Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Beauty for Truth's Sake

Rarely do I finish a book and exclaim, “I have never even thought about most of these ideas.” Yet when I finished Stratford Caldecott’s Beauty for Truth’s Sake, I was dumbfounded. Although a bit heavy in quotations in some spots, this book opened a new world to me. That new world was the unity of knowledge. Christians often teach about not dividing sacred from secular and integrating the Bible into all of life, but most of these efforts amount to very little other than applying obscure Bible passages in strange ways. Caldecott, a Catholic theologian at Oxford, has given Christians interested in education a new vocabulary for “Christian worldview.”

The book is about the classical Liberal Arts tradition of the West that “once offered a form of humane education that sought the integration of faith and reason, and that combined the arts and the sciences, before these things became separated, fragmented, and trivialized.” For Caldecott, this tradition can only be recovered by going back to the sources (ressourcement). The most important source for Caldecott is not Boethius, Augustine or even Socrates and Plato. It is Pythagoras. Pythagoras? The right-angle triangle guy? That’s what I mean by “I’ve never even thought about that before.”

Caldecott introduces the book by quoting Pope Benedict at length. His book The Spirit of the Liturgy attempts to connect prayer and action, the soul and the exterior world, society and the universe, into a single harmonious whole. The ordering of the soul is deeply connected, of all things, to the mathematical ordering of time, space and matter. I’ll join Caldecott and quote Pope Benedict at length:

“Among the Fathers, it was especially Augustine who tried to connect this characteristic view of the Christian liturgy with the worldview of Greco-Roman antiquity. In his early work ‘On Music’ he is still completely dependent on the Pythagorean theory of music. According to Pythagoras, the cosmos was constructed mathematically, a great edifice of numbers. Modern physics, beginning with Kepler, Galileo and Newton, has gone back to this vision and, through the mathematical interpretation of the universe, has made possible the technological use of its powers.

“For Pythagoreans, this mathematical order of the universe (‘cosmos’ means ‘order’!) was identical with the essence of beauty itself. Beauty comes from meaningful inner order. And for them this beauty was not only optical but also musical. Goethe alludes to this idea when he speaks of the singing contest of the fraternity of the spheres: the mathematical order of planets and their revolutions contains a secret timbre, which is the primal form of music. The courses of the revolving planets are like melodies, the numerical order is the rhythm, and the concurrence of the individual courses is the harmony…

“But a further step was taken with the help of the Trinitarian faith, faith in the Father, the Logos [the Son], and the Pneuma [Holy Spirit]. The mathematics of the universe does not exist by itself, nor, as people now came to see, can it be explain by stellar deities. It has a deeper foundation: the mind of the Creator. It comes from the Logos, in whom, so to speak, the archetypes of the world’s order are contained. The Logos, through the Spirit, fashions the material world according to these archetypes. In virtue of his work in creation, the Logos is, therefore called the ‘art of God’ (ars=techne!). The Logos himself is the great artist, in whom all works of art—the beauty of the universe—have their origin.”

Let me try to summarize with my pea-sized brain: All of creation and thus all knowledge finds its source in Jesus, the Logos, the great bridge between God and man. He creates the world through an great ordering of all things (Genesis says God created order from chaos). This order is mathematical and constant, and the universe itself is set to a kind of rhythm that resembles a cosmic song. This “great edifice of numbers” carries with it a serene simplicity and unity that can only be called beautiful.

Western civilization lost its connection to a cosmic order at the Enlightenment. All was separated and dissected when, at the same time, it lost its faith in God. God became relevant only to one’s personal values, but was dethroned as God of the Universe. But in this vision of the world – this old vision – the natural world is the overflow of the Mind of the Maker. God is Lord of both the individual as well as the universe. Caldecott is trying to re-infuse meaning into education by recovering an ancient view of the world’s unity in Christ.

Like I said, I’ve never even thought about most of these ideas. I think this book will require several blog posts…

Swarthmore's Strategic Plan

I’ve just finished reading Rebecca Chopp’s new strategic plan for Swarthmore College. To most this will seem like snooze material. Yet leading large, complex organizations with highly intelligent people, most of whom have competing agendas, is no small task.

In the Strategic Plan, Chopp writes in lucid prose and begins with the challenges facing the liberal arts. She addresses issues like rising costs, student diversity, and global engagement in the 21st century. From here she clarifies the school’s most important values that guide their activity as an institution. She then calls the key points of the plan “recommendations” instead of “objectives”, the term most universities use. Each recommendation has several parts (read: goals) that will guide Swarthmore in the upcoming decade. Pretty straightforward.

