Teaching Uncritical Thinking

As I prepare for school to start in a few weeks, I have been thinking about what has and hasn’t worked in the past few semesters.

Last year I changed the way I taught freshman level introductions to the Old and New Testament to include more room for students to think not just recite. My Old Testament course now spends 10 weeks researching and writing an exegetical paper. Each Friday during those 10 weeks, I set up shop in a study room in the library and the students work to complete a research assignment (based on Helps for Writing an Exegesis Paper). It is not a long paper, only 1000 words, but I require students to write more than a summary paper. Each student must come up with their own research question about the passage and then work to answer that question. I was amazed that no matter a student’s background, public school, private school, or homeschool, how foreign this concept was to most of them and multiple students told me this was the hardest thing they were asked to do all year.

My New Testament course centers around building an exegetical notebook. In the notebook, each student is required to have one page on each of the New Testament books with basics like historical setting, author information, major themes, and outline. But the major item is that for each book they must write both a one paragraph and one sentence summary of the book (the students work in groups on the first part and work alone on the summaries). Rather than assigning another exegetical paper, as I planned, I added the summaries from my own experience of having to provide a one page, one paragraph, and one sentence summary of my PhD thesis. You can learn a lot by thinking about what is essential in any given work.

Although I was happy overall with the new course structures, I am making several changes for the upcoming year. One major change is taking a step backwards in the process towards uncritical thinking. Throughout both semesters, the biggest hurdle for the students was telling me what they thought about any given passage. Some of the issues were church doctrine related, some due to the fact I would be the one who gave them a grade, but all of them stemmed from similar fears – the fear of being wrong or the fear openly disagreeing with what they ‘know’ is the right answer.

I believe much of this is because they, we, are programmed by our education to believe that we must start with the right answer. I think this approach is disastrous for research because it removes all questions. In this method, the goal of research is to prove why it is the right answer ,therefore, all of research is an argument with those who we believe are wrong. Without a doubt there is a place for this in education, but this is not the place to begin.* This year I am going to try and show the students that we begin with our own ideas, our pre-understanding.** This is not a prioritizing of personal opinion or even jumping on the slippery slope to post-modernism. Rather it is a way of approaching research as personal reflection before it becomes public debate (almost sounds biblical – Matt 7:1-5). In this method, the goal of research is to test our ideas to see if they can hold up. Thus, research becomes a means of introspection, a way to argue with ourselves, a place for students to begin to wrestle with their faith (or lack of faith). In other words, by beginning with uncritical readings research becomes the process of thinking critically about our readings and this is the place I want to open up in all the classes I teach.***



*A mistake I made in last year’s courses was pointing students towards commentaries to quickly. I thought reading commentaries would help calm their fears of not being able to do the assignment, and it did help. The unintended consequence, however, was that students quickly assumed the commentary was right and spent much of their efforts proving why.

**Still trying to figure out ways to get them to read for themselves. I started, in the Spring, by giving students this Personal Statement on the 1st day of class. In Old Testament classes, this is a place I find Leviticus really helpful. Having students offer thoughts on sacrifices which are considered crazy today seems to be a place they feel free enough to offer opinions.

***Of course, there is no such thing as our own readings because we have all been conditioned to read in certain ways by a multitude of factors. Yet, I still want students to read the text and think about what it means to them before they begin to engage what others say it means.

Theosis in the Sermon on the Plain? An Intertextual Exploration

Is it possible that Jesus’ statement in Luke 6:35 is an “intertextual echo” of Psalm 82:6?*

Jesus, in the Sermon on the Plain, says that those who live cruciform lives will be “sons of the Most High.” The wording recorded by Luke directly parallels the language spoken by God in Psalm 82:6 as He indicts the “gods (elohim), sons of the Most High” for participating in unjust actions. Is the Lukan Jesus alluding to this Psalm, and if so, what sort of reading would this create?

