Concerns and Hopes for the College Student Experience

I had the most enjoyable privilege of participating in a panel discussion on the gospel and the university campus, sponsored by The Living Church Institute.  It gave me the opportunity to interact with a group of practitioners who had very provocative viewpoints and good questions to ask.  As a follow-up to the panel, The Living Church (the magazine of The Episcopal Church) published this brief essay and response.

I sometimes say that the field of higher education is like the wild, wild, West.  There are more than 18 million college students in this country, with thousands of schools of several different types to serve them.  It has become an exceedingly competitive market.  Schools face the demand to offer increasingly targeted services while at the same time keeping costs manageable.  They struggle with how to market themselves to prospective students who, with their parents, are savvy consumers.

The big question is, what is happening to students’ faith within this pressure-cooker system?  This brief essay, with a response, speaks to the situation.  If you are interested in any of these topics, I would love to chat.

Here is the link to the essay:


Judicial Council Proves We’re Already in Schism

The United Methodist Judicial Council (JC) has issued their ruling on the proposed plans going to General Conference 2019.  They have done us a big favor.  They help us to realize the fundamental rift running through the denomination.

First, a couple of admissions: (1) For the sake of full transparency, I am a traditionalist in theology and morality.  (2) It goes without saying, but I’ll say it anyway, I am no policy wonk.  I therefore gladly take the work of Judicial Council at face value and will not second-guess their conclusions.  We owe them a debt of thanks.

To set the context for what I think needs saying, here is a quick summary of the JC decisions.  They refused to rule on the Connectional Conference Plan to avoid pre-empting legitimate legislative processes associated with that plan’s constitutional amendments.  They did rule on the One Church Plan and the Traditional Plan.  Both need some modification, but, if you’re of a mind to keep score, I’d say that the Traditional Plan fared worse, though by no means fatally.  The “enhanced accountability” parts of the Traditional Plan received particular criticism for very important reasons.  Those parts, the Council ruled, unconstitutionally single out specific practices rather than making sure that all provisions of the Book of Discipline are applied equally to all members.  We should take comfort in the stipulation that all of us be treated fairly and with due process in the face of church law, but it also raises the specter of how to carry out effective measures of accountability.

The One Church Plan also contains provisions deemed unconstitutional, but fewer than the Traditional Plan.  (Keep in mind, the One Church Plan got the lion’s share of attention in preparation, the reasons for which are themselves troubling.)  One aspect – significantly deemed constitutional – bears notice.  One petition in the plan (#10) stipulates that, to protect religious liberty, a traditionalist bishop who refuses, for conscience’s sake, to ordain openly l/g/b/t/q/i/a ordinands, would have the prerogative to ask another bishop within the College to do so, with two important conditions.  First, this action must be taken, according to the JC ruling, “with the implicit understanding that a bishop from outside the episcopal area will come and preside only if [italics in the original] the residential bishop (1) indicates his or her intention to exercise that right and (2) consents to such an arrangement.” (Emphasis added)  In short, to fulfill these two conditions, a traditionalist bishop must at least tacitly agree that sexuality is a matter of adiaphora, that is, not essential to the faith of the church.  But this is the very contested point between traditionalists and others.

From a traditionalist point of view, questions of sexuality bear directly upon the faith, because they involve basic understandings of human nature and condition (in technical language, anthropology and hamartiology) and the contours of the Christian life, or the life of salvation (soteriology).  That is to say, we ask what aspects of human experience are part of God’s good creation and what are properly deemed sinful?  What activities reflect faithful Christian life and what is not acceptable?  These questions demand answers and traditionalists answer them differently than others.  It may be appropriate to rank these doctrinal questions lower than, say, the Trinity or the atoning work of Christ (tragically and not unrelatedly, Methodists fight about these topics, too), but they are far from inconsequential.  Traditionalists thus do not think that the local church option is a morally benign answer to important questions.

It thus looks to me that, for a traditionalist bishop to accept the aforementioned stipulations, the traditionalist bishop would have to stop being traditionalist.

I am deeply troubled by how the One Church Plan is being sold.  We are told that, if this plan passes, local congregations really will have to do nothing.  UM clergy will have their consciences protected.  How?  To stay with integrity in such a United Methodist Church, traditionalists will have to stop being traditionalist.  (Yes, I do recognize that this problem is of exactly the same nature as progressive UM clergy have had for years.  Effectively, they have had to support a position they find morally reprehensible.)

