A Few Lessons I Learned about Learning

I recently had occasion to reflect on what I concluded about teaching from my own years sitting under it. As I enter more teaching roles, I have to ask myself, “What makes for good learning?”

  1. Learning is ultimately a mystery, because so little of what I do, so little of what I think I know, is traceable to “aha” moments. Nonetheless, teachers who applied appropriate methods really were more effective, particularly when it came to writing tests. Just because learning is a mystery doesn’t mean there’s no connection between the skill of a teacher and the learning outcomes of his or her students.
  2. Instead of aha moments, my education was, I think, a long initiation into a conversation that started long before I came along and will continue long after I’m gone. The initiation taught me the kinds of arguments and evidences that count as contributions. It taught me which voices were most important in that conversation both now and in the past. It also taught me where to go to look for their contributions. I know intuitively when someone is playing by the “rules” of the biblical studies game—but only because I listened and listened and listened for years. I’ll add that listening to the expositions of my long-time pastor, who was himself “in the game,” also had an immeasurably impact on me.
  3. A lot of things I was taught—and faithfully regurgitated for tests—didn’t really sink in until later, sometimes years later. As I began to see this, I began to think that education is about building connections among the things one learns at the base of Blooom’s taxonomy (1. remember, 2. understand). Peers played a key role here: friends who had made those connections slightly before I was able to were able to lead me to see them because they could easily remember what it was like not to know them. The “curse of knowledge” made it difficult for some teachers to bring me along at points. They couldn’t remember what it was like to be as ignorant as I was!
  4. Back to writing tests: I did feel that the teachers who had clear ideas of what kinds of skills I needed by the end of the course were better at measuring the outcome of their instruction. And those who worked up the ladder of Bloom’s taxonomy rather than staying on the lowest rung were better, too. Thankfully, I had a lot of good teachers.
  5. I do think that D.A. Carson was right when he said his students don’t remember what he taught them so much as what he was excited about. Therefore, I am certain that my students in the future will remember things about my wife, KJV-Onlyism, Stanley Fish, and ultimate frisbee.

Pervasive Interpretive Pluralism and Recent Trinitarian Controversies

Just a short reflection on the argument among Reformed theologians about theology proper (read, for example, Frame’s review of James Dolezal here and here).

I think some of my brothers and sisters in Christ are looking to confessions and scholastic categories and other elements of reasonably-stable-and-long-term-but-not-overtly-Catholic church tradition for a way out of the interminable theological disputes going on around and among us.

But these disputes are our lot under the sun, because we’re all fallen interpreters; and I think the Bible (see those hapless Corinthians) leads us to expect disagreements. I totally get the fatigue, and I’m tired too (at the ripe young age of 37)—and I think confessions are useful for terminating many disputes healthily. Churches ought to have careful doctrinal statements and ought to hew to them; so should parachurch organizations (schools, camps, publishing houses) and denominations.

But as friends of mine in a Reformed Baptist group recently (re-)discovered, a confession also adds to the list of documents over whose interpretation Christians end up disagreeing. I will not say “I have no creed but the Bible”; I am bound by the confessions of faith that God has placed me under at my church and even at my job. But adding human statements to divine ones is never sufficient to keep fallen people from twisting the truth. “Pervasive interpretive pluralism” is a strong argument against Protestantism, sure, but it’s also a strong one against Catholicism and Protestant (hyper-)confessionalism. They added human statements to divine ones, and I don’t think they’re doing much better in the unity department.

It’s my “something close to biblicism,” learned in part from Frame and in part from my heritage, that lets me conclude, along with the Bible, that the noetic effects of sin must always be expected and never forgotten. In others and in myself. Till glory!

How to Think about your Political Opponents

Alan Jacobs is interviewed by his now-unbelieving former Wheaton student, Emma Green, who nonetheless provides insightful journalistic coverage of evangelicals. They discuss his new book How to Think.

And Jacobs says this:

Conspiracy theories tend to arise when you can’t think of any rational explanation for people believing or acting in a certain way. The more absurd you think your political or moral or spiritual opponents’ views are, the more likely you are to look for some explanation other than the simplest one, which is that they believe it’s true.

