TREASURING THE DANCE OF LIFE
Challenges to Religious Formation in an ever-changing World
Yago: Michael, now, I would like to ask you some questions on the challenges of sexuality in religious formation. Diarmuid O’Murchu in his book “Adult Faith. Growing in Wisdom and Understanding” says that “dealing meaningfully with the body has been a struggle for humans for quite a long time (…) Religion, too, has played quite a destructive role in the sense that all the major religions we know today evolved during a timespan heavily committed to patriarchal advancement. Religion was extensively used to control life, specifically human initiative. This resulted in the problematizing of the body, progressively leading to the demonization of the body (…) Adults of our time seek to reclaim the body and restore its wisdom and spirituality into a more holistic synthesis.” Do you agree with Diarmuid’s point of view? How do you envision a religious formation that reclaims the wonder of our bodies?
Michael: Yago, I particularly resonate as a result of my own background with the thought that religion can lead to “the demonization of the body.” The communities and traditions within which I was raised were fiercely committed to the understanding that sexual expression outside of marriage was wrong. I remember learning that my parents had once even struggled with whether they had been wrong to kiss before they were engaged.
I don’t mean to mock teachings on the sacredness of sexual expression and hence the importance of reserving ultimate sexual expressions for relationships of ultimate commitment. I believe this. But I think it has been hard for Christians and members of other religious traditions that risk demonizing the body to know how to highlight the dangers of sexual expression apart from commitment without the messages being heard, even when not thus intended, as rejections of the body and its desires.
This then can lead to quite the challenge in moving from “Sex is bad except when I’m married” to “Now I’m married so sex is good.” It can make it quite difficult for any not in fully sanctioned forms of commitments to know whether any touch is good. The demonizing of the body in the former can be difficult to undo in the latter. So we see all kinds of unhealthy expressions of sexual desire, and these should cause us concern. Yet we also should recognize that the church is often implicated in confusions as to what is good vs. bad sex.
How we reclaim the wonder of our bodies is a large matter I don’t claim fully to have expertise to address. I think we make a beginning by naming the possibility of demonizing the body. I think we take a few further steps toward highlighting in our church teachings that boundaries to sexual expression have to do not with how bad sex is but how good it is and thus why it is to be expressed within a context of special love and care. I think we can do more to celebrate the resources in our own religious traditions—as in the Song of Solomon—for highlighting the great goodness of our bodies.
Yago: You edited a book called “Stumbling Toward a Genuine Conversation on Homosexuality.” Homosexuality is one of the more contentious issues communities of faith as well as entire religions and cultures are facing in our days. This book includes a great variety of perspectives from conservatives, not so conservative, as well as Lesbian-Gay-Bi-Trans (LGBT) who are celibate, and LGBT persons who are living in a committed relationship with a person of the same sex. Could you share with us why you felt the need to edit this book? What is your vision regarding the issue of homosexuality?
Michael: In the 1930s, my father’s Mennonite parents were excommunicated from their regional denominational body because they participated in starting a Sunday school in Limerick, Pennsylvania, during an era some considered that wrong and in turn believed that those starting the Sunday school were not adequately submitting to the norms of that regional body. In her book The Merging: The Story of Two Parents and Their Child (DreamSeeker Books, 2000, pp. 184-185), my Aunt Evelyn King Mumaw tells of the day the bishop of “with the cold sharp eyes came driving up our lane in his box-like Model-T . . . to tell my parents [they] . . . were going to be put out. . . .”
A long time later, a congregation I had pastored in the 1980s was in the 1990s excommunicated by the same body that had excommunicated my grandparents. The issue this time was homosexuality, and my grandparents would probably have approved this later excommunication. Analysis of this excommunication became the focus of my doctoral dissertation in rhetoric and communication, and the story is told at length in my book Fractured Dance: Gadamer and a Mennonite Conflict Over Homosexuality (Pandora Press U.S., 2001).
. . . .[E]ven as many other books and conversations emerging from other quests are needed, let me not imply seeing the quest that drives my editorial work on this book as totally arbitrary. Even as I believe Scripture as well as the Anabaptist-Mennonite tradition are rich enough to encompass many different quests, I do want this particular quest to emerge not just from personal idiosyncracies but also from Scripture.
