Follow by Email

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

A Different Approach to Christian Education

" ...my people are destroyed from lack of knowledge. Because you have rejected knowledge, I also reject you as my priests..." (Hosea 4:6a) This charge, originally leveled against the people of Israel, should serve as a word of warning for us all. In the Gospels Christ told his followers that the first and greatest commandment was to, "Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind." (Mathew 22:37b) but far too often people are not able or willing to apply their mental faculties to their walk with God. Here I would like to take a moment to explore: why we as Christians, and especially Protestant Christians, must do so with renewed vigor, what keeps us from doing this (why we are comfortable checking our brains at the church door), and a suggestion for a new systemic approach to Christian Education in our churches. It is my hope that in doing so we can begin a conversation that will better equip Christians to navigate the increasingly complex and sophisticated world in which we find our selves, and help bring the Church back to the intellectual and cultural fore in the twenty-first century.


One of the major difficulties brought about by the Reformation is that the Protestant can no longer rely on others to do his thinking for him. The rallying cry of the Reformation, "Sola scriptura! Sola fide! Sola gratia! Solo Christo! Soli Deo gloria!" ("By scripture alone! By faith alone! By grace alone! Through Christ alone! To the glory of God alone!") brought with it the consequence that every person must now become an intentional theologian. By undercutting the authority of the Pope and as a result the traditions and teachings of the Church in favor of a return to sources the early reformers now needed to encourage scrupulous study of the Scriptures, every Protestant was placed in the position where they had to decide what the teachings of the Scriptures, and the Spirit of God were saying to them. To this was added the burden of learning logic and reasoning, extra emphasis was placed on this branch of learning during the Enlightenment (also called the "Age of Reason"). Later Protestants were encouraged to deliberately draw from their own experiences of God as sources for their theology as Empiricism exerted greater and greater influence in the hearts and minds of the people. Finally, it was understood that an understanding of history, sociology, psychology, linguistics, etc... would be needed in order to obey Paul's call to Timothy, "Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth." (2 Timothy 2:15)

Now some may object, "I don't need theology to know God." In one sense this is correct, you do not need to know theology to know God any more than you might need to know biology in order to be alive. However, everyone is theologian- whether or not they intend to be (similarly everyone is a biologist in that we all have ideas about how life works; everyone is a mathematician in that they use mathematics, etc...). Theology comes from the Greek words "theos" meaning God and "logos" here meaning "the treatment or study of". Anyone who has any ideas about God is a theologian. The question is whether or not one wishes to engage in the practice intentionally or not. I believe that the distaste for theology has become popular in our churches largely because of a distrust of "so-called experts", a misunderstanding of the nature of the Scriptures (the idea that they do not require interpretation, that they are "The Word of God"- a claim they never make of themselves that amounts to idolatry, or a misunderstanding of their intent),  a fear of losing ones place in a community in the event ones beliefs change, an attempt to avoid cognitive dissonance ("a discomfort caused by holding conflicting cognitions [e.g., ideas, beliefs, values, emotional reactions] simultaneously. In a state of dissonance, people may feel surprise, dread, guilt, anger, or embarrassment."- thank you Wikipedia [accessed 5/16/2012] ), false piety (fearing that theological inquiry is an affront to the holiness of God), and intellectual laziness.

I firmly place the blame for the poor state of theology in the life of the Church my fellow Pastors and Christian educators (this paragraph and the one following are for them). Perhaps we ourselves have grown up in traditions or churches that were hostile towards thought. Perhaps we are afraid that theological education would undermine the faith of some of our parishioners. Maybe we labor under the mistaken notion that such education is boring or irrelevant for Christian living. It could also be the case that we are afraid that our parishioners may not like the conclusions they come to, perhaps they will disagree with us, perhaps they will feel the need to search for another church that agrees with their new found theologies. These are all possibilities- though I believe that the main reasons are: again, intellectual laziness, a fear of being exposed as not "all-knowing", and a confusion about how and where to begin. None of these are adequate justifications or excuses for our present state of affairs. It is true that James 3:1 warns us, "Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness." But Christ also tells us that, "From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked." (Luke 12:48b). If you as a minister have been given the gift of teaching and entrusted with the blessing of a college or seminary education, you are accountable to put them to use to further your kingdom. The word "Pastor" is a Latin word that means shepherd. What kind of shepherd would have their sheep malnourished when they know a of source for sustenance nearby- it may be hard to get there, but the flocks are starving and we need to get a move on.

If  as Pastors we are to teach the people first we must learn ourselves. Loving the Lord with all our minds is a lifetime endeavor. All Pastors should have a program of personal study that includes the study of the Scriptures, theology proper, history, tradition, philosophy, sociology, etc... You can't teach what you don't know and most churches have a continuing education budget (if not, talk to your board/vestry about establishing one) and wear that sucker out. In the event they do not, there are many seminaries that offer classes through iTunes U for little to no cost, and library cards are normally free. Heck, take some time to read all those books you claim to have read in school! Remember, its like St. Augustine said, "all truth is God's truth." Second, we must love the people we are teaching and trust God to honor our good faith efforts. Anytime before I preach or teach I say the following prayer, "Lord, let all that I say and do that comes from you take root and grow and flourish. Let all that does not wither and die by your grace. Amen". 