The Judicial Council response reveals furthermore the irreparable damage of deploying “not of one mind” language that has gotten us to this point. Let’s imagine that General Conference 2019 narrowly passes the One Church Plan.  Let’s say the vote is 51% for and 49% against, an entirely reasonable prospect.  Has General Conference spoken?  Yes, it has.  But wait!  Are we now of one mind?  Now, is it appropriate to exercise accountability?  “Not of one mind” is a Pandora’s Box of difficulties and says much more about us than we apparently realize.

The Judicial Council’s work compellingly shows that our denomination is in schism and has been for some years and if we really want to heal this schism, then (dare I say it?) we have to back up and try our best to answer basic questions.  What is it, actually, that unites United Methodists?  The work of 1968 and 1972 and 1988 is not finished, which leaves us open and gives credibility to some bizarre views on what constitutes “church.”  Consider this one, argued this month before the Judicial Council: “For us, the church is defined not by formal structures or doctrines or lines of authority.  It’s defined by connections between people…We hold such interpersonal connections in so high a regard that we understand them as the essence of the church.” (Emphasis added)

With all due respect to the person who made this claim, it represents much that is wrong with United Methodism. Certainly connections with people are crucially important, but if doctrines and formal structures don’t count, then the connections don’t matter.  If doctrines do not define church, then we don’t know our identity or mission. If we don’t know our identity and mission, we will never be able to agree on what constitutes appropriate or inappropriate behavior and we will never be able to exercise meaningful accountability.  Which leaves us always open to fatal mission drift and loss of identity.  We spin our wheels with all kinds of activity, but at the end of the day cannot really say for sure if any of it matters to anyone, especially to God.

Thank you, Judicial Council, for pressing us to recognize these problems.  Now, may General Conference do its work.  God help us.






Not of One Mind

Like many United Methodists (and others watching us), I have been trying to keep up with the details of the plans on offer to the 2019 General Conference.  As alternate proposals and modifications are advanced, the picture both clarifies and gets more complex and confusing.  As the King of Siam loved to say in “The King and I, “It’s a puzzlement.”  Except it’s far more serious.

I won’t go over ground already well gone over by others, and maybe they have also already commented on what I’m about to say, but, as I began to work through the plans, I was immediately stopped dead in my tracks.  The One Church Plan, which is the first the reader encounters, in its opening sentence, proposes to amend paragraph 105 of the Book of Discipline with these words: “We agree that we are not of one mind regarding human sexuality.”

With a little thought, this opening statement reveals itself as a stunner because it works on a volatile ambiguity.  If “we” refers to the opinions of individual delegates or the positions of caucus groups, then “we are not of one mind” is blindingly obvious and superficially persuasive.   But “we” also must include the General Conference vote as a whole.  “We” in this second sense is radically different than “we” in the first sense, a distinction that makes all the difference.  From the standpoint of General Conference decisions, individual opinions or group positions don’t ultimately matter.  What matters is the final vote.  That vote renders a decision.  That vote represents the mind of General Conference.

In principle and in fact, when General Conference decides a matter, then General Conference by definition has spoken with one mind.  It could not be otherwise.  A simple majority is all that is required for the lion’s share of votes taken at General Conference.  Regularly, delegates on the “losing” side are unhappy, disappointed, even angry, but no one starts yelling “We are not of one mind,” and calling for a “do over.” Imagine the scenarios if delegates did.  Of course, they can and do take Parliamentary steps to reconsider decisions or make other moves to modify them.  Such procedural moves are part of the Parliamentary process, designed to help a body function properly, not undermine its own decision-making function.  When the process is abused and manipulated, nobody wins.  Nothing good can come from it.

From a Parliamentary point of view, then, “we are not of one mind” is plainly false and should not be written into the Book of Discipline.  The outcome of enacting this falsehood has been a long, costly, arduous and ultimately inconclusive process.  I have read reference to members of the Commission on a Way Forward admitting, “No one’s mind was changed.”  Mutual understanding?  Yes?  New friendships?  Yes.  Deep prayer and honest conversation?  Yes.  (All valuable, to be sure.)  Movement on the question before them?  No.  Improving the likelihood of a decent and orderly GC 2019?  No.  Think of that  for a moment.