Take my studies of Hans-Georg Gadamer, its results reported in my book Fractured Dance, briefly mentioned in Part One, and undergirding much of my editorial shaping of this book: I chose Gadamer not simply because he was a key twentieth-century student of how we engage in the process of understanding each other, of how we start with our own limited “horizons” of understanding but then grow in understanding as our horizons “fuse” with other horizons (to use several Gadamerian terms). I chose him because I was first a Christian and an Anabaptist-Mennonite, and treasures those heritages had given me made me see Gadamer as helping me further study how such treasures might be resources in our world of diverse, fractured, and often enmity-tinged viewpoints.
When I first encountered Gadamer, he seemed to be saying something familiar. I wasn’t sure what, but it pulled at me. Gradually I concluded that part of what was pulling me was this: The Anabaptist-Mennonite emphasis on love of enemies, grounded in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount teachings in Matthew 5:38-43 and elsewhere, often overlaps with Gadamer’s perspectives. What if, for instance, the process of understanding what seems alien, or different, or wrong to us were seen as one in which we are called to love enemies? What if even alternate viewpoints became “enemies” to love if not always agree with?
My interest in such a possibility only deepened as I studied the Franconia Conference delegate discussions that led to the excommunication of Germantown Mennonite Church and noted the rarity of calls to love “enemy” viewpoints. This historic conference, oldest in North America, excommunicated the oldest Mennonite congregation in North America. Yet for generations the conference has ended its assemblies with a reaffirmation of “our desire to continue in and witness to the nonresistant and simple faith of Christ. . . .” Nonresistance. The classic Mennonite word for getting at what others, and today often Mennonites, have called nonviolence or pacifism. Nonresistance: rooted in Christ’s teachings not to return evil for evil but to love the enemy.
Yet once the enemy was within and among us, we didn’t know how to apply our own classic commitment to follow Jesus. What if that same nonresistant, nonviolent, pacifist stream of values were brought to bear in our discernment settings? That was what I wondered.
And such wonderings took me, in company of Gadamer, to other parts of Scripture to see them afresh. What if we saw the Acts 2 miracle of Spirit-inspired ability to understand foreign tongues as applying even to the foreign tongues of our varied stands? What if we saw the Apostle Paul’s hymn of love in 1 Corinthians 13 as applying to discernment amid conflicting viewpoints? What if we saw Paul’s reminder that here we see only as if through a mirror, darkly, as a commentary on the limitedness of any of our understandings, including our interpretations of Scripture and our efforts faithfully to capture God’s ways in confessions of faith?
What if we saw the treasures of our particular perspectives as analogues of the spiritual gifts Paul identifies in Corinthians 12? And what if we then concluded, as Paul does in relation to spiritual gifts, that as the body of Christ can’t live without the nose or foot of this or that spiritual gift, neither can it live without the leg or eye of this or that understanding?
What if we saw Galatians 3:28 as saying that in Christ Jesus there is not only no male nor female, slave nor free, but also no ideological divisions of the sort so afflicting us today? What if we considered the possibility that in Christ there is no liberal or conservative, no radical or traditional, no open-minded or closed-minded, provided all are united in common affirmation of Jesus as Lord? . . .
What if we saw 1 John 4 as calling us to love each other across theological battle lines? “Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born from God and knows God. Wheover does not love does not know God, for God is love” (vv. 7-8). What if we saw 1 John as speaking even to the fears that prevent our discussing constructively, rationally, productively, such an inflammatory issue as homosexuality? “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love” (vv. 18-19). What if, I wondered, God through 1 John and Gadamer was telling us to apply even to our battles over theology, worldviews, Scripture and its interpretations, these words? “The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and their sisters also” (v. 21).
These are the types of Scriptures that drew me to Gadamer. These are the types of applications Gadamer then helped me make. As part of my treasure, not everyone’s treasure—in Christ Jesus no Gadamerian stumblings count for anything; “the only thing that counts is faith working through love.” So in faith, in love, but in awareness of how finite are my own understandings, herewith more of this book and its quest for how from our initial discords we might produce jazz.
Yago: What is your stand as far as accepting homosexual candidates as seminarians? Is there any specific area of importance to be dealt with during their formation at the seminary? What challenges do they face on becoming pastors?
Michael: Yago, this is an important question but I’m going to give a deliberately vague answer. Students from multiple traditions attend our richly ecumenical seminary. We seek in relation to key denominational teachings to provide some space for students to operate within their denomination’s understandings. Thus for instance Anabaptist-Mennonites stress adult or believers baptism, whereas the United Methodist denomination to which our second-largest contingent of students belongs teaches infant baptism. Anabaptists, meaning “rebaptizers,” were persecuted and even killed in the 1500s for their viewpoint. These centuries later, at times the descendants of those who killed others and the desdendants of those who were killed study together. We seek ways of teaching, learning, and relating to each other that allow sharp differences of belief to be passionately articulated even as we continue to learn from each other.
At the moment my expectation is that we would accept LGBT seminarians. However, that’s as far as I would want to comment on specifics, because from that point forward many contextual circumstances would shape what happened next. If the candidate were celibate in a denomination that required this for church membership, that would pose one set of issues. If a candidate were in a same-sex marriage in a denomination that made space for or affirmed this, that would pose another set of issues.
In the thick of all this would be the reality that Mennonite Church USA, to which EMS officially belongs, formally teaches in the 1995 Confession of Faith in Mennonite Perspective that marriage is for a man and a woman. At the same time, significant numbers of Mennonite faithful dissenters are asking if the Holy Spirit has yet more illumination to offer.
In the midst of such complexities, EMS has sought simultaneously to be accountable to current teachings of Mennonite Church USA and to offer approaches to divisive issues, whether this one or others, that focuses less on treating perspectives as win-lose propositions and more on understanding divergent views as treasures from which we can each benefit even as we seek to convey our own understandings with passion and integrity. This is why we’re hosting a 2014 School for Leadership Training focused on discernment, which I’d define as—
“involving the community of believers gathered in Jesus’ name around Scripture in the presence of the Holy Spirit to let God show us the way through the urgent, complicated, and sometimes divisive issues of a given time and place.”
Yago: I believe that we are invited to gain skills in order to be able to talk and communicate more from our bodies by naming feelings and emotions. This is about emotional intelligence. At the same time, as we accompany the seminarians in their discernment process, we see that they are called to develop different kinds of intelligence (intellectual, emotional, moral, psycho-sexual and spiritual). The goal of formation is to help the seminarian to become whole. How important is to open our minds to different kind of intelligences and not only the intellectual one?
Michael: Opening our minds to intelligences beyond the intellectual is critical to the formation process. We are whole beings, not just brains in vats (to echo a philosophy thought experiment).
EMS is in the midst of seeking re-approval to teach Methodist students for another quadrennial (we pursue such approval from the United Methodist University Senate every four years), and I needed to think through formation issues as part of reporting our current practices and philosophies to the Senate. Let me draw on some of those thoughts here.
Key to Methodist understandings is a booklet called “A Wesleyan Vision for Theological Education and Leadership” which emerged from a host of Methodist leaders and schools in 1998 as a working document linking the thought of Methodist founder John Wesley with key twenty-first century education needs. In my engagement with the document I noted that as “A Wesleyan Vision” reports, John Wesley “highlighted three factors in particular that are central to effective awakening and nurture of Christian life, and were too broadly being neglected: doctrine, discipline, and self-denial.”
Each of these is in some way addressed in the current four-fold EMS curriculum, which focuses on training and forming students as wise interpreters of biblical text, church doctrine, and wider culture; mature practitioners of such personal and community practices as prayer, discernment, worship, and service; discerning communicators able appropriately to contextualize the Gospel, engage persons of diverse cultures and faiths winsomely and yet without uncritical accommodation, and respond prophetically and pastorally to their ministry context; transformational leaders able in their leadership roles in church, society, or scholarly communities life-givingly and transformatively to integrate their roles as interpreters, practitioners, and communicators.
Commenting further on doctrine, the “Wesleyan Vision” stresses that the “orienting ‘mind of Christ’ is not simply infused by God in the faithful, it must be nurtured.” In ways integrally linked with the EMS commitment to forming wise interpreters and mature practitioners, the “Vision” underscores that “As a practical theologian,” Wesley “appreciated how central such regular practices as worship, singing, Bible study, and devotional reading can be to shaping believers in keeping with the Christ story.”
The “Vision” points out that for Wesley doctrine was connected with "discipline," by which he meant the provision of structure, support, and accountability in spiritual formation. Wesley understood that humans are holistic beings, needing holistic formation” as we seek to be nurtured within a “set of practices” generating “Christ-like character.”
In addressing self-denial, the “Vision” links with the EMS concern that students learn more than “uncritical accommodation” with what the “Vision” describes as “distorted inclinations that have come to characterize our lives through various influences” and hence must be denied.
