Monday, December 8, 2014

First Cup: Last entry: Thinking theologically

Second steps: Theologically informed—

For me, the truth is that we need to think carefully and theologically about all this. In fact, I think the task I am really talking about is a theological task. It is a task that assumes something about who we are as persons, who our students are as persons, the imago dei, the Trinity, relationships, sacred text, the role of the Spirit—all of which we often bundle in the phrases Christian and Christ-centered. Personally, I think it is the operative qualifier; it qualifies each of the following statements of the mission: Christ centered is a discrete and a pervasive description: Not only one but also all; not only liberal arts but also Christian or Christ centered liberal arts…. What in the heck does that any of that actually mean?

• In one of the most thoughtful, troubling, and hopeful books I’ve ever read (Brueggeman, Walter. (1986). Hopeful imagination. Prophetic voices in exile. Philadelphia: Fortress Press), Walter Brueggeman invites us to think about re-imagination. He’s talking about prophets, truth, and the people of God and asking how hope returns. I think what he writes relates to the time in which we live and work and move and have our being. As I said, I think our task, together, is finally a theological one.

Brueggeman invites us to remember that [biblically, newness always] “grows out of the memory of Israel…not [out of] personal invention. Rather these poets probe and mine the tradition in ways that cause the old tradition to articulate a newness…” (p 2). I think this defines our task.

“These poets [prophets] not only discerned the new actions of God that others did not discern, but they wrought the new actions of God by the power of their imagination, their tongue, their words. New poetic imagination evoked new realities in the community…” (p 2). I think this defines our task.

“…[creating] hope for a community so deeply in crisis that it might have abandoned the entire enterprise of faith” (p 3). I think this defines our task.

He believes that “The reception of a new world from God is also under way in our time.… It is apparent in the staggering, frightening emergence of new communities, which we experience as revolutionary, with dreams of justice and equity. Those dangerous emergences are paralleled by dreams of justice and mercy in our culture that dare to affirm that old structures may be transformed to be vehicles for the new gifts of God. Thus we are at the risky point of receiving from God what we thought God would not give, namely a new way to be human in the world” (p 6). I think this defines our task--and our hope.

[But] “Our vocation is to relinquish and receive [that which] cut through every dimension of life, for such moves entail nothing less than dying in order to be raised to new life” (p 7). I think this defines our task.

[And, finally,] “My sense is that the ministry of the American church [read, Christian higher education; read the name of your own school] is in many ways fatigued and close to despair. That is so because we are double-minded. On the one hand, we have some glimpses of the truth of God’s gospel of relinquishment and reception, and we see where it may lead us in terms of social reality. On the other hand, the church [read, Christian higher education; read the name of your own school] is so fully enmeshed in the dominant values of our culture that freedom of action is difficult. In any case, it is evident that ministry [read, Christian higher education; read the name of your own school] will be freed of fatigue, despair, and cynicism only as we [read the name of your own school] are able to see clearly what we are up to, and then perhaps able to act intentionally. Such intentionality is dangerous and problematic, but when and where the church [read, Christian higher education; read the name of your own school] acts with such freedom and courage, it finds the gift of new life is surprisingly given…” (7). I think that could define our outcome.

Can we do this? If you’ll pardon my intentional plagiarism, “Yes, we can.” I’ve seen it before; there is no reason to think that it cannot happen again. If we care enough, we can. If not—well, we won’t.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

First cup: First steps: questions

This conversation needs to start somewhere; I know there are more questions, but these are, I think, a pretty good start:

• Institutions need to revisit their missions and strategic plans, looking carefully at the words written there and the assumptions, aspirations, and goals contained in them. But we also need to evaluate those plans with these kinds of questions: Where are the hard connects? What difference does this make and where does the difference show up in my place of work, in my course, in my class, in my syllabus, with my students? Where? Specifically?

• What are the non-negotiables? What is? What must be defended, so to speak, with “our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor” against all of the forces that seek to normalize and destroy difference?

