by Rich Hannon | 26 October 2023 |
Parents and grandparents who are well-churched likely have also experienced Sabbath (or Sunday) School for little kids. It’s fun to see, although chaotic. Young children, when not melting down, are so transparent, curious, and a delight to engage with.
I so appreciate the parents and volunteer leaders who provide this weekly adventure. Whether a felt board creation story, exuberant singing (shouting?) “Jesus Loves Me,” or everyone marching around the room to “topple” the walls of Jericho—the kids are engaged, and engaging to the adults. Great fun, with a bit of Bible literacy thrown in. Of course, there’s no reference to the Jerico slaughter once those walls had tumbled, but at their age a sanitized Christianity is appropriate.
Perhaps the most quoted proverb in the Bible is: “Train up a child in the way he should go: and when he is old, he will not depart from it.” (Prov. 22:6 KJV) And it’s likely this sort of children’s church context comes to mind, in part, when thinking of how that mandate should happen. Of course, the deeper context is in our homes, where bad parenting and environment could overwhelm any positive church experience.
But we can and do skew our concept of growing kids toward God by constraining this proverb, and thus our mindset toward Christian education more generally. Note that the phrase “the way” is singular. And “not depart” suggests both a fixed goal and stasis after arriving. It’s like traveling in the U.S. from New York to San Francisco. Stay on Interstate 80! And when you get to San Francisco, don’t leave!
But in life “the way” is not so well-defined. And this goal from which we oldsters should “not depart” isn’t the doctrinal analog to some geographic coordinates.
In loco parentis
I never experienced Adventist schools until college, when I went to Andrews University. I don’t recall where I encountered the phrase “in loco parentis” while there. I’m guessing the Student Handbook. It’s Latin, of course, and roughly means “acting or done in the place of a parent.” The idea is that the school becomes a surrogate parent, responsible, in this “train up a child” sense, to guide their students as a parent would. And, within Adventism, that certainly meant required religious instruction. It also included a lot of social restrictions and monitoring. Things are much looser now (I’m old) and, even then, the college version of “parentis” was a lot less “loco” than the academy (high school) experience, at least per my wife’s testimony.
There is, of course, legitimacy in a school’s deliberately and conscientiously taking the baton from parents, to continue and facilitate the child’s religious understanding and acculturation. But the problem for a university is that this “child” is now turning the corner into adulthood. And the “destination” is not like San Francisco—or some static, 28-bullet-points Adventism. It’s a growth process, in which a university education must primarily try to infuse perspective and reasoning tools for use over a lifetime.
Back when I attended Andrews there was an undercurrent of rivalry, if that’s even the right term, with Southern Missionary College (now Southern Adventist University). Southern was more “conservative,” which supposedly meant they structured the student’s experience with clearer religious definition, greater intentionality, and firmer social constriction. The goal would be to mint more durable card-carrying Adventists, who “will not depart from” traditional orthodoxy.
Andrews, conversely, was suspected by some as being too lukewarm, with inadequate focus on this orthodoxy destination for the “children” in their charge. After all, parents were paying a boatload of bucks to send their kids to an Adventist school. Shouldn’t they expect to get the “product” they paid for?
I’m sure Andrews and Southern were—then and now—much more complex than such stereotypes. But that belief was operative in my day, and perhaps still is, to some extent. I recall conversations during those years where such constituent pressure on the Andrews administration was noted and lamented.
But this exemplifies a faulty mental model. Getting an (Adventist) education is not like buying a Ford. One’s degree, while reflected in a physical “sheepskin,” should represent something far more abstract and integral. More than literacy in a discipline, plus an immovable grounding in whatever church orthodoxy was extant the day you walked down the graduation aisle.
During my transitional years there was a semi-popular folksong, authored and sung by Joni Mitchell, titled: “Songs to Aging Children Come.” It’s worth a listen, or at least reading the lyrics. The two-line chorus is especially significant, and has remained with me:
Songs to aging children come
Aging children, I am one
My titular proverb speaks of child training, but Joni sings the deeper truth that we are, in many and fundamental ways, still children, just ones whose bodies are slowly falling apart over time. Mine has been out of warranty for decades, yet with all these “grown up” years under my belt, I still find myself exhibiting more sub-adult behavior than I’d like my friends to know about. If there were some quantitative maximum of human maturity (spare me the concept of perfectionism), then I think we all fall so short of that ideal we are much closer to being aging children than wise men and women. So, the “train up” part of the proverb ought to remain aspirational well beyond childhood and puberty.
