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On Learning in Community
As I approach Newsletter #100, I’d love to hear from you! What has been your favorite topic or post over the last two years?
What’s a Symposium?
Last week the Free Will Baptist Commission for Theological Integrity held its annual theological symposium on the campus of Randall University in Moore, Oklahoma. As a former program coordinator of this event, let me first express my thanks to two main parties: Cory Thompson, and the administration and staff of Randall.
Cory is the Program Chairman for this event. It’s a yeoman’s work to pull everything together, and he did it very well. He’s a dear friend and colleague who understands the value of this gathering.
Randall University has been an important partner in hosting this event since its inception in the late-1990s. In fact, they hosted the first-ever symposium. They did an outstanding this year in their provision of logistical support, including the meeting space, technical support, and especially refreshments. (They had deviled eggs, for crying out loud!)
When people hear the phrase “theological symposium,” I often fear what enters their heads. To some people that phrase screams “academic snoozefest” or “intellectual eggheads.” I suppose sometimes intellectuals have garnered those kinds of reputations by failing to present their work in the most relevant and engaging of ways. On the other hand, sometimes these associations are simply ways that people dismiss an important aspect of discipleship: loving the Lord with one’s mind.
Given the fact that this event is free and always held in contexts full of Christians, I’ve often shook my head at how few attend it. (Though attendance was fairly strong this year.)
One way I’d like to recast or reframe the issue for those less interested is to take a look at the root meaning and background to the word “symposium.”
I’ll never forget what an older, distinguished scholar told me years ago. He informed a group of us that symposium essentially meant a “drinking party.” He wasn’t advocating for this, but he felt it was interesting enough to share! And it turns out that symposium first meant a kind of convivial party (as after a banquet in ancient Greece) with music and conversation. But this is too tame. A key part of the word symposium (itself a compound word) includes the element of drinking.
Let me assure readers that the only things we were drinking at this event were water, coffee, and soda!
If you look up word “symposium” in most dictionaries, it will give something like the following as the modern meaning: a meeting or conference for the public discussion of some topic, especially one in which the participants form an audience and make presentations. That practically captures exactly what happens at this event.
The event is organized around the presentation of eight to ten papers (usually nine). Each presenter shares a paper on a theological topic for around 40-45 minutes. The presentations are then followed by 5-10 minutes of questions and answers. Between presentations, conversations about the papers spill into the breaktimes. In short, we are engaged in discussion and reflection about ideas and arguments. We are seeking to take every thought captive in obedience to Christ (2 Cor. 10:3-5).
Theology in Community
I really like the phrase “theology in community.” (It’s even the basis of a series of volumes published in recent years by Crossway.) My use of the phrase is a way of referring to how the very best theological reflection and understanding is done not in isolation, but in community. It’s through the process of “sharing our work,” leaving ourselves open to scrutiny and push-back, that we’re able to better get to the truth.
Sometimes we’re not even simply arriving at truth in this process. That is to say, we’re already on target in our thinking. However, we’re learning how to better express ourselves. We’re challenged to move from being correct to being clearer.
It’s also possible that a presenter’s perspective isn’t correct. The audience’s probing questions and suggestions become the first step in moving from error to truth.
Often, the interaction becomes the basis of being confirmed in our current thinking. Sometimes the feedback of others provides greater confidence that we’re on the right track.
Simultaneously, sharing our work gives others the chance to learn and grow with us. Whether it concerns the meaning of a specific passage, the contours of a given doctrine, or the solution to a vexing problem, the give-and-take of public presentation and discussion helps us all work out what we ought to believe.
Even if you’ve never attended a symposium, it’s quite likely that you have participated in a book club. Reading fiction may not be the best analogy, but reading other material can provide an occasion for greater understanding. The context of discussion can yield insights that reading alone may fail to produce.
On more than one occasion I’ve heard a paper presentation that educated me on something I knew little about. Other presentations have given me direction for further study on a topic I was already interested in but wasn’t sure where to begin. And sometimes I’ve even changed my mind on a matter because of a timely, well-argued paper.