One category that’s gone away in America is “wrong.” Nobody is just “wrong.” They’re wicked, they’re evil, they’re malicious, they’re the victims of these vast subterranean forces.

But sometimes we get things wrong, because politics is hard. Knowing the right policy in any case is difficult, because you’re having to predict the future and the variables are astronomically complex. But we want to believe that it’s obvious what to do to fix our social problems.

Okay, so there’s a lot of wisdom here, as always with Jacobs. In particular, that last paragraph ought to be memorized by all American schoolchildren and recited daily as accepted wisdom. The variables are so complex that people almost universally take refuge in ideological responses; they are all our brains can handle.

I also like the complaint that people appeal to “vast subterranean forces”—we psychologize our opponents and enlist them in imaginary cabals.

But… knowledge in Scripture is an ethical category, so wicked evil malice is a possible explanation for someone’s inability to see the truth.

You must no longer walk as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their minds. They are darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, due to their hardness of heart. (Eph 4:17–18)

Hard hearts have a direct impact on cognitive faculties.

For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. (Rom 1:18)

I think I’d want to leave room for people to culpably but sincerely believe a lie. The suppression of the truth happens at a level of one’s knowledge below conscious thought. I don’t think Richard Dawkins consciously thinks to himself, “I know there’s a being of eternal power and divine nature, but I just can’t admit it publicly or I’ll lose all my income.” And even if he does think this way, it isn’t healthy for me to think that he thinks this way! The Bible speaks of God sending wicked people—people who “refuse to love the truth”—a “delusion” so that “they believe a lie” (2 Ths 2:11) They really do believe it, in other words.

There may not be vast subterranean forces affected people’s cognition, but there are vast supernatural ones.

Nonetheless, despite these caveats, views on the wisest, most efficient way to raise the standard of living for working class people are based on such “astronomically complex” factors that our first recourse should not be to spiritual blindness and delusive belief in a lie on the part of our political opponents. Instead of resorting to fallenness, first try finiteness: we can’t even understand the present well enough to make exhaustively accurate descriptions of our economic situation; far less can we predict the future. And I say this no matter what side of the aisle you find yourself on. I recently took the Political Compass test and scored as pretty nearly a centrist, so just about everybody out there is to my right or my left. It is certain that through God’s common grace there are “contemptuously smug liberals” who have valid political insights about how to achieve common goals. There are “wrathful conservatives” out there, too, who see parts of the truth that their opponents don’t.

Policies have to be chosen, and someone’s party is going to be disappointed. I’m not saying all parties have an equal lock on political truths. I’m saying that careful Christian theology provides a basis for humility—because the same fallenness and finiteness that affects the other party affects ours. We must judge others’ policies, but we must be willing to be judged by the same measure we mete out (Matt 7:1). Jumping right to demonization is a sure way to elicit the same from the other side. And as one of the comparatively few educated people who actually believes in demons and their power to influence mankind, I still say that “demonization” of one’s political opponents should not be one’s first—or even fifth—recourse.

UPDATE: I just read this article in the New York Times about Boko Haram’s practice of forcing young girls to be suicide bombers. The article was deeply disturbing and sad. Boko Haram terrorists offer a religious rationalization to the young ladies: you’ll only be killing wicked people, and you’ll go straight to heaven. Whether they sincerely believe what they themselves are saying or not, I don’t know. It seems to me, however, that they are morally obligated—given what the Bible says about conscience in Romans 2 and elsewhere—to know that any appeals to religion to justify murder of innocents are at best cynical and in actuality evil. In other words, Boko Haram is not just wrong to send 13-year-olds to their deaths; they’re malicious and wicked. I have little doubt that learning the fighters’ life stories could increase my sympathy for them; who as a kid aspires to be a sadistic murderer? Surely some are victims of subterranean forces. But “I was only following orders” is not a suitable defense because knowledge is an ethical category: all people have God’s law written on their hearts and ought to know better. I hope my empathy could never extend to absolving murderers of their guilt, or I’d violate my own God-given conscience.

The upshot of this little blog post: I want to accede to Jacobs’ wisdom while preserving my ability to pull out the “wicked” card when needed.

