Review: Ecologies of Faith in a Digital Age

Ecologies

Ecologies of Faith in a Digital AgeStephen D. Lowe and Mary E. Lowe. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2018.

Summary: Proposes an ecological model of faith formation and the possibility of creating this kind of spiritual ecology in online educational settings.

It was in a college biology course that I was first introduced to the reality of ecosystems. My biology prof wisely told us to select a patch of nature and to take time to observe all that was going on–from the soil and the creatures that lived in it to the vegetation, shrubs, trees, to insects, animals, and birds. I never thought before of how these were not disparate elements but interdependent on each other to flourish.

Stephen and Mary Lowe propose in this book an ecological model of growth for human beings consisting of six elements: physical, intellectual, emotional, social, moral, and spiritual ecologies. The first part of the book develops this ecological motif in scripture, particularly in the parables and Paul’s image of the body of Christ. The authors argue that this is possible not only in shared physical communities but that spiritual ecological communities may form online as well and contribute substantively to each other’s growth.

They especially engage the criticism that online community is a weakened form of mediated presence. They note that the doctrine of the communion of saints and the bonds of the Holy Spirit are not limited by distance and share examples from thoughtful online discussions eliciting more than what people would say in a classroom to compassionate support when difficult circumstances are shared with a group on Facebook. Online connections serve as a form of social capital, as do in-person connections, and sometimes these intersect. Instead of creating autonomous, isolated learners, online technologies foster connected, collaborate learning and growth. The Lowes also note how this is not new to our day. The Apostle Paul uses the mediated communication of letters, read by emissaries as a way to be absent in body but present in spirit to churches in different locations. They also note the power of reciprocal influence in social networks, especially as the diversity of those networks increase (diverse natural ecosystems tend to be far more robust).

The final part of the book focuses more on the nature of connectedness, looking at our connetions with Christ (syn Christo), with each other (synkoinonos) and the “one anothering” that runs through the New Testament. They propose the idea of ecological or contagious sanctification with examples of leaven and root and branch systems used in scripture.

Finally they propose a series of propositions for thinking ecologically about spiritual growth:

  1. God created a universe that exists and functions as a cosmic ecosystem.
  2. The earth exists within a larger cosmic ecology and operates by ecological laws.
  3. Natural growth follows ecological laws and teaches us that everything grows through ecological interconnections and organic interactions in a mutualistic relationship of interdependence.
  4. Ecological laws that govern natural growth operate similarly in the spiritual realm.
  5. Christians have a spiritual connection to Christ and other Christians, which forms a spiritual ecology.
  6. The spiritual connections we have with other Christians create opportunity for reciprocal exchanges of spiritual nutrients.
  7. The spiritual ecology created by Christ through the Spirit is unbounded by time and space, enabling Christians to enjoy the benefits of this reality at any time and in any place, whether in person or online.
  8. Christians who share a connection to Christ through the Spirit receive an imputed holiness that makes them mutually contagious and provides us with the ability to spread our contagion in online ecologies of learning (pp. 211-222).

This last point seems to engage in theological imprecision. Scripture speaks of the righteousness of Christ being imputed to the believer, but not holiness, a progressive work of the Holy Spirit in transforming our lives. I also question how we can spread something imputed by God. We can only point others to the one who imputes righteousness through Christ. That said, Christians may certainly influence one another to endeavor, with the Spirit’s help, to live holy lives.

I also thought that this book tries to do two things and does one reasonably well, and one less well. The book makes a good case for an ecology of spiritual growth, for the ways we are interdependent upon one another, whether together, or separated by space and time, in fostering each other’s growth. This book thus makes a good case for online community and its power to contribute to our growth in Christ.

What the book does less well is describe how this may be done well, as well as dealing with the dysfunctional aspects of online media. Just as good gardeners work with the ecology of places in choices and arrangement and cultivation of plants, it seems that those who curate online spaces likewise can do things either to foster or inhibit spiritual growth in those spaces. It would have been very helpful for these educators to give more specifics, and not just anecdotes, of how they translated their theory into practice.