Beware of those self-taught people who can’t (or won’t) point to any source, mentor, or teacher who helped show them the way intellectually. Likewise, beware of those who only and always quote, cite, or credit everyone else for everything they believe.
At some point, we must own those beliefs which are most central to our worldview. Yet we must also recognize that we are always indebted to faithful teachers. That teaching need not only come in the setting of the classroom, but in other settings where serious Christians of wisdom and experience gather.
Theological symposia are important opportunities for believers to grow, share, learn, and give themselves fully to God’s truth. Good theology is and will always be communal.
In Newsletter #60 I wrote a bit about the significance of biology. At the Theological Symposium last week, two papers were presented on gender, sexuality, and/or the body. You can take a look at these presentations on the Theological Commission Facebook page (See the ones given by Adam Blehm and Jason Myers.)
Phillip Yancey, Where the Light Fell: A Memoir.
Quote of the Week:
As the next school year begins, Americans have a vague sense that all is not well in our schools and in the souls of our children. Whenever I give an interview or a speech or I appear on a podcast to discuss the proliferating problems of American education, the same question comes up time and time again…how are we going to fix all these failures?...It is the question, perhaps the most central and pressing question of our time. But underneath it is a substratum of expectation that the answer must be rooted somewhere on a school campus—in a reform, a new curriculum, a tweak to pedagogy, or the advent of a new gizmo or tech toy. Maybe there isn’t enough money. Maybe the teachers aren’t good enough…But if we want to face a tremendously daunting truth, if we genuinely want to become the serious people in the face of this epochal challenge of broken schools and broken children, then we must acknowledge a reality that policymakers and ed-tech aficionados simply don’t want to hear: the solutions to our school problems do not come from school…If we were being serious and honest, however, we would admit that the outcomes of a school are almost always decided by the relationships, values, and behaviors that are formed before a student sets foot on a school campus…Our schools are failing not because of what happens in the classroom, but because of what happens—or more to the point, what doesn’t happen—at the dinner table.”
Jeremy Adams, “If We Want Better Schools, We Need to Be a Serious People.”
Common Grace Wisdom: Social Justice Activism Gone Too Far
Freddie deBoer is by no means an obvious ally in the cultural conflict of our time. He is, after all, a Marxist! Yet I’ve been struck by some of his honest admissions in his latest book, How Elites Are the Social Justice Movement. Notice his concerns about the far left’s use of language (a concern I explored in an earlier newsletter):
I’m not a professor, but I’ll always be an academic. I grew up in an academic household, I have a PhD, and I read academic publications regularly. I’ll always be an academic at heart.
But it’s not anti-intellectual to say that the left desperately needs to lose its academic vocabulary, which is overwhelmingly influenced by trends in humanities departments at elite universities.
That’s because it is incomprehensible to ordinary Americans.
Students go through those programs and absorb a certain vocabulary, they graduate and go to work at nonprofits and in media and in Hollywood, and from there they spread the terminology. Social media, especially Tumblr and Twitter, helps ensure that this fancy vocabulary colonizes left-leaning spaces. Nobody wants to sound unsophisticated, so everyone adopts these terms even if they’re not particularly comfortable with them. Like seemingly everything in the internet age, it’s mimetic. And that’s how you get people talking about the role of Latinx intersectionality in queering BIPOC spaces in the Global South.
I especially appreciate his questioning of the use of the language of “black bodies” as a stand in for “black people or citizens.” In short, deBoer wants people to start talking like human beings again! You can read the rest of this excerpt here.
On My Mind: Preparing to Address Students
Next Monday and Tuesday, I’ll be on the campus of Welch College. While I’m there for several reasons, I’ll be addressing a group of ministry majors and also a homiletics class. As I prepare my remarks, what would you want to say to such a group of young men? What do they most need to know at this moment in their training?