I just got back from a very enjoyable trip to Saskatchewan (I heard it was nice this time of year) to visit my brother and his family and play some hockey. Among other things, it gave me the opportunity to do something that I’ve never had the chance to do before: observe my brother in a classroom context. I sat in on his Intro to Theology class Monday morning and left with much to think about.
One of the chief tasks of a theological education, we discovered, is learning how to prioritize beliefs about God. Which beliefs are central? Which ones can we acknowledge differences of opinion on? In response to which ones can (must?) we simply say that Christians of good will, reasonable intelligence, and sincere faith simply do not agree? How do we think for ourselves about God while not abandoning the broad categories of received orthodoxy?
All this was still whirring around my brain as I jetted back to the west coast on Monday, and when I read this article by David Brooks in yesterday’s New York Times. Brooks talks about finding a balance between two goals of a proper education. On the one hand, we want to teach students to think critically for themselves, to challenge received dogmas, to push against the edges of what we think we know, to allow ourselves to be “disoriented and reoriented” by what and how we study.
On the other hand, Brooks argues, we need a return to “institutional thinking.” We all must travel through certain social structures, whether these are the structures of family, education, career, science or even (and Brooks doesn’t mention this specifically) religion. In each of these institutions, we must take as given a certain set of parameters, guidelines, and ways of thinking and doing. Brooks uses the rather benign example of baseball player Ryne Sandberg’s acceptance speech into the hall of fame, where he referred to having always felt a sense of obligation to “the game” and how it was “meant to be played.” This is the kind of thing that Brooks advocates a return to.
In the former approach—the approach, I would suggest, most of us are more familiar with—it is we who are in control. We ask the questions that are important to us, we decide what we will accept or reject, we decide what we will believe. We ask the questions of the external world and construct our worldviews based on the answers we prefer. The individual is sovereign.
According to Brooks,
institutional thinking is eroding. Faith in all institutions, including charities, has declined precipitously over the past generation, not only in the U.S. but around the world. Lack of institutional awareness has bred cynicism and undermined habits of behavior.
In other words, a world consisting of people who rarely move beyond putting their own questions and demands to life—who do not consider that life might be asking something of them, something which might require (gasp!) something like conformity or self-sacrifice—does not lead to a very good citizens or a very good world. That’s a remarkable thing to hear, now at the dawn of the twenty-first century.
It’s not hard to extend Brooks’ argument into the realm of religion. Religions have always, in some form or another, maintained that life does, indeed, ask questions of us. Whether at the cognitional, the ethical, or at the ritual level, all religions have held that there are ways of being and thinking in the world that respond best to the questions that a world such as ours (with all of its limitations, opportunities, and demands) puts to creatures such as us (with all of our limitations, abilities, desires). Religions have always claimed to offer ways of living and thinking in response to the questions life asks of us.
But religions are also, obviously, associated with such nefarious things as mind-control, indoctrination, rigidity, lack of curiosity, intolerance, homogeneity, and quite likely every other form of nastiness that you could come up with. Brooks is aware that advocating a return to “institutional thinking” will seem strange, and possibly unwelcome from this vantage point in history, but he persists:
Institutions do all the things that are supposed to be bad. They impede personal exploration. They enforce conformity.
But they often save us from our weaknesses and give meaning to life.
We need institutional thinking to give meaning to life? In an op-ed in the New York Times? Wow.
Returning to the classroom of a little Bible College on the frozen prairies, I think that what I saw Monday morning represented the best of what Brooks is advocating here. I saw a balance between presenting students with the generic questions life asks of us—Why do we long for justice and goodness? What is the nature of beauty? Why do we love it? What could account for the human impulse toward spirituality? Why do we operate best in community? Why do we, in all of these areas, fail to attain what we so desperately crave?—and teaching them to (critically) consider the received categories and structures of Christian theology, and learn how to think and grow within them.
I saw the balance between individual and institutional thinking that I think represents the most healthy, the most fulfilling, and the most biblical approach to answering the questions life asks of all of us.