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On Corn Pancakes, Stanley Hauerwas, and Education

Written by Mark Van Steenwyk : November 9, 2007

image I’ve had a great morning! This morning, I had corn pancakes with Stanley Hauerwas.  To be more precise: I had Venezuelan corn pancakes (covered with cotija) at Maria’s Cafe and Stanley Hauerwas had the same.  What a great start to a day!

Hauerwas lectured last night at the University of Minnesota about theology and the University.   I was invited, along with a few U of M professors, to join Hauerwas for breakfast before he flies home.

imageHauerwas raised a number of important ideas in his lecture, as well as in subsequent conversations.  But I want to focus on one of his points.  At one point in his lecture, he suggested that one of the ways in which a Christian understanding challenges the way in which the University doles out knowledge is in regard to the ways in which disciplines and courses are divided.  For example, in a Christian way of seeing things, “politics” and “economics” wouldn’t be separate disciplines (come to think of it, no rational person should separate these two disciplines).  The ways universities divide knowledge shows that is still recovering from a bad Enlightenment hangover. 

Christian colleges and universities, for some odd reason, take the categories offered by the ”secular” universities and then add some element of spiritual hand-holding.  They teach the same stuff in generally the same way, but offer better ”student care” and are concerned with the students’ soul.

Seminaries are, in Hauerwas’ opinion, theological ghettos.   They offer theological training (to varying degrees of quality) without reflecting theologically about the various academic disciplines. 

I admit: I care about this stuff because, deep down inside, I am a wannabe academic.  But I also care about this stuff because I see how churches, over time, have had their training structures shaped by the University.  We take our categories of life from the larger culture, and then slap Jesus into it.  We lack the imagination, creativity, and wisdom to find a way to integrate our theological convictions into everything we do. 

This raises all sorts of issues–issues that I worry we will never substantially address in my lifetime:

  •  If we could start from scratch, what should education (that takes the Triune Reality seriously) look like? 
  •  What should it look like for scientists and poets and school teachers? 
  •  What could seminaries look like? How can someone interested in vocational ministry learn how to think theologically about the Church, culture, media, the State, human development, etc?
  •  In what ways do our current church structures fail to develop holistic disciples? 
  •  What structures should we develop for thoughtful, sustained discipleship?

I care about these things a lot.  I’ve even considered getting my PhD in education (or a related field) instead of ecclesiology.  My deepest concern for the Church in America is that we lack the capacity and imagination to form disciples in the Way of Jesus.  Of great ideas, there are no lack.  Our churches are like Teflon–even the best ideas can’t “stick” to them.

I have done adjunct work at Bethel Seminary, and am going to start teaching continuing education courses at Bethel University this month.  I also facilitate the Twin Cities Emergent Cohort and am just starting to develop networks of Christarchy! groups around the Twin Cities (and hopefully elsewhere).  To me, decentralized, grassroots training opportunities (like the Cohort and Christarchy!) hold great promise.  But I think SO much more can be done.

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Comments

9 Responses to “On Corn Pancakes, Stanley Hauerwas, and Education”

  1. James on November 9th, 2007 6:46 am

    First off, I am jealous that you got to spend the morning talking to one of the great contemporary American theologians. I had lunch with Lee Camp a few years ago and we talked about his book and John Howard Yoder [so there] :-)
    On a more serious note, although I for the most part agree with Hauerwas, I find it interesting that he sees seminaries as theological ghettos considering he teaches at one of the top Methodist seminaries in the country.

    The thing about the seminary model (if the seminary isn’t just a breeding ground for denominational clones) is that a top notch seminary allows students to develop strong biblical, theological, and ministerial foundation upon which they can think about the other academic disciplines. In fact many of the seminary students that I am meeting are coming from undergraduate programs in math, science, pre-law, pre-med, etc. so that upon completion of their master’s degrees they have options that could send them back into ’secular’ fields where they can bring their theological education to bear on that culture. I guess what I am saying is that undergraduate training in one specific academic discipline followed by graduate theological education may allow students to integrate the tenants of both into a more holistic form.