There are a few reasons that might lead one to see an intertextual echo here. First, “Most High” is a relatively rare epitaph for God in the New Testament, found 9 times (7 of which are in Luke-Acts: Luke 1:32, 35, 76; 6:35; 8:28; Acts 7:48 and 16:17) and only here on the lips of Jesus. Thus, one might be allowed to wonder whether its usage is intentional and not simply standard language. Second (and here we enter into questions of the historicity of the synoptics and John), John’s gospel presents Jesus as not only familiar with Psalm 82:6, but also as directly quoting it as a key text to defend his identity and ministry (see John 10:34). This could again be seen as evidence that Psalm 82:6 was not only available, but extremely important in the minds of Jesus and the gospel writers.

Ultimately, while Jesus’ statement in Luke 6:35 is fully coherent without the intertextual echo of Psalm 82:6, hearing this allusion adds layers of depth to the text. An imaginative canonical and theological reading would find a richness in “discovering” the presence of Psalm 82:6 in Luke 6:35. This is even more true considering the importance which Psalm 82:6 played in patristic exegesis and theology – primarily in the development of the doctrine of theosis.

The Church Fathers regularly referenced Psalm 82:6 as the crowning verse displaying the hope of theosis, or deification: participation in the divine nature of the Triune God. This classically Eastern view of salvation paints redemption as less of a legal act of forgiveness and more of a relational and transformative union. God’s people are given the gift of sharing in the filial relationship that Jesus has with the Father through the Spirit and are thus transformed, taking on divine characteristics (such as holiness, incorruptibility, etc).

If we read Luke 6:35 in conversation with Psalm 82:6 and in light of the theology of the Fathers, our reading takes on a new shape. Namely, one can read Jesus’ statement as a revelation of theosis: a transformative experience whereby disciples share in the enemy-loving nature of the Father.  Psalm 86:2 speaks of the moral (injustice) and ontological (enslaved to death, corruptible) deficit which reveals the need for deification. Jesus, in the Sermon on the Mount, speaks of the moral shape which will characterize those who are united with the Father just as the Son is united to Him. Indeed, Luke’s gospel presents Jesus as the penultimate “son of the Most High” (Luke 8:28 – from the speech of a demon). In the Sermon on the Plain, the disciples are promised nothing less than the same title which Jesus eternally holds. The axiom of theosis might then be reframed in this way: the Son of the Most High came so that we might become Sons & Daughters of the Most High.

It is worth noting that the moral standard of sacrificial enemy-love is emphasized here as the center of this sharing in the filial relationship between Jesus and the Father. Jesus, revealing both the nature of the Father and the essence of relating to the father as a Son of the Most High, is the archetypical enemy-lover. His disciples, as they participate in the divine nature and receive their status as children of the Most High, follow Jesus’ path of cruciform love.

What do you think?
Does Luke 6:35 echo Psalm 82:6?
Do you find it edifying to read Luke 6:35 in light of
Psalm 82:6 and the Patristic doctrine of theosis?

* Psalm 82:6 – “I said, “You are like gods, sons of the Most High, all of you.”

* Luke 6:35 – “But love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return, and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High, for he is kind to the ungrateful and the evil.”

Romans 13 & God’s “Use” of National Violence

Far too many American evangelicals, reflecting the general ethos of our nation, have a war-shaped imagination. That is to say, those who worship the Prince of Peace seem to have a hard time imagining realistic solutions to most of today’s global problems that don’t require military action. Unfortunately, Christianity has often served as an accomplice in the formation of this imaginative deficit – serving the role of chaplain and announcing God’s blessing over our use of national violence.

Craig Hovey, in his remarkable book To Share in the Body: A Theology of Martyrdom for Today’s Church, challenges this assumption. He states:

“God does not need the might of the world in order to act in the world. Still, God chooses to make good use of evil, just as the actions of Pharaoh were made to function in the creation of a holy nation for God. God did not need Pharaoh, just as God did not need Rome. Likewise, God did not even need the cross but enlisted it for divine and good purposes. This is the meaning of Paul’s much misunderstood claim that governments wield the sword as God’s servants (Rom. 13:4). They serve God against their will. This is so because the whole universe belongs to God, even the parts of it that are in rebellion, claiming autonomy from God and sole authority over their dominions. Paul’s assertion must not be construed as congratulating the nations’ goodness and commending their power simply and straightforwardly as a necessary condition of God’s way in the world. God’s way requires no swords, no crosses, no guns, though these are enslaved and enlisted for divine purposes as an expression of God’s sovereignty over human rebellion and pride.”