Good gardeners often plant in groupings rather than single plants. Plants thrive together.  The Lowes help us see that the same is true for Christians–we grow better together, and together can include online forms of togetherness. These can be substantive, and formative. Hopefully this work will contribute to the development of good practices that foster such outcomes.

 

Would the Apostle Paul Have Written a Blog?

blogging-blur-communication-261662I’m working out some ideas here, so I’d love to hear what others think about this. I recently was appointed the director of a national effort of the collegiate ministry I work with that we describe as a “digital first” effort to encourage and engage aspiring scholars who want to link their faith and academic life. It has me thinking about the place of online media in forming communities around similar interests; in this case around faithful Christian presence in the university world and what that looks like.

Much has been made of the movement of people from “on-the-ground” communities in particular places to online, or what some would call, virtual communities. Many think these online communities are poor substitutes for “on the ground” community, which for some is real community. Church attendance dwindling? Blame it on the internet. That sort of thing. Inevitably, online forms are opposed to “on the ground” forms, and labelled inferior.

A book I’ve been reading recently, Ecologies of Faith in a Digital Age has me re-examining assumptions. One of the most startling insights for me came from their attention to the letters of the Apostle Paul. Paul, like all of us, could only be in one place at a time. Over the course of his life, his travels took him from modern day Syria through Asia Minor and Greece, to Rome, and perhaps onward to Spain. He wrote to groups of believers where he had started churches (in Galatia, Corinth, Ephesus, Thesalonica, and Philippi, and to groups he had never visited (in Colossae and Rome). Twenty-eight percent of the New Testament consists of Paul’s letters and he wasn’t the only letter writer! What is striking is that Paul both seeks to communicate spiritual truth and instruction with those he is not with, but also assumes deep friendships and collaboration. He describes the Philippians as “partners with” him (synkoinonia) and the Romans as people he “longs to see.”

I wonder if Paul would have been a blogger today. Or would he have used podcasts to stay in touch with and instruct those he was away from for whom he cared? Maybe they would have used video conferencing or Facebook groups (I’m not sure he would have used Twitter–have you seen some of his sentences, particularly in Greek!). Then Paul would come visit, or perhaps gather leaders from many places at a single location for a conference

I wonder if a better way to think about these things is to see face to face and remote communication as complementary means of sustaining community and maintaining the values and mission we are engaged in together. Rather than either-or, there is a both-and engagement that is rich and substantive and two-way or even networked, whether we are together or not.

There are educators I know who have taught both in the classroom and online, and often have found the online interactions superior in terms of thoughtfulness of responses, and the engagement of quieter students who may not speak up in classes. Much hinges in how you set up what the book I mentioned earlier calls the “ecology” of a given context. While social media is justly vilified for echo chambers, bullying, and toxic discourse, I’ve also seen online contexts where differing perspectives are aired with both candor and mutual respect, and where people extend genuine and deep care for each other on and offline.

Finally, I’m struck that what makes this work, for Paul, and for us, is genuine affection and deep regard, even love. for those one is interacting remotely with. I’ve received many warm and thoughtful online messages. I remember those messages when I see the people who have written them, and it strengthens the bonds we share.

It is true that all forms of communication with those remote from us cannot easily convey all that we would be able to express verbally and non-verbally face to face. Actually, it makes me more intentional, more thoughtful. It makes me think and work harder, and read and listen more carefully. To write a response, particularly if it is not a tweet, requires more deliberation than off-the-cuff statements.

Yes, my hunch is that Paul would have written a blog. What do you think?

Review: Campus Life

campus life

Campus Life: In Search of CommunityEdited by Drew W. Moser and Todd C. Ream, Foreword by David Brooks. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2019.

Summary: An expanded version of a 1990 Carnegie Foundation report on the basis for community on college campuses, with contributions from pairs of academic and student development leaders at six Christian universities.

