Monday, August 27, 2007

on epistemology

In our first class, we talked about ologies (e.g., biology, archaeology, psychology, and, my personal favorite, oology, which surprisingly is not the study of the letter o but actually the study of eggs). In particular, we raised the question, In what sense is theology an ology especially in comparison with the various scientific ologies. Is it an ology at all? My argument was yes, in this sense, that all human knowledge represented by the different ologies and their differences with respect to their different methods and different views on what counts as evidence, all human knowledge is based upon a single epistemological principle, namely, the nature of an object determines the means by which it can be known, its nature determines the means by which we can study it. As I have been reading and listening to Wright, I have noticed recurrent references to this fundamental epistemological axiom. In one of his recent talks on the resurrection (which can be downloaded as an mp3 here), Wright states that
Thomas-like faith in the risen Jesus transcends but includes what we call history and what we call science. Faith of this sort isn't blind belief which rejects history and science nor is it simply, which would be much safer, a belief which simply inhabits a totally different sphere, oh you can do your history and science down there and from time to time you escape into this other area called faith, and then you go back to and fro. No. This kind of faith, which is in fact like all modes of knowledge, defined by the nature of its object, is faith in the creator god, the god whose has promised to put all things to rights at last, and the god who as the sharp point between those has raised Jesus from the dead within history, leaving as I said, evidence that demands an explanation from the scientist like everyone else (49:10–50:00).
Of course, this epistemological principle does not tell you how to proceed with a given inquiry only that one's methods and views must submit to the nature of the object under investigation, but it does seem to me to get at the heart of the question concerned with the status of different modes of knowing and different types of knowledge — subjective vs. objective, or the language Wright prefers, namely, private vs. public.

So the question that one asks at the beginning of any investigation, be it theological, historical, or scientific, is, "Given the nature of the object, how then are we to proceed?" Of course, this involves one in a process of hypothesis, testing, and verification since many of our questions are concerned precisely with uncovering the nature of the object in question, with attempting to ascertain its inner logic, rationality or essence, that is, its logos (from where we get -ology). In other words, we often don't know what the nature of the object is, and so we begin by testing out our best guesses. In this course, we are not going to start from scratch; we are not, as it were, going to reinvent the wheel. Instead, as we look at the Christian Story in the Old and New Testaments, we are going to reflect upon that story from within the framework of a Trinitarian-Incarnational framework. In effect, we are going to see how orthodox Christianity has gone about the doing of theology, that is, has attempted to ascertain the logos of God.

of stories and toys

For Thursday, we will be discussing “Knowledge: Problems and Varieties,” the second chapter in N. T. Wright’s, The New Testament and the People of God, (vol. 1 of Christian Origins and the Question of God; Minneapolis, Minn.: Fortress, 1992), which I introduce here. In this chapter, Wright discusses stories and how they are carriers of worldviews. One of my hopes is to impress upon students that stories (be they fictional or non-fictional) are not flimsy little things but some of the most powerful things we encounter. I want to show how stories function and demonstrate that stories are serious business in part so that when I refer to, talk about, and characterize the biblical narrative as the Christian Story, I want my students to know that I am not in any sense reducing or relativizing its value and importance, quite to the contrary. This is a danger because story as a category has often been used in a dismissive sense to indicate something that is not truthful, or at least is not factual, as in such-and-such did not really happen; it is simply a story.

As I was thinking about the power of stories, I began to remember when Rebekah and I found out that Emma was going to be a girl, and how we were very concerned about how we were going to raise here, about the ways we were going to socialize her with respect to her gender. We wanted to raise Emma as a girl but with a different understanding and view of what it means to be a female and a girl than the one operative when we and our parents were children. In other words, we had no intentions of raising her as if gender were immaterial; we do believe that girls and boys are different. At the same time, we are also aware of how gender is constructed, of how one's understanding of what it is to be a girl and a boy, to be male and female, is informed and shaped by the values, symbols, and practices of the culture in which we live. Consequently, we were very selective and discerning about the things we exposed her to.

