Baumgaertner, Jill: Faith and the Practice of Teaching

Faith and the Practice of Teaching – Rough Draft

Crossings Community Lecture

January 27, 2016

  1. I really appreciate this opportunity to speak on Faith and the Practice of Teaching. It has given me a chance to organize my thoughts anew on this subject. It is so familiar, after teaching for 35 years at Wheaton, that it is an assumption in my daily life. This invitation has afforded me the opportunity to be intentional about it. Now here are two caveats: I am a literature professor. And I am a Lutheran teaching at an Evangelical institution, one that has received a lot of publicity recently.
  1. An Image: student protest with placard: THIS IS NOT THEOLOGY
  1. In approaching the whole problem of the integration of faith and teaching, there is no one right way to do it. I’ll talk later about what it was to be a Lutheran dropped into the middle of a Reformed conversation on this issue.
  1. SLIDE 2: O’Connor’s story, “Revelation” Doctor’s waiting room

Cross-section of Southern culture

Ruby Turpin –farmer’s wife—prides herself on her respectable demeanor. Actually smug, self-righteous, hypocritical

Mary Grace—sitting across from her—sullen Wellesley student

Disgusted by small talk and pious clichés passing between her mother and Ruby Turpin.

Ruby says, “If it’s one thing I am. . .It’s grateful. When I think who all I could have been besides myself and what all I got, a little of everything, and a good disposition besides, I just feel like shouting, “Thank you, Jesus, for making everything the way it is!” Mary Grace’s response? To hurl a book entitled Human Development at her, hitting her squarely over the eye.

Thus the relationship between religion and higher education, O’Connor seems to be saying: nasty, brutish and short.


  1. Mary Grace—forcibly restrained and taken away by ambulance

Ruby—dwells for the rest of the day on this incident, especially the fact that Mary Grace had called Ruby “a warthog from hell.”

One of O’Connor’s most satisfying conclusions: ruby realizes that she is both sinner and redeemed, both a warhog from hell and a respectable, upright woman.

The college woman has had her effect on the church woman, leading her to revelation.

Unfortunately, however, the church woman has had no effect at all on the student.

For O’Connor’s intellectuals, there is no possible wedding of faith and learning and therefore of faith and teaching. In fact, these concepts are antagonists.


  1. SLIDE 3: St. Anselm’s (ca. 1100) dictum: “I believe in order that I may understand”—held sway in universities for several hundred years. Now considered hopelessly quaint. Even dangerous.
  1. My grad professor at Emory: paper on Sin in Milton: “Watch your tone. It sounds as if you might believe this stuff.”
  1. Anselm’s declaration about the cohesion of belief and reason is dead in academia


SLIDE 4: A Short History Lesson

  1. How did we end up in this predicament?

          Reformation: emphasis on a well-educated clergy. Priesthood of all believers. Reading scriptures important. Scholar’s gown: uniform of the Protestant minister.

  1. SLIDE 5: Harvard—founded in 1636. Crisis in 1654—President Henry Dunster announced he could no longer support the practice of infant baptism.

George Marsden: “There was no choice but for him to resign. . . . In the late twentieth century, it would be like a Harvard president announcing opposition to equal opportunity for women.”

  1. SLIDE: Yale University—founded in 1701—as a response to the suspicion that Harvard was losing its grounding in theological orthodoxy.

Dwight Moody—ca. mid-to-late 19th century—decided to send his sons to Yale.

  1. Even though there was strong clerical control of the universities, the American nation itself was not particularly interested in promoting religious agendas in education.

SLIDE: Thomas Jefferson a case in point: He was interested in universal public education and tried unsuccessfully to change William and Mary from a church college to a state school. It remained under Episcopal leadership for a while longer. 1780—convinced college leadership to eliminate their professors of divinity.