Great New Book by Must-Read Christian Writer: Alan Jacobs’ How to Think

I read pretty much anything Alan Jacobs publishes. How to Think: A Survival Guide for a World at Odds was yet another great read.

This book is Alan Jacobs not half-baked but maybe 90% baked, and it’s still a fantastic read. It felt to me like one long essay, very much in the Jacobs style, which means a lot of trenchant intellectual commentary, delivered smoothly, on interesting stories. But whereas Original Sin, which was very much in the same vein, felt to me like it drove me to a point and wrapped a theological bow around it; this topic—good thinking—is simply too large for this small book to handle with anything feeling like finality (that’s what I mean by 90%). If this book had been titled “How to Keep Cool in a World of Social Media Firestorms,” it might have felt more complete. Jacobs does deliver numerous insights for the social-media-addled. (For example, “Remember that you don’t have to respond to what everyone else is responding to in order to signal your virtue and right-mindedness.”)

But his self-critical exploration of intellectual honesty, an exploration which skirts the realms of the theological, was the most valuable part of the book for me. He brings thinkers back to love, a theme he explored in A Theology of Reading: The Hermeneutics of Love. Here Jacobs offers no final answers. We can’t keep an open mind at all times; he knows that and proves it with verve. But when it comes to thinking, there is no algorithm by which we can necessarily determine whether we are guilty of kowtowing to some Inner Ring or are part of genuine community, no way to know with certainty whether we are susceptible to narrow influences or are truly loving thinkers. Life is, or ought to be, a pursuit of that knowledge, even if we’ll never perfectly achieve it. “You simply can’t thrive in a state of constant daily evaluation of the truth-conduciveness of your social world,” Jacobs says, “any more than a flowering plant can flourish if its owner digs up its roots every morning to see how it’s doing.”

If Jacobs perchance reads this review, he ought to know that I read most words he writes publicly—and that I think this once he missed a great opportunity to quote Stanley Fish. Fish has a story he appeals to a number of times in his writings that is much like the Phelps-Roper story. It features a member of the Aryan Nation who finds himself instantly disaffected with his erstwhile crowd when one of its leaders gives a speech consigning those with cleft palates to the gas chambers. This man’s daughter had a cleft palate. What Fish points out is that people who change from one worldview to another don’t change wholesale; they pivot on at least one point they held before. In this case, the man loved his daughter and this was his pivot point. I think Jacobs could have explored this story with great depth—and could have deepened his own case by using it. In it again love is key to thinking.

One more thing: I’m a Christian, and Jacobs is a Christian, and says so in this book. I think Jacobs could have gotten away with more Christianity. Augustine, for example, surely could have figured prominently in a book on how love is essential to right thinking. And, for that matter, the Apostle Paul.

Former Fundie on Genesis 1

“Former Fundie” Ben Corey notes that extraterrestrial life may be discovered on what Trekkies would call a likely “Class M” planet—a planet that has the conditions for supporting life. Does this shoot the literal reading of Genesis 1? Corey summarizes two responses to the text:

Fundamentalist: This is what the text says. If it did not happen exactly the way it is recorded, it is not true. Therefore, it must be true.

Atheist: This is what the text says. If it did not happen exactly the way it is recorded, it is not true. Therefore, you’d have to be closed-minded to believe it.

It’s the same hermeneutical approach on both sides. It imports the same modern assumptions on how we tell history versus how ancients told stories, and assumes being “inspired by God” means the text must answer modern questions instead of ancient ones.

I personally don’t know any Christians, fundamentalist or otherwise, who think that if the creation account in Genesis is seen to omit something (like the existence of extraterrestrial life, his example), it is necessarily in error. And Corey acknowledges this in the post. If there are fundamentalists out there saying that Genesis 1 has to be exhaustively precise in order to be true, that is indeed bad.

It seems like this point Corey’s making belongs in another article, one about how modern(ist) readings of the text of Genesis twist it out of its intended genre. But he doesn’t have to write it; I’ve read it. The argument goes back at least to the 19th century: “The Bible is not a science textbook.”

