A “self-critical” faith

“The deep roots of self-critical faith in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam present both a gift and an obligation,” Rachel Mikva argues in her new book published by Beacon Press in November. “Our own religious teaching should consistently be processed through the crucible of rigorous self-examination. We need to recognize how our texts, teachings, and practices have implications for others, in themselves and as echoes of historical interpretations,” she writes. The book, entitled Dangerous Religious Ideas: The Deep Roots of Self-critical Faith in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, invites readers to wrestle with what she calls the multivocality, dynamism, and capacity for self-critique in our religious traditions.

Erin VanLaningham and I had a chance to talk with Rachel at length about her new book for a recent episode of the NetVUE podcast series Callings. In the conversation, we discuss the role of self-critical faith in the public sphere and how certain religious ideas can be “good and dangerous.” We hear a little bit about Rachel’s own calling in response to the events of September, 2001, and asked her to tell us more about what vocation looks like “if the world is coming to an end” (picking up on a provocatively titled talk she delivered at a NetVUE gathering in 2019).

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Building a Thriving Research Team

A group of faculty and students at Calvin University is developing a curriculum to support team-based research. Their aim is to incorporate communal and individual professional skills into research team processes to foster thriving community and improved vocational discernment for students. They seek to build a community of scientists whose scholarship aligns with their values: authentic community, member well-being, and scientific excellence. Their hope is that this blog series will spark a dialog about measures of success that are not typically prioritized in scholarly work and ways this project could be expanded to other colleges and universities, both within and beyond the Christian tradition.

The events of the past year and our experiences with SARS-CoV-2 have demonstrated that the ability of scientists with diverse expertise to work together is vital to scientific success. A whole field of study, known as the Science of Team Science, has arisen around identifying strategies to bring scientists together to confront complex questions and solve problems effectively. Team Science is defined as “research conducted by more than one individual in an interdependent fashion, including research conducted by small teams and larger groups” (Cooke & Hilton, 2015). 

Many potential benefits of the team approach to science have been identified, for example, 1) enhanced capacity to achieve goals, 2) increased productivity and influence, and 3) improved outcomes for individual team members (Cooke, 2015; DeHart, 2017). However, several factors hinder attainment of the benefits of team science. These problems include inter-task dependence, lack of common vocabulary (communication challenges), and goal misalignment (lack of commitment) (Bennett et al., 2010; Cooke, 2015). As the Science of Team Science has illuminated, and our global experience of the COVID-19 pandemic has exemplified, students entering scientific careers will need to be able to work effectively as members of multi-disciplinary teams.

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Getting Out of the Way

I have been taking classical voice lessons for several years now, a training I underwent as a teenager and returned to as a thirtysomething. In 2015 when I met my new vocal coach, I brought along with me my dog-eared copy of Schirmer’s 24 Great Italian Songs and Arias, Soprano Edition. After warming up, I chose a piece that I was once assigned in 1995, to see how I would fare 20 years later. 

I was comfortable with the swift melismas that hid the higher notes from my anxious eyes, but when I was asked to hold a high G for a whole measure, I suddenly tightened. On my end, I decided I needed to gird my loins, summon my strength, and force that note out into the sanctuary with every muscle in my body. 

“Sounds like a Hail Mary,” my teacher suggested, gently noting that I sounded a bit like a train whistle. “The trick is to get out of the way—you don’t have to push the sound. It’s like grace—it comes on its own.” 

I should have known that signing on with an Episcopalian for voice lessons would also mean spiritual direction, because there was profundity in his advice to “get out of the way.” 

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The Danger of a Single Story: A Simple Idea for Revising Biases and Presuppositions

What is the single story that you most believe about yourself? About others? About your vocation? About love or justice? About death? Is that single story a river whose strong current is fed by the tributaries of many stories and experiences? Or is that single story a cage? The power of stories to trap us inside them is subtle and formidable. It takes additional stories to liberate us from stories. 

I suppose I had an intuition of the power of single stories to make us unwitting viewers of incomplete, sometimes dangerous, always limiting perspectives. But it wasn’t until I read Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s essay based on her Tedtalk of the same title, “The Danger of a Single Story,” that I found a way of helping my students (and myself) look at their view of the world and its formation in a way that didn’t make them defensive and left them feeling hopeful that they could grow into a more complex view of the world.  

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Vocation for Teachers Who Hate Grading

If you type “I hate grading” into google, you’ll get 5,800,000 hits. For many of us, evaluating students’ work is the part of our vocations that feels the least vocational. In part, that’s because there’s something fundamentally un-vocational in summing up students’ efforts to learn—their own current vocational work—with a letter or number. In part, it’s because grading reinforces power structures that most of us resist. But evaluation can also feel un-vocational because we just can’t do it as well as we want to. 

We know good feedback is precious: the voices of others often help us find our vocational ways, and comments on assignments can be one of the most effective conduits for mentorship. But because this work is so important, we can feel all the more sharply that our efforts at it are imperfect. We don’t have the time, perhaps we don’t have the wisdom or diplomatic savvy, to do it well enough. That’s true especially if we’re laboring in courses, course loads, or evaluation systems (like minimal GPAs for scholarships) that don’t fit our vision of vocation. Then the mountain of assignments waiting for our response becomes not an invitation to nurturing conversation but a burden, not the essence of teaching but a distraction from the aspects of teaching we value.

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Poetry as aid to teaching vocation

“Poetry is having (its) moment,” claims Morgan Hines, in a recent USA Today feature. Her article reports the “moment” owes to the pandemic, to a racial reckoning, and to poets Amanda Gorman and Rupi Kaur. Joy Harjo, Poet Laureate of the United States, thinks poetry may be experiencing a renaissance “coming up from the char,” Hines writes.

I am grateful for a reported surge in popular interest for poetry because I have been using selected poems to teach vocation concepts for many years. Most students think they are poetry-averse, but the right poem, selected and presented as accessible entry to a vocation topic, can be an effective way to complement teaching about vocation.

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The Journey of the Called Life

Readers of this blog may be interested in a new book about vocation called Living Vocationally: The Journey of the Called Life (Cascade Books, 2021). A labor of love and friendship, the book was co-written by Charlie Pinches, who teaches at the University of Scranton, and Paul Wadell, professor emeritus at St. Norbert College. Weaving together insights from a wide range of thinkers, including Augustine, Aquinas, and Gabriel Marcel as well as Barbara Brown Taylor, Parker Palmer, Wendell Berry and Pope Francis, a sizeable portion of the book explores the virtues that are needed for the journey: attentiveness and humility, fidelity and courage, justice, hope, and patience.

The book draws upon much of the recent writing about vocation, including the collections published as part of the NetVUE Scholarly Resources Project. Several authors who have contributed to this blog—including David Cunningham, Douglas Henry, Jason Mahn, Anantanand Rambachan, Caryn Riswold, and Hannah Schell—are mentioned in the footnotes throughout the book.

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