Thursday 19 December 2013

Risk and Character of Christian Higher Education

There is a story I have heard told of Reformational legend Peter Steen from his days as a member of the faculty of Geneva College in Beaver Falls, PA. It says a lot about the frank and yet curiously, perhaps even indelibly, naive seriousness of the man in his work as Christian public intellectual, gadfly and inspiration. As the story goes, early in his short faculty tenure at Geneva College he was invited to teach the adult Sunday school class at a local Beaver Falls Methodist Church. He happily accepted the invitation. As the classroom filled, he rummaged around the blackboard, found a suitable piece of chalk and wrote in very large letters what I will call “that most fricative of four-letter words.” He then turned around, looked at his audience intently and asked why it was, did they think, that the children they raised so lovingly and carefully in the ways of the Lord, so often went off to university and learned to say words like the one to be seen there on the blackboard behind him. Not a bad question really. In a gruffly evocative way he was raising the question of a Christian academic witness in higher education. A certain cavalier secularity was contagious. It was worth considering why and what might be done to inoculate the younger generation against its spiritually sickening effects. Of course, by the time he opened his mouth to speak, no one was listening to him. They just sat there staring at the board, pondering the mystery of someone who would think to write “that most fricative of four-letter words” right there in their church’s Sunday school classroom. The session was less than a success.

I repeat this story in part because it is good to remember the cloud of witnesses who were active and articulate on behalf of a Reformational vision of Christian higher education in its swashbuckling early days in North America. It is especially good because the personalities at play were large and incorrigibly idiosyncratic. Wondrously and against the expectations of most pedagogical theories, they had an impact on others so profound that even their foibles and faux pas came to be the subject of story, narrative bits formed in part out of wistfulness (ah it was a time when giants walked the land), and in part out of a good natured and tolerant affection (yes, yes, a bit tone deaf; was that stunt really necessary? But, o my, wouldn’t it have been fun to have been a fly on the wall?).

Commemoration is a fine intention and an important part of the communion of saints. Nevertheless, that is not all there is to the story. It also brings to the fore a very common misconception about the proper ethos of Christian higher education. The misconception is to be found in the word “inoculation”. When Christian education and its central conceptual frameworks are built and defended in the expectation of inoculating students against one cultural and scholastic contagion or another, one does well to think twice. Such an ethos betrays an aversion to risk that undercuts the project of Christian higher education in important ways.

I am not denying that our aversion to educational risk gets at something very important. It is the spiritual welfare of our children and young adults that we are worried about. It is their spiritual identity that can hang in the balance. Surely, we might well ask: if we can construct educational environments, scholarly habits and convictions that lower the risk, indeed that can serve as safe places in which to study and grow as persons of faith, what could be wrong with that?

A parent’s desire to keep their children safe is a healthy even a laudable response to life in the world and its challenges. The question is, however, how such a desire comes to proper expression in the conception and construction of Christian higher education and in the scholarship that goes on within it. Scholarship and the sort of critical thinking it schools has its own rightful character. It is by its very nature open ended, moving out from its starting points to follow the quest for understanding, on some level, we know not where. Of course in Christian higher education we start from places that are saturated with the sense of the presence and care of the Creator-Redeemer-Enabler. It is a sense that will be supported by scholarly discipline, nurtured by biblical, theological and philosophical foundations that represent the distillate of the community of faith’s long struggle to live mindfully in faith and with respect to this, God’s world. We should not be interested in pursuing forms of scholarship that proceed as if there were no God, to steal the phrase of McGill theologian Douglas Farrow. Rather, scholarship, as Reformational philosopher D.H.Th. Vollenhoven saw so well, moves ever forward toward provisional results that open up new inquiries leading in turn to further provisional results, world without end. In such an enterprise there remains an open-endedness in which risk can reside. We are not the Makers and Masters of the Universe. We cannot control the progress of scholarly research or of higher level teaching. We enter into such an enterprise in good faith trusting in the community of Christian scholars (if there is one available) and ultimately the Holy Spirit to correct and keep us at work in search of God-honouring results, provisional though they be.

