Azusa (part 1)

I’m a bit of an ecclesial mutt.  Some families can point to involvement in denominations going back generations, and if you’re in those denominations they like to point it out. I, on the other hand, have a bit of trouble describing my specific denominational tradition.

Over the course of my life, I’ve been part of an interesting array of traditions: Baptist (various kinds), Wesleyan, Assemblies of God, non-denom of the Bible Church kind and of the charismatic kind, Foursquare, Nazarene, Emerging. The church where I did most of my active ministry time was planted as a postmodern Conservative Baptist church for a while before splitting away from that denomination for various reasons.

My formal theological education came in what can be called “Broadly Evangelical” institutions. Though they were broad in student traditions, the faculty at Wheaton (still) and Fuller (much more so when I did my MDiv) were very Reformed.  Coming out of Wheaton and through Fuller meant that I had a lot of different threads and paths I might have taken.   I consider myself a Pentecostal Wesleyan because this best expresses my understanding of Christian thought and practice. Though not dogmatic, as I appreciate the emphases of a number of traditions (which is likely why I like teaching at Fuller). My being a Pentecostal Wesleyan isn’t because of allegiance to a family tradition, it comes from my own searching and journey.

Why not a Wesleyan Pentecostal? Well, because I currently am part of a Wesleyan church.  I like to also call myself a Californian theologian, because my theological and family influences really only make sense in the 20th century religious history of this state.fixedw_large_4x

I note this both because of my tendency to begin with overlong prefaces and because it feeds into my understanding of the next two “cities” that I’ll visit in my exploration of a theology of theological education.  While the four cities I’ve discussed so far–Athens, Berlin, Jerusalem, Geneva–may be considered the “standard” models, they do not necessarily represent the whole of theological education in history nor even in my own life. In this post, I’ll start my discussion of another yet “city,” and leave out the prefaces from later posts. If you’re in need of a long preface for those posts, feel free to come back to this one. Now, finally, on to the main content.

Cheryl Bridges Johns suggests a fifth city to add to the standard list: Azusa. By this, she is referring to the Azusa St. revival, so it’s a bit misleading if you’re a Southern Californian like I am. Most people aren’t (though LA traffic sometimes feels like the majority of the world is on the freeway), so the reference is still useful.

In her article, “Athens, Berlin, and Azusa: A Pentecostal Reflection on Scholarship and Christian Faith,” Johns notes the “cities” of Berlin and Athens tend to disregard Pentecostal patterns and priorities. These cities assume more of a static experience of faith, an established narrative of what it means to understand and express truth.  Geneva is explicit about this task, understanding the variety of traditions out there and being intentional about enculturating a student in what is often understood as specific contrast narrative of faith.

Athens and Berlin are less explicit about the goal of enculturating a narrative, but no less active in such a pursuit.  Indeed, they tend to be totalizing about it, essentially saying “This is what it means to be educated,” as with Berlin and “This is what it means to be a good citizen” as in Athens.  They universalize their goals and in their models create self-replicating systems of meaning.  This is the nature of education in general, whether intentional or not. Once education goes beyond the goal of teaching bare facts (the so-called 3 Rs: reading, (w)riting, and ‘rithmatic), it enters into the process of enculturation.  How we use time indicates what we see as important and the direction we think we should go.

The main use of the term “doctor” suggests the emphasis of a given age.

Back in the middle ages, the term Doctor was an expression of theological mastery that provided trustworthy theological teaching.  Doctor comes from the word “to teach,” after all.  These are the men (and later women) who every student must study.  In the Enlightenment, understanding of both the purpose of knowledge and what it means to be a good citizen moved away from a theological emphasis.  The term Dr. became an expression of wide general knowledge, attributed to the great polymaths like Benjamin Franklin or Samuel Johnson.  In our scientific age, a doctor is a physician.  Not that the title is exclusively used for physicians, but in popular culture it really is assumed that when you say you are calling a doctor you’re not phoning up your friendly neighborhood theologian.  We’ve gone from theology as a core of learning, to broad knowledge, to professionalization and vocation.

What matters? Theology and right belief in God? A wide understanding of the world, human nature, and all fields of human knowledge? Professional skill in a specific field?  All these are patterns of culture that then impose a narrative on those who would seek to be successful in that culture.  Azusa_street_group_photo

But what is it that the Spirit wants of us?  That’s the question of Azusa. The Pentecostal emphasis on unity in Christ and diversity of expression by Christians highlights the need for a flexible, individualized course of training that allows each person to find freedom in their formation. This doesn’t rule out theological education, of course, it just resists a static model of what it means to be a fully formed person.

Following the definition of Pentecostal knowledge offered by Jackie Johns, Cheryl Johns pushes back against assumptions that Pentecostals are somehow nonrational or anti-intellectual. Rather, Pentecostalism “is transrational, and the ‘spectrum of knowledge includes cognition, affection, and behavior, each of which is fused with the other two.”  Reason, in other words, is just one element of discovering and expressing truth.  She highlights the “relational logic of the Spirit” approach taken by James Loder and Jim Neidhardt. I had James Loder for a class on Theology of Faith and Human Development, and his class and book was among the more radical influences in my seminary career. That I poured an immense amount of my time in this summer class to the neglect of my class on the Life and Work of Jesus suggests a lot about my own educative priorities.

Anyway, as Johns describes it, the relational logic of the Spirit “is based upon the proximate relationality of the human spirit, the contingent rationality of physical reality, and ultimately the Trinitarian relationality of God’s Spirit.”  We’re relational beings, shaped by those around us, in a specific context, formed by the Spirit as a community in particular ways.  300px-AFM_on_azusa_streetTheological education, then, involves a fluid interaction of this relational development with practice and understanding.

Education is deconstructive in resisting static absolutes and expressions, while orienting each person in light of their calling in Christ within the overarching reality of the Kingdom of God.  Because the work of the Spirit is primary, there is an openness to a wide variety of wisdom from all sorts of directions, without limiting wisdom to a narrow range of accepted topics, sources, practices.

As Johns writes, “Its paideia would enculturate students into an inviting and yet dangerous landscape of education where the disciplines of science and the humanities interact to formulate new paradigms. At the core of the curriculum would be an all-consuming passion for God and the kingdom. Visions and dreams would be honored as well as highly technical scholarship.”

This post is now getting a bit too long and I haven’t yet described my experiences with this model and my critiques of it, so I’ll make that discussion a subject of another post soon.  Suffice it to say that this model has been profoundly influential in my non-formal Christian education, to the point that it really continues to drive a lot of my research and personal development.

This entry was posted in education, seminary, teaching, theology. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *