Formation & The “What Do You Actually Say” file…

In Bible study this Sunday we were reading Psalm 37. One of the points of discussion was what I labeled Christian formation. Psalm 37:3-4 were the original jumping off point with the question being what comes first: delight in the Lord or receiving the desires of the heart? There is some formation of proper desires taking place. The psalmist continues occasionally with that subtle theme like Psalm 37:16 which urges us to think what is true abundance. Christians here are primarily concerned with trying to see with the eyes of faith. The psalmist doesn’t deny that it might look like the wicked prosper, but encourages new eyes. Eyes focused on the action of the Lord and not our efforts, eyes tuned to peace and the abundance of the land, eyes focused on the promise of the Kingdom and its abundance. All things that those who plot against the righteous (Psalm 37:12), or who prospers in his way (Psalm 37:7), can’t actually have because what they posses is transitory at best. Like the glory of the pastures they vanish – like smoke they vanish away. (Psalm 37:20)

Sometimes when I read things like this I usually figure it was written by the onion. A seminary, or a divinity school, is a place of formation. In fact, it is supposed to be a “seed bed”. A dean of such a school is to be about teaching things that should ground and guide for an entire career. In Lutheran thought that might be “rightly dividing law and gospel” or the felt conflict between the hidden God and the revealed God. I could see a good Baptist formation being in preaching and clean living. I could see a good presbyterian formation being in wrestling with election (God’s choosing) and elections (how to govern a session). A good Catholic formation being monastic in nature with a heavy emphasis on living a life that is being poured out sacrificially (2 Tim 4:6). Now some of those descriptions might be poor expressions for someone who is deep in those traditions, but reading this description from the new Vanderbilt Divinity Dean, I have a hard time imagining where this finds its place in the formation of pastors.

I’m a social ethicist who uses womanist ethics to do my work—meaning I look at race, gender, class, sexual orientation, and so forth to figure out what we should do to create just worldviews. When working with committees, I would break down the issue as I would a social problem, looking at the context, the history, who has been and has not been involved, how they talk about it, what we hope for, and what are the other options.

What I always want to do, both in the classroom and as an administrator, is be in conversation, give people a sense that there’s more than one way to talk about religion, and help the school move into the world in a more active and public way than it is already doing.

I would not want to put down the active role of mercy in the life of a Christian, but that calling is always derivative of the seeking and wrestling with God first. The Dean’s description sounds fine for a social work curriculum or even a non-profit MBA type curriculum. But for formation of those who theoretically have a divine call to the Word of God that is completely off. The Lord favored Mary over Martha (Luke 10:41-42). If we want to correct our churches maybe we should return to our first love (Rev 2:4). Which might include Deans who like to talk about religion in specific ways as truth (as compared to ‘more than one way’) and can parse the Greek of the Word of God as well as parsing the race, gender, class, sexual orientation and so forth.

But what do I know, call me crazy. Even within the LC-MS, the only pressure on seminary heads is for better practical training. Martha is popular…she just tends to burn out and confuse how the Kingdom actually comes. (Hint, it is not by our efforts.)

The Future of Schooling

This is Scot McKnight pondering the future of Seminary. Here are some fellow LCMS’ers bemoaning something very similar.

From Scot…

At MOOC (massive open online course) Divinity School (Mooc-Div), the seminary of the online future, students will work with degree granting organizations (DGOs) to fashion a seminary education without ever stepping foot on a seminary’s campus, if a campus exists, or meeting any of their professors.

Given the write up, Scot is not too enthused. The CSPP are not happy either. Let’s just say I’m a little different. There are some sad things about the passing of one form of education, but we have to deal with the world as it is. And dealing with that means dealing with two things as far as I can see: 1) the cost of education for something that most of the church considers at best “nice” and 2) what I think is the big opportunity to really tackle the complete breakdown of trust.

Both of these comments assume that this type of thing actually alienates and causes even more hyper-individualism. As far as I’m concerned, in the era of facebook, those are the starting facts. The other item is that I think this might put the focus back on where it should be, the local congregation. The time out of the local congregation would be reduced. And if they were smart the local congregations would use things like this as outreach vehicles. Instead of the prestige and “action” as it were being in going away and being taken out of the congregational context, the congregation becomes the learning community. If I look at history, I think that has been the paradigm in most places. Even at the dawn of the seminary system it was a congregation that “sent their best and brightest” for training expecting them to come back. This would rebuild that trust because the learning is taking place under the congregations nose.

Parson Irresponsibility?

As the owner of three expensive diplomas on the wall, and the father of three young kids, and the holder of a job not known for its earning potential…I have to admit that I’ve basically made a bet with my kid’s future. I think this guy, Salman Khan, has to be right about the future of higher education.

Here’s what I think it could look like in five years: the learning side will be free, but if and when you want to prove what you know, and get a credential, you would go to a proctoring center [for an exam]. And that would cost something. Let’s say it costs $100 to administer that exam. I could see charging $150 for it. And then you have a $50 margin that you can reinvest on the free-learning side.

I think that is consistent with the mission. You are taking the cost of the credential down from thousands of dollars to hundreds of dollars. And the [software] system would tell them they are ready for it. So no paying tuition for community college and then dropping out, or even finishing the whole thing and saying “Oh, I’m $20,000 in debt and what did I get out of it?”

Now you are like, “Look, there is this micro-credential in basic accounting I can get for $150, and I basically know I am going to pass before I invest that money.” That would be a huge positive for the consumers of education, and it could pay the bills on the learning side.