• What do we mean when we say Christian (or Christ-centered)? Liberal arts? Diverse? Or any of the other words that populate our mission statements and are intended to be defining and box-creating either because we think they matter or someone else does? What does it look like? What does it sound like? Taste like? Smell? What metaphors may help it be clearer?

• I think, for us who live in that universe, the key word is Christian or Christ-centered. We need to struggle with that descriptor...modifier. What does Christian or Christ-centered mean—evangelism? discipling? conversion? following Jesus--and what in the heck does that mean? Its meaning, somehow, connects to "reign" language--what does that mean? What if it means “relational”--a flabby or profound word? What do those words mean about where I am in the classroom? Office hours? Who I eat with? How I develop my syllabi? How I steward my time and my own health? How I handle my complaints and how I treat my students? How administration treats/responds/cares for faculty and vice versa? Even, dare I ask, How I behave in faculty meetings?

Friday, December 5, 2014

First cup—continuing thoughts on Christian higher education


• I don’t think Christian higher education is invited to out of the box thinking because, well, you know, the risk is too great to say "anything goes." We have a box—usually defined in terms of mission, vision, values. That is our box. And unless and until that is gone or changed, Christian higher education doesn’t really have that choice—we have a box. We need to understand that box well. We need to live out of that box; we need to be the box.

• I don’t think Christian higher education needs to buy into the normal dualism of higher education stereotyped as choosing between head and heart; it’s not where we should start. Can we imagine a third way? Somewhere in between—a place where, to use Nouwen’s imagery, we allow the head to descend into the heart creating something more unitive and balancing?

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Morning Joe—rather late in the afternoon: Re-imagination

The following is the first of three entries--three parts of a reflection on the state of Christian higher education as well as some ideas about next steps. This first entry is a kind of prologue to what follows.

Prologue: Thinking out loud about the state of Christian higher education:

I’ve been passionately involved in the “business” of Christian (and church-related) higher education as student, full time and adjunct professor, and administrator since 1962. The best years of my life and a considerable amount of my energy have been given to this good and worthy cause. I think about education in general and Christian higher education a great deal. I want to write about it now. I hope that persons reading this—who might share my passion—will allow an older (although questionably wiser) colleague to speak a little more into the ongoing discussion around the future of the family business. For those of you who know me, you know how much I love this calling and how powerful it has been in my formation as a human and a teacher who aspires to follow of Jesus. I don’t even want to think how different my life might have been without Christian higher education—and the people who radically changed my life, again and again. I care about it and I think we are at a place of hope and danger, a place of rich and wondrous paradox: a place that has may be perilously close to losing its potential.

(I think I need to say in way of disclaimer that most of those years have been spent in one place—Warner Pacific College, Portland, Oregon. I’m an alumnus and have served WPC as teacher, dean of students, and provost, among other roles. I am retired now but continuing to work as an adjunct professor in the humanities—in traditional as well as on ground and on line adult degree programs. But I have not served only there and have had occasion to teach or consult at other places, principally the other colleges, universities, and seminary of the Church of God, Anderson, Indiana—the movement that has had a long and suspicious relationship with its churches. I have colleagues at each of them and others.)

What I want to speak into is potential. I have a deep and abiding faith in the ability of caring, thoughtful and committed persons to address, resolve, and rebuild. When we don’t, it is not because of inability; it is because of a lack of imagination and hope. Not too long ago in a faculty meeting, the word “re-imagine” popped out of my mouth. It suddenly seemed the right word, so I said it. Then, I asked myself, what in the heck does that mean? I’ve been ruminating on that since. Here are some Random Observations and Questions about re-imagining the future of Christian higher education.

