My Wesleyan Perspective on Christian Higher Education

What follows is the concluding section of a paper I’m presenting next week at the Wesleyan Theological Society meetings at Seattle Pacific titled Wesleyan Implications for Christian Higher Education. I’m glad to be participating but still feeling a little out of my element as a sociologist presenting to theologians. There are some references to people and arguments from earlier sections, but I think you’ll catch my drift. I eagerly covet any feedback (constructive or not).

So then, we are formed as Christians through understanding the broad strokes of scripture, through reflection on our experiences, through lovingly sorting through our past traditions, and through using our brains as enlivened by the Spirit’s leading. That means that the total of the Christian university experience is part of the whole of faith development. Sure, it’s easier to see that in chapel or in Old Testament class. But it’s also operating when students at Denny’s at 2:00 in the morning, are doing calculus homework, or are playing video games with friends.

I want to follow the pattern Richard Hughes set to suggest some educational implications of what we’ve seen in Wesley so far. First, Wesley suggests that the Spirit can enlighten our human frailties. Our task is to be responsive to the light we’re shown, whether that happens in chapel or in French class. Part of the discovery of one’s self in the learning process, of finding new avenues of exploration, or making connections others haven’t seen can be conceptualized as spiritual senses come alive.

Second, God is continually creating; new information, challenging reading, difficult conversations are the avenues through which this can happen. God is still in sovereign control and we need not feel like he must be protected from challenging subjects or situations. This is especially true in the tensions between Tradition and Experience mediated by Reason. Traditionalists may not like having certain questions of doctrine or textual criticism raised within Christian universities, but to deny such questions a community forum seems out of synch with our belief that God is leading.

Third, we must be attentive to the means of grace – not simply the expected “religious” ones like chapel or accountability groups, but to recognize the importance of the daily patterns of our life. Even issues like going to sociology class or doing accounting homework or sitting in on one more assessment committee meeting can operate like ordinary sacraments. That is, if we are looking with open eyes. Such regular patterns of practice can lead to the development of virtues, habits, and spiritual formation as James K. A. Smith observes in Desiring the Kingdom (2009).

Finally, Wesley’s “method” was thoughtful yet messy. There would appear to be a lot of space in the midst of the interplay between the factors. That interplay calls for a sense of tentativeness on the part of scholars and students. We explore what seem to be the best connections at the moment. Because we do so in community, the hearing of new ideas in tension with tradition is good for the entire group. The messiness is the means for common understanding and not the place where one draws lines in the sand (neither silencing dissent nor abandoning tradition should be a first step). One comes up with tentative conclusions and then must hold them loosely while testing them against the method of others.

In short, when we embracing Wesleyan perspectives as the framework for Christian Higher Education, we can come out at a very different place from most of the schools in the CCCU. I haven’t been a fan of all of James Davison Hunter’s books, but I recently came across a contrast in his work that underscores my thoughts.

I really liked his first book, American Evangelicalism (Hunter, 1983), and the most recent, To Change the World (Hunter, 2010). While I could quibble with certain arguments, there is story told over the intervening quarter-century worth attending to. The story is told in the subtitles of the two books: the first talks of “the quandary of modernity” while the latter refers to “Christianity in the late modern world”.

The evangelicalism Hunter describes in the first book is struggling with cultural identity against a backdrop of Weberian rationality. In it’s heyday, evangelicalism was attempting to set boundaries against the broader culture. This showed up in a focus on behavioral pietism, strong positions on particular social issues, and celebrity voices that could articulate THE evangelical worldview.

To Change the World speaks to the challenges of pursuing those efforts at boundary management. Hunter writes:

The irony is this: the idealism expressed in the worldview approach is, in fact, one manifestation of the very dualism its proponents are trying to challenge (27).

Hunter describes our past approaches to cultural engagement in three paradigms: Defensive Against, Relevance To, and Purity From.  Evangelical denominations like ours may have focused more on the first and third (although Hunter sees “seeker sensitive” movements as illustrative of the second). He says, however, it’s time for a paradigm of Faithful Presence:

A theology of faithful presence is a theology of engagement in and with the world around us. It is a theology of commitment, a theology of promise. It is disarmingly simple in concept yet in its implications provides a challenge, at points, to all of the dominant paradigms of cultural engagement in the church (243).

