Stephen Rankin

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Name: Stephen Rankin
Date registered: September 27, 2012
URL: http://stephenrankin.com

Latest posts

  1. Rankin File: Cal State, InterVarsity and Religious Discrimination — September 15, 2014
  2. Rankin File: Another Lesson in the Power of Doctrine — September 1, 2014
  3. Rankin File: Developing Players, Developing Disciples — August 15, 2014
  4. Rankin File: Developing Players, Developing Disciples — August 15, 2014
  5. Rankin File: A “Mainliner’s” View of Mark Driscoll’s Demise — August 8, 2014

Most commented posts

  1. Rankin File: Pressure Points on the Itinerancy — 1 comment
  2. Rankin File: What We Tolerate, What We Don’t — 1 comment

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Sep 15 2014

Rankin File: Cal State, InterVarsity and Religious Discrimination

Original post at http://stephenrankin.com/cal-state-intervarsity-religious-discrimination/


The California State University system recently has de-recognized any student organization that does not follow an “all comers” policy in their organizations’ membership standards, not only for members, but also for leaders.  Especially noticeable in this draconian move  is the impact on campus ministry groups, such as InterVarsity Christian Fellowship (go here).  Their practice is to welcome all people as members of their organization, but they reserve the right to choose student leaders on the basis of students’ agreement with the InterVarsity statement of faith and their lifestyle commitments.  InterVarsity has been in the news quite a bit since the Vanderbilt controversy (go here).  John Hawthorne (go here), a sociologist who teaches at Spring Arbor University, offers some thoughtful commentary on the complexities of the Cal State matter.

Remember, Christian ministry groups have been on college campuses for 50+ years, so this recent turn in interpreting non-discrimination laws should give us pause.  Keep that fact in mind for background.

Other than what I need to know for the work I do on campus, I do not have thorough knowledge of the laws being applied in this case.  But, as most of my friends have heard me say, I have a million opinions, even about things about which I know little.  In the present situation, I have two main concerns, one about the law (with the aforementioned acknowledged ignorance) and one a hopefully useful analogy to gain understanding as to what these acts of de-recognition mean.

First the law(s) being deployed in these decisions:  Anti-discrimination policies originated with concerns about mainly political and economic discrimination, that is, in matters like being able to vote or run for office and in employment.  Simply put, you can’t decide not to hire someone because of their race, religion, and the other statuses now covered by this law.  Couple these laws with the principle of separation of church and state and you have the conundrum now before us.  A university that receives government funding is duty bound to extend anti-discrimination laws to all corners of its organization – except, of course, where we generally don’t want it to extend, like Greek letter fraternities and sororities who do discriminate for all kinds of reasons.  With such exceptions noted, an increasing number of schools are now interpreting the law to apply to a student organization that derives benefit from recognition on campus and access to usage of facilities and sometimes even funding through a school’s program council or some other similar office.  Such an organization must match all the laws’ stipulations or risk being de-recognized.  The organizations with the biggest target on their backs are religious ones, especially evangelical Protestant ones.

You should know that some state schools have included an exemption in their student organization guidelines to permit religious groups to adhere to their missional values in determining qualifications for leadership (e.g. Ohio State University and the University of Florida, at least when I last checked).  Apparently, the State laws in California are more stringent.  Nevertheless, when we take the wide view, it is pretty difficult not to draw the conclusion that Christian campus ministry groups with more fixed doctrines are seen as law-breakers because they “discriminate.”

I work on a college campus and have for twenty years.  I can tell you there’s all kinds of discrimination going on, albeit most of the time not within those legally protected categories.  But since there is discrimination of other kinds, let’s consider an analogy.

We discriminate according to skill and commitment all the time.  Athletics is the obvious example, but think of others.  A student who qualifies for an academic (merit-based) scholarship and who joins an honors program has gone through a vetting process to demonstrate qualification and commitment.  If you join an honors program, you are promising that you will uphold that program’s standards and engage in the activities associated with that program.  You’re not likely to make it into the marching band if you don’t play one of the instruments that band director wants in the band and know how to march.

And perhaps closer to our point, a professor gets to determine pre-requisites for her classes and who it is who qualifies to take them.  In other words, she can discriminate.  She can decide that a student doesn’t qualify to be in the class and she can determine that a student is distracting others and have that student removed from the class – permanently.

