Tuesday, November 10, 2009

We Practice: Covenant Making

At the beginning of every year, the student staff of the Service-Learning Center honkers down in a room for a couple of hours with the intention of creating a covenant. It’s quite the involved process. We grapple with the task of somehow developing a collective description, a sort of mission statement, with the hopes that it might best reflect upon the work we do and the nuances involved with doing it.

After hours of producing, we then attach ourselves to this covenant. Through revisiting it, creating visual representation, reminding each other, and pushing one another to put these words to action, the goal is to produce a living covenant.

The Covenant of the 2009-2010 S-LC Staff reads as follows:
“Rooted in the hope of what can be, together with conviction and humility, we practice. *Clap*
Crying out
Asking for forgiveness
*Clap* Rooted in the hope of what can be, together with conviction and humility, we practice.”

Each person on staff has chosen one of these practices to focus on throughout the year. In order to better remind ourselves of these practices in our daily lives, we took some time during our staff retreat to create individual paintings of our practices. These will hang together in our office.

In order to work on these disciplines together, the group has decided to shape our staff weekly staff meetings around the covenant. Aside from beginning our meetings with it, we’ve been taking turns leading the meetings. Each week’s theme focuses on one of the practices, and the assigned staff member provides points of reflection, activities to bring to life some of its different aspects, and questions for discussion.

It’s been a challenging and humbling reminder of the different practices involved in a life of faith. It’s evident that some of us are more gifted in certain practices more than others, but that as we challenge one another to grow in new areas, these practices can come together to shape both us individually and as a whole community, in rather exciting ways.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Education, Service-Learning, and Christian Practices

A few weekends ago, the S-LC staff enjoyed our annual fall retreat. For the discussion portion of our evening away, we discussed two essays; one, a chapter in Craig Dykstra's book, Growing in the Life of Faith - we discussed chapter five, "Education in Christian Practices." The second essay was an address by Nicholas Wolterstorff entitled, "Christian Learning in and for a Pluralist Society." Below is a window into our conversation:
Two different Latin roots provide us with the English word "education." They are, first, "educare," which means to rear or bring up, as a child – to train, shape, or to mold, and second, "educere," meaning to draw out from within, or to lead forth. Both meanings are represented in the word "education." Many of the hot debates about education today are rooted in the differences between educere and educare.

Wolterstorff answers the question, “why make what is simple (the gospel of Christ) so complicated?” What is the place of Christian learning in a pluralist society?

Dykstra discusses what Christian practices have to do with education.
Practices are loosely defined as “habitations of the Spirit,” or “forms of participation in the practice of God.” “Patterns of communal action that create openings in our lives where the grace, mercy, and presence of God may be made known to us.”

Wolterstorff says that Christian learning allows Christian faith to shape it, from measuring what is legitimate to investigate, to affecting how one treats fellow learners and investigators. He says that “Christian learning is faithful learning. Learning faithful to faith in the triune God, learning faithful to the Christian community and its tradition, learning faithful to the Christian scriptures.”

Christian learning is also the learning that forms and shapes us. He uses the concept of “Christian enculturation.” He says, “being a Christian will incorporate a certain identifiable cultural formation. And for the acquisition of that formation, education is indispensable. Not necessarily academic learning; but certainly education.”

Wolterstorff sees learning ultimately as eucharistic, or grateful, and eirenic, or peace-bringing. It also carries the potential to bring destruction, and it isn’t always grateful, but in its purest forms it is eucharistic and eirenic. He also says that “Christian learning contributes to our shalom by interpreting reality and answering our questions.”

Wolterstorff shudders to think that the American Christian impulse is to downplay “the learning that helps to keep alive and hand on that tradition which consists of the eucharistic and eirenic cultural activities of our forefathers and foremothers in the faith.” Learning allows us to remember and be inspired by those who have gone before and who can instruct and inspire us for the work of the Kingdom.
He discusses the fact of our national directional/religious pluralism. In this context, “the business of Christian learning in our pluralistic society is to give content to the Christian voice in that dialogue which ought to be taking place in the public square of American society.” That public square is full of ideas about what justice and peace look like. Wolterstorff argues that Christians ought to bring the prophets, the gospel, the Christian wisdom of the ages, humbly to bear within that public square.

He makes the claim that “if there is to be that voice on behalf of biblical justice, there must be Christian learning.” The conversation that includes the Christian voice in dialogue with other voices may never take place, but if it ever does, Christian learning will be indispensable in order for a Christian voice to participate. Christian learning, according to Wolterstorff, must be accompanied by Christian virtues.

Dykstra then, in explaining what the practices are, and how they fit into a program of education, concludes that Christian practices, while sharing much in common with other types of practices, have the fundamental difference of not being about mastery and control – but of being about receiving gifts and grace instead.
Christian practices (think Crying Out, Asking for Forgiveness, Engaging, Educating, Challenging, Hospitality, Building, Joy, and Faithfulness) are human activities that are cooperative, socially established, and coherent and complex. They contribute to human moral progress.

“Practices are those cooperative human activities through which we, as individuals and as communities, grow and develop in moral character and substance.” Importantly, Dykstra argues, they can be taught, and hence, passed down from one generation to the next.
The way to learning a practice, according to Dykstra, is through good coaching, lots of words, attention and analysis, apprenticeship, some reading, conversation and argumentation, and a lot more physicality than we think. We need models, mentors, teachers and partners in practice. We also need to be models, mentors, teachers and partners in practice.

Dykstra acknowledges that we live in a world with multiple layers of practices, not all of which are Christian. What are some of our regular practices that are embedded in other layers of our layers outside the specific orbit of our Christian faith?

Here is where Wolterstorff and Dykstra overlap. Dykstra agrees with Wolterstorff in his comments relative to the intersection between our civic and our Christian practices and commitments. “Education in Christian faith must concern itself with the mutual influences that various practices have on one another, as well as with whatever complementarity or conflict may exist between the goods internal to Christian practices and goods internal to others. Because we are all citizens, for example, we must inquire in to the nature, effects, and implications of our simultaneous engagement in practices constitutive of Christian life and those central to public life in the broader culture. We need to inquire, for example, into the continuities and discontinuities between medical practice in our society and practices of care for the ill and the dying that are now and have been in the past characteristic of the church. This applies also to a wide variety of other social practices.”
Dykstra ends with an explanation of how Christian practices are peculiar from other practices. Fundamentally, this difference lies in the area of mastery, excellence and control. Rather than mastery, the human task according to the Christian story is to use the gifts of God rightly as gifts for good. Trust and grateful receptivity replace mastery and control as the end goals. Rather than excellence, we aim for faithfulness.

It is no coincidence that faithfulness is the final practice in the S-LC covenant for this year.


How are the practices in our covenant, like baseball learn-able? Teachable? Able to be analyzed?
How do they actually get practiced?
In what ways is the learning that attaches to service-learning like educere (draw out), and in what ways is it like educare (shape, mold)?
How are the practices that the Service-Learning Center enables and encourages designed to equip Calvin students to participate in the public square dialogue that Wolterstorff talks about?
How are our practices (Crying Out, Asking for Forgiveness, Engaging, Educating, Challenging, Hospitality, Building, Joy, and Faithfulness) designed to educate us with educere, or educare?