Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Teaching and Christian Practices

In their introduction to Teaching and Christian Practices: Reshaping Faith & Learning, David I. Smith and James K. A. Smith identify a limitation in the foci of Christian conversations in higher education upon “the integration of faith and learning”. First, they say there has been a focus upon the content—what Christian ideas will be taught—in the integration of faith and learning. Second, there has been a focus upon the sorts of learning faculty ought to have in the integration of faith and learning. While recognizing the necessity and value of these two foci, Smith and Smith argue that little to no attention has been given to the learning of students. They ask, in effect, what historically Christian practices can inform and impel the education of learners in a classroom setting? Or, to put it another way, what makes any method of teaching and learning distinctively Christian? Moving beyond the ideologies of Christianity that form the presuppositions of Christian education, Smith and Smith want to focus upon Christian practices; specifically, how practices shape virtues and habits in the formation of learners. The focus upon practices relies largely upon Alistair McIntyre’s After Virtue, where he defines practice as:

[A]ny coherent and complex form of socially established cooperative human activity through which goods internal to that form of activity are realized in the course of trying to achieve those standards of excellence which are appropriate to, and partially definitive of, that form of activity, with the result that human powers to achieve excellence, and human conceptions of the ends and goods involved, are systematically extended. (quoted in Smith & Smith, 8)

According to McIntyre, a practice is social and largely inherited; it possesses certain internal goods to be realized in its course; and it maintains relevant standards of excellence, which are pursued and extended. What is, or is not, a practice? Consider the example of chess, for a moment. Playing chess in order to sharpen one’s thinking in preparation for law school would not constitute a practice, for although one’s participation in chess could be social and inherited as well as have standards of excellence to be sought, the goods involved terminate outside of the activity itself; the “good” of playing chess comes apart from chess itself. One’s “realization” of the goods associated with chess would only be deemed successful insofar as one saw their impact upon one’s legal education—chess is but a means to another end. However, one’s participation in the practice of chess would include motives terminating in the goods internal to chess itself, such as the analytical skill, strategic imagination, and competitive intensity that comes in the activity of playing chess. One’s “realization” of the goods associated with chess would be successful in the playing of chess itself, that is, playing chess according to its own standards of excellence within the social environment.
Within Classical and Christian education we could conceive of a similar bifurcation between a full-orbed practice, and education as a means to another end. The student who wants a Classical and Christian education primarily in order to boost test scores for college and gain more scholarship money is not engaged in the practice of Classical and Christian education. Neither is the teacher whose instructions emphasize grade achievements or other goals that terminate outside of the content and process of learning as such (even the goal of “pleasing one’s parents” would not constitute one’s Classical and Christian education as a practice).
In a lecture delivered at the Alcuin Retreat held at Calvin College in November 2012, David I. Smith provided an excellent example of how methodological habits can disrupt rather than cultivate the internal goods that educators strive to emphasize in their courses of learning. Smith’s son came home one day asking for his father’s help to study for a theology exam that was coming up the next day. The teacher described the course material as, “eleven ideas without which no one can understand the New Testament.” The test was to cover the eleven terms (e.g. “sanctification,” and “justification”) and their definitions. While quizzing his son on the definitions of, differences between, and examples of sanctification and justification, Dr. Smith’s son, exasperatingly exclaimed, “But Dad, I don’t really need to know these that well.” That is to say, Smith’s son had learned that when the teacher (whom Smith described as one of the best at the school) gave terms and definitions, only two kinds of assessment were likely: multiple choice questions or matching terms and definitions. In order to ace the test, and “understand the eleven most important ideas for understanding the New Testament,” one needed only to memorize the patterns associated with the terms and their definitions. To illustrate, Smith changed the terms and definitions into Wingdings font and it was still possible to discern which terms went with which definitions. In other words, one could ace the assessment without having ever achieved the ostensible goal set by the teacher—that is, to grow in one’s ability to correctly understand and apply the ideas most important in the New Testament. Because the teacher had not reflected upon the assessment in terms of whether it was really suited to meet the goal—in other words, by not adequately integrating all the elements in the course into a coherent practice—the chances of his students failing to receive the desired learning outcomes were increased, if not missed altogether.
What then would be distinctively Christian practices that bring consistency between "classical and Christian education" and teaching "classically" and "Christianly"? Perhaps it would include singing songs together to begin the day, or reciting a corporate prayer, or ritual conversational topics desired to stir up one another for good works (discussed once a week during lunch). Perhaps it would include topical prayers offered prior to assessments, such as, "Lord, as I endeavor to fulfill the task of this assignment, let my mind be clear of selfish ambitions, distracting desires, and other temptations of which I am unaware. If I have not prepared as I ought, forgive me, and teach me through my weaker efforts to desire greater diligence in preparation; showing mercy unto me according to your lovingkindness. If I have prepared, may my efforts be an acceptable service in your sight. Amen." There are plenty of possibilities, many of which may already be in place in your home, school, job, or church, and only need to additional realization to make the practice more understandingly performed and more gratefully appreciated. Maybe there are many more, which you could begin considering and working to implement. What practices have you in mind?