For example, when we purchased toys for her, we made sure to get a wide spectrum of toys, many of which are, in our culture, associated with boys. We did not get rid of dolls for we still wanted her to develop her nuturing and empathic skills (we have encouraged Thaddaeus' interest and love of dolls for the same reason), no we didn't get rid of dolls but we did introduce trains and Lincoln logs, and other such toys. And we were intentional about letting our family's know the sorts of toys we were looking for Emma.

We were also very selective and discerning about the sorts of stories we told and read to Emma. For example, we avoided the classic fairy tales like Cinderella, Snow White, and Sleeping Beauty, all of which embody, support, and reinforce a particular set of gender stereotypes, a particular worldview of the respective roles of men and women including how women and men relate to one another, which went contrary to our own emerging views. Instead, we read stories in which women and girls were portrayed as adventurous, confident, competent, and intelligent; stories in which concerns about one's appearance especially with respect to the opposite sex did not play a part. So we read books like Pippi Longstocking and the Laura Ingalls Wilder books (though even here I spent much time editing as I read. For example, I edited out the recurrent references Laura makes to hating her ugly brown hair and her "naughtiness" (read "curiosity and adventurousness") in contrast to Mary's beautiful blond hair and "goodness" (read "passiveness and submissiveness."

All of this was born out of the conviction that stories are extremely powerful; the stories we tell (ourselves and others), the stories we surround ourselves with have the power to shape our values, thoughts, perceptions, and actions. Stories do not only affect the way we think, but the way we feel; the way we perceive, and ultimately the way we act. Wright remarks “Tell someone to do something, and you change their life — for a day; tell someone a story and you change their life” (40). In short, Rebekah and I understood early on, thankfully, that if we wanted to communicate and instill certain values and perspectives in Emma then we needed to find the right stories. If we wanted Emma to develop certain sensibilities, certain values and perspectives, certain ways of viewing herself, the world, and her relation to the world and to others, then we had to be intentional and selective about the stories she encountered.

This has not been particularly easy especially in a society that markets such defective stories so well (e.g., Disney). Moreover, I expect that people look with incredulity and suspicion upon parents who “censor” what their children read, especially when it comes to classic fairy tales that so many people have grown up with and come to love. After all, as I have heard some people remark, "they are only children’s stories." But that is my point exactly. Stories are extremely powerful, and childrens stories are one of the most powerful forms of literature on the earth, with the ability to shape our children's values, perspectives, and actions. I guess one of my main concerns is not so much that we expose their children to Sleeping Beauty and Little Red Riding Hood, but that we do so unreflectedly. We assume that because it is childrens literature that it is somehow benign, never questioning the values and perspectives that these stories embody and so instill in our young readers and listeners, who have not yet acquired the ability to read in a critical and discerning manner. Stories are powerful, childrens stories (or better, the stories we read children) are extremely powerful; and so they should be chosen with discernment and read critically.

By the way, if you are still not convinced that stories are powerful stuff, then mention to people that you don't read Little Red Riding hood to your little girl, and see what sort of reactions this elicits. Or better yet, watch the look of horror on the face of your local librarian who, amid trying to foist book after book about Santa Clause upon your two-year-old, is stopped dead in her tracks when the said two-year-old looks up from the book she is reading and proclaims in a conciliatory tone, "Santa Clause isn't real." But this is a story for another day.

on learning journals

I mentioned in my first post that I had been doing some reading on learning journals. I would highly recommend Jennifer Moon’s Learning Journals: A Handbook for Academics, Students and Professional Development (London: Kogan Page, 1999). Moon’s book addresses both theoretical and practical issues. For example, she addresses the questions of how journaling relates to learning as well as how one might go about assessing journals in an academic setting. I have provided the Table of Contents to give you an idea of what it covers.

