16 Nietzsche knew exactly where the blame was to be laid and he laid it there.
But if it was Nietzsche (1844-1900) who keenly observed the outcome of this logic, it was surely Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), the philosopher between Descartes and Nietzsche, who drove the last spike into the coffin of divine authority. How did he do it? Innocently enough through the heroic championing of so-called secular reason. Enlightenment for Kant meant "dare to reason." And how will reason enlighten our minds? The mind, according to Kant, is universal and reliable and therefore its unimpeded exercise can eradicate bias and error that are found everywhere in the particular (read: biased) social/religious structures. The tradition of the church, or any other institution, is simply not reliable in giving us knowledge. In his "Was ist Aufklaerung?" (1784), originally a newspaper article, he states it clearly, "For this enlightenment, however, nothing is required but freedom, and indeed the most harmless among all the things to which this term can be applied. It is the freedom to make public use of one's reason at every point. But I hear on all sides, 'Do not argue!' The officer says: 'Do not argue but drill!' The tax collector: 'Do not argue but pay!' The cleric: 'Do not argue but believe!' Only one prince [Frederick II, ed.] in the world says, 'Argue as much as you will, and about what you will, but obey!' Everywhere there is restriction on freedom."17 Instead all should be subjected to the critique of pure reason. Or as he puts it a few sentences later, "Our age is, in especial degree, the age of criticism, and to criticism everything must submit."18 For Kant the structure of the mind became the intellectual medium through which human beings "see" the entire world. Whether with "fact" or "values" human beings have access to nothing but constructed reality ("phenomena"). All our knowledge is intellectually constructed in the mind.
This is not the occasion to spell out the details of how Kant reconstructs an epistemology that dominates even to this day, one that nevertheless enables him to make metaphysical claims about God, (Kant was after all a pious Lutheran). Yet this epistemological move is so radical that it came to be called the "Copernican Revolution." Like Copernicus's claim that "in the center of all rests the sun" Kant's analogous claim is that "in the center of all rests the human mind." As Kant would see it, a university's task is first of all to understand the mind and second to apply its logic to all aspects of life. This is, of course, exactly what has happened within the academy. It is therefore perhaps fair to say that Kant marks the end of the Christian and the beginning of the "secular" view of education.
One implication of this approach is the proliferation of independent disciplines of study, each with a subject matter, a method, and a set of important texts that set a mode of discourse independent of other disciplines. This approach is rationalized by the 19th century sociologist Max Weber who tenaciously argues for the eradication of all politics, religion, and human subjectivity from the pursuit of truth. In his "Wissenschaft als Beruf"19 he outlines the importance of the professor to keep all private beliefs outside the classroom and present merely the internal logic of the discipline. That alone is education. And the rationale of this view is clear. If the mind is king, it is then the locus of all integration. All knowledge is brought together under one rational dome. Reason itself is the integrative shell. To suggest that a particular field of knowledge like Christianity, for example, be the locus of integration would be irrational. Hence the universities are the free market place of ideas; the mind doing its job free of all impediments. And the notion of a Christian university becomes an oxymoron.
Discipling the person: It should not surprise us to learn that narrowly training the mind how to think has not always been the focus of education. In ancient Greek and Hebrew culture it was otherwise. The goal of the Greek academy was to train the individual in the habits that would make the individual a better person; one who would receive happiness through the practice of the virtues. The life of reflection and reason was seen as essential for eudaimonia (Aristotle's term for the highest telos of life). In other words, a well disciplined mind was constituent of the good life, and its chief purpose was to equip the individual with a set of persuasive powers that would enable the person to resist the temptations that might otherwise lead the person astray. Such training requires careful discipling. And herein lies the importance of the master and the master's discourse; or if you like, rhetoric. The master has the task of explaining life's pathway to eudaimonia and illuminating for the disciple its many twists and turns and its potential pitfalls. The master literally draws the pupil into a compelling discourse so that the pupil learns to narrate his/her own life via this discourse. This language portrays for the pupil the imagination into which the pupil is drawn. This rhetoric is so powerful that it is possible to know just from hearing or observing the disciple who the master is. Notice that this approach does not exclude mind, but nor is mind an end in itself.
