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What makes us who we are?

October 3, 2013

What makes us who we are? – theological formation, education and discipleship.   

I’ve been in my share of religious philosophy and culture wars. As a sojourner who has sought to follow Jesus, I have moved through a number of faith communities where faith is both expressed and controlled, shaped and distorted, fed and flogged in lots of different ways.

It makes sense that if I’m following Jesus, he’s unlikely only to stick to just anglicans or pentecostals or quakers or catholics or baptists or presbyterians. (Sorry if I didn’t mention your tribe. It’s nothing personal.)

threadbare-and-homeless

No, Jesus is itinerant, a vagrant, a gypsy. And I have had to give up so much on the journey, so much belief, so much certitude, so much method, so much formula, in order to keep up with the threadbare ways of Jesus.

I have been left with just one question. One commitment: Join the following of Jesus.

When I am feeling peppy I can say it like a motto: ‘be disciple, make disciple’.

When I’m frustrated with the prohibitions of churches it becomes a question to be thrown down like a gauntlet: “If we do/don’t do this will you stop following Jesus? Because that can be our only criterion – surely?”

When I am stretched on the painful rack of failure – a place I’ve spent way too much time – it is the steel of my mind: “even here in this impossible place, it appears I haven’t stopped following Jesus.”

To be honest, I have become obsessed with trying to understand how this idea works in human lives. With how ‘dsicipleship’ and ‘learning’ can be connected.  I am thoroughly unconvinced by the idea of progression, by grades and scales, and cumulative models of knowledge acquisition. I’ll restrain myself and leave the education philosophy rant for another time, except to suggest that ‘cumulative knowledge acquisition’ is a cultural approach that reflects the economic commodification of just about everything in the west. But it is a mirage. For as we learn, what has already been learned is not ‘added to’ but reshaped and modified. Often to learn means to forget or relinquish something else. We don’t build or attain knowledge in such a simplistic, mechanistic economy.

Nevertheless, I was born a learner and a teacher, and have pursued contexts and roles in education all my life.

To be a teacher is to commit to continually learn with others.

And so with newborns, toddlers, children, teenagers, emerging adults, parents, adults in the second half of life, the elderly, I have found myself in learning and teaching roles – or if you like, being disciple and making disciples.

After years of being with children and happily dodging sermons, a strange gravity has begun to pull me towards the world of theological education, ironically to the tertiary institutions where pastors are made. I say ‘ironically’ because I am substantially less interested in pastoral leadership than I am in the beautiful complicated life of the ‘only just believing’ – though of course sometimes these two categories merge in the life of one person.

The more I think about the vitality of our faith communities, the less compelling the idea of training pastors the way we do seems to me. The deeper my heart yearns for people of all ages and lifestyles and cultures to freely and joyfully and responsibly live in communities that incarnate the reconciling invitation of God, the clearer it becomes that our systems of educational organisation, theological formation and accreditation are not geared effectively towards this end.

I am hankerng for change, but first I need to understand better the gap between the discipleship call of the Jesus of the gospels on the one hand, and the methods of theological education as it has come to be practiced in colleges across the globe on the other.

In the great mystery of God, I have found myself now in places where this conversation is underway. Recently I was in Romania, contributing in facilitating a conference on ‘Reimagining the Seminary’.

In one session, I ran an exercise with the 30 or so participants, almost all of whom were lecturers, professors, deans or  principals of theological colleges from across eastern europe.

sticky notesI gave each person 3 coloured sticky post-it notes, and the instructions:On the Green note write three words you associate with your Education

On the Yellow note write three words you associate with your Spiritual formation

On the Pink note write three words which you associate with your current experience of Discipleship. 

In sheer cheekiness I had them stick the notes all over the lecturn, which was serving no other purpose!

The results have been fascinating. I have just finished sorting, grouping and analysing the responses.

Out of 204 words across the three categories I looked for repeated words or cognates.

15 counts of Bible, spread evenly across all three…not surprising.

10 counts of knowledge or Wisdom…fair enough, but less than 5% is perhaps a little low.

8 counts of ‘challenging’ or ‘struggle’…good to have some honesty.

13 counts of  ‘ongoing’; ‘work in progress’; ‘constant’

But, by far the two largest categories of response were:

20 words to do with experience, practice, or service

and (drum roll please…)

39 words about the role of others – ‘Mentors’; ‘models’, ‘friends’, ‘example of others’, ‘family’.

It turns out that despite our great teaching and preaching we learn the ways of Jesus, (the ways of anything!) from others in community.

Note whose testimony this is. This is not the local youth group, or an intentional missional community in the newfriars movement. Or a collection of megachurch small groups. Or the ladies’ fellowship.  I asked a room full of academic theologians about their education, spiritual formation and discipleship. Most of the respondents (though not all) have a rev. and dr. in front of their name. And, in case you were wondering, they were on the whole a rather stiff and clunky bunch who were not overjoyed at the prospect of session which invited conversation, participation and interaction.

So what do you think of my findings?

Do I hear a collective sigh and an ‘of course!’ Or do I hear a cry of ‘simplistic rubbish! Heresy!’

I think there are few who would dispute my hunch here. Almost 20% of all the words from any of the categories testify to what we all intuitively know. That we are most deeply shaped by each other. That a faithful, if difficult, troubled, fragile or imperfect disciple life lived in proximity to us is the most formative (spiritual formation), informative (education) and transformative (discipleship) influence upon us.

It is this conviction that keeps me in community, that gives me courage, with all my faults and propensity to sin, to keep doing life with others. Across these last three weeks I have lived in community with strangers, and with dear friends and with beloved family. For this little introvert, it takes the temerity of a deep truth like this to fuel three weeks of what feels like ‘imposing’ on others.

The richest resource we have for not only the practice of following Jesus, but also thinking and learning about theology is found in one another. In friends, companions and mentors as we model for each other in an infinite array of worked examples what the coming reign of God looks like. Within life together we find conversations that resource our theological language, we read culture and literature, we serve each other and model the wrestle of faith after which  the people of God take their name – ‘Israel’ – the one who wrestles with God.

But most of all in life together we find love, the thing that make us what we are (formation), tells us who we are (education) and compels us beyond ourselves (discipleship). Love. Who would have guessed?

I am moved by the sticky notes to offer a prayer of gratitude for those who share life in proximity (geographical, virtual, emotional, familial, collegial connections all count) with me and who shape and educated me. I owe you so much.

I have an outlandish ambitious unlikely dream, that one day I will work in the area of radical reform in theological education – revising curriculum and method and structure and strategy and community and praxis. If this should ever come to pass…I cannot think that in the intervening years I will find anything to challenge the centrality of loving life together as the content, the curriculum, the currency and the call of discipleship, spiritual formation and the basis for anything we would dare to call education.

My research method here is unsophisticated, limited and unverified. I hope I have the chance to repeat it sometime within a more robust research framework – but I doubt that greater quality controls will produce a different testimony. We’ll see.

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