Part I. Journal writing and Learning
1. Backgrounds: some introductions to learning journals
2. Learning from learning journals

Part II. Journals: their uses and possibilities
3. The uses of learning journals
4. Journals in teaching and learning in higher education
5. Journals in professional education and development
6. Learning journals and personal development

Part III. Practical issues in journal writing
7. Starting to write a learning journal
8. Assessing journals and other reflective writing

Part IV. Using journals more effectively: journal examples and activities
9. Examples of journals
10. Activities to enhance learning form journals.

Friday, August 24, 2007

basic christian beliefs

I‎ ‎have‎ ‎just‎ ‎begun‎ ‎teaching‎ ‎an‎ ‎undergraduate‎ ‎course‎,‎‎ ‎‎“Basic‎ ‎Christian‎ ‎Beliefs‎,‎‎”‎‎ ‎as‎ ‎an‎ ‎adjunct‎ ‎professor‎ ‎at‎ ‎my‎ ‎alma‎ ‎mater‎,‎‎ ‎Friends‎ ‎University‎ ‎‎(‎www‎.‎friends‎.‎edu‎)‎‎.‎‎ ‎This‎ ‎is‎ ‎something‎ ‎of‎ ‎a‎ ‎new‎ ‎experience‎ ‎for‎ ‎me‎.‎‎ ‎My‎ ‎primary‎ ‎training‎,‎‎ ‎at‎ ‎least‎ ‎in‎ ‎terms‎ ‎of‎ ‎my‎ ‎postgraduate‎ ‎work‎,‎‎ ‎is‎ ‎in‎ ‎biblical‎ ‎studies‎.‎‎ ‎I‎ ‎am‎ ‎currently‎ ‎in‎ ‎the‎ ‎final‎ ‎throws‎ ‎of‎ ‎my‎ ‎PhD‎ ‎thesis‎,‎‎*‎‎ ‎which‎ ‎develops‎ ‎a‎ ‎narrative‎-‎critical‎ ‎reading‎ ‎of‎ ‎Mark‎ ‎‎4‎‎:‎‎1‎‎–‎‎8‎‎:‎‎3‎‎0‎‎ ‎‎(‎what‎ ‎I‎ ‎call‎ ‎the‎ ‎Sea‎ ‎Crossing‎ ‎movement‎)‎‎,‎‎ ‎which‎ ‎attempts‎ ‎to‎ ‎demonstrate‎ ‎that‎ ‎the‎ ‎Markan‎ ‎disciples‎ ‎are‎ ‎repeatedly‎ ‎characterized‎ ‎as‎ ‎resistant‎ ‎to‎ ‎and‎ ‎opposed‎ ‎to‎ ‎Jesus‎'‎‎ ‎Gentile‎ ‎mission‎ ‎and‎ ‎their‎ ‎participation‎ ‎in‎ ‎it‎.‎‎ ‎(*Note that I speak of my “PhD thesis” instead of my “Ph.D. dissertation.” This reflects the fact that my degree is being pursued in the U.K. (University of St Andrews; Scotland) where they use fewer periods, and dissertations are called theses and vice-versa.)