The traditional Jewish approach to education is both similar to and different from the Greek approach. It is similar in that both emphasize the importance of discipling the whole person. Differences include the role of the text and the function of the master in teaching the text. The Jewish tradition believes that torah has the power to transform character. It is therefore important to read both the text and the way it transforms character simultaneously. The master's aim is to teach both. In this respect he also is a "midwife," (like Socrates) assisting in the birthing of something he did not create. Yet the Rabbi's life as a whole is part of the teaching process. Not only does the Rabbi train disciples to read the text, but since the Rabbi also embodies the text, his disciples can, in fact are required to, read both the text and the life in order to understand torah and how it can transform character.
Rabbi Michael Goldberg,20 in an article on Rabbinic discipleship, argues that since traditions are constituted by practices and practices cannot be maintained without communities that enact them, and furthermore, since a community can only be sustained by institutions that train, narrate, and rationalize these practices in the face of competing practices, none of this is possible without schools like yeshiva. In yeshiva, students spend all of their time learning to read torah and to follow the Rabbi. "Yeshiva students, unlike university students, do not follow a curriculum consisting of a specific number of courses leading to a degree, nor for that matter do they take final examinations . . . While a university student generally studies with the same professor a semester or two at most, yeshiva students can remain in the rosh yeshiva's class for five, six or seven years."21
These two examples of attempts to train the whole person are alternatives to the mainstream "disciplining the mind" approach. I believe they have much to teach us. Notice the difference. On both the Greek and Hebrew models the whole person is trained; the mind and the body. There is an assumption that one can "make sense with the body" (Graham Ward22) and not only with the mind. That is to say, how the mind thinks and the body acts are not separable but interconnected. Such an imagination is essential in order for us to accept that the word can indeed become flesh as John tells us. God can indeed be "enfleshed" and embodiment is a teachable act. And if this is so, then the presenting of our bodies in a particular manner can be a spiritual worship (Romans 12:1-2). The chasm of mind and body is not inseparable, and in Christ they are united. This is also why discipleship and not merely meditation is the fuller relation to the master.
Yet as adoptable models for Mennonite liberal arts education the yeshiva model and the Greek model are too narrow. While we are also in the business of training disciples we believe that such training should not only produce philosophers (as in the Greek case) or Rabbis (as in the Jewish case). We want to train more people than those who have chosen the Rabbi or philosopher function within the Mennonite world. We are about training a critical mass of people representing a great variety of vocations; people who will be inspired to become educated Christian characters in many locations; people within the church capable of practicing and narrating the Christian story in credible and compelling ways in many aspects of life. For that we need both to learn from and to broaden the approaches we have discussed so far.
Training a people: It is surprising how much difference it makes to think of the educational enterprise from the standpoint of training a people rather than from the standpoint of either disciplining the mind or discipling the person. The latter two are individual oriented approaches. And while learning, of course, is an individual matter, education is not only that. To speak of education as training a people connects the education enterprise far more directly with the church. But before I say more about this approach I want to make sure that I am not being misunderstood. There is much about both of the first two approaches that should be affirmed; for example, careful and precise thinking is not dispensable within any school, and training disciples is not dispensable in Christian schools. Yet I am suggesting that as church mandated schools we are not just training individuals; we are assisting in the building of a church. Or at least we are not just training individuals to be individuals. So we need to conceive a language of education which builds on the very notion of church itself-that is, not just a collection of individuals but rather a counter culture bearing testimony to our master. Then we need to ask how we as university/college can participate in training a people capable of clear and profound thinking as well as training a discipled people capable of negotiating the demands of following the master, Jesus Christ in today's world. I identify three points of clarification:
- People are relational beings: When one begins to think of the educational task from the standpoint of teaching relational beings, the scope of our endeavor changes. It is now no longer only a matter of what your mind knows or what your body does, but how we relate to one another. And for Christians this is tied up with the notion of relating in a manner that sustains life and images the divine relationality of caritas and agape. On this model the educational undertaking is somewhat akin to building a Greek polis (Aristotle) or to raising up disciples to become a holy nation or a priestly kingdom as we read in Exodus 19:6. Suddenly how we relate to one another, how we structure ourselves in life-sustaining institutions, how we manage differences, etc. all become part of the curriculum. Communication, peace and conflict studies, ethics, justice, family, church, worship, etc. are all part of the agenda. And the teaching venture broadens to include what we do as a whole school. We teach with our bodies, our structures, our administrative practices, our communal rituals, etc. Our schools themselves teach!
