Tag Archives: Conference on Faith and History

FROM MY COMMONPLACE BOOK: BONHOEFFER ON CHRISTIAN COMMUNITY

Fall has arrived in the Midwest. The leaves are beginning to show orange and red, the temperature is supposed to dip into the thirties tonight, and my recent trip to southern California already seems like a dream. I spent the latter half of last week in Malibu, where an organization called the Conference on Faith and History convened for its 2014 biennial meeting. The Conference on Faith and History is a national organization of Christian historians that has been in existence for nearly half a century. About three hundred participants gathered for this year’s meeting. The program was amazing, the fellowship was great, and I had a blast.

Almost everyone I tell about the location of the meeting chuckles and winks. The assumption is that the CFH intentionally seeks out beach-front locales for its meetings, as if we were all looking for a place where we could put on Speedos and sip drinks with little umbrellas in them. Nothing could be further from the truth. In past years, I’ve attended CFH gatherings in such non-Malibu-like sites as Huntington, Indiana, Shawnee, Oklahoma, and Holland, Michigan. The CFH always holds its national meetings on Christian college campuses, and it just so happened that this year’s host school was Pepperdine University. Not that I’m complaining.

Have you ever been to Pepperdine? It is perched on high ground overlooking the Pacific Ocean, and the vistas from the heart of campus are just ridiculously gorgeous. How anyone gets any work done there I can’t imagine. In an odd way, it was comforting to come back to the Chicagoland area, knowing that I could look forward to weather that will drive everyone indoors for the next eight months. What a blessing. . . .

The view from the rear of the student center at Pepperdine University

The view from the rear of the student center at Pepperdine University

But enough about the weather. My time at the conference sent my thoughts repeatedly to an extended passage in my commonplace book from Dietrich Bonhoeffer. I’ve shared a portion of it before in a different post, but I thought I would return to it now and explain why I find it so meaningful. To do so requires a bit of personal context. I hope you’ll bear with me.

Thirty-two years (thirty-two years!) have passed since I embarked on an academic career. When I began graduate school at Vanderbilt University in the autumn of 1982, I thought that God might be calling me to become a Christian professor on a public university campus. I had not reached that conclusion easily. Throughout my senior year at the University of Tennessee I wrestled with several career options. With no certain sense of direction, I tried to keep my options open and did everything I could to put off making a decision. By December I had applied to thirteen different graduate or professional schools encompassing four different kinds of study. The options on the table were law, business, law and business, and history. I didn’t have peace about any of them.

From hindsight, that began to change when I was home over Christmas break, thanks to an unexpected visit from a near stranger. I recognized the white-haired man on our front porch as an usher in the fairly large Southern Baptist church that I had grown up in. I didn’t know him by name, however, and I doubt that we had ever more than smiled at one another in passing. I had given my testimony in a Sunday night service right after Christmas, and this gentleman explained that he had felt impressed to pass along a book to me that someone had given him.

The book that he placed in my hands was a book on Christian discipleship: The Upstream Christian in a Downstream World, by Charles W. Dunn. I took the book back to school with me that winter and read it against the backdrop of my ongoing struggle to figure out what in the world God wanted me to do with my life. Although it contained a great deal of wisdom, what struck me most was not the author’s counsel but rather his own life story. Charles Dunn was a professor of political science at Clemson University, and he filled his book with summaries of countless conversations over the years with college students about the claims of Christ. Gradually, I became more and more excited about the possibility of imitating Dunn’s example, and when Vanderbilt offered me the opportunity to pursue graduate study in history entirely on their dime, I decided to enroll and pursue a Ph.D.

Graduate school was harder than anything I had ever attempted, but it was also marvelously rewarding, and almost from the first I felt a sense of affirmation about the path that I had chosen. That sense of confidence was reinforced when, six years later, I was offered a marvelous job at a world-class research university immediately upon finishing my graduate study. My wife and I moved to the Pacific Northwest, determined to invest in the lives of students at the University of Washington.

I arrived at UW confident that God had called me to be a Christian history professor, but with only the slightest idea of what that meant. I took for granted that what would make me a Christian history professor would be what I did outside of the classroom. I would look for ways to witness to unbelieving students when they visited my office, and my wife and I would lead a Bible study for college students at our church. But when I was in the classroom, what I taught and how I taught wouldn’t differ that much from my unbelieving colleagues. I would just be nicer.

