In Teaching and Christian Practices several university professors describe and reflect on their efforts to allow historic Christian practices to reshape and redirect their pedagogical strategies. Whether allowing spiritually formative reading to enhance a literature course, employing table fellowship and shared meals to reinforce concepts in a pre-nursing nutrition course, or using Christian hermeneutical practices to interpret data in an economics course, these teacher-authors envision ways of teaching and learning that are rooted in the rich tradition of Christian practices, as together they reconceive classrooms and laboratories as vital arenas for faith and spiritual growth.
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About the Author
David I. Smith is director of the Kuyers Institute for Christian Teaching and Learning and Director of Graduate Studies in Education at Calvin College, Grand Rapids, Michigan.
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Teaching and Christian PracticesReshaping Faith and Learning
By David I. Smith James K. A. Smith
William B. Eerdmans Publishing CompanyCopyright © 2011 Wm B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.
All right reserved.
Chapter OnePedagogical Rhythms: Practices and Reflections on Practice
Rebecca Konyndyk DeYoung
Some Reflections on Why Practices Are Needed
Imagine that you died today. In the days that follow, your friends and family gather together to mourn you and remember you. Imagine what they would say about you and about your life. There would be things to celebrate, things to regret, things they would miss about you, and no doubt a few things they wouldn't! If you were to listen in on those imaginary conversations and capture them on paper—in other words, to write an honest testimonial of the person you were and the life you lived—how would that speech read? For the sake of this exercise, an honest word is better than a good word, if you have to choose.
Now imagine a second version of the speech. This time, think of the speech you wish someone could honestly have given at your funeral—including all the good things you wish were true of you, the way the first speech you wrote would have read had you become all that you wanted to be.
Why this imaginative exercise? Funerals are one of the few places we still reflect on and talk about a person's character—not just one's achievements or quirks, but the person one was and the stories that best revealed this and the qualities that marked the character of one's life. It's also one of the few times we take the time to reflect on our lives as a whole—to set aside the tyranny of the daily and the urgent and to measure our life in terms of "big picture" concerns. A funeral is an occasion to try to view the whole package, to think about how the parts of your character and your life fit together—what they added up to and what your life said about the kind of person you were.
In short, this eulogy-writing exercise is a reflective moment of self-examination and a memento mori all wrapped up in one. To put it another way, it's one example of a practice of reflecting. It presses the questions that are at the heart of a liberal arts education and a Christian life of discipleship: "Who am I? Is this who I want to be? What goods and virtues are expressed in the way I'm living? What is the human good, the best way to live? And how does my life measure up to that ideal?" The first speech tells us who we are now. The second speech articulates the calling, the mission, the task that still lies ahead: "What sort of person do I hope yet to become? What picture of a good human life should inform my future choices and commitments?"
I teach a philosophy seminar on the medieval philosopher and theologian Thomas Aquinas at Calvin College. In it, we study Aquinas's writings on the virtues and vices. When my students do this eulogy exercise in class, I have them add a second step. Based on the speeches they wrote, I have them write down three character traits that they would like to get rid of (from the first speech) and three character traits that they want to cultivate (from the second speech). My students tend to begin this assignment hesitantly and with furrowed brows. Their lists of virtues often include invented words such as "forgivingness" and "lovingness," descriptive phrases such as "being more positive about myself" and "laughing more" and "being a better friend," as well as items that they're not sure count as virtues, such as "leadership," "assertiveness," and "creativity." When they write "strength" on their list, I ask them what that means. Perseverance—remembering that you can also persevere in sin? Or the motivation to endure even when it's difficult? Or the guts to withstand physical pain or exertion? Or the ability to stand up boldly for their beliefs? Or is it some combination of these? When I ask them, quite often they're not exactly sure what they meant. Likewise, several students might list "being true to themselves" but then disagree about whether this means being sincere even if you are bad, whether there might be differences between merely telling the truth and being honest or sincere, and whether contemporary "authenticity" has anything to do with, say, a Christian idea of faithfulness or moral integrity. Stumbling through this listing exercise after writing their initial speeches thus helps them feel the need for an education about the concepts and vocabulary necessary to do the next step of articulation and analysis.
I had this experience myself in graduate school. Challenged by the demands of a competitive academic program, I struggled with the usual insecurities—finding and securing a place in a new pecking order, fearing the shame that came with offering a naïve or uninformed answer aloud in class, trying to impress erudite and imposing professors who would eventually be helping or hindering my job prospects. My inner emotional landscape was defensive and fearful; my strategy in public was to avoid detection, lest I be exposed for the incompetent fool that I felt I was. (I found out years later that this common experience had a name: "impostor syndrome.")