Ernest Boyer, from the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, published several important reports roughly thirty years ago on higher education. Perhaps one of the most profound of these that expressed a concern for the soul of the American university was Campus Life: In Search of Community. Out of his research findings he elaborated six principles that characterize flourishing learning communities on campus:

  1. Purposeful community: where students are intellectually engaged and where academic and co-curricular aspects are integrated.
  2. Open community: a place where freedom of thought and expression coupled with an awareness of the power of words to heal or hurt, a “sacred trust.”
  3. A just community: where dignity, equality, and equity are affirmed and practiced in bridging widening gaps between rich and poor.
  4. A disciplined community: where university governance protects the common good. Boyer advocated for clear codes of conduct developed by the community.
  5. A caring community: places where every student is supported, and where there is opportunity for engagement across generations.
  6. A celebrative community: a place held together by more than complaints about food or parking, but by remembering and celebrating traditions, including the traditions and contributions of its diverse student population.

Many of us who work around universities would concur that this still serves as an outstanding vision for and description of healthy university communities, and an agenda worth pursuing by all those who are stakeholders in an academic community. Thankfully, we don’t have to search online or in libraries for copies of this report. It has now been reprinted as part of an updated and expanded version, directed particularly for those working in the Christian college context but relevant as well, for both student life and academic professionals more widely.

The update includes six chapters, each co-written by a student life and an academic leader from the same Christian college. These parallel Boyer’s six principles, updated and contextualized to Christian colleges, and framed by a prologue by the editors on the search for renewal, and an epilogue, describing the challenging work of walking the “narrow ridge” of Christian calling and academic excellence.

A few standout ideas:

  • In the chapter on “open community” the tension of academic freedom and Christian orthodoxy was acknowledge. The writers proposed a distinction between “core beliefs that the college affirms and must be shared by educators and “privileged beliefs” affirmed by the college, but on which educators may disagree while being supportive of the college. They also acknowledge neutral beliefs on which the college has no stance. It would seem that clarity on which is which prior to faculty hiring is key.
  • Under “just community” the writers talked about the importance in seeking diverse, multicultural communities that this cannot be an instance of “you are welcome, but don’t move the furniture.”
  • The chapter on “caring community” had what I thought a helpful discussion of faculty and staff awareness of student health, and a constructive section on what happens when uncaring moments occur on campus.
  • On “celebrative  community,” there was encouragement both to learn from institutional history and tradition, and to developing celebrations that reflect the current student body.

So why is David Brooks, The New York Times columnist writing a foreword for this book? In addition to affirming the communal values outlined in Boyer’s original report and their elaboration by these higher education leaders, Brooks believes Christian colleges uniquely help students flourish in the committed life. He comments:

“When I go to Christian colleges, the students there strike me as especially adept at making commitments–sometimes too adept; they want to make all their commitments by age twenty-two. But they know how to commit, and they’ve been taught how to think about commitments” (p. xii).

This contrasts with the “expressive individualism” Brooks observes in the wider culture and he attributes the difference to the formative communities he sees at Christian campuses where he has spoken.

Whether one accepts the Christian premises of the contributors in this expanded edition, Boyer’s six principles of community remain a challenge for all higher educators. These principles also provide a bridge for Christians working in public higher education to connect with what may be shared aspirations among student life and academic leaders. When Christians affirm purposeful and integrated learning, open and civil engagement, commitments to justice and equity in the university, to a disciplined yet caring community, and to sharing in and contributing to the celebrations of university life, they not only contribute to the communal health of their institutions, but they bear witness to the Christian distinctives that have helped shape flourishing institutions throughout history.

________________________________

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: The Irresistible Community

Irresistable CommunityThe Irresistible CommunityBill Donahue. Grand Rapids, Baker Books, 2015.

Summary: Looking at the upper room narratives, Donahue explores how Jesus created community through the table, the towel, and the truth.

As I sat down to write this review, I found my fingers stumbling over the correct spelling of “irresistible”. Then I found myself stumbling over the concept. Was the community Jesus formed in the upper room truly irresistible? I don’t think Judas would have thought so. Frankly, I think this title is a bit of publishing hyperbole. What I do think Donahue has done is describe three marks of a community that changes lives under the leadership of Jesus, and this is in fact an important contribution to the life of our churches and other places where Christians gather and attempt to be “communities”.