Next we all must acknowledge what stops us from learning. Now here, I do not mean mental or learning disabilities. I would be far out of my depth to speak to such special cases, but there are other excellent resources out there. For most people, learning stops when: we stop being introduced to new materials, we become bored and cease to hear new information that is being presented, or (and this has, in my experience been the toughest nut to crack) we have more invested socially and emotionally in our previously held ideas than in the ones now being presented. The first and second problems are easily addressed by having interesting imaginative well educated teachers . The third is a little harder nut to crack. You see, simply being correct is not enough for most people to abandon an idea if the previously held position is doing more for them than the one being presented will. This is especially difficult in matters religious where adherence to particular statements and teachings may cause the inclusion or exclusion of someone from fellowship. In order to overcome this obstacle a the equation needs to be stacked in such away that acceptance of the new idea will have a greater benefit than adherence to the old one, or maintaining of the old idea becomes stigmatized in such a way that its continuation would result in a cost deemed too high to bear. It would be my suggestion that first, we relax the limits on what technically keeps one in fellowship with the church itself to a bear minimum. I personally like the standard set by Alexander Campbell (one of the founders of the Christian Church [Disciples of Christ]), "But who is a Christian? I answer, every one that believes in his heart that Jesus of Nazareth is the Messiah, the Son of God; repents of his sins, and obeys him in all things according to his measure of knowledge of his will." In this definition, you will notice the only doctrinal "musts" are belief in Christ, repentance, and an attempt at obedience to the best of one's understanding. There is nothing here about belief in the virgin birth, the infallibility/inerrancy of Scripture, the place of women in the Church, the issue of homosexuality, etc... In so doing, we remove the risk of formal exclusion from the church- the issue of exclusion from informal social groups (cliques, friendships, etc) is still in place, however. These concerns can best be mitigated by promoting a culture of tolerance and acceptance within the fellowship of our churches, but it can never be entirely removed.  Whatever you or your denomination sees as the sine qua non of their fellowship, I recommend taking as loose an interpretation as possible- because advances in thought happen best and most frequently in a lower consequence environment. Similarly, the parodying of willful ignorance (as a type mind you, never particular individuals), and the praising/public promotion (say encouraging them to teach a class or play a more public role in the church body) of those who have taken such risks (whether or not their conclusions necessarily match your own) can help to create an environment that rewards free thought. I know that this is simply the tip of the iceberg, but a blog isn't exactly the place to tease out the implications of this idea. Finally, as I continue a paragraph the length of which would make Kerouac blush, there is still the matter of cognitive dissonance associated with the period of time when both the old and new ideas and the baggage inherent therein are weighed by the individual. During this period both ideas can be viewed as more or less true. Here a pastoral touch is needed. As a minister or a friend of someone going through this period understand that this causes distress for the individual and can be endured (in most cases) for a very short period of time. Here the best way to help would not be to argue for the "truth" of one thought over and against the other but to attempt to empathize with the individual. During this period there may be mourning as the realization that the selection of one path or the other could close some doors in terms of interpersonal relationships. If the change is in the persons best interest, commiseration is recommended and perhaps one should take the opportunity to show the doors that such a change opens to the individual. 

In the course of Christian education, one can overcome all of the obstacles to education: one might be well educated and interesting, one might well feel the power of the Spirit at work in their teaching ministry, one might well be adept at helping those in their care navigate the psychological and sociological pitfalls associated with learning. All of this without a systematic program to give people the tools they need to be responsible theologians will have mixed results at best. John Wesley proposed that in our theological reflection we draw on the sources of Scripture, Tradition, Reason and Experience. This is a great starting point, though I would argue that reason is not nearly so important as it was in Wesley's world. I would recommend a modified form of this paradigm wherein we work with Scripture, Community, and Experience. In this scheme the three building blocks of Christian education would be: Hermeneutics (the art and science of Biblical Interpretation), Theology (the study of God both historical and modern- this discipline takes into account the beliefs and practices of the individual community [church congregation], the testimony of the Church historically, and the use of the tools of logic, as well as interaction with the sciences), finally Experience in terms of the study of the Christian Disciplines (prayer, study, meditation, fasting, simplicity, worship, etc...) and the service of others (in terms of missions/service projects).

In this approach a basic grounding would be required: an introduction to biblical interpretation, an introduction to theology, an introduction to Church and denominational history, an introduction to the Christian Disciplines, introduction to evangelism, etc... prior to building on this base in their various disciplines (for example a basic course in biblical interpretation would be required prior to a study of, say The Book of Acts). I recognize that this approach would work best with at least two teachers (at least after the first class, as the second would have to be an introduction or it would run the risk of being closed to new members). But this can be overcome through sufficiently talented/trained lay teachers. I would also recommend that this approach be taken inter-generationaly (incorporating high school aged children on) in order to help the remainder of the class benefit from their inquisitive nature and enthusiasm and because their stage of mental/spiritual development and their lack of societal ties can make them more susceptible to accepting new ideas and can help change the overall atmosphere of a group for the better (the same is true of the very old, but for different reasons). I recognize that this is just the tip of the iceberg, and I hope to continue on the conversation with you in the days and weeks to come. 

No comments:

Post a Comment