In effect, then, a group of delegates at GC 2016 managed to avoid one more round of agonistic but probably status quo votes by procedural sleight-of-hand that trades on the ambiguity of “We are not of one mind.”  Individual delegates clearly were and are not of one mind.  But General Conference not of one mind?  No.  I am stating an obvious Parliamentary fact.

Consider this irony.  The vote that set in motion the Council of Bishops’ formation of the Commission on a Way Forward and all that has transpired since GC 2016 was decided by only the slimmest of majorities.  I myself heard a bishop who is enthusiastically promoting the One Church Plan say so.  Think about that for a moment.  By the logic of “We are not of one mind,” then that vote should also have been questioned, etc., ad infinitum.

Think about the ramification of writing this statement into the Book of Discipline.  Any time a vote goes contrary to the way some bloc of delegates prefers, they can claim with good precedent, “We are not of one mind,” and call for an alternate process that buys them time for advocacy that might sway the subsequent vote.  It fairly begs to be used whenever a group of delegates deems it necessary.  Does this situation not look very similar to what is happening in the United States Congress?  It is to our shame.

I hope an amendment to the One Church Plan removes this troubling statement from paragraph 105.  But more importantly, I pray that we come to recognize how much “We are not of one mind…” tellingly (and again, ironically) diagnoses the disease of our body ecclesial.

On the Topic of Divine Speaking

I recently read a book that I’d like to commend: Mats Wahlberg, Revelation as Testimony: A Philosophical-Theological Study (Eerdmans, 2014).  Why?  United Methodists need to have serious dialogue about how we view scripture as a whole (and what principles of interpretation we use) rather than continuing to fight about whether the Bible says A, B or C about topics like homosexuality.  In other words, opponents need to expose and examine their assumptions about scripture to each other with the goal of understanding first, before trying to settle the argument.

Books like Revelation as Testimony help tremendously.  The author’s key claims are (1) testimony is a form of knowledge, and (2) the scriptures stand as divine testimony.  “God reveals by speaking and we acquire knowledge of God and divine things by believing what God says.” (2)  In very clear prose, he explains why he thinks these claim are true.

Before getting to some of his major points, a word about epistemology, or the philosophy concerning knowledge.  How do we know that we know what we think we know?  A huge question.  Philosophers generally identify the following as sources of knowledge.  First is perception.  I sit at the kitchen table looking at my laptop while I key in these words.  I immediately perceive a computer (without having to think it through to a conclusion) and I trust that my senses are working properly (they can be deceived, but generally, we trust our senses).  Second is memory.  I think about a conversation I had with Joni yesterday and memories come to mind.  (Again, memory can be faulty, but under normal conditions, we trust our memory beliefs, therefore we can say that we know what we remember.)  Next is inference or induction.  I want to determine what I know about the talks between Kim Jong-Un and President Trump.  I read two or three news articles from a variety of slants.  I work through logically to what I think are the best conclusions.  Finally, testimony also is widely, though not universally, regarded as a source of knowledge.  (See, for example, Robert Audi, Epistemology: A Contemporary Introduction.)

Now back to the book.  Wahlberg first criticizes what he calls the “manifestational” theory of revelation associated with a number of well known thinkers.  That is, God does not speak, but reveals God’s nature only through historical events or through transcendental experience.  Words may attend these experiences, but the words come from humans trying to make sense of the experience or event.  Wahlberg takes on the likes of Immanuel Kant, Friederich Schleiermacher and, more recently, Gordon Kaufman.  Their views, Wahlberg says, dismiss divine speaking such that we ultimately can know very little about God. Wahlberg has much to say about how and why he thinks their conclusions are weak.

Wahlberg then unpacks his view of testimony as knowledge.  Much of our knowledge comes to us via testimony.  What qualifies as testimony?  One example: when a teacher summarizes a bit of historical background on some major personality or set of events, the teacher is effectively testifying to us, the listeners, from what she knows.  We do not try to confirm independently everything the teacher claims.  The same with textbooks we use in class.  The content of the textbook is effectively the testimony of the author.

