new Mennonite Life logo    March 2003     vol. 58 no. 1     Back to Table of Contents

The concept of God, inerrant scripture, and other weighty topics: Comments on Harry Huebner's "Christian Education: The Question of Engagement"

by Paul T. Lewis

Paul T. Lewis is professor of psychology at Bethel College.

Introductory remarks

Let's play with language, and in particular, metaphor, as Harry Huebner did in his Christian Education: The Question of Engagement. Just what kind of metaphor should a reviewer use to guide and manifest his thoughts on paper regarding Huebner's address? Here is a sample: review as constructive critique, review as meant to advance the search for Truth, review as critical engagement, review as exegesis, review as morality play, review as academic exercise, review as process, review as re-creation.

While each of these has its appeal, I tend to favor the review as re-creation and review as meant to advance the search for Truth. But I shall also endeavor to use the review as critical engagement, given the persuasiveness, in general, of Huebner's remarks regarding its usefulness in bringing together faith and learning (or teaching). It remains to be seen, of course, just how useful the selection of these three metaphors will be to accomplishing the more specific purposes of this review.

These more specific purposes relate to bringing out some of the areas of agreement, along with some of the areas of disagreement and why. But most importantly, I would like to scrutinize the possible implications of Huebner's position of "Critical Engagement" for the importance of resolving several crucial issues in the philosophy of religion. In fact, these issues may ultimately need resolution if Huebner's position is to be persuasive for persons from different religious faith traditions. Using the review as re-creation metaphor, let me now first clarify at least one of the descriptive meanings of Huebner's position. Whether it is "good" I leave the reader to judge. Whether it is "correct" is another question.

Harry Huebner's position on 'Critical Engagement' in brief

Upon first hearing Huebner's remarks I must confess that I experienced no real need to take issue, not even to quibble, at least on several of the themes - nay on his overall framework! Indeed, as Huebner seems to appreciate, many of the problems of realizing one's faith in a teaching profession are inter-related.

What is it that Mennonite college and university professors need to do within the context of the academy? Huebner exhorts us to consider the descriptive phrase, train a people. Indeed, it is not just educating individuals who are smart, ethical, good writers and speakers, etc., that the Christian - especially Mennonite Christian - professor needs to do, it is helping to mold the consciousness of a people - that is, the consciousness of Mennonites themselves as Mennonites. For Huebner, I think, the deep values making up the faith must be presented in such a way as to be taken on by the young individuals of the faith.

How are the distinctive values of this consciousness to be presented in the academy? Huebner realizes the importance of showing that faith-consciousness is not something that is just discussed, but lived out on a day to day basis. So what is called for is to train by example - example of the faith, based in the faith, manifesting the faith. Thus, Huebner exhorts Mennonite professors to teach in a way that is invitational, non-violent, and confessional. This is one part of Huebner's interpretation of the consciousness of the Mennonite people as it is played out within the context of the academy that I found quite persuasive. Just the respect that it pays to the importance of free choice on the part of the learner in the learning process is noteworthy.

More than this, Huebner instructs, is letting the faith - what you know and understand of the message of the enculturated Jesus Christ - arbitrate your articulation of the vision of your discipline to your students. "Enculturated" is a very important quality of Jesus Christ, according to Huebner. It is clear that such a quality makes the Christ - the Deity in some sense - like us in very crucial ways. These ways are crucial for answering a number of questions: How to teach our disciplines, how to conduct ourselves with integrity in everyday life, how to acknowledge mistakes and ask for forgiveness, how to follow the Master when the way becomes dark, how to save ourselves.

Indeed, one of the more intriguing aspects of Huebner's presentation was its touching on numerous contexts and levels of life, all of which comprise the backdrop of one's teaching life, creating a variety of challenges but also providing enrichment. How to teach one's discipline as a Mennonite Christian professor becomes a way to ask, of course, how can one best do the Church's work? But other questions are no less important within the broader context of salvation: How does one understand a student's problems learning the subject matter? How should one's discipline be best represented? How should one's scholarship interact with one's classroom? How should one's compassion for oneself and the student as sinful, needy, and imperfect creatures, be tempered with the knowledge of the virtue and excellence of which we have shown ourselves capable? How should our knowledge of our own inherent fallibility be tempered with the demands that the pursuit of excellence and all its progeny puts upon us? Perhaps the only way that such questions can be adequately addressed, Huebner might be willing to argue, is through the adoption of the metaphor of critical engagement.

