1520: Martin Luther proclaims the “priesthood of all believers.” The Gutenberg Press has empowered such a priesthood by putting Bibles and pamphlets alike into the hands of many.
1950: Mennonites in the believers church tradition seek to be a “community of discernment,” which learns God’s will for new situations through collective study and discussion. One thing they must discern is how to master the new technologies that threaten to flood their community with contrary messages.
1970: Vatican II has declared that the Church is the whole “people of God.” To make this vision a reality the Catholic Church in Latin America forms hundreds of thousands of base communities, directing its educational efforts away from elites and towards the poor.
By word and action, Christian churches of various traditions affirm that their very life depends on the biblical and theological literacy of their people. While Christians have always been a “people of the book,” the need for literate Christians is clearer than ever in North America, where all churches are now voluntary communities that thrive only through active participation. The laws, technologies, and culture that create this situation can be corrosive as well as creative. At best, every church competes for commitment with other voluntary associations; at worst, each competes for shortened attention spans with MTV. At best, congregations remain the most accessible arena to practice public discourse and decision making in a routine manner; at worst, the church’s own discourse and discernment is in jeopardy. Theological literacy, then, is more difficult and important than ever.
A college education in North America alone does not even insure civic literacy. Economic pressures have bent higher education toward technical expertise and away from the liberal arts. The humanities themselves often do better at deconstructing traditions of civic discourse than reconstructing new civic practices. To expose, correct, and avoid oppressive tendencies, any living tradition does need analytic — sometimes even iconoclastic — breakdown. Yet the academic freedom that favors analysis may tempt academics to think they can live and practice without any community larger than their guilds. Critics without communities may not sense fully the consequences of their deconstructionist labors, and thus, their responsibility for a corresponding reconstruction. Their mode then becomes a kind of permanent professional adolescence. Meanwhile actual adolescents must often find their own way toward participatory civic adulthood. If this is true of students generally, it is even truer for Christian believers in secular institutions who would participate in civic society by way of a faith community.
The special contribution of church-related higher education, then, is to sustain the possibility of “tradition-based inquiry” (D. Burrell on A. MacIntyre). Rooted in the life of a community that extends through time, and respectful of its canonical texts, such inquiry both passes on and refreshes the community’s insights and identity in the face of new historical challenges. To practice such an inquiry is to sustain a tradition, yet to do so critically, lest living traditions become moribund traditionalism. Tradition-based inquiry remains vulnerable to the challenges of new situations, critics, and interlocutors. It requires, then, both academic freedom and community accountability. The permanent tension that structures any church-related college or university is a tension not to lament but to celebrate; to release the tension between freedom and accountability in either direction undermines the vocation that is proper to Christian education.
Above all, analysis and synthesis, or deconstruction and reconstruction, come together where any one Christian mentor embodies the drama of her tradition’s quest to be faithful to its calling amid new historical situations. Professor and student alike must know the freedom to break down as well as the responsibility to reconstruct. What makes mentors of the best professors is that in their persons they integrate both thrill at adolescent iconoclasm and delight at mature participation in church and society.
The challenge to do both at once is the drama. The purpose and goal of tradition-based inquiry — a wisdom adequate to every new challenge and conversation — will ever recede to the historical horizon. That the quest for this telos remains unfinished, however, imposes obligations: renewed humility, fresh encounter with unexpected others, and nonviolence toward the truth. For the sake of the tradition that has grounded and nurtured our inquiry, we must expect to risk that very tradition and must embody the courage to do so. Unfinished though it be, the drama of such a quest is its own reward, for participants nurture afresh the same tradition that has nurtured them.