Explicitly and implicitly wending its way through such “Vision” emphases is a concern for Christian formation. Emphasis on formation is so strong within the EMS program that all M.Div. students must take a total of three years of formation courses. These six courses include a first set in “Formation in God’s Story,” a second set in “Formation in Ministry” and a third set in “Formation in Missional Leadership.” And within these EMS formation courses, Yago, indeed the goal is to foster development of all the intelligences—whether intellectual, emotional, moral, psycho-sexual, or and spiritual.
Yago: In the first part of this interview we talked about the overwhelming information available in Internet. It is recorded that nowadays 30% of internet traffic worldwide is related to pornography. Many people are becoming addicted to pornography in Internet. Do you consider this an issue to be openly discussed in the context of religious formation? How do we deal with this huge challenge?
Michael: Yes, Internet pornography and addiction is important agenda “to be openly discussed in the context of religious formation.” We invite our faculty to help students grasp the cruciality of sexual ethics for developing and practicing sexualities that are life-giving rather than abusive, violating, or exploitative, which connects with my earlier comments on the cruciality of maintaining boundaries when power imbalances are present.
Keith Graber Miller, a professor at Goshen College, sees pornography as crucial matter for open attention, and we in turn aimed to underscore this in one seminary chapel at which Miller was invited to speak and at which he emphasized that indeed one crucial way we deal with sexual expressions we relegate to the shadows is to name that they affect many.
If we are to invite each other to name areas of struggle, we will want to create communities of grace in which we on the one hand don’t through legalistic condemnations force shadows into depths where they can’t be engaged while we on the other hand invite each other’s growth beyond destructive or addictive behaviors.
Yago: Bruce Wilshire in his book “Wild Hunger: The Primal Roots of Modern Addiction” offers an intriguing study in which he suggests that the proliferation of addictive behaviors today corresponds to the primal hunger we are suffering, precisely because we don’t have healthy ecstatic outlets for our creativity. He also says that our compulsions are distorted expressions of our need for ritual. On this regard O’Murchu invites us to re-think our responsibility in doing ritual when saying that “ritual-making is everybody’s prerogative, and everybody’s responsibility.” Creativity and ritual are greatly suppressed in an over-rational religious formation. How can we include meaningfully creativity and ritual (done in an adult way) in our religious formation?
Michael: I’m conceptually quite interested in pursuing Wilshire’s insights but would hesitate to claim much additional insight of my own. I find myself often relying on the gifts of others in this area. Even as I concur that “ritual-making is everybody’s prerogative,” I’ve not found myself particularly drawn to this area of expression and am grateful for those who are and whose gifts in ritual-making can bless me.
At EMS, I’d see a number of persons who offer leadership in formation, worship, and shaping of chapel rituals as particularly key to the EMS experience of the power of ritual in our religious formation.
Yago: Our capacity for creativity, intuition, story-telling, ritual resides in the right side of our brains. The latest studies in neurobiology are pointing out on the importance of activating and balancing the communication of all the parts of our brain. This help us to develop thinking that is systemic. What can you say on this? Are we doing enough to make more holistic the formation in our seminaries?
Michael: I doubt we’re ever doing enough to make our formation more holistic, because indeed I concur that learning and formation unfolds most primally within and through our entire beings, yet seminaries are affected by the Western Enlightenment tendency to split reason and body, to give the Cartesian “I think, therefore I am” undue weight.
Back in the 1980s, when a lot of attention was being given to the right/left brain split, I wrote an article called “Healing Wounded Brains” that was an effort to draw on the split-brain studies that were causing a stir in that era. As I recall, I suggested that we too tended to live at least metaphorically with split brains and within a Western cultural tendency to value the left/analytic hemisphere of the brain over the right/creative brain.
My impression as a layperson who makes no claims to be fully up to date on these matters is that these days matters are thought to be much more complex, with our brains indeed tending to assign given functions to different hemispheres but in more complex and unpredictable ways than we once thought. That makes me a bit more cautious than I might once have been about suggesting, say, that a seminary should make sure it’s adequately forming both right and left hemispheres.
But whatever the latest neurobiological understandings I do concur that there is ample reason to believe we need to aim for holistic formation. Interestingly, I think seminaries can draw on multiple resources, even our own fascinating history as schools of theological education, in pursuit of this holism. For instance, I’d see seminaries as being historically perhaps more than universities aware of the potential creative tensions between and complementary resources offered by paideia (wisdom rooted in the tradition) and wissenschaft (scholarship and intellectual formation characterized by critical distance from the object of study).
