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About the Author
John Sullivan is professor of Christian education at Liverpool Hope University, UK. He has more than twenty years of professional experience in schools as teacher and administrator, and chief inspector for a Local Education Authority in London, with oversight of 100 schools and colleges. Published widely on religion and education, his most recent books are Dancing on the Edge: Chaplaincy, Church & Higher Education, and Learning the Language of Faith.
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By John Sullivan
The Catholic University of America PressCopyright © 2011 The Catholic University of America Press
All rights reserved.
From Formation to the Frontiers
The Dialectic of Christian Education
Christian education requires two major movements, if it is to develop healthily, if it is to remain Christian, and if it is to be really educational. The first of these movements is formation. The second is what I shall call "work at the frontiers." There is an order of precedence, both logically and chronologically. Formation has priority, but work at the margins is also necessary. Furthermore, formation does not have to be completed before work at the margins begins; indeed, the first cannot be completed without attention being given to the second.
My claim is that both movements are necessary. Formation without work at the frontiers is inadequate to the Gospel imperative to be inclusive, while work at the frontiers without sufficient attention to formation lacks the distinctiveness, specificity, or "salt" of Christian faith. Those who emphasize formation at the expense of work at the frontiers run the risk of producing people who are inward-looking, isolationist, elitist, and, ultimately, idolatrous. They care more about the church than the world; they believe that they possess the faith, rather than are possessed by it; they mistake the signposts about God's presence and work for the destination of God's kingdom. They disconnect worship and doctrine from earthly concerns. They point us so strongly toward the transcendence of God that they lose sight of God's immanence. They spend so much energy in preserving the past and inducting people into tradition that there is little energy left for creativity, not much will to display openness, and scarcely any opportunity to practice improvisation in response to new needs and changing circumstances.
On the other hand, those who disregard formation in favor of working at the frontiers run the risk of "running on empty," with insufficient motivational fuel to drive ahead or even to sustain what they are currently doing. They neglect the resources of tradition, slip into a worthy but probably sterile activism, and ignore hard-earned insights by rushing to embrace the new with insufficient discrimination. They attend so sensitively to the immanence of God that they lose sight of God's transcendence. In engaging so positively with the world, they fail to restore and to replenish the church and thereby leave it derelict; in this way its spiritual capital is exhausted and its capacity to heal is diminished. In heeding so faithfully the call to inclusiveness, they run the risk of downgrading distinctiveness. In privileging praxis and in sitting lightly with regard to orthodoxy, they become vulnerable to the accusation that they end up eroding respect for the truth. By focusing too quickly on the fruits of faith, they tend to neglect its roots and the development of Christian character. In the first section of this chapter I bring out some of the features of the first of the two movements essential to Christian education—that is, formation. In the second section, attention is given to the second movement: work at the frontiers. In the third section, "The Dialectic Between Formation and Frontiers," I comment on the relationship between these two movements, formation and frontier work.
Formation is a long-term, deliberate, and multi-faceted process that seeks to produce a character of substance, one who is thoroughly inducted into the way of life of a particular community and tradition. There will be a way of thinking to internalize, with key concepts and a coherent story to tell. In this case, we might claim, there is a Christian way of thinking. There will also be a way of behaving, a pattern of actions and practices, that we might say operationalizes, implements, or expresses the set of beliefs. Thus, Christians need to engage in a set of actions, not just assent to a set of beliefs. Then there is a way of worshipping, for at the heart of faith is an acknowledgment of and a response to almighty God, our Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer. Although some of this worship happens in private, much of it occurs in the context of a community, for we are brothers and sisters in God's family; we need each other, not only in coming to belief, not only in learning about and then in maintaining Christian conduct, but also in worship. Finally, there is a way of belonging; there are disciplines and forms of celebration, sharing and common work that bind us together in the church, that gradually transform us into a Christian community. It will be obvious that my fourfold description of the elements of formation—a way of thinking, behaving, worshipping, and belonging—reflects quite closely O'Connell's analysis of discipleship in terms of relationship, understanding, commitment, behavior, and affiliation.
One of the reasons I feel that emphasis on formation is necessary is that we live in a society that has relied heavily on procedural, or what might be called "spacemaking," morality. This is in contrast to substantial morality. In centuries gone by, and partly in response to the malign effects of a one-sided formation and of a blinkered and constricting orthodoxy, forms of liberalism have developed that emphasize autonomy, tolerance, freedom of choice, and a willingness to question everything and all authorities. Thus, we relegate religion to the realm of the private option because we cannot agree about it. In public life we assume the minimum level of agreement compatible with getting things done and with providing for our safety and material needs. In avoiding imposing "our" truth on others in any unwarranted way, we withdraw religious truth claims from the public domain. However, with the failure of liberalism to deliver the hoped-for peace, harmony, sense of purpose, and common good, in recent years, especially in the communitarian movement, there has been a recognition of the limits of relying on procedural rules that make no reference to more substantial forms of life or the constituent concepts and practices. The pluralist society probably requires a cultural bilingualism among us all, that is, the capacity to belong to and to "speak" the language of commonly accepted principles and organizations that allow us to cooperate despite our deep-seated differences, at the same time as belonging to and "speaking" the language of a specific group with a coherent worldview. Put differently, I believe that we need to be both universalists and particularists. I believe that our universalism is enriched by, receives motivational fuel from, and is grounded in our particularism. At the same time, our particularism is enriched, enlivened, and challenged by our universalism.
