One of the challenges I face as a theologian working with educators in the public school system is helping teachers discover courage and hopefully a passion for engaging students in a life of the spirit as much as a life of the mind.  This is no easy task.  Teachers in elementary and secondary schools are under huge pressure to ‘teach for the test’ and constantly assessing students in ways that focus attention on skill acquisition without the time nor resources to adequately engender a reason and purpose for the life they are living.

One of my conversation partners is Parker Palmer who for years has sought to bridge the gap in educational theory with a deep concern for the spiritual in student’s development.  Palmer’s background is notable: he has a PhD in Sociology from UC Berkeley, has taught in both public schools and higher education, and is a Quaker which speaks to his framing his thoughts in a contemplative (‘consider the space of teaching’) rather than declaratory (‘here are five things to do in your classroom to make sure student succeed’) mode.  He is currently heading up the Center for Courage & Renewal which works with organizations to align “our lives and our work with renewed passion, commitment, and integrity.” Because Palmer approaches these questions as a contemplative himself,  this can be confounding to be sure and many of my students in the School of Education struggle with him – “does Palmer expect us to enact something here in the classroom? Where is the concrete amidst the abstract?”     Much of this is based on his premise that we live in a tension between the contemplative life vs. an active life – two primary modes of living that are in tension in modern culture and not merely the classroom. As he explores in his book “To Know as We Are Known” and some other books such as “The Courage to Teach”, he holds that in earlier centuries contemplation was the preferred life, one followed by academic or religious scholars through the medieval period until the rise of the scholastic period.  As Palmer would state, an “active life” was one of tedious toil where one did not have the time to reflect on a higher plane of existence. Over time that changed. An “active life” (he wrote a book entitled “The Active Life” which gets at this thesis) became more prominent as technology progressed and the power associated with it.  A pendulum effect between the two – active vs. contemplative – has swung back again as limits to technology have not provided a solution and the lure of a contemplative life and its seclusion has taken hold.  In short, this has resulted in the “why” questions have been replaced with the “how” questions especially in our classrooms.  The demands of ‘teaching for the test’  have created a culture of busyness and frantic skills assessment with little to no time given to what these ‘skills’ are for in our society and how they fund what it means to be a human being.   For some of my students, they are frustrated because Palmer is not forwarding his point based on the strict adherence to social scientific method which holds that which is to be considered ‘true’ as correlating with quantitative methods that can be measured via statistical analysis. No, Palmer is speaking from a more qualitative stream of reflection which does go back to Plato, Socrates, Aristotle and continues on through humanities and the arts: a more existential reflection on the human condition and (for the sake of his books) and exploration of the spiritual as a vital part to deep education.  He is inviting us to essentially go inward – the contemplative life – and sit in the space of quiet with our students and creates spaces for contemplation on the reasons to life in addition to the skills and tasks of living.  As those sitting in his books and lectures, the dominant challenge for what is means to be human in our 21st century age is take seriously our vocation – our calling – and live the life we were always meant to live and to live this full life in front of our students in a holistic manner.  Teachers have been forced into becoming information Pez dispensers – spitting out facts and figures and methods without context nor purpose to test and therefore ‘assess’ with reliability that students are learning.

Do you think that he has a point?

Have we lost something in the education of our children in the elevation of the ‘active’ life over the ‘contemplative’ life?

Faith communities love acronyms. There are landfills full of WWJD? bracelets to prove that acronyms distill complex ideas down beyond a catch phrase to a few letters and allow a certain hyperlinkedness to vast amounts of data.  In many ways, acronyms are a gift but they can also be a distraction by offering a seemingly summative and all-encompassing certainty.  The latest acronym to take youth workers and many church leaders by storm is MTD which is short-hand for Moral Therapeutic Deism.  Launched into the world via their book Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of Teenagers (Oxford, 2005) which resulted from an in-depth study of American teenagers self-reporting about what makes up and sustains belief through the National Study of Youth and Religion.  The findings of the study distilled in Soul Searching hold that what is religious belief for teenagers in America across ethic and religious backgrounds is what Smith and Denton term MTD or Moral Therapeutic Deism which sees belief as a code of right and wrong behaviors (moral) that is centered on the question of what the person needs to feel better about themselves (therapeutic) and organized by a view of the Divine as completely separated from the realm of lived experience, completely at a distance, and only there to consult and affirm (deism).  After the study was released and the book published five years ago, a flood of reactions and later sub-industry has arisen around this model of MTD.  Churches are worried, parents are feeling guilty, and youth workers are frantically seeking new models to change this trend.  To be sure, Smith and Denton have some great data and the ‘wake up call’ to get serious about working with youth toward a deep and abiding sense of what makes up belief should be addressed.  That said, I do worry that many are adopting this MTD mantra without a critical examination of what is at stake and is the course correction proposed in Soul Searching and the MTD concern truly what we need.