Daniel Aleshire, long a key leader of the Association of Theological Schools, testifies to ways seminary helped him combine “belief” and “learning” which is a memorable way of stating the paideia/wissenschaft factors. As Aleshire elaborates in Earthen Vessels: Hopeful Reflections on the Work and Future of Theological Schools (Eerdmans, 2008, p. 2), “More than any other educational institution I have attended, seminary changed me. Theological education is formative and, in many cases, transformative. It weaves two powerful human activities, believing and learning, into a common cloth.”
Drawing on David Kelsey, Aleshire comments insightfully on paideia as readiness “to cultivate excellence of the soul,” whereas the Berlin or wissenschaft model, rooted in the University of Berlin of the 1800s, “focused on rationality and critical inquiry” and demanded that inquiry be critical, disciplined, and orderly (p. 36).
Also drawing on Kelsey, Charles Foster, Lisa E. Dahill, Lawrence A. Goleman, and Barbara Wang Tolentino offer pertinent comments in their study, Educating Clergy: Teaching Practices and Pastoral Imagination (Jossey-Bass, 2006), which helped guide the shaping of the current EMS curriculum, adopted in 2009. They observe that in the Berlin model, “religion was examined historically and culturally apart from any traditional canons of ‘authority’ or ‘revelation’” (p. 225). Yet the Educating Clergy study also stresses the finding that despite an often uneasy relationship between paideia (or the Athens tradition) and the wissenschaft Berlin tradition, most seminaries “embrace (albeit to quite different effects) the necessary interdepence of these two traditions in their teaching (p. 48).
This background suggets to me that, though certainly amid complexities Aleshire and Educating Clergy underscore, seminaries are powerfully situated to help students simultaneously learn how to stand at a distance from the object of study when this is called for, to immerse themselves in the wisdom of what they seek to be formed by when this is called for, and to dance between both approaches to learning as needed.
At EMS, graduating M.Div. students are asked to present a capstone project during their final semester. One capstone nicely exemplifies ways the dance of paideia and wissenchaft might contribute to holistic formation. The student provided us with a worship bulletin helping us to stand at a distance from what we were to experience. In wissenschaft mode, the bulletin offered scholarly commentary on the key issues in view. Then in something more like paideia mode, the student led us through an actual experience of worship, song, prayer, and proclamation shaped by the tradition.
Yago: At CJP Master program in Conflict Transformation we are exploring engaged pedagogy in our classes. Engaged pedagogy helps develop empathy in acknowledging multiple learning styles and acknowledging the perspectives of others. A fundamental prerequisite for the success of this approach is what author bell hooks calls “radical openness”, a willingness to learn from each other, both teachers and students. The success of engaged pedagogy is contingent upon a willingness to think critically and interact with reciprocity. It requires a delicate balance of teacher and student involvement in speaking, listening, and thinking critically. We are talking of a bottom-up approach to education. This helps the seminarians to meaningfully process their vocations. How important is for you the integration of “engaged pedagogy” as a learning style in our seminaries?
Michael: Yago, I’m going to treat this more as inspiration for ongoing thinking and brainstorming and testing of pedagogical approaches valuable at EMS and less as an area to comment extensively on at this time. I say this because we’ve agreed that an important topic for attention at EMS during the current school year is precisely this question of engaged pedagogy and even what we can learn from CJP about it. Several members of our seminary community who are taking CJP courses will in fact likely comment both on what we can affirm in our current EMS pedagogies and what we might learn from CJP pedagogies.
Michael: In a chapel presentation after Brueggemann spoke at SLT, I offered some reflections on the “fiction that makes true” and am drawing on them here.
What I hear Brueggemann eager to underscore (and when I checked my understanding with him he saw me as within range of grasping his concerns) is that, indeed, humans live by scripts. What we view as right, real, and true, my Temple University studies in rhetoric and communication suggested, is shaped by scripts, by the master stories that direct our thinking from the day we enter the world. This means we never encounter the world outside of a story or stories that have already told us countless things about the world, our place in it, and how we should then live.
Suppose our first primal story is the American Dream teaching that the United States is the best country and even God’s favorite. Suppose from our birth that script tells us if we work hard and well enough, any of us can rise to wealth, power, and fame.
Then if no other story complicates that script, we may well come to believe what’s really real and right and true is whatever that story tells us. The American Dream script will define the life choices we make, the vocations we choose, the votes we cast, the politicians we support, the persons we find attractive—plus our views regarding money and how hard to pursue it, what to spend it on, what it tells us about people if they have a lot of it or have never managed to earn much, to what extent we’re justified in killing to get or preserve it.