In short, Harry Huebner, in his deliberate and thoughtful essay has offered a provocative and telling challenge to the Christian College community on just how the difference that being a faculty member in a Mennonite college or university should have on how a particular discipline is taught gets framed. Huebner's erudite and rather wide-ranging address tackles this problem head-on, adopting a metaphor of 'critical engagement' which he believes helps to delineate the interaction between faith and learning in a way that stretches the mind with not only integrity but Christian integrity - and especially when considering the pedagogical attitude of the teacher that he proposes - Mennonite Christian integrity as well.

However, just how successful he is, is not entirely clear. Overall the piece is complexly structured yet accessible. He has much of interest to say about language, the Mennonite heritage, popular culture, both contemporary models of teaching and those from antiquity, metaphors of engagement. He addresses important issues, e.g., the appropriate role of humankind and mind in doing the work of the Mennonite college or university, the different ways of discipling and which are best, etc. And indeed, the address goes somewhere, suggesting plausible practices for a Mennonite professor to engage in the classroom, and reasonable curricular changes for a Mennonite college or university to consider. However, the piece does not ultimately address what it needs to, to get its point(s) across convincingly. A big part of the problem may be a certain ambiguity about three deep issues that have sparked the imagination of philosophers and theologians for a long time, and issues that eventually need to be addressed if Huebner's position is going to pass muster. In my final set of remarks I aim to adopt and use not only the metaphor of review as critical engagement, but also review as meant to advance the search for truth, as the three issues are introduced and clarifying remarks made.

On critically engaging Huebner's position

On Reason and Revelation. It is certainly a metaphor that he used himself, engaging critically the enlightenment figures and their over-emphasis, at least according to Huebner, on humankind being the measure of all things, and on the supremacy of the mind. I had a real strong sense of him critically engaging me at this point! I remember thinking to myself that the mind cannot be dispensed with to the degree that Huebner is apparently wont to do. Mind in both its pure or formal sense, and informal sense too, is crucial to faith! And for better or for worse, humankind may need to acknowledge its inevitable mark on and in everything for which they may claim the sacred! Now the puzzling thing is that Huebner does as much as acknowledge this in his opening pages regarding language and humanity being inextricably intertwined. He also does it in a more subtle way some pages later when he clarifies the enculturated nature - essential nature - of Jesus Christ, indeed, the enculturated - historied - nature of humanity. What I think is at stake in this conceptual confusion is not only different uses of the terms humanness and mind, but the issue regarding the proper relationship between Reason and Revelation. I will deal with the second item only.

As far as I can determine Huebner attempts to resolve the issue in favor of Revelation over Reason, with his battering of William of Ockham, Descartes, and Kant, along with his constantly alluding to humankind's fallibility. I think that this is a mistake! At some point Reason (or mind) has to mediate just which understanding of faith is best, on the basis of some principle of rationality: consistency, coherence, integrity, etc. But these are principles which go beyond the mere content of Reason, however well that content seems to be justified, and upon which Revelation may not have any real effect. In fact I would wager that it is our adherence to these principles that gets us beyond an initial mystification with Revelation, or with scripture, for that matter! Indeed, it will be Reason on a daily basis, and not Revelation, that gets us closer and closer to understanding the full meaning of God.

Of course, our particular faith understandings need periodic comparison with scripture, and indeed under these conditions, what appeared reasonable previously, no longer does. However, in this case, a distinction must be made between the content and the structure or process of Reason. Clearly, the content of Reason, what is actually believed, needs scrutiny. But leave Reason qua Reason alone! Kant was not completely misguided in his discoursing on pure Reason. Indeed Thomas Nagel, a contemporary philosopher of Reason, is not misguided either, and he wants to place Reason at the very foundation of morality!

However, I would not advocate Reason over Revelation, in general. Perhaps there is some justification in looking at Reason and Revelation, in all of their senses, in a tight - interdependent - interplay. Clearly such a conception can be shown to have some of its foundation in Descartes with his similar view of the relationship between mind or soul and God, although space limitations does not permit elucidation. Conceiving of it in this way has implications for our understanding of the interaction between faith and learning: They may be equal players on the field of life given their twin arbiters of Reason and Revelation.