- A variety of models: When one thinks of teaching as training a people it is much easier to see that more than one kind of school is needed. We may not need the same kind of school to train pastors as we do to train lay Christians for the work place. One may well be more like the yeshiva than the others. Moreover, it is easy to envision the possibility of undergraduate schools emphasizing different aspects of the educational task or indeed somewhat different philosophies of education. For example, one kind of school a church may wish to establish could have as its deliberate target the un-churched. This is a legitimate educational mission for the church. History may dictate different developments and perfectly good adaptations that can result in quite different approaches to education. If one views the educational enterprise as the church training a people, a variety of models can be accommodated.
- How and what we teach: When the primary lens is not the training of the individual, one also teaches differently. Teaching becomes more relational or dialogical. One is forced to deal with diversity and with conflict. In other words, if one is training a peaceful people, one cannot use non-peaceful teaching methods. Another example, training a people to be open to God or that we are not in control of how history comes out requires a special kind of training. If our task is to train a people worthy to be called God's people we must train students to see all of life doxologically.23 This means that we train them towards a primary stance of praising God for what God is doing. God is after all in charge; we are asked to fit in. Hence Christian education is all about training a people to become capable of seeing the world differently.
Much more could be said about training a people. But this will need to suffice. I am suggesting that we think of ourselves as engaged in the people training process, empowering a collective alternative imagination This calling-a-people-to-a-new-imagination is not an easy task and it is especially difficult because there are few models to draw from.
Back to the question of engagement
I will suggest three "anchoring points"24 for teachers as they work at bringing their disciplines (anthropology, biology, philosophy, music) into creative engagement with the Christian faith. I will do this by further teasing out the implications of how we might go about "training a people" to be theologically literate in their vocations. I suggest that the two central issues here are the following: What is the subject of engagement and what is the appropriate metaphor of engagement? I will address each in turn.
The subject of engagement: We need to be more specific about what is to be engaged. At one level the answer is simply the Christian faith with the academic disciplines. But this is a mismatch. Unless the Christian faith itself is seen as a disciplined study, engagement will not be very significant. And so more adequately put, the engagement needs to be between Christian theology and the other disciplines. And it needs to be said clearly that it is not just the non-theologians that need to do the engaging. Both theologians and other scholars need to work at the task, albeit the two will work at it somewhat differently.
I wish to emphasize that there is content to the Christian faith. It is itself a discipline! It has texts, it has a long history, it has a very large body of literature, it has an inner logic, all of which overlaps with the subject matter of many of the other disciplines. But it is important to emphasize that the faith is not just a subjective "feeling" (Schleiermacher),25 or on the other hand, whatever the Christian's mind can produce by rational reflection (William of Ockham and the Enlightenment). These forms of knowledge would deny what Christians have always affirmed, namely, that our faith is rooted in revelation and is not the product of either reason or experience. Our faith in fact has the power to transform both reason and experience. Since the Christian faith has its own history, tradition, logic, and sacred texts, it demands disciplined study itself. To say this slightly differently, Christians worship a particular God whose particularity is not available to us via general reflection, but through the careful study of the texts, the Christian tradition and its logic, as well as the conscientious cultivation of Christian practices.
