Reformation, Dialogue, and Vocation

Reflections on the Connection between Theological Education and Social Change on Reformation Day

Image of the Huguenot Cross

October 31 holds a place on our calendars for two holidays—Halloween and Reformation Day. On Halloween, I think about the end of summer and the harvest and the cycle of life and death that sustains us. Reformation Day in the Protestant churches reminds us to reflect intentionally on the lives of reformers, the vision, impact, successes, and failures of past and present movements for social change and challenges us to consider our own role in fighting ongoing social, economic, and political injustices.

Today, I find myself thinking about the vital role education plays, in formal and informal contexts, in movements for reform and social change in both church and society. So much has changed in each of us and in our classrooms over the last few years. And yet few formal rituals in higher education have emerged to help educators and students interpret our new post-quarantine reality as we fully return from isolation now that the COVID count is on the decline. We began the year at my university with all the “normal” pomp and circumstance. But the new normal remains strange.

I still feel a sense of surprise when I see students’ faces uncovered as I enter the classroom. I ritualize the moment with silence or a reading to give myself and the students time to pause, to center ourselves in the space, and to quiet external distractions.

In the last several weeks, the impact of social distancing measures that shuttered schools and religious institutions for nearly two years has become ever more real. Most of the Gen Zers in my classes missed formative experiences within their own faith communities and have never had the space or time to encounter people committed to beliefs and traditions quite different from their own. Popular attitudes and assumptions significantly shape their ideas about religion, religious others, and the way it shapes our social realities. Dialogue has become our ritual to reclaim the meaning of authentic encounters and cherish that sacred space

Among others, the writings of Martin Buber, an expert in Jewish mysticism, philosopher, and political theorist, and Diana Eck, a scholar of Comparative Religion and Indian Studies at Harvard Divinity School and founder of the Harvard Pluralism Project, shape the understanding of dialogue in our classroom. Living in Germany until the Nazis came to power, Buber’s world was held captive by authoritarianism, fascism, and totalitarianism, suffering from the inability to identify authenticity among competing claims to truth. He encouraged Jews to find their roots by exploring the depth of their religious tradition and organized a “traveling university.”

Buber reminds us that the meaning of dialogue is easily misunderstood. Dialogue is not just a conversation, exchange of perspectives, or even a process of negotiation; it is a transformative experience. When you allow yourself to connect with others, God, and the natural world in an invulnerable way you may no longer be the same person. Dialogue is about transcending self-centeredness, which requires a willingness to change and to admit that you may be wrong. For Eck, dialogue and pluralism are essential approaches to the pluralistic landscape in which we are living and suggest an ethic or a way of life amid diversity

For more than two years, encounters that my students have had with religious and non-religious others were reduced to interactions in virtual spaces. The world and conversations about it were limited to posts in chats, likes, or observations shared in breakout rooms. I can visibly see the change in perspectives as it occurs through our dialogue as we return to the classroom, invite others in to share their stories, go out into the community, and build relationships with others across artificial but tangible lines of racial-ethnic and religious difference.

Rachel Mikva, Professor of Jewish Studies at Chicago Theological Seminary, writes about the importance of creating spaces for hearing each other in our increasingly diverse and polarized society. She “cultivates relationships of meaning in which differences in life stance are part of the glue that bind us … Students of diverse life stances begin to grasp complex politics of representation, because they know people don’t fit into tidy boxes …” (Mikva, “The Change a Difference Makes: Formation of Self in the Encounter with Diversity,” in Hearing Vocation Differently, edited by David Cunningham, 37). Dialogue, encounters with difference, and pluralism become a vocation.

It is no secret that our entire educational system is in a state of flux and change. Educators and students are buckling under the stress created by the pandemic and its lingering effects. Teachers are forced to fight on the frontlines of culture wars. More than half of public-school teachers are thinking of leaving the profession earlier than they planned. Efforts to make institutions of higher education more cost-efficient, accessible, and affordable are all too often driven primarily by market-oriented models. The sense of scarcity imposed by budget cuts within educational institutions, K-12 as well as across private and public institutions of higher ed, leaves many schools and universities without adequate staffing and professionals feeling undervalued and devalued. Some of the first programs diminished or cut are in theology, religious studies, history, philosophy, and classical studies.

These problems have been amplified by the pandemic, but they are far from new. Sharon Daloz Parks observed in Big Questions, Worthy Dreams (2000) that “the domain of knowledge [in the academy] has been reduced to the domain of objective reality (understood as empirical fact and theoretical analysis abstracted from fact)” (Parks, 206).  Parks wrote about the increasing tendency to reduce knowledge and reason to certain “unlimited analytical processes that can be produced and controlled—even bought and sold” (Parks, 206). This learning environment leaves educators and students vulnerable “to functioning as less than whole persons” (Parks, 206). What do we risk losing?

We risk failing to cultivate a community where varying truths are critically engaged, relationships are developed across lines of difference, and authentic dialogue flourishes. Theological education is not consumer-oriented; it is counter-cultural. Theological education is an inefficient and dynamic process recognizing that knowledge is “an event in the life of the knower” (Parks, 207-208), not limited to a set of facts, the development of skills, or the acquisition of information. In this new era of flux, and change—of reformation—my hope is that we won’t allow ourselves to lose sight of the critical importance of theological education and its potential to form and transform.  

Giving thanks today for teachers and religious leaders past and present who connect education, social change, and healing the brokenness of the world …

For refugee and reformer John Calvin who began to advocate for a form of universal access to education in the context of his time and preachers like Marie Dentière who expanded Calvin’s view.

For progressive Christians in the 19th century like Jane Addams who advocated for the availability of high schools, particularly in urban areas, and increased teacher education.

For Catholic Workers such as Dorothy Day who wrote stories about the conditions of living in poverty to educate their readers before the creation of the poverty line.

For labor activists like Myles Horton, Don West, and Jim Dombrowski who established the Highlander School to advance worker rights in Appalachia in the 1930s and later played a key role in the Civil Rights movement.

For Civil Rights activists such as Pauli Murray who applied their creative insights to the law, prepared other leaders through their teaching, and connected racism to moral and spiritual problems.

For theologians and religious educators such as Martin Buber, Diana Eck, and Rachel Mikva who study the context of their time and challenge us to live by a pluralistic ethic.

For leaders of solidarity protest movements such as Black Lives Matter who provide opportunities for social justice training and create resources for self-education regarding systemic and everyday racism, white privilege, and their consequences.

And for many, many more reformers and educators.  

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