Second, Wahlberg uses Nicholas Wolterstorff’s work, Divine Discourse: Philosophical Reflections on the Claim that God Speaks, and his use of speech act theory to get at how God speaks through human means.  This part of the book is particularly important because it shows how one can hold to a propositional sense of divine revelation without lapsing into problems related to claims of inerrancy.  Wahlberg concludes that the scriptures contain propositional content that results from and rely on divine speech.  Many of us learned in seminary to be very wary about (no, frankly, we learned to dismiss pretty much out of hand) talk of propositional revelation.  Wahlberg is no fundamentalist.  He is, in fact, a Catholic philosopher/theologian making sophisticated, nuanced arguments.

This book is carefully and irenically written.  In addition to his substantive claims, he discusses the morally important principle of “doxastic responsibility.”  “Doxastic” is a term that refers to how we form knowledge beliefs (yes, it has connections to “__dox” in “orthodox).  All of us form beliefs about God’s speech and activity and we need to form those beliefs carefully and responsibly.

Now, why do I bother bringing up what seems like an annoying, abstract, academic argument?  Because I believe very strongly that theologically trained leaders of the church need to go back to school.  We need to return to questions that seem long-answered and unnecessary to revisit, but in fact, we do need to revisit them.

As I said, we need to get our basic assumptions about scripture out in the open for our opponents to examine.  If I have a “manifestational” view of revelation, I will read the texts as more or less exclusively human documents, as, at best, witnesses to divine revelation.  I will be aware of their diversity and their timebound characteristics.  If I believe the Bible is God’s Word, but I don’t really have a good way of understanding how divine and human speech work together in scripture, then I should be subject to the criticism that my view is simplistic and not fitting for good interpretation.  I need to explain why and how I think the Bible is God’s revelation.

Perhaps more than anything – and here I show my true colors – I wish for those of you who think we evangelicals and “conservatives” are no more than fundamentalist wolves in sheep’s clothing, that you would realize we actually have good, strong reasons to think as we do.  Our “high” view of scripture is not just mindless fideism, but carefully considered and compelling.

A lot of good work has been done in biblical studies as well as in philosophy of religion that supports an orthodox understanding of scripture and the Christian faith.  On the topic of revelation, in addition to the two books I have mentioned, I add Billy Abraham’s Crossing the Threshold of Divine Revelation, Colin Gunton’s A Brief Theology of Revelation, Alvin Plantinga’s Warranted Christian Belief, William Alston’s Perceiving God, and Caroline Franks Davis’ The Evidential Force of Religious Experience.  They are all scholars of the first rank.

I doubt that taking a step back to expose and examine our basic beliefs about scripture as a whole will change much in how votes go down at General Conference.  But I do believe that we could once again look at each other as Christian brothers and sisters who have carefully thought-out beliefs.  We might find some common ground, but if we don’t, then at least we can part from one another peaceably.


Misusing Fowler’s Faith Stages: An Object Lesson

James Fowler’s Stages of Faith has been a staple in certain seminary courses since the 1980s.  While subsequent scholarship has criticized and refined the theory, it continues to exercise wide impact.  Unfortunately it also has been misused, with dreadful results.

Fowler’s theory involves six stages, from childhood forms of faith (intuitive and mythic), to adolescent and emerging adult forms that call for moving from belief on the basis of external authority to critically considering, sorting and “owning” one’s faith.  In later stages (conjunctive and universalizing) generally more middle age or older folk become possessed of the deep mystery and are able both to hold firmly to their particular commitments and remain open – the virtue of epistemic humility –  to more expansive expressions of faith.   Each stage is generally associated with a certain segment of the life course, but these transitions or “conversions” are not automatic, nor tightly restricted to a particular chronological age.

Fowler’s stages 3 and 4 are of particular concern because so much of the misuse has happened here.  Stage 3 is labeled “synthetic-conventional” faith.  It is described as sincere but unreflective reliance on “what I was taught” by authority figures: parents, teachers, pastors, youth leaders.  If a person settles for conventional stage 3 faith (Fowler calls the settling”equilibrium”) it means that a person’s system of beliefs and values, though sincerely held, remains tacit, unexamined. (p. 161)  The growth challenge is to make the uncritically-accepted system of beliefs “the object of reflection.” (p. 162)