So, rather than thinking about “discrimination” in the usual sense, what if we thought about what these campus ministry leaders are trying to do more along the lines of education and development?  They have an educational and developmental mission – to bear fruit for the Kingdom, to introduce people to Jesus Christ and help them grow as disciples and servants.  Leadership in these groups involves a version of skill and commitment similar to what I’ve named above.  Some of what campus ministers do is not unlike an academic class.  Students study and learn and practice, without academic credit, of course, and without the status associated with professors and academic courses.

Regarding how schools decide whether to recognize a particular campus ministry group, I think this analogy helps.  Imagine if a professor was forced to take any student who simply wanted take the class, even if that class had pre-requisites.  I can tell you, the professor in question would legitimately complain about academic freedom, about the infringement upon her ability to do her job.

Now think of the campus ministers who are trying to meet a discipleship goal (pedagogy, by the way, just is a kind of discipleship).  Imagine being forced to take anyone as a small group or Bible study leader, even if that person is completely ignorant of the Bible and the doctrines associated with the group.

I realize that the reality on the ground will likely look much different than the alarming scenarios people have drawn over atheists infiltrating campus ministries and the Young Republicans taking over the Young Democrats.  I understand that the California law has qualifications to try to prevent this sort of thing.  But that’s not my main point.  It is, rather, that people making these decisions need to see this situation from another angle, from the educational mission of campus ministries (and the benefit for the common good such educational ministries have on a campus).  The  laws that tie ministry leaders’ hands in determining who is qualified to serve as leaders in the organizations for which those leaders are responsible – those laws are unjust.

 

 

The post Cal State, InterVarsity and Religious Discrimination appeared first on Rankin File.

Permanent link to this article: http://methoblog.com/3_0/2014/09/cal-state-intervarsity-and-religious-discrimination/

Sep 01 2014

Rankin File: Another Lesson in the Power of Doctrine

Original post at http://stephenrankin.com/another-lesson-power-doctrine/


Yesterday in worship we sang the old Gospel hymn, “I Stand Amazed in the Presence.”  It’s one of those songs that gets me all choked up.  I know, part of it has to do with my upbringing: Sunday night worship in those little Methodist churches my Dad served.  We sang all those songs either from the Cokesbury hymnal or from that little whitish-gray paperback, the Upper Room songbook.  Nostalgia granted.  But there’s a lot more going on here than nostalgia.

In case you don’t have the whole thing memorized, let me pick some of my favorite lines:

(First stanza)

I stand amazed in the presence of Jesus the Nazarene

And wonder how he could love me, a sinner condemned, unclean.

(Chorus)

How marvelous!  How wonderful and my song shall ever be!

How marvelous! How wonderful is my Savior’s love for me

(Fourth stanza)

He took my sins and my sorrows.  He made them his very own;

He bore the burden to Calvary and suffered and died alone.

How marvelous!

I’m quite aware that some of my sisters and brothers in Christ don’t like this song, not as a matter of personal stylistic preference, but as a matter of doctrine.  They just don’t like what the song teaches.  The song clearly teaches substitutionary atonement.  I believe it.  Others don’t.  They recoil at the implications.  They express moral repugnance at the idea a God who would enact judgment in such a way.  Likewise the anthropology: “a sinner condemned, unclean.”

I also acknowledge that the song is very individualistic.  We need to watch the individualism.  I’m with you on that one.  But still, the personal appropriation of the Gospel as presented in this song strikes a deep chord in my heart.

So, while my heart thrills and my eyes fill with tears of gratitude and amazement, someone else likely feels cold, even repulsed, horrified.  Imagine sitting in the same worship service and having such divergent reactions.

I have written elsewhere that doctrine teaches us what to care about (Aiming at Maturity: The Goal of the Christian Life; go here http://www.amazon.com/Aiming-Maturity-Goal-Christian-Life/dp/1610972465/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1409614578&sr=8-1&keywords=aiming+at+maturity or here https://wipfandstock.com/advancedsearch/search?search_type=keyword&keyword=aiming+at+maturity&go_search_btn.x=-371&go_search_btn.y=-572&go_search_btn=GO)  I think my experience in yesterday’s worship illustrates this point.  Clearly, doctrine is not just about head knowledge.  Over time, as we learn to think of God, of humans and of the Christian life through certain terms and teachings, we begin to feel particular emotional responses in relation to how our affections have been shaped.  Why?  Because we learn from others, our teachers and pastors and community leaders – through the choice of words, the tone of voice, even body language – what our community believes is true and important.  In other words, we learn to care about the same things others in authority (formal or informal) care about.  When I use the term “care about,” I mean to include intellectual thoughts as well as the feelings and sensibilities that attend them.

