Christian Illiteracy and Christian Education

Posted on Jan 03, 2007 - 10:47 AM

[An address given to a plenary session of the General Assembly of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in October 1977. At the time I was Dean of the Phillips Graduate Seminary. I think the address is even more pertinent to the situation of the church today. Posted here 7/19/04.]

The assigned topic for this address is "A Theology of Christian Education", and it is supposed to be related to the general theme of our assembly, namely, Being Empowered to Love. Convinced as I am that this topic and this theme are instrinsically related, I am pleased to have the privilege of addressing this General Assembly of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) gathered in Kansas City.

As an educator in the context of the church it has certainly been my repeated task to face squarely a variety of questions and complaints by the people of the church concerning "Christian education". It is surely one of the most discussed fields in the life of the church, and we can safely acknowledge that providence has made it a timely and urgent question for us today. As we have witnessed decreasing membership, disinterested youth, and somnambulant services of the worship, many church folk have become aware that somehow the crisis in the church is related to Christian education. And I candidly admit that I too am one of those persuaded that the disarray in the church, its lack of focus, its discordant voices, its complacent captivity to cultural dispositions, its negligence, its clumsiness, its sloth—that all of this is related to some basic failures in Christian education.

In my judgment the church has fallen on ill-times because it has gradually but definitely become illiterate in the faith. Through an almost imperceptible succession of compromises the church seems to have lost its roots, its bearing, and its hope. Instead of a sprightliness grounded in a literate faith, we find a sluggishness, a recalcitrance, and a hard-heartedness bred and born in the darkness of illiteracy. And it is an illiteracy that infests the church at every level of its existence. Decisions collective and individual are regularly made with only the flimsiest sense of being truly enjoined by the faith. Instead they seem more nearly decisions evoked and rationalized from within some aspect, feature, or domain of our preferred cultural reference point.

But what more precisely do I mean when I speak of illiteracy in the faith? Just as illiteracy in general has to do with one's inability to read, write, and aptly speak, so too illiteracy in the faith has to do with one's inability to read, write, and speak aptly with respect to the faith. We are illiterate in relation to Holy Scripture in that we are quite unacquainted with the biblical literature, with the stories and larger narratives, and when we do read such literature it is often with the most wooden and superficial understanding. And when we have occasion explicitly to write and speak the language of faith, we stumble clumsily and ungrammatically. Worst of all, the 1anguage of faith has too often become hollow and empty sounds on our lips.

If it is the case that there is widespread illiteracy of this sort among the people of the church, then is it any wonder that confusion and failure of nerve characterize the lives of individual congregations and individual church members? Doesn't it, therefore, make some sense to say that from the standpoint of faith we are an uneducated church, that we are not grounded in and informed by the Gospel of Jesus Christ? To be sure, such judgments as these are generalizations, and there are no doubt significant exceptions scattered amongst the church. But I leave it to you individually to identify and celebrate the exceptions. I want to move from these general diagnostic statements to a consideration of why education is essential to the church.

No claim is being made here, however, to provide a complete picture of the rationale for the practices of education in the church. Learning is not a general phenomenon with an identical set of traits in every instance. Learning is various and multi-dimensional, and there are no simple recipes for teaching and learning successfully. But there are some elemental points to be pondered concerning Christian education, its rationale and purpose, and I dare to propose that a grasp of these points may represent a step toward correcting a dreadful malaise in the church.

First, I want to make a proposal concerning the basic nature and purpose of the church. There are, of course, numerous definitions that have been and can be advanced concerning the church. In proposing yet another, I invite discussion with differing conceptions, and I assume that such discussion is healthy for the church. It should make us more cognizant of how loose and varied are the meanings of the term "church." We are accustomed to use "church" to refer to a building or a congregation as an identifiable social unit or institution. And we are accustomed to speaking of membership in the church in terms quite similar to our talk of membership in voluntary organizations: service clubs, fraternities, country clubs, professional societies, political parties, etc. It is tempting to assimilate the logic of talk about the church to the logic of talk about other voluntary social organizations. When we do this, however, we inevitably miss something in the concept of church that seems crucial to me. Therefore, it requires a conscientious effort on our part to avoid the temptation and to remind ourselves that speaking of the church of Jesus Christ is not finally the characterization of one more social institution. Social institution it certainly is; it is at least the flesh and blood of voluntary human acts and organized activities. But the proper intentionality of those acts and activities is missed if we do not discern and speak of something else. To speak of this something else is to speak normatively and theologically.