But this is what I love about what Chopp has done. First, she engaged in a lengthy but defined process of listening. She formed councils on the strategic planning process, on mission, vision & values, and on admissions, access and affordability. All the key stakeholders were in these committees. Thus, when she would eventually present the institutions key values and “recommendations,” there was widespread buy-in. After all, it was all their ideas.

Second, she re-enforced her listening with collaboration. After she had written the plan, she presented a “draft for comment.” Banish the idea of a headstrong leader charging in and saying “Here we go. Follow me!” Instead, she spent several more months receiving additional ideas before it was set in stone. People we given a chance to voice their objections before the plan was finalized.

Chopp must have read Peter Senge’s The Fifth Discipline. Senge argues that shared vision is the most powerful organizational force, and that the role of the CEO is to understand and then articulate the vision that is already within the company. No more “my way or the highway.” Instead, it becomes, “Let’s create a new company and a new world together.”

What a good way to lead.

Monday, February 27, 2012

The New American University

After reading about Fred Terman several weeks ago, I sent a letter to Jonathan Cole, author of The Great American University and professor at Colombia. My question was this: Who are the great university leaders of our generation? Six weeks later he graciously sent a reply. At the top of his list was the president of Arizona State University: Michael Crow.

Crow has been noticed by many in higher education for his big idea, which he calls The New American University. By way of introducing the idea, in an ASU promotional brochure, Crow comments, “Do you replicate what exists or do you design what you really need?” For Crow, the university is not about doing research in a never-ending spiral of footnotes (replication), but in looking at the big problems of the world and creating useful knowledge.

The New American University (an idea Crow hopes will catch on past ASU), is defined by eight “design aspirations.”

1. Leverage our Place. By embracing the physical, cultural and socioeconomic location of ASU, new initiatives and partnerships are built around the needs of Arizona and the Southwest in general.
2. Transform Society. Social needs form the objectives for research programs, and have thus inspired new institutes and projects ranging from biomedical research and sustainability to health care and K-12 education.
3. Value Entrepreneurship. Here entrepreneurship extends far past the business school, and is encouraged in every field.
4. Conduct Use-Inspired Research. If your Ph.D. research has no apparent use in the modern world, then it might be better to look elsewhere for graduate school. Since 2003 investors have devoted over $100 million for new ventures from ASU Techonopolis alone. Research has a practical goal at ASU.
5. Empower Our Students. Here access triumphs over elitism. From partnering with the American Indian Community to launching the American Dream Academy, an institute that helps to instill the value of education in both parents and children, ASU works to give unprecedented access to higher education, as well as empowering students from all walks of life to succeed.
6. Fuse Intellectual Disciplines. ASU has gone crazy in the past decade creating over 20 new transdisciplinary schools and institutes, such as School of Sustainability, School of Earth and Space Exploration, the Center for Biology and Society, and the Arizona Institute for Renewable Energy.
7. Be Socially Embedded. ASU now has dozens of partnerships with local hospitals and schools throughout Arizona that make ASU a genuine agent of widespread social change.
8. Engage Globally. From MBA partnership programs in Shanghai to studying abroad at the Technológico de Monterrey, ASU engages the needs of the world.

Like a previous post about A New Liberal Arts, the idea is simple: our communities, states and nations have needs, and we need to reformulate higher education around engaging those needs. Liz Coleman at Bennington is doing it primarily among undergraduates and the liberal arts. Crow has transformed ASU from a top ten party school to an engine of useful innovation.

There’s much that could be said (and has been said) about Crow’s efforts to build a new model for higher education. But what really interests me is the deep connection between thinking and action, between the needs of the world and the intensive intellectual process required find creative solutions to meet those needs.

I’ve said this before, but Christians need to really pay attention to these voices. Given, these are both highly secular institutions. But they are in many ways shaming Christian educational leaders who are simply replicating what “bigger, better” schools do and haven’t deeply thought about creating academic programs that are focused on solving the big problems of our day.

I do genuinely think higher education will have to move in the direction of The New American University. Exponentially rising tuition costs have cornered many in the university. Students are laden with debt, and administrators must answer more and more to a public that demands a quality undergraduate experience.

This model is missing a key factor, however. God. And because God is missing so is the both the unity of knowledge and the keys to answering the biggest questions about human existence. But this model puts many Christian universities to shame who claim to be about God’s mission in the world but many times amount to little more than, in the words of a skeptical friend of mine, “pay your fee, get your degree.”

