Teaching theology to undergraduate students as part of a university education involves—to say the least—a few challenges.
I think all us engaged in this noble task face the difficulties of student interest, general perceptions of the (ir)relevance of the theological enterprise, and religious literacy.
We all face a cultural context that squeezes university education more and more narrowly into service of the god of the market economy, wherein university education is less about becoming a free person (in the classic liberal arts sense) and more about serving the advancement of American/corporate interests abroad. In fact, depending on our institutional location, we may have to concerns ourselves with the predilections of financial donors. As one senior scholar pointed out a recent conference, we’re at greater risk of being regulated and policed by financial contributors than by bishops.
Nevertheless, among the 130 or so students I meet every semester, I encounter a good number who have some measure of interest in matters related to “the great questions” of human existence and what they might describe as spiritual and just living. A recent internal report indicates that fewer than 40% of students at my university check the box “Catholic” when asked to select their religion.
Into this matrix goes a course I have been assigned to teach every fall entitled, “Jesus.” In addition to making for a variety of humorous locutions (e.g. “Time to go to Jesus,” “What do we have in Jesus tomorrow?,” or “I’m really struggling in Jesus”) the course tends to draw students who need to fulfill their one-course theology requirement and want to do in a relatively benign way. After all, it’s Jesus. And no theological background is required.
It’s not long into the course that those students find themselves challenged by difficult questions about New Testament exegesis, the development of classical Christological doctrine, quests for the historical Jesus, the Black Christ, inculturation more generally, etc. Some of these questions are inherently interesting to those students who think there is something here to be learned. Some struggle.
However, the run up to the first four ecumenical councils in the 4th and 5th centuries elicits a twisted eye from most everybody. How on earth, they tend to think, could the nuances of such Greek terms as homo/homoi ousios, physis, Theotokos, prosopon, and hypostasis possibly matter? At best, this is hair splitting.
And once they come to understand that Constantine—with, at the very least, mixed motives—convened Nicaea in 325, they are further puzzled. And in the machinations involved with conciliar creeds and definitions some see confirmation of their suspicion of religions: that defined doctrines are really cover for powerplay, and thus religion is rank with hypocrisy. That last is one of four key words young people associate with religion, according to Putnam and Campbell’s research. A quote from a PEW survey names the same issue as “Too many Christians doing un-Christian things.” Surely St. Cyril of Alexandria’s move to convene the Council of Ephesus before his brother bishop and theological opponent arrived, and the Council’s subsequent action to condemn in absentia Nestorius’s position on the Theotokos, fit the bill of the PEW quotation.
With no endorsement of such backhanded moves, perhaps a little too cynically, I frame them to students as the sorts of things that indicate to us just how much such issues—about seemingly inconsequential matters—mattered to those involved.
This is not the kind of course in which we could examine Max Johnson’s very fine Praying and Believing in Early Christianity, which carefully unpacks echoes of the lex orandi (the Church’s way of praying) in the gradually articulated lex credenda (the Church’s doctrines about belief). It’s not quite at these students’ level. But the general approach of the text is salutary for teaching young people about early Christological development. If patterns of devotion to Jesus emerge early on in the Christian experience (I think that Larry Hurtado has demonstrated successfully that they do) and continue to develop throughout the following decades and centuries, then liturgical and devotional practices are inherent to the Christological debates. If Nestorius’s position against the Theotokos undercuts a widespread practice of Christian prayer (as Johnson shows), then Ephesus, warts and all, is about protecting that practice. Worship is then key to unlocking why the specifics of these debates mattered so much.
Johnson tells us that unlike the Theotokos controversy addressed at Ephesus in 431, “with regard to the role of liturgy at Chalcedon … very little can be said” (94). As a conclusion about the historical sources available, I do not doubt Johnson’s point. However, if we take the cumulative effect of Christological doctrine cum Christian worship/devotion, Chalcedon’s definition bespeaks what has to be said about Christ. Only if Christ’s humanity and divinity are not engaged in a zero-sum game can we do justice our foundational sacramental-devotional practice.
Let me say just a bit more about that last point. Nestorius’s position on the Theotokos, to simplify, was that the title should not be granted to Mary because it suggests that she’s the source of God. But in addition to the developed devotional cult, the problem with Nestorius’s position was that it pulled apart Christ’s two natures, human and divine. In order for Mary to be simply the mother of the human Christ, that humanity had to be separated from Christ’s divinity.
After Ephesus, Eutyches declared that Jesus’s human nature was enveloped by his divine nature as “a drop of honey in the sea.” Both Nestorius’s and Eutyches’s approach to the relationship between Christ’s human and divine natures were deemed inadequate at Chalcedon, which delivered that classical definition of Christ as one person whose two natures (divine and human) cannot be separated, divided, confused, or changed.
In essence, then, the key to Chalcedon is that divine action and human action are not in competition. They operate on different levels of “action.” And it seems to me that this point is essential to liturgical imagination—it’s not more God and less humans or less God and more humans that makes liturgy efficacious. Rather, it’s aligning our human action with the divine work of the liturgy that forms us into the kinds of people who align our action with the grain of the universe. Or, more specifically, align our charity with that of the poor crucified Son, so that we become more (not less!) free. Even though, unlike Christ, we fail and struggle at that. Sometimes we do so in disastrous ways. Of course, the Theotokos herself made a fully free act of consent to God’s will that she mother His Son and sang out of the radical implications (cf. Luke 2:38-55).
In addition to their (legitimate) skepticism about hypocrisy, young people tend to see belief and practice as deeply distinct. It’s this sensibility that shapes and is shaped by the continued growth of those who describe themselves as spiritual, but not religious. Helping students to see that the practice of worship is primary in early Christological development, demonstrates that doctrinal formation was not merely arbitrary, but it also shows them a viable way in which practice can, and often does, precede belief.
Historians are aware how history can use temporal and cultural difference to elicit a certain solidarity about the human condition from their audiences.
In this case, one way to elicit such a response would be to have students undertake exercises in imagination to consider the ways we are bitterly divide in our own time and culture that could be considered hair-splitting and cynical by people in other times (in the past and the future, with the arc of history not bending in any particular direction nor taking prisoners along the way) and cultures.
Reversing positions (that is, instead of we in our time and culture being the judge of past history and implicitly future history, its the past and imagined future that judge us) can change perspectives. And perhaps help us see how not specially special we are in our present moment. (And from there perhaps underscore why Christianity teaches our need to be redeemed.)
Of course, this would be far from a “safe” exercise.