At the intersection of writing and life with the author of the Cameron Ballack mysteries

Friday, August 7, 2015

Back to School: Painting Things Green

This actually has nothing to do with painting. The title was just a conspiracy to get you reading this. When teachers head back to school, much of the focus lands on lesson plans, counting desks to make sure you have enough, and navigating through the maze of orientation meetings with other staff. But the best question we teachers can ask at this time--especially those who teach within the Christian academy--is "Why are we here?"

To this end, the faculty at my present employer, Westminster Christian Academy, read two short books over the summer (at least, we all were supposed to have read them!), one of them pictured above: Jay Green's An Invitation to Academic Studies. Green is professor of history at my alma mater, Covenant College, although he arrived six years after my graduation. To answer the question "Why are we here?", Green looks at various strategies that well-meaning believers have tried in regards to academia (he focuses  mainly on college studies, but there are ramifications here for secondary education, too). Then Green proposes a powerful--and in my view, a biblical, alternative.

Green begins with the ancient church father Tertullian and his famous/infamous quote, "What has Jerusalem to do with Athens, the Church with the Academy, the Christian with the heretic?...After Jesus we have no need of speculation, after the Gospel no need of research." I confess to twitches of pain and convulsions of embarrassment whenever I see that quote. Green lays out several strategies that Christian have historically taken with regards to academics and faith.

1. Avoid higher education altogether: This is the idea that pursuing serious study in a collegiate setting can ruin a young person's faith.
2. Defensive engagement: Entering university studies must be undertaken with sober judgment, so students must take care to preserve their Christian worldview while in college environments that can be hostile to their faith.
3. Dualism: Christian faith and academic study exist in separate spheres. Faith is of interest to the faithful, while the common kingdom of academic study has more of a pull for non-redeemed humankind.
4. Jerusalem transforming Athens: The cause of the faith is to renew and change educational pursuits of every kind, where students are "agents of renewal" in the world by virtue of their Christian education.

While respecting whatever merits reside within these strategies, Green opts for his alternative proposal: Academic disciplines are "gifts from God, can help us to cultivate a deeper love for God and our neighbors--an alternative that not only is interested in what we Christians are doing for our academic disciplines, but also asks what the academic disciplines might be doing for us as Christians."

Green's proposal has biblical merit, both didactically and through the example of historical narrative. In I Timothy 4:4, St. Paul--an academic cleric himself--says "everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, for it is made holy by the word of God and prayer." What are academic disciplines like history, mathematics, engineering, biology, German, literature, and the like but portals to the creation of God and what he has imbued in humankind? Yes, fallen humankind...I get that. But this world is still good and bears the brushstrokes of a Creator calling humanity back to himself. Why wouldn't we want to plunge into the details of this groaning planet and our robust yet vandalized existence? All this has something to teach us about fidelity to God in his world.

Not to mention, if there is anything the story of Daniel teaches us in Scripture (aside from the fact you can have a pretty exciting career as a federal government official), it's that the participation of godly people in academic studies matters. Daniel and his three co-exiled buddies were put in the honors program in Babylon, far from home, far from faithful nurture. But Daniel didn't take an avoidance approach, bunker down in defensive engagement, or radically say "This part is God's, this belongs to Babylon." No, he and his friends participated in the pagan training, learning the literature, language, history and (most likely) the religion of the Babylonians (Daniel 1:3-4). And God gave them both learning (worldview) and wisdom (skill) in these subject areas [Daniel 1:17], to where Daniel and company were head and shoulders above the rest (1:19-20). Why would God have done this unless what they learned was of no benefit to their faithful existence?

It's something to consider. Consider also--if you're a Christian school teacher-- having this discussion with others. Snag an administrator, a fellow teacher, a student, and a parent and ask them, "What seems to be our goal here at _____ Christian School? What are we doing here? What should we be doing here?"

It might be fascinating what kind of answers you get.

Selected quotes from An Invitation to Academic Studies

"The point here is not that worldview thinking within the disciplines is unimportant compared to disciplinary knowledge...But if such 'worldview' issues are the first or most important considerations raised, or if, in pursuing them, we believe we have exhausted our academic responsibility before God, then I believe we dishonor the disciplines and ironically strip them of the power and promise they hold for us and for God's kingdom."

"How would our pursuit of learning in college change if we were to envision the academic disciplines not so much as adversaries in need of fixing or censoring but as genuine gifts from our gracious God?"

"The academic disciplines are both extensions of creation and one of the most consequential ways in which we exercise dominion over that which God has made."

"A worldview mastery of a craft is no substitute for mastery of the craft itself."

"It is accordingly helpful to see each academic discipline as extending a kind of basic knowledge, a set of distinctive skills, and a variety of virtues, all of which require our careful attention and our labors."

"We need to move these fields of study conceptually back within the bounds of creational goodness where they belong and allow ourselves to be amazed and thrilled by the worlds of joyful discovery that they open to us when we enter them with this kind of expectation. This sense of wonder can't help but overflow into gratitude to God."

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