Friday, February 14, 2014

An Augustinian Interpretation

Augustine is rather ingenious in his interpretations of the Old Testament narratives. I have been reading very slowly through the City of God and have recently covered Augustine's interpretation of the Noahic Flood. Typology is growing into favor again in Protestantism, which may bode well or ill depending upon how it is done.

A friend of mine recently posted some brilliant typological thoughts that I briefly interacted with in the comments. I thought I'd air them here, and perhaps add some elaboration.

My friend identified the sons of Israel/Jacob with the seed of the Serpent and Joseph with the seed of the Woman in the epic struggle between the City of God and the City of Man so prominent in Genesis and throughout Biblical history. However, the relationship is more complicated, or at least complex, than some of the others, for instance, Cain and Seth.

Why complex? Well, Judah, who is a son of Israel who sells Joseph into slavery (indeed, is the catalyst for that decision, delivering Joseph out of the hands of his other brothers, who had murderous intent), who marries a foreign wife, but who also ends up siring the seed of the Promise and becoming a substitutionary intercessor for Benjamin on behalf of Jacob/Israel, who will die if Benjamin is not returned safely.

Interestingly, the story of Judah and Tamar has some tantalizing typological possibilities. Judah marries a foreign wife, thereby committing adultery against the Covenant family, a kind of apostasy or exile. Tamar's origins are not given, but there is Rabbinic commentary that assumes she is an Israelite, or a member of the Covenant family. She is also, in the narrative, a rejected bride. Perhaps Judah represents wayward Israel, of whom Paul speaks in Romans 9-11. Perhaps Tamar is the bride of Christ, the Church, whose righteous intervention in the world arrests the waywardness of Judah/Israel and brings him back into the Covenant family. Tamar is not necessarily a Gentile, but neither is the Bride of Christ--for all who are of Christ are True Israel. The Bride is of mixed origin in national identity (Jew and Gentile), but is without national origin in her priestly identity (Christ is of the order of Melchizedek). Tamar is intercessory for Judah through her sexuality--she takes him up on his obligation, which he refuses to give (not unlike Ruth with Boaz, through Boaz is willing; or even Zipporah when she takes the foreskin of Moses' son when he neglects to do so).

All of this is quite tentative, and I wouldn't stake any firm claim on what I've got here, since I've only begun to consider the possibilities. I hope some readers of mine might interact with what I've put forward in the hopes of separating the wheat from the chaff.

Friday, February 7, 2014

Musing on the Biblical Theology of the Flood

Immediately prior to God's cleansing the world of sin in the Great Flood, Genesis 6:5 says, "Then the LORD saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intent of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually." Surely Satan and his legion of evil ministers perceived that they had nearly stolen victory over God and the Promised Seed, as none could be found who sought faithfulness to God Almighty. None but Noah, that is. But God did not destroy the world utterly, nor did He hand it over entirely to the Prince of the Evil Age, but rather baptized the earth in water, destroying its corruptions and renewing the land for a second opportunity for Noah to be fruitful, multiply, and fill the earth in accord with God's commandments.

Immediately prior to God's cleansing the world of sin in the Second Great Flood--that is, the outpouring of the Holy Spirit--we do not receive an explicit comment on the evil of the age, but we find it visible in every Gospel. The surge of demonic activity--nowhere in the Old Testament or after the Apostolic Age so virulent and pervasive--was dominating the earth and corrupting even the people of God (it is no exaggeration when Jesus refers to the leaders of Israel as sons of their father, Satan). When the Son of God appears on the scene, the demons are surprised, asking if Jesus had come to torment them before the time. The Seed has come, but the armies of heaven had not yet been assembled for the final engagement. Why then had the Commander of the Host of Heaven come? Whereas the Great Flood covered the Creation in water, there is a double baptism that inaugurates the  Age of the Heavenly King. He dies on the cross and bathes the world in His own blood, making it possible for all who would turn to Him in their allegiance to receive cleansing from their corruption. Then as the King ascends to take up His session upon the Throne of Heaven, He gives gifts to His thanes and companions, the Church, His own Spirit, which is poured out like a Flood of water and fire upon the people. The strong man was cast off the throne of the earth, to be bound for a time, and his ministers of evil were being cast out by the power of the name of the King and by His Spirit, working in and through the Body of Christ, the Church, and in particular its appointed leaders.

The way was thus cleansed for yet another opportunity to be fruitful and multiple and fill the earth in accord with God's commandments. However, like the sons of Noah, the children of the Age of the Heavenly King are not yet given complete victory. There is a time of long-suffering while all those whom the King desires to bring into His Kingdom shall be found and brought within its gates. Then comes the final Flood, the Host of Heaven and the Saints of the Most High God shall ride in the train of the King as He tramples the remaining corruption, and removes His enemies forever; casting them into the lake of Fire along with all those who refused to cast their allegiance with the High King of Heaven. Then shall all cleansing be consummated the Great Renewal shall be begun, and the fruitfulness and multiplication and filling of the earth shall be complete, and resplendent and redounding glories shall be on the lips of the people of God forever more.