Friday, June 22, 2007

College and Calling

One of the great unanswered questions of our time:

What is college for?

Students, being that they don't have years of experience thinking deeply about what their education actually does for them, usually don't have the opportunity to answer this with hindsight. Educators, being that they do have those supposed years of experience, never answer it clearly or anywhere near satisfactorily. For that, education is hard. What education, at the end of the day, does for one person it may not do for another. I remember an instance, early in my Master's program of Higher Education, having a particularly astute teacher facilitate this exercise:

He asked us if we enjoyed college. Most everyone did, enthusiastically so. He asked us what part of college was the best overall. Most everyone answered the relationships or community or activities. Not one person in memory answered academics. Lastly, he asked us whether or not everyone should go to college. Unanimously, no one said college was for everyone. I hope you notice the disconnect here.

College is good, especially for the development of lasting relationships. But not everyone should go to college. I ruminate on this experience constantly. Especially since $85,000+ is a lot to pay for developing relationships (which, interestingly enough, can also be done for free, just like learning).

My dream for higher education, probably never to be realized, is that it would be used for two things:
1) A student who knows (with job prospects already found) what general field they want/need to study for their specific career and goes after that training full force.
2) A student who has been doing their calling for some time and wants further advanced and up-to-date training in that field.

One caveat and two important things to note. Caveat: calling does not equal occupation. Two things: (1) college as it is today isn't necessary for either of these two things and (2) 'liberal arts' education isn't necessarily part of the curriculum.

The first thing noted has to do with the fact that all formal education isn't necessarily about learning, but about certification. That is what a degree is: a publicly attested certification of some level of skill, whether learned or BSed. The second thing noted may seem a little strange. I am a believer in a well-rounded, liberal (freedom-giving) education. If careerism is all that we train/educate for, then we are denying the essential humanness of ourselves and our students.

The reason that higher education does not necessarily need a 'liberal arts' component is two-fold. (1) Whether teachers admit it or not, all learning, even the technical stuff is interdisciplinary. If your teachers don't teach their discipline listening to other fields such as the hard sciences, the social sciences, the humanities, and business, they have failed you as teachers. Switch to different professors or different schools. (2) If your education hasn't prepared you for living as a free human being by the time you are 18, then a liberal arts education is going to do very little for you. Needless to say, a bulk of responsibility is on the student to use their education, not just believe everything teacher says (I did mention that 'liberal' education is about freedom, didn't I?)

Part of being a free human being, from my point of view, is having a purpose. I've seen too many students coming into and leaving college with no real sense of what they are about, and I don't mean just career-wise. Many of them have no real connection to a place or a tradition or a home. Without that, no sense of calling, real yes-it-includes-occupation-but-is-so-much-more-than-that, Steve Garberian calling can happen. It is ridiculous for parents and students to spend so much money and time on certification when the student doesn't have a clear sense of calling. It is ridiculous to assume that you will find your calling in the strict bubble of the educational system (how many people outside of your age group do you have real, genuine interaction with each week?), separated from family, home, work, and place?

Part of this train of thought is brought on by a conversation I had earlier today with a friend who went to school with me. We both, for all intents and purposes, are outside of academe. Neither of us totally, but most of our lives is not spent as teachers, but as independent business people and regular folks. Neither of us regret our studies, but neither of us are in the fields in which we spent so much labor, sweat, time, and money. With a little foresight, and maybe some guidance from the informal teachers in our lives who really know us, could have saved us much time and energy. An internship here, a book to read there, a heart-to-heart about what is really important in life. Someone to tell us that being in college is much more about status than education (if you don't believe that, it is because the fact is taken for granted in middle class America).

Honestly, I want to go back to college now. Not because I need to, but because with my callings in urban renewal, business, the interdisciplinary work of coffee (surprisingly so), I have much to learn. However, I'll be doing most of that learning through independent reading and by having conversations with people who are living their lives, who are passionate about what they are doing, whether that is educating, laboring, running a business, raising a family, caring for those in need, or just relaxing a bit by biking the country.

In the end, I think that our educational system is fundamentally flawed. Why is it that we keep students in school for more and more years to learn less and less? Longer hours, more homework, longer school years haven't produced the social salvation that has been promised for decades. It is time that we rethink how and why we do schooling and why it is so disconnected from learning.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Religious Individualism

I wrote, not too long ago, about change. As it is a persistent question bearing directly upon spirituality, I have wanted to address it further.

