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Forming our Faith: A Way of Seeing

Back in the spring I taught a three-part First Forum series on what principles shape Christian Education, after that question had arisen in a different class last winter.  I’ve been meaning for months to summarize some of that in a series of columns so that those who weren’t able to attend might gain some insight.  With us launching into the fall program year with a re-envisioned Wednesday night and expanded Sunday school, I thought now is a good time to circle back around to this topic.

In her book Basics of Christian Education, Karen Tye outlines four ways of understanding Christian Education:

  1. As religious instruction, with the primary task of transmitting knowledge.
  2. As a socialization process, with the primary goal of habit formation.
  3. As encouraging personal development through character formation. This approach relies heavily upon developmental theories.
  4. As a process of liberation seeking transformed lives.

My own view is that all four matter.  Number four is the long-term goal.  We do that through the second and third approaches.  Number one is actually the least significant, valuable when in service to the others.

I believe the key part of what we are doing when we form faith in our children is providing them a way of interpreting the world—a way of seeing and the tools for making sense of their lives.  This goes by the fancy word “hermeneutics.”  At its most straightforward, we are helping people learn various ways of interpretating the Bible, but more broadly of interpreting the world, themselves, other people, culture, God, etc.

There are two basic hermeneutical stances one can take—a hermeneutics of faith or a hermeneutics of suspicion.  One accepts the straightforward statements of the text, while the other raises critical questions and doesn’t surrender disbelief.  Good reading involves an on-going interplay between these two approaches.  Interpretation is not a linear process from question to answer, but is on-going, endless inquiry.  As David Jasper writes in A Short Introduction to Hermeneutics, “There is never a moment when you can stop and say conclusively, ‘Now I understand this,’ for this is not the purpose of reading, and even to presume to make this claim would constitute a misunderstanding.”

The Anglican priest Ephraim Radner declares “There is a realm, rather than a single locus, that is the reader’s destination.”  Part of our task in faith formation is to open up that vision of the world and provide some tools for navigating the multiplicity of perspectives and interpretations.

Lest we get anxious about the goal not being one final “answer,” the Reformed philosopher James K. A. Smith proclaims that the multiple interpretations is “an aspect of creation and human life that ought to be affirmed as ‘good.’”  He points out that plurality is part of the original goodness of creation; that the Tower of Babel and its quest for unity and one language is the problem.  Smith encourages us to develop a wild space to play.

And so we do things like have silly, but profound, children’s Christmas plays, build wacky time machines on the chancel for Vacation Bible School, have the annual egg drop at the All Church Retreat, or engage in our new interactive, intergenerational Wednesday Night Family Nights.  We are forming a way of life, of seeing the world, through story and play that multiplies the voices and perspectives.  All with the aim of liberated, transformed lives in service to God’s vision of the world.

In my next column I’ll write about how we use habit-formation as a means of developing this way of seeing the world.


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First Central Congregational Church