On October 8, 2011, at our annual Charter Day Banquet, Bryn Athyn College Chaplain Rev. Dr. Thane Glenn delivered a speech entitled "New Church Education on the Edge." The speech captured the attention of the hundreds of alumni in attendance, many of whom were in town celebrating reunions, visiting family and friends, and enjoying the weekend of traditions and festivities.
The full text of the speech is available below. An audio version can be streamed online here: www.newchurchaudio.org.
A Charter Day Banquet Talk by Rev. Dr. Thane Glenn | October 8, 2011
The title of my talk is “New Church Education on the Edge.” What do I mean by that? Let me ask you to visualize a metaphor here to begin with, and I beg your indulgence to remember that in the world of metaphors, the rules of imagination apply, so you’ll have to play along a little bit here.
Picture yourself standing at the edge of a broad canyon, knowing that you are about to step forward. Will you grow wings and soar or will you tumble onto the rubble below?
Two years ago, Bryn Athyn College instituted new policy of actively recruiting students of non-New Church background to come and study the liberal arts in a framework of New Church ideas. Over the last two years, I’ve been one of the faculty members tasked with teaching our new students in Religion 101, our introduction to the teachings for the New Church.
How has it been? Are we on the edge of disaster or on the edge of success?
We have had many remarkable testimonials to what students have gotten from the course [Student Testimonials (PDF)]. For now, I want to share with you one of my favorite testimonials from a student of Religion 101—this happened to come out of my class. It is one of my favorite testimonials because I think it exquisitely captures the ambiguity of this question: what are we on the edge of?
This was a comment made by terrific young man named Kenny. It came after a lively argument about Swedenborg’s claim that non-Christians can go to heaven as well as Christians. Kenny wasn’t so sure about that. We went back and forth, and here was Kenny’s final word in the discussion: “All I’m saying is that Swedenborg was an optimist.”
Now, Kenny wasn’t saying, “Oh, Swedenborg, that guy was on drugs.” Yes, I’ve gotten a little of that. He wasn’t saying, “Swedenborg was a false prophet.” Yes, I’ve gotten some of that. Nope. “All I’m saying is that Swedenborg was an optimist.”
So… are we tumbling or soaring?
Well, I want to tell you a little bit about my experience of teaching Religion 101, what has changed about the way I approach the course, and why.
As I prepared to teach the course my first year, two years ago, I had a wonderful vision for what the course was going to be. My vision was that I was going to offer an opportunity for a shared journey in which we would explore our individual faith together, guided by the teachings for the New Church.
The problem with my vision was that exploring individual faith translated into the students minds as meaning that their job was simply to evaluate each of the ideas we talked about, as right or wrong, against whatever background they had come into the course with. And since we had a wide variety of student backgrounds—and really, we had everybody from a pretty staunch evangelical Christian all the way to a self-proclaimed atheist—we just ended up with a lot of arguments that could be summed up by this little exchange:
“I don’t believe that. That’s wrong.”
“Well, I don’t believe that. That’s wrong.”
Halfway through the first section of the course, I had an epiphany. Now you might wonder why somebody who had been teaching for eleven years would need this sort of epiphany. I guess I’m a little slower than some of my colleagues. Here was my epiphany: when I teach first-year composition, I don’t just let my students sit comfortably back in whatever writing skills or lines of argumentation they happen to have come into the course with. No. I challenge them to rethink their positions, to refine their argumentation, to move to something better.
Religion is a little bit trickier. You might not be too surprised to learn that most students don’t get terribly shaken up when I challenge their idea of what a run-on sentence is. But matters of faith are a little bit closer to our hearts. So my task was this: how can I create an atmosphere in which all points of view are genuinely welcome, but in which we can be challenged to shift our points of view?
I found that many of our new students coming in—students without a background in the New Church—really were not willing to be challenged by the teachings for the New Church alone. And I don’t blame them. In order to be challenged by something, we have to start with the premise that it might contain some important truth that will apply to our lives. And some of our new students coming in weren’t ready to accept that premise.
But I found that they are willing to be challenged by the Bible. Because regardless of their background, regardless of what they believe, they know that for thousands of years cultures throughout the world have heard in this book the voice of God.