As a summary formulation of the basic nature and purpose of the church, I propose the following: The church is that community of persons called into being by the Gospel of Jesus Christ to witness in word and deed to the living God for the benefit of the world.

Let us now unfold and elaborate this summary statement. Whatever else we might say about the community of persons who comprise the church, we must first say that they are called into being by the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Properly understood it is not a community that calls itself together by voluntary decisions to organize and cooperate. Certainly the tradition of the free church, and of Disciples of Christ in particular, has often yielded to the temptation to think of the church as first the community of persons who decide to join together. Too often the accent has fallen on these decisions and implied the normative view that the church is a self-determining democratic organization. This accent, however, misses the mark and fails to express the essential point that the church is called into existence by the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

The church is called forth, and the right initial response is the acknowledgement of the definiteness of this call as the call of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. There is an historical particularity to this call that cannot be removed. There is church because there was first the specific life of an individual person, and in that person it is revealed that God is Emmanuel, that God is with us and for us. The Gospel of Jesus Christ is first and last the story of this man Jesus as the revelation of God's eternal resolve and disposition towards humanity and the creation. It is the good news that the ultimate creative power is the power of the free and loving God who rejoices in the multitude of His creatures and seeks to bring them to fullness of life in response to His presence. The church is that community of persons who have heard the call of that Gospel.

From having heard the call of the Gospel, the church is incontestably given the task of witnessing in word and deed to the living God for the benefit of the world. The call to the church is the call to witness, and here we must understand that church and witness are inseparable. No Gospel call has been heard where the community is not obediently engaged in witnessing to the God who has called. The apparent community may be busy about many matters, but if that busyness is not a form of witness to the living God, then that community is not the church of Jesus Christ. Literally, all that the church does has its center of gravity in bearing witness to the living God.

The concept of witness, of Christian witness, has not been in clear focus in the recent 1ife of the church. Some disputes over so-called "evangelism" and so-called "social action" might have been avoided or more sharply and deeply grasped if we had been clearer about the centrality of witness to the life of the church. The news that is the Gospel is meant to be shared; it must be shared. But its being shared means confronting the world with the presence of the living God. The witness of the church can no more be restricted to the conversion of individual persons than it can be reduced to deeds in pursuit of justice and liberation.

It is in the elaboration of the concepts of the called church and the witnessing church that we find the essential foundation for education in the church. It is here that education emerges as a continuing obligation of the church. The call of God in the Gospel of Jesus Christ is not a simple event which can be precisely isolated and exhaustively described. The call is always mediated through creaturely bearers) and for most of us that means that we have heard the call indirectly through the witness of some previous or contemporary Christians. The call comes in and through other witnesses and in turn charges the hearers with the task of becoming witnesses to others—others both as contemporaries and as future possibilities.

This response to the call and its fulfillment in witness requires a literacy in the Gospel. The Gospel is not willy-nilly whatever people choose it to be. It is not just any presumably good or comforting news. But to be able to hear well and to witness well, the church must incessantly cultivate an understanding of the Gospel and the light it throws on the world. Whenever the church has neglected this cultivation, this education, it has itself become a wandering nomad, bedeviled by the mirages of passing fancies and fads.

This point can also be considered by noting some significant negations. In being called by the Gospel of Jesus Christ to witness in word and deed to the living God, the church is not being called by the various lords and reining powers of the world. The church is not called by a noble idea, a worthy cause, a self-evident principle, or a fetching configuration of satisfying feelings. It is not being called by presumed intimations of divine beneficence in general human experience, or by a sense of the holy, or by the depths of ultimate concern, or by the morality of world justice and liberation. In being
called by the Gospel and called to bear the Gospel, it will also find itself addressing and tending to many of these matters as well. But it will address and tend these matters because they are implied in hearing the Gospel and witnessing to the living God. To understand one's involvement otherwise is to risk losing the heart of the Gospel.

It is also important to note that neither the church nor the individual Christian is called to bear witness to itself or to him or herself. The object of the witness is the living God as known in the Gospel of Jesus Christ. And the witnessing of the community of faith is not self-advertising; it is not proud and presumptuous.

The church must candidly recognize that its bearing witness is a charge—an imperative or a behest—for which it is responsible. As a responsible witness—as an accountable witness—the church should properly acknowledge that its witness, in all its forms, is confronted by an Ineradicable Question, that is, by a question which cannot finally be answered and eradicated by the witness. This question is whether the witness of the church is an adequate and truthful witness to the living God. In its heart and mind the church knows that God has placed this question before it; indeed, it is the divine interrogation of the church. And the church must ceaselessly be disturbed and prompted by this question. It can never take for granted or assume that what it says and does in witness is adequate and truthful. Hence, it is a measure of how earnestly the church accepts its responsibility that it be continually engaged in a reflective self-test of its witness.

