Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Philosophy, history, and the quest for understanding

In the introduction to his book, Why Study the Past?; The Quest for the Historical Church, former Church of England Archbishop Rowan Williams, a trained historian/historical theologian, has this to say about history and its driving impulse: "(H)istory is a set of stories we tell in order to understand better who we are and the world we're in."

For the past month I've been taking an Intro to Philosophy course in the MOOC format, run by the University of Edinburgh. In the first week, professor Dave Ward surveyed a few answers to the question, "What is philosophy?" and offered this as his own: "Philosophy is is the activity of working out the right way of thinking about things that matter most to us." He emphasized the active nature of the discipline, namely its being argumentative and dialogical, requiring the practices of listening and "the things that matter most to us" having to do with a desire for better understanding.

While these two noble scholastic traditions have developed their own sets of methodologies, starting points, and internally coherent thought systems, what seems to unite them is a search for better understanding, both of ourselves as human beings and our place in the world we inhabit and are a part of. The results of which are sets of theories about the way things are and, if there's a moral dimension to the theories, the way things ought to go.

Fellow NuDunker Josh Brockway, himself an historian-in-training, has started helping me see how my own approach to thinking about theology, history, politics, and ethics - may be influenced by another approach to working with history, that of the genealogy. "How things came to be..." is a popular refrain in the genre of genealogy. Moral philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre seems to do this in his landmark, After Virtue, where he starts with a lament on the present circumstances in moral philosophy and moral reasoning in Western societies, then proceeds to march back through history to narrate how we got here. Philosopher Charles Taylor seems to do this in his landmark tome, A Secular Age. Yet another example: Historian Brad S. Gregory's The Unintended Reformation.  (Gregory himself, in this lecture on YouTube, says his methodology is "heretical" to historians.)

To the historian, though, this approach has it backwards. Perhaps for the historian, if genealogy should be done at all (surely a point of contention), then it should be done with extreme caution and humility. Genealogy also seems to be somewhat of a boundary-crossing enterprise, which perhaps explains why other historians would label Gregory a "heretic" within his own discipline.

Perhaps because of my educational background in literature and being a life-long avid reader, I have to say that I find the genre of genealogy compelling. There is a hermeneutical dimension to it that appeals to me, in that the genealogist must take what materials they have available to them and craft a compelling narrative for how things got to be the way they are. This quest for understanding, it seems to me, puts it in league with the disciplines of history and philosophy proper.

And what of theology and its place in the work of history, philosophy, or genealogy? Given my limited theological training (yes, I have an Mdiv, and I would still say "limited"), I tend toward biblical and narrative theology, and I take those strands of theology to be derived from different disciplines than, say, systematic/doctrinal theology. The former tend to be more literary approaches to doing theology. I also gravitate toward political theology, which seems to have been derived from heavy engagement with political philosophy.  I've gravitated toward moral philosophy because I think the quest for a life well lived is a good one, and I do that as a Christian. Finally, throw in James K.A. Smith's influence on me and whatever he's shipped into my head from continental philosophers, phenomenology and all that. Oh and don't forget Hauerwas getting me turned on to Wittgenstein and ordinary language philosophy.

So I guess what I'm saying is this: My intellectual influences are a murky, murky soup. I know just enough of any number of disciplines to be dangerous, but don't know enough about their methodologies to do any one of them legitimately. Had I gone on to PhD work in any one discipline, would I have had to renounce the legitimacy of all others?

Good thing I'm not in the academy; this stuff makes me cranky.

See also: Why Study History? on Chris Gehrz's The Pietist Schoolman blog.

Monday, February 18, 2013

The political eschatology of Les Misérables

From Toledo, IA, USA
Eschatology at the barricade; Photo by Laurie Sparham/Telegraph.co.uk
Here in the little town of Toledo, we have a local treasure: The Wieting Theater. It's been in town for ages, but had started to fall on hard times and was threatened to close until a few years ago when local citizens and the theater guild - who didn't want to see this public gathering place die at the hands of a 60" HDTV in every home - got organized. Because of their efforts, today we have a beautifully restored classic small-town theater with a state-of-the-art digital audio and projection system, and a great stage for the periodic live performances that run. The movies are usually a few months behind, but for someone like me who couldn't care less about seeing most movies right when they come out (except "The Hobbit"), this is fine.

Well this past weekend, the recent movie production of Les Misérables was at the Wieting. My wife went on Friday night with a few other gals, came home and said "I'm going again tomorrow night." So Saturday night, my wife, daughter, and I caught it together.

It is stunning. It is incredible. Wow. There are a hundred directions this could go for me, but I want to focus on something peculiar I noticed at the end of the movie, having to do with eschatology or "kingdom(s) coming, on earth as in heaven." But first a bit of set-up...