The first of these marks is that they are communities that welcome all to Jesus’s table. This involves practicing good table manners from welcoming, to seeing and being the truth, to establishing trust, forgiving, and settling for progress rather than insisting on perfection. Donahue talks about different kinds of tables from the kitchen table to the coffee table to the conference table that each are appropriate at a certain stage of community life. Tables are places of stories, places where we take time to hear each others stories and consider how they come together in the story God is telling through this community.

Our encounters in truly welcoming each other at the table lead to the ministry of the towel, the challenging work of learning to truly serve each other in community. There is the issue of being clear about our identity as serving communities–do we embrace this and clearly understand how we are called to serve? True serving means our towels will get dirty as we jump in where we are needed. True serving means keeping our towels in a circle, remaining accountable to and responsible for each other. True serving means leaning into the sources of renewal when we are tempted to throw in the towel.

Finally, real community is galvanized by the truth. It is a community that hungers for truth and is open to the ministry of the Spirit of truth. It is a community where we tell ourselves the truth, where we lovingly and honestly reflect back to each other the truth we need to grasp about ourselves. It is a place where we challenge false narratives about God, ourselves and others. Truth can be dangerous, calling us into places of risk in the adventure of following Christ

Donahue uses an interesting device to open each chapter. He begins with an “interior narrative” of what each of the twelve disciples at the table are thinking as they sit around the table in the upper room. Each is paired to the content of the chapter.

Welcome. Service. Truth. I do think these are marks of healthy communities. But not all will accept our welcome. People will turn away from our service. And sometimes holding to the truth, however lovingly, will turn away those not ready to face the truth, particularly about themselves. So, while I find the community Donahue describes authentic, transforming, and real, I still don’t get the irresistible. But I think we can learn things from the community he describes that will benefit the communities of which we are part. That’s good enough.

_____________________________________

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 : “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

Double Vision

IMG_2270Double vision. We usually do not consider this a good thing. A friend of ours suffering from MS could not drive for a period of time because of problems with double vision. Double vision resulting from crossed eyes (strabismus) in children is treated surgically as early as possible so the brain does not become accustomed to seeing double.

At the conclusion of our pastor’s message this week, our pastor spoke of the importance of a certain kind of double vision that not only appraises and celebrates where God has brought us thus far, but also looks to the future and the good that God might do among us. His message was a kind of “review” for our congregation that explored both where we are, and where, under God’s grace, we might go.

I was also struck that there is another kind of “double vision” that was evident to me in this message. It is the double vision that looks both at our congregation and our community. I was grateful for the reflection upon each and the model of “watchful brooding” over both, the kind of watchfulness shepherds exercise that watches both the flock and the surroundings, both for good pastures and possible threats. Here are some of my own responses to each:

Congregation (Who We Are): One important insight that Rich shared was our “highly-leveraged” character. For the most part, it is not a challenge to get us to “do more” and I am grateful that this is reflected in a recognition that we don’t need to add more things to our programming or congregational calendar. Most of us see our “ministry” as something that happens outside the church walls and our impact isn’t necessarily reflected in church growth so much as in the various workplaces, organizations, and informal networks we work in. There is a kind of hiddenness in this that seems attractive and is contrary to the ABC of “attendance, budget, and campus” that serves as the metric of success in American Christianity.

Two reflections in this regard: 1) It might be fun to “map” our involvements and explore the question, “if this is how God is gifting and calling each of us, how might he be calling ALL of us?” 2) It seems that what happens in our gatherings on Sundays, in Life groups and other gatherings in some way sustains and equips us for a good deal of ministry on the outside.  What was shared about having a “contextually appropriate strategy for deepening the spiritual transformation, the growth of discipleship” for our congregation really makes sense!

Community (Where We Are): I so appreciate the continued dreaming our pastor and so many are doing about serving the community that is northwest Columbus now. We have a Governance Team that really serves us well! One interesting insight for me, though, from the message, is that our building and property really is a key interface between our congregation and the wider community.

