After Church – Limit Situations and Christian Education

This was written for a class, and sounds REALLY academic, but I think you’ll get what’s going on if you read a bit further.

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During my college years, I became increasingly inquisitive regarding the things I had been taught as a child in a purely evangelical Baptist environment. In college, obviously, one faces a diversity of believe that was, at fi rst, relatively shocking, but soon I had adjusted to this new environment. Plenty of philosophy courses honed my skills to argue, but also to respect the opinions of others even if we vehemently disagreed on a particular issue (In fact, I had frequent discussions with an atheist classmate of mine who was in the psychology department who also pursued a minor in philosophy. He never quite understood me, and neither did I understandhim, but we always had interesting discussions, for sure.) Returning to the community to which I had grown up, I realized that they were not quite as receptive to this material as I was.

I was working at the Merrimack Valley Christian Film Festival, an event constructed for the sole purpose of “saving” people in the traditional sense of salvation and the like (unfortunately, on its way out of active service). I had worked as a counsellor there since my fi rst years in high school, and had met many like-minded persons there who all shared a common faith. We were not of the same denomination, quite obviously, but generally we agreed on most theological issues (otherwise, this festival makes no sense whatsoever). My mother was also a counsellor there, and she witnessed my particular “coded situation”, in the vein of Paulo Freire’s definition, fi rst hand. One day, in discussion with a group of counselors, I began to discuss the idea of evolution as a useful aid for scienti c research. In my mind, whether or not evolution was in fact how human beings came into existence, it was not to be shunned; rather, it was simply a methodology for obtaining certain kinds of knowledge.

And here's the part where I use Marxist pedagogical methodologies! Yay!

And here’s the part where I use Marxist pedagogical methodologies! Yay!

Duh, science works, right? All the technology we see around us and that we use comes from it. To dismiss it outright in those areas seems foolish – you know, like those people who are against vaccines because they think it causes autism. For the record: I am a creationist. Still, I don’t see a problem with the methodology of evolution or anything; given a purely materialistic world, it’s a perfectly logical conclusion. Given my inquisitiveness that I was taught as a child by my parents, to discuss this would not be problematic; rather, I was encouraged to explore ideas contrary to my own beliefs.

To my surprise, suddenly I was under attack by people who had totally missed the point of my statement. There was one person who had become physically uncomfortable and began berating me for even bringing up evolution at all, citing the depth of space dust on the moon as an apparent proof against evolutionary theory in its entirety. As I was young at the time (about nineteen) my age was also in question; they were treating me as a child who simply “didn’t know any better”. To be treated that way in front of my mother was even worse, whose son was being attacked by the rest of the community for the exact same principles she taught me. At that point, I just had to stop talking about it while the situation played itself out for fear of rejection or anger from the other participants. We still had work to do, of course, but I was attempting to process this experience at the same time – a very unenviable situation. Later, in the parking lot of the theatre, I had time to cope with what happened, but it was a signi cantly intense experience to be entirely comfortable and friendly with fellow Christians one moment to an all-out assault the next. What, exactly, had happened?

Probably all the moon dust.

Probably all the moon dust.

Obviously, I crossed some line I did not even know was there. Some subjects simply should remain “hush-hush” and not discussed. I had encountered a limit situation, albeit
unintentionally. They had created an elite group – namely, Christian “adults” – who utilized their particular beliefs in a path of domination towards the “other”, namely myself. No dialogue was allowed or necessary. In Freire’s words: “How can I dialogue if I regard myself as a case apart from others – mere ‘its’ in whom I cannot recognize other ‘I’s How can I dialogue if I consider myself a member of the in-group of ‘pure’ men, the owners of all truth and knowledge, for whom all non-members are ‘these people’ or ‘the great unwashed’?”

In other words, I was not a fellow participant in the “naming” of the world or the act of creation, but simply an “other” to the “group”. They view history as a static entity, incapable of change, set forth by God “in the beginning” – thus, any contribution to knowledge from a source other than Scripture is irrelevant or blasphemous. To grasp the guaranteed space of reality is the goal of any true Christian in this conception.

Several generative themes develop out of this description of the coded situation ( Obviously, my own investigations into this set of generative themes does not involve a community e ffort in an environment of “mutual understanding and trust” or a group of investigators who share “considerations”, as Freire would recommend, so this will be decided one-sided as to how I perceive the limit situation, and subsequently its coded formulation.)

At first glance, it would appear that censorship of certain subjects is the true theme, yet this fails to understand the position of the community towards issues of knowledge. Firstly, the origin of a belief determines its value. The perception of science as a human-based institution results in the dismissal of science as a whole; however, this dismissal continues into all areas of human knowledge whatsoever. Scripture is the pre-de ned ontological reality, and any human investigation that does not accord with Scripture is inherently wrong – this, of course, removes historical examination of the Bible into any consideration, seeing it as sinful tampering with divine documentation. A divine reality, speci cally that of Christianity, has impressed itself upon them so vividly and intensely that the orthodox Christian doctrines are, in truth, the only correct way of perceiving reality (I agree with them in spirit, but not in their content nor response).

This part of their world-view is the “essential” codifi cation, as it determines the rest of their actions and ideas, as well as the beginning of a generative fan which unfolds into new themes. The code is abstract doctrine and theology relating to the sanctity and primacy of orthodox evangelical Baptist Christianity to any perceived opposition. Secondly, this ontology requires a natural hostility to anything not within the Christian tradition or Scripture, notably a particular perception of science. In this community, science is an alternate world-view, rather than a empirical methodology designed for the study of the natural world. Evolution, no longer a theory, becomes an alternative to Christian belief. God created the world through purely supernatural means, and the scientifi c method can only be used within that framework.