  2. ben on November 9th, 2007 9:35 am

    Two comments:

    First, James, I appreciate that you have met many seminary students who are coming from more “hard” disciplines and who seek to integrate their theological and scientific knowledge holistically.

    However, Hauerwas has said many times that seminary is where people go who have failed in their secular careers. My experience at Bethel seminary, and as I’ve rubbed elbows with good friends who are graduates of prominent southern seminaries matches with Hauerwas. Do you think that Hauerwas is off-base, or do you think a shift is starting to occur?

    Second, Mark, I wonder about the broader implications of such triune integration on several levels. Ultimately, the trend is going towards people specializing in a field - knowing more and more about less and less. This isn’t a theological issue, per se, but more of a practical issue. How can one really educate themselves in the complexity of multiple fields as if those fields are one “being” in three “persons”? I know you are not headed towards saying we should all be generalists, but perhaps some clarification would be helpful on how you see the triune reality changing our academic integrations.

    Additionally, I *think* you are really getting at the trinitarian idea of mutual penetration, or something akin to perichoresis. This complicates (or, at worst, undoes) the work of people like Platinga, who assert that things like methodological naturalism cannot make statements about spiritual or political matters without becoming philosophical naturalism. Are you advocating an approach akin to philosophical naturalism called philosophical trinitarianism? How would this approach allow for better interaction between things like faith and science, or religion and government with non-christians who hold a different philosophy, but are nonetheless doing good academic work?

    I’m jealous of your adjunct status. I’ve tried to do something similar, but my secular job kept me from rubbing elbows with enough key decision makers at Bethel to be a known quantity. You lucky dawg. What are you teaching?

  3. James on November 9th, 2007 10:11 am

    Ben,

    I received my B.A. and M.Div from a Christian liberal arts university and have had numerous people tell me to pursue my Ph.D. from a University for reasons of prestige compared to a seminary degree. However, as I looked at very respected religion programs at certain ‘prestigious’ universities I noticed that (even at ‘Christian’ universities) the programs are more pluralistic religion programs as opposed to distinctively Christian. After going through graduate theological studies that effectively tore down a large portion of my theological presuppositions, I see religion programs at Universities as a place that would drive the final nail into the coffin of what would be my faith. That is why I chose to pursue my Ph.D. at a seminary that is focused on building scholars on the biblical and theological foundation of orthodox Christianity rather than tearing that foundation apart. If that means that the elite academicians will look down their noses at me, oh well. I would hope that my work will surpass the ‘presitge’ of the piece of paper I receive that says Doctor of Philosophy on it.

    Furthermore, I think it is ironic that Hauerwas takes that position considering he teaches at the seminary (although it is call a ‘divinity school’) at Duke University. Then again Hauerwas takes many ironic positions, so that is not totally unexpected.

    As for seminaries being a place for people who have failed in their secular careers, there may be a little truth to that. However, the majority of seminary students I have gotten to know have never had secular careers and probably never will. So why should they be concerned with receiving a secular education when they are focused on serving in a community that is the complete opposite of secular?

  4. ben on November 9th, 2007 12:29 pm

    James:

    Your experience is interesting to me, because the average age of seminary students tends to be around 35 (just google it for many sources), and my recollection is that it tends to be rising (I don’t have a source for that), especially in relation to similarly leveled graduate degrees such as Medicine or Law.

    In my seminary journey, I was rather surprised at the lackluster ability of the students, which forces the professors into a remedial role. In this manner, seminaries become “theological ghettos”, full of “those who have failed in their secular career”. The irony of Hauerwas’ position is lost on me because I see him as lamenting the reality of theological training. I truly wish I could form a mental picture of seminary life with those who didn’t fail at their secular career first. Your experience has piqued my interest.

    In any case, it seems to me that the solution runs deeper than the surface question of ‘What should seminary education look like?’, which is how I read Mark’s third bullet. It seems that at least part of the answer lies in how we attract those who have the capacity and imagination to make true disciples in our post-foundational context. At least currently, these people are more likely to disappear into microcommunities of faith (the grassroots Mark talks about) rather than bring their abilities to bear on the “ghetto” of corporatized Christianity.

