Conform No Longer – Be Renewed

by Mark Safstrom

An observation about teaching that I have heard several times is that you don’t know what you truly believe about a subject until you have to teach it. When we are in the role of a student listening to a lecture, we may listen or fall asleep, nod and look studious, agree or disagree, and then leave to learn another day. Then we memorize and cram for a test, to be sure that we tell the teacher what he or she is expecting to hear. My students, like perhaps many of yours, routinely ask me what will be on the test. I give them an unsatisfying, cryptic answer, like “everything” or “only the most important things.” The traditional classroom is, though we strive against this, often a passive environment, and students initially attempt to conform to what they think is expected of them.

But for a teacher the stakes are high. A constructive lecture or lesson plan requires that the presented material is only the tip of the iceberg, resting on a mountain of reading and reflection, which considers as many diverse perspectives as possible. We are lucky if we have time to prepare sufficiently for every lecture, but even when we don’t, we can find some comfort in knowing that as long as the students are engaged and prompted to think critically about the topic at hand and consider at least a couple perspectives, then they will be sufficiently equipped to continue learning on their own. Then we have “done our jobs,” and allowed the classroom to become an environment in which the students are actively engaged in the material, hopefully as much as we are. This is an intimidating prospect because what we are asking our students to do is to not blindly conform to just one school of thought, but instead to question their sources, and possibly even their teacher!

This type of non-conformity in learning is not what many in the world today might think of when they think of Christian education. Religion is usually taken to mean conforming to a tradition, taking on a yoke of one type or another, accepting and reciting dogma. However, Justo Gonzalez, whose textbook on church history has become a classic for seminarians, makes the thought-provoking case that the early church patriarchs and matriarchs (first four centuries) actually predominantly represented ecumenicism, not intolerance. In the face of the heresies like Gnosticism, Marcionism and Arianism (which all had limited the interpretation of Christ and his life to specific books and dogma, to the exclusion of others), the “orthodox” Christians who championed the Apostle’s Creed, Nicene Creed and Athanasian Creed actually were the open-minded ones. That is, they included more books in the Bible than the heretics (including the Old Testament, and several, sometimes contradictory, gospels and epistles), in order to keep multiple perspectives on the table, and allow for the mysteries of the nature of God and the trinity to remain just that - mysteries. The heretics, in contrast, wanted certainty.

Fast-forward over the centuries and orthodoxy has taken on other connotations. But as Tom Tredway reminds us in this issue, true ecumenicism should not mean abandoning loyalty to our orthodoxies, but simply remaining open to the possibility that we can learn from those whose perspectives differ. He echoes what Carl Olof Rosenius and George Scott affirmed in the 1840s, in which they also asserted that loyalty to tradition can complement ecumenical brotherhood and cooperation.

In a similar vein, Jim Sundholm proposes that, although what we believe is important, it is equally important what we do in response to that belief. Anya Milton, who shares her work as an advocate for young victims of sexual exploitation, challenges us to not shrink back from responsibility to our neighbors even when the nature and scale of the tragedies they face overwhelm our sensibilities. And Dorothy Balch’s reflections on a recent pilgrimage demonstrate how inter-generational Christian community and international encounters can prompt our learning and self-discovery at any age.

St. Paul himself, foundational teacher of our great school, once charged us, “do not conform to the pattern of this world but be transformed by the renewing of your minds.” To all you students and teachers out there, conform no longer – read, discuss, test, hold fast and be renewed!

Guds frid – God’s peace.

Mark Safstrom is Chief Editor of Pietisten, and teaches Swedish language and Scandinavian literature at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign.

See all articles by Mark Safstrom