This way of thinking, furthermore, re ects their praxis. This doctrine re ects the needs of the community and their ultimate concern for right belief, which is essential for being
a Christian in their naming of the world. Thus, when “witnessing” to others about Jesus Christ, they portray a conflict between two world views, the one the person currently holds (which is, inevitably, wrong) and that of Christianity, defi ned by this community. Conversion progresses from one metaphysical framework – whatever it may be – to another. As well, the need for literal Bible interpretation creates a common belief in the immanent nature of the “End Times” as described in Revelation. Cognizance of the short time left for evangelizing and development of Christianity means a certain urgency exists in their e fforts towards salvation for as many as possible. For those who are not “saved” by belief in Jesus Christ, a Christian must reach out to them or else their fate may be eternal damnation (I am not intending to describe them negatively; I am simply outlining the facts of the case. It feels as if, when I describe these, I am making a moral judgement, but I do not want to give that impression. This is truly what they believe, and having been in this cultural environment for so long, Freire’s methodology exposes the need for this kind of belief in this community, however much it prevents their own human flourishing)

These are the culmination of many interactive generative themes within the epoch of the “rise of the religious right” (I refer to them within this political category because that stereotype actually best reflects their theology; I am not interested in their political positions.), so called. This is why the agreement of the community is invaluable to their e fforts – if there is no agreement on doctrine, how can their missionary and evangelical goals work without such a framework? They do not “exclude” persons; rather, they gather around a common belief in certain doctrines, as many church communities have for centuries. Thus, their educational processes teach church members the basic doctrines and send them into missionary work, whether at home or abroad.

It is clear that the beliefs of a community are essential in religious education. Religious education, in eff ect, must address the needs of the community as perceived in their limit situations. In that sense, pedagogy ful lls a need of the Church, a tool in the tool box – in this case, a simple and strict education works best for them. One must take care to step lightly on issues that could very well cause o ense. Teaching within this context myself, I know what limits exist and how to work around them. That, however, is a problem; it is obvious that religious education only means exactly one thing within this context, and transgressive “limit acts” such as the one described above inevitably lead to outcast status. This environment limits the  theology of the individual, creating a caste of pariahs within a church environment, afraid to speak up but also afraid to leave their community. This is a problem with many Christian traditions outside academia to the point where we have meetings and classes where possibly “heretical” beliefs must be discussed, outside of the very church context where such problems should be confronted! How does one introduce ideas exterior to their thought system, relevant to their concerns, without causing total pandemonium (If, as Freire says, such a process takes time, energy, and commitment, then this particular situation certainly would be a slow burn.)

The rst step is to change their interpretation of Scripture towards the idea of revelation and prophecy. Certainly, they believe revelation is set in stone; prophecy, for them, is primarily a prediction of future events. If Freire’s methodology holds true, then this static conception of reality must be transgressed in some measure, albeit with “baby steps” (What About Bob reference for the win!). Brueggemann’s idea of the prophetic word is essential here – it is the realignment of theology from completely static to the possibility of new revelation. The word of the prophet, according to Brueggemann, “…is something immediate, intrusive, and surprising. It is not normative. It is not known in advance. It is a way of knowledge that is not known until it is uttered. When it is uttered, its function may be to break the Torah, to challenge the consensus, to practice criticism on that which, until now, has been beyond criticism.”

Though continuity and tradition may be constitutive elements of religious education, a truly “alive” theology cannot limit the power of the same God who they (as do I) declare as omnipotent, omniscient, and omnipresent in a strong theology. One does not want to change their theology, but to give them a space wherein persons can think diff erently for a moment, to step outside their situation and objectify their surroundings, examine their decisions, and reflect. To introduce prophecy as transgressive as well as predictive gives them a liminal space to discuss such possibilities without removing the core of their beliefs. In addition, such a space allows the interaction of other elds as possible sources for discovery and  application within the Christian Church. The presentation of this idea must be amenable to the previously listed doctrines, simply adding this conception of prophecy to what already lies in the text – this will be incredibly diffcult to do e ectively without being overly transgressive – simply put, it is a balancing act between extreme orthodoxy of a community and possible heresy of an individual.

Such an attempt was made nearly one hundred years ago by William James. James, a Protestant himself, worked towards a commonality between various religious traditions through religious experience. His famous series of lectures, The Varieties of Religious Experience, was crafted speci cally against overly abstract and idealistic conceptions of God by arming the primacy of the individual’s relation to the divine. This, for James, was the key element of religion. This worked to create a space where individual experience, not community doctrine, could be discussed with no repercussions to his predominantly Protestant audience. The creation of a space for individual theologies is essential – after all, we evangelicals profess a belief in a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, yet act as if doctrine overrides such a relationship.

Thus, we have two possible methodologies: a reinterpretation of the prophetic model to include new revelation, and rede nition of the primary elements of religion.  Both methods strive towards the exact same goal – bridging the gap between the theology of the individual and the community. By addressing one generative theme and breaking new ideas into the limit situation, new generative themes incorporating these pedagogical methodologies will arise. To respect both the individual and the community is to act in a liberative sense of love, allowing freer creativity and removing any sense of perceived “oppression” to certain persons in the community while still maintaining a sound, Scripturally based theology. As 2 Timothy 3 says:

16 All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; 17 so that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work.

But it’s not good for beating people down for being inquisitive, that’s for sure!

About Zachery Oliver

Zachery Oliver, MTS, is the lead writer for Theology Gaming, a blog focused on the integration of games and theological issues. He can be reached at viewtifulzfo at gmail dot com or on Theology Gaming’s Facebook Page.