Brad East: On Coherence in Christian Teaching: Hospitality, Truthfulness, and Speaking as Yourself

Here is another great article from a friend and guest blogger Brad East. Like myself, Brad is a second-year MDiv student at Candler School of Theology. Hailing from Austin, Texas, with his wife Katelin, Brad plans to go on to doctorate work and to teach and write at the university level. His academic interests include Christian pacifism, theological interpretation of Scripture, and ecclesiology, and he loves film, poetry, Tex-Mex, and Wendell Berry. You can check out Brad’s blog at Resident Theology.

On Coherence in Christian Teaching: Hospitality, Truthfulness, and Speaking as Yourself

Finding oneself in a diverse and predominantly liberal seminary is an extraordinary experience in more ways than can be explained or anticipated. One of the hallmarks of such an environment is, of course, the all-pervasive virtue of tolerance, highlighted in conjunction with the hoped-for and hailed value of diversity. It has been a great gift to belong to a place which, warts and all, strives after such things.

However, it is unclear to me that mere tolerance is a virtue, much less something to be sought after at all. Tolerance is to diversity what passivity is to violence: the pacifist can sit on his righteous haunches all he wants, but until he gets up and does something, until he acts (to be sure, nonviolently) for justice, nothing’s changing and no one could or ought to care less. Similarly, to “tolerate” the differences of others leads inevitably to the whitewashing of legitimate differences, often resulting in a kind of loose “we are the world” false unity or, worse, an intolerance of those who are not tolerant “like us.”

This is clearly seen in the pedagogical practices of explicitly Christian professors who do not seem to feel comfortable to speak as Christians when teaching, even or especially when teaching Christian theology to predominantly Christian students, apparently for fear of assuming the “we” of the church does not apply to the “we” of the classroom, or of speaking on behalf of “Christians” when the views of Christians are neither monolithic nor fixed.

I assume at the outset that the heart and the concerns from which these practices spring are legitimate and sincere, and are grounded in a desire to welcome and not to exclude, to inspire conversation and not to tell others what they do or should believe. And to the extent that this is true, the intent is highly laudable and in many ways truly Christian in origin.

However, beyond tolerance, the truly Christian virtues that ought to ground our pedagogical practices in the classroom are twofold: hospitality and truthfulness. The two are interrelated because one cannot be hospitable apart from the truth, nor truthful apart from welcome of difference. Because Christians believe that Jesus is Lord, and the character of that Lordship to be of one who came without coercion or exclusion, but welcomed all to the table and refused even to kill his enemies, the truth of fullest human communal interaction — conversation and pedagogy being two of the chief practices in this case — must involve both the truth of who we are before God and one another and the refusal to silence or coerce the difference of the other.

I believe that if these virtues were to become the ground and bounds of Christian education, the limited space created by mere tolerance would expand into the wide breadth of honest speech and welcomed learning; it would also, in a straightforward manner, become more coherent. If, for example, a Christian professor does not seek to “represent the tradition” without speaking for her own actual views, or actually openly commits herself to a particular tradition of belief, or does not assume in language or content that “we” all must have “something” in common more core than our various religious “divisions” — this names the truth of the situation much more clearly and directly, and simultaneously opens up new avenues for conversation because, the reality of our relations to one another having been named aloud, we can now move forward in learning together without playing the part of a lie.

(I should also note that this strategy pushes back against the Enlightenment notion that we may simply lay out the options before individuals and allow them to pick and choose, with their supposedly reliable rational faculties, what they happen to believe to be the best choice. No: tell me exactly what you think, and trust me enough to know that I will not simply internally imbibe your view into a pale imitation, but instead will now be better formed by your acknowledgment of particular locatedness vis-a-vis my particular location, and together we will both learn from each other. There simply is no objective “space” between us in which we can step and see the truth. Let us take positions, argue and talk, and love each other as we learn.)