  1. During 18th and 19th centuries—hundreds of Christian institutions of higher learning—both Catholic and Protestant. Methodists alone: 1200 colleges (one in ten survived).
  1. Most college presidents—clergymen. Most taught Bible courses
  1. Direction of these schools began to change: denominations founded seminaries to train own clergy. Protestant colleges began to emphasize less sectarian ideals. Soon college presidents were teaching courses in Moral Philosophy rather than Theology.


  1. SLIDE: Influence of German universities: up to the early years of the 19th century most American students had completed their graduate education in Germany. Conflict for most students studying abroad: religious. Comments of Edward Everett—in 1817—became first American awarded a German PhD: felt “the new German scholarship allowed no defence for traditional ways of thinking.” Revolutionary.
  • SLIDE: Johns Hopkins—founded 1876—Daniel Coit Gilman, its first president, brought the new German model to American higher education. Most of the curriculum had nothing to do with religion. SLIDE: Scientific inquiry, the new science, specialization, professionalism, the support of technology—all of these forces pushed religion to the outskirts.
  1. SLIDE:   Marsden: “Religion. . . could be regarded as a specialized leisure-time activity to which universities might give their blessings as a healthful option for individuals.”
  • Beginning of 20th century: emphasis of denomination began to be replaced by a growing concern with Separation of Bible into its own discipline.
  • SLIDE: William Rainey Harper—1st prez of Univ. of Chicago—put Old Testament and Semitic Studies department in the university rather than in the Divinity School. Said: “As the country of which we are citizens is a Christian country, so the University of Chicago is a Christian institution.”


  1. SLIDE: Rockefeller Chapel—guilt in the 20’s—more a sign of wishful thinking about the centrality of faith at the university. MY own experience at inauguration of prez in 1993
  • SLIDE: John Dewey—leading spokesperson for scientific positivisim in the university and first president of American Association of University Professors: school was the new church—to advance humankind several steps in the evolutionary process and leave religion behind.
  1. And so we find ourselves today. Situation has worsened and deepened. Religion pushed to periphery. Now it is mostly an extra-curricular activity.
  1. Separation, not the integration, of teaching and faith is the paradigm.

SLIDE     A Small, Good Thing

 A story by Raymond Carver begins with a mother at a bakery ordering a chocolate cake for her son Scotty, who would be 8 years old the following Monday. The baker takes the order without saying anything, the mother noticing that this baker was not jolly. She leaves her phone number and wonders as she looks at his coarse features if he had ever done anything in his life except be a baker. She can’t understand why he does not smile, why he is so abrupt, and she just decides that she will not try to be friends with him. He looks at her and says, “Monday morning” and she thanks him and drives home.

On Monday morning Scotty, on his way to school, steps off the curb and is hit by a car. He wobbles to his feet, and turns around to go home, where he tells his mother what happened and then falls limp into a deep sleep. The ambulance is called, the birthday party is cancelled. The doctors say he has suffered a concussion and is in shock, but that they will just have to wait until he wakes up. They wait. And wait. Soon the mother urges the father to return home for a quick shower, that she will stay by the boy’s bedside and all will be ok. So—the father leaves for home. When he walks in the door the phone is ringing and ringing and ringing. He answers it and a gruff voice says, “There’s a cake here that wasn’t picked up. A cake. A sixteen-dollar cake.” The father says, “I don’t know anything about a cake. What are you talking about?” “Don’t hand me that,” the voice says. A few minutes later the phone rings again and when the father answers it, there is no sound at the other end of the line. Then the caller hangs up.

When the father returns to the hospital, the mother confesses to her husband that she has been praying. She says,. “I almost thought I’d forgotten how, but it came back to me. All I had to do was close my eyes and say, ‘Please God, help us—help Scotty,’ and then the rest was easy. The words were right there. Maybe if you prayed, too,” she said to him. “I’ve already prayed,’ he said. “I prayed this afternoon—yesterday afternoon, I mean—after you called, while I was driving to the hospital. I’ve been praying,” he said. They reach for each other’s hands and sit there, Adam and Eve in a land where terrible things can happen.

