Moving beyond dialog to spiritual disciplines.
For most of the groups doing a Colossian Way workshop on origins, whether or not to talk about this topic is a choice. Not so for the folks from Front Range Christian School in Littleton, CO. As a Christian school, Front Range has an Old Testament class whose teachers have to address Genesis. And creationism and evolution must be addressed in science classes.
“We can’t get away from the fact that we have to teach something – so what are we going to teach, and how are we going to teach it?” said Eli Spector, a Bible teacher at Front Range and one of the leaders of The Colossian Way workshop. “It can’t be just what people believe individually. As a school and as faculty members, what we teach and how we approach this question is critical.”
Raising the bar even further is the fact that Front Range is committed to a thoughtful, nuanced approach to Christian education. As Eli said, “We don’t want to produce students who are afraid of the world out there, who think the world is the bad guy. We want to produce students who can think critically and engage with a non-believing society.”
Thus, the school leadership attempts to bring a balanced approach to subjects. For example, although school policy dictates that a young earth perspective must be taught in the science department, non-science teachers have no such constraint. Eli’s students read Darwin and discuss everything from evolution to intelligent design.
The school also has the Veritas et Caritas Institute (VCI), whose mission is to “assist teachers and students in critically examining the most prominent cultural ideas and issues of our day in light of the truth of the Gospel” and to “facilitate and encourage relationship with people beyond the walls of the school in the areas of missions, service, mercy, culture-making, and justice.”
When VCI’s director, Kevin Taylor, heard about The Colossian Forum and its TCW pilot, he saw a unique opportunity to further its mission.
“When you’re trying to teach people to engage culture, sometimes it may be perfectly clear what their position should be … but there may be other times when it’s not perfectly clear what stance Christians should take in regards to the wider culture,” Kevin said. “In those times particularly, which are more frequent than we would like to acknowledge, we’d like to get our community to be able to realize there are nuances to a lot of different issues in our society, and to be able to engage well with people who may hold differing views. We see people engaged in culture wars shouting at one another from mountaintops but never meeting in valleys.”
Eli’s and Kevin’s goal for the workshop is to have an intergenerational group representing all three parts of the school’s community: faculty, students and parents (although involving parents may be challenging, since the sessions will likely happen during the school day). They’re seeking faculty members from both the science and the Bible departments, and high school students of different ages.
The challenge will be finding diverse viewpoints. With the school taking a formal stance of young earth creationism, “it’s a bit difficult to find people willing to announce a position that’s counter to the school’s official position,” Kevin said.
And if they do find those diverse viewpoints, the challenge will then be facilitating an atmosphere where those people feel comfortable speaking up. VCI holds a symposium each year, and the first one discussed appropriate Christian responses to immigration. When some more politically liberal views were presented, some people in the community were uncomfortable.
“The potential is there in this workshop that as soon as a dissenting view is espoused – which for our community would be an old earth perspective or theistic evolution perspective – it could be demeaned or strongly opposed, and then whoever holds that view in the room might become fearful,” Eli said. “Kevin and I are determined not to let that happen, but the potential is there.
On the other hand, he added, success would be if “strongly opinionated people who have landed on their conclusions would be willing to give genuine consideration to where someone else is coming from and the possible validity of alternative positions.”
That’s particularly important to Eli because he wants participants to understand this is about more than just learning to listen to one another. He acknowledges that in a 10-week workshop, it’s unrealistic to expect to solve all of the issues, but this undertaking still needs to be more than merely a cooperative sharing of ideas. “We know that somewhere, whether we get there in this particular workshop or not, the truth exists, and that matters,” he said. “Failure would be if we arrived at a place where we said we’re never going to know the truth, and there’s no way to know any of this, so let’s give up our pursuit of it.”
One of Kevin’s hopes for the workshop is that it could help the school’s faculty to understand how to use disagreement as a teaching tool. “I think that oftentimes as Christians, we believe unity is predicated on complete agreement,” he said. “I would hope that our community would not only realize unity is not necessarily imperiled if you don’t agree, but that diverse opinions can teach.”
That hope is already being realized in Eli. Prior to the TCW training, he thought of dialogue as a means of helping his students build confidence and discover things on their own, but never as a means of spiritual development. But now, he said, “it’s like opening up a whole new way to see my classroom. What we’re doing isn’t just dialoguing, but also practicing spiritual disciplines: patience and love and joy. That’s a really rich vision for me as a teacher.”