In short:  is the supposed cure potentially worse than the disease?

Critiques of Christian Smith’s Soul Searching:

1. There is a danger of a “one size – fits all” view to what is considered biblical literacy and deep faith that plots toward rationalism over and against embodiment and practice :

Smith and Denton argue that “all religious groups seem at risk of losing teens to nonreligious identities[1] which assumes that there is an easily quantifiable religious identity is out there that we can appeal to that is somehow counterpoised to so-called ‘secular’ identities.  I have to admit being puzzled by this notion of ‘nonreligious’ identities and deeply suspicious of what the ‘religious’ persona that is backgrounding this assessment would look and feel like.  As someone watches a generation of young people grab a hold of all the consumerism that Evangelicalism had to offer to ‘mark’ their faith as real – shirts, hats, CDs, messenger bags, etc – as well as use catch phrases and social behaviors valued in certain circles but foreign to others, I am not sure I am buying what Smith and Denton are putting on the table.  They go on to state that “a number of religious teenagers propounded theological views that are, according to the standards of their own religious traditions, simply not orthodox.”[2] To that I would say… come to a Youth Specialties conference and see if you can find the orthodoxy that is being romantically idealized.  Here are people who work with teens and draw from the breadth and height of the Christian tradition – contemplative Celtic prayers mixed with various social networking platforms and funded by sociological and theological reflection.  One of the MTD critics who is voicing a similar concern to what I am reflecting on is Theologian Tom Beaudoin at Fordham University.  In the chapter “The Ethics of Characterizing Popular Faith” from his great book Witness to Dispossession, he underscores the fact that faith is complex and not an easily reducible thing:

[T]heology itself is discovering with ever greater complexity, the particular beliefs that are “sanctioned” by religious leadership, at any particular time and place, are deeply implicated in “nontheological” or “nonreligious” political, social, cultural, and economic factors.  The very opposition between “picking and choosing” and “accepting the whole” is itself a recent way of imaging, often for the sake of an intended control, what the options for belief are today – much like the opposition between fundamentalism and enlightenment, or relativism and moral fundamentalism.[3]

2. The study that Smith and Denton offer in Soul Searching doesn’t sufficiently allow for the inherently inarticulate nature of real faith.

Last time I checked, ‘faith’ was not ‘certainty’.  Following on from the fact that religious vs. irreligious identities are difficult and possibly problematic to view as a goal of our work with young people, the core of Smith and Denton’s work is a concern that youth cannot articulate what they believe with clarity and certainty. As they say:  “The bottom line is, when it comes to their religious belief about God, U.S. teens reflect a great deal of variance on the matter, and perhaps in some cases more than a little conceptual confusion.”[4]

Again, I would ask *who* actually has a LACK of variance in regard to their faith story and can offer a clear picture of belief

As noted by Nancy Ammerman in Everyday Religion: Observing Modern Religious Lives, faith is known through and practiced as “fragments”, “side plots” and “tangents”[5] more than systematically theorized and rendered.  Ammerman puts it this way: “A person may recognize moral imperatives that have a transcendent grounding without ever having a ‘religious experience’ or being able to articulate a set of doctrines about God.”[6] Think for example about the man born blind in John 9.  In this narrative, the man is questioned by many religious leaders (read: data collecting researchers) about what ‘happened’ to him.  Continually he can’t articulate a response that is enough for the religious professionals.  He ultimately states that in reference to who Jesus is that “whether or not he is a sinner, I do not know,’ the man replied. ‘All I know is this: I was blind and now I see.’” (9:25)  And here is a man who Jesus celebrates and embraces for a faith that while can’t be articulated is a faith worthy of emulating as testified to its inclusion in our canon of Scripture.

