Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Postcards from Claremont – 10 – Teaching from a Process Perspective (Bruce Epperly)


Process Theology has made a major mark of Mainline Protestantism.  It  has offered a methodology and framework for progressive/liberal theologians to engage the question of God in a way that is in sync with modern scientific views, allowing God to be active even while rejecting the idea of an interventionist God.  It focuses more on divine immanence than divine transcendence, though it doesn't eliminate the latter.  Bruce Epperly is one of the most insightful expositors of this tradition, and he's been in Claremont this fall teaching Process Theology at one of the centers of Process thought.  Whether or not you're a process devotee, and I'm not really, I think we can learn from the method.  In this post, Bruce's 10th from Claremont, he speaks of the influence of Process thought on his teaching style.  I think you'll find it interesting and perhaps persuasive!
P.S. Bruce has had to curtail his teaching assignments this week as he's been holed up in his apartment in the DC area due to Hurricane Sandy.  Our thoughts and prayers go out to all who have been caught in its path.

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Postcards from Claremont – 10 – 
Teaching from a Process Perspective
Bruce Epperly

It has been a great joy teaching this fall at Claremont School of Theology and Claremont Lincoln University.  As a process theologian, one of my goals is to promote a holistic vision of reality that relates to every aspect of life, and that includes teaching.  I try to “live” process and teach in the spirit of process philosophy and theology.  While process theology is a many-faceted movement, I believe that process theology can further the “aims of education,” the title of one of Whitehead’s books, especially in the context of the graduate and seminary programs that flourish here at Claremont.

Process thought is characterized by an emphasis on interdependence, fluidity, movement, and creative transformation.  Optimistic in approach, process theology claims that each moment of life is guided an immanent vision, the initial aim, luring it toward the highest possibilities in each moment of experience.  Education is about eliciting possibilities and bringing forth the best from yourself and your students, congruent with God’s aim at healing the Earth.

Much teaching is dualistic and asymmetrical in nature: the teacher is the expert, the students are amateurs; the professor gives and the student receives; authority is one-sided and often used in ways that promote unnecessary fear and anxiety on the student’s part.  The professor’s word stifles student creativity and becomes the gauntlet through which students must pass in order to receive their degrees.  In contrast, process theology sees teaching and learning as a dynamic synergy.  While the teacher may possess a good deal of expertise currently lacking in her or his students, the teacher is also a learner, growing in relationship to her or his students.  Humility is at the heart of the educational process: we receive while we give; our students share insights that transform what we teach and the way we teach.    In some areas  - and I say this to my students – my students know more than I do, and my goal, then, as I comment to them, is to learn their areas of expertise and help them achieve academic and personal excellence in articulating them.

I see education as an evolving partnership.  A few weeks before the semester begins, I send emails to my students asking what issues in the class are important to them.  I try to insure that I cover these interests in class.  One of the first things I say to my students is “I put together this syllabus and created my vision for the class in the privacy of my study; now you are here and everything’s changed.  Let’s create something together.”  I still take my syllabus seriously, but the course emerges in personal and group conversations in which I try to learn my students’ visions, their favorite books, and the themes they are considering for their theses, if they are graduate students.  This shapes the contours of my lectures from day to day and week to week.

I have to be on my toes constantly, ready to change course in the context of a book a student recommends or a comment in class.  Improvisation means more preparation rather than less, but oh the joy of a lively class of expectant students.  My students at Claremont have enhanced my learning and teaching in a variety of ways: I try to keep up with their growing expertise in joining Whitehead and Jung, Theravada Buddhism and pastoral care, mystical Judaism and process theology, spiritual practices for college students, fiction and music as theological tools, emerging Christianity and deconstructionism, practical ministry guided by a theological vision, Mennonite theology and ethics, the impact of Hartshorne on process theology, video games and theological reflection, theology from the perspective of Korean Christianity and spiritual movements in Burma (Myanmar), LGBT issues, ecofeminism and process thought.  The list goes on: every student brings a creative possibility for the teacher to learn something new and I rejoice in my own growth alongside my students.

As time permits, I make appointments to meet my students outside of class for a walk or coffee.  I enjoy coffee and walking, but I also believe that good teaching involves intimacy – not intrusion or unnecessary curiosity or boundary violations – but the meeting of hearts and minds over tea or coffee in which I seek to experience my students as persons with hopes, dreams, and desires.  As Plato would say (Letter Seven), a spark sometimes emerges between a student or students and a teacher that transforms a class into a life-changing experience.  As a process theologian, I believe that each teaching and learning moment emerges from the interplay of mutually creative participants.  My calling in the classroom is to nurture maximal creativity, initiative, and freedom, congruent with the theme and the overall learning context.  In getting to know my students as “thous” rather than “its” (Buber), I learn to teach to the student as well as the subject, knowing that the students are creating the subject with me as we go along.

Education aims at beauty and largeness of spirit.  Beauty of experience involves complexity, intensity, creativity, and stature.  We are here to enlarge our spirits and encourage others to grow in spirit.  Teaching is a spiritual enterprise from a process perspective and study is a form of prayer.  What we learn and how we learn is not a matter of indifference, but shapes our spirits and relationships.  Ideas can transform, challenge, awaken, and heal.  Ideas are not merely intellectual.  We learn from below as well as above the neck.   Interdependence implies holism and this means teaching includes personal and spiritual formation, multi-sensory approaches, and attention to multiple intelligences.  While I still require written work and see the written word as important especially in graduate education, I do not privilege one type of assignment.  I encourage my students to join analytic expertise with music, art, poetry, dance, and drama. 

Finally, in the quest for beauty of experience, I try to take the fear factor out of education.  Too often students see success in terms of grades rather than adventurous experiences and claiming their own voices.  In their anxiety about keeping a scholarship or pleasing a professor, they often subjugate their own creativity and innovation.  At best, education is a graceful adventure in quest of new visions of truth and beauty, and practical and speculative reason.  Wonder is often stifled by the need to perform or worse yet succeed according to another’s standards.  To take the fear and authoritarian factor out of education, from my side at least, I tell my students that they will all receive A’s or B’s unless they tell me otherwise.  While it is potentially more work for me, I always return what I perceive to be substandard work with comments about how to improve it. After all, grades say as much about the quality of our teaching as the students’ work!  I want my students to sail forth on the seas of intellectual adventure with the wind at their back and the knowledge that there are others at sea with them, willing to share wisdom and provide polestars for the adventure.

At the end of the day, as Plato said, a philosopher without love is dead, and that also applies to a professor.  I see my teaching as a spiritual enterprise in which I look for the holy in my students and seek to bring it forth in the holiness of learning and exploring their vocations as fellow scholars.   Teaching is an act of love – the love of your subject, the love of growing in spirit and truth, and the love and joy of seeing your students claim their giftedness as creators and scholars, bringing beauty to this good Earth.

Bruce Epperly is a theologian, spiritual guide, pastor, and author of twenty two books, including Process Theology: A Guide to the PerplexedHoly Adventure: 41 Days of Audacious Living, Philippians: An Interactive Bible Study, and The Center is Everywhere: Celtic Spirituality for the Postmodern Age.  His most recent text is Emerging Process:  Adventurous Theology for a Missional Church.   He also writes regularly for the Process and Faith Lectionary and Patheos.com.   He is currently serving as Visiting Professor of Process Studies at Claremont School of Theology and Claremont Lincoln University.  He may be reached at drbruceepperly@aol.com for lectures, workshops, and retreats.

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