But those of us shaped in a different script know the American script is not the only one. In Mexico, where as a missionary kid I first went to school, I was taught that the United States was a bad country that stole much of Mexico’s territory and whose powerful companies oppressed Mexicans. Sometimes “Gringo,” meaning you American who is part of that American Nightmare, was my name. In Mexico I learned that the U.S.-is-best script is the fictional one. In Mexico I learned the true script: Los Estados Unidos de Mexico is the exploited but plucky southern neighbor, blessed with its own superior culture, thriving faiths, and national heroes.
Brueggemann toys with the fiction that makes true to alert us, I believe, that any master script, any primal story, can define for us what’s true if we give ourselves to it. In turn, even a script rooted reliably in history and God and able to tell us what is really true remains fictional unless we appropriate it.
Of course what Brueggemann is underscoring is that the Bible itself gets caught up in this dynamic. So if, say, we experience the American Dream or any other script as primary, then even if we say we’re Christians, the Bible’s gospel script—or the narrative of abundance and astounded gratitude, as Brueggemann spoke of it—ends up being fictional. Then we say we are Christians, we believe we live by the Bible, but actually we squeeze the Bible’s script into another script. A story such as the narrative of accumulation, which is what Brueggemann calls the American Dream, is really running our show.
But it doesn’t have to be that way, that’s the great wild hope Brueggemann preaches. He offers it to any prepared to live first of all within the Bible’s alternative script. He also offers it in a special way to persons whose studies at a university or seminary unfold inside that script. He’s telling us that those of us studying about or within the Bible are engaging a script that deserves to triumph over the scripts usually claiming our allegiance. He’s telling us that students of the power of script-making—such as through preaching, counseling, or any of the ways we nurture primal scripts—can learn to transform the biblical script from a fiction we mouth while living a different script to a script that makes true as it speaks new realities into being.
If we dare believe that, then the miracle can unfold: the truth of the gospel script can be actualized in the real world. God’s alternate script can become true precisely in our own lives, classrooms, congregations, institutions, systems.
Yago: Another crucial dimension of formation at the seminary is the acknowledgement of our “shadow.” The seminarians are in the first half of their lives. There, they are invited to acknowledge the existence of their shadow side. It is also the time they begin engaging in a journey of “shadowboxing”, a process which intensifies as they advance in formation. You wrote an article titled “Naming the Shadows”. You say that “life is messier even than ruminations on our messes… If we truly believe that shadows can hold treasure as well as curse, then we should be looking for ways to treat ourselves and each other that provide a gracious space for shadows”. How important it is to learn to name and embrace the truth of the messy side of our lives? How can be implemented meaningfully during the formation program at the seminary?
Michael: Just one complexification to begin with, Yago: We actually have seminarians from all stages of the life journey, including students who are in their sixties or beyond and grandparents or perhaps even great-grandparents. So even as some students are in the first half of their lives, other students are in the second half. This both complicates and enriches the teaching and formation activities of the seminary—and I believe allows members of the seminary community to glean valuable insights from each other.
I do concur that acknowledging the shadow is vital. This is how I’ve put it in one my leadership themes:
Transforming the shadows: fostering through the content of studies and the spirit within which seminary life unfolds a fierce love for the church able to celebrate that the church is the real body of Christ and also is ever shadowed by failures and fallibilities; shadows named rather than suppressed can become, through the saving grace of God in Christ, sources of transformation grounded in authenticity rather than unacknowledged subversion of stated values and commitments (Luke 7:36-50).
The very fact that I treat the shadow as one of my three primary leadership themes underscores my view of its importance. I think a Christian temptation is to so focus on the quest for something like perfection, or at least an ever more faithful walk of discipleship shaped by the teachings of Jesus that we suppress those aspects of our experience that don’t fit well with perfection or discipleship. So if we see failure in such quests, we’re tempted to try harder rather than to ponder whether we might in some way befriend the sides of us that are not living up to what we think our better selves should look like.
Yago: Richard Rohr in his book “Falling Upwards. A Spirituality for the two Halves of Life” says that “life is far too sort, and there are plenty of mistakes we do not need to make, and some that we need to make. We are part of social and family ecosystems that are rightly structured to keep us from falling but also, more important, to show us how to fall and also how to learn from the very falling.” Rohr’s words are very insightful when we think on the importance of having a compassionate presence and having “tough love” with the seminarians. How do you understand “falling” in the context of the seminary formation?