Another implication attends these thoughts, one about which I’ve been haranguing people around me in an entirely different context, but for a similar reason.  A while back I read Elliot Eisner’s The Educational Imagination and pondered his concept of the “null curriculum.”  That is, we teach both by what we emphasize, but also by what we avoid, by what we leave out of the curriculum, by what we never mention.  This concept reveals a couple of very important points regarding Christian formation.  First, no teaching is theologically is neutral.  This is not to say that everything is arbitrary, but it is to put the kibosh on the notion that we can put together a curriculum without bias or perspective.  And if this is the case, then we all need to be much more self-aware about our biases, much more reflective than is the case most of the time in our church settings.

Second, there is as much formation going on informally as through our formal teaching.  Sunday School class materials, youth group Bible studies, confirmation classes and other formal settings are often easily countermanded by what happens outside those settings and what is communicated everywhere else in our congregational relationships.  Again, the call for self-awareness.  Do we have any idea what we are teaching our charges that actually directly undermine our stated values and beliefs?  What are we really interested in with regard to the Christian life?  To church membership?

This is why I get impatient with those who are impatient with doctrine, who exhibit that characteristically Methodist penchant for hurrying past doctrinal conversations to “getting things done” for Jesus.  Doctrines do matter.  They teach us what to care about and what we care about reflects what we believe to be both true, good (or evil) and deeply important.

One last thought, going back to the hymn: it’s one thing to admit that we have stylistic preferences and differences.  This is just the reality of life.  Some people like a certain song.  Others don’t.  But what do we do when we  can find no common doctrinal ground for our preferences?  And that ground lies at the heart of the Christian faith?  About matters like the Person and Work of Jesus Christ?  What do we do when some of us find “I Stand” deeply true and important, life-giving and powerful?  And some of us find it morally repugnant, abhorrent, to be avoided at all costs?

What do we do then?

The post Another Lesson in the Power of Doctrine appeared first on Rankin File.

Permanent link to this article: http://methoblog.com/3_0/2014/09/another-lesson-in-the-power-of-doctrine/

Aug 15 2014

Rankin File: Developing Players, Developing Disciples

Original post at http://stephenrankin.com/developing-players-developing-disciples/


People who care about their craft borrow ideas and resources wherever they can find them in order to get better at what they do. Having worked in college for almost twenty years, I’m obviously very interested in student development. I grew up loving sports and I, like many others, find inspiration and occasional good advice in that area. It happened again about a week ago.

Recently, Bill Snyder, head football coach for Kansas State University made headlines with his comments about college football “selling out.” He voiced his opinion in the wake of the NCAA’s voting to permit the new super division of the biggest football schools. Snyder has been talking about this matter for a while – the big money associated with TV contracts, the palatial stadiums, the obscene amounts of money made on merchandising. He even fretted about how roomy his office is compared to the cramped quarters of many faculty offices.

In all the hoopla and hype over college sports, who, ironically, gets lost? The players. They’re students. And it really does seem to bother Coach Snyder.

It would be easy to dismiss this talk as hypocritical chatter by a big-time coach. After all, K-State has followed suit, sunk a bunch of money into their athletic facilities, and appear to be trying to keep up with the football Joneses (no offense to the Joneses). This is a challenge many NCAA schools face. If you want to play that game, you’ve got to find ways to stay in the game. But in this case, there’s more to the story and, strangely enough, it inspires me to work hard at student development in campus ministry.

(Full disclosure: I am an alumnus of Kansas State University who likes to follow Coach Snyder and the ‘Cats. I’m a purple bigot.)

If you follow college sports, you know that every year pundits rank the recruiting classes of football programs. Already for 2015 you can find them. The top five classes? Alabama, Texas A&M, Clemson, South Carolina, Florida State. If you follow year to year, you know that the same eight or ten teams are almost always at the top of the list. And they’re in the hunt for the national championship every year. One gets the sense, therefore, that recruiting the top-ranked players is necessary to have perennial top-ranked teams.

