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Teaching as Believing
Faith in the University
By Chris Anderson
Baylor University Press
Copyright © 2004 Baylor University Press
All right reserved.
Teaching Genesis as Story
In the beginning of The Idea of the University, Cardinal Newman considers the possibility that even when the university is sponsored by the church, a "line" exists between the way of the university and the way of faith. For a moment he identifies a clear boundary:
It will be said, that there are different kinds or spheres of Knowledge, human, divine, sensible, intellectual, and the like; and that a University certainly takes in all varieties of Knowledge in its own line, but still that it has a line of its own. It contemplates, it occupies a certain order, a certain platform of Knowledge. (29; 1.2.3)
It will be said. Newman raises this point only to deny it in the next sentence, insisting that to separate faith and knowledge is finally too easy. In the end, at the Catholic university that he is charged with creating, in nineteenth-century Ireland, a university grounded in faith, the distinction won't hold.
But in the beginning of my own discussion, at a state university in twenty-first century America, the distinction between faith and reason does hold. Though the university "certainly takes in all varieties of Knowledge," though the distinctions will start to dissolve before long, in an obvious way, in this time and place, Oregon State University can be said to occupy a "platform" or "sphere" of analysis distinct from that of St. Mary's Parish. It can be said to have "a line of its own," and intuitively we know what it is: the line of inquiry rather than of advocacy, of analysis rather than of dogma.
This is where to begin, with the broad, horizontal beam of the cross, the beam that describes the work of critical thinking that is the work of a public university or any university. In this chapter, I explain how the teaching of the book of Genesis as literature can simply be seen as another way of doing that work, how the Bible can serve as a particularly rich text for the kind of analysis that defines higher education. In Ricouer's terms, the aim of the university is to keep demonstrating the many possible "thoughts" that can be inferred from the "story" of our lives, our culture, our literature, our science.
The paradox is that my identity as a preacher becomes a very useful way for me to demonstrate exactly this point.
This chapter and the next argue that we need to leave out our stories (in a sense), setting them aside and focusing instead on the texts themselves. But I want to begin by returning to my time at the seminary, reflecting on the differences between my experience there and at the university because these differences prepared me to return. They gave me tools for doing exactly what the university is supposed to do, what I feel called to do, as both deacon and professor.
Often in the fall when I was teaching and studying at the seminary I'd walk out on the bluff beyond the monastery buildings. There is a rutted road and then a path through the blackberry hummocks and dry grasses to an oak grove where I would read and watch the birds. Sometimes a downy woodpecker was going about its work in the branches. Chickadees bickered and fluted lower down. From beneath the trees I looked over the brow of the hill to the wide fields of the valley floor, sprinklers arcing in the distance.
One afternoon I brought a book by the Anglican theologian and patristic scholar Andrew Louth, Discerning the Mystery, and reading it there in the oak grove I had one of those profound moments that we all have now and then when our intellect and our life and our faith come together. It happened when I read this passage:
The central truth, or mystery, of the Christian faith is primarily not a matter of words, and therefore ultimately of ideas and concepts, but a matter of fact, of reality. To be a Christian is not simply to believe something, to learn something, but to be something, to experience something. The role of the Church, then, is not simply as the contingent vehicle-in history-of the Christian message, but as the community through belonging to which we come into touch with the Christian mystery. (74)
I remember how the oak trees broke up the light. I remember the smell of the dry grass. I remember the intellectual joy I felt when I realized that this is the faith of my tradition and that it makes sense, it answers to my experience. It's about my experience, and all experience-it says experience is more important than dogma, more important than systems. The whole point of religion and theology, Louth says, is to affirm their own inadequacy, to give way to experience, and yes, I thought, yes and yes, and though I was alone in that moment, apart from the community on the other side of the hill, the community I had prayed with that noon, that I would pray with again each noon of that fall term, I felt in relationship to them, too, because this is what we all believed, this is what we were there to affirm and explore and live.
I will come back to this passage again in chapter 4-it's central to the argument of the book-but the point for now (ironically) is that the moment of my reading it was both an experience, a "story" in Ricouer's terms, and at the same time a story that I was interpreting, that I was coming to understand intellectually and in a sense doctrinally-and it was the doctrine, the "thought," as much as the experience, that was giving the joy. For so long I had resisted the obscurity and what seemed to me the arrogance of contemporary postmodern theory, but here it was again, humble and prayerful and in the service of all that I most loved. It liberated me. It helped me name the moment and name it specifically, as Christian. I wasn't just experiencing. I was affirming. And I wasn't affirming all the possible meanings of the experience, of the birds and the oak grove and the page in front of me, the sprinklers in the distance. I was affirming one and one only: Christ, the way.
This is what the seminary was doing, too, of course, from the outset, as its initial premise, much like the university that Newman was forming in Ireland in the nineteenth century: promoting a particular interpretation of experience, insisting on one particular thought, even if that thought was about all the multiplicity that can be found in Christ, who is inexhaustible. Faith and reason are united in a seminary, the one leading to the other, back and forth-we must believe in order to understand, we must reason and so arrive at faith, and the two paths intertwine, circle back, turn into each other. There is a kind of reasoning that is theological reasoning, that is reasoning on what is first accepted as revealed truth, and this is the kind of reasoning that we were all united in doing at the seminary, the kind of reasoning that John Paul II celebrates in Fides et Ratio and Ex Corde Ecclesiae and that my experience in the oak grove affirmed. This is the understanding of the relation between reason and faith that defines the mission and curriculum of religious colleges and universities.
And it's not just at the seminary that these experiences take place, and not just that fall that they have taken place for me. They are happening all the time. For me as a believing Christian, as someone who has traveled through Ricouer's sequence and come out the other side and made the choice I have made, chosen the interpretation I have chosen, Christ is lovely in ten thousand places, Christ is present everywhere.
