Saturday, October 27, 2007

A time to tear down, and a time to build up

Some years ago, I knew a woman who had taken a course in pastoral counselling at a local seminary. The course was a syncretistic blend of Roman Catholic theology and Jungian psychotherapy. She had to go undergo psychotherapy sessions as part of the program.

When I met her, she was a mess. Maybe she was emotionally fragile before she took the course — I don't know. But my impression was, her therapists had taken her psyche apart and failed to put it back together again.

Sometimes I think seminaries do the same thing to their students.

You apply to a seminary innocently expecting to be equipped for pastoral ministry. Instead, you are introduced to the modern "science" of critical scholarship, which takes scripture apart, piece by piece. (All science uses this process of breaking a thing apart into its constituent pieces to try to understand it.)

You enter seminary with a heart overflowing with faith and devotion; you exit seminary wondering if you can trust anything the Bible says on any topic. And voila! — here's your degree — you've graduated into pastoral ministry!

The experience isn't unique to seminarians, of course. University studies undermine the faith of many young Christians. Let me quote a post by Avdat, who shared this gem from Walter Brueggemann:
Walter Brueggemann would give a rather cheeky talk about how one's changing view of scripture parallels one's changing view of the family of origin:
  1. "The Bible is the Word of God." This is what we say when we're young and our knowledge of the scriptures is limited to what we learned in Sunday School.

    This statement is not unlike saying, "I have a normal family." It's a statement of love, respect and great naivete.

  2. "The Bible is a mess of contradictions, myths and legends." This is what we say after we take a religion class in college. Or, after we're put through the meat grinder of Biblical studies in a mainline seminary.

    It's not unlike saying, "My family is a dysfunctional mess, and I'm not coming home for Christmas!" The latter statement, like the former, is the product of some distance and new, third-party perspective, the therapist substituting for the professor. Oh yes, and there's anger in both statements.

  3. "But they're still my family." After a while you own them again as your own. You don't pretend that you haven't learned that your father is an alcoholic and your mother is co-dependent, but they're yours, and you still love them, warts and all.

    And if we can say, "It's still the Word of God" (two creation stories and all), then we've made the parallel and necessary third move.
Brueggemann admitted that seminaries are a lot better at moving people from stage one to stage two than they are from stage two to stage three.
Brueggemann's other way of putting this is to speak of a cycle of (1) Orientation; (2) Disorientation; and (3) New Orientation.1 In time, the "new" orientation will suffer disorientation in its turn.

It's a rather cynical analysis, I suppose, but how else would one grow? You can't make progress while keeping everything the same. It is to have one's cake and eat it, too. Thus remaining innocent (ignorant?) isn't an option. God has a way of shaking us out of our complacency, however disturbing we may find the process.

Not so long ago, I left a comment on a blog in which I applied this paradigm to evangelicals and liberals.
I have had some experience in both liberal and evangelical churches. The evangelicals have a blinkered perspective; they duck the hard questions. But the liberal pastors are very, very confused, which of course filters down to their parishioners!

I am fond of Brueggemann's notion that believers pass through a cycle of orientation / disorientation / new orientation. Evangelicals seem to me to be stuck at the "orientation" stage — they need to go on a voyage of discovery, have their world rocked a bit. But many liberals are stuck at the disorientation stage.
They're stuck there because that's where liberal seminaries leave their pastors.

I submit that all seminaries should attend to Ecclesiastes 3:3. Evangelicals need to understand that there is a time to tear down, in good scientific fashion. A time for analysis ("the abstract separation of a whole into its constituent parts for study").

But all scholars and professors need to understand that there is also a time to build up. A time for synthesis ("the combination of ideas into a complex whole").

Indeed, the building up is the most important part — the goal of the whole undertaking. If our seminaries tear the Bible apart and fail to put it back together again, they do pastors — and the Church — a grave disservice.

I've been through this process of disorientation myself. In some ways, I feel as if I'm only now entering the "new orientation" phase. Hence the title of this blog:  Emerging From Babel.


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1This is the outline Brueggemann utilizes in his survey of the Psalms.

6 comments:

Steve Martin said...

Thanks Stephen. This post articulated very well some of my own thinking (which was maybe not that sharp) - and thus helped me focus it better. I think in some ways I'm in all three stages - orientation, disorentation, and re-orientation - all at once.

For those of us in the evangelical church that have looked at the issue of biblical criticism, it is important to package the 2nd and 3rd stages together for those stuck in stage 1, or at least provide guidance on what that third stage might look like. As well, is some ways, it may not even be important to take everyone past stage one.

Anyways, thanks for the post.

James F. McGrath said...