  5. James on November 9th, 2007 8:48 pm

    I am 31 years old and looking around the seminary I attend I would say the age range is somewhere between 22 and 40. The average age of student where I am is 31, so very few of us have had the opportunity to begin a career much less fail at it. And from what I have seen many of the older students are current pastors, missionaries, or church leaders from other countries who are trying to become better equipped for ministry in the 21st century. There are only a few that I have met that are currently in or coming out of secular careers.

    Furthermore, I think that, just as in law school, medical school, or other graduate schools, there are students who excel in a theological graduate program and others who are there for a piece of paper to get a job (which translates to lackluster ability). In that regard I see little difference between the university system and a seminary model (I have been a student in both).

  6. Matt on November 10th, 2007 12:07 am

    Hey Mark,

    I’m glad you got to enjoy breakfast with Stan the Man! That’s great! While you were doing so, incidently, I was eating with philosopher Alain Badiou, asking him many similar questions about whether there was any hope for the university (and even more questions about his interpretation of Paul!).

    I especially appreciate your questions. I’ve been thinking about this problem lately, since Kaley and I just moved here to Indiana–a new school for me, and a new church for us both.

    I think ideally the church itself would wrest education away from the state (no small task–I read Hauerwas’s book) and reintegrate it. But not just in the form of the highly suspicious and mediocre “Christian School,” but rather as part of the DAILY life of the church–prayer, discipleship, feeding the hungry, healing the sick, etc. I think we need to spend a little extra time reflecting on how necessary and inevitable thought is for this church life, and teach accordingly.

    I feel pretty discouraged looking around my large public university and seeing how narrowly vocational it’s becoming. And then I go to church on Sunday, and the students there seem to be the entire subset of college student most narrowly focused on attending school to get a sweet job. So I’ll be glad to continue thinking about these things with you. Thanks again for raising the excellent questions.

  7. Andrew Tatum on November 11th, 2007 12:07 am

    In response to a number of these comments, I must say that to call the atmosphere at a public university “vocational” seems to miss something important about the tenor of the current ’secular’ employment atmosphere (i.e. the ‘job market’). I would say that most universities (public, private and “Christian” alike) are not preparing people for a vocation, or calling, but rather for a “career” based on a rather narrowly defined set of skills and parameters of knowledge rather than on holistic character formation.

    It occurs to me that this idea of vocation - as opposed to “career” - might be part of the reason that Hauerwas claims that people end up in seminary because they have “failed” in “secular” careers. In a ’secular’ world job market that is looking for people, not with a calling or any particular sort of character formation, but people who can perform particular tasks. As a student at Duke, it appears to me that this has been one aspect of Hauerwas’ influence on the overall shape and curriculum of this particular seminary - that to be in ministry requires that we be ‘virtuous,’ i.e. that we develop particular practices peculiar to Christian ministry - practices with which the ’secular’ job market is often wholly unconcerned - i.e. christian nonviolence, radical hospitality, truth-telling, etc. In other words, at its best the university should be “vocational” in that through education it should be an agent of holistic character formation (I suppose, then that I would agree with Matt’s comment as well).

    At any rate, I am aware of the statistics regarding the age of students in seminary. However, I find it incredibly ironic that the seminary which I attend (incidentally, also the seminary where Hauerwas teaches) has an average student age of 25 (http://www.divinity.duke.edu/about/studentbody). In addition, the students that I have met who are “older” do not fall into the category of those who have left ‘unsuccessful’ secular careers. Rather, many of them have either been in vocational ministry for years and are returning for a credential or (and I would say this is most common) have left highly successful ’secular’ careers (just look at the Th.D. incoming class) because they have sensed a call to ministry. Anyway, good discussion.

    Cheers, Andrew

  8. michael on November 11th, 2007 5:44 pm

    matt,
    where was badiou speaking recently?

  9. Matt on November 11th, 2007 10:39 pm

    Michael,

    He was at Indiana University for a couple days of seminars and lectures. He’s now out in NYC for the week, then returning to France. Definitely go hear him if you’re out East!

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