I got to know Ron and Paul last year when they invited me to give a lecture at SNU. It was a wonderful time. Beyond being brilliant, welcoming and absolutely hilarious, Ron and Paul are doing really innovative work rethinking Christian pedagogy, in both their graduate and undergraduate programs at SNU. And you can see it paying off. As I shared with Ron and Paul, when I was at SNU the camaraderie I experienced between the psychology majors and the faculty was remarkable.
Ron and Paul's session was about re-envisioning Christian higher-education. Much of the intellectual foundation of the session was taken from James Smith's book Desiring the Kingdom. I don't know James Smith but from his online persona my hunch is that Dr. Smith would think that I'm a complete heretic, too liberal in all sorts of ways. Regardless, I agree with Ron and Paul that Desiring the Kingdom is a great book and I have my own faculty at ACU reading it. I also taught a class at church about the book.
A central thesis of Desiring the Kingdom is that we humans are less thinking animals (Aristotle) than we are desiring animals (Augustine). Consequently, we should replace the overly rationalistic formulation of Rene Descartes--"I think therefore I am"--with "I am what I love." We are lovers. Consequently, according to Smith love is what Christian education should be focused on.
But the trouble with this is that love cannot be "taught" in a purely intellectual way. Love directs our desires and our desires aren't changed by multiple choice tests. To affect love you need a process of formation rather than information. And such formation will focus on the ways liturgies and practices shape and direct our habits. And key here for Smith is how we are always embedded in both secular and sacred liturgical practices that shape our desires. Shopping at a mall, to borrow an example from Smith, is a liturgy, a habit-forming practice that shapes our desires and affects what we love. Standing for the Pledge of Allegiance during sporting events is also a liturgy/practice that shapes what we love.
And so is, Ron and Paul pointed out, the pursuit of a grade in a classroom. A college classroom is a sort of "church" where something is "worshiped." And as a place of worship the classroom shapes your desires, causes you to love something.
Given all this, the goal of Christian education is less about teaching Christian ideas (getting students to articulate "a Christian worldview") than it is about shaping and directing the desires and loves of students toward a vision of "the Kingdom God." Again, Christian education is more about formation--becoming a certain kind of lover--than it is about information.
To illustrate this Ron and Paul showed a video clip of child psychiatrist Robert Coles talking about his work and relationship with Ruby Bridges.
You will recall that Ruby Bridges was one of six black students who, because they had passed tests showing that they were academically prepared, were ordered to integrate the schools in New Orleans. Two of the students, however, stayed at their black schools. The other three students were bussed to another school.
And so it was that Ruby Bridges had to go to William Frantz Elementary School all by herself.
And we all recall what was waiting for Ruby at the school. Captured in the iconic painting by Norman Rockwell, Ruby had to be escorted by federal marshals and others past jeering mobs shouting hateful things at Ruby.
Day after day. Week after week.
Given his work in child development and interest in civil rights, Coles wanted to observe Ruby. Coles was worried that the hate and hostility Ruby faced each day would eventually take an emotional and psychological toll.
But as time went on Ruby seemed to be doing just fine. Coles was happily surprised, but perplexed. What was making Ruby so psychologically resilient?
Coles's final observations go to the heart of the distinction between information and formation. It's one thing to pass a test on the Sermon on the Mount in a bible class in college. It's quite another thing to be formed and shaped by the Sermon on the Mount.
It's one thing to have a 4.0 GPA in biblical studies.
But it's quite another, as Coles says, "to get the kind of 'A' Ruby got."