3. The problem and later solution seems to revolve all-too-conveniently around institutional religion and doesn’t take into account the ‘Pandora Effect’ of social media, internet, web, globalization as a good thing

According to Smith, institutional representatives are the “agents of religious socialization”[7] and as such should bear the burden of righting the wrongs of MTD to a large degree.  That is fine on one level – churches, synagogues, mosques, and other institutional locations should continue to seek new ways of spurring on conversations for and about faith.  Yet what Smith and Denton don’t take into account is the role that other networks play is framing faith and that, in many ways, these serve to remind us that God does indeed move in mysterious ways.  Tom Beaudoin makes the following comment in regard to this aspect of Soul Searching: “The authors imagine religious beliefs as starting from pure official teaching, stewarded by contemporary religious leaders, well or poorly, through official channels, such as programs of religious education.”[8]

Now… I don’t know about you, but faith is a messy thing and how ANYONE comes to some understanding of God and what resources that belief is anything but clean.  When I was in high school, I had a lot of questions about what belief was supposed to be and thought that most things about Christianity was more in line with the Marxist critique: simply a ‘opiate for the masses’, a balm for those unwilling to embrace the horrors of a life without God with courage and choose a fairy tale instead.  So I read everything I could get my hands  – from Carl Sagan’s Broca’s Brain to The Tao Te Ching – in trying to make sense of what meaning actually was.  Yes, I count myself as a Christian and yes, I situate myself within the orthodox understanding of the faith as framed in the ecumenical creeds and Scriptures canonized by the apostolic faith.  But did my starting point begin with the Church?  Not really.  Is what resources and sustains my question for a deeper and more abiding faith generated solely by the church within which I find myself?  Somewhat.  Am I clear and articulate about what faith is for me?  I suppose better than some.  Does this cause me anxiety?  Not at all.   This leads to my last comment…

4. Eclecticism is not necessarily a bad thing…

Piggybacking on the last concern, there is the assertion in the MTD industry that eclectic approaches to faith development is something of an aberration and that authentic faith is to be found in categorical resolute allegiance to a particular faith tradition.  When Smith makes the statement that  “U.S. teens as a whole are thus not religiously promiscuous faith mixers”[9] he is seeing this as a good thing.

Is this a good thing?

Smith and Denton go on to state that “based on our experience talking through these issues face-to-face with teens around the country, we estimate that no more than 2 to 3 percent of American teens are serious spiritual seekers of the kind described above: self-directing and self-authenticating people pursuing an experimental and eclectic quest for personal spiritual meaning outside of historical religious traditions.”[10]

In many ways I don’t find comfort in this at all.  When did seeking manifold resources by which to ground and still release a faith in being that is larger than institutions, larger than reason, more compelling than route recitation of dogma and more enlivened than an appeal to a dead past?  Students I know find ‘common grace’ flooding through the music they listen to, the books they read in comparative lit courses, in the art they study from the 16th century, and even in the characters they follow on TV shows as ephemeral as Glee, as gritty as The Wire, as bizarre as Lost, and as ridiculous and ironic as Monty Python.  This is in keeping with St. Paul’s repose to the world as he spoke to the Athenians in Acts 17 – seeking not merely the so-called orthodox rendering of what constitutes the faith tradition, but beginning with a tour of their museums and finding whatever cultural artifact seemed to shimmer and resonate with that which connected with their searching for meaning.

So… what do you think?  As you listen to the cry of concern voiced by the MTD industry calling us to a deep state of alarm and fear for the sake of our teens, can we temper that fear and concern with knowledge that faith has always been a messy thing that is difficult to articulate, and often drawn from a crazy and seemingly random set of sources?


[1] Smith and Denton, Soul Searching, p. 88

[2] Smith and Denton, Soul Searching, p. 136.

[3] Beaudoin, Tom. Witness to Dispossession (New York: Orbis, 2008), p. 81

[4] Smith and Denton, Soul Searching, p. 42.

[5] Ammerman, Nancy (ed.) Everyday Religion: Observing Modern Religious Lives (New York: Oxford UP, 2007) p. 226.

[6] Ammerman, Nancy (ed.) Everyday Religion: Observing Modern Religious Lives, p. 226.

[7] Smith and Denton, Soul Searching, p. 27

[8] Beaudoin, Tom Witness to Dispossession (New York: Orbis, 2008), p. 81

[9] Smith and Denton, Soul Searching, p. 32.