• Before that question about re-imagining can be answered, I think we need to think about the context in which it can take place. I suppose if there’s any significant way my years of teaching and working in the life of the church have changed me, it is that I have become even more committed to the essential truth of relationships—that is, relationships in which we grow ever more into knowing each other. I don’t think we can really re-imagine anything, at least not well, if we don’t know each other and, I suspect, in Christian higher education, in general, we know each other not well, certainly less well than we might. Certainly, not well enough to trust each other with our deepest thoughts and fears and loves. Certainly, not well enough to abandon our passive aggressiveness. Without that trust, hope is hard and the possibility that our hopes, thoughts and dreams will be realized or our fears lessened is diminished.

• When I teach the humanities courses I am assigned from time to time, I ask my students, “What kind of a world do you want to live in—and what are you willing to do/be to make it happen?” I think we need to be willing to ask that kind of question about Christian higher education—I think that is the door-opening question to re-imagination: What kind of community of learning do we want to teach in and what are we willing to do/be to make it happen? Can we create not only a community of learning but also a community of trust?

• At the heart of the mission of most schools in Christian higher education is an unstated assumption about what we teach and why we teach it. I think we often get stuck at some pretty superficial discussions about these questions simply because we don’t engage the unstated assumptions. We fall easily into discussions about what constitutes the right number of hours or how to divide the core or how many seat hours equal how many credits or how we fulfill national normalizing outcomes. While we can’t avoid those tasks, they should not define us. Instead I think we need to ask, in light of our missions, what do we really teach? Well, subjects, I guess; but certainly subjects are not the heart of it, are they? And, yes, we teach students—and we mustn’t forget them.

• But I don’t think it is about the courses or the majors; it’s more fundamental than either of those—as important as they are. It seems to me that an assumption of our mission statements and the way we talk about them is that what we are about is teaching how to live in the world. Subjects are finally a means to an end, right? In the context of our mission statements, especially those of who define ourselves as Christian and liberal arts colleges, can they ever be ends? If we can’t agree on this, there is no point in even beginning to consider how to re-imagine….

• The world of higher education is worried about mandates. We ask, “Whose mandates are these?” We ask, “Who says they are mandates?” We ask, “What makes them mandates?” We ask, “Are we being told, again, that this is what defines what I do in my classroom?” Frankly, I think that’s the fear factor at work. The truth, from my perspective, is that the reality of the world is our mandate—and our students’ need to live well in a world that seems more often against them than for them. Increasingly, it seems to me, our students aren’t getting it. I think they are so gobsmacked by the challenges of their lives that they often look more like deers in headlights than students. Of course there are exceptions and we all work so hard to light the light—and nothing is ever more satisfying or exciting than when a student lights up—but on some strategic level, many (most?) of our students really don’t know, on a personally meaningful level, why they are here—and ever fewer seem to care.

The certainty of the world I graduated into is gone and they know it. They are here often because they don’t know what else to do, where else to go, or because someone told them this is The Plan. It doesn’t seem really important to many of them and more than half doubt it value; our effort to reach out to them is valued but not always trusted. Leonard Cohen sings, “The blizzard of the world has crossed the threshold and it’s overturned the order of the soul.” I think Yeats said it also when he said, “The center does not hold.” An old word—anomie—might be the right word.

You see, I think, the mandate is to re-imagine what we do, why we do it, and how—it is the mandate of the world and it is our mandate. The world demands it of us; the future is bleak without what we do. And I think that our students deserve it. We usually engage the challenge of our task with thoughtfulness, resolve, relationally, with love and imagination. The strategic planning documents that so dominate our lives and work often demonstrate our ability to rise to the occasion and the challenge. But I wonder how many of those plans are taken to heart and into our course and departmental planning—even into our classrooms and onto our syllabi?

• We need to answer these questions—“Who are our students?” “Why are they here?” We need to know them—not as numbers or scores or grades but as persons who actually, on some level, look to us with some glimmer of hope that we can help them make sense when there seems so little sense. How can we ever hope to light the fire if we have no sense of the kindling with which we work? (I think we also need to ask those same questions of ourselves.)