Thanks for this fantastic post! Rather than repeat points I agree on, let me just say that this is perhaps one reason why historical critical perspectives and other relevant academic information generally gets bottlenecked and stops at the pastoral level and doesn't get any further - they're rarely told what to do with it, how to integrate it into their spirituality, and how to live in light of this information and not merely in spite of it.

nebcanuck said...

Approaching everything from a critical perspective is important; Approaching everything as if it's going to let us down isn't. I think the cycle captures that well. There'll be times that you realize you were naive. But there should also be the continued realization that there is hope for the future, and that the faith is still worth loving, even though it's different than we initially presumed it to be.

But, for the record, the cycle doesn't always necessitate that you change conclusions about the situation. Take my family for example. Statement 1: I have a normal family. Disillusionment: Parents fighting/divorcing. Family not normal. Next conclusion: Oh wait. That is (perhaps sadly) normal.

The people are still lovable, and the statement is still the same, even though the understanding of the statement is not. I think that Biblically, this can often be the mind's pattern!

Stephen (aka Q) said...

Steve:
I think in some ways I'm in all three stages - orientation, disorentation, and re-orientation - all at once.

That's an interesting observation. If I define "orientation" as that first burst of supremely confident, entirely orthodox faith, that's long gone for me. But I've been straddling the fence between disorientation and new orientation for some years now.

Perhaps "new orientation" is always held provisionally: with a certain reservation (hedging your bets) that didn't apply to "orientation".

It may not even be important to take everyone past stage one.

That's an interesting observation, too. I concede that pastors don't need to make "disorientation" a goal of their ministries! Disorientation happens spontaneously for a great many people. If others never experience it, I rather envy them.

But I think it is a legitimate goal for professors. People who aspire to church leadership need to get past the "orientation" phase to be effective pastors. I expect I'll be touching on that in another post in the near future.

I should also mention that we're blurring two sources of disorientation together in this discussion. There's the disorientation that comes from scholarship, which is essentially intellectual in origin. And there's the disorientation that comes from "the school of hard knocks" — real life experiences that spiral you into doubt in a way you never expected.

Scholars and professors primarily occupy the first field; pastors, the second. Although they overlap, of course.

James:
Historical critical perspectives and other relevant academic information generally gets bottlenecked and stops at the pastoral level and doesn't get any further - they're rarely told what to do with it, how to integrate it into their spirituality.

I realize this issue is particularly relevant to you, since you are a professor. I'm glad you didn't take offence at it.

I know at least one of my readers has really struggled with this issue: finding that a focus on "objective" scholarship stands in uneasy tension with devotion to Christ. And yet the individual feels compelled to investigate these questions.

Perhaps you can post on this topic. If you can share a few thoughts explaining how higher criticism can actually be integrated with our spirituality, that would be very helpful.

nebcanuck:
The cycle doesn't always necessitate that you change conclusions. … The people are still lovable, and the statement is still the same, even though the understanding of the statement is not. I think that Biblically, this can often be the mind's pattern!

I admire the ongoing confidence of your faith. I think, in fact, you're describing "new orientation". It isn't supposed to be a phase of crippling doubt, bitterness and disillusionment. It's supposed to be a return to faith, albeit a somewhat chastened and wiser faith than the naive faith of "orientation".

New orientation still looks toward God, revealed in the face of Christ. But we "look" from a different vantage point. I think that's what you're describing: "the statement is still the same, even though the understanding of the statement is not."

Mind you, for some of us the disorientation goes deeper than that. But I think you understand and accept that. And so do I: it isn't my goal that everyone should come out at the same place.

Jamie said...

The idea of three stages really resonates with me, but my experience is a little different. It was a secular university that put me through the disorientation stage, but since I'd already gotten totally disoriented, being in seminary now is like a breath of fresh air. It's a convalescence of sorts. So in my case, seminary is not a time of disorientation like you described.

On the other hand, I get the impression that for many of my fellow students, seminary is (or will be) a time of disorientation. Well, maybe not disorientation exactly, but at least disillusionment. I think this might be precisely because they haven't already been disoriented.

For this reason, I'm thankful that I arrived at the disorientation stage before coming to seminary, because it is helping me to appreciate seminary in a way that I wouldn't have otherwise. My experience is better and happier, I think, than for some other students.

(Or maybe this is just an idiosyncratic perspective. Could be!)

Stephen (aka Q) said...

Jamie:
I can certainly attest that you had been wrestling with these issues for a long time before you entered seminary. And I can tell that you've grown more comfortable with some of the ideas that initially seemed too far out there for your liking.

I'm glad you're experiencing seminary as a kind of convalescence. No one enjoys the disorientation phase, even if it's a necessary part of the growth process.