Had you asked me during those years, I would have insisted that I was doing my best to love God with my mind. I was pretty sure that I was imitating the apostle Paul in “pressing toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 3:14). But I was not thinking “Christianly” about my profession, nor did I have the remotest idea of what it might mean to “take every thought captive to the obedience of Christ” (II Corinthians 10:5).

My evangelical upbringing had taught me that, whatever my specific career path, all that truly mattered was personal integrity and evangelism. And so for years—it embarrasses me now to admit this—I defined faithfulness in my calling with little reference to the actual content of my teaching and scholarship. Yes, I would teach a Sunday School class, and yes, I would look for opportunities to witness, but otherwise I would simply jump on the academic treadmill. By not thinking deeply about the institution in which I labored, I found it relatively easy to be content in that labor. But while I was focused narrowly on personal piety and evangelism—good things both—I was also happily serving a university which rested on a worldview that was the antithesis of what I professed to believe.

I’m not pretending for a moment that I have it all figured out now, but I do think that God helped me over time to think more deeply about the foundations of the secular multiversity of which I was a part. I slowly began to realize that the classroom is never a neutral space, and that I had been teaching in a way that made me unwittingly complicit in the university’s secularizing mission. Whatever I might be doing or saying outside of the classroom, inside of the classroom I was implicitly teaching my students to make sense of their world without reference to the Author of all wisdom and knowledge.

As I came to grips with this insight, I was forced to wrestle with my calling in a way that I never had before. And as I tried—really for the first time—to think “Christianly” about my vocation, I began to experience what the late Harry Blamires (one of C.S. Lewis’s last students) called “the loneliness of the thinking Christian.” Before this, I had never really felt alone as a Christian in the secular Academy for one simple reason: I wasn’t thinking like one. But now that was changing, and the result was a growing sense of alienation.

This is where the Conference on Faith and History came in. I knew that I didn’t understand how to pursue my vocation as a Christian historian faithfully, but I also didn’t know what to do differently. I needed to learn from those who shared my vocation and were farther down the road than I was. Some of this I could gain by reading books and articles on the subject, but that was not enough. Looking back, I think I was sort of like the Ethiopian court official that we read about in the New Testament (Acts 8:26-40), the one who Phillip the Apostle encountered on the road from Jerusalem to Gaza. Like him, I needed a living, side-by-side conversation, and when I attended my first CFH convention I found that. The fellowship that I encountered in the Conference on Faith and History encouraged me deeply. Even more important was the ongoing conversation about calling that I was invited to join. It continues to bless me immeasurably, and I will always be grateful.

RNS-DIETRICH-BONHOEFFERAnd so it is that throughout last week’s conference my mind kept returning to passages in my commonplace book from Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Bonhoeffer, as you probably know, was a German theologian and pastor who was an open critic of Nazi rule from the moment that Adolph Hitler rose to power. Because the established Protestant churches were under the control of the Gestapo, for several years Bonhoeffer secretly trained young pastors in an underground seminary. In 1938 he penned Life Together, an extended meditation on Christian community that grew out of this experience.

Life Together III first read Life Together the fall that I arrived at Wheaton College after twenty-two years at the University of Washington. It impressed me deeply. Bonhoeffer began by quoting Psalm 133:1. “Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity!” The rest of the book proclaims two truths: First, as Christians we desperately need the blessing of Christian community.  Second, we must never, ever take it for granted when we are blessed to experience it.

Here is how Bonhoeffer explains the first point:

God has willed that we should seek and find His living Word in the witness of a brother, in the mouth of man. Therefore, the Christian needs another Christian who speaks God’s Word to him. He needs him again and again when he becomes uncertain and discouraged, for by himself he cannot help himself without belying the truth.

Here I read Bonhoeffer articulating both the longing I had felt at UW and the blessing that I had felt in my interaction with the Conference on Faith and History. I’ve been wrestling with the concept of vocation for nearly twenty years, and there’s only one thing I’m absolutely certain of: we need to work out our understandings of our calling in community. We need to be in conversation with other believers about what it means to follow God faithfully in the particular circumstances in which He has placed us.

