Faith Matters

I’ve met one honest atheist in my life.

As I recall, we sat at his dining room table when we got into a conversation about beliefs. He said to me, “Honestly, the theory of evolution as an origin of life explanation really doesn’t make a lot of sense.” In his view, there were too many variables, too many things to account for, and too many things that depended upon exactly the right set of circumstances to occur. In the end, it really came down to what you choose to put your faith in. He shrugged and said, “I choose to put my faith in science.”

When I have honest, non-charged conversations with atheists (and some agnostics), I find that it really boils down to two issues: the problem of evil and the answers of science. The answers they find in science trump the questions provoked by suffering in their mind. To be fair, I do not intend in this blog post to answer either of those questions. William Lane Craig and Alvin Plantinga, to name two, do a fairly good job of articulating the concept of middle knowledge to such a degree that many professional philosophers and theologians have ceded that portion of the argument to them. At the popular level, the battle continues to wage; at the scholarly level, the generals have left the battlefield and fight to take a different hill.

My atheist friend recognized something that most atheists I encounter refuse to admit: that it will always come down to faith. I’ve never met anyone who has actually seen an atom. I believe atomic theory because one of my teachers, whom I trust, taught it to me. They told me to read a book that provided eyewitness testimony, narrative exposition, and speculative analogies. Between my reading and their explanation, I choose to believe in a world that runs on the interactions between tiny objects. Why? I trust my teachers, I’ve had experiences that validated their teachings, and those teachings fit my understanding of the universe and its inner workings. I have faith that these things I believe but cannot see correspond to the reality I experience and perceive.

I would say the same thing about my belief in God.

One can respond in many ways to the problem of evil and the answers of science. The essential answer comes down to this: you will never fully understand, now what will you trust? Let’s not kid ourselves here. If God appeared to us and gave a full, detailed explanation and answer to the problem of evil that answered all of our questions, one of several things would happen. (1) Some would assert that God was not worthy of worship since the explanation was too simple. (2) Others would explain the explanation away and reject it. (3) The true believers would still believe. The problem is not one of questions, it’s a problem of trust. The problem is not one of choice, it’s a problem of trust.

Will you trust what you do not understand?

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Giving locally to reach globally

Do you care about refugees? Low-to-moderate income families? Helping kids get access to education and opportunity?

Today, you need to go to https://www.northtexasgivingday.org/#npo/heart-house and give to Heart House Dallas, an after-school program in the heart of Vickery Meadow in Dallas, Texas. They provide safety, education, and opportunity to kids by providing a meal, homework assistance, and reading help to students whose parents have often fled those horrendous situations you read on the news. Over fifteen languages are represented at Heart House each day, from countries all over the world.

If you give today, this small organization will gain bonus funds as part of North Texas Giving Day. Your gift of $25 or more means these kids spend their afternoon hours receiving the help they need, away from the dangers of sexual predators and violent crime. For more infomration about Heart House, visit http://hearthousedallas.org/. Do them a favor. Do yourself a favor.

Give today.

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On Grief

Grief

Is not a flood, nor an ocean, or a tide.

Grief is a dam made of bricks and mortar.

Holding back a river of happiness.

Grief holds memories, and time, and darkness.

Until the baking sun dries the supporting connections.

Grief crumbles and is transformed into red dust.

It can no longer hold the waters, which have long since turned to vapor.

Grief then, has passed away.

Dies a slow and painful death, and nothing

Remains.

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Three Stops and Starts for #Education #Reform

The education reform conversation seems heated at times, and mired very much in partisan politics. Considering all of the various arguments and counterarguments, I’m finding three major issues that come up on a regular basis. From my perspective I think there are three things we need to stop doing in the reform conversation/actions and shift to some different actions.

