The Spirituality of Faith and Learning

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In a couple of previous posts I have attempted to explain how I approach “the integration of faith and learning.” My conclusion: each of us does this out of our own faith journey, the traditions within which we think, work and worship. This, of course, implies that there will be many ways to do this. And I think I should add that there will probably be no, or perhaps, “pure” ways of doing this. What I mean by this is that there will be no one who is “purely Evangelical,” “purely Anabaptist,” or “purely scriptural,” or “purely Social Justice” in her or his particular approach. We work within a uniquely multi-traditional setting, and our approaches, our ways of thinking and working are shaped by the mutual interactions that we encounter as we teach together, think together, and worship together. We influence each other. It is rich with possibilities and with experience.

One way of approaching this multiplicity it to use a common outline or anatomy of spiritual schools and see if it helps us make sense of the predominant trends we will find among us. One such that a number of us have used in classes, in Student Life and Spiritual Formation, and for our own exploration is Richard Foster’s Streams of Living Water: Essential Practices from the Six Great Traditions of the Christian Faith (1998). Let me outline these briefly and add a couple of notes on how “integration” might take place within each.

The Contemplative Tradition–for many on our campus, I suspect, this tradition will be less familiar than others, but Foster lists if first. The predominant emphases on FPU’s campus are activist and energetic. But a professor in the Catholic, Anglican, Orthodox, and in some Protestant denominations will find ways of bringing moments of silence and reflection to the work of a class. This tradition is in some ways connected to Christian higher education through writers influenced by the Quaker tradition, like Parker Palmer. Contemplation does not mean just mean contemplation of God, but it may also mean contemplation of the call by God to love those around us through the unique persons whom God has created us to be.

The Holiness Tradition–the signal characteristic of this tradition is virtue. A professor might be led by their own formation in this tradition to focus on how the character of students develop, how their own souls are shaped and ready for service and professions. This has a natural fit with ethical classes, of course (which are imbedded in all our programs), but also with general approaches as in the “dispositional” approach in our School of Education. Evangelical and Mennonite Brethren churches have deep connections here.

The Charismatic Tradition–the Charismatic tradition has influenced many of the other streams in our day. It is exuberant, confident of God’s movement among those who believe, and of his speaking to us now, doing new things to convert, heal and bless his people. A professor will share with others in the Evangelical world an emphasis on the word and conversion, but with perhaps more emphasis on the unique personal, individual spiritual experience. The faith of the Charismatic may defy tradition, encourage us (both faculty and students) to look out beyond the normal, and see our world and work differently as under God’s immediate control and blessing. Many of our faculty and students are followers of Christ within this tradition, and their outward joy and expressiveness shows up in classes and other settings.

The Social Justice Tradition–this tradition is strong among us, perhaps often dominant, for we live in a region of both great wealth and great need. We approach Jesus as a prophetic teacher who calls for engagement on behalf of the poor and oppressed. This emphasis is integrated into our curriculum through service projects, visiting communities off campus, even creating business plans for social entrepreneurship. There is great need in our world for this and it is characteristic of the larger Anabaptist/Mennonite traditions of peacemaking and service, as well as Evangelical responses to God’s grace (think of the Fresno Rescue Mission) and deep traditions within the Catholic Church of clerical and lay fraternities dedicated to service (think of Fresno’s Poverello House).

The Evangelical Tradition–we are a ‘Bible-belt” region. The Evangelical tradition is marked by a Word (Bible) centeredness, the experience of conversion, missionary activity to spread the Gospel, individual energy and a low (informal) ecclesiology or understanding of the church. Foster puts Menno Simons among the Evangelical tradition, and to some extent he is correct. Most MB churches will have this character. But Menno and the MB world engages deeply also in the Social Justice tradition. A characteristic way of “integration” for a professor might find ways in which to relate biblical passages to a topic of discussion, of discuss opportunities for discipleship and short term missions. I have seen this approach in many of our classes all up and down the Valley.

The Incarnational Tradition–Foster links this to the sacramental tradition, God becoming again incarnate, among and with us, through sacramental worship, and through seeing the world sacramentally. This is a weaker tradition among us, less emphasized in the Evangelical and Social Justice traditions, but we will see it by the way we teach students to see God’s presence in the world, whether in a literature class, art, or in nature in environmental studies. There has been a steady stream of Evangelicals and Anabaptist towards more sacramental churches and ways of experiencing our faith and our world (myself among them) over the last 30 or 40 years.

Well, these are obviously overlapping traditions, each shares something with others. We find all of these in the classrooms and curriculum at Fresno Pacific and a few others too. How do we do the “integration of faith and learning”? It depends on the professor, and the student, and the traditions which we bring to our mutual exploration and scholarly work. It might be any or several of these ways. Some will be dominant among us–the Evangelical, Social Justice and Charismatic, it seems to me. But all are represented. This outline might be one way to help us understand how we “integrate faith and learning” or better “how faith seeks understanding.”

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  • Synthia Lapp2

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