Now if one of the ankle-biters manages to get themselves admitted to Harvard that might be a different thing. There are two transactions going on there. Harvard is aggregating the best collection of future potential it can identify and that future talent is paying for access to a very exclusive network. Do you see education in there anywhere? Not as a primary input or output. But let’s discount that possibility for now.

After those pay to play institutions, you are left with the large state credential factories. And with government budgets going boom, and every available dollar that we can tax or borrow going to be needed to pay for Social Security, Medicare and Obamacare, anything that can offer a potential order of magnitude decrease in cost and at the same time offer a data driven credential that might be more telling than a grade-inflated gender-studies degree will be too tempting for the state to keep guarding the moat. Especially as the “youth” vote is a key part of the democratic coalition. There is an epic smackdown within that coalition between the tenured professors dependent upon the old model and the kids who don’t want to start life with hundreds of thousands of debt. The kids can only pay for one entitlement and my guess is that they pay for SSI, Medicare, Obamacare.

The upshoot is that if Salman Khan is right and I avoid the Harvard bullet, the parson does not have to eat Ramen Noodles every night starting now for the next 20 years until the last darling gets that sheepskin. Parental irresponsibility or justifiable bet?

Discipleship vs. Education

This is a “pastoral letter” from a priest to his parish about first communion/confirmation/church attendance. (HT Rod Dreher) The comments on the main sight are enlightening. I guess I’d put it on the list of examples of the “coming divide”. For a couple generations be nice was the primary rule. In Lutheran speak, don’t use the law, it hurts self esteem. And what that produced was a weak tea moral-ism that drove people away (hello MTD), a dissent industry sowing discord and heresy and a faithful who saw the beliefs and practices they drew life from pooh-poohed. This will be interesting.

We have tied our religious education to the public school system of kindergarten and eight grades. The sacraments of First Communion and Confirmation have become graduation rituals, rites of passage, instead of the beginnings of a life of faith and commitment. We have turned sacrament into sacrilege. When you “get your sacraments” you’re “outta” there. (“Out of there” for those who don’t speak Chicagoan.) The Sacraments are an ending instead of a beginning. I can’t do this anymore. I believe it is morally wrong. The last time I brought this problem up, angry parents called the bishop. I remember one agitated parent who railed at me for questioning his Catholicism. He said that he was perfectly good Catholic. He went to Mass every single Easter and every single Christmas without fail.

When I realized that Eastern Rite Catholics from the Middle East don’t have Communion and Confirmation classes, a light went on in my head. They receive first Communion and Confirmation when they are Baptized, even if they are infants. They have religious education for the rest of their lives and, consequently, they have a spiritual life. They are prepared for the Sacrament of Penance, but not for Communion and Confirmation. The result is that they have a vibrant spiritual like that they have maintained in the face of 1,300 years of unremitting persecution. In this country, we can’t manage a religious life because we are up against team sports.

I intend to drop the classroom model and go to a discipleship model that is called Youthchurch. It will involve Bibles, catechisms and water balloons. And maybe doughnuts. I will know the program is a success when I find that the kids are mad at their parents for missing Mass on Sunday.

I no longer intend to prepare children for First Communion and Confirmation. There will no longer be First Communion and Confirmation classes. How and when will the children receive Communion and Confirmation? They will receive when they are ready. When are they ready? They are ready when they want the Sacrament. How do we know they want the Sacrament? When they understand it, can tell the pastor what it is and why they want it. If they are not in ongoing religious education and they are not coming to Mass on regular basis, they don’t want the Sacrament.

Teaching Virtue

Confirmation instruction will be starting up again. This year is the church doctrine year, and while the doctrine is not all ethics, church doctrine helps us answer the question of how should we live and thrive? This essay is from a Sociology Prof teaching an introductory course that focuses on many of the same questions. These lines caught my eye…

The danger in instrumentalizing virtue is that the young will come to discard a particular virtue if they decide it no longer helps them to reach a desired goal. But behaving virtuously requires both right belief and right practice. Focusing on practice has two big benefits: It’s the language that young adults understand, and it’s a tried-and-true way to accomplish personal change.

As a general rule, American men and women now in their 20s aren’t known for their warm embrace of authority. For a generation that grew up on the Internet, a bureaucratic, top-down method of instruction is a non-starter. Today’s young adults live in a networked society, in which learning is collaborative and personal experience is central. The old-fashioned way to “teach virtue” may have been through church and other institutions of cultural authority, but my students aren’t interested in the bully pulpit…

Living a virtuous life doesn’t mean being boring or preachy. It’s about approaching the rules that we learned as children with a more mature understanding and reapplying them to our adult lives.

Right belief and right practice. Reapplying the rules to our adult lives. The best education creates a space to think about how we live and move and have our being. Confirmands are not adults, but they aren’t elementary kids either. My 4 year old (David), he doesn’t listen all that well, but he gets a lot of law anyway. We direct the 4 year old even over his complaints. Anna, the 7 year old, is getting less direct instruction and more coaching (what do you think, have you seen anything like this before, go try, how did that work). The confirmands (11-14 years olds) get a little more freedom. They also start to bear the responsibility of decisions. The questions get more complex as we get older. We lose our coaches. We have to learn to train ourselves. We all run our own race of faith. Paul, the great apostle of grace alone, instructs everyone to work out their salvation with fear and trembling. Finding our way as a church to be a place that teaches the faith includes being that safe space to learn together right practice. Creating that space is a personal goal of mine this year.