Hovey’s interpretation of Romans 13:4 highlights the vexing problem of the relationship between God and national violence. The passage states that God has “instituted” (NRSV, ESV) the powers that rule and that they are his “servants.” Too often, readers have uncritically accepted these statements as indications of a positive relationship between God and the powers’ use of violence. However, as I have argued elsewhere (see links below), these statements have an Old Testament background which presents a much more nuanced relationship.

In short, God’s “use” of the powers’ violence does not mean that he grants moral legitimacy to such action. God’s rule is actualized by dying on a cross, not by putting others on them. The Church, those who belong to the Peaceable Kingdom, must never forget the call to the Jesus’ way of cruciform wisdom and power. This is perhaps one of the reasons that regular participation of the Eucharist is so important: at the table our imaginations are converted from their occupation with Egypt’s chariots and instead captivated by the cross on which Jesus’ Kingdom was inaugurated.

See Also:

The 5 Most Common Myths About Romans 13:1-7
A [Just] War for Romans 13: Toward a Nonviolent Reading


Eschatology and an Empty Future

I have written several times on my own views of eschatological visions (or apocalyptic books). And in reading through M.M. Bakhtin’s ‘Forms of Time and Chronotope in the Novel‘ I found his view of eschatology interesting. I do not agree with him that eschatology should work this way, but I do think he captures a common (and in Western Christianity perhaps the predominant) way eschatology is misunderstood.

Another form that exhibits a like relationship to the future is eschatology. Here the future is emptied out in another way. The future is perceived as the end of everything that exists, as the end of all being (in its past and present forms). In this respect it makes no difference at all whether the end is perceived as catastrophe and destruction pure and simple, as a new chaos, as a Twilight of the Gods, as the advent of God’s Kingdom – it matters only that the end effect everything that exists, and that this end be, moreover, relatively close at hand. Eschatology always sees the segment of a future separating the present from the end as lacking value; this separating segment of time loses it significance and interest, it is merely an unnecessary continuation of an indefinitely prolonged present. (148)

Matriarchy Before the Fall

What if the world was originally created as a matriarchy?
(*cue dramatic gasp*)

John Howard Yoder often explored this possibility by laying out the following pieces of evidence [discussed in Nugent’s The Politics of Jesus, 26-28]:

[1] The Word “Helper”
Yoder claims that the connotation of subordination which “helper” has in English is not present with the Hebrew word. The other 5 times the word appears in the Pentateuch it always refers to God. It appears that Eve is the crown of creation, who fills in a gap in the original creation. The point seems to be that the man is dependent on the woman (not vice versa). The man was called to leave his family and build his life around his wife (Gen. 2:24). The Edenic culture depended on what Ancient Israelites would have seems as women’s duties (gardening and gathering) as opposed to men’s duties (hunting and fighting).

2) The Role of Eve in the “Fall”
If the evidence above is accepted as portraying Eve in a unique leadership role (pre-Fall), it then causes one to read the narrative of the fall in a different light. Interestingly, the serpent approaches Eve, not Adam. What if this is not because she is weak and easily deceived, but because she was seen as the natural decision-maker? After Eve’s choice, Adam eats what is set before him without any hesitation.

3) The Curses as Reversals
The curses that come because of the Fall are a reversal of things as they were in the prelapsarian state (animal roles are reversed, joy of birth is overcome with pain and death, those given charge over creation are now its slaves, life-giving ground now receives death, etc). Among all these reversals, it is noteworthy that a matriarchal structure gives way to a patriarchal lordship. This in fact leads Yoder to an interesting interpretation of 1 Timothy 2:11-15 as he sees Jesus’ redemptive work as restoring the dignity of women (for another post, perhaps).

I’m not sure I’m completely convinced by Yoder, but it’s an interesting alternative reading.

What do you think?
Do you agree that the world was structured as a matriarchy
before sin entered in and brought death?