Bonhoeffer also writes movingly about the preciousness of Christian community. The book’s third sentence sounds the theme: “It is not simply to be taken for granted that the Christian has the privilege of living among other Christians.” Surely he must have reflected on that truth countless times in the years to come, including the two years that he spent in a succession of prisons before his execution in April 1945.

I have meditated on the passage below frequently since coming to Wheaton. It helps put into words my gratitude for the Conference on Faith and History, but it also provides a framework for thinking about the opportunity that God has granted me here at Wheaton. I need to hear regularly both the reminder and the warning that it contains:

It is true, of course, that what is an unspeakable gift of God for the lonely individual is easily disregarded and trodden under foot by those who have the gift every day. It is easily forgotten that the fellowship of Christian brethren is a gift of grace, a gift of the Kingdom of God that any day may be taken from us, that the time that still separates us from utter loneliness may be brief indeed. Therefore, let him who until now has had the privilege of living a common Christian life with other Christians praise God’s grace from the bottom of his heart. Let him thank God on his knees and declare: It is grace, nothing but grace, that we are allowed to live in community with Christian brethren.

“THE SPIRITUAL PRACTICE OF REMEMBERING”

Happy 2014 to everyone! I am writing from Washington, D. C., where I was attending the annual meeting of the American Historical Association, the largest professional association of historians in the United States. Imagine more than four thousand academic historians converging on one place–it’s scarier than a zombie movie. I still recall a conversation I had with my dad some twenty-six years ago as I was preparing to leave for my first AHA convention (it was held in Washington, D.C. that year also). I shared with my dad that I was nervous about it, and my accountant father did his best to coach me. “No need to be nervous,” he said. “Most of them won’t have any social skills either.” 🙂

I enjoyed this year’s meeting, especially a session sponsored by the Conference on Faith and History (an organization of Christian historians) on the topic “Re-Imagining the Practice of History.”  I was privileged to give a paper alongside Professor Glenn Sanders of Oklahoma Baptist University, who shared some really challenging and creative ideas about how to incorporate Christian spiritual practices into the history classroom.  We both benefited from commentary by Professor John Fea of Messiah College, who did a wonderful job of framing our papers to the audience and of offering constructive feedback.  One of the main reasons that I have been drawn to the Conference on Faith and History is that I have found within its fellowship a context for exploring what it means to pursue my vocation faithfully, and this year’s session was a perfect example of that.

Unfortunately, the historically awful weather that is now sweeping across the midwest and east caused my flight back to Chicago to be cancelled, and so I find myself looking at at least another day and a half in D. C.  It’s been too long since I last talked with you all, so I thought I would take the opportunity to catch up a bit.

From time to time I like to share recommendations of books that I think would be of interest to Christians interested in American history.  I just finished one such book, The Spiritual Practice of Remembering, by Margaret Bendroth.  The author is a historian of American religion and the director of the Congregational Library in Boston, Massachusetts.  I do not know her personally, but I have long admired her as a fine historian and a scholar of sincere religious faith.  I ordered the book the moment it was released and began reading it on the plane from O’Hare to Dulles.  It didn’t disappoint.  Bendroth’s goal is not to offer a particular interpretation of history, but instead to make a case for the importance of history, especially to Christians.  The book is short (132 pp.) and accessible; Bendroth has a real knack for illustrating her points with memorable illustrations or examples.  I recommend the book heartily.

Rather than offer a blow-by-blow synopsis, I’ll just share briefly a few of Bendroth’s points that struck me forcefully.  First, she effectively reminds us that Christianity is a historical faith.  Both Christianity and Judaism are religions fundamentally based on remembrance of historical events, of God’s work in the arc of human history.  Among other things, this means that “the past tense is essential to our language of faith.”  (That’s one of the book’s many pithy phrases that I know I will be coming back to, as is her observation that, in severing ourselves from the past, most twenty-first-century Americans are “stranded in the present.”)

And yet, though we claim to adhere to a historical faith, we also tend to be dismissive of history.  Bendroth spends much of her time trying to explain this paradox.  Her explanation is multi-faceted, but two factors that she develops stand out to me.  To begin with, she notes that modern Americans have come to take it for granted that the past is “inferior to the present.”  (The key point is that this is an attribute of the modern mind.  For most of world history, humans have not reflexively adopted this kind of chronological snobbery.)  Commercials entice us with products that are “new and improved!”as if the phrase were one word.  Our love affair (obsession?) with technology reinforces the mindset that equates change with progress.

