Throughout much of the modern era, Christian educators, along with most modern people, assumed a linear process for Christian education starting with Biblical and theological scholars handing on their scholarship to teachers, who, in turn, effectively passed it on to students, who, ostensibly, learn and change their behavior.
This has come to be known as the “applied-theory” fallacy. In this view, Biblical and systematic theologians are seen as the real theologians, while practical theologians, such as Christian educators, play a somewhat more benign role. Biblical and systematic theologians are metaphorically filling the buckets of teachers and we are carrying the water of truth to the students.
There is, of course, some legitimacy in this model and much good has been done by it. However, it suffers from serious problems.
Christian educators have come to recognize that one problem with this fallacy is ideas alone do not change people. Instead, we are learning of the power of practices for changing our minds. Christians who habitually practice forgiveness towards each other are much more likely to grasp the theological notion of God’s grace.
More specifically, the practice of teaching is not merely a neutral set of techniques, but teaching itself bears witness to God in Jesus Christ. Indeed, the Christian tradition itself can be characterized as a teaching tradition. Teaching is key to the rhythms of Christian community — a community that does not teach cannot be called Christian.
As parents teach their children, as pastors teach laity, as lay people gather around the great things of the Christian tradition and share their wisdom, they are not merely passing on the ideas handed to them by systematic theologians and Biblical scholars; they are, in the very act of teaching, bearing witness to a certain kind of God. Even as the Trinity is characterized as a dancing, interrelating, interpenetrating, mutual life, alive in itself and vulnerable to the other, so can the Christian life be characterized as a life open and vulnerable to change and growth — in other words, to education. As we teach, we bear witness to a God who teaches, who communicates his life to Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, to Rachel, Ruth, Elizabeth, Mary, and decisively through the incarnated Jesus, Emmanuel God with us.
Further, teaching is not mere technique, but is a spiritual practice that constantly urges us to reflect on the largeness of the great things of God and the world; the largeness of our students, and the largeness of our inner worlds. When teaching succeeds, we create space for expansive conversations that transform us all.
At its best, the spiritual practice of teaching knits us and our students as a learning community, with the mystery of God at our center. In this view, teaching is not a mere tool or bucket, unimportant except for its technical purpose of taking water to the students; it is a fountain that also refreshes those teachers carrying the bucket.
Finally, Biblical and theological ideas are never really transmitted in pure form as handed down from scholars, but the learning community always remakes the knowledge, reshaping it through their own experiences and context. At its best, the teaching context is as much about constructing knowledge as it is receiving knowledge.
This is not just a wimpy 1970s constructivist idea, but it is also theological.
Even as Christian humanity is co-humanity, not swept away like a twig in a torrent upon encountering the gift of faith, but which in all its particularity is caught up in a harmonious dance with God, so Christian teaching invites us to give new language to make vivid God’s mysterious word. In this view, not only do Christian educators listen closely when Biblical scholars and theologians introduce fresh ideas, or when missiologists and liturgists speak about finding God in life and worship of the people, but educators speak back, informing them about where they see new glimpses of God in the lived community.
DAVID WHITE is the C. Ellis and Nancy Gribble Nelson Associate Professor of Christian Education at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary, Austin, Texas.