What criteria are used in ranking players? Speed, strength and agility tests relative to playing position render critical information for coaches. Their high school record (how many tackles, touchdown passes, yards gained, interceptions, games won, etc.) count heavily; their high school coaches’ strong recommendations and promoting also matter. You can see how a player stacks up to other players at a given position by the number of stars next to his name. If you recruit a bunch of top-ranked players, then voila(!) you have a top-ranked recruiting class.

While the Alabamas and Oklahomas always have elite recruiting classes, where does K-State’s class typically rank? They don’t even crack the top 50. This just doesn’t seem to matter to Coach Snyder. Yet, by the end of the season, his team has put together another incredible run, winding up ranked at least in the top 25 and usually considerably higher.

To put the matter in rather bald terms, K-State takes lower ranked, lesser known players every year and turns them into super achievers. Clearly, Coach Snyder and his crew know how to develop players. K-State fans, don’t hate me for saying it: I would not trade what Bill Snyder’s program does for players for all the national championships in the world.

One can always feel suspicious about the difference between image and reality, but it really does look to me like Coach Snyder and his staff are much more interested in the players as people, in the non-tangibles, like teachability, character and commitment rather than freakish talent. Of course, these guys have talent, but, for whatever reason, they either don’t have the gaudy numbers or attract a lot of attention. Think about this: 3 of the team’s captains for this upcoming season started as walk-ons. (They’re also all Kansas natives.) I think this is truly an amazing story and in the blinding glitz of big time college football, it goes largely unnoticed to fans and prognosticators. While the rest of us are all agog about some five-star recruit, Coach Snyder and his staff are working their unsung “youngsters” into yet another great team.

So, working in a culture consumed by dollars from TV contracts, merchandising, by fan obsessions and fickleness in which we lose track of the fact that the Johnny Manziels of the world are fantastic talents, but still little more than boys in highly trained bodies, the Bill Snyders and the K-States of the world are doing it old school, out of the glare of shallow and short attention spans – developing people while developing players.

Of course, coaching a college football team is almost nothing like campus ministry, but this example inspires me. It makes me want to work hard; to give full attention to every student who sits in my office or otherwise crosses my path. Football is a game. Discipleship is life. I should be as committed to developing students as any coach is to developing players.

The post Developing Players, Developing Disciples appeared first on Rankin File.

Permanent link to this article: http://methoblog.com/3_0/2014/08/developing-players-developing-disciples-2/

Aug 15 2014

Rankin File: Developing Players, Developing Disciples

Original post at http://stephenrankin.com/2056/


People who care about their craft borrow ideas and resources wherever they can find them in order to get better at what they do.  Having worked in college for almost twenty years, I’m obviously very interested in student development.  I grew up loving sports and I, like many others, find inspiration and occasional good advice in that area.  It happened again about a week ago.

Recently, Bill Snyder, head football coach for Kansas State University made headlines with his comments about college football “selling out.” He voiced his opinion in the wake of the NCAA’s voting to permit the new super division of the biggest football schools.  Snyder has been talking about this matter for a while – the big money associated with TV contracts, the palatial stadiums, the obscene amounts of money made on merchandising. He even fretted about how roomy his office is compared to the cramped quarters of many faculty offices.

In all the hoopla and hype over college sports, who, ironically, gets lost?  The players.  They’re students.  And it really does seem to bother Coach Snyder.

It would be easy to dismiss this talk as hypocritical chatter by a big-time coach. After all, K-State has followed suit, sunk a bunch of money into their athletic facilities, and appear to be trying to keep up with the football Joneses (no offense to the Joneses).  This is a challenge many NCAA schools face.  If you want to play that game, you’ve got to find ways to stay in the game.  But in this case, there’s more to the story and, strangely enough, it inspires me to work hard at student development in campus ministry.

(Full disclosure: I am an alumnus of Kansas State University who likes to follow Coach Snyder and the ‘Cats.  I’m a purple bigot.)