Michael: Perhaps here I’d pick up on your “tough love” comment, which draws me to thoughts on how we proceed when seminarians do make mistakes or fall in ways that require them to learn from the falling, examples of which could include plagiarism or addictions of a sort that compromise their ability to function competently and with integrity, whether as students or in terms of their readiness for ministry beyond seminary.
When we face such falling, we do expect seminarians to accept consequences and work to remedy mistakes. Consequences can include effects on grades, failing courses, or having requests for references flagged as needing special attention, to name a few.
At the same time, we seek to name and enforce such boundaries within a larger spirit of mercy and grace. I’ve seen moving examples of students finding new self-awareness and new appreciation of a need for grace they in turn gain greater ability to offer others through working through shame and consequences on the way to renewal and healing.
Yago: Attachment Theory is a great tool for self-awareness. Professor Annmarie Early in a previous interview of this blog describes Attachment Theory as follows, “throughout the universe but most evident in living organisms it is becoming clearer that we are who we are because of the history of current state of our dynamic connections. Attachment Theory broadly understood gets to the heart of the struggle to be alive, it identifies the dynamics of connected relationships, and helps us to understand why we feel what we feel, and why we do what we do, not only this has tremendous explanatory power, it also has the further advantage of being true.” Is Attachment Theory integrated in the formation of the seminary? How would you qualify it as a tool of self-awareness?
Michael: Yago, I’d not see Attachment Theory as the theory on which formational seminary activities are based; for example, a professor who is heavily involved in formation through overseeing EMS Clinical Pastoral Education operates particularly on the basis of Bowen’s family systems theory. I’d understand Bowen to focus particularly on how the individual is affected by his or her placement within the nexus of the larger family systems and Bowlby, one of the originators of attachment theory, to focus more on how the individual’s initial experience of primal caregiving affects the individual’s relationships within larger systems. Such perspectives then shape how the nature of wounding and the goals of healing are viewed.
I tend to view Attachment Theory as being one among various valuable theories for understanding human relationships but as having, indeed “tremendous explanatory power.” Most in the seminary community appreciatively experienced and were exposed to Attachment Theory during the 2011 EMU attachment conference Dr. Annmarie Early played a key role, with other EMU planners, in originating and shaping. Thus even as I’d expect Attachment Theory is complemented by multiple theories at EMS, I’d see its highlighting of “the dynamics of connected relationships” as indeed key to EMS formational work.
|Carl G. Jung (1875-1961)|
Michael: Dreams have been key to my own life journey, precisely for the reasons Jung gives and particularly starting in the early 1980s, when I studied Jung intensively while in seminary.
For example, I earlier told of being in my final year of seminary, needing a job, deciding to plant a church, preparing for a meeting at which my wife were expected to confirm moving in this direction. As I reported, the night before I dreamed I was on a cliff above a waterfall and calmly pushed wife and baby daughter over. I was in the midst of studying Jung when I had that dream. I understood Jung to believe we’re all on mythic journeys toward wholeness and that dreams are a voice of the soul calling us toward our destinies. They also help us see our shadows, those parts of ourselves which if ignored may cause disaster yet if engaged may become resources contributing to our.
It was in applying such Jungian perspectives to my dream that I heard it warning that at my age-27 level of maturity I wasn’t ready to manage church-planting dangers. I’d yield to temptations of ego even at risk of throwing family overboard.
I wouldn’t see EMS as operating on the basis of a carefully thought out understanding of dreams, and I’d expect that those of us in the seminary community have diverse views. I think this is as it should be. The Jungian view of dreams isn’t the only legitimate one, and I wouldn’t want to see seminary professors as under duress to adopt that or any other given view of dreams but rather to be open to benefiting from multiple perspectives.
However, I’ve shared the above and several other dreams in seminary chapel and intentionally do so every now and then as one way of highlighting the power of dreams. I also know of several other EMS or EMU professors who likewise value a Jungian-tinged view of dreams and share this perspective when appropriate.
Yago: New insights from quantum physics and cosmology are impacting strongly today’s emerging spirituality. The new worldview captivates the spiritual imagination of growing numbers of adults around the world. Already from the 70s you have been captivated on the theological implications of a quantum worldview. How open are we to fearlessly engage with the new scientific discoveries about reality? How do you envision it in religious formation?
