Monday 18 November 2013

Betwixt and Between

Last month I reflected on what I took to be a condition of creaturely existence—being in the middle of things, a between-ness marking our kind of living in God's world. I realize that I've been pondering this state of affairs and its far-reaching consequences a lot these past months. For example, this past September I gave a paper at a conference in which a hundred and more scholars gathered at the Presbyterian College in Montreal and the chapel space of the Department of Religion at McGill University to honour Stanford Reid long-time Reformation historian from the University of Guelph and long-time friend of Christian higher education, including the Institute for Christian Studies. The conference entitled "Christian Faith and the University" was co-sponsored by the Religion departments of McGill and Concordia University, the Presbyterian College in Montreal and Cardus, the remarkable think tank that has grown out of the Christian Labour Association of Canada's Work Research Foundation. I used the occasion to think about a between-ness I see woven into the very fabric of Christian higher education.

Christian higher education belongs to the social sphere proper to higher education, it is a sphere that exudes a particular quality, a way of being in the world that stands under and conditions theoretical reflection upon the world. By the quality marking higher education I am pointing to our human capacity to self-consciously distinguish one thing from another in thought. Theoretical reflection in our day is highly complex, distributed across many disciplines like history, chemistry and that like, and across an ever expanding set of platforms for interdisciplinary research (medieval studies is one that comes readily to my mind). But all this reflection of whatever kind gets its character and quality from our God-given capacity as human beings to distinguish one thing from another in and through our thinking. And this is also true of the institutions we build to foster theoretical reflection and to introduce our theoretically gifted young adults to such reflection as part and parcel of our equipping them to discern and follow their vocations in adult life. The sphere in which higher education belongs, however, can be distinguished from the sphere in which churches belong. The sphere of churches breathes a different quality, grounded in a different human capacity. Churches are built upon and at the same time exist to preserve and develop faith. By "faith" I am referring to our God-given and humanity-wide capacity to be open to the deep spiritual envelop in which the whole of our existence is enfolded, by which we live whether we know it or not ever before the face of God, ever within the sound of God's voice inviting us to find ourselves within God's loving intentions for us and the world as a whole. It is this capacity opening us to the central mystery of our existence that marks ecclesial life and the institutions we found to foster it. Of course because one sphere has logical distinction-making as its characteristic mark and another has faith does not mean that distinction-making has no place in the sphere of the church or that faith has no place in the sphere of higher education. All the capacities and qualities of human life belong in all the spheres of human life. Nevertheless, spheres should be thought in this picture to have their own character; they exude their own quality. They foreground one or another capacity—e.g. faith in the church; logical distinction-making in higher education. That foregrounding gives the appearance of placing other capacities in the background.

In this picture, Christian higher education belongs to the sphere of higher education, but it is positioned at that place where it bumps up against the sphere of the church. Such a positioning on the marches between the sphere of the churches and the sphere of higher education (on the higher education side of the border except for seminaries and bible colleges that straddle it) was what I meant by claiming that there is a between-ness about Christian higher education. And anything that is to be found on the borders between spheres acknowledges that position in its way of being. The Christian academy does so by properly foregrounding faith in its pursuit of theoretical reflection via its research and in its teaching.

Christian higher education properly experiences a creative tension resulting from that dual foregrounding. Secularization does not create the tension Christian higher education's between-ness entails, but it does change its character, deepening it and altering it so that it threatens instead of enables. The more disciplines develop in a "naturalizing" direction, i.e., as if the world they reflected upon where not a creation owing its very existence to the Creator, the more debilitating the pressure applied to Christian scholars and institutions as they struggle with the implications of between-ness in a secularizing sphere. That pressure threatens either to expel Christian higher education from the sphere appropriate to it so that it becomes an ecclesiastical endeavour (a mode of Christian formation in the sense of catechesis as opposed to education), or demands that Christian scholars and institutions capitulate to the secularizing ethos and dynamic of the sphere of higher education as it exists on the ground so that their research and teaching occurs more and more "as if the world were not a creation owing its very existence to the Creator". In the paper I suggested that the pressure in the first direction was well illustrated by some of the most creative work being done in the Reformational tradition today to think through the spiritual ethos and life patterns proper to Christian higher education: the work of James K.A. Smith. But one can also see the pressures in the second direction in the many Christian colleges in which faith and learning integration is left to theology departments and the college chaplaincy, for faculty have not been trained within their disciplines in ways that work from a faith perspective and so are uncomfortable doing so except in fairly superficial ways.

ICS was set up in the awareness of the second pressure above all. It was set up in part (for its mission has always been more complex than its size would seem to warrant) to promote theoretical reflection in a variety of disciplines that flowed from a scripturally attuned faith perspective articulated in a philosophically primed manner via the resources of the Reformational tradition. ICS has remained of course far too small and fragile to make much of a dent. But this calling is as vital today as it was over 45 years ago when it first opened its doors. What are needed in the Christian academy as much as ever are Christian faculty whose training as scholars includes deep communal reflection on how to think of the world from one disciplinary or interdisciplinary vantage point or another "as if the world to be explored were in fact a creation attuned to the invitation to be of its loving Creator", scholars comfortable with that task, willing and able to make it an intrinsic feature of their subsequent teaching and research. From that perspective, this dimension of the mission of ICS should speak so powerfully to people of faith that they enable it to become a much larger centre for Christian higher education at the graduate level, better able to educate scholars in an expanded number of disciplines. Still, as long as ICS lives and breathes it can do so knowing that it is privileged to inhabit the between-ness that is Christian higher education in ways that explore in the context of one's (inter)disciplinary training how one can participate authentically in the sphere of higher education in intimate proximity to the sphere of the church, and so ever before the eyes of the Creator-God whose love for us and the world at large encompasses our and its redemption and exaltation to a consummating Shalom.

Bob Sweetman