"Let books be your dining table, / And you shall be full of delights. / Let them be your
And you shall sleep restful nights" (St. Ephraim the Syrian).

Thursday, February 2, 2017

Beauty Will Save the World (but can we assess it?)

The Lilly Endowment together with the Forum for Theological Exploration last week organized an utterly superlative conference in Indianapolis that brought together representatives of the 92 colleges and universities across the United States who were awarded grants from Lilly at the end of 2015. I have been to many conferences over the years, but rare is the one where everything worked so well, where all the sessions were enormously valuable, and where the entire atmosphere was one of gracious conviviality. It was thoroughly edifying.

I wrote the grant application for the University of Saint Francis, where I am chairman of the theology-philosophy department, and we were successful in securing a very large grant from Lilly with which, in June of this year, we will be able to run our first annual theology program for high-school students. Its theme is: Beauty will save the world! That, of course, is drawn from Dostoevsky's The Idiot.

While at the conference last week, we were treated to a fantastic lecture by Kenda Creasy Dean of Princeton Theological Seminary, whom I first learned of in the late 1990s from an old friend and roommate at the time, Blair Bertrand. Blair sang her praises very highly then, and it was not at all hard to see why after listening to her last week.

Dean is the author of several books of note, including her most recent, How Youth Ministry Can Change Theological Education -- If We Let It (Eerdmans, 2016), 320pp. Earlier works include Almost Christian: What the Faith of Our Teenagers is Telling the American Church as well as The Godbearing Life: The Art of Soul Tending for Youth Ministry.

It is of course the case that Protestants such as Dean are writing for different ecclesial contexts. But what once again became clear to me last week is that the teens she works with in her own United Methodist tradition are all American teens shaped by the same American culture in many ways as are kids in Roman Catholic, Eastern Catholic, and Eastern and Oriental Orthodox parishes. So it is facile to dismiss the results of her very considerable research and reflection as being of no use to Catholics and Orthodox. The issues we are facing are all very similar--even if our approaches to answering them may rightly differ.

This is precisely the best sort of "receptive ecumenism" and open learning and sharing of gifts that too many today deride too easily. It was, in fact, encouraging and heartening to be in such a large gathering of diverse Christian traditions and be able to utter the word "ecumenical" and have people hear it as a good thing.

It should, I hope, go without saying that I have never (in more than a quarter-century of involvement with local, regional, and global bodies such as the World Council of Churches) once subscribed to the notion or approach of ecumenism as finding the lowest common denominator--as junking problematic practices or watering down difficult truth-claims. Attentive readers of my Orthodoxy and the Roman Papacy will recognize that the burden of that book was to take both Catholic and Orthodox claims about the papacy serious and, without diminishing either, attempt to find a way forward through the impasse. I think I was rather successful in doing so (certainly the reviews have suggested as much), but it took a lot of hard work. The simple, easy, indolent thing to have done would be to say (as an Eastern Christian to the Catholic Church) "scrap the papacy as conceived"; or (as a Catholic speaking to the Orthodox) "accept it as is."

But there will be time later to speak more of the papacy when I am able to interview A.E. Siecienski about his splendid new book, noted here. For now I simply want to mention two additional books (beyond Dean's latest noted above) that I was given last week and commend them to your interest.

The first is edited by William Placher (coiner of that eminently useful phrase about the "domestication of transcendence" so afflicting so much of Christianity in North America today): Callings: Twenty Centuries of Christian Wisdom on Vocation, published by Eerdmans in 2005. One of the key goals of Lilly-funded theology programs for high-school students is that of vocation or calling--to get young people to see themselves as diversely called, as having a vocation from God not just to such traditional paths as priesthood or monastic life, but called to serve the Church and world in many ways, not least also in the academy. This book is a collection of classical theological texts treating the notion of vocation. While there is a heavy tilt towards Protestant sources, there is also a good selection of patristic sources (the entire first section, and part of the second). In addition, Dostoevsky makes an appearance with an excerpt from The Brothers Karamazov.

The second book is surely of much more limited audience, and I confess that any time the words "assessment" or "evaluation" are uttered in my hearing, I silently curse my torturers for inflicting such undue and harsh mortifications on me in my cell, where I long only for a quiet life of study and writing. Nevertheless, the conference last week revealed that evaluation need not consist entirely of weeping, wailing, and gnashing of one's teeth. It can in fact be not only a useful process but even a revealing and interesting one. For those who are engaged in projects like our summer institute, evaluation can be greatly aided by Kathleen Cahalan's book Projects that Matter: Successful Planning and Evaluation for Religious Organizations (2003).

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