If you follow college sports, you know that every year pundits rank the recruiting classes of football programs.  Already for 2015 you can find them. The top five classes?  Alabama, Texas A&M, Clemson, South Carolina, Florida State.  If you follow year to year, you know that the same eight or ten teams are almost always at the top of the list.  And they’re in the hunt for the national championship every year.  One gets the sense, therefore, that recruiting the top-ranked players is necessary to have perennial top-ranked teams.

What criteria are used in ranking players?  Speed, strength and agility tests relative to playing position render critical information for coaches.  Their high school record (how many tackles, touchdown passes, yards gained, interceptions, games won, etc.) count heavily; their high school coaches’ strong recommendations and promoting also matter.  You can see how a player stacks up to other players at a given position by the number of stars next to his name.  If you recruit a bunch of top-ranked players, then voila(!) you have a top-ranked recruiting class.

While the Alabamas and Oklahomas always have elite recruiting classes, where does K-State’s class typically rank?  They don’t even crack the top 50.  This just doesn’t seem to matter to Coach Snyder.  Yet, by the end of the season, his team has put together another incredible run, winding up ranked at least in the top 25 and usually considerably higher.

To put the matter in rather bald terms, K-State takes lower ranked, lesser known players every year and turns them into super achievers.  Clearly, Coach Snyder and his crew know how to develop players.  K-State fans, don’t hate me for saying it: I would not trade what Bill Snyder’s program does for players for all the national championships in the world.

One can always feel suspicious about the difference between image and reality, but it really does look to me like Coach Snyder and his staff are much more interested in the players as people, in the non-tangibles, like teachability, character and commitment rather than freakish talent.  Of course, these guys have talent, but, for whatever reason, they either don’t have the gaudy numbers or attract a lot of attention.  Think about this: 3 of the team’s captains for this upcoming season started as walk-ons.  (They’re also all Kansas natives.)  I think this is truly an amazing story and in the blinding glitz of big time college football, it goes largely unnoticed to fans and prognosticators.  While the rest of us are all agog about some five-star recruit, Coach Snyder and his staff are working their unsung “youngsters” into yet another great team.

So, working in a culture consumed by dollars from TV contracts, merchandising, by fan obsessions and fickleness in which we lose track of the fact that the Johnny Manziels of the world are fantastic talents, but still little more than boys in highly trained bodies, the Bill Snyders and the K-States of the world are doing it old school, out of the glare of shallow and short attention spans – developing people while developing players.

Of course, coaching a college football team is almost nothing like campus ministry, but this example inspires me.  It makes me want to work hard; to give full attention to every student who sits in my office or otherwise crosses my path.  Football is a game.  Discipleship is life.  I should be as committed to developing students as any coach is to developing players.

 

 

 

The post Developing Players, Developing Disciples appeared first on Rankin File.

Permanent link to this article: http://methoblog.com/3_0/2014/08/developing-players-developing-disciples/

Aug 08 2014

Rankin File: A “Mainliner’s” View of Mark Driscoll’s Demise

Original post at http://stephenrankin.com/mark-driscolls-demise/


I’m going to try to stick to a very narrow point in this post and I ask the reader to do the same.  There are other things that could be said about the breaking Mark Driscoll story.  I’ll leave it to other people to say them.

I just read that Driscoll and Mars Hill Church were removed from the Acts 29 Network, an organization that he helped to start and for which he served (a few years ago) as President.  (Read here: http://blog.seattlepi.com/seattlepolitics/2014/08/08/evangelism-network-to-mark-driscoll-step-down-and-seek-help/#25601101=0)

It seems to me from reading the letter of dismissal that:

1.  For a number of years, colleagues in the network have tried to help Driscoll see the harm he was doing with his brand of “leadership.”  It appears that they finally came to the conclusion that no other way of handling this situation could be found.

2.  They emphasize that this act of discipline was the most loving route they could take, following their understanding of the necessary biblical protocol.  I have to admit, I think they used the word “loving” a time or two too often, as if they were also trying to fend off criticism.  It did seem a little like they “protested too much” their love.  That said, I appreciate, respect and admire their action.

3.  I wish it could have been done more out of the public eye, but in our crazy culture, with people as high profile as Driscoll, there’s no way for this matter not to become a news item.  Given the nature of the controversy, for the blogosphere (yes, I realize the irony), this story is like red meat to carnivorous critics of evangelical Christianity.

