Saturday, July 15, 2006

Huge Goat in Danville!

A goat, described by some as huge, leapt through a plate glass window into my local coffeehouse in the middle of Danville. The patrons were as surprised as the goat was disoriented. After running about a bit in the coffeehouse (and possibly in the bookstore, too – reports were confused) the goat then leapt through another plate glass window, and escaped. It was pursued by police cars and sheriff's cars, sirens wailing. They trapped it on Martin Luther King Boulevard. A "goat wrangler" appeared, like the cavalry, wrestled the goat into submission, and took him back to the stockyards. Order was restored.

Friday, July 14, 2006

Leadership Really Is the Best Investment

I have spent the last few days at a retreat with the Centre Posse Number One, the fine group of young people who will be coming to the college in the fall. This retreat is to enhance their bonding to one another, and to begin the handoff from their trainers to me. (I will write more about the ropes course (!) tomorrow).

Colleges face the perennial problem of how to measure promise in high school students. Brains are, of course, a necessary precondition. But brains alone are clearly not enough. We have all seen too many smart kids without the vision, perseverance, or confidence to make use of them.

Academics often ruefully repeat the old saw that "the world is run by B- students." If only, we think, we nerdy Ph.D.s were in charge, the world would be a more rational place. I have been coming to reassess this aphorism, though. I still think it is true; I no longer think it is such a bad thing. The world would not be better if it were run by Ph.D.s. The world is run by people with drive, more than brains alone, because they want it more. They want to achieve their vision more. They want to do things more than just school.

Yes, of course, I want all my driven students to be of excellent understanding. But I can understand that people who want to achieve things in the world now are not as fully devoted to their studies now as we nerds are.

As a teacher, I am coming to see that my main job is to school the vision of driven people. I am blessed with smart students at Centre. And some can be pushed to develop a drive they had not focused before, especially the men. But the main thing the world needs all of these future leaders to develop is a virtuous vision of what they want to achieve.

Because in the long run, leadership is the best investment that the college can make for the world.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

Is Corporate Class to Knowledge Class as Gentleman is to Scholar?

In everyday life we get by with a very simplified language to describe the social classes and status groups of American life. Almost all Americans will pick middle class as their self-identification. Union families might call themselves working class (though if the union is working well, they often work their way into the middle of the income spectrum). We might talk about other people as rich or poor, but small percentages of Americans would describe themselves that way in public.

For a sociologist, though, the nuances of class and status are the rich flora and fauna of the social world we study. Classes, and the "ideal types" of the people in them, are, to take another metaphor, our bread and butter.

The particular corner of the social structure that I am most concerned with is that portion near the top where the corporate class meets the knowledge class. These terms are not in everyday use outside of sociology, but they are not so far from common meaning that we can't quickly feel comfortable using them.

The corporate class centers on the top management of business corporations. They shade off into pure owners at the top and permanent middle management at the bottom. They shade off into the top management of government and, at a further remove, the non-profit sector on the "left," and perhaps into successful entrepreneurs on the "right."

The knowledge class is the class that makes its living from the control of knowledge. It centers on the top writers, thinkers, and analysts who make knowledge, and the professors who teach it. The knowledge class shades off into the greatest artists and scientists at the top, and schoolteachers and librarians at the bottom. The right side shades into engineers and technicians, while the left edge would, perhaps, lead to barely employed coffeehouse intellectuals, perpetual students, and working class men and women who have made themselves experts in one corner of their avocation.

Clearly, studying the classes is as much an art as it is a science.

Pierre Bourdieu is a great theorist of how the classes relate to one another. The terms that he uses, though clearer in a scientific sense, are far from ordinary language indeed. The contrast that I am drawing between the corporate class and the knowledge class he describes as the "dominant fraction of the dominant class" versus the "dominated fraction of the dominant class." Clearly, this will need a little translation, and not just from French.

Bourdieu does, though, suggest a fruitful image to summarize the contrast. Put in the terms I use, the image, and insight, is this: corporate class is to knowledge class as gentleman is to scholar.

In the coming years of research, we will unpack that insight.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Multiculturalization or Immigrant Renewal?

Yesterday I heard encouraging reports about the future of Christianity in the Netherlands, and indeed in all the secularizing lands of Europe. A team at the Free University of Amsterdam, led by Hijme Stoffels and Mechteld Jansen, have been studying Christian immigrants in the Netherlands. Most European countries have been very attentive to immigration lately, but primarily from deep anxiety about Muslim immigrant communities. However, the immigrant stream brings hundreds of thousands of Christians, as well. Many of the immigrants are zealous, pious, and eager to share their faith with the people of Europe. One of the organizations we heard about is GATE - The Gift of Africa to Europe. From the immigrants' perspective, they are engaging in "reverse mission."

