Sunday, November 20, 2011

Grounded In the Cross: A Lutheran Theology of Education, Pt. 1

The following is the first of two posts, separated because of length. End notes included at the end of each post.  Please comment with your thoughts and criticism!

     My first experience of true Christian education took place not in a church sanctuary or Sunday school classroom, but rather at my grandmother’s house, sitting under stars, talking with my Uncle Gary.  It was a Sunday evening and I had yet another argument with my first grade Sunday school teacher earlier that day.  This time it concerned how Genesis 1 must be lie because it did not mention dinosaurs.  My teacher had completely shrugged off my argument, the other children in class had laughed at me, and then I reacted quite angrily.  Of course my mother was told about my inappropriate behavior, thus leading to further arguments at home throughout the day.  Only now while spending time with my favorite uncle at my grandmother’s house could I find any solace.  My uncle and I often talked about our faith as far back as I could remember, and unlike in Sunday school, my questions were always encouraged.  So that night I had no problem asking Uncle Gary about why there were no dinosaurs in Genesis, and he gave me a great answer.  He said he did not know, but that if I looked up at the stars and prayed about it, we could faithfully talk about what God said back to me.

     Ever since that evening, while often using different terms, I have always believed that Christian education must be grounded in the cross.  Without the cross Christian education merely becomes an exercise in original sin.  The teacher, student, denomination, the Christian religion or other human constructs become the central objects of worship and redemption, rather than God’s saving act through Christ.  While a theology of the cross is implicit throughout the Book of Concord, it is perhaps most clearly discussed in article nine of the Formula of Concord.  The short article was written in response to a number of second generation Lutheran disputes about the nature of Christ’s descent into hell:

… it is enough that we know that Christ descended into hell and destroyed hell for all believers and that he redeemed them from the power of death… How that happened we should save for the next world, where not only this matter but many others, which here we have simply believed and cannot comprehend with our blind reason, will be revealed.[1]

Here the writers of the Formula of Concord humbly recognize the limits of human reason, admitting that we must leave some matters to the mystery of faith. As Dr. Timothy Wengert asserts about the article:
This phrase comes as close as the Formula can to expressing Luther’s famous ‘theology of the cross.’  This theology… asserts that God is revealed ‘under the appearance of the opposite,’ that is, in the last place we would reasonably look.  This theology asserts that reason is not always a helper in theology but is many times the culprit.  When we try to make up our own reasonable answers to such mysteries, the gospel itself suffers.[2]
By humbly admitting our human limitations, we put God at the center of Christian education rather than ourselves. This means the best teacher may not be someone highly credentialed or well known. Instead, a quality Christian educator acts as a humble instrument of the Spirit, doing God’s work through words and action.

     Christian education centered on the cross not only emphasizes human humility, but balance as well. Teachers must give answers when needed and share the symbols and traditions of the Christian faith with students, yet they must be willing to allow for tough questions and learn from their students. The gospel is shared through Christian education yet contradictory messages of the wider society are also worked with, rather than immediately discounted. In a pluralistic society Christian education encourages a clinging to Christ while recognizing that religion is a human construct. Reflecting Bonhoeffer’s argument, such a balanced approach teaches that it is not the Christian religion itself, but rather the gift of Christ that saves us:

… the Christian religion as religion is not of God.  It is rather another example of a human way to God… Christ is not the bringer of a new religion, but rather the one who brings God.  Therefore, as an impossible way from the human to God, the Christian religion stands with other religions.  Christians can never pride themselves on their Christianity, for it remains human, all too human… the gift of Christ is not the Christian religion, but the grace and love of God which culminate in the cross.[3]

When Christian education is centered on the cross, learning moves beyond the walls of the classroom into the parish and the wider world. The line between teacher and student blurs, and the Christian can learn from persons of diverse backgrounds and abilities.

     The humility and balance of Christian education centered on the cross transforms the congregation and its surrounding parish into a community where all individuals are teachers and learners. As Everist describes it, “each individual needs to be a teacher in order to be a learner, and a learner in order to become and continue to be a teacher.”[4] In such a community centered on the cross, a grandmother of twelve can learn from the joyful singing of a young child in worship. A pastor can learn from her catechetical students. The lifelong churchgoer looks at his faith in a new way after listening to a Muslim neighbor explain different practices and beliefs. Centered on the cross a Christian learning community recognizes that no one is perfect, that everyone has something to learn, and that in our hyper-individualized culture, everyone is looking for place where she or he will be remembered. Indeed, by learning from and teaching one another, members of the Christian community act as the body of Christ in our contemporary, lonely world. Everist, citing Paul in 1 Corinthians 1:17, states:

We are to teach, ‘so that the cross of Christ might not be emptied of its power.’  The content of teaching in the Christian learning community is the cross of Christ.  This message makes no sense to the culture.  Each week not the learners, nor even the culture, will be put to the test, but the cross will be put to the test… Potential Christian learning communities are all around.  Our task may not so much be to create them as to recognize them, gather them, and affirm them.[5]

A learning community centered on the cross welcomes in the differently-abled and those marginalized by society to both learn and teach. All students are taught in a way appropriate to their age and level of psychological development. The Christian learning community goes out, tearing down borders, preaching and teaching to a culture hungry for the gospel.

     All too often individuals speak in a way that idealizes or romanticizes Christian community. Centered on the cross, the Christian learning community turns away from such misguided arguments with vigor. Christian community is far from perfect, merely another human construct, and when community is idolized, the gospel suffers. This happens frequently when individuals fall so in love with their congregation that they neglect to go out and learn from their next-door neighbor. No matter how healthy a community may be, it cannot be perfect, and should be open to learning from the successes (and failures) of other communities. There will be problems in even the strongest Christian communities. Children are sinners and will misbehave in class; adults will forget to show up for evening Bible study, yet all these matters are managed with a firm yet forgiving hand. As Bonhoeffer suggests:

…the very hour of disillusionment with my brother becomes incomparably salutary, because it so thoroughly teaches me that neither of us can ever live by our own words and deeds, but only by that one Word and Deed which really binds us together- the forgiveness of sins in Jesus Christ.[6]

In the Christian learning community, even the power of sin and the Devil becomes a learning experience, compelling us to have faith in the forgiving embrace of Christ’s love and sacrifice.

[1] Robert Kolb and Timothy J. Wengert, eds., The Book of Concord: The Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2000), 514 – 515.
[2] Timothy J. Wengert, A Formula for Parish Practice (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmeans Publishing Company, 2006), 158.
[3] Geffrey B. Kelly and F. Burton Nelson, eds., A Testament to Freedom: The Essential Writings of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Rev. ed. (New York: Harper-Collins Publishers, 1995), 53.
[4] Norma Cook Everist, The Church as Learning Community (Nashville, Tennessee: Abingdon Press, 2002), 23.
[5] Everest, The Church as Learning Community, 29.
[6] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together: The Class Exploration of Christian Community  (New York: Harper-Collins Publishing, 1954), 29.

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