My Calling as Professor

December 21st, 2012 / 5 Comments

I am immensely thankful for my calling to serve as professor of theology. I’ve been thinking lately about what this privilege means.

To me, this is a calling. Educational ministry is a vocation about which I’m intensely interested and seemingly gifted. Although most days are rewarding, this belief in my call is especially important on those days that are less than rewarding!

Whether praised or criticized, I feel assured of God’s leading in this work. Fortunately, many others have confirmed my assurance. And that’s crucial.

Christian University        

Teaching at an educational institution with a vision for educating Christians is a blessing. But given my interests, I often hang out with professors who teach in institutions without a Christian identity. We share much in common as professors, of course. But how we fulfill our callings can differ.

One advantage of teaching at a Christian university is that most students share my faith perspective, generally speaking. Because of this, we can relate to one another. Our backgrounds and possible futures share many similarities.

Of course, sometimes a Christian university has disadvantages. For instance, some students come to campus thinking their campus experience will be a repeat of Sunday school lessons and youth group games. They soon find out the academic life is different – but often more rewarding!

A main part of my professorial vocation involves building up and encouraging students in the faith. This sometimes means offering ways of thinking about God and life different from what they have heard previously.

Sometimes students temporarily feel as if their faith is undermined or deconstructed. I assure them that moving into a different way of believing is not the same as not believing at all. And we professors offer these new ways of thinking about God and life in hopes that student faith will be reconstructed in ways that are more adequate.

The vast majority of time, graduating students report that their theological education process was positively formative. Although the process was difficult at times, they find great joy in the adventure to become more like Christ in heart and mind.

Of course, these student words of appreciation are a blessing to my colleagues and me!

Wesleyan Holiness Education

Hundreds of Christian colleges and universities exist, and they share much in common. But the theological identities of each offer ways to distinguish one from another. My institution is part of a tradition often called “Wesleyan-Holiness.”

This label has particular historical ties and meanings. Particular denominations also align themselves with this label. And the Wesleyan-Holiness tradition often reflects particular practices and social behaviors typical of its members. All of these elements contribute to the theological identity of what Wesleyan-Holiness education and my function as a professor.

I’ve been thinking lately, however, about theological characteristics of the Wesleyan-Holiness tradition and how these might reflect my educational calling. It’s difficult to identify the essence or defining theological feature of the Wesleyan-Holiness tradition. Some time ago, however, I listed twelve statements that comprise general beliefs of the tradition:

1. God’s primary attribute is love. Or, as Charles Wesley put it in a hymn: “God’s name and nature is love.”

2. God is triune. The Father has been revealed in Jesus Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit.

3. God acts first in every moment to offer salvation, and humans freely respond to God’s offer. God’s action that enables creaturely free response is called “prevenient grace.”

4. Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection make possible a fruitful relationship with God and hope for transformation in this life and the next.

5. God does not predestine some to heaven and others to hell. All have the opportunity to experience eternal life both now and in the future.

6. Christians are sanctified as they respond appropriately to God’s empowering love. Sanctified Christians love God, others, and all creation, including themselves. Some responses to live in holiness represent important turning points in the Christian life.

7. Christians should consult the Bible, Christian tradition, reason, and contemporary experience (i.e., the Wesleyan quadrilateral) when deciding how to think and act as Christians.

8. The Bible’s primary purpose is to teach the way of salvation. One may or may not affirm its statements about scientific, historical, or cultural matters.

9. The Church and its practices are crucial to Christian understanding, right living, and compassion toward others and oneself.

10. God values and seeks to redeem all creation: humans and nonhumans. God cares about the whole and not just a few.

11. Transformation from a life of sin to a life of love begins in this life. Christians are not merely waiting for the afterlife. They can experience and promote abundant life now.

12. Personal and corporate religious experience, not merely rational consent to Christian doctrines, characterizes the flourishing Christian. Both heart and head matter.

Quadrilateral

All twelve theological statements are important. And I could probably write a book on how each influences my calling as a professor of theology. But I want to touch briefly on two.