And the worst happens. Scotty, their beloved child, dies that night.

When the mother and father return home, in shock and the kind of paralyzing grief that doesn’t know what to say or what to do or how to move forward, the phone keeps ringing with the same cruel voice asking about Scotty, if they have forgotten about Scotty—and suddenly the mother realizes who it is who has been calling. It is the middle of the night, but she asks her husband to drive her to the bakery, and when they get there and park behind the building, they can see him inside, amidst his pans and ovens and dough. The baker recognizes her immediately and sarcastically asks, “Just a minute. You want to pick up your three-day-old cake?. . . Lady, I work sixteen hours a day in this place to earn a living. I work night and day in here.”

The mother says, “I know bakers work at night.. . . they make phone calls at night,too.” And then she hurls at him the worst word she knows. The baker picks up his rolling pin and the mother looks at him and says, “My son’s dead.. . He was hit by a car Monday morning. We’ve been waiting with him until he died. But, of course, you couldn’t be expected to know that, could you? Bakers can’t know everything—can they, Mr. Baker? But he’s dead. He’s dead.”

The baker stands looking at them for a while and then gets two chairs. “Please sit down,” he says.

The mother is crying and she looks at the baker and says, “I wanted to kill you. I wanted you dead.”

The baker sits down with them. “Listen to me. I’m just a baker. I don’t claim to be anything else. Maybe once, maybe years ago, I was a different kind of human being. I’ve forgotten, I don’t know for sure. But I’m deeply sorry. I’m sorry for your son, and sorry for my part in this. Please—forgive me, if you can. I’m not an evil man, I don’t think. Not evil, like you said on the phone. You got to understand what it comes down to is I don’t know how to act anymore, it would seem. Please, let me ask you if you can find it in your hearts to forgive me?”

He gets up and goes to the stove, finds some cups and pours coffee for them.

“You probably need to eat something, “the baker says. “I hope you’ll eat some of my hot rolls. You have to eat and keep going. Eating is a small, good thing in a time like this.”

He serves them cinnamon rolls, warm from the oven. And they are suddenly hungry. They are tired and in the deepest suffering that can be imagined, but they listen as the baker begains to talk about his loneliness and doubts and limitations.

He reaches for a dark, rich loaf of bread, breaks it in half and says, “Smell this.” They smell it and taste it. The last lines of the story go like this: “They listened to him. They ate what they could. They swallowed the dark bread. It was like daylight under the fluorescent trays of light. They talked on into the early morning, the high,pale cast of light in the windows, and they did not think of leaving.”

  1. Suffering, loss, evil words and acts, then repentance, forgiveness, reconciliation around a table. What does this remind you of? It’s that old, familiar pattern we see again and again—in the Parable of the Prodigal Son, in this story by Carver, and in the lives we lead. During this season of Lent, we recognize our sins and we repent, are forgiven and meet God and each other in the bread and wine at the altar. As the baker says, “Eating is a small, good thing at a time like this.”

SLIDE     The Horses

One of my very favorite pieces of literature is a poem that I have always seen as an Advent poem, even though there is no mention of the Christ Child or Mary or the fullness of time.  In fact, it describes a pretty bleak, terrifying landscape and series of events.  The poem was published in 1960—about the time families were building individual bomb shelters in their back yards—and the stories of how and if we would survive a nuclear holocaust were rampant in our culture.  It was in this environment of fear that Edwin Muir wrote his poem, “The Horses.”7 Muir describes a group of neighbors who are survivors of a cataclysmic world war which lasted one week.  Unlike the story in the first chapter of Genesis, this week was one of un-creation. On the second day of that war, he says, the radios failed and there was no answer when they turned the knobs.  On the third day a warship passed them with dead bodies piled on the deck.  On the sixth day a plane plunged over them into the sea.  Since then the radios have been silent, the speaker reports.  The tractors lie abandoned in the fields.  At evening, he says, they look like dank sea-monsters crouched and waiting.  “We leave them where they are and let them rust,” he says. “We have gone back,” he says, “far past our fathers’ land.”