I think that Faithful Presence is found in Wesley’s theology. We recognize that the Creator God in the beginning is creating now and will continue to do so in preparation for the Coming Kingdom. When we engage others in Christian dialogue while listening for the leading of the Spirit, we are practicing the principles of that Kingdom that Jesus said was at hand (Mark 1:15). Howard Snyder concludes The Radical Wesley as follows:

What does all this mean of the life and experience of the church today? Primarily that we must determine our understanding of the Kingdom of God and of the church’s agency in the Kingdom of God on the basis of the biblical revelation. The body of Christ is to be an eschatological and messianic community of the Kingdom in a more fundamentally important sense that Wesley understood (p. 103).

The task of the Christian university is no more and no less than this. It’s true that we’re in the middle of learning and teaching and living. But that’s just what we’re doing. It may be a type of means of grace, but it’s really the place where we experience the current and coming Kingdom of God. Such a place values individuals, quests for new articulations of truth, and engages this postmodern world from a place of strength and not fear.

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3 thoughts on “My Wesleyan Perspective on Christian Higher Education

  1. There is a lot that I like here, John. Thanks for putting it together. I wish I had more time to engage it, but I want to point out one small word that I think I would personally change. In your fourth/final point on Wesley, you suggest, “That interplay calls for a sense of tentativeness on the part of scholars and students. We explore what seem to be the best connections at the moment.” I think that you are on to an important point here, but I struggle with the word tentative. I think that the word provisional better captures the sentiment that you are suggesting.

    As those who are seeking to deepen knowledge and wisdom in a learning community, we have to maintain a balance of epistemic humility with epistemic courage. The two must be kept in tension. I think the word tentativeness could seem as though we are not able to have epistemic courage. To me provisionality means captures the balance between courage and humility, especially when these epistemic virtues are exhibited within a community of informed judgement (see Frederick Aquino on CIJ based on his reading of John Henry Newman) who seeks to engage the conversation between experience, tradition, reason, and Scripture that you describe above.

    I’m scrambling to shoot this to you and I know that it is overly hasty and probably nonsensical. I you want to follow up, feel free to holler at me!

    1. Eric: I like you combination of epistemic humility and epistemic courage. I think on balance, that’s what I’m arguing for. In terms of the specific, my quick look at definitions shows the primary definition of tentative as synonymous with provisional. But the second meaning speaks to hesitancy. I think in the full context of my communitarian understanding, i still mean bravely tentative — here’s what I think but you may have information I need to consider. To say my position is provisional suggests that I hold this position unless my premise upon which it is based is (the provision) is shown to be false.

      I really like the idea of a community of informed judgment but I might modify it to read “informed and informing”. Part of what I have in mind is that scholars (present company excluded) can use the “informed community” approach to stand for a privileged perspective and not true intellectual humility.

      Since the dictionary lists tentative and provisional as synonyms, I’m certainly splitting hairs. Thanks for the thoughts anyway!

      1. I definitely see in your post that you are arguing for a brave tentativeness. I think that my fear with that particular word is that it can be heard as the opposite of tenacity or courage. To me, provisionality (though closely related synonyms, as you rightly highlight) does not carry this same danger of misinterpretation. Provisional means that you boldly and courageously can enter the intellectual fray, while remaining humbly open to the possibility of new discovery, nuance, and change.

        Again, I love what you’re suggesting above and know that it might seem like hair splitting.

        On “informed community,” I understand your point and wanting to keep that open, so that the community doesn’t become a vice grounded in the assumption of a privileged position. (The community of informed judgment as Aquino describes it is open to ongoing discovery and learning, which is why I went with that term.) I’m not sure how best to capture that ongoing openness. I think that your addition of “informing” can be helpful, but it too can stand for a privileged position, as those who are informed are those who are informing others.

        This is one reason that I like to come back to a phrase in the driving vision of the university where I teach that says “community of learners.” I want to remind myself and my colleagues that we not only teach, but we are a part of a community where we are learners too. Maybe that is the move: community of informed learners.

        Sorry that I’ve hijacked your great post this morning. I hope and pray that you paper pres goes well.

        Peace, friend.

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