Every Christian and every generation of Christian must also be disturbed by this Ineradicable Question. Each must bear a responsible witness, which involves expressing the Gospel in word and deed for one's contemporaries. Sometimes we are misled into thinking that we can escape this responsibility, that we can thoughtlessly proceed on our way witnessing without disturbance or enjoying a private relationship to God. In fact, we are sometimes, laity and clergy alike, tempted to think that our witness need not undergo such interrogations--that questions only confuse. But this is a devilish temptation to be overcome. The education which the church requires in order to be responsibly ready to be the church is one that involves the full range of handing-on the past witness of faith, of listening to Holy Scripture as norm for the church, of appropriating the Gospel and conveying it in words and deeds which will be luminous and pertinent to this world, namely, this contemporary world in which we all live.

The educational activities and dimensions of the church spring most properly from this sense of responsibility to witness in word and deed to the living God. Let us look at what I mean by witness in word. Certainly we are necessarily a people of the word. It is through the word that we understand and that we have heard the story of Jesus Christ. But word is not here some magical formula to be thoughtlessly recited. Word well-wrought, well-thought, and well-spoken is an intellective exercise, at least. We must learn again to speak an intelligent word that expresses the Gospel and is illuminating to the world.

But to speak an articulate word of witness will involve a recovery of the Bible as Holy Scripture. We need to be re-educated to read the Bible as Holy Scripture. Certainly the actual church in our time is quite lost in reading and interpreting scripture. One explanation for the popularity of resurgent brands of fundamentalism is that they appear to take the Bible seriously. And many folk of more liberal persuasion wring their hands in dismay and virtually concede the Bible to the fundamentalists. This must cease. The Bible is the church's book, and we ought not to concede that the fundamentalist view is the most appropriate view of the Bible as Holy Scripture. But how can one contend against such misleading views when the community is so unacquainted with scripture itself?

The scripture is decisive for the church inasmuch as it contains the witness of the early Christians to the gospel of Jesus Christ. It is that source to which we must return again and again to test our understanding of the Gospel. Yet we must take what we hear and express it in ways that stir passions, enliven imaginations, and command earnest and intelligent grappling in the world today. In a longer discourse I might explore suggestions as to how this can be done. But for now it should be sufficient to emphasize that such a discourse would itself be an educational exercise: it would represent a striving to understand and hand-on the Gospel.

Is it not appalling that so many leaders of the church are so unprepared for such discussions and have no appetite for it? Whatever else an elder might be in the New Testament he is at least a teacher, and that means at least being one who can express the Gospel in word and track its bearing on the ways of everyday life. The elder is not a secularly successful businessman or professional who now extends or confers his secular respect on his churchly office.

Thus far it is obvious that I am emphasizing what some might call the content of the Gospel. And surely some would protest that we do not need more "head knowledge,” that we need instead to get our affections untied and reoriented. But this is a needless dispute. I do not reckon vain and empty chatter filled with Christian terms to be thereby expressive of Christian faith. Call it what it is: people speaking words that they no longer mean or understand. But don't call it "head knowledge"—as though we truly had many folk shifting about who understand the Gospel and yet stand unrepentant and hard-hearted. I should like to find a few such persons, but I hardly think they would be symptoms of past mistakes in Christian education, namely the mistake of knowing the content of the Gospel and yet not knowing how to live it. I suggest we let that whipping boy pass into the recesses of time and fancy; the real whipping boy is the one who thought everything was obvious and therefore thought little about it and thereby had little thoughtful to say and finally forgot what the question was.

The educational work of the church is, of course, not just the cultivation of an articulate understanding; it also involves the cultivation and encouragement of acts of obedience to the divine presence. We do learn through doing, through engaging in those deeds which seem commanded by the Gospel. Properly, word and deed cannot be separated in the living witness of the church. Yet we must acknowledge a condition in the church today which undoubtedly vitiates many of our ostensible educational endeavors; it is the condition of hypocrisy, of the lie, in which the actual life of the churchly group stands in contradiction to the apparent meaning of the words it uses in worship. Surely the language of faith has for many of our contemporaries been rendered empty and pointless by routine and mindless repetitions that have nothing to do with how the speakers actually live.

In contrast to this, the understanding, which we need to educate in the church, should express itself not only in articulate word but in intentional acts of obedience to God. Such intentional obedience is not the by-product of dumb passivity; it is the fruition of deliberation, discernment, and prayer. It is at this juncture, however, that some would request a discussion of the nuances of that hoary debate concerning the priorities of theory and practice. While I think much of that discussion in our day has been misleading, I will limit my remarks to two brief suggestions.