With condescending charity we may view our ancestors as quaint–their peculiarities can be amusing, after all–but we will rarely believe that they have anything to say to us that we might need to hear.  Given that 100 million people died in twentieth-century wars, that there are many more people in slavery today than were ever caught up in the transatlantic slave trade of the 1500s-1800s, and that global inequities in power and wealth are staggering, why are we so quick to believe that humanity is on an ever-ascending escalator?  And yet, as Bendroth observes, “we assume that we are better than people who have lived before us.”

If we are inclined to think of people from the past as inferior to us, Bendroth also notes that we now find it easy to think of them as “not really real.”  As late as the early-nineteenth century, most Americans lived in communities in which reminders of those who had gone before were everywhere.  She cites many examples of this, but perhaps the most powerful was the practice of building  cemeteries in church-yards.  Generations of American Christians were tangibly reminded of the “cloud of witnesses” who had preceded them every Sunday as they entered their church buildings.

As an antidote to such dismissiveness, Bendroth calls us to a renewed appreciation of a concept embodied in the Apostles’ Creed, namely the “communion of the saints.”  This ancient phrase (likely a part of the creed since the early 700s), reminds us that “all of God’s people–past, present, and future–form a single, interdependent whole.”  Furthermore, she challenges us to love our brothers and sisters across the ages by taking them seriously enough to listen to them.  Reminding us that Christianity across the ages has been, among other things, a “long conversation about the declaration that ‘Jesus is Lord,'” she challenges us to rejoin the conversation.

Not a bad resolution for the new year, it seems to me.

“The Rumors of My Death . . .”

I’ve been told that the one imperative law of successful blogging is to blog regularly, which makes the lapse of the past six weeks an egregious sin.  Sorry about that.  Shortly after the beginning of the semester it dawned on me that I needed to draft a plenary address for a national meeting of the Conference on Faith and History, an organization of Christian historians of which I am honored to serve, for the time being, as president.  Before coming to Wheaton College three years ago, I was for more than two decades on the faculty of the University of Washington, a large and systemically secular research university, and the Conference on Faith and History provided the kind of community of Christian scholars that was nearly impossible to duplicate at a place like UW. 

When I first arrived at UW, I was ill prepared to think critically about what Parker Palmer has called (in To Know as We Are Known) the “invisible curriculum” of the university, with the result that my mind quickly conformed to the presuppositions of the academic community in which I found myself.  Over time, by God’s grace, I began to think more deeply about the pluralistic multiversity of which I was a part, but as I did so I also began to experience what Harry Blamires called (in The Christian Mind) “the loneliness of the thinking Christian.”  I came to see myself, as Blamires put it, as “caught up, entangled, in the lumbering day-to-day operations of a machinery working in many respects in the service of ends that I rejected.” 

Combating this growing sense of alienation was a challenge.  I had one wonderful Christian colleague among the forty-some-odd professors in the History Department, and the monthly Christian Faculty/Grad Fellowship regularly attracted another half dozen professors from other departments (from the university’s more than thirteen hundred full-time faculty).  Its meetings were greatly encouraging, but while they helped me as a Christian they did not—and could not—help me in defining my calling as a Christian historian.  This is where the Conference on Faith and History was invaluable.  The first meeting that I attended was in 2002 at Huntington University.  By that point I had been either a graduate student or faculty member for twenty years, and yet the first session of the convention that I attended was also the first time I had ever been in the same room with as many as two other Christian historians!  It was the first professional gathering I had ever experienced in which I could substantively integrate my faith in Christ with my love of history and my passion for the life of the mind.  The fellowship that I have encountered there has encouraged more than I can possibly convey. 

The opportunity to deliver a plenary address to the CFH’s biennial meeting (held this fall at Gordon College, just north of Boston) was a chance to share with the Christian historians in attendance a challenge to serve the church as well as the academy.  (For an extremely gracious commentary on the address, go here.)   While I wouldn’t trade the opportunity for anything, it did force me to suspend this conversation with you for quite some time, both while I prepared for the address and as I tried to get caught up at work after returning from the meeting.  I’m glad to be back.  Thanksgiving is only three days away, so look for a brief post about the Pilgrims in the next day or so.