What is real for the community that encounters us is a place located at 7260 Smoky Row Road. It is a place where food is stored and distributed by caring people. It is a place where students, who traditional schools have been unable to help, have another alternative. It is a place where people grow fresh food while children play on our ark. It is a place where singers rehearse in our worship space, using our chairs and piano and lighting, while glimpsing the tangible signs of our life together as they come in and out. It is a place where people vote, and experience welcome as they do so.

So, while it doesn’t seem glamorous and seems “institutional” to pay attention to buildings, what struck me from what Rich shared is how many “flesh-and-blood” human beings interface with our congregation through the building and grounds at Smoky Row. As was noted, we’ve made lots of headway over the last years in improvements. But this realization also helps me see how urgent it is to pray for someone with the skills and passion needed to lead our stewardship of this place God has given us that is such a crucial interface with our community.

I’m moved by this message that as I pray for our church, I need to pray with “double vision” not only with regard to our past and future, but also with regard to praying both for our congregation, and for the community in the midst of which we gather and who we are called to serve. Our pastor gave us a great model of paying close attention both to what is going on inside our church and in our community. I hope I can imitate that as I pray for our life and mission.

These are the things that particularly encouraged and challenged me. How about you?

Going Deeper Questions: If you are from Smoky Row, what most encouraged you and what most challenged you from Rich’s message?

If you are someone else following the blog, what would it mean to have “double-vision” for your church and your community? What do you see as you look at each in your context?

This post also appears on our church’s Going Deeper blog.

Bringing Discipleship and Scholarship Together–Part Two

Yesterday, I wrote that because scholarly communities are formative communities, Christians and other persons of faith who care about a seamless connection between belief and scholarship need to engage in what James K. A. Smith calls “thick formative practices” that foster that seamless connection.  The alternatives to this are assimilation into the prevailing worldview and values of one’s scholarly community at the loss of vibrant Christian faith, the bifurcation of life into sacred and secular categories resulting in privatized faith and a public embrace of the worldview of one’s discipline. A third alternative is the “embattled enclave” mentality, where one holds to one’s faith convictions but engages with one’s discipline from an exclusively conflict-oriented posture.

Today, I want to turn to what those “thick formative practices” might be. I would like to focus on four practices which I believe important to bringing our discipleship and scholarship together.

1. Cultivating practices of attentiveness to God in one’s life. Years ago, as a college student, I was taught the habit of “The Daily Quiet Time”. At times this is maligned as inflexible, or confining of God to one’s personal devotional life. This needn’t be the case and there are a variety of spiritual practices of attentiveness one may explore in these private times with God over a lifetime.  At the core of all of these practices is the idea of listening attentiveness to God, in prayer, in scripture, and in the examination of one’s life resulting in a response to God of joyful worship, trust in the practical matters of our lives, and obedience to the commands and precepts and personal insights from God that we gain in these times. What I and others are discovering more in recent years is that the habit of humble attentiveness is one that spills over into academic life, as we seek to attend to the creation, to data, to other voices–listening for the promptings of God–sometimes in the form of questions that turn into research questions, sometimes in terms of insights.

life of the mind book

2. Learning to think Christianly about all of life. This practice flows from the practices of attentiveness as we consider, what is God’s pleasure in this area of research, this area of human activity, this personal endeavor, this relationship? But there are two additional pieces that the scholar-disciple needs to cultivate. One is a devotion to study of Christian sources: the Bible with the end of understanding God’s redemptive story as that is worked out from cover to cover, the basic contours of Christian belief captured in creeds, confessions, and theological works, and at least some understanding of Christian history and how believing people have confronted life’s greatest questions over two millenia. It is often helpful to ask how the truth we encounter bears on the questions of our disciplines. Mark Noll in Jesus Christ and the Life of the Mind gives us a wonderful example of how reflecting on Christology, our beliefs about Christ, inform questions in various disciplines. The other is study in and practice of one’s chosen discipline where one is consistently asking God for insight into the underlying worldview, the questions, findings and practices of one’s discipline. In some cases these may be consistent with Christian conviction, in some cases they actually reflect a creative outworking of that conviction, and sometimes at the level of ideas, sometimes at the level of ethics, we will find ourselves differing. My sense of how this seems to work for many is the movement from disparate things (faith and scholarship) to strands of connection, to a seamless garment over the course of years of thought, exploration, questioning, and discussion.