And then the surprise occurs.  One evening late in the summer the strange horses arrive—at first only a distant drumming on the road, the sound finally becoming a hollow thunder.  “We had sold our horses in our fathers’ time to buy new tractors,” the narrator says, too afraid now to go near the herd of strange beasts who have appeared out of nowhere.  “Yet they waited,” he says, “stubborn and shy, as if they had been sent by an old command to find our whereabouts.”  Among them were six colts newly born in the wilderness of the broken world, “Yet new,” the narrator calls them, “as if they had come from their own Eden.”  They give themselves to this small group of survivors and the poem ends:I Since then they have pulled our plows and borne our loads,

But that free servitude still can pierce our hearts.

Our life is changed; their coming our beginning.

The horses bring the gift of themselves to a brave group of survivors who must now create the world anew.  “Their coming our beginning,” they say.

We, as engaged readers, are eager to find connections between the freely offered grace in this poem and God’s grace we daily celebrate. Christ’s coming our beginning, we say, a surprising gift of a servant king.  And he, like these horses in this poem, chooses to be bound to us, his free servitude piercing our hearts and in turn giving us hope and freedom and life. We read this poem through the eyes of faith, integrating our knowledge of God the creator and redeemer with the images the author has chosen.

The reader of this poem encounters history, theology and politics, experiencing vicariously through the imagination a time of holocaust and apocalypse, of questions with no immediate answers, until God’s grace appears among them


SLIDE   Excerpt from Donna Tartt, The Goldfinch

First from Don Hudson’s web page:

“the critical thinker should be thoroughly trained in a Classical, liberal arts education; and yet, hazard journeys, venture forays in ways that enrich our humanity and challenge our cherished visions of the world—in other words, keep pushing the boundaries, crossing margins, and occasionally jumping the guardrails.”

Read Excerpt

Then—repeat: “The critical thinker must hazard journeys that challenge our cherished visions of the world.”

SLIDE—Canon Andrew White

Our literature is drenched with this sort of thinking. Our world is filled with it. So—what do we do with it? We must confront it. We must read it and grapple with it. We don’t have to immerse ourselves in it. But we must form responses to it. And train our students to respond, too.

Your response to this?

My response, were I to teach it: Fallen world. Despairing world. Point of the book as a whole—must be read in context: Art is the only thing that death cannot touch. “Ozymandias” Questions: What does it mean to live in a world with a person who responds to it like this? What does it mean to live in a world where redemption is seen only in art? Is there any validity in that point of view?

End with Imago Dei poem

Intro to Poem

Two years ago—accepted this assignment—to write a poem on the topic of Imago Dei for conference.

What followed was sheer agony. I like to think that my poetry is infused with theology from beginning to end. But this was really hard. I suddenly woke up two months ago after many, many false starts and realized that this is not the way that I write poetry. I never begin with a theological concept or an idea. Poetry is grounded in images, in experience—and theology is behind, above, below these images. It is rarely foregrounded even though I hope that the poetry I write is saturated with sound theology.

Frederick Buechner agrees with me. He writes, distinguishing theologians from poets: “There is another class of thinkers—at their best they are poets, at their worst artful dodgers—for whom the idea and the experience, the idea and the image, remain inseparable, and it is somewhere in this class that I belong. That is to say, I cannot talk about God or sin or grace, for example, without at the same time talking about those parts of my own experience where these ideas became compelling and real.”

So—my task in writing this poem, I began to understand, was to write about where the doctrine of Imago Dei has become compellingly real in my own experience.

So—I decided to write about my newest grandchild, Zola. What makes Zola a compelling example is that she was the product of Invitro Fertilization. I realize all of the problems connected with IVF, but what can I say—there was Zola in front of me—and I was and am deeply in love.