On the inerrancy of scripture. Training a whole people in what it means to be a member of a faith tradition and what it means to be a professional in a specific discipline, is a daunting task, as Huebner acknowledges. Of course, as I can determine both directly and indirectly from his address, the importance of looking to scripture to know how to teach a discipline from the perspective of faith, cannot be underestimated. But these written and recorded statements of the faith are tentative, incomplete, and in many cases mystifying views of who God is and what is desired for us, as I am sure Huebner would agree. Indeed, what is left to sway in Huebner's critical wind is the way scripture should be taken: literally, figuratively, both, neither, something else again? How this question is answered has implications for how a particular discipline is approached from the perspective of faith. With a literal reading of scripture, some disciplines are in direct irreconcilable conflict (e.g., evolutionary biology, or geology) while others seem almost beside the point - of scripture at least (e.g., micro-computer electronics, aviation engineering).

Even more important than leaving a discipline bereft of faith-based interpretations, inerrancy leaves whole religions and their denominations - many peoples and their ways of life - out of relationship with God! And I doubt that such intolerance, not to mention exclusion, is part of what Huebner envisions when he thinks about the Mennonite college or university of the 21st. century.

Some of the problem may have to do with our definition of inerrancy. To be sure part of its appeal may be its underlining the ultimate truth of God and God's plan as clearly and indisputably revealed in the only writings we have. But to take scripture literally - at least across the board - is problematic not just for the reasons identified above, but given that scripture has been strained through the very human lenses of the gospel writers, not to mention the very human institution of the early Christian church. Could we keep the idea of ultimate truth without the exclusionary consequences by arguing to disassociate the concept of inerrancy from the literally true? Could the bible be inerrant, but more figuratively than literally so?

On the concept of God. Ultimately, Huebner uses critical engagement as he admonishes Mennonite Christian faculty to acknowledge their ungiftedness, their students' ungiftedness, at least in terms of such gifts they do possess making them strive to be the best or one of the best. Such an exhortation against this entrenched Western culturally-founded dictum prepares the way for acknowledging the importance of accepting one's creaturely limits, and the implications this has for what to do with the God-given gifts that are possessed. One consequence may be the need to construct a whole new perspective on gift-having, -giving, and -receiving. If such a perspective is appreciated, then such gifts can be re-given and re-received, in the academy, time and time again.

Now in order to construct this perspective, it seems to me that two rather difficult -to-reconcile ideas have to be reconciled: one is God as omni, the other is God as relater. God is omni - the one who knows everything, who is in control of everything, and thus we need to recognize this and take our rightful role as follower. Wouldn't Huebner agree? However, he took quite a few paragraphs to let us know how detrimental the idea of a perfect God was. Of course, emulating such perfection leads us down the wrong path, and interferes with emulating God as relater. Indeed, we are told by Huebner of the importance of that old conception of the Lord as one who gives and receives gifts. But Huebner cannot have it both ways - or can he? I think that what needs attention is just what kind of God we are worshiping. What kind of concept of God can we embrace? What does our understanding of scripture now, along with what experience has shown us, and our developing facility at applying Reason - purely and practically - displayed, about the changes in this concept that should be made? If God represents perfection and gifting (as is found to be the case not just in philosophical and theological treatises, but in scripture as well) then why should we be all that surprised that God's creatures want to emulate their deity in both of these ways? Our concept of God and the way we translate it into everyday life needs continued attention!

Just as Huebner's address has made clear to me the importance of continuing to work on such weighty topics as Reason and Revelation, and the Inerrancy of Scripture, it has also brought me up close and personal to perhaps the most important growing edge of theology of all: the concept of God. Gordon Kaufman has worked on this concept, but remains, I think, more impressed with the ineffability than with the effability of God. Huebner has likewise revealed a rather deep but different mystery about our understanding of God, another kind of paradox, if you will, but one that may yet be resolved. Who knows? Perhaps what we will find as a fruit of our theological labor is a new conception of the Deity which gives rise to a new conception of faith and learning, one that subsumes and brings together human aspirations and divine qualities - to be perfect - or rather, excellent, and to be in giving relationship, or rather loving. If we could actually enact these qualities in our day-to-day teaching life, what more could we ask of ourselves?