Faith in the University
Teaching as Believing: Faith in the University by Chris Anderson. Waco: Baylor University Press, 2004.
"Good personal essays have the very structure of joy" (Anderson, 86). Teaching as Believing is such a personal essay. Although there is analysis and a thesis that is defended, this book is a personal and joyful exploration of the life of faith in the classroom. The work overflows with enticing stories. We feel Anderson's excitement as his students grasp the right questions. We rejoice in his experience of God. We mourn over the difficulty in helping students understand his faith-perspective. This personal element is striking and is part of what makes this book worth digesting.
This book is important also because much of the writing on Christian engagement with college and university life has focused on Christian colleges. This trend is not surprising since many of the major Christian scholars who have thought about higher education teach at such institutions. Anderson is an exception. He is Professor of English at Oregon State University. Anderson is also a recently-ordained deacon in the Roman Catholic Church. Teaching as Believing is his exploration and articulation of the role of faith in the secular university.
Anderson structures his discussion around the cross. There is, he argues, both a horizontal line and a vertical line. The horizontal line indicates that there is a boundary between faith and reason or between the church and the world. There is the region below and the region above. The vertical line indicates that the horizontal boundary is crossed. There is our relationship to God, our love for him, and his for us. As the two lines of the cross overlap one another, so too, the realm of the church and that of the university also overlap.
Around this structure, Anderson weaves stories, analysis, and reflection. The stories emerge from the two parallel tracks of his public life. The first is his teaching of a year-long course on Literature of Western Civilization. The second emerged out of his sabbatical year at Mount Angel Seminary and his subsequent training and ordination to the diaconate. These two tracks are really two identities. The challenge for every Christian professor is how to integrate one's Christian and professorial identities. While discussion such as George Marsden's The Outrageous Idea of Christian Scholarship deal exclusively with the research of Christian scholars, Anderson addresses the Christian as a teacher in the secular academy.
Four of the six chapters are organized around the discussions of particular texts that are read in his course (Genesis, Mark, Homer's Odyssey, and Augustine's Confessions). These texts provide analogies and analysis that penetrate the academy, the church, and the individuals who inhabit each. They also provide the occasion for many of the stories that emerge from Andersen's classroom. We are not led primarily by Anderson's reflections on these works as much as by his students' often startled responses to them.
I have two areas of concern with Anderson's position. The first might be more an issue of explication than with the position Anderson defends. Anderson often makes comments to the effect that there is no objectivity, or that we never get past interpretation. These are claims that either need a good deal more qualification than Anderson gives them or are not true. Presumably, Anderson does believe that some claims—such as that God has revealed himself in the person of Jesus—are true objectively, and that any interpretation of reality that denies them is inadequate. What Anderson is after, I think, is a recognition that we ought to approach truth with humility and the recognition that it is possible to be mistaken even when we feel certain. At many points, however, I wondered if Anderson was articulating a version of anti-realism about truth or about metaphysical reality in which reality is completely an interpretive or cultural construction. I suspected that he did not want the reader to think in anti-realist terms, but I had difficulty discerning much in his prose that would prevent such conclusions.
That the concern about objectivity might be a stylistic problem is supported by the fact that Anderson succumbs to some related false dichotomies in his exposition. At times, he opposes humility to confidence. It is often implied that certainty of the reality of God or some other religious topic is incompatible with humility. Other times, the narrative form of scripture is placed in opposition to thinking of theology in propositional terms. Of course, the narrative structure of much of the scriptures is an important theme, but it in no way minimizes the importance of the propositional. These might be the type of dichotomies that annoy only philosophers, but I think they inhibit Andersen's ability to make the contribution he wants to make.
My second concern is that it is crucial for Christians in any arena of society to make the distinction between their mission and their strategies to pursue the mission. Throughout Andersen's discussion, there is little distinctively Christian reflection on the mission of the teacher. Toward the very end, some of my reservations are answered, but the bulk of the discussion assumes that the Christian scholar determines her mission from the sensibilities of the secular university. Such a view is difficult to defend on Christian grounds. Our mission as Christian professors must be determined in the same way that any faithful follower of Jesus would determine her mission. We must wrestle with the biblical and historical understandings of the Kingdom of God and what it means to be a follower of Christ in the world. This mission must, I would argue, include the element of persuading others to follow Christ. That every believer's mission is determined in the same way does not imply that the mission work itself will look the same. Our means will differ significantly and these are determined, in a large part, by the context of our lives and work.
Towards the end, Anderson hints that he sees the mission/strategy distinction in the way I am putting forward. In the conclusion, he relates stories of students who had been influenced to follow Christ, partly because of his role in their lives. The way these stories are told indicates that Anderson takes great joy in these changed lives. Well he should. When any person comes to terms with her standing with God, we have cause for joy.
These concerns aside, Andersen's practices—both as a deacon and as a teacher—are precisely the sort of practices that we should aspire to imitate. In his teaching, he challenges students to enter the texts and to allow the texts themselves to shake up the students' preconceived notions (whether "believing" or "unbelieving" students). Then he allows the texts to do two strategic things. First, they undermine obstacles to believing. Second, they open up opportunities to see afresh how the good news might be recognized as truly good for the student. These are brilliant strategies for the teacher as a Christian.
Even with its shortcomings, Teaching as Believing is an important and challenging work. The university teacher who is a Christian will find inspiration and ideas that will help her inhabit the secular university in a manner that is faithful to the high calling of a follower of Jesus.