Trust then entails the risk of risk; it does not preclude it. Risk and trust go together in Christian higher education, or at least they ought to. But that is often not how we feel about the matter. Such a mixture is not to our liking; it doesn’t seem good enough. It doesn’t seem worth the money and the . . . well . . . risk. We want something else, something more. We would have it that institutions of Christian higher education make the world “safe” for Christian young adults faced with the discernment of vocation in the context of higher level scholarly study. I think we mean something like this: Christian scholarship and pedagogy should work to secure a certain formation of the mind. The assumption is that the mind to be formed is passive in relation to that which does the forming. In the first instance the mind is passive with respect to “a who”—the scholar-teacher whose pedagogy forms the mind in ways that keep its faith safe from scholarly challenges. In the second place the mind is passive with respect to the pedagogy that the scholar teacher employs. Indeed, it is my guess that in the Reformed world the model of pedagogy working subliminally is that of old-fashioned catechesis, in which scholarly development involves at bottom a learning a priori the right questions to ask in the right order and with the right answers already attached. It is hard to see how such passivity will produce scholars whose creative, imaginative and critical-analytical gifts have been developed to such a degree that new explorations of God’s world ensue but one CAN see how such passivity might reduce the risk that scholarly exploration of the world will ever go off on tangents and end up in places far from those presupposed by the right questions, asked in the right order with the right answers already attached since those questions, answers and that order are to act in principle as frame and limit for all that follows.

The ethos of safety promised by a “catechetical” pedagogy is a great temptation of Christian higher education. It is so because it flows from such godly anxiety: the anxiety of an older generation of the faithful for the spiritual well-being of a younger generation. It is a temptation that distorts Christian higher education because it fails to consider the true provisional, ever developing, ongoing nature of scholarship. The proper expression of faith and trust in scholarship does not translate into safety for the teacher-scholar, for her students, or for the Christian community that invests in both. Rather, faith and trust come to expression in a scholar and student’s capacity to work in the confidence that the community of faith and the Holy Spirit who lies behind it will hang on to them as they work to understand the contours of God’s world as a participant in the scholarly disciplines they take up in the course of their study and research, and so give to them the space and capacity to frame their risk-taking within a second openness, an ever tended openness to metanoia or conversion. Risk aversion does not tend to produce scholars open to examining their own work within the spirit of conversion; the need is not supposed to arise. Nevertheless, the need for such a spirit does not go away just because it is “supposed” to. Scholarship cannot be hemmed in by questions that are always already set, much less by answers already known afore hand. Yes, there are risks attendant upon such a realization, but they are risks that should be ever so familiar; they are after all quite like those that all people of faith run when, wherever they find themselves, they hear God calling and live out their amen with the Grace-enabled and daring faith (and the ignorance) of Abraham of old. ICS has been a risk-taking institution for much of its history. It has paid a price for its boldness. In the last number of years it has taken far fewer risks, at least in its address of the community of faith. This too has come at a cost. Self-censorship can be a useful discipline in the life of faith, but it can also reflect the loss of a necessary and bone-deep confidence that there is room in the community of faith and its guiding Spirit for the fruits of a faithful, trusting and open scholarship. Once we accept the risk inherent in Christian higher education, however, the petrifying and petrified passivity of education structured as if an old fashioned and coercive catechesis can be laid aside, for there is no need to make safety our primary (if unacknowledged) scholarly norm. Rather, if our scholarship and teaching is what it ought to be, the healthy creative, imaginative and analytical-critical thinkers we produce within an academic community of faith will have all the tools they need to risk the challenges of thinking faithfully in our day and age in conversation with any and all, supported by the faith of all times and places, directed by the vivifying Spirit, Lord of Life, open to the adventure laid before them ever within a life discipline of scholarly metanoia. That ICS should be such a community able to produce young scholars of that quality—now that is a worthy intent, to my way of thinking. Won’t you join me in embracing that intention?

Bob Sweetman