Am I “Making Religious Believers” Out of My Students? (part 2)

Okay, let’s go back to Wesleyan University president Michael Roth’s claim that while he wants his students (even fellow secularists) to engage with religious ideas and feelings, he certainly isn’t “trying to make a religious believer out of anybody.”

But as a Christian historian — and as a professor at a Christian college — aren’t I trying to make religious believers out of my students?

A few thoughts:

1. What would Wesley do?
Statue of John Wesley in London
Statue of John Wesley in front of his chapel in London – Creative Commons (Fin Fahey)

It’s probably not the most charitable reaction, but I couldn’t help but wonder how the namesake of Roth’s university would respond to his statement. After all, if John Wesley was right, then the “natural state of man” (and woman) is “supineness, indolence, and stupidity… insensibility of his real condition” until “the voice of God awakes him.” And someone who would preach such a sermon at Oxford University probably would see some connection between education and that awakening.

Shirley Mullen, like Roth an intellectual historian-turned-president of an institution of higher learning rooted in the Wesleyan educational tradition, concludes that, “Learning is, for Wesley, one of the means made available by God, in His Providence, to enable us, in love, to partner with God in fighting back the darkness of ignorance in ourselves, in our children, in our neighbors, and in society.” (“The ‘Strangely Warmed’ Mind,” in The Pietist Impulse in Christianity, p. 168). While Wesleyan University’s stated dedication “to providing an education in the liberal arts that is characterized by boldness, rigor, and practical idealism” may certainly be seen as descending from the distinctive concerns of the Methodist movement, the fact that its president would value study of religion while hastening to proclaim such efforts non-evangelistic may underscore Mullen’s observation that

if Wesley were to lament the long term impact of education in certain quarters of the Methodist vineyard, it would be in those places where learning has been mistaken for “end” rather than “means” or allowed to operate for human aggrandizement, apart from submission to the purifying and loving work of the Holy Spirit.

2. What do you mean by “make”? (Or “believers”?)

So if education is the means, isn’t the end “to make religious believers”?

Well, it depends on what we mean by that problematic phrase.

First, I’d agree with the first response of one of my Facebook friends: “…no one can make a believer of someone else; that’s the work of the Holy Spirit.” That’s how Mullen summarizes Wesley’s understanding as well. Learning isn’t salvific in and of itself: “Rather, it assists in removing the ignorance that blinds us and hinds us from responding in obedience to the transforming work of the Holy Spirit” (italics mine).

Neuville, "Conversion of the Saxons"
Alphonse de Neuville, “The Conversion of the Saxons” (ca. 1869) – Wikimedia

But even to the extent that I do “partner with God in fighting back the darkness of ignorance” in my students, I’m leery of the power dynamic that I think Roth means to imply with the “make… out of” construction.

I’m not Charlemagne forcing baptism on his vanquished foes at the point of a sword, but I could certainly use the carrot and stick of the gradebook (or the even softer forms of power that come with my position as professor) to manipulate my students into producing an outward assent to religious propositions. I could create a kind of Christendom in the classroom.

And for having gained nothing like the whole world, I’d have forfeited my soul, and wounded those of my students.

After all, the kind of “religious belief” I’d have forced in the above scenario would likely pulse with the same resentment and hypocrisy that Martin Luther said resulted from striving to follow the law outwardly: “…because in doing such works the heart abhors the law and yet is forced to obey it, the works are a total loss and are completely useless.” Or perhaps I’d have pushed students into the “human illusion and dream” that Luther thought results when people “make for themselves with their own powers a concept in their hearts which says, ‘I believe’…. since it is a human fabrication and thought and not an experience of the heart, it accomplishes nothing, and there follows no improvement.”

At best, all I could have done is to spawn a variety of the “dead orthodoxy” that we Pietists contrast with the living faith of Luther’s definition: the “living, creative, active powerful thing” worked by God that “makes us completely different people in heart, mind, senses, and all our powers….”

So no, I don’t want to make a religious believer out of anybody.

3. And yet…

I do, however, want everybody to experience the moment when, according to John Wesley,

…the Spirit of the Almighty strikes the heart of him that was till then without God in the world, it breaks the hardness of his heart, and creates all things new. The Sun of Righteousness appears, and shines upon his soul, showing him the light of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. He is in a new world. All things round him are become new, such as it never before entered into his heart to conceive. He sees, so far as his newly-opened eyes can bear the sight…

I do pray that God thereby makes everybody different “in heart, mind, senses, and all of our powers….” And that I can contribute in some way to that change through my work as a teacher and historian — if not planting the seeds, at least tilling the soil…

Cover of The Pietist Vision of Christian Higher Education
Haven’t shown this cover in a while…

(This shouldn’t be a surprise: I just published a book in which I argue that, for Pietists, the mission of Christian higher education is to bring into being new persons who serve a new church for the sake of a new world.)

Even as the president of a once-Wesleyan institution, I’m sure Roth wouldn’t see his work in this way. But in terms of what this means for teaching, I don’t think we’re so far apart.

As teachers of history, both Roth and I seek something more than mere comprehension, more even than critical thinking. We want our students “to go beyond the facts and try to imagine how it felt to be at a certain time and place… to participate imaginatively in the past while recognizing that this creative act can never be accomplished fully.”

We want them to practice empathy. And if they do so, they “have an easier time accepting the possibility that we might be wrong, that new evidence might change our minds.”

Medieval historian Rachel Fulton defines empathy not only as an act of “compassion” and of “participation,” but even more so, as “a refusal of self as potentially mutable.” In Fulton’s understanding, to study the past historically assumes

the possibility of conversion in the encounter with an Other, for what is conversion if not the willingness to look at the world through another’s eyes, to see the lens of another’s reality—and to accept it, if only momentarily, as one’s own. (quoted in John Fea, Why Study History?, p. 59)

In light of this, consider how philosopher David Williams, in the first chapter of our book, articulates a “convertative” understanding of higher education:

…when one’s whole person is involved, one experiences a kind of movement analogous to the movement from sickness to health. The life of the mind becomes more than a mere analysis of proposition. The inquirer needs to see something they did not before and feel the change that has been wrought by having considered the world in a different way. Pietism’s central theological notion maintains that an encounter with the transcendent will leave one altered in all senses of what it means to be a person, and this experiential emphasis is carried into the realm of academic inquiry. (The Pietist Vision of Christian Higher Education, p. 45, italics mine)

The historic past is both vast and finite, and the evidence it leaves behind profoundly limited, so I’m not sure any historian is going to tell her student to prepare to encounter “the transcendent.” But if the biblical testimony is true, then students of history are encountering people made in the image of God in a world that is under the Lordship of a Christ whose Holy Spirit is at work within time and space. If we enter a history classroom and seek to “participate imaginatively in the past” — and truly mean that participation to involve our whole person — then the encounter may indeed leave us “altered,” as God makes us new persons.

<<Read part one of this post


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