  1. Stop blaming teachers. By some counts, less than 30% of student learning is because of what the teacher does. Furthermore, in this high-stakes testing environment teachers have less and less control over what they teach in the classroom and instead implement the policies as set forth by their principals, superintendents, and policy-makers. If you’re going to hold teachers accountable, then hold them accountable for that which they are responsible to do. Instead of putting all responsibility for student learning on the teacher, we should (a) evaluate teachers on student growth and (b) evaluate how well teachers implement the policies handed to them by their administration. On the same token, we should (c) hold the administration accountable for the effectiveness of policy. In fact, we should hold administration accountable before looking to the teachers. If we are willing to give the administration credit when the scores are favorable, then we should also give them blame when the scores are unfavorable.
  2. Stop making it about school choice. The narrative goes something like this: the teachers unions are protecting lazy teachers and prevent students from learning (even though 8797% of teachers are rated as effective). Therefore if we create a different system where we can get rid of unions and then allow parents to make choices it will improve the system because the best schools will succeed and the worst schools will fail (sort of an educational Darwinism). This assumes that the “consumer” (the parents) (a) have the wherewithal to evaluate good education models, (b) have the resources to reach all of those choices, and the (c) choices the “consumer” makes is based on the quality of the model. I think all of those assumptions are false. School choice, however, has roots in the civil rights movement of the post-civil war era. Instead, school choice should be a means for parents to exercise options for students who don’t fit within the normative mold that public education necessitates.
  3. Stop making it about charter schools. As one example (and from the Texas Department of Education website), “According to the Texas Education Code, the purposes of charter schools are to (1) improve student learning; (2) increase the choice of learning opportunities within the public school system; (3) create professional opportunities that will attract new teachers to the public school system; (4) establish a new form of accountability for public schools; and (5) encourage different and innovative learning methods. Out of five reasons, only one of those is really about school choice (and even that choice is within the context of a public school system). The rest of the reasons are about innovation. Charter schools were designed to use public funds to assess innovation and best practices, and then see how to scale those practices for a larger school system. Instead, we should use charter schools for their intended purposes: innovation.

I think that America is on the precipice, and if we were to apply some of the “know-how” that we have been known to produce, we could create one of the best educational systems in the world.

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Reinventing Theologcial Education

When in a conversation with a good friend (who also happens to be an attorney) I commented that I felt that seminaries (theological higher education) are more similar to law schools and medical schools than other kinds of schools. He replied that the original four professions in higher education were clergy, lawyers, doctors, and teachers. While I don’t have a citation for that (there’s more data for the four occupations in ancient China) that “feels” right. The medieval university came into existence in order to train (Roman Catholic) priests, and law and philosophy were secondary pursuits. Later, during the enlightenment, we see the rise of the liberal arts university as we know and experience it in North America. First and foremost, it was professional training.[*]

Certainly, the history of the Historically Black College/University gives credence to this. Many of the HBCU’s opened to give degrees in Divinity (clergy) and Education (teachers), and soon afterwards opened law schools (lawyers) and medical schools (doctors). Also, the history of the seminary is that as the enlightenment brought about the rise of the university, the study of theology (and the training of clergy, because the academic study of theology was linked to the practice and profession of the priesthood) increasingly segregated and separated from the university. The counter-reformation gives birth to the official creation of the seminary as the vessel for training priests, but the enlightenment planted the seeds.

The larger point here is that seminaries really are more like professional schools, in that they train people for a profession rather than liberal arts schools that teach general knowledge. When you examine the curriculum of the average seminary degree, you find that it resembles what you might see in the study of the liberal arts, however. Consider the “average” Master of Divinity degree, usually 90 hour broken down as follows:

  • 18 hours of Greek, Hebrew, and Interpretation (tools for study)
  • 18 hours of Bible, including surveys of the Old and New Testaments (subject matter)
  • 18 hours of Theology, both Historical and Systematic (subject matter)
  • 24 hours of Ministry Practice (professional study)
  • 12 hours of electives (specialization)

Somewhere in those 90 hours, there’s usually a 3-hour internship wherein the student gains academic credit for “practicing” the profession. Sadly, as a “professional” degree, only 25% of it is dedicated to professional study.

Contrast this with the “average” law school (law schools have a generally common core but wildly vary after the first year and especially in the third year), which breaks down as:

  • 30 hours of core concepts like contracts, torts, property, criminal law, and civil procedure. Usually includes an integrative class and/or a writing class (tools and professional study)
  • 30 hours of specialization courses involving in-depth study of areas of particular interest (knowledge and professional study)
  • Clinical courses involving actual work in projects of interest (professional study).

Note that the study of the practice of the profession is integrated throughout the curriculum. What might it mean for our churches if the schools that trained our pastors actually trained them well for the profession they are entering? What might it mean if the emphasis was not the knowledge, but the character and formation of the individual? Here’s a call for those of use in theological education to consider the best way to serve God through training.

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[*] I understand the concept of the priesthood of all believers, and the legitimate resistance to create a special class of believers who have the education to do ministry. That discussion, while relevant, is a bit out of the scope of this particular blog.

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