One weekend in the fall we got a call from our oldest son. His truck had blown an engine and he was stranded on I-5, halfway between Corvallis and Mount Angel. I drove over to help him, and soon I was sitting there, too, in the grass by exit 244, beneath some apple trees from an old orchard, waiting for the tow truck. The autumn sun was shining on us. Cars were barreling down the freeway and we watched the faces of the people, how worried and unhappy they looked, like me a few hours before, when I was so pressed for time. And suddenly I was glad I was there, on the side of the road. There was this peace seeping into me, this slow, gradual feeling of the presence of God.
It seemed to me a moment of grace-but not just a moment, because at the same time I was interpreting it. I was inferring a thought from it. Given my tradition, given my knowledge of the Bible, given my commitments, I thought of the great "Kenosis" hymn in Philippians, some of the most magnificent poetry in all the Bible or anywhere else. Kenosis-self-emptying. The rhythm of those lines is so beautiful: "Though he was in the form of God he did not regard equality with God something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave" (2:6-7). That's the center of our faith: that we, too, must die to live, that only by letting go are we truly free. "Do not worry about anything," Paul says later, at the end of this letter, "but in everything by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God" (4:6). Paul's no silly idealist. He's in prison as he writes this, in danger of losing his life, and yet there's this magnificent calm in his words, this quiet joy. And I have felt this myself, through grace.
It's a joy that comes in part from recognizing the subtle signs of God's presence day to day, in "whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable" (4:8). Such a lovely series of words! We tend to think of the spiritual as separate from the ordinary. But Christ is present in whatever is excellent-a book, a face. Listen to Mozart. Look at the leaves falling. Whenever we take someone's hand or make something right, the spirit is rising up. Whenever we turn away from the shoddiness of the junk culture and reach for what is gracious and true, we glimpse the coming of the kingdom.
There are reasons to be happy, in other words, even now, but the peace that Paul describes is still deeper than that. The peace he describes "surpasses all understanding" (4:7), because it comes from God, who is greater than all evidence. Even when the subtle signs have disappeared, even when we are overwhelmed by the human capacity for violence and stupidity, somehow, in faith, a deeper calm can come. There is a love and a wisdom beyond what we can understand-and yet a wisdom we can feel. It seeps into us. It settles into our bones.
This is the thought that I have come to-even though I am always losing it, too, failing to believe it.
Once I was asked to do a graveside service for an elderly lady. It was a fall afternoon, very hot. Before the service began I went over to visit the grave of a young boy who had died several years before. I remembered where it was, beneath a large tree. I knew it even from a distance, because someone had recently placed a little soccer ball, a real little soccer ball, in the grass by the grave stone. Amos was thirteen when he died of leukemia, the son of a dear friend, and I will never forget the sight of his body in the casket, dressed in his school sweater, the sight of the open ground, the mound of dirt.
But in that moment, looking down at the marker, I was moved by this obscure sense of something precious and tender and very real. There was an enormous sadness, too. I can't even begin to imagine the grief of parents-I would never want to cheapen it with false piety or sentimentality. But somehow-I have to report this as true-this really happened-somehow I sensed something else gathering there, in me, in the air. It was peace. Of all things to feel at the grave of a child, it was peace-like a presence, like something palpable.
And I thought then of the closing blessing from the Catholic graveside service, the blessing I was about to give to the mourners waiting up the hill, a beautiful, beautiful blessing, based on the passage from Philippians:
May the peace of God which is beyond all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in the knowledge and love of God and of his son, our Lord Jesus Christ.
* * *
To be at the seminary one fall and at the university the next was to experience a difference, a line. What I felt was culture shock at first, to reenter the world I came from and was called to be in again. My first week back I sat in a meeting and watched one professor cut another to ribbons. On the way to my office I was walking behind two women students. One girl was saying that she'd been having a lot of sex lately, even though she hadn't been using the pill. She shrugged her shoulders and then said, laughing, pointing to her womb, die-die-die, and I think she was talking about the sperm in her body.
I don't mean to idealize the seminary, which, as I've said, is a real place with its own failings, the people as sinful as anywhere else. The recent scandals in the church, and the often defensive clericalism of the church's response, have made this painfully clear. I don't mean to caricature OSU, where, as I will discuss later, Christ is also lovely in ten thousand places. I feel called to the university. I feel that this is where I should be, not in a monastery, not on a hill, but here, down below. What I mean to note is simply the difference in the two cultures, in what Augustine in The City of God would call the two cities. People organize themselves into societies around what they love, Augustine says. In the City of God as it's mirrored on earth, we sinful people are organized around love of God. In the City of Man, we sinful people are organized around a love of ourselves, a love that can't help but become selfish and grabby at times, and this is what I experienced on my return. This is what I knew in my bones and what shocked and saddened me, this difference.
But what I experienced on my return was also a conceptual difference, a difference in the nature of the intellectual work that the university does as opposed to the intellectual work of a seminary or monastery, a proper difference, a good difference, a powerful difference. At OSU reason is not supposed to lead to faith and it's not supposed to proceed from faith. It's supposed to be distinct from it. Of course. I know and I accept this: I am not to bless my students, I am not to proclaim my own conclusions, I am simply to demonstrate the process by which we all come to the many different and conflicting conclusions that we all come to. All the love and the joy and the beauty-and the sadness and the struggle and the humor-the oak grove and the apple trees, the soccer ball and the grave-all that I most centrally am and believe in and aspire to be-all this I have to take off, I have to remove, I have to set aside.
But that's the value of my faith. That's precisely its value: that I can take it off.
by Baylor University Press. Excerpted by permission.
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