Given our Mennonite context another comment is necessary. The Mennonite faith cannot be reduced to distinctives like peace, service, and community. This may well be important "second order language" that can be used to describe Mennonite thought but it is not first order theology and hence is inadequate as a presentation of Mennonite theology.26
Following are a few comments intended to help characterize the content of the Christian story. They are to serve as guides for how to keep the faith from losing content. Obviously their brevity attests to their inadequacy.
- God: A tendency in our day is to think of God as we have been trained to do by modern thought, abstractly-as a supreme power, as one who can do anything. And then come the logical problems, for example, theodicy-if God is perfectly good and all-powerful why is there so much evil in this world. The content of this god is abstract and in our heads and the mode of access is the exercise of the mind. So if this were the God of engagement it would be relatively simple for professors since they could construct God largely in the image of their own discipline, or if they would like, to accept an understanding of God that students bring to class. But the Christian God is specific-the God of Abraham and Sarah, of Jacob and Rachel, the God of Jesus Christ. That is, the particularity of God cannot be known apart from reading the story that gives God character. There can be no significant engagement unless it is with the particularity of this storied God. This particular God is not just the creator, whom we come to know by studying creation. God acts from the trinitarian relation of agape. This is the traditional explanation of the incarnation of Christ and the gift of the Holy Spirit. This trinitarian God is one who has acted in history and acts today as in the time of Moses and Jesus. God acts to restore, heal, redeem, judge, forgive, etc. But how God has acted (God's character) can no more be figured out abstractly than your friend's character can be figured out that way. To know a friend is to know his/her particular history of events. This God who is actively at work healing the world is the one who is to be brought into creative engagement with sociology, psychology, and biology.
- The larger theological narrative: Similar comments should be made about all of theology. The story of Jesus Christ, as is the entire biblical story, is not just about ethics, but about psychology, physics, sociology, anthropology, economics, politics, philosophy, as well as ecclesiology, soteriology, and eschatology. It is the story that touches on the many and various facets of life and attempts to bring them all under the dominion of God, the creator and sustainer of the universe. It is the story that tells us not only something of the past by way of information, but it is a story in terms of which we can narrate our very own existence. And when we do we come to understand ourselves in terms of creaturely receptivity, i. e., God gives, we receive. And such creaturely gift-oriented self-understanding is in tension with much of what is taught in the academic disciplines today.
Serious engagement of the Christian faith must therefore explore the texts that contain this narrative as well as the literature that these texts have generated. Unfortunately in some subject areas there is not much literature available. In those cases serious Christian scholars are called to produce that literature for the next generation.
The metaphors of engagement: There are various metaphors available for the engagement process. Although there is value in all of them some are obviously more helpful than others. Metaphors are important because they determine so much of how engagement is conceived. Let's consider a few of the more common ones.
- The value and problems of the integration metaphor. "Integration" is perhaps the most
common engagement term. But it is difficult to know exactly what it means and how
it is to function to guide engagement. Its value is that it suggests an interaction of
faith and the discipline. But there is virtually no suggestion implicit in the term itself
on how that is to be done. The most popular usage of the term in North America has
its roots in the American Civil Rights Movement. Here it meant bringing blacks and
whites together in the same location. What integration was designed to change was
the attitudes of the people. The belief was that simply the habitation of the two groups
in the same space would produce within both the desired change. Successful
integration did not mean that the blacks should become more white or the whites
more black. That is, the engagement was intentionally not to be critical. Each race,
qua race, was to remain autonomous and unaffected by the other. What was to change
was something inner, an attitude like the tolerance of difference. Mutual tolerance
was perhaps the single most important value of social integration. But what exactly is
tolerance? Stanley Fish, dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at the
University of Illinois in Chicago, describes the "American Creed of tolerance" as
follows: "It goes like this: If you leave me free to believe whatever I like, I'll leave
you free to believe whatever you like, even though in our respective hearts we regard
each other's beliefs as false and ungodly. We can argue about it or privately condemn
each other, but our differences of belief shouldn't mean that we try to disenfranchise,
or imprison, or kill each other or refrain from entering into relationships of
commercial or social cooperation. Let's live and let live. Let's obey the civil,
nonsectarian laws and leave the sorting out of the big theological questions to God
If integration is built on the notion of mutual tolerance thus defined it fails as a model of engagement of the disciplines with the Christian faith. It may well be possible to rescue the integration metaphor by giving it alternative content but it is perhaps preferable to consider another metaphor. For engagement to be meaningful, it has to be such that the interaction of the two items interacting can effect mutual change on each other. How is less clear, but if engagement is not critical engagement it is not very significant.