To offer one concrete suggestion, I would be delighted if professors would begin each semester in their various classes by offering the bullet points (or story) of their basic theological assumptions. In this way every student would know from the outset where the professor is coming from, and perhaps in smaller classes even every student could share where he or she is coming from as well. If the professor is ambiguous regarding the Christian faith, or Jewish, or a secular humanist, or whatever — all the better! Speak the truth aloud, let people inside of your own particularity — from which you cannot escape, even with tenure — and relate to one another henceforth with the walls of professor-student power politics broken down, even if only partially.

I should conclude by sharing that this is not some abstract principle for me, but a pedagogical commitment I intend to practice in the future, as I am planning to go on to doctoral work after my MDiv and eventually hope to teach as a professor. And if I were to get up in front of a class today, I would say that I am a Christian by virtue of confession of faith in Jesus and membership in a local church community, holding in general to much of the essential orthodox tradition. More particularly, for the sake of class discussion and straightforward accountability in conversation, my basic set of assumptions about what it means to be a Christian are as follows:
-Jesus of Nazareth, crucified and risen, is Israel’s Messiah and Lord of the cosmos.
-Ecclesia names that community called and gathered by the Holy Spirit in discipleship to and worship of this same Jesus.
-Christian Scripture has compelling authority and abiding truthfulness.
-We are not bystanders in relation to these claims: it matters profoundly what we think, say, and do vis-a-vis God, Jesus, church, Scripture, history, and tradition.

Much is missing from these stated assumptions (Trinity, Israel, eschaton, sacraments, narrative, salvation, gender, race, religious pluralism, violence, prayer, etc.), but they are ambiguous intentionally. Ideally, however, this small example offers a window into the possibilities that this sort of up-front-ness offers, both for the health and education of a seminary, or any other, classroom, as well as for the honesty and welcome those with somewhat or even radically different assumptions can experience in the context of learning Christian theology.


8 thoughts on “Brad East: On Coherence in Christian Teaching: Hospitality, Truthfulness, and Speaking as Yourself

  1. Brad-

    I really just wanted to say wow. Thanks for your willingness to engage in the dialogue. Also, to say, I will be coming back to this tomorrow with more reflections.

    Particularly your statement, “Tolerance is to diversity what passivity is to violence”. Good stuff, I think.


  2. A voice from the extreme opposite end of the spectrum says, ‘Amen!’ to your assessment of tolerance. I have preached on the evil of tolerance, using MLK’s language about ‘negative peace’ (absence of violence) vs. true peace (justice). Most of us have been tolerated at some point in our lives, and can testify to the pain of it.

    I am intrigued by your perception of professors not speaking as Christians. I did find that the assumptions underlying the lesson or conversation went largely unnamed, that professors did not identify their social-theological location unless asked. However, it was clear that the fundamental Christian assumptions of Trinity and Christ, sin and salvation were the unquestioned starting point. As a heretic in the MDiv program, I was explicitly welcomed but often implicitly tolerated or even exiled — much more by professors than students.

    I hope you will say more about what you wish or hope to find — and, in your own career, express — in Christian pedagogy.
    Thank you for your contribution, and please continue to speak — and reminding us all to speak in love.
    – lynn

  3. Brad-This is awesome stuff! You voice thoughts that many at Candler share. I would also agree in the inherent, and often overlooked, evil of tolerance. In practice it is often nothing more than a tool used by a majority to ensure the status quo just in a more peaceful fashion.

    Lynn- I’m totally with you on equating it with MLK’s view of negative peace. I often wonder if tolerance is a barrier we put up to avoid the real and sometimes painful experience of truly encountering each other and all that comes with that.

    Josh- Good conversation here. This is a much deeper topic (or series of topics) than many of us often realize or are willing to acknowledge. Good stuff!

  4. Again, thanks for the link. Brad I think this is great and I hope Dean Love and many others will read this and consider it.

    I believe my experience at Candler would have been even richer if the practices you are proposing had been part of the pedagogy of Candler.