First, our actions are often what they are because our understanding is unduly constricted or mistaken, and hence enlarging, sharpening, and deepening the understanding does provide opportunity for newly conceived acts. Second, our actions may be occasions for learning, and hence we may not have fully grasped some behest of the Gospel until we have invested ourselves in specific courses of actions. Yet it is as false to claim that it is always better to act than to abstain or postpone, as it is to claim that we should never act until we have achieved complete clarity about why we are to act and the possible consequences of the act. But in repudiating these two extremes, it does seem timely to admit that the church today could scarcely be charged with the sin of neglecting duties and actions because it is unduly preoccupied with thoughtful clarification of the issues and the marshalling of sound arguments!

I hope it is not inappropriate to pause at this point and consider the prospects that are before us in the next few days. Who of us has not grimaced upon reading some of the resolutions for action that are coming before this assembly? Deep and complex questions being reduced to the simplicities of a resolution can be a chilling development. One may well wonder how an illiterate church could ever decide such matters when it is so unaccustomed to sustained reflection! In the days ahead we will hear many pronouncements, some arguments, the spewing of some hot air, and such should be no surprise considering the present state of the church. Certainly we should pray that our discussing, resolving, and voting will be educational for us all. It is a positive sign that we do gather in assembly for such discussion and such striving for a common mind, for this is a form of our witness to one another and to the world. But I urge us not to be misled by a vain sense of the significance of voting. And that vanity is a possibility for us both as we see our pet resolutions adopted and as we see them rejected. Our votes are not eschatological. They are fallible and corrigible. Yet all of our discussing and voting should challenge us to further inquiry and to actions which are wrought forth in the context of the firm conviction that God is finally Lord of creation and history and that He seeks our best thoughts and our most earnest commitments.

Returning now to the teleological point of my initial statement on the church, we must see that the witnessing of the church is for the benefit of the world. The world in this sense is our contemporary world and the future rising before it. We are not called to witness to some past world and to clutch it in our memories or fantasies as the beloved object. Instead it is this sprawling, buzzing, tempestuous, and confused contemporary world which is the context and focus of our witness. Hence, our education in the Gospel must have this world in view---which means that we must strive to understand this world better than it understands itself.

Let me now indicate some specific implications of the view developed thus far for the life of the church today. First, we must recover a sense of educational processes that accentuate learning the content of the Gospel and giving it intelligent expression for the world. The reign of fascination with techniques and gimmicks must cease, for they are repeatedly subject to the misuse of serving the lords of the worldly “interesting” and the “relevant,” wherein we expend all in getting attention but are mute and incompetent in conveying the Gospel.

Second, we need to recognize that doing theology is not a luxury for the few. Theology is done whenever someone speaks or acts in the context of witness. The question is not whether we do theology or whether each is a theologian. The question is whether the theology we do is an adequate and truthful representation of the Gospel for the world. To be literate in the faith is essential to being Christian. How can one be a Christian if one's life is not informed and shaped by the Gospel, and how can one be shaped and formed by a Gospel about which one is illiterate?

Third, we must recover a sense for the pastor as teacher and theologian for the community. It is not that he or she does it alone for the community or instead of the community. But it must be that at least he or she does it self-consciously, explicitly, and persistently in and with the community. There is literally no other task more important than this for the congregational pastor. Preaching, counseling, and social criticism will become empty exercises apart from a keen sense of being teacher and theologian, of being energetically engaged in striving for an adequate and truthful witness to the living God as known in the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Fourth, we need a massive effort to educate adults who are already in the institution called church and even serving as leaders of the church. Adults who abstain or refuse this engagement with the articulate witnessing of the' Gospel have simply broken with the church's basic call and mission. In short, we need to ground ourselves in the Gospel with an articulate understanding and committed life. To say this is but to call for a conversion of the institution called church that it might hear afresh the call of the Gospel and find itself responsibly involved in bearing witness to the world.

In conclusion, I want to emphasize that I am urging us to open our eyes and ears to the Gospel and to recover a sense of the priority of the Gospel's call. But in and with that recovered sense we are set on a process of witness, and it will often be the case that our words and deeds are confused and inadequate. We need each other to help us understand more clearly, more deeply, and more passionately how God lives among us as loving presence. In and with a renewed vigor in our articulated common life I trust it will also become and be evident that we are empowered to love God, our neighbor, and this world.


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