My epiphany came when I was reading Thomas Aquinas on the virtues and vices. He was describing a vice called pusillanimity. The word pusillanimity literally means "smallness of soul." What Aquinas meant was a habit of shrinking back from all that God was calling you to be out of fear of failure, a sense of inadequacy, a feeling of powerlessness or incompetence. His example: Moses at the burning bush. The man whom we know as one of the greatest leaders of Israel hears God's call and says, "Who—me? Surely you've got the wrong person! I'm not qualified!" Hearing God's call, Moses panics, finds excuses, tries to pass the buck to his brother Aaron, and cites all his weaknesses and lack of qualifications.
But read on. This is not the end of Moses' story. It is only the beginning. Follow God's call, Moses, relying on God's power this time. Stretch yourself to be what God has in mind for you. Forget measuring possibilities by your puny humanly measured talents and your own unaided efforts. Think like Mary at the Annunciation: "I'm just a lowly handmaiden, but overshadowed by the Almighty, God will become incarnate within me, and all nations will call me blessed."
Reading Aquinas on the vice of pusillanimity was my "aha" moment. I saw myself and my struggles in a whole new light. With this new concept in mind, I could name my own weakness and diagnose its causes. With these pictures of vice and virtue embodied in real human lives, I had the resources to reframe how I was living and why. Later, when I taught this material to my students, I watched as they had the same experience of epiphany: "Now I have a name for it"; "Finally I see what this struggle was really about"; "I had no idea that was the problem." I wonder how common it is to find that naming your vices is itself a moment of liberation?
For this diagnostic process of self-examination, the fourth-century Christian John Cassian offers a metaphor for moral malformation—the "tree of vices." Pride is at the root of the tree, and the trunk extends upward from it. The main seven branches are the traditional seven deadly sins—vainglory, envy, sloth, avarice, wrath, lust, and gluttony. From each of the seven branches grows additional "poison fruit," drooping downward. What this image shows us is the obvious mistake of thinking we can pluck off a vice's surface symptoms (its "fruits") and not address its source motivations or "roots." It offers a picture of self-examination that invites us to dig down to deeper causes. The organic metaphor also shows how sin, left unattended, will not sit idly within us but will grow and branch out further. Moreover, the "tree" of vices shows us the twisted inner connections of sin. It leads us to investigate how each of the vices is connected to pride, and why certain "fruits" or offshoot vices spring from the main seven.
Teaching the vices and virtues showed me the power of this process of acquiring new names, new pictures and paradigms. For with them comes the ability to recognize and spell out concepts and connections new inquirers intuitively grasp but cannot yet adequately identify. These new concepts and connections help us analyze and reflect on our character.
The main point in the opening exercises I've described is to see the need for naming and to experience why identifying the virtues and vices can be helpful and important. The eulogy exercise also locates our intellectual inquiry in a larger, personal, and practical project of character formation. The names we learn have meaning and significance in that frame, while that practical project motivates and makes sense of the detailed intellectual work that follows. Through these practices of reflection, my students feel and identify for themselves the gap between what they are and all that they are called to become. From there, they can see how identifying the vices and cultivating the virtues is a natural next step.
The project of learning about the vices in my class is one example of a certain rhythm between practice and reflection on practice. In attending to the ways this rhythm played itself out in our classroom, I'd like first to highlight two things about the diagnostic practice of naming and the "whole life" reflections in which that diagnosis is embedded. The first is what Craig Dykstra calls the problem of "the too big and the too small." The second is the relationship between concepts and concretely embodied experience.
First, Dykstra's point: the problem of the too big and the too small is roughly this. If we give students too big a picture of the moral project, they have difficulty translating that into action-steps, concrete practices, and a way of going forward. In my students' case, the project of "being virtuous" or "developing more Christ-like character" felt fairly vague as a starting point. Turning to lists of particular virtues and specific spiritual disciplines gave that big picture more traction for them in the actual patterns and practices of Christ-like living. The problem of the too small is the opposite one—losing sight of the forest in one's study of a particular tree: for example, trying to define courageous action without a developed sense of what goods need protecting and why, how courage fits into the network of other Christian virtues, or how its common cultural expressions might be transformed in a context of Christian sacrificial love. So the key is to keep these connections between the overarching goals and the daily steps, between the vision and motivation behind the larger project and the need to discern what to do now as a student sitting in the dining hall or in a dorm room. For my class, the tree of virtues and vices functioned as a fruitful link between the "big" and the "small."
Closely related to this concern is a second issue—the connection between intellectual inquiry and reflection on the one hand, and concretely embodied daily practices on the other. To put it in terms of my graduate school experience, acquiring a new conceptual category was not the same thing as knowing how to live it. I could understand pusillanimity at some level, but how could I become less pusillanimous? How could I live out the paradigm shift from relying on my own puny efforts to trusting God's grace to see me through the challenges of my calling?