The research team is faced with the question of what to call the effect of these Christian immigrants from all over the world on Dutch Christianity. They leaned toward "multiculturalization" as a term and concept. Still, they were not satisfied with it. The problem that emerged with this conceptualization is that it doesn't really capture the religious effects. Moreover, multiculturalization seems to me to be a temporary, transitional phenomenon. All churches now existing have multiple cultural roots; most have succeeded in blending them together into a new culture.

The ISSRC did not settle the question of how to think about Christian immigrants in European Christianity. We were left, though, considering the idea of "immigrant renewal." The advantage of this way of looking at the issue is that it puts the religious effect front and center. There are, to be sure, many other cultural effects of the immigrant churches – Mechteld Jansen began her talk on Indonesian Christian immigrants by handing out cloves, a wonderful reminder of one of the most distinctive smells of Indonesian life. But the main effect of mixing two streams of the same faith ought to be in the faith itself. If nothing else, immigrant zeal may enliven the learned practice of the culturally established church.

The old churches of Europe are in a very parlous state. They desperately need renewal. Hundreds of thousands of zealous Christian immigrants are arriving – perhaps just in time – to help renew the faith and practice of the old, if only the European churches will let them.

Immigrant renewal of existing institutions, even more than their introducing new cultures, could be the great silver lining of Europe's demographic globalization.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

The Dutch Future

Nearly half of this conference of the International Society for the Study of Reformed Communities considers Dutch and Dutch-American questions. In the opening paper of the conference, George Harinck, of the Free University of Amsterdam, argued that the Netherlands, as a nation composed of minorities, had historically been held together by the strong sub-group loyalties of Dutch people. In the early 20th century Abraham Kuyper, the great Dutch politician and churchman (and something of the patron saint of this society) set in motion the reorganization of Dutch society that, by mid-century, had organized everyone into one religious/ideological pillar or another. The Dutch "nation" was the sum of these pillars. Their national identity was composed of mutually tolerant minorities.

And then the Sixties happened. Television brought everyone awareness of life in the other pillars, and in the non-pillarized world beyond. Individualism as the dominant ideology throughout the West created heroic movements of individuals asserting their identity against the pillar, against the church, school, state, and any other institution that established a group identity. In the headiest days of the revolt, families, too were rejected as too confining. The pillars were dismantled. The welfare state was reconfigured to subsidize individualism.

The problem with this kind of anti-establishment identity, though, is that it becomes hollow when the establishment gets demolished. It is a negative identity, which requires a substantial Other to define itself against. Barring invasion, there is little to make a "Dutch" identity with.

And then the invasion came. Hundreds of thousands of immigrants, in a country of but 16 million, arrived from the Sixties on – arriving exactly as the old identity-making institutions were dissolving. The immigrant communities do have strong identities, sometimes overwhelmingly strong. The groups that have gotten the most attention are Muslim, with their strong sense of faith, and honor, and a restricted place for women. Yet there have also been hundreds of thousands of non-Muslim immigrants, especially Christians from the ghostly remnants of the Dutch colonial empire. They, too, have strong identities and strong institutions.

The United States has a muscular tradition of assimilating immigrants through Americanization. Some of the more relativist elites in this country now shrink from anything so forceful, but most Americans, and most immigrants, do strongly identify with the American dream and the American Project. We still do make Americans out of all the world's people, just as we do with each new generation born here.

There is no parallel tradition of "Dutchification" in the Netherlands. The Dutch Project was defined negatively as the culture that tolerated all groups of Dutch people. What made them Dutch people, though, was just assumed. Harinck argued that devotion to the royal House of Orange, a seeming anachronism to American ears, became one of the few unifying symbols of 20th century Dutch identity. He did not say that there is a concerted effort to "orangize" the new immigrants.

The Netherlands is not America. They are not even on the same scale of comparison. The analogy that occurred to me is that the Netherlands is the Rhode Island of Europe. Rhode Island cherishes its identity as the place where the refugees from the surrounding strong religious cultures could be free. When Quakers were being hanged on Boston Common, they were freely practicing the faith in Rhode Island. Yet Rhode Island, like every other state, became absorbed in the strong and absorbent identity of the United States. True believers in Europe are trying to forge a strong European identity, and it is possible that the residents of the Low Country will become strong Europeans in the future. So far, though, there is not enough to "Europe" to make a real identity, and the Dutch have proven skeptical of the European Union anyway.