4.  To the self-identified progressives in our beloved United Methodist church, the ones who like to crow about evangelical hypocrisy: Mark Driscoll is getting his comeuppance and I beg you not to enjoy it via your blogs and Facebook statuses.  I’m not talking about all progressives, not by a long shot.  I’m talking about the gloaters.

I’ve been spending a lot of time with the Sermon on the Mount the past few months.  More than the “Judge not…” teaching, the whole tenor of the Sermon reflects the call for Christians to be generous and forgiving toward one another.  The quality of our relationships is a major means of showing that we are the salt of the earth, the light of the world.  I obviously don’t have a relationship with Driscoll, but this matter reminds all of us how we are to treat one another.

Please don’t read me as saying we have to make nice.  Anybody who knows me knows that I don’t care a fig for false reconciliation and avoiding controversy at all costs.  We must speak the truth as we see it and we must engage contentious topics.  Good relationships have plenty of conflict and disagreement.  What makes the relationships good is that people love each other through the difficulty and stay in community, that is, until they finally conclude – together – that they must part company.  Peaceable people can and sometimes do come to this conclusion, even when they are utterly committed to living at peace with all so far as it depends on them.  (No, I’m not advocating for denominational division.)

5.  And now my main point: whatever you think about the theology, practices or culture of the Acts 29 Network, you must take off your hat off to these leaders who acted to dismiss Driscoll.  Leaders of big organizations have big egos.  (This is true of United Methodist leaders, too.)  They are powerful people.  It takes guts to do what they have done.  I can imagine the consternation, yes, the shame, of being associated with a leader who has demonstrated – temporarily, we hope – not only a lack of integrity but a wanton cruelty and egoism.  I commend them for taking these steps.  They clearly don’t need my commendation and I have no idea what has happened behind closed doors in the lead-up to today’s action, but I take my hat off to them.

By contrast, I don’t feel so good about my own denomination.  Too be sure, I’ve been enough “on the inside” to know that bishops have to make similar tough decisions.  I’ve served on the Board of Ordained Ministry and have been involved in disciplining clergy, even voting to remove a few.  The main difference between the Driscoll case and my small scale experience is simply profile and publicity.  I’m trying to say we United Methodists have had our fair share of difficult situations and I’ve seen us handle them as courageously and as compassionately as possible.

But recently, on a big canvas, with national leaders whose misguided zeal has brought shame upon The United Methodist Church, we have not done so well.  I have in mind those leaders who – believing they know better than the rest of us how to handle things – simply follow their own designs.  Maybe you see their actions as necessary in an unjust world.  We can disagree about that point and have our disagreements in Christlike love.

But we also need to pay attention to how we United Methodists look to the public eye.  It’s very easy for us to see the speck in some other organization’s eye and not see the log in ours.

Jesus has a lot to say about hypocrisy and most of it is aimed at religious leaders.  I hope we’re listening.

 

The post A “Mainliner’s” View of Mark Driscoll’s Demise appeared first on Rankin File.

Permanent link to this article: http://methoblog.com/3_0/2014/08/a-mainliners-view-of-mark-driscolls-demise/

Aug 06 2014

Rankin File: Another Example of a Gap in Higher Education

Original post at http://stephenrankin.com/another-example-gap-higher-education/


David Bentley Hart, in The Experience of God, makes this important observation: “To bracket form and finality out of one’s investigations as far as reason allows is a matter of method, but to deny their reality altogether is a matter of metaphysics.”  (p. 70)  “Form and finality” refer to ultimate causes and purposes; in philosophical terms, the stuff of metaphysics.  Research methods don’t try to address metaphysical questions.  But as you know, sometimes people claim modern research as the reason not only to avoid metaphysical topics, but, as Hart says, “to deny their reality altogether.” This problem still exists big time in higher education and it has preoccupied me for twenty years.

The other day I tweeted that what we call student development in the academy, we call discipleship in the church.  I’ve also said to those willing to endure my fulminations that pedagogy (the technical term for the practice of teaching and learning) just is discipleship.  The academy shapes people.  In a thousand diverse ways it teaches us what to care about, what is worthy of our attention, what matters.  It teaches us also what not to care about.