- The values and problems of the dialogue metaphor. "Dialogue" is another common form
of engagement. The strategy here is to bring the discipline into dialogue with the
faith. Again the value is that this is a form of engagement but the problem is that in
itself it offers no criteria on how. What, if anything, determines dialogue resolution?
Or does there not need to be resolution? Perhaps there does not, but if dialogue is
unending with no apparent impact of one on the other then it would seem to be
pointless. If there is impact then how might that be determined?
It would seem that dialogue alone has two drawbacks: First, dialogue is only healthy if the dialogue partners are equal. Very few teachers are equally trained in both Christian theology and another discipline. Usually at least seven years go into the study of the discipline but rarely does a professor also study theology that long. So this may be a good model for a team-taught course, where you have equal partners in dialogue, but it is not a very good model for a single professor teaching a course. Second, it would be helpful if the goal of the dialogue were spelled out clearly. The metaphor itself has no implicit goal. Is it endless dialogue? Or is agreement envisioned? If the latter, what are the conditions under which agreement could be reached? And how are conditions determined? Is it capitulation, or compromise, or amalgamation? Must one discipline surrender to the other?
- The value and problems of the critique metaphor. While both the integration and the dialogue metaphors speak of intellectual association, their mutual shortcoming is that neither offers a critical pose for serious engagement. There is therefore nothing that protects these approaches from simple reductionism or unengaged parallelism. That is, either the faith can be used to merely bless what can already be known through the discipline, or the body of knowledge produced by the discipline is wholly subordinated to a superficial form of Christianity. Neither is helpful. What we need is a viable critical engagement; a way for each to take the other seriously and for each to offer appropriate critique of the other.
Earlier when discussing Kant's project whereby pure reason was the basis on which all could be critiqued, I objected. I objected on Christian grounds. We are creatures! We are sinners. We are limited beings. Reason does not come in pure form, it is always coloured by human tradition. Hence reason is particular and not pure. Among other shortcomings, this approach led to an excessive reliance upon the autonomy of the disciplines assuming that clear unimpeded thinking about a particular subject was the only way to truth. Moral and theological matters were no longer considered worthy of serious enquiry because they were consigned to the realm of privatised belief. This of course made all integrating and dialogue superfluous since the whole of knowledge was simply the sum of the knowledge gained from each of the disciplines, including religion. Truth was assessed cumulatively and not relationally. Moreover, it gave us Weber's notion that professors should teach so as to keep all personal views in abeyance and expose students only to the logic of the discipline.
Today such an "objective" approach is seen as untenable by virtually all educators, not only Christians, because the greater honesty exposes its impossibility. There are biases all around. But what then? Are we simply to capitulate to the whims and fancies of each professor teaching whatever he or she pleases, whether within the discipline or in bringing the faith into interaction with the discipline? This is hardly adequate. The response is partly given by recognising that we are institutions with a qualifier-a Christian university, or Mennonite college. What is needed in addition, I suggest, is a commitment to critical engagement that should take place within each area of study. I also suggest that the Mennonite colleges and universities see it as their task to further refine the meaning of such a critical engagement. Time and space do not permit adequate treatment here. In what follows I begin to develop such an approach. I cite four anchoring points:
- The nature of critique. To critique is first of all to raise questions of truth and
knowledge. To bring two subjects into critical engagement is to bring what one
subject holds to be true into contact with what another subject holds to be true.
