Wednesday, December 22, 2010

The Arduous Community Redux

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

I would like to offer a brief commentary on this Op-Ed article by David Brooks. He is clearly intrigued by Erica Brown, a Jewish scholar who apparently promotes a traditional reading of the Jewish religious tradition as embedded in the Torah, and beyond that the Talmud. (I know nothing about her, but will assume that she must be a conservative Jew in her thinking and practice). She apparently does this in and through well-organized and highly-disciplined classroom settings. According to David Brooks she is a dynamic teacher/educator. What fascinated me about his article, is how impressed he is that here is an engaged and engaging women who is promoting adult education. She seems determined to assist her fellow-Jews in promoting an "arduous counterculture community." She believes in God and is not afraid to take on relativism by promoting moral principles based on the Torah. She is appealing to "mature and hungry minds" in her uncompromising courses. She is clearly energizing her fellow-Jews. And, very importantly, she is convinced that "you can't be Jewish alone." All of this really impressed David Brooks, who devoted this particular Op-Ed piece to her current work.

Erica Brown and I have a lot in common! We obviously have sharp differences in our religious beliefs, but our goals for our respective communities - and perhaps even some of our methods - are very similar. I am a strong proponent of adult education in our parish for basically the same reasons that Brooks claims energize Erica Brown. In fact, if you substitute "Orthodox Christian" for the word "Jewish" in this article, you would find an excellent description of what we have to try and accomplish as Orthodox Christians living in a highly-secularized, relativistic and, frankly, godless society. In our parish, my goal is to form an "arduous counterculture community" in which "mature and hungry minds" can find the spiritual and intellectual nourishment - if not "ammunition" - to see through the various idols that entice us away from God - beginning with the seductive idol of comfortable Christianity. We can only hope to begin to form Christ within ourselves when we look beyond such idols.

We just finished our latest Adult Education Class on Monday evening. We had a basic dozen from the parish that committed to this six-session class. That was wonderful; but surely we must have more than a dozen or so "mature and hungry minds" in our parish. We read a marvelous book that taught us a great deal about our Orthodox Christian Faith. Everyone in the class not only "enjoyed" the book, but were inspired by what they read. At our last session, we closed by sharing just how meaningful and enriching of an experience it was to come together as a group and openly discuss, share, and learn from the wisdom of Sister Nonna's book and from each other. Essentially, we had a great time together. Yet that experience can only come through commitment. In other words, we realized that you cannot be an Orthodox Christian alone. Of course, it is our communal worship that reveals how true of a statement that is. But there needs to be more beyond worshiping together on Sunday morning in order to strengthen that conviction. We further supplement and support our worship experience through such classes.

Adult religious education is meant to help us learn about Christ and the Gospel. That knowledge is then meant to be "translated" to daily living, in what I like to call the actualization of the Gospel in our lives. On a broader level, adult religious education is meant to help us form an Orthodox worldview, so that Christ is at the very center of our thinking and doing. It brings us into contact with the depths and mystery of life, and of our vocation as human beings to reflect something of God's presence in the world. It allows us to shut off our cell-phones, iPods, and all of that superficial baggage that renders us incapable of concentrating on anything longer that five minutes. It introduces us into a world other than one populated by "dancing stars," "American idols," "survivors," "bachelors and bachelorettes," bombastic radio talk-show hosts, "sport stars," and other sundry "entertainers" that relieve us of our boredom. In short, adult religious education provides the opportunity to drink deeply of the mystery of God revealed to the Church and the world in Christ.

David Brooks ended his article by claiming that we need to go beyond the K-12 educational programs that are well in place in our country. He appealed to our religious communities. He stated that, unfortunately, adult education is "an orphan, an amorphous space in-between;" meaning, I suppose, that it is not that extensively cultivated within our religious communities. Not true about our parish! We have a solid adult education program in place here, in addition to our Church School which covers K-12. I do not claim to have the credentials or talents of an Erica Brown, but I will match her in desire and commitment to adult education. I will "guarantee" you that you will not be bored in our classes, and that you will learn something of substance about Orthodox Christianity. I am confident that if you come once, you will return. Just ask those who do come. Erica Brown is fully aware of some of the fears of her students: the fear of looking stupid or the fear of being exposed for not knowing that much about one's religion. She also spoke of the teacher's fear of being "unmasked" before the class. Those are essentially non-issues for us. We are way beyond that.

Post-modernism stresses community formation. That is one of its positive contributions. The Church has known this all along, of course. According to David Brooks, he is impressed by Erica Brown because she is on to something that religious communities desperately need - sound adult education that is engaging and challenging, as well as educative. We have that foundation here at Christ the Savior/Holy Spirit. If you ever decide to get on board, you will definitely agree.

Fr. Steven

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