I’ve been looking recently at literature on student development in higher education.  We know that college students undergo much change, but change is not synonymous with development.  To develop means that we have a clear sense of the goal toward which purposeful change takes us.  Unfortunately, we largely assume that “the college experience” takes student toward the goal, because the right goal is whatever the student wants it to be.  Exceedingly rarely do you find discussion about the value of such goals, which is to say, discussions about what really matters.  We talk a lot about the means, little about the ends.  The end(s) we leave to students.  Sort of.

(Except in one zone: confessional Christian schools.  I don’t work in one of those schools, so I’ll not say more, but we in the mainline could learn a lesson here.)

Student development theory has emerged from the works of researchers like Jean Piaget, Erik Erikson, Lawrence Kohlberg, Carol Gilligan, William Perry, and Robert Kegan, to name a few. (In the field of faith development and spirituality, we would add James Fowler, Sharon Daloz Parks and James Loder.)  These names are mostly associated with psychology.   How have these folks come by their understanding of human development?  By devising good research methods.  By clinical controls.  By observation.  By testing and testing again.  By thousands and thousands of conversations with people and drawing testable conclusions.  As good scientists, for the most part, they avoid the “form and finality” question.

(James Fowler’s Becoming Adult, Becoming Christian takes his theoretical work and reflects theologically on what development looks like for Christians.  In all my readings of Fowler, I see him taking special care to recognize when he is doing what.)

But over time a tradition of thought takes shape with implicit metaphysical assumptions.  This point is difficult to prove.  Researchers can bracket basic philosophical questions because their research interest is narrow (in a good, pragmatically needful sense).  They’re not asking “big questions” about the meaning of life.  They’re trying to figure out why a targeted sample of people engage in behavior X or assume attitude Y.  But over time, a tradition develops and in the process – given our still very powerful modernist, empiricist assumptions, some questions just don’t seem relevant, interesting or important.

To get to this point in student development theory does not mean that we don’t do metaphysics.  It just means that metaphysics went underground.  And we have the unexamined life, which, in the academy, has rendered a shriveled up view of human nature.

To illustrate this problem, let’s switch to a different time and place.  For personal reasons I have returned to the reflections of Evagrius Ponticus in The Praktikos and On Prayer.  Evagrius was a fourth century monk, a student of the Cappadocian Fathers.  These works are filled with keen insight and profound wisdom.

Where did Evagrius get his ideas?  Well, he listened to people.  He thought.  He prayed.  He pondered.  He listened some more.  In other words, he gained insight into human psychology on pretty much the same basis that modern researchers do, except that he obviously did not use modern research methods.  Evagrius learned about human nature from experiencing himself and other humans, just like modern researchers do.

Consider this reflection from Evagrius:

The spirit would not make progress nor go forth on that happy sojourn with the band of the incorporeal beings unless it should correct its interior.  This is so because anxiety arising from interior conflicts is calculated to turn back upon the things that it has left behind.” (Praktikos, #63)

One with the relevant background knowledge can see from Evagrius’ reference to the band of incorporeal beings an ancient, Platonic (or neo-Platonic) metaphysic.  No interest there for modern researchers.  Notice, more importantly, his observation about anxiety and human wellbeing.  This is of large significance to modern researchers and practitioners.  He names a major roadblock to human wellbeing, one that we could put in more modern existentialist and Freudian terms.  He made this comment roughly sixteen hundred years ago.

Evagrius was well aware of his metaphysical assumptions.  We in the academy often are not.  Who is the more aware?  Whom would we consider better educated?

We teach by what we talk about all the time; by what has our sustained focus (which is a way of saying, what has our hearts).  We also teach by what we never talk about, what we leave out of the research, the literature, the conversations, the classroom lectures.  And modern student development theory, it seems to me at this point, leaves out a huge portion of what makes humans human.  This is a terrible mistake.

Church related schools have a golden opportunity here.  We have the freedom in whatever way we deem appropriate, to engage students in precisely the questions that often don’t get asked.  Imagine, in a student development theory class, adding in some readings from people like Evagrius and grappling with his world view.  It would prompt us to think about ours.  We might turn to someone like Charles Taylor for help in understanding “social imaginaries.”  Now student development theory takes on a whole new dimension.  And we start to see students (and our work) differently.  We expand our awareness beyond formal psychological processes to substantive ways of understanding humans.

And that would be a very good thing.

 

 

 

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