Michael: Indeed I’ve been long intrigued by quantum physics and the potential implications for our understandings of God and faith. I’d also want to stress, however, that I’m no expert in quantum physics. And I see a danger that those of us who are inexpert will, in fact, inexpertly attempt to stitch together physics and faith in ways that may not hold up as scientific or theological trends move along.
So I don’t so much look for some sort of formal integration between, say, quantum physics and spirituality as I look to each for inspiration about the other. Who knows what it means to faith and spirituality that at the quantum level it appears that the act of observation alters outcomes. Yet what a fascinating parable to apply to matters of faith and spirit. Might this suggest that my own mindfulness has more power to alter lives and communities than I might ordinarily imagine?
I wouldn’t want to suggest that theologies should change willy-nilly as scientific understandings shift. Thomas Kuhns’ take in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions on the paradigm shifts through which one era’s scientific understandings become quaint in another era has influenced me. I’ve not managed to shake the conclusion that science itself functions more in fits and starts and leaps, as one paradigm overcomes another, and less as a steady accretion of factual understandings upon which we build an ever more accurate grasp of things.
Scientific insights are genuine and vital and doorways into what is. But so are theological insights. Perhaps one conclusion some of us dare reach in these postmodern climes is that the edges of both are fuzzier than we might have grasped not so long ago. If there is any truth to that conclusion, it would be foolhardy to fear engaging new scientific discoveries—so long as we see the engagement as a two-way street in which science has things to teach theology even as theology may have things to teach science.
Yago: Ken Wilber says that “spirituality might simply be the ability to recognize and participate with the creative openings and opportunities of every passing moment (…) You don’t need to be an artist to be creative. You just need to be someone who truly wants to awaken to the sublime beauty of this and every moment. We are all evolutionary artists, regardless of our particular skills or talents or styles of self-expression. Because, in the end, life is not about finding yourself. It’s about creating yourself.” Could you share with us your view on Wilber’s words?
Michael: These words take me to the Holy Spirit. I’d probably shy away more than Wilber does from “creating yourself” wording. I concur with his contrasting “creating yourself” with “finding yourself.” He’s powerfully highlighting that we don’t have some static inner treasure it’s our life quest to discover; rather, we actively co-create the treasure our lives have the potential to become and to offer. But I’m moved by images, particularly in the Gospel of John, of Jesus sending the Advocate, the Comforter, to enable us to participate in and even, he sometimes hints, transcend the intimate experience of the divine Jesus models for us. That takes me toward affirming most of what you quote from Wilber while being interested in finessing the final line to read more along the lines of “It’s about opening yourself to the nudgings of the Spirit in every passing moment. . . .”
I don’t mean to be overly insistent on precisely the right wording, however. I think Wilber is stressing a dynamic I see as essential in my own life, which does indeed entail being awake to every moment. I fail almost constantly to do this—but I also occasionally manage to stay awake, and in those moments I do find that the Spirit seems to enable a kind of co-creating a treasure enabled through my offering my openness and gifts to be used in ways I might not otherwise even be aware were possible. Even openness to answer your questions, for example (which I struggled to offer simply due to time starvation) has taken my thinking in directions sometimes surprising to me which at times are nurturing other aspects of my work and life.
Yago: I would like to end this interview with the following words of Richard Rohr: “We do not think ourselves into new ways of living, we live ourselves into new ways of thinking.” It is an invitation to live first in the now, being one with the web of life, with mindfulness, and then to engage in the thinking process. This is a real challenge for our religious formation. How important is to live in the Now? How can we be more intentional engaging academically with the Now?
Michael: Here I’d quibble just a bit. I’m not sure I see it as essential to insist that living precedes thinking. Well, actually I believe it does; according to the precepts of my dissertation mentor, philosophical hermeneut Hans-Georg Gadamer, there is a sense in which the web of history and life preceding us and into which we are born and by which we are so fundamentally shaped is thinking through us long before we can think even whatever thoughts we may illusorily experience as our own independent thoughts. But once the cycle of living and reflecting is in motion, then I think it’s harder to prioritize one over the other. Our living shapes our thinking and our thinking shapes our living, and on the cycle goes.
Yago: Michael, I am very grateful for the time you have spent answering these questions. It is a great contribution to this blog, bringing new light and wisdom to today's religious formation.
Michael: You’re welcome, Yago, and in turn many thanks for asking such in-depth, insightful questions. You worked me hard, but it was worth being pushed by your high-caliber interview.