So I’ve reframed my course to be an exploration of this question: What is the Bible calling us to? What is the life of faith that the Bible is calling us to? And what is the New Church perspective on this?
Now I start my course this way: if the Bible presents an image of God calling to us, what picture of God, what kind of call does it present?
And here is a God who invites us to come and reason with Him. “Come now, let us reason together, says the Lord,” in the first chapter of Isaiah. Let us reason together: what does that mean? That means that all points of view are welcome. And it means that we are going to be challenged.
I hear a similar invitation to reason together in the New Testament, when Jesus is asked the question, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” What does Jesus say? Jesus responds by asking another question, “What is your reading of what is written in the Law, in the Scripture?” What do you read there? It’s an invitation. So in the same spirit, I let my students know that I welcome all their readings, that I welcome all their interpretations, and that we are going to let Scripture challenge us, we are going to let Scripture move us to new perspectives. So we reason together.
And as we reason together over what the Bible is calling us to, the New Church teachings then become a set of complementary insights or perspectives for this conversation with the Bible.
Sometimes my students find that perspective genuinely enlightening, and it’s wonderful to watch those light bulbs go off: “Oh, so the Old Testament isn’t just a bunch of strange old stories! It’s a set of stories about what’s going on with me in my inner life.”
Sometimes my students find that perspective easy to swallow: “Well, of course going to church doesn’t matter if you’re not living what you believe.”
Sometimes my students find that perspective a genuine challenge. Here are two that came up for me this week in class: “What’s wrong with love of self? Don’t we have to put ourselves first?” And from a very different student, “What do you mean God doesn’t punish people? Isn’t that what God is supposed to do?” I think the subtext of that question is, well, if God doesn’t punish sinners, who’s going to take care of it? So we reason together.
But the thing about reasoning together is that reasoning takes a lot of different voices and a lot of different perspectives.
Some days, the conversation lifts right up to heaven. Other days it feels a little like fifteen different architects trying to build a house. At those times it feels like we’re on the edge of a mess, like we’re on the edge of a big old heap of doctrinal rubble. The conversation doesn’t always work out the way I expect or hope.
But I want to say a little something about that messiness. I want to tell you a little story about things not working out the way I expect or hope.
A few weeks ago I was surprised to find that the FM on my radio alarm clock stopped working. I don’t know why. But instead of waking up to soothing music or cheery news about the economy, I found myself rudely jolted out of sleep by the Christian talk AM radio station that my dial had happened to land on. Since I can’t seem to remember when I’m going to bed at night that this grievous electronic malfunction has occurred, I find myself listening to a lot of Christian talk radio in the mornings.
A few mornings ago I woke up to this message: “Jesus demands your allegiance!”
Now friends, I have to make an honest confession to you. I didn’t remember that story in the Bible. I didn’t remember Jesus opening his mouth to the multitudes and saying, “I demand your allegiance!” So, I decided to go back and check my Bible, to see if I was missing a few pages. But no, they were all there.
You see, my Bible doesn’t record Jesus saying, “I demand your allegiance.” In my Bible, Jesus says, “He who is not against us is on our side” (Mark 9:40, Luke 9:50).
My Bible doesn’t record Jesus saying, “You must have unconditional, unwavering faith in me!” In my Bible, Jesus says, “Have faith as a mustard seed” (Matthew 17:20)—just a little bit, and it’s going to grow.
My Bible doesn’t record Jesus saying, “I will love you only if you pledge yourself to me.” In my Bible, Jesus says, “Have love for one another, as I have loved you” (John 13:34-35).
So I figured that the guy on the radio must have a different Bible.
But you know, when he says, “Jesus demands your allegiance,” it sounds a lot to me like, “I demand your allegiance. You must take my point of view.”
There’s actually a point to this story, believe it or not. The point is this: I make it very clear in my course that that’s not what I’m offering my students. I don’t demand your allegiance. I don’t demand that you sign up for the Second Coming club. I don’t demand that you accept this premise or that. No, we reason together. And that means that things can get a little messy.
A demand for allegiance is not what I’m offering in my course, and guess what? I don’t think it’s what the New Church is offering, either.
If it is not promoting allegiance, what is the New Church offering? I believe at its heart, the New Church is offering the idea of a Human God who is able to be present with each and every person with undivided love.