I consider myself to be a modified individualist, that is, I believe that I am created as an individual and have a divinely-created sphere in which I have been given authority. I am self-governed, where most of the importance governance of my life happens. There are areas within that sphere in which the State and Church cannot legislate, prosecute, or ban. This does not mean, though, that I believe myself to be autonomous or atomistic. I can never be autonomous, because I am a creature under the authority of God--nothing can change that and I do not wish for it to be changed anyway. Also, I am a communitied individual (here's the modified part): I live in a genetic family, with my wife, in a neighborhood, within a nation, part of creation. All of these things bear down on the questions I can ask and the answers that are possible. However, this does not make me parochial, part of being an individual in the midst of other individuals is that if I want peace and prosperity, I must look outside myself to the wisdom, idiosyncracies, and faults of others. Humans are both one and many, both being equally created, equally ultimate, and equally good. Throwing them out of balance by being atomistic or borg-ish perverts God's good creation. However, I don't believe them to be in dialectic tension; instead they are to work together in harmony, which I believe only happens as individuals are joined to the body of Christ (the metaphor itself being a wonderful example of the one-and-many).

Acknowledging that I have a sphere of self-governance is a good thing. There are aspects of my being that, from my human point of view, are under my control. I have chosen to ask Bethany to marry me (her choice, at this point, of course bears upon the questions I could ask and the answers that could be received). I have chosen to write this blog post. In other words, no immediately coercive force has determined my life. One of those aspects, if you read the Torah, is my choice of sin or not sin. However, I've noticed that when I try and excise certain sins out of my life, they persist and even get worse. The two questions that invariably pop into my head are: do I really want to not sin [and] am I one of God's people after all? Both, however, while not being bad self-reflective questions in-and-of-themselves, are missing the point.

One of the difficulties of being a Reformed Christian is that, by and large, we don't believe in the Holy Spirit. Beside believe in God's absolute sovereignty, we often work that "Protestant Work Ethic" into what is classically called sanctification. In other words, we don't work for our salvation, but we sure as hell make ourselves morally pure. Or we get the State to do it for us (Prohibition, anyone?). However, this religious individualism always ends up in a bad conscience. Just as in salvation, we cannot change our spots or the color of our skin, nor can we change the way we act. However, unlike salvation, God isn't the only actor. In our change towards being more human, God's Holy Spirit gives us the ability and power to change, sometimes seemingly in spite of us.

Not only the Holy Spirit, though, but also the rest of the body of Christ. If a part is sick, the whole body is affected and the whole body is needing to administer the cure. Does a member of the body sin? Confession to other members, rebuke (if necessary), and reconciliation through others is necessary for any long term change. Yes, the change starts between God and myself, but others are a part of my long-term growth into true humanity.

That is why I've grown impatient lately with my own attempts to change (and my public vows to do so). If I'm going to be public, it needs to be as one who is seeking restoration, not as a lone-gunner for Jesus who doesn't need anyone else on this road. Unfortunately, in a religious tradition nourished on Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress, it is hard to get around the inherent (and dangerous) atomism of the Protestant heritage.

Saturday, June 16, 2007


He who has knowledge spares his words: a man of understanding is of a calm breath. Even a fool is counted wise when he holds his peace: he shuts his lips, "Perceptive!" (Proverbs 17:27-28, WAV)

...let your 'yes' be 'yes' and your 'no' 'no'. For whatever is more than these is from the evil one. (Matthew 5:37, NKJV)

One of the classic Christian disciplines is silence. By far, it is the hardest to practice for me. Fasting, relatively easy--just stop eating (doesn't mean it happens much). Study, never stops. Prayer, strangely connected to silence, is probably the next hardest but I find myself praying much more than not talking.

I've been meditating on silence for quite some time. The connection in Scripture between control of the tongue and righteousness/justice has always intrigued me, but not just in an intellectual way; it has touched the very core of my being. There is a saying of Jesus where he speaks about every idle word coming under the judgement of God. As usual, Jesus means something a little bit deeper (but not esoteric): if idle words come under judgement, how much more those words spoken intentionally. In other words, let your 'yes' mean 'yes' and your 'no' mean 'no.' There was a time in my life when I was known for eloquent, lengthy prayers, especially in public. However, as I've grown more knowledgeable of the way language works and is used, I've come to see that most folks (including myself) who are verbose, whether politician or preacher, layman or lawyer, usually mean half of what they say and don't understand the other half. That is why, as of late, I've become so disillusioned with religious language. Too many people have used the language of God-is-on-our-side for rational assent. I've longed many times to hear our leaders, both political and spiritual, to just shut up. That is why the 'yes' and 'no' passage is so important: every word we speak should be treated as a vow. How do we know if God is on our side?