In such an engagement it may well impel one subject to consider what it has
never seen the need to consider up to that time; or, to push one discipline to
confront the implications of its claims in a manner it has not heretofore been
confronted with. For example, is Lawrence Kohlberg's analysis of moral
development which is studied in psychology consistent with a Christian view of
Secondly, and this may well just be a different version of saying the same thing, critique is involved when two disparate discourses, i. e., different accounts of the same phenomenon, are brought together. For example, competing accounts of the origin of the universe. There may well be a kind of reconciliation without capitulation (Lindbeck language) when this happens or there may not be. In both cases, to critique from a Christian standpoint is to ask in what way an alternative (to the traditional) discourse, or a slightly revised one, may make the narrative more authentically Christian.
- The nature of resolving disputes. This is a deeply difficult issue. And often it
takes decades to resolve disputes that stem from important critical engagements.
When we are involved in the venture of "training a people" we do not resolve
matters merely in the heads of a few individuals. The argument is social, not
The temptation is often to reach for a super language outside the particular languages, like Semitic in our opening dialogue. But as we have seen, there is no such thing. This is what Kant failed to see. There is no pure reason outside of all disciplines or traditions to guide us in ways that can adjudicate among competing claims arising from different discourses. There is no outside reason that is not itself located within a particular narrative. The criteria of judgement are within each discipline. This is what makes the matter so difficult. At one level then all we really have is competing narratives.
Yet for a Christian university/college the Christian narrative and logic has a special kind of normativity. This does not mean that the articulation of the Christian logic should never change or that the traditional way of stating it should continue. In fact, change is inevitable. It must change if the old language is no longer compelling, but whether it compels or not is not determined by an outside logic. Rather the logic is internal to the Christian faith itself. This means that alternative formulations of Christian arguments are important and often these are occasioned by the encounter with perspectives from other disciplines. Other disciplines often intersect with the Christian understanding of God, sin and salvation, human nature, history, power, ethics, politics, peace and justice, as portrayed within the biblical/theological account. The Christian faith has always had a strong interest in getting these "way of life" matters right. It is not as though the last words on these topics have been spoken by the Christian tradition but there is good literature available on these topics. And the resolution of such disputes should be guided by finding even more compelling Christian ways of putting the matter. We have many good examples of this happening, two of which are feminism and liberation theology.
We live in a murky middle and at best are on the way. It is important that we chart the way properly. The argument may be long with many interlocutors, but we cannot settle these arguments by fiat! We are creatures; we live with limits. There is no final theory for how to get critical engagement right, but there can be commitment-commitment to work at this task and continue to find truthful ways of doing it.
- Avoiding pedagogical constantinianism. I have already cautioned against an
engagement model that resorts to a super language outside both disciplines.
Now I want to caution against a reductionism to a particular language or
worldview. I will make three closely related points: First, we need to remind
ourselves that Christian education is minority education. It is not for everyone
in the sense that not everyone is interested in the enterprise of critical
engagement with the Christian faith. Mainline universities are not. We should
be up front with our presumptions. We do not parade an autonomous language
that pretends to begin from scratch. We freely acknowledge that there is no
scratch to start from and that we are starting somewhere in the middle-the
Christian faith. But this will make it uncomfortable for those who do not wish
to start there. And that's okay.
Second, since the constantinian synthesis has been able to masterfully silence minority voices in the effort to give expression to one dominant interpretation of all of reality (let's remember that Mennonites have been among the victims here), we should be careful not to fall into the same temptation in our own teaching. We could easily attempt to reduce all knowledge to a singular Christian epistemology or philosophy. I believe that would be a mistake. John Howard Yoder in speaking against methodologism generally puts it as follows: "The worst form of idolatry is not carving an image; it is the presumption that one has-or that a society has, or a culture has-the right to set the terms under which God can be recognized."28 Our call as Christian educators is not to develop intellectual schemes into which all of geography and sociology, for example, and all Christian theology can neatly fit together. That might be intellectually clear, but it does not necessarily serve the interest of Christian truth.