Number seven above says Christians should consult the Bible, Christian tradition, reason, and contemporary experience when deciding how to think about God and life live fully. In the last century or so, those in the Wesleyan-Holiness tradition have come to call these four general resources, “the quadrilateral,” to show that each proves helpful.

I find the quadrilateral helpful as a general framework for my calling as a professor. While I look primarily to Scripture for things necessary to salvation, the other elements shape my looking and my interpreting. I seek the experiential wisdom of science and art, for instance. I look to the traditional wisdom of the ancients as well as contemporary culture. I endeavor to love God with my mind as well.

It’s not a coincidence that many Wesleyan-Holiness institutions of higher education have a liberal arts core at the base of their curricula. The notion that God is present in various domains of life and we should use all our resources – not just the Bible – fits well with an educational philosophy that values many ways of knowing. Contemporary culture often pushes Wesleyan-Holiness institutions toward specialization of knowledge. But the tradition must remember that while specialized education may be more financially successful in the short run, a well-rounded and multi-faceted education is more beneficial in the long run.

Head and Heart Matter

Many in the Wesleyan-Holiness tradition are familiar with the line in Charles Wesley’s hymn, “Unite the pair so long disjoined: knowledge and vital piety.” In my view, the transformation of head and heart are central to my calling as a professor of theology at a Wesleyan-Holiness educational institution.

In recent decades, it has become popular among educated people to criticize theologies that are based solely on defending “propositional truths.” This criticism has merit, because too many in the Christian tradition seemed to think getting our theological language correct and then mentally assenting to it is the heart of Christian faith.

At it’s best, the Wesleyan-Holiness tradition cares about intellectual work. The mind matters. But it also cares about the matters of the heart. It cares about developing Christian character. Wesleyan-Holiness people think, for instance, that it is more important that a person be loving than she or he have the correct view of the Trinity.

Part of my own work as a professor has been to put intellectual rigor into the Wesleyan-Holiness claim that love – what John Wesley said was the heart of holiness – matters most. I care not only about provoking others act lovingly and develop loving characters. I also care about using the logic of love to think theologically. Theo-logic is love logic.

Work I’ve been doing as Wesleyan-Holiness theologian sometimes takes the form of books written for the laity. Relational Holiness: Responding to the Call of Love, for instance, was co-written with Michael Lodahl to help people think well and understand love as the core notion uniting various ideas of holiness found in Scripture and tradition. More recently, my book, The Nature of Love: A Theology, offers an academic defense of a particular way to think about love as God’s nature.

These books and many others I’ve written intend to inspire readers to love God more deeply with their hearts and minds.

Conclusion

I’m not alone, of course, in wanting to answer God’s inspiration to fulfill my call. Others in the Wesleyan-Holiness tradition also believe their ways of seeing God and the world can prove fruitful for today.

It’s my honor and privilege to follow God’s call as a professor of theology in the Wesleyan-Holiness tradition!

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Comments

Brook Thelander

Thanks, Tom, for these helpful reflections.


chris

I have been thinking deeply about your comment concerning sin – any act that is done in a non-loving way… much to ponder here and I am sure you have more to say about that but is sure has me digging. It seems that that cannot stand alone in definition (?).


Catherine Schamber

Great essay, Tom.  Thanks.  It’s a noble calling.


dirk

very good, I would also emphasize Wesley’s development/recovery of spiritual methods/disciplines for Protestants and other non-monastics. Despite his honesty about his own limits Wesley is often framed as a saint or a prophet but I think of him as a pragmatist, not unlike James and Royce, who employed the best available resources to shape practical, and actionable, modes of improving the quality of our daily lives and relations.
thanks for extending your teaching to the cyber-world.


Carol VanSlageren

I’m not going to comment on your theological characteristics of education, but rather on your “natural” gift for teaching/educating.  How much of your calling/gift do you think was developed &/or picked up from being a part of a family of educators?  I think that alot of your passion for education comes from your familial background.  As a teacher, I know that I base alot of my own style on how I was raised and taught.  Thankfully I had a great example to follow.  Yes, I do see my job as an educator as one of demonstrating God’s love to my students.  I also see that as my calling in life….demonstrating love to all I come in contact with.


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