Monday, August 9, 2010

On Coherence in Christian Teaching: Hospitality, Truthfulness, and Speaking as Yourself

Back in February of this year, my friend Josh Case published the piece below on his blog as part of a series of guest posts. As I began a two-week course today on Theologies of Religious Pluralism, it seemed relevant and worth sharing in this forum for sparking conversation about pluralism and truthfulness.

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Finding oneself in a diverse and predominantly liberal seminary is an extraordinary experience in more ways than can be explained or anticipated. One of the hallmarks of such an environment is, of course, the all-pervasive virtue of tolerance, highlighted in conjunction with the hoped-for and hailed value of diversity. It has been a great gift to belong to a place which, warts and all, strives after such things.

However, it is unclear to me that mere tolerance is a virtue, much less something to be sought after at all. Tolerance is to diversity what passivity is to violence: the pacifist can sit on his righteous haunches all he wants, but until he gets up and does something, until he acts (to be sure, nonviolently) for justice, nothing's changing and no one could or ought to care less. Similarly, to "tolerate" the differences of others leads inevitably to the whitewashing of legitimate differences, often resulting in a kind of loose "we are the world" false unity or, worse, an intolerance of those who are not tolerant "like us."

This is clearly seen in the pedagogical practices of explicitly Christian professors who do not seem to feel comfortable to speak as Christians when teaching, even or especially when teaching Christian theology to predominantly Christian students, apparently for fear of assuming the "we" of the church does not apply to the "we" of the classroom, or of speaking on behalf of "Christians" when the views of Christians are neither monolithic nor fixed.

I assume at the outset that the heart and the concerns from which these practices spring are legitimate and sincere, and are grounded in a desire to welcome and not to exclude, to inspire conversation and not to tell others what they do or should believe. And to the extent that this is true, the intent is highly laudable and in many ways truly Christian in origin.

However, beyond tolerance, the truly Christian virtues that ought to ground our pedagogical practices in the classroom are twofold: hospitality and truthfulness. The two are interrelated because one cannot be hospitable apart from the truth, nor truthful apart from welcome of difference. Because Christians believe that Jesus is Lord, and the character of that Lordship to be of one who came without coercion or exclusion, but welcomed all to the table and refused even to kill his enemies, the truth of fullest human communal interaction -- conversation and pedagogy being two of the chief practices in this case -- must involve both the truth of who we are before God and one another and the refusal to silence or coerce the difference of the other.

I believe that if these virtues were to become the grounds and bounds of Christian education, the limited space created by mere tolerance would expand into the wide breadth of honest speech and welcomed learning; it would also, in a straightforward manner, become more coherent. If, for example, a Christian professor refuses to "represent the tradition" separate from her own views, or actually openly commits herself to a particular tradition of belief, or does not assume in language or content that "we" all must have "something" in common more core than our various religious "divisions" -- this names the truth of the situation much more clearly and directly, and simultaneously opens up new avenues for conversation because, the reality of our relations to one another having been named aloud, we can now move forward in learning together without playing the part of a lie.

(I should also note that this strategy pushes back against the Enlightenment notion that we may simply lay out the options before individuals and allow them to pick and choose, with their supposedly reliable rational faculties, what they happen to believe to be the best choice. No: tell me exactly what you think, and trust me enough to know that I will not simply internally imbibe your view into a pale imitation, but instead will now be better formed by your acknowledgment of particular locatedness vis-a-vis my particular location, and together we will both learn from each other. There simply is no objective "space" between us in which we can step and see the truth. Let us take positions, argue and talk, and love each other as we learn.)

To offer one concrete suggestion, I would be delighted if professors would begin each semester in their various classes by offering the bullet points (or story) of their basic theological assumptions. In this way every student would know from the outset where the professor is coming from, and perhaps in smaller classes even every student could share where he or she is coming from as well. If the professor is ambiguous regarding the Christian faith, or Jewish, or a secular humanist, or whatever -- all the better! Speak the truth aloud, let people inside of your own particularity -- from which you cannot escape, even with tenure -- and relate to one another henceforth with the walls of professor-student power politics broken down, even if only partially.

I should conclude by sharing that this is not some abstract principle for me, but a pedagogical commitment I intend to practice in the future, as I am planning to go on to doctoral work after my MDiv and eventually hope to teach as a professor. And if I were to get up in front of a class today, I would say that I am a Christian by virtue of confession of faith in Jesus and membership in a local church community, holding in general to much of the essential orthodox tradition. More particularly, for the sake of class discussion and straightforward accountability in conversation, my basic set of assumptions about what it means to be a Christian are as follows:
  • Jesus of Nazareth, crucified and risen, is Israel's Messiah and Lord of the cosmos.
  • Ecclesia names that community called and gathered by the Holy Spirit in discipleship to and worship of this same Jesus.
  • Christian Scripture has compelling authority and abiding truthfulness.
  • We are not bystanders in relation to these claims: it matters profoundly what we think, say, and do vis-a-vis God, Jesus, church, Scripture, history, and tradition.
Much is missing from these stated assumptions (Trinity, Israel, eschaton, sacraments, narrative, salvation, gender, race, religious pluralism, violence, prayer, etc.), and they are intentionally ambiguous in their stated content. But ideally this small example offers a window into the possibilities that this sort of up-front-ness offers, both for the health and education of a seminary, or any other, classroom, as well as for the honesty and welcome those with somewhat or even radically different assumptions can experience in the context of learning Christian theology.

1 comment:

  1. As one who has just completed an MDiv and is finishing up an MTS, I've had a fair amount of experience "in class" of diversity and pluralism within a traditionally liberal seminary. What I've actually found quite interesting is that some professors offer a prolegomenon, of sorts, on par with what's being discussed here. Yet, for others, I've found that if you scour the syllabus, a determination as to some of these preliminary commitments might be found. And, if all that fails, I've been known to look at their own written work, as well as their "suggested readings" list within the syllabus. By doing so, I've been able to determine, at least in a general sense, the theological bent of the prof.

    And yet, even saying that, there have been a few times where I couldn't figure out what the hell the professor thought on any particular issue until a student might have said the wrong thing and then everyone knew :)