The Dutch future is a negative space waiting to be filled by a positive identity. This is a mission opportunity for a revitalized Reformed Church. Or it is an invitation to conquest by a stronger outside identity.

Monday, July 10, 2006

Does Globalization Do Anything Good for Reformed Christianity?

I will be writing for the next few days from the International Society for the Study of Reformed Communities, meeting at Princeton, NJ. My particular contribution is a paper on the Peace, Unity, and Purity Task Force report of the Presbyterian Church. Most of the contributors here, though, are from the Dutch Reformed stream, rather than the Presbyterian stream, of worldwide Calvinism. The general theme of the conference is a consideration of globalization and pluralism in relation to the Reformed churches.

Globalization is an encouraging theme for the church as a whole. Whenever I get mired in the decline of the mainline church in America, or the near disappearance of Christianity in Europe, I am lifted up by the sheer exuberance, and massive growth, of Christianity in the global South. Philip Jenkins makes a forceful case in The Next Christendom that the center of gravity in the church has already shifted south of the equator. Jenkins, an English Catholic working in America, is particularly good on documenting Anglican, Catholic, and Pentecostal growth in the (former) Third World. Reading his book as a Presbyterian, though, I was struck with his near silence on how the Reformed churches were doing. I was, thus, particularly looking forward to this conference.

So far, though, the papers are pretty gloomy. Everyone knows about the huge significance of the Calvinist tradition in shaping the modern world in the first place (thank you, Max Weber). Few of our papers, though, report great vitality in the Reformed churches worldwide today. Globalization, in our consideration thus far, comes as a dissolving, even secularizing force to the Presbyterian and Reformed churches. The most encouraging reports have merely documented ways to slow the Calvinist church's decline in the face of globalization.

Globalization today has been good for heart religions, like Pentecostalism, and those streams of Christianity with a strong place for a religion of feeling. Calvinists, though, are the headiest of Protestants. So far, this current wave of globalization has not played to Reformed strengths.

Sunday, July 09, 2006

Is the Virgin Birth Essential?

The Presbyterian Church is faced, once again, with a serious question about what are the essential tenets of Reformed faith and practice. We have always had to decide these questions in examining officers of the church. Lately, though, the question has been on the back burner. The recent adoption of the Peace, Unity, and Purity (PUP) report has, however, moved the question of essential tenets front and center.

The recent Theological Task Force of 2001, which produced the PUP report, was modeled on the Special Commission of 1925, which was also charged with finding a way forward through the endemic conflicts that wracked the church in those days.

The particular conflict that called the Special Commission into being was this question: is belief in the virgin birth of Christ an essential tenet of the Reformed faith? Nearly all Presbyterians in those days took it for granted that it was. To believe otherwise was to undermine the authority of the Bible. Believing in the authority of the Bible was certainly an essential tenet of the Reformed faith.

Two young candidates for ordination, recent graduates of Union Theological Seminary in New York, however, were not convinced of the virgin birth. New York Presbytery, always one of the most liberal in the denomination, was willing to ordain them. A minority protested, and brought their case the General Assembly. When the General Assembly of 1925 created the Special Commission, they handed the virgin birth question, along with others, to the Commission.

The Special Commission held that doctrine of the virgin birth of Christ is indeed true, and obligatory for Presbyterian ministers. They also held, though, that if some potential ministers, who were otherwise sound in the faith, were "insufficiently clear" in their understanding of the doctrine of the virgin birth, a presbytery could legitimately ordain them. The fledgling ministers were obliged to continue to wrestle with the doctrine. The Special Commission, though, understood that an ordination decision is a complex whole, based on all the beliefs, practices, and character of a potential church officer. They affirmed that the church depends on the presbyteries and sessions to make those judgment calls – guided, of course, by the constitution, but not more bound by one particular doctrine than they are by the whole.

The Special Commission report was adopted overwhelmingly.

So here is the standard of judgment that I read from the work of the Special Commission of 1925, and the similar achievement of the Task Force of 2001:

If a candidate for office in the church said "I know the Bible says X, but I by my own judgment don't believe X, and therefore I reject the authority of the Bible," that person should not become a minister, elder, or deacon of the Presbyterian Church.

If, instead, a candidate for office in the church said "I know the Bible says X, but I have not been able to wrap my mind around that idea yet, though I continue to wrestle with it," that person may become a minister, elder, or deacon of the Presbyterian Church if the presbytery or session regards them as called and qualifiable in other respects.