Add to this the times that the Bible speaks about not taking rash vows. All the more reason to drop the dressing from words and speak plainly. However, there is power in language, especially if you can make someone believe something and help them create a symbolic universe based on words (linguists and sociologists agree that this is the formative-normative nature of language). "Us v. Them" is the most powerful set of words that I know of, and also the most dangerous.

But, what am I saying? That is exactly the question. I can complain about those in power till I'm blue in the face, but the log will remain in my own eye. In other words, until I'm silent, who can I expect anyone else to be--especially those whose job it is to talk!
There is a passage in Richard Foster's Celebration of Discipline in which he speaks about justifying our actions. Really, it is the reason that I wanted to write this post. It is amazing how often I try and give my actions a little different spin with words because the action is either ambiguous or may really reveal my intentions. Silence disciplines, then, not only the tongue, but the whole body, as James says. If I were to let my actions speak for themselves, Francis of Assisi-style, I would need to be much more intentional with how I act. Silence leads not only to purity and clarity of words, but purity and clarity of action.

Such is the discipline of silence.

Saturday, June 09, 2007

The Narcissism of Hate

Currently Reading: Blue Like Jazz

As I said to a friend the other day, I'm theologically arrogant. It comes with being a junkie. I read big, important books with lots of footnotes. I rarely read fiction and even more rarely do I read the more "popular-level" books like Blue Like Jazz. However, strangely enough, I've always enjoyed and learned a lot from books like Jazz, or Ragamuffin Gospel, or (gasp) Sacred Romance, or even (double-gasp-don't-tell-Byron-Borger) Wild at Heart.

Jazz itself is a particularly insightful book for me. Don Miller and I seem to share some of the same concerns about religion and the Church and about ourselves. Both of us are "influential" people in our circles, but neither of us feel particularly comfortable with the role, possibly for different reasons. He is, in many ways, a contrarian, which I can identify with (although not too much, otherwise it wouldn't be very contrarian of me).

Anyway, Miller points out something of great significance to me. The greatest lie that he used to believe is that life was a story about him. It is ridiculous how profound that is. If only I, for a second, would stop living life for myself (with a thin veneer of altruism), what could be different? Or, better yet, what couldn't be different? I expect to wrestle with this for some time. Hopefully for the better. The thing I've noticed today, though, is how insufferably selfish I have been (and my wife can corroborate that, especially after my silly, childish temper tantrum earlier). Why is it that when a sin is pointed out, the ability to not do that thing diminishes, at least initially? But that isn't the point today.

The most obvious response to my selfishness is humility. Humility before God, before my family and friends, and before anyone else that I have dealings with. The easiest way to do this, it seems, is to be self-deprecative or self-hating. Blaming myself for everything, making fun of myself, beating myself up for things that aren't my concern or my fault or even remotely my responsibility...and doing it publicly. What I'm realizing (even though this is an old realization, that doesn't mean I've applied it) is that this form of "humility" is another, more insidious form of pride and narcissism. When I become focussed on myself in hate or bitterness or whatever, nothing about my selfishness changes. I haven't become humble before God or others or even myself. I've become so certain that the problems of the world rest so solely on my shoulders that I've forgotten about that Jesus fellow or God's sovereign love or even other human beings in this world. I'm focussed on me and how irredeemable I am. Publicly. Here's the real catch.

Repentance, the few times that I've actually had a true form of it, was mostly private. If I needed to repent of something that I did to someone other than God, then it was public, but in a limited fashion (I make it a point to try and not offend large groups of people). Most of the time, though, it is spent in actual silence before God--not just lip silence, but mind silence. Job put his finger over his lips when he repented, a sign of absolute silence. True repentance, for me, involves the same. It does no good to flaunt repentance, to talk about it publicly. When that happens, it is all show and nothing has really changed about me, except that I very selfishly believe I'm less selfish.

This hateful Narcissism, strangely, is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Even though I'm not feeling particularly self-hating at this moment, I'd like to keep the next set of things in the first person. I believe I am unlovable for whatever reason (I've done something terrible, I'm not attractive, I'm a failure at this-that-or-the-other-thing). This changes the way I think, speak, and act. I think, speak, and act in unlovable ways: maybe I act completely (and obnoxiously) dependent on others, maybe I act like a spoiled child, maybe I turn into a hollow, angry shell, and the list could go on. This irritates people and they start to not love me (for which, as a self-hater, I don't blame them, but secretly hate them for it). I end up believing that I am unloved. If I am unloved, if must be because I'm unlovable. And so on.

