July 26, 2011

Methodist Intellectuals Unclear on Focus of Methodist Schools

A Korean Methodist university professor urged fidelity to Methodist doctrine by church related schools to his fellow Methodist academics meeting in Washington, D.C. But most other speakers seemed more abstract in their remarks and uncertain about the chief purpose of Methodist schools.

From July 24 to July 28, the International Association of Methodist Schools, Colleges, and Universities (IAMSCU) and the National Association of Schools and Colleges of the United Methodist Church (NASCUMC) jointly convened for “Methodist Education: Preparing Principled Leaders for Global Challenges.” Hosted by the United Methodist General Board of Higher Education and Ministry (GBHEM), the conference brought together presidents, deans, and other academics from Methodist schools across the world. But some wondered what such a Methodist heritage means for schools today.

Many presenters worried about trusts and funding due to the 2008 economic crash. Another important topic dealt with dialogue and globalism. As the Rev. Dr. Sergai Nikolaev stated in his morning sermon, “The future is for people comfortable in more than one culture and one language.” The president of Russia United Methodist Theological Seminary asked, “What is the church doing for the local community?”  Of course the global community contains many religions. What are United Methodists to do? Nikolaev answered, “We have to be open and accepting of all religions and Christian traditions.” Most conference attendees believed that the Wesleyan emphasis on free will and personal holiness could work seamlessly with contemporary pragmatism and multiculturalism.

Dr. Diana Walsh, president emerita of Wellesley College, spoke about “What Kind of Leaders Do We Need? How Should We Prepare Them?” Quoting from the latest research, Walsh outlined traits desirable in world leaders and some options for attaining these goals. The global problems of war, poverty, hunger, and climate change need to be solved by the rising generations. Solutions require leaders who can work from the memory of history, are capable of “creative leaps of imagination,” and can somehow access “new knowledge.” This innovative breed of student will be able to help stop the “exhaustion of the world’s resources” and work with others beyond uncivil polarized legislatures and “paralyzed politics.”

Also important are the burgeoning cost of education and significant restructuring of curricula, Walsh said. Although some of these concerns would be up for debate in some circles, Walsh posed challenging questions for educators and administrative officials. For example, instructors need to understand the proper nature of the human being. Rather than assuming the Enlightenment’s objective individualism, educators need to think of humans in terms of relationship and community. This “postmodern” view tries to regain salutary ideas from earlier times: that the individual is a “political animal” in the terms of Aristotle or that “It is not good for man to be alone” in the words of Genesis. Also, teaching matter should not be treated as a specimen to be picked apart in a laboratory. The classroom is not a sterile place of mechanistic investigation; what is instructed should influence the soul for good.

Walsh pointed out that there is a moral dimension (“virtuous activity”) to education, not merely a “factual” one. Even with all her talk about living in a peaceful global community—of living in a society where power and love are intertwined to bring forth justice—Walsh did not identify the key to achieve this end. She instead asked, “Can we form a community when we don’t even know what it means to be human?”

After Walsh, a panel discussion included the Rev. Dr. J. C. Park, and Dr. Julius S. Scott, who connected especially well with Walsh’s presentation. Dr. Park of the Methodist Theological Seminary in South Korea outlined three goals for a Methodist school: orthodoxy, orthopraxy, and “orthopathos.”  He produced a call for Methodist heritage, quoting much from the Bible and John Wesley. Schools should help students gain and achieve right doctrine in their beliefs (especially regarding the Incarnation of Christ), right practice in everyday life, and right emotions by preserving compassionate hearts. Administrators must eschew the establishment of particular political and economic principles as part of the Christian Gospel.

Park reported that some Korean Christians abuse religion to espouse particular agendas, affirming their “Cold War mentality.” An ideological civil religion endangers true piety and Christian faith; Methodism should not be associated with “authoritarianism.” Taking a venerable view of God’s people in society, Park wanted to make sure that the church focuses on the Kingdom of God while letting government (including Christians within government) deal with the Kingdom of Man.

Dr. Scott, former president of Paine College, also called upon his Wesleyan heritage of learning, compassion, and morality. He exhorted to “unite knowledge and vital piety.” Wherever Methodist missionaries traveled, schools seemed to follow, he recalled.

United Methodist academies have a dense issue before them, most speakers seemed to agree. However, there was a significant blindspot: maybe universities should not focus on globalism in the first place. Perhaps leaders should not let local ties be pushed aside. Much of what leaders need to concern themselves with is found in their actual physical neighborhoods and local congregations. Just because mankind has electronic communication and faster travel does not mean he now lacks a physical nature. Can many people actually “feel at home in more than one culture” as Nikaolaev said in his sermon?

The conference often pictured the ideal of disembodied scholarly elites who would fix all the world’s problems. This seemed rather ambitious and lacked an awareness of human limits and nature. Little in the way of service to one’s neighbor or noblesse oblige came up in conversation; the small, particular, and uneducated were of little concern or use. Maybe greater modesty, gratitude, and accountability would help in the question before the Joint Conference.

More importantly, if Park’s uplifting of right teaching and practice is important, why are so many Methodist universities indifferent to orthodox doctrine? The UMC faces a dual-headed problem: first, most college students in America go to party and receive a degree that entitles them to a job. Second, Methodist schools have few zealous Methodist students and even fewer orthodox faculty members. There is a significant problem in both pedagogical expectation and theological content.

The tendency to abandon both the classical liberal arts curriculum and Christian orthodoxy has been well recorded by historians, theologians, and cultural commentators. Perhaps traditional Wesleyan Christian thought is not equivalent to liberal pragmatism. Walsh and others rarely quoted any source older than John Dewey, whose progressive education sought to stamp out religion, academic content, and moral absolutes from the classroom. The idea of the university extends further back than the late 1800s on into the days of Plato. In looking forward to a global utopia, maybe Methodist academics have forgotten too much of their history.

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