As‎ ‎I‎ ‎indicate‎ ‎in‎ ‎the‎ ‎syllabus‎,‎‎ ‎the‎ ‎main‎ ‎objective‎ ‎of‎ ‎this‎ ‎course‎ ‎is‎ ‎for‎ ‎students‎ ‎to‎ ‎develop‎ ‎the‎ ‎ability‎ ‎to‎ ‎think‎ ‎theologically‎.‎‎ ‎I‎ ‎write‎ ‎that‎ ‎we‎ ‎are‎ ‎not‎ ‎simply‎ ‎going‎ ‎to‎ ‎learn‎ ‎about‎ ‎Christian‎ ‎theology‎ ‎‎(‎its‎ ‎history‎,‎‎ ‎concepts‎,‎‎ ‎and‎ ‎major‎ ‎contributors‎)‎‎,‎‎ ‎but‎ ‎we‎ ‎are‎ ‎going‎ ‎to‎ ‎engage‎ ‎in‎ ‎the‎ ‎theological‎ ‎task‎ ‎itself‎,‎‎ ‎learning‎ ‎what‎ ‎it‎ ‎means‎ ‎to‎ ‎view‎ ‎our‎ ‎lives‎,‎‎ ‎our‎ ‎world‎,‎‎ ‎and‎ ‎their‎ ‎various‎ ‎problems‎ ‎and‎ ‎proposed‎ ‎solutions‎ ‎from‎ ‎within‎ ‎an‎ ‎orthodox‎ ‎Christian‎ ‎framework‎.‎‎ ‎‎‎“‎In‎ ‎short‎,‎‎ ‎we‎ ‎are‎ ‎going‎ ‎to‎ ‎do‎ ‎Christian‎ ‎theology‎.‎‎

Given‎ ‎this‎ ‎objective‎,‎‎ ‎I‎ ‎am‎ ‎requiring‎ ‎students‎ ‎to‎ ‎develop‎ ‎and‎ ‎maintain‎ ‎a‎ ‎theological‎ ‎reflection‎ ‎journal‎ ‎which‎ ‎will‎ ‎account‎ ‎for‎ ‎the‎ ‎bulk‎ ‎of‎ ‎their‎ ‎assessed‎ ‎work‎ ‎‎(‎‎7‎‎0‎‎%‎‎ ‎of‎ ‎their‎ ‎final‎ ‎grade‎)‎‎.‎‎ ‎I‎'‎ve‎ ‎been‎ ‎reading‎ ‎up‎ ‎on‎ ‎learning‎ ‎journals‎ ‎‎(‎see‎ ‎below‎)‎‎ ‎and‎ ‎see‎ ‎them‎ ‎as‎ ‎possessing‎ ‎immense‎ ‎value‎ ‎for‎ ‎learning‎ ‎and‎ ‎as‎ ‎having‎ ‎significant‎ ‎potential‎ ‎for‎ ‎helping‎ ‎us‎ ‎achievement‎ ‎the‎ ‎course‎'‎s‎ ‎basic‎ ‎objective‎ ‎to‎ ‎learn‎ ‎to‎ ‎think‎ ‎theologically‎.‎‎ ‎But‎,‎‎ ‎one‎ ‎of‎ ‎the‎ ‎challenges‎ ‎I‎ ‎am‎ ‎having‎ ‎with‎ ‎this‎ ‎assignment‎ ‎is‎ ‎knowing‎ ‎exactly‎ ‎how‎ ‎to‎ ‎describe‎ ‎what‎ ‎I‎ ‎envision‎ ‎and‎ ‎expect‎ ‎their‎ ‎journals‎ ‎being‎ ‎and‎ ‎doing‎.‎‎ ‎On‎ ‎the‎ ‎one‎ ‎hand‎,‎‎ ‎I‎ ‎want‎ ‎to‎ ‎provide‎ ‎enough‎ ‎detail‎ ‎and‎ ‎direction‎ ‎so‎ ‎that‎ ‎the‎ ‎students‎ ‎know‎ ‎how‎ ‎to‎ ‎proceed‎,‎‎ ‎which‎ ‎includes‎ ‎their‎ ‎having‎ ‎a‎ ‎clear‎ ‎understanding‎ ‎as‎ ‎to‎ ‎how‎ ‎they‎ ‎will‎ ‎be‎ ‎assessed‎;‎‎ ‎on‎ ‎the‎ ‎other‎ ‎hand‎,‎‎ ‎I‎ ‎do‎ ‎not‎ ‎want‎ ‎to‎ ‎provide‎ ‎too‎ ‎much‎ ‎detail‎ ‎because‎ ‎I‎ ‎want‎ ‎their‎ ‎journals‎ ‎to‎ ‎become‎ ‎their‎ ‎own‎.‎‎ ‎In‎ ‎short‎,‎‎ ‎I‎ ‎want‎ ‎the‎ ‎students‎ ‎to‎ ‎have‎ ‎the‎ ‎freedom‎ ‎to‎ ‎make‎ ‎their‎ ‎journals‎ ‎into‎ ‎something‎ ‎that‎ ‎will‎ ‎be‎ ‎the‎ ‎most‎ ‎beneficial‎ ‎for‎ ‎their‎ ‎learning‎ ‎while‎ ‎making‎ ‎sure‎ ‎that‎ ‎they‎ ‎are‎ ‎able‎ ‎to‎ ‎be‎ ‎assessed‎ ‎in‎ ‎as‎ ‎an‎ ‎objective‎ ‎manner‎ ‎as‎ ‎possible‎.‎‎