And if you follow that idea through, it leads to two very important concepts in the theology for the New Church which I have found to be very unusual amongst western theologies. These ideas are the importance of variety and process.
“Come now and let us reason together” means living together in a classroom with a wide variety of ideas. Some of those ideas are going to be better, some of those ideas are not going to be so good. What does the New Church say?
The book Heaven and Hell says that “the perfection of heaven is from variety” (§56). The truth is, I don’t really like variety. I don’t find variety particularly comfortable. I like agreement. I like people seeing things my way. And I hear my God saying, “No. It’s perfect.”
But what about that doctrinal rubble? What about when other people are stubbornly stuck working with honest-to-goodness wrong ideas?
And perhaps God might say, “Oh, maybe you are forgetting that I also said that the life of faith is a lifelong individual process.” The book Divine Providence says that “people… are brought to their places [in the Lord] by countless winding and roundabout ways” (§164). By who? By me? By my stellar teaching? By the Lord. And it’s a process.
So what are we on the edge of?
I can only speak for myself. Here’s my experience: three years ago, when ninety-five percent of the faces looking back at me in my classroom had grown up in New Church families, things were pretty great. Teaching was more serene than it is today. It was relatively unchallenging to teach about the New Church. And for me, that’s what it was. I was teaching about the New Church. Now, for me, every day that I walk into the classroom, it feels more like I am living the New Church. Living in the challenging and sometimes terrifying experience of the church growing, in conversations that I can’t control, and that I couldn’t have dreamt of.
Living with variety, living with difference, and trusting in the process is not easy. You know this; I’m not telling you anything new. But I wonder, can we trust in faith being a variety of ideas and interpretations? Can we trust in faith as a process of being led, each of us individually, gradually to the Lord? Well, that sounds kind of… optimistic, doesn’t it?
What are we on the edge of? Do we have reason to be optimistic?
Remember that doctrinal rubble? Let me read again from Divine Providence:
A person does not see [the Lord’s] providence [at work.] If he did see it, it would appear in his eyes as... scattered heaps and random piles... [of building materials]; while the Lord sees it as a magnificent palace with its work of construction and enlargement continually going on. (§203)
So we may have reason to trust the process. And that may mean trusting differences in ideas.
What are we on the edge of? Let me read you one more; this is from Arcana Caelestia:
If [people] were to make love to the Lord and charity toward the neighbor the chief thing of faith… doctrinal differences would be no more than shades of opinion… which truly Christian people would leave to individual conscience…. If this were so, all different churches would become one, and all the disagreements which stem from doctrine alone would disappear. Indeed, the hatred one man holds against another would be dispelled in an instant, and the Lord’s kingdom on earth would come. (§1799)
So yes, Kenny, yes, I think it is fair to say that Swedenborg was an extreme optimist. But in the spirit of the way I approach my class, let me ask this question: just because Swedenborg says it, should we qualify for optimism? Should we be optimistic?
Well, what do the Scriptures say about optimism? What do we read there?
For some reason, my mind is drawn to the very first thing Jesus said in his message to the world. One word: “Repent” (Matthew 4:17). Well, actually, that doesn’t really sound very optimistic. That sounds like maybe we should be worried about how things are going. Repent? That sounds like a lot of work. It sounds like we have to be willing to change.
What about the promise of salvation, the promise of how things will ultimately work out? Surely there we will find a more optimistic message. I read a little later in the book of Matthew:
Jesus said to His disciples, “Assuredly I say to you that it is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. …it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle....” His disciples…[ask:] “Who then can be saved?” …. Jesus said to them, “With men, this is impossible….”
“With men, this is impossible, but with God, all things are possible.” (Matthew 19:23-26)
And friends, isn’t this the story of Scripture over and over again? Often, when things seem least optimistic, the greatest optimism shines through.
Let’s look again at that very first message that Christ spoke to the world. Jesus said, “Repent... for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!”
New Church education: what are we on the edge of?
I think we are on the edge of a challenge. I think we are on the edge of a lot of hard work. I think we are on the edge of change, sometimes scary change. I think we are on the edge of needing willingness to learn and readjust.
And maybe, good friends, the kingdom of heaven is at hand.