Third, and closely related to the second point, we should be comfortable with a variety of ways or models of bringing the Christian faith into interaction with the disciplines. There is no single theory that determines how it is to be done. This is not to say that every approach is as helpful as every other. For example, I would argue that an approach that ends up with a faith that has little resemblance to the Christian story as the tradition tells it is not adequate. But that possibility exists with any theory. My point here is that there are a variety of approaches that can do the job with integrity. The test of a good approach is whether it gives a truthful account of the Christian story. But the point is that this does not only get settled in the head, but with the people.
- The medium is the message: There may not be a single theory of critical
engagement, but there is a larger Christian narrative in which we are characters.
Hence, how we teach is just as important as what we teach. If our approach to
teaching is not consistent with the content of the Christian faith we will not be
teaching the Gospel regardless of what we say. This makes teaching in a
Christian school especially difficult because secular models of education do not
pay much attention to the issues of coherence of medium and message. Here I
cite three points: First, the stance of our teaching should be invitational. We
offer something that we are inviting students into. This means that the learning
is not merely a matter of training the mind to think, it is both a way to think and
a way to see what difference it makes to think that way. The professor is
therefore not merely the dispenser of knowledge, but also the one who
embodies the faith in the discipline being taught. We tend to be uncomfortable
with this notion but I don't see how it can be any other way within a Christian
college. We may not have a theory of engagement, but we do have Christian
teachers who are examples of embodied truth.
Second, the method of teaching should be informed by peace. This is especially important for Mennonites because of our pacifist convictions. But I mean much more than that professors ought not to exhibit violent fits of rage, and certainly I mean more than that we should try to be nice. I mean that we should be guided by a "pedagogy of peace," a way of engaging the teaching enterprise itself that is non-constantinian. Let me explain. As we have seen, constantinian consciousness assumes that there is one dominant idiom that alone is permitted to be the medium of knowledge. But within a pedagogy of peace, language is not about control, but about opening up new worlds that are not visible through the lens of the old idioms. It is people reading texts that shape community and we realise that not all discourses are equally able to help us see God at work reconciling the world. Christian schools should be sceptical about language that attempts to herd people into narrow conformity. Let us remember that the biblical texts that shape us are themselves diverse texts; they are not narrow. Insistence on a singular discourse is usually associated with an attempt to control outcome, to dominate or even to enslave. A pedagogy of peace is not concerned about outcome since it attempts to open up a world in which students can see God at work. And no language, or imagination, can control God's work.
A closely related third point is that the stance of teaching informed by the message of the Gospel is confessional. Since the Gospel is invitational it is clear about what people are being invited into; in fact that seems to be the primary preoccupation of Jesus' ministry. But then it tolerates rejection. People have a right to say no. This is not the kind of tolerance that Stanley Fish ridicules (see above), because it demands careful articulation, even fierce debate, and certainly a strong view of truth. Nevertheless, it tolerates and even expects rejection.
Two Final Questions
All of what I have said so far has implications for the kind of professors and the kind of schools we should foster. I therefore identify two final questions. Needless to say these two questions need much more attention than we are able to give on this occasion.
- What kind of skills should we cultivate in teachers in order for them to be the kind of
teachers who can bring their discipline into critical engagement with the faith? Since
space is limited, I will simply identify some qualities that professors should cultivate.
This is an important question since most academic deans will agree that the single most
important act of any school is to hire the right faculty. After all, schools tend to go in the
direction of the will of the faculty.
- Commitment: Commitment to the process of hard work at the task of critical engagement is perhaps the most important quality needed. The reason I say this is that the engagement skill can only be learned by doing. As I have said, there is no ready made theory to "apply." And learning this skill is long and hard work.