One way I discovered (or better: rediscovered) was to practice observance of the Sabbath. I went from working seven days a week—feeling as though even that was never enough to keep up with the overwhelming workload—to stopping what I was doing one day a week in order to live God's liberating promises: "He who called you is faithful, and he will do it" (2 Thess. 5:24); "Learn from me, for my yoke is easy and my burden is light" (Matt. 11:29-30). Sabbath rest includes meditating on what God has done and is doing, being fully attentive and present in worship, being refreshed by God's presence undistracted by anxieties or future plans, sitting still and breathing deeply, sleeping enough. These are patterns of action designed to help us break the bad habits of believing that success depends entirely on our own efforts, fueled by the anxiety that our efforts will never be good enough. Pusillanimous lack of trust in God was the root of my fear of failure. Sabbath-keeping helped me learn to let go of these fears and open myself up to God's call to engage in his work with confidence. Diagnosing pusillanimity as a vice helped me see that I was living as if my feeble efforts were the only resource I had. Sabbath-keeping, for me, showed me that learning to rest was learning to trust in God. Unfortunately, this trust came only through painful practice. Trusting is hard. Practicing Sabbath rest was a discipline for me, albeit a discipline in which I discovered grace and freedom and joy. So the virtue-vice tradition gave me the initial concepts and reframing insights, but I also found that the practices to which they also pointed gave me specific new ways to live out those concepts, while those ways of life in turn deepened my understanding of the meaning of trust and dependence.
A Tradition as a Natural Place for the Rhythm of Practices-and-Reflection-on-Practices (and a Classroom as a Natural Place for Reflective Practitioners)
My own discovery of the vices and their diagnostic power was just that—my recent discovery of something already in place. From that place of discovery, I had to move in two directions: first, backward into the past. Moral formation and the imitation of Christ are nothing new, even if their challenges must be taken up anew by each of us. The practices, disciplines, and virtues that shape good character have been part of the conversation in the Christian tradition for centuries. On this topic, therefore, we need not start from scratch or re-invent the wheel—most of our discoveries and epiphanies come from listening in on an ancient conversation and tracing the paths of past practitioners. The key is to recognize in this longstanding conversation something we still need to hear. We need to recognize a place for ourselves within the tradition.
Second, from my place of discovery, I had to move forward—from my personal experience and appropriation of the intellectual and practical resources of the Christian moral tradition to effective pedagogy for others. It's one thing to have the experience and insights yourself; it's quite another task to find ways to give others the opportunity to gain similar experiences and insights for themselves. My pedagogical goal was to afford my students the opportunity to participate in the same movement I had—moving back into the tradition and then bringing it forward.
In moving back into the tradition, my students learned to submit to what the Christian tradition had to teach them through practices, and in moving the tradition forward, they learned to translate the material into something they could call their own. For my students at least, trying certain practices brought home the need for submission, while the translation process disciplined them to take up a more reflective stance.
In both our practicing and our reflecting on practices, therefore, we were working with and within a tradition. And by "tradition," I don't mean a merely intellectual tradition of inquiry about the good. The Desert Fathers, Cassian's and Benedict's monastic communities, and Aquinas's fellow Dominicans—all those who pondered questions about vices and discipleship and offered us their answers—were themselves already living as members of a body of Christ-followers. All of these inquirers were also disciples actively and communally trying to imitate Christ's character even as they reflected on it; and they reflected on it and inquired further about it because they practiced it. They were immersed in these ethical and spiritual practices themselves, trying to articulate what they were doing and becoming from a place within the practice.
Excerpted from Teaching and Christian Practices by David I. Smith James K. A. Smith Copyright © 2011 by Wm B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.. Excerpted by permission of William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Foreword Craig Dykstra Dorothy C. Bass vii
Introduction: Practices, Faith, and Pedagogy David I. Smith James K. A. Smith 1
Pedagogical Rhythms: Practices and Reflections on Practice Rebecca Konyndyk DeYoung 24
Reading Practices and Christian Pedagogy: Enacting Charity with Texts David I. Smith 43
The Rough Trail to Authentic Pedagogy: Incorporating Hospitality, Fellowship, and Testimony into the Classroom Carolyne Call 61
Eat This Class: Breaking Bread in the Undergraduate Classroom Julie A. P. Walton Matthew Walters 80
From Curiosity to Studiousness: Catechizing the Appetite for Learning Paul J. Griffiths 102
From Tourists to Pilgrims: Christian Practices and the First-Year Experience Ashley Woodiwiss 123
Keeping Time in the Social Sciences: An Experiment with Fixed-Hour Prayer and the Liturgical Calendar James K. A. Smith 140
How Christian Practices Help to Engage Students Morally and Spiritually: Testimony from a Western Civilization Course Glenn E. Sanders 157
Thrill Rides and Labyrinths: The Pedagogical Logic of Freedom and Constraint Matthew Walhout 177
Christian Practices and Technical Courses: Making Integral Connections Kurt C. Schaefer 194
Recruiting Students' Imaginations: Prospects and Pitfalls of Practices David I. Smith 211