[10] 78

In a series of articles published in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Thomas Benton (aka William Pannapacker, an associate professor of English at Hope College, a small Christian Reformed college in Holland, Michigan) has been raising a veritable army of angry adjuncts and underemployed PhDs through his revealing what he sees as “the Big Lie” of the academy – that universities are not telling the truth about employment prospects for those graduating with PhDs in the Humanities and ‘trapping’ vulnerable graduate students into believing that ‘the life of the mind’ is the only calling worth pursuing and that other career options could be as if not more fulfilling.  If you follow the comment threads to Benton/Pannapacker’s postings, you will hear the anger, outrage and disappointment of many graduate students who concur with him.  In spite of the irony of the author writing under a pen name and publishing an article on the ‘Big Lie’ (why not publish under your birth name if truth is such a value?), there is a deep concern brewing about re-evaluating what a university is for and ultimately what a faculty member is charged with.

Last week I received the call that many academics wait for – the notice that the Board of Trustees at the University had voted to extend me tenure.  I went on this journey once before during my time on faculty at the University of Glasgow so to go through it again was tiring to say the least.  It is a long process of evaluation through many vantage points in closed rooms – students focus groups, peer teaching evaluations, guild endorsements, reviews of published scholarship, administrative interviews, and meeting with the President.  In many ways, tenure is an ancient rite of passage more than a means of securing employment or (as many people think) the so-called ‘freedom’ to do and say whatever I want when I want (this was the number one thing that people said to me after the announcement – “so… are you going to just spout off and do crazy things?!”)  No, tenure is not a freedom to be self serving nor should it be seen as a means of subverting the very institution that has embraced me.  It is truly a statement of covenant in the oldest sense of the word – a commitment to a mission beyond the confines of contracts and student evaluations. In many ways, tenure is the ultimate act of faith extended by a body to an educator and scholar – a promise to support, nurture, and give space to voice the mission of the institution not as a mere employee – but as a physical embodiment of the institution itself.  In short, tenure is a burden of grace and trust not to be taken lightly.  It does sadden me to see other faculty who see tenure as a licence to ‘do their own thing’ – pull back on working with students in co-curricular ways, starting side businesses that take most of their attention away from campus life, stop sticking their necks out through submitting papers to peer-reviewed journals and seeking book contracts, and basically coasting through the remainder of their career in utter silence as the ultimate ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy.  These are few, but represent why the public views tenured faculty with such scorn.  For the public that Benton/Pannapacker speaks to and now has a substantive following, these are the faces of the voodoo dolls newly minted PhDs are sticking pins into with relish (which to layer irony upon irony Benton/Pannapacker is possibly another candidate if he is merely stirring up dissent and not courageously using his tenure status to make the changes he himself desires – I would love to know how his letters of petition to the Board of Trustees at Hope College have been going as well as his offer to cut his own salary to enable a younger faculty member to find employment.  As a scholar of Walt Whitman, he might find some courage in Leaves of Grass or as a faculty member at a Reformed school being one of the Elect…)

The challenge I want to lift up as a tenured faculty member is basically this – is the role of tenure a freedom ‘from’ the institutional restraint we perceive holding us back or is it a freedom ‘for’ living into the very mission of the institution that has chosen to embrace us?  Is perhaps the gift of tenure a gift of stewardship – learning how to be truthful about the difficulties of the profession and prospects of employment as Benton/Pannapacker frames so well in his article and also honestly take stock of how tenure means embodiment of the institutional legacy rather than merely licence to be left alone?

What do you think?

In a recent article by Tom Matlack in the Huffington Post entitled “Tiger Woods and the State of Modern Manhood”, Matlack zeros in on this latest account of fallen sports icons as an accounting for what he sees as the demise of manhood in America.  As he surmises in the article:

Guys we are at a crossroads. You can go back into the cave if you want to but it isn’t going to do you, or your family, any good. The guys I know, from investment bankers to Marines, are asking themselves how they can possibly be good fathers, sons, husbands, and workers at the same time. In a way its what women have struggled with for decades but us guys are just facing into as the challenge of a “he-cession” at work and increased expectations at home have us reeling.