    Perhaps some Duke influence could benefit Candler?

  5. Lynn- Its really so funny that you say, “As a heretic in the MDiv program, I was explicitly welcomed but often implicitly tolerated or even exiled — much more by professors than students.” Why do you think this is? And is there an alternative to tolerance?

    Brad- Here’s what I’m thinking: although I recognize the need for a kind of open model of education, where power gets displaced through sharing and conversation, I’m not sure that the power dynamics ever really leave a classroom. In fact, and maybe I’ll change my mind on this soon enough, but I think that the dynamics of teacher student are ok, if not necessary, for the kind of classroom you are talking about.

    One of the real issues that emerges for me as I engage with this comes from my experience with people who have changed their willingness to be taught or to be in community with people who believe differently from them. In fact, I wonder if this isn’t why certain professors or otherwise don’t share what they really believe; especially, if it would mean displacing the authority of the facts (or data) for students. I wonder if this isn’t just part of the reason why a distance is maintained. It’s also something I came to respect about certain professors at Candler (McFarland and Pacini most recently) who were able to present with equal passion different teachings that they may or may not have agreed with.

    Does this make sense? Do you see how by opening up to a diverse group of students you may actually close doors for learning?

    Oh, and finally, I love the “we are the world” reference! See my post entitled, “Are we really the world?”

    Others? Thoughts?


  6. Thanks to all for the kind and helpful comments. Here are a few brief responses:

    Lynn — I think so much has to do with where one stands in relation to the tradition, and which professors one happens to have. I have realized that I have found myself as a more “orthodox” student in classes with professors with “less” orthodox positions, or when they were potentially orthodox, silence on the issues. Experience, luck, and locatedness seem just as present here as elsewhere.

    Josh — I agree that the power dynamics will never fully leave, but I do think they can be qualified and minimized when named truthfully and not ignored. I also think that it is fully possible to represent positions one doesn’t like or agree with; I would put Pacini in that camp a bit more than McFarland, because I never knew where the latter stood, but it was always clear where Pacini was. I would be happy to hear a predestinarian defend and proclaim Pelagianism, than I would a “no man’s land”-er describe the fact that “some Christians” believe one and “some Christians” believe the other.

    Part of this is also just about passion and care, which has to do with my fourth principle from the post: I want a professor who clearly cares about the subject, and thinks it to be vitally important, at least to understand, if not to make a decision about. These are not neutral or sanitized doctrines! People have killed and given their lives over them! Let’s not treat them with kid’s gloves.

  7. Josh – I see tolerance, at Candler as elsewhere, as neither-hot-nor-cold compromise position (and, like the writer of Revelation, it makes me want to spit). Still, I take it with gratitude when I believe that it’s the best people can do. Like MLKing’s assertion that the law can’t make people love me, but if it keeps them from lynching me, then I’m all for it. There is an alternative, but it is either not spiritually accessible or not morally tolerable to some people. The alternative is acceptance. If your faith tells you that some ideas about God will lead to salvation and others will lead to damnation, than giving full acceptance to those with the other ideas is not morally tolerable. I know and accept this; I was truly orthodox in my youth, so I can appreciate and love those who feel they must — at least in part — reject me. True pluralists (think LESmith, MTThangaraj, JGunnemann) accept the heretic. Progressive-but-largely-orthodox IAMcFarland and LTJohnson give it their very best shot, but can’t, quite. I decided not to take CT502 because I felt very ‘tolerated’ in CT501, though I won’t say by whom.
    In the end, I think that it is perfectly appropriate for faculty at a sectarian institution with specific doctrine to have difficulty with accepting those who reject that doctrine. It is the highest praise when I say that the folks at Candler sometimes, for a moment, made me forget that I didn’t belong there.

  8. You really make it seem so easy with your presentation but I find this matter to be actually something which I think I would never understand. It seems too complex and extremely broad for me. I’m looking forward for your next post, I’ll try to get the hang of it!

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