All forms of faith-based education—and institutions founded to promote such faith-based education—depend upon a "thick" rather than a "thin" conception of the good. What I have to say here about Christian education applies also, I believe, to other forms of faith-based education. By a "thin" description of the good I have in mind four features. First, it relies on procedural principles that command a very wide level of acceptance within society, partly because they are envisaged as not being founded on any one particular, more substantive view of life. Second, these principles are not necessarily so interrelated that they constitute any coherent system. Third, even taken together, these principles do not attempt to cover all the major dimensions of life, since they concentrate on what is needed for peaceful cooperation. Fourth, they are held to be normative for instrumental rather than for intrinsic reasons.
In contrast, a "thick" description of the good is one where its several interlocking parts jointly constitute a system (rather than a loose collection of disconnected elements). Second, it is far-reaching in its scope and explanatory power. Third, it is highly developed over a substantial period of time. Fourth, it is embedded in a particular community. Fifth, it is transmitted in the context of traditions, narratives, and prescribed actions. Finally, it possesses normative status for its adherents.
Christian education is based on such a thick description of the good. A thick description of the good, if it is to be sustained, requires a form of induction that is itself thicker than training, more intelligent than indoctrination, and more coherent than the national curriculum. It will have permeating through it a worldview, a set of concepts and beliefs, a pattern of behavior, a way of worship, and a fostering of substantial affiliation. In short, it will be education into and for discipleship. Such education, to use the language of information technology, will develop the "hardware" of character and Christian personhood, rather than the "software" of readily transferable skills that remain external to the learner. Christian education, I will argue, of the kind that builds hardware, necessarily entails induction into a set of practices and an associated way of reading. Let me say something more about these practices.
Too often intellectual interrogation of beliefs is treated quite separately from an examination of the practices that underpin or, alternatively, undermine them. When this happens, beliefs become anemic, merely a matter of theory, and disconnected from life, while practices become blind, imprisoned by custom and power structures, and distorted from their original rationale. Such separation also leads to too much distance and too little dialogue between doctrinal, moral, and liturgical theology, whereas, in fact, the interactions between these should be readily apparent. Academic judgment, spiritual discernment, moral wisdom, and practical efficacy all should feed into each other, qualifying excesses, correcting imbalances, and making up for partial or incomplete perspectives. In this way, the Christian life has more chance of displaying greater wholeness, consistency, and efficacy—and therefore credibility—in the eyes of other believers and of nonbelievers. To focus on practices rather than just on beliefs allows us to bring together thinking and acting, to emphasize the social and historical nature of Christian discipleship, and to allow for the fact that important insights into this discipleship can be achieved by people who are not specialists in theology.
Practices play a crucial part in the Christian life, which is not to say, of course, that they are determinative of salvation, nor that they render beliefs true. Practices combine elements of skills, commitments, attitudes, and stories, and they are deployed according to the availability of gifts and resources and in response to context and needs. A practice can refer to almost any meaningful action, to specific ascetical and spiritual disciplines, to descriptions of cultural patterns of behavior, and to pursuing certain social goods. The term "a practice" is used by social scientists, moral philosophers, religious writers, church ministers, and community leaders, as well as in common parlance. I borrow from Dorothy Bass in viewing them as "patterns of co-operative human activity in and through which life together takes shape over time in response to and in the light of God as known in Jesus Christ." Put otherwise, the focus on practices ensures that theological reflection is not unduly cerebral, that it is incarnated, that it displays concreteness, rather than abstractness, and that it deliberately draws from and contributes to living tradition. It also ensures that the Christian life is conceived as one that is essentially communal, rather than in an individualistic manner, for, as one commentator puts it, "it is in communities of conversation as much as in solitude and silence that we discern the Gospel message. Our individual readings of sacred texts were never meant to stand on their own. They must be abetted, amplified, corrected, and amended by the insights and inspirations of others." Here the company we keep in participating in practices becomes an important element in formation. We need "the companionship of friends who care about what we care about and care about us caring for it."
Among such practices Christians have included at different times and places, for example, fasting, almsgiving, Sabbath keeping, service to the needy, care of the sick, attendance at liturgy, scripture reading, private prayer, prophetic witness against the powers of evil, acts of generosity and selfless giving, and hospitality. Cumulatively, such practices "create distinctive ways of seeing, understanding and being," as Craig Dykstra puts it. They "enhance our powers to achieve the good and extend our very conceptions of what the good is." Sarah Coakley describes this steady modification of our powers brought about by such practices as "the effects of a life of multiple forms of faithfulness, forging the participants by degrees into 'the image of [God's] Son.'" By participating in practices, we find not so much that we are agents, but that something is done to us and in us; we are being drawn ever more deeply into the life of God and being radically changed in the process.