3. Engagement in Christian scholarly communities.  One of the paradoxes of scholarly life is that one is both deeply embedded in a formative community of fellow scholars, and yet often working in a solitary fashion. Temperament may reinforce this as many, though not all, academics are introverts. Certainly an important element is involvement with a diverse worshiping community beyond the university that reminds us of the relevance of our faith beyond our own contexts. At the same time, via physical communities in one’s own university, virtual communities online, and the written works of others wrestling with questions similar to ours, we sharpen our insights and strengthen our resolves to live faithfully in our own contexts. The “Inklings” with which C. S. Lewis, Tolkien and others gathered to read and critique work is an outstanding example of this (which also included friends who didn’t share their beliefs). In another context, William Wilberforce’s efforts to abolish slavery were greatly enhanced by a community of religious leaders, businessmen and scholars committed to working out the implications of Christian faith for the benefit of British society and the glory of God.

4. Practicing intellectual hospitality and engagement in one’s context.  I posted recently on some of the contours of intellectual hospitality so I won’t reiterate all of that here. In brief, I would say that in the departmental or professional context where one works there are opportunities to the practices of Christian charity, courtesy, and courage. Charity means welcoming colleagues or peers as Christ has welcomed us and treating them as valued human beings regardless their views. Courtesy calls us to afford the ideas and beliefs of others the same respect we would wish for our own. It also can mean accepting the hospitality of peers and colleagues–both in terms of personal friendship, and in terms of intellectual exchange. And finally it may sometimes call for courage in being honest about our faith where the situation requires it, even while we seek to be charitable rather than belligerent, and willing to listen as well as to speak. Sometimes, speaking to a Christian student group or as part of a public discussion hosted by such a group involves practicing this courage. This is not a call to proselytize in class but rather a call not to “duck” when we are given opportunities to be honest about our identity or speak about how our faith contributes insight to important disciplinary questions.

I would appreciate hearing the insights of others in bring faith and scholarship together. In a world where these two are so polarized, and often function antagonistically toward each other, it seems this is a vital discussion.

A Review of Transformative Conversations

Image

The world of higher education can often be more de-formative than formative, given the pressures, politics, and financial pressures. The technologizing of higher education raises further questions of relating to large virtual networks of students and colleagues and having very few experiences of real collegiality with flesh and blood colleagues.

The four authors of this book believe they have found a way to change that. Their journey began with a Fetzer Institute program and a mentoring experience with Rachel Naomi Remen and Angeles Arrien who have worked with formational communities in other contexts. They then set out to form “formational mentoring communities” at each of their institutions.

So what is a formational mentoring community? Most basically, it is a safe place for mutual conversation among peers about the important questions of meaning, calling and values and how each other are living these out. For these communities to work, they need to be characterized by hospitality, safety, courage, honesty, trust, diversity, humility, accountability and friendship.

The authors go on to describe the practical questions of how to form the groups–place, frequency, how to invite people, size of the group and so forth. And in a chapter on collaborative stewardship, they go on to describe practicalities of facilitating such groups.

Most compelling to me in this book is the power these authors find in real relationships with four to eight as opposed to the formalized or virtual myriads of relationships. They really did find the conversations transformative as they regained or found a deep sense of meaning and connection with call in their lives. They also found this transforming relationships with students, such as when the faculty in one group at Gallaudet (a college for the hearing impaired) took the coverings off the windows in their offices so that students could SEE when they were in. An important caveat these authors affirm is that these groups cannot be institutionalized but must be informal and voluntary. This cannot become a “program” for humanizing the university, but rather a contagious process.

The authors idealism about the possibility of significant institutional change coming through the proliferation of these groups surprises me. But the narrative of the impact of these groups and the practical resources for beginning such groups will certainly encourage others to attempt such groups whether or not these have widespread impact. The chance to recover a sense of call, meaning and value to ones work would seem to be incentive enough.