‎ ‎ Consequently‎,‎‎ ‎one‎ ‎of‎ ‎the‎ ‎rationales‎ ‎for‎ ‎establishing‎ ‎this‎ ‎blog‎ ‎is‎ ‎to‎ ‎provide‎ ‎an‎ ‎example‎ ‎of‎ ‎the‎ ‎sort‎ ‎of‎ ‎stuff‎ ‎one‎ ‎might‎ ‎include‎ ‎in‎ ‎a‎ ‎theological‎ ‎reflection‎ ‎journal‎.‎‎ ‎And‎ ‎so‎,‎‎ ‎today‎ ‎as‎ ‎I‎ ‎was‎ ‎working‎ ‎through‎ the week‎’‎s‎ ‎readings‎,‎‎ ‎lectures‎,‎‎ ‎and‎ ‎discussions‎ ‎and‎ ‎began‎ ‎to‎ ‎write‎ ‎out‎ ‎some‎ ‎of‎ ‎my‎ ‎thoughts‎,‎‎ ‎it‎ ‎occurred‎ ‎to‎ ‎me‎ ‎that‎ ‎what‎ ‎I‎ ‎was‎ ‎engaging‎ ‎in‎ ‎theological‎ ‎reflection‎ ‎and‎ ‎that‎ ‎the‎ ‎students‎ ‎might‎ ‎benefit‎ ‎from‎ ‎seeing‎ ‎what‎ ‎I‎ ‎do‎ ‎when‎ ‎I‎ ‎am‎ ‎developing‎ ‎this‎ ‎course‎.‎‎ ‎Moreover‎,‎‎ ‎much‎ ‎of‎ ‎the‎ ‎material‎ ‎I‎ ‎develop‎ ‎and‎ ‎work‎ ‎through‎ ‎on‎ ‎paper‎ ‎will‎ ‎not‎ ‎be‎ ‎able‎ ‎to‎ ‎be‎ ‎presented‎ ‎in‎ ‎class‎ ‎given‎ ‎the‎ ‎constraints‎ ‎of‎ ‎time‎,‎‎ ‎and‎ ‎so‎ ‎this‎ ‎blog‎ ‎provides‎ ‎an‎ ‎ideal‎ ‎place‎ ‎to‎ ‎post‎ ‎material‎ ‎that‎ ‎would‎ ‎be‎ ‎of‎ ‎benefit‎ ‎to‎ ‎the‎ ‎students‎ ‎taking‎ ‎Basic‎ ‎Christian‎ ‎Beliefs‎.‎‎ ‎I‎ ‎have‎ ‎also‎ ‎decided‎ ‎to‎ ‎make‎ ‎it‎ ‎public‎ ‎in‎ ‎case‎ ‎it‎ ‎could‎ ‎be‎ ‎of‎ ‎some‎ ‎interest‎ ‎and‎ ‎use‎ ‎to‎ ‎a‎ ‎wider‎ ‎audience‎.‎