- Read very broadly: In order for critical engagement to work well teachers will need to read both within their disciplines as well as outside of them. This applies to both theologians as well as other professors. Perhaps even more important, books should be read and discussed with other colleagues. There are some excellent books on the nature of theology that could be of great assistance in this process.29
- Interdisciplinary teaching: Much can be learned from teaching in an interdisciplinary manner. Essentially that is what critical engagement is. And there are a variety of ways of doing this, one of which is team teaching.
- Faculty fora: It is important that faculty members talk with one another across the disciplines about the joint teaching enterprise that we are involved in. The approach being suggested is one in which the entire school teaches, not just individual teachers.
- Research and publication: Because Christian university education is a minority in relation to the larger North American educational process, scholars from these institutions need to exert a special effort in research and publication. We have a contribution to make not only to our students but also to other scholars, both in the areas of our own expertise and more broadly for those interested in the articulation of the faith.
- What kind of curriculum should a Christian college/university foster? The general answer is
that it should offer a curriculum in which the entire school is seen as a rationale for the
Christian faith.30 And this is a rationale directed in two ways: towards our own
constituencies and towards the larger public. Five points:
- The disciplines: The discussion above should not be read to suggest a depreciation of the traditional academic disciplines. Critical engagement can only be a serious process if the disciplined study of the subject is deep and profound. Interdisciplinary study should never be an excuse for superficiality. We may well organise our departments differently from the mainline universities, but not is such a way as to lesson the serious focus on the subject matter.
- Special interdisciplinary courses: Mennonite schools should experiment with special interdisciplinary courses. Perhaps there could be one is each discipline, including in theology. These courses need not be taught every year but they would place the critical engagement agenda squarely on the curriculum agenda. It is simply a dream to think that critical engagement will happen in every course because it is asked to be done there.
- Theology: We need to foster strong theological studies. Unless we develop courses that present theology at its very best whether in Bible, theology, church history, or practical theology, there will not be serious critical engagement. We need to hire theologians that are well-read scholars not only in theology but in other fields as well.
- Teaching peace: Mennonite schools need to offer peace and conflict studies courses. We have a special Christian emphasis that will go the way of the dodo bird if it is not fostered with integrity. Moreover, peace is itself an excellent locus for critical engagement of the disciplines. Its study is by its very nature interdisciplinary.
- Current issues: There are many issues being debated in public that Mennonite schools should address. Violence, biomedical issues, technology, sex-related issues, etc. These issues should be explored from the standpoint both of giving the Christian community a language and imagination to understand these matters as well as engaging the general public on these subjects.
I conclude as I began with reference to John Meagher's book The Gathering of the Ungifted. I hope this doesn't burst anyone's bubble but we here are not the most "gifted" people in the world. I am not saying that we are dumb, but it is not likely that any of us will be the next Abraham, or Elijah, or Paul, or even a Martin Luther King. And the same could be said of the students we teach. I suspect that most of them are rather ordinary as well. If Abraham and Elijah are the gifted ones who have outlasted thousands of years of history, we are the ungifted. This is Meagher's point. But as the ungifted we still have a very important role to play. We are the ones who are called to present the gifted ones to others. We do not teach ourselves, or our own ideas; we teach others and their ideas. Or as Kierkegaard puts it, we can at most be poets of the greats, orators of the faithful ones. Let us not try to be more than we are. And above all else, let us work effortlessly at opening students to the God of creation and history in order that God might make of us a people worthy to be called Christian. We can do this best by teaching (learning to read) history, English, music, theology, sociology, doxologically. That is, learning to see ourselves within the scheme of God's activity in this world. Because we are not the truth we can (must) follow the truth if we are to come to know it. So let us open our own lives to our students that they may see what it has meant for someone to be a Christian musician, historian, biologist. Let us accept the limits of our creatureliness. Let us teach our students to praise God for what God is giving them.
Of this gospel I have become a servant according to the gift of God's grace that was given by the working of his power. Ephesians 3:7