As part of an online New Testament class I’m teaching at CSU Fullerton, I am writing up summaries of the weekly discussion fora. This seemed like a good opportunity to do some public-facing writing, so I’m posting these summaries in the online course but also to my blog. No information about individual students will be posted unless that student has given permission.
As I had hoped to do, I’m now finally getting around to writing my first weekly (appreciative and critical) summary of the weekly Discussion Forums.
I’d like to start first by commending the class for the positive energy, optimistic tone, kind encouragement, and willingness to learn, grow, and be challenged. There were numerous posts that gave me immense joy to read. Connecting Harry Potter and the baby Jesus. Being open for the first time to consider the influence of Homer on the New Testament. Thinking about all the ways the New Testament has influenced art, literature, movies, and even some of the names our parents gave to us. For those with eyes to see, the New Testament is in us and all around us! In many ways, this class—especially by including the reception of the Bible throughout history and in a diversity of media—will give us the vision to see this for ourselves.
As we saw from many posts, studying the New Testament can be very personal for many of us. I was actually somewhat surprised to find that there was a much stronger religious/spiritual tenor to the conversation than I had anticipated or even than I’ve experienced in the past when teaching at various private Christian Liberal Arts colleges! I suppose part of the reason is that private Christian colleges are sometimes more of a priority for wealthy, tuition-paying parents than for some (many?) of the students who attend them. Some of it may be because New Testament here at CSUF is not a required General Education class, but instead an elective, so students are taking this class because they want to take it. According to the roster, most of our students in this class are seniors, which makes me appreciate all the more that you would take this class as one of your final classes here at CSUF.
On this note, I did want to caution against using the pejorative word “secular” to describe our freakin awesome, vibrant, and diverse public university. 🙂 Just because an institution is public does not mean that its professors, students, or even learning experience has to be “secular” (or, “this-worldly”). Just because public education is focused on this world, prioritizes evidence-based arguments, etc., does not mean that beliefs about a greater reality or future existence are off-limits or foreclosed. Just because a university does not have a shared religious creed does not mean that its members are not together devoted to the shared pursuit of truth.
It should also be noted that the most prestigious Christian universities in the country (Baylor, Notre Dame, etc.) are deeply humanistic, even while they maintain ties to their sponsoring religious organizations. Rather than seeing the world and education in terms of the mutually exclusive categories of sacred and secular, I would continue to invite us to be open to paradox, that our education can be spiritual and humanistic, fully divine and fully human at the same time. Labwork can lead to awe. Software can be a prayer. And business can be a burden of love.
Let me also add a caution about our use of the terms “Christian” and “Catholic.” Several students told stories of converting from “Catholicism” to “Christianity.” While your story is your own to tell, let me frame our stories within a scholarly context:
- Catholicism is one type of Christianity and happens to be the largest group within Christian tradition, representing over a billion of the some two billion Christians on the planet.
- It would be more accurate, historically speaking, to speak of changing or converting from “Catholicism” to “Protestantism” or even “Evangelicalism,” or vice versa.
- Many Catholics confess to identical beliefs and experiences as Evangelicals: having a personal relationship with Jesus, reading the Bible devotionally, focusing on God/Jesus in prayer, and not worshipping saints (even if still honoring/remembering them).
- In terms of a colonial and post-colonial reading of Christian history, Catholicism and Protestantism / Evangelicalism have both been shaped predominantly by European culture in which Christianity is defined and dominated by white males, conversion is conquest, individualism is paramount, and experience is sacred. American Christianity, both in its 10,000s of denominations and non-denominations, is deeply influenced by modern capitalism, whereby conversions are market-share, success is defined by numbers and dollars, pastors are brands, and worship is entertainment. So my tough question for our class is this. How have our stories, our experiences, even our conversions been shaped by our cultural context?
It is easy to go through life unaware and uncritical of the kinds of religious beliefs/practices with which we are familiar, and this includes the ways we have been taught to read the Bible. Our class trip back into ancient Christian literature and history may lead to culture shock, but it may also let us see ourselves and our culture more clearly.
The ways that most of us self-identified also got me thinking, where are our fellow students and neighbors? Where are our Eastern Orthodox students? Mormons? Jehovah’s Witnesses? Jews? Muslims? Did our fellow students, our friends and neighbors, not take this class because they did not find it personally meaningful? Educationally significant? Did they think it would challenge them in undesirable ways? In the midst of the first week student shuffle, one or two students who self-identified as agnostic or atheist left the class. Perhaps it was just scheduling or something else, but I wonder whether they felt safe to be themselves.