Sometimes when I read this particular polemic, however, I want to ask, “Is the conservative reading of Scripture on creation (including Gen 1 and Rom 5 and 8) so ridiculous on textual grounds? Is it impossible to see how anyone would arrive at a young-earth interpretation? Are there no circumstances (a new scientific consensus, for example) under which these words could reasonably be thought to be claiming that God created the world in six days, culminating with the creation of an original pair of humans? If this is a possible reading, then is it wrong to adopt it? If so, why?” I don’t see how it’s a particularly modern question to ask, “How did the universe begin?” Or even “How long were the days of creation?” Given that a great many ancient people—including, ahem, Jesus and Paul—appear to have believed in a historical Adam and Eve, am I to be charged with modernism for agreeing with them?

The writings of the fathers on Genesis have become a battleground for this very reason, and from the reading I’ve done—including at Biologos and Answers in Genesis just today—it seems the evidence goes both ways: there are fathers like Augustine who read Genesis 1 differently than Ken Ham; there are fathers like Ephrem the Syrian who specifically state that the days of creation were 24-hour days (“Although the light and the clouds were created in the twinkling of an eye, still both the day and the night of the First Day were each completed in twelve hours”). But it only takes one premodern citation for me to prove that my reading is not necessarily modern; Corey has to show, I think, not only 1) that my supposedly modern interests are not at all reflected among ancient writers and 2) that writers like Augustine were not themselves unduly influenced by the cultural currents of their own day. James Mook tackles this in a chapter in Coming to Grips with Genesis.

I’m a creationist because Genesis appears to demand it, and Jesus and Paul most definitely do. Jesus assumed a historical Adam, and so did Paul. Paul bases key parts of his theology on Adam. See Romans 5. He bases key parts of his theology on the connection between sin and death: death came into the world through sin. See Romans 8. (I’ve written on this at much greater length in Biblical Worldview: Creation, Fall, Redemption.) I don’t think all the work on behalf of this viewpoint is done. There are complexities and difficulties involved in the text, not just in the task of fitting the text to the modern scientific consensus. Young-earth creationists need to keep working at our view and defending it and sharpening it.

The Slippery Slope

Although the slippery slope argument is never airtight, because it presumes to predict the future (So-and-so won’t be a Christian at all in five years) or find cause-effect relations that are impossible to prove (So-and-so got to this point because he denied doctrine X), I feel safe in asking: Is there any connection between Corey’s disbelief in a historical Adam and Eve (and therefore a historical fall) and his opposition to what I take to be one of the central doctrines of Christianity and something inestimably precious to me personally, namely Christ’s death in my place to satisfy the wrath of God? There are Bible interpreters who doubt the young-earth reading of Genesis 1 and yet can sing “In Christ Alone” with gusto. I take C. John Collins to be one; but Corey could not sing the hymn (or preach Romans 3 without Olympic-level hermeneutical gymnastics).

And is there any connection between Corey’s denial of an original heterosexual human pair and his affirmation of the morality of homosexual sex?

Again, the slippery slope argument can never be applied with absolute certainty to any individual: I don’t know Corey’s history beyond his own telling. But I think the slippery slope argument can legitimately be used to describe general historical trends. Is it not true that the doctrinal dominos often fall in a kind of order, both in individuals an in groups (such as the Protestant mainline)? Or that views once deemed unthinkable tend to become actual, given certain premises?

It really is possible to give away too much of the Christian faith in an effort to be relevant. Corey has done it;  sadly, Corey has done it. If the church needs help moving away from imprisonment to a modernist hermeneutical schema, I don’t think he’s the one to lead us.

I won’t deny that alternative readings of Genesis 1 have appealing features. I don’t like looking like a rube anymore than the next obscure redheaded blogger, and I try not to adopt interpretations of Scripture in order to make smart people mock me. But if the appeal of alternative readings is, at bottom, that they excuse us from having to wear a cultural dunce cap, other Christian beliefs will force it right back on our heads. We might as well learn to stand, and having done all, to stand.

Nonetheless… I’m very happy to agree that no one, fundamentalist or atheist, should read the text of Scripture to affirm anything the authors didn’t intend to affirm. But there’s also the little problem of denying that they affirmed things they clearly said. Don’t forget that ditch on the other side of the road—or the slippery slope leading to it.