As a person becomes aware that she or he has never seriously reflected on the conventionally-held belief system, she or he is challenged to “leave home,” so to speak.  (Going off to college is both a literal and metaphorical leaving home, which is why the college years are understood to be so important.  Enlisting in the military is also a big leaving home.)  “Leaving home” provokes critical reflection and the opportunity for growth toward stage 4, an “individuative-reflective” faith, which leads to more adequate (critical) awareness of one’s beliefs and taking responsibility for refining them and making them truly one’s own. (p. 182)

Stage 4 faith, therefore, is considered a more mature version of faith than stage 3.  And precisely here the insidious, corrosive misuse of Fowler’s theory starts.  I would bet that almost all of us who received instruction on Fowler in mainline seminaries picked up the idea (whether we agreed or not) that traditional Christian doctrinal beliefs are “conventional,” suggesting that those who maintain traditional, orthodox beliefs are stuck in stage 3.  They have “foreclosed.”  They refuse to grow to a more mature faith.

The first mistake in this sincerely held, usually gently put, but still condescendingly delivered viewpoint is of the category kind.  Fowler’s theory is about psychological processes, not theological reflection per se.  (Fowler had his theological commitments, which I’ll get to momentarily.)  As James Loder pointed out and as Fowler himself said, this theory is about ego development.  It uses the word “faith” phenomenologically, not tied to any specific theological or religious viewpoint.  Everyone needs to move  from stage 3 synthetic-conventional to stage 4 individuative-reflective faith, not just traditional Christians.  Modern, mainline Protestant theological education is rife with the bias that somehow traditional, conservative, evangelical, orthodox students especially (solely?) need to do this work. There is an appropriate word for this prejudice, which I won’t use here, but anybody hanging around cattle knows what it is.  Worse, it is a terrible disservice to students, maybe even abusive.

Yes, traditional students need to do this reflective work toward stage 4 because everybody needs to do this work.  Linda Mercadante’s book on the spiritual-but-not-religious, mentioned in a previous post, provides examples.  She discovered a significant number of people who grew up in atheist or agnostic homes who, by Fowler’s theory, are classic examples of stage 3 faith. (Remember, “faith” does not have to be tied to religion.)  In my nearly twenty-five years of working with college students, faculty and staff, I have encountered many people “stuck in stage 3” and their “stuckness” had nothing to do with their theological viewpoints.

One particularly egregious scenario is of the student (or a college-educated person) who “took a class” in religion and “now knows” that the Bible is full of fairy tales and textual corruptions.  Or that the Council of Nicaea was little more than a political grudge match among bishops.  How did they come to this conclusion?  Perhaps a few on the basis of careful engagement with a range of ideas, but far more because the professor (or the book) said so, probably not overtly, but by means of suggestion and inference.  This person, now thinking that she or he is well-informed because of the class (or the book), has simply shifted allegiance to the new point of view on the basis of the new authority.  They have traded one version of “what I was taught” for another.

A second significant problem serves as an important object lesson for our United Methodist battles.  Because Stages of Faith is scientific and descriptive, it is generally understood as not suffering the problem of bias like traditional Christian doctrines supposedly do.  After all, Fowler’s work is based on thousands of hours of clinical research.  It is rigorously empirical, which purportedly gives it privileged epistemic status.  However, as one quickly realizes, even empirical work is based on theory, on background belief(s).  Fowler’s views were shaped by Immanuel Kant’s critiques.  (See Stages, p. 44.)  I won’t take the space here to detail Kant’s distinction between noumena and phenomena, but it bears directly on how many mainline Protestants, including Fowler, think about Christian doctrine.

Therefore, if you “buy” Fowler’s work uncritically, you are also “buying” his Kantian biases.  They predispose people to think of “faith” as a universal human phenomenon that is primary and all theological systems of “belief” as secondary constructions, subsequent to the experience of faith.  Yes, belief systems are important because we use them to “make meaning,” (a ubiquitous phrase, or is it an ubiquitous phrase?), but all belief systems stand in a dependent relation to “faith.”  This bias privileges “spirituality” over “religion” and downplays the epistemic value of religious dogma or doctrine.  Notice how Sharon Daloz Parks, Fowler’s famous PhD student and an enormously influential writer in higher education, characterizes “dogma” in her widely read Big Questions, Worthy Dreams

Serious reflection on Fowler’s faith stages theory should help us see both its value and its limits.  His theory instructs all of us regardless of our theological identity.  Anyone can be unthinkingly tied to a set of beliefs.  It is not the special problem of Christian traditionalists.

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