Does Matlack have a point worth considering?  Is he just a whiner who needs to ‘man up’, get to work, and stop watching Dr. Phil?  As the author spins his story of overindulgence in the consumer ideals of the so-called American dream that lead to his marriage falling apart and his identity collapsing around him, you do feel a level of sorrow and wonder what is indeed happening to our culture as it concerns men.  The question interests me as well as a teacher who works with young adults in their college years – what developmental theorist Erik Erickson calls the “moratorium from adulthood” and a period of life Cat Stevens mused as being “on the road to find out.”  I work alongside young men in their early 20s who continue to choose essentially two paths:

(1) entwine themselves with charismatic 21st century Robert Bly/Iron John/’Wild at Heart’ types who spin tales of manhood as a thing forged in the Black Forest amidst the terror of hordes of Orcs, framed in the flickering light of epic battles of yore, and promise mentorship in exchange of unswerving allegiance.  In short, many of the neo-Calvinist church plants catering to middle class America who see manhood as certainty of strength through force of will rather than faith, hope and love and as the mark  and virtue of a true man fall into this camp.

(2) The disenfranchised/misunderstood/maligned socially aware social justice artist who sees the role of manhood framed as the critic par excellence.   These young men fall into the hippie cum grunge cum slacker cum ‘have-hoodie-and-iPod-will-travel’ aesthetic that dance on the edge of things often journaling in the coffee shop while the world burns around them.  This is the underachiever who is the overly idealistic and tells all who listen what is wrong and how things should be yet won’t step out to change things beyond the sphere of their shaker snow globe of well-meaning egalitarianism.

Is there another model?  Is there some option beyond these polar extremes?

Organizational guru and motivational speaker Steven Covey challenges individuals to “work to live, not live to work”.  Catchy aphorism to be sure, but hard to live out.  I just finished teaching a class in the MBA program at SPU that caused me to do some thinking on the issue of how and why people choose the work that they do.  A student in my class last night – the last class mind you – raised her hand and asked “Throughout this class, you have said that we should seek jobs that are fulfilling, that will serve the needs of the broken in our world, that will have a mission statement that we can support – is it realistic to find such a position when entering the workforce or do we settle with any entry level position?”  Great question to be sure.  My immediate answer was “yes”.  That said, the challenge is more to do with a willingness to wait for the goal and do the things in the mean time that will allow space for the goal to be realized.  This might mean changing my lifestyle a bit to allow me to work for next to nothing so I can do an internship and gain the experience necessary to fulfill the long term goal and not merely accept the short term gains of a better salary so I can buy a house, car, new clothes, etc.  This ‘down-sizing’ for the sake of the long term is a difficult and counter cultural choice.

One of the things I enjoy about summer is the opportunity to move theological discussions into the realm of other disciplines.  For the last two years I have taught in both the MBA program in the School of Business and the MA program in the School of Education.  Both of these groups represent populations that don’t typically get framed as ‘theological disciplines’ in the purest sense of the word, yet consistantly offer some of the most insightful glimpses into the ways people ‘hear’ what a theological life looks and feels like.

Last night in my MBA class we discussed the Jubliee mandate of Leviticus 25 and the Sermon on the Mount found in Matthew 5 -7 as well as the Sermon on the Plain in Luke 6.  These represent some of the most compelling ethical mandates in all of scripture.  As we walked through the scripture and discussed some of the implications, it was interesting to get a resounding “yeah…so…?” from the class.  Our discussion article for the night was Jonathan Rowe’s testimony delivered March 12 before the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, Subcommittee on Interstate Commerce.  The article of the transcript is published in Harper’s Magazine June 2008 entitled “Our Phony Economy”.  In the article, Rowe challenges the presuposition that the GDP is a metric worth maintaining as a measure of a healthy economy.  What is telling is that this comes prior to the Presidential election and just months before the economy started its downhill slide.  In the article, Rowe notes that if our metric for a healthy economy is based on consumer spending, then having a home garden rather than shopping at Whole Foods, staying home with our children rather than hiring a nanny, and going running with neighbors rather than getting a fitness membership at a local club is simply a bad thing.  In a pure GDP model, getting divorced, buying rather than making, using up rather than recycling and renewing are more ‘responsible’.

Most, if not all, felt that while the teachings of Jesus to care for the poor and marginalized is interesting, the pragmatism of our current state of economics, in particular the current ‘whatever it takes to get out of the recession’ mentality, leaves little to no room for strategic let alone imaginative visions for business let alone society.  “Jubilee is purely utopian” was one comment.  “Jesus is arguing for only those called to serve in ministry – not those called to make a profit to fund these ministries” was another.  “How could a city like New York ever survive under a Jubliee mandate?” was yet another.  Over and over the repose was a blank stare, checking the balckberry for texts, and the glint of solitare backlit in the glasses from the laptop upon which ‘notes’ were being taken.

I am still licking my wounds from the class session and trying to figure out a better way to approach this…