In M. Scott Peck’s 1987 book The Different Drum, he outlines four stages of religious development. I’ve remembered this, although I haven’t read the book for years, because it resonated as so reality-grounded. And it’s especially relevant for Adventist subculture.
His Stage Two defines both a mentality and social context that involve tight boundaries. Many individuals and churches, certainly not just within Adventism, operate in this sphere. There is a desire to have truth and error specified both clearly and in detail. Then, if you stay within such a world-view enclosure, you are safe. And “safe” equates closely to saved. It’s a mindset of how to navigate this perilous world, dodging sin, to reach the salvation goal line. This is clarity and order, the “ark of safety” in a sea of chaos. Here we can have confidence—based on trusted authority—that we know what God expects. Consequently, all we have to do then is stay on I-80 and San Francisco will soon come into view.
Stage Three, however, involves doubt, followed by at least a pushing of boundaries, if not open rejection of the paradigm that once satisfied. Peck would suggest such a move is necessary for spiritual growth. It first involves deconstruction, then messy reconstruction of one’s world view, based on broader and more flexible understandings of our complex reality. And this muddled, dangerous-to-stability move is distressing to many, and threatening to fundamentalist-leaning religious communities.
Of course, Peck’s Four Stages is a model, which means it is inevitably both a simplified version of the actual world we live in, and contains some distortion. But the question for models is always whether they align generally with our experience, and thus point to an underlying structure and helpful truths about how to navigate life. For me, Peck’s religious progression paradigm is credible, and it captures more reality than the “train up” maxim can and does. The proverb is a single sentence and true enough if its limitations are understood and respected. Push it too far, adopt it too rigidly, and you get fundamentalism.
What is a university?
Religious belief stasis, vs. the complicated process of thought maturation, is exemplified by the contrasting goals of a prototypical Bible college and a university. It’s an admitted oversimplification, but a Bible college tries to impart orthodoxy to their students, thereby grounding them to “the truth” for life, and implicitly assuring salvation. Mom and dad will pony up for this, as they want their kids saved.
A university experience is more convoluted and has an essentially different purpose. It ostensibly is there to teach the student to think, not assimilate pre-certified truths. And thinking, in this context, involves freedom, which necessitates risk. Such a program can have good or bad outcomes. Good would happen if the received education fostered lifelong development of actual wisdom. Bad would happen if the (perhaps simplified) spiritual narrative, believed on entrance to the university experience, was destroyed in favor of intellectual arrogance and cynicism.
Adventism at the boundary
I would suggest that one lens into the intellectual/theological struggle Adventism has been traversing in modernity can be represented by this boundary between Peck’s Stages Two and Three. And evidenced in the difficulties faced in an Adventist university context. It ought to be the case that teaching a student to think, not just stuffing in information, is the core purpose of religious education. But I see too much of institutional Adventism, in addition to and driven by concerned parents, seeking to squeeze this instruction into a fixed, Level Two experience. Now our subculture is complex, and human interactions are even harder to model than cats are to herd. But I fear the Adventist Church has continually been stuck at this Peck-model Two/Three boundary. And the well-meaning desire for certainty, almost inherent in a movement that self-identifies as the Remnant Church, contributes to this.
A “further” perspective
Humans live a lifetime of change, and hopefully grow into enduring wisdom. We also do it in a social context. The proverb, however, can be read as traversing a well-defined path into a final destination where we park ourselves. But that’s at minimum a “one size fits all” paradigm, and it generally just doesn’t work in life. We are all unique, dealing with physiological and environmental differences, and there is no fixed terminus in spiritual growth.
In C.S. Lewis’ Narnia book The Last Battle, he alludes to a greater reality when he writes:
“I have come home at last! This is my real country! I belong here. This is the land I have been looking for all my life, though I never knew it till now…Come further up, come further in!”
There is indeed a “country,” a destination, broadly envisioned. But whatever well-intentioned boundaries our subculture might wish to impart, we must always be moving further up, further in.
Rich Hannon is a retired software engineer. His long-standing avocations include philosophy, geology, and medieval history.