I don't think that this attitude is a product necessarily of the theological tradition I'm a part of. However, when the first tenet of your religious system is that you are total depraved (even after redemption), it is hard to not be down on yourself. It led me to question, along with another book I was reading--Violence, Hospitality, and the Cross by Hans Boersma--the concept of the sin nature. The phrase itself isn't in the Bible, instead it is a translation of the Greek word for flesh. Paul, the main user of the term it seems, doesn't mean to separate the physical body out as evil (otherwise he would have used the term 'body'), but "flesh" sort of as the total system of sin that currently comprises a part of our being. So, you may be thinking, I believe in sin nature. Yes and no. I don't have a problem with the 'sin' part, but the 'nature' part. Saying something is 'natural' is tantamount to saying it is inevitable. There is no way to escape nature. I could no more stop being a male than I could change my skin color (I realize that there is surgery for the former, but being physically a male through a scalpel doesn't really make you male, it makes you deviant). In Christian thought, something natural is the way God created it. In other words, if we have a sin nature, we cannot ever escape sin, for to be human is to be sinful. What a terrifying thought. If such is the case, even the traditional interpretation of the virgin birth (having a body specially created outside of the normal sexual union keeps Christ free from original sin) doesn't do it. Just being a human makes Jesus sinful. Well, the ancient heresy of docetism isn't far behind...and if you look at mainstream Christology, it is alive and well on planet earth. Once again, a terrifying thought.

In the words (or book title) of one of the Plantingas, this isn't the way it's supposed to be. If we believe the Bible, then it isn't until at least a day after man is created that he becomes a sinner. He wasn't created that way. It wasn't until after God finished creating man (that is, after he created both man and woman, androgeny wasn't the intention) that he and she decided to rebel. Man wasn't created with a sin nature, nor is it 'natural' for him to sin. Sin is an historical aberration from God's intention. That doesn't mean I believe in perfectionism, though.

I am an American. I was born in America, I live in America, and I will probably die in America. A formative part of my identity is guided by the history, geography, and worldview of America. I could not, tomorrow, wake up and say "I am now a citizen of Poland." (Not just because I don't look Polish, either). It isn't my choice to be American, I was born that way. However, that doesn't make it 'natural' that I am American. It is an historical thing. If I went through the proper processi, red-tape, and cultural emigration I could become Polish. Even though I was born American, I could live Polish. Sin is the same way (note: I'm not saying that being American is the same as being a sinner, all analogies break down eventually).

I was born is the status of sin, sometimes called being 'in Adam'. It wasn't my choice, but that doesn't mean I'm not responsible for it (just like I was born a Warren, not by choice, but I still have responsibilities to that name and family). Being born in something, or having the status of something, gives guidelines as to what questions can be asked, what answers can be given, and what ways are acceptable (or possible) to live. Being in the status of 'sin' questions, answers, and dictates certain things. If I stay in that status, I will more and more conform to the questions, answers, and dictates of that status. I will become epistemologically self-conscious. This is part of maturation. Have you ever noticed how children ask questions that our thought-systems cannot even handle, but seem decidedly profound? I think that is because they are not epistemologically self-conscious. Their thought process has not been fully formed, so they don't know what rules to follow intellectually. Maybe that is why Jesus told us to be 'like children'?

So, the more and more I stay in the status of 'sin', the more and more of a sinner I become. I think sin, I speak sin, I act sin. It isn't till I'm transported/emigrate to another status, another kingdom (if you will) that the status changes. Instead of being 'in Adam', I can be 'in Christ'. If I am in Christ, then I cannot be in Adam at the same time. If this is true, then the very defining characteristic of being 'in Adam', sin, no longer holds status power over me. I have a new status, that of righteous. However, since I didn't get my membership transferred until late in the game, as it were, I still have a lot of habits and thought-processi that are epistemologically closer to sin than to Christ. In other words, I still sin...often.

However, to get back to my original point, just because I sin while being a Christian does not mean it is 'natural'. It means that I haven't become epistemologically self-conscious as a Christian (known classically as sanctification leading to glorification). I still sin because sin is what I know, the status-kingdom of sin surrounds me and calls to me constantly to not remember the bad things about it and revel in all the 'good' things about it. Just because I am a Christian doesn't mean that I'm not constantly under the influence of sin. However, I am in a community of other ex-sinners who want to be more in Christ than in Adam (most of the time, at least).

Here, in some ways at least, is the antidote to self-hating narcissism (is there really any other form of narcissism?). Evil is not the way I am created, even if I act that way and others around me act that way. I, instead, was created in the image of God and am being restored to that status after a long absence. Only through Jesus, though, can this restoration happen, since I need my transferring papers, which he secured on the cross. Otherwise, I never would have even known about any other status than sin. The most comforting thing about this is that even if I do continue to think, speak, and act as in sin, Jesus is patient to help me, mould me, and change me more and more into his image.