Christ calls educators to serve the needs of others. Michael Crow seems to me to be one of the great Cyrus’ of our generation, serving the needs of others and even the purposes of God, perhaps while not even knowing it. I wonder how many Christian institutions of education will notice this model and have the courage to refashion their own schools and universities around this model. Or perhaps some will not simply replicate this model and will instead design what their communities really need.

Friday, February 24, 2012

The Reason for Christian Schools

I’m often interested in hearing the reasons why parents bring their kids to a Christian school. One of the most common is the negative influences on their child at a public school. Parents don’t want their children surrounded by peers who are drinking, using drugs, using foul language, or perhaps engaging in premarital sex. More importantly, they don’t want their child bullied or picked on by other students.

As a parent, I can fully understand this perspective. I have a three-year-old and a one-year old. Nothing makes me more worried, or even potentially angry, than thinking about my daughter coming home and either being bullied or picking up the sinful behaviors of their peers. As a parent I’ve been entrusted with the formation – intellectual, spiritual, emotional, and physical – of my kids. I’ve been charged by God to put them in an environment where they will thrive and flourish.

There is, however, a problem that can develop out of this mentality. When the focus is on “what other kids might do to my child,” it becomes assumed that the problem is “out there.” The problem exists in other kids, in the public school, in their teacher, or whatever other external influence that might negatively affect my child. Regardless of what the external problem is, over time it becomes assumed that I must protect my child from an evil world.

This, however, is not a Christian view of the world.

For the Christian, the fundamental problem is sin. And sin is not only “out there”—in the structures of society and in other people—it is within me. Augustine’s concept of original sin (based on Romans 5), means that all human beings adopt a sin nature from Adam, and they simultaneously choose to embrace that sin. As a matter of fact, the starting point for the whole Christian life is the confession, “Lord Jesus, have mercy on me, a sinner.” I am a sinner. And so are my children. The problem is not so much “the evil world” that will hurt my child, the problem is the sin inside them that threatens to disintegrate their personalities before they can ever grow.

GK Chesterton once was asked by a newspaper editor what he believed to the world’s biggest problem. Was it warfare, poverty, pollution, education, government corruption? No. To the question of “What’s the biggest problem in the world?”, Chesterton famously replied, “I am.”

This is the answer of a Christian who has fully understood the human problem, and has seen the problem deep within his own heart.

When a school community adopts the first view, that the problem is “out there” and we need to protect our kids from “them,” it can often lead to not only sheltering kids, but making them think that “they are bad and I am good.” This can lead to a pharisaical religious superiority that condemns others for their sex, drugs and rock & roll lifestyle, and almost completely ignores the greatest sin living in their own hearts: pride.

On the other hand, when Christian parents fully understand the gospel, that I (and my children) am a sinner and Christ has atoned for my sins at the cross, they base their life and beliefs on grace. We as a family have been given a gift we didn’t deserve, and this informs how we interact with other students and their families. A quick willingness to admit our own sin is the result, and we look at others as more righteous than ourselves.

I can understand the desire to put quality influences in the life of your child. This is certainly important for any Christian family. But Christian schools (just like churches for that matter) are filled with people who have problems. We can never fully protect either ourselves or our kids from bad influences, because the bad influence starts with the sin living inside of us!

The real case for a Christian school, in my view, is that it’s an environment soaked by the gospel of God’s grace. The gospel alone has the power to transform lives. Secular knowledge alone can’t transform either the human heart or society. When the gospel is integrated into every aspect of learning and community life, it has power to allow children to flourish. It is, in the words of Paul, “the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes.”

Sunday, February 12, 2012

The Bible Made Impossible

I recently published a review of Christian Smith's The Bible Made Impossible: Why Biblicism Is Not a Truly Evangelical Reading of Scripture for The Denver Journal. Here's the first paragraph:

It’s not often that a professor attempts to dissolve the edifice of evangelicalism with a single book. But that is essentially what Christian Smith, Professor of Sociology at Notre Dame, has tried to do with his latest work The Bible Made Impossible: Why Biblicism is Not a Truly Evangelical Reading of Scripture (Brazos Press, 2011). Perturbed with popular use of the Bible in American evangelicalism, Smith decries modern “biblicism” (defined below) as not only irresponsible, but “impossible” – a theory that doesn’t work in practice. He endeavors to show readers the flaws of biblicism and then make a case for a “truly evangelical” reading of Scripture. Although peppered with helpful insights, The Bible Made Impossible falls short of its lofty goals, and leaves readers looking for solid ground amidst the shifting sands of academic criticism. (Here's the rest of the article...)