Desires and dispositions play an important role in connecting beliefs and practices. If Christian faith is to reach deep down into our real, multidimensional selves, and if it is to reach out to embrace others in the diversity of their situations and needs, then a full-bodied appreciation and appropriation of Christian practices will be essential. Practices will equip us to combine conformity and fidelity to the mind of Christ with spontaneity and innovation in the face of a changing world. If the grip of sin on us is "shaped by corrupt habits of activity, confused and even wrong convictions, and distorted desires," as Gregory Jones says, then unlearning this will require attention to our desires, habits, and actions, as well as to our beliefs. Croatian theologian Miroslav Volf claims that "'right communal doing' seems ... a precondition for right understanding. The obverse is also true: 'wrong doing'—especially if deeply patterned and long lived—leads to twisted understanding."
The practices that comprise the Christian life are interdependent. They support and sustain each other, prevent distortions, offer healthy motivational force, help to reduce excess, and minimize blinkered pursuit of one value at the expense of other values. Christine Pohl expresses this interdependence in the following way: "Faithful attention to many practices is crucial to keeping a single practice from deformation and failure. But it is also the case that faithfulness in one practice helps persons to recognize deformations in other practices. Faithfulness in one practice requires and elicits increasing competence in other practices, and tensions internal to a single practice press persons to learn other practices."
Another kind of interdependence is that by participating in congregations, academies, and social engagements. While the different requirements of these contexts must be kept in mind, the way we worship, the way we think, and the way we act in the world must be brought continually together to encourage congruence, to deepen understanding, and to enhance commitment. It is not just theology that will benefit from close contact with and reflection on practice; the converse is also true. The critical questioning, rigorous examination, and sustained thought offered by theology can help to prevent situations from arising where, as David Cunningham says, "the practices that sustain belief can become hollow, insignificant, and ultimately unpersuasive."
There are many aspects to work at the frontiers. Part of the very nature of such work is that it cannot be adequately defined or comprehensively described. Nor can it be predicted, because it is constantly in a state of flux, open to new developments, and essentially liable to controversy and dispute. All I can do is give a few indications, sample features of what I mean by working at the frontiers, and say why I think such work is an integral part of the dialectic of Christian education.
The very word "frontiers" is suggestive of notions such as borders, boundaries, margins, edges, and crossover points. We can associate frontiers with mechanisms for defense, such as walls, and mechanisms for communication and access, such as bridges. A frontier is where something stops being that thing and becomes another thing, where a nation's territory stops belonging to that country and where we enter another country's land. We stop being native and become foreign; we stop being "at home" and risk being an alien, or at least, we enter into a situation where we do not fully belong. At the frontiers we can choose to emphasize either security or continuity, depending on the relationship that exists between those on either side of the frontier. Borders can be too tightly policed, thereby restricting travel, communication on many fronts, and reciprocal learning; this would prevent mutual enrichment. Borders can also be too loosely managed, thereby making us vulnerable to those who might invade or enter intrusively, or undermine our currency, or erode our culture, risk our security, or threaten our sense of identity. At different times in history we have emphasized either high walls or low walls at the frontiers in regard to matters of currency, culture, language, movement of goods and people, education, and religion.
Excerpted from Communicating Faith by John Sullivan. Copyright © 2011 The Catholic University of America Press. Excerpted by permission of The Catholic University of America Press.
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Table of ContentsTitle Page Copyright Contents Acknowledgments Introduction Part 1. The Grammar of Faith 1. From Formation to the Frontiers: The Dialectic of Christian Education 2. Forms of Faith and Forms of Communication Part 2. Baselines 3. Communicating Faith in the Home: The Pedagogical Vocation of the Christian Household in Late Modern Society 4. Communicating Faith in the Parish: Maintaining a Presence, Care, and Mission 5. Sacramental Preparation: Uneasy Partnership 6. Burning Hearts: Scripture and Adult Faith Formation Part 3. The School Context 7. Text and Context: Mediating the Mission in Catholic Schools 8. The Challenges of Postmodernity 9. Communicating Faith through Religious Education 10. Leadership and Transmission: Empowering Witnesses—An Ignatian Perspective 11. Questioning for Faith Commitment Part 4. Higher Education 12. Plasticity, Piety, and Polemics: Communicating a Faith Tradition in Higher Education 13. Thick and Thin: Personal and Communal Dimensions of Communicating Faith 14. Windows into Faith: Theology and Religious Studies at the University Part 5. International Perspectives 15. Charism and Context 16. Communicating Faith in Africa: Yesterday and Today 17. Communicating Faith in Ireland: From Commitment through Questioning to New Beginnings 18. Communicating the Catholic Faith in the United States 19. Communicating Faith in Contemporary Europe: Dealing with Language Problems In and Outside the Church Part 6. Aspects of Communication 20. “The Attempt Was All”: The Endeavor of Aesthetics in the Communication of Faith 21. Communicating Faith and Online Learning 22. Education and Religious Faith as a Dance 23. Communicating Faith and Relating in Love Works Cited Contributors Index