Monday, February 11, 2013

NuDunkers: A vision for Brethren theological education

(Moocow image by Gordon Lockhart;
remix of ‘la vaca de los sinvaca‘
by José Bogado/Flickr)
Last week the NuDunkers held our second live discussion on Google+ Hangouts, on the topic of pneumatology. Here's the video, and the event page has a transcript of questions and discussion items that were raised by folks watching the video discussion. Unfortunately, I missed the whole event because of an internet outage. But I still benefitted greatly from the pre-hangout blogging exercise and the follow-up remarks from our guest (new NuDunker?) - Laura Stone. I think we're off to a great start.

Simultaneously, in my professional world of educational technology, I was busy participating in, thinking about, and writing critically (and humorously) about the MOOC - massively open online courses - a phenomenon that has the higher ed world all up in a tizzy.

And as often happens for people who wear multiple hats, my worlds happily collided. I thought to myself:

Is NuDunkers a MOOC?

It's my contention that the NuDunker project is almost a MOOC in some senses, and with a bit of tweaking and explicit thought around digital pedagogy, it could be more so. And not only that, but NuDunkers could be a vision for Brethren theological education. Stay tuned as I unpack this a bit...

Of course!

From the beginning last fall, NuDunkers has been framed as a conversation. It has been, though, a certain kind of conversation - namely a theological and somewhat academic one, but with the intent of doing theology from and for the church. We want to use our brains faithfully for the concrete work of God (discipleship, ministry, mission) through God's concrete people (the body of Christ). So in this way there is an educational dimension to our conversations and their intended impact.

For the foreseeable future, we will be holding these blogging/discussing exercises around particular theological topics (last week: pneumatology). Given that these topical, educational discussions have time dimensions put on them, we start moving toward something that could be considered "a course" - that is, a particular group of people engaged for a particular period of time in the work of teaching and learning around a particular set of topics. I want to say that theological education is already happening in NuDunkers.

Open season

One important mark of a MOOC is that it is open. NuDunkers, from the start, has been intended to be open in a number of ways very similar, if not exactly like a MOOC. We're open with respect to...
  • Cost - If you have a device with an internet connection, you're in. No registrar, no admissions, no tuition.
  • Participation - You only have to have an interest in the work we're doing and a willingness to engage in respectful dialogue. You're not required to have a bachelors or associates degree, or even a high school diploma, and you don't have to be a professional pastor or seminary professor (in fact, that would probably help overall).
  • Media - We're carrying this out in an array of online media and networks that are open to the world: YouTube, for everyone to watch the discussions; Twitter, for everyone to see tweet-sized bits of information; blogs, for everyone to read the more substantive writings and discussions. We're not locking this stuff behind university or seminary systems.
True, the language will be a bit academic, but again this is an educational endeavor, and we're trying to build a bridge here between the academy and the church. Negotiating the language games is going to be tricky at times, but we're convinced that risking those negotiations is both necessary and worthwhile.

All in for online?

U.S. institutions of higher education, including theological education, are in big trouble these days. The cost of college and grad school is, like health care in this country, spiraling out of control, while at the same time the plight of the professional pastor is looking increasingly grim.  Many schools are turning to online programs to bolster enrollments in their flagging institutions. But these programs often foster very little in the way of substantive engagement between students and instructors, and provide food for the head only, starving the rest of our bodies and our relationships.

While NuDunkers is being carried out entirely online, we're trying to do so in ways that engage more than just our intellects; we tell stories, we laugh, we pray. We also share an emphasis on the importance of local bodies of worship and discipleship (i.e. congregations) - so our work online should inspire and propel us deeper into local and more embodied forms of mission and ministry.

Questions going ahead

  • For NuDunkers: How can we take our pedagogical vision further?
  • For Brethren institutions: Are you interested in NuDunkers? What if you somehow got involved? What if you granted credit for participation in NuDunkers?
  • For Brethren in the pews: How can we better engage you for the renewing of our minds in the body of Christ?

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Tracking that elusive Spirit

"The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going.
So it is with everyone born of the Spirit." (John 3:8; photo by byronv2/Flickr)
This Friday the NuDunker folks are hosting our second public conversation on the topic of pneumatology, which is the fancy seminary word for "talking about the Holy Spirit." You'll be able to watch the discussion live on YouTube and participate in live conversation over Twitter with the hashtag: #nudunker. If you've never done a Twitter live chat, let me know and I'll give you some direction there.

You can RSVP on Google+ if you're in that sandbox...
NuDunker discussion: Pneumatology
Friday, Feb. 8th 10am-11am CST

That event page will carry the live YouTube feed and we'll also use it in the days leading up to the discussion to post each of our preliminary blog posts. We'll also be posting those links on Twitter and Facebook all week (though Dana and I are fasting from Facebook this month, so you'll find us on our blogs, Twitter, or e-mail). If you can't make the live event, don't worry! It will be recorded on YouTube for posterity and (better) further discussion. It's our intention with these events to use social media to engage in good theologizing for the health whole church, Brethren or otherwise.

Okay, with that bit of business out of the way, the rest of my post consists of my thoughts around the Holy Spirit and how those thoughts relate to my ministerial calling, and how that messy journey has unfolded over the years...