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Faith + Learning = Wisdom.

Craig Dykstra, Growing in the Life of Faith: Education and Christian Practices. Louisville, Ky.: Geneva Press, 1999. 169pp. $18.00 (paper).

Prior to assuming his present position as Vice President for Religion of the Lilly Endowment, Craig Dykstra taught Christian education at Princeton Theological Seminary. This book consists of essays written over the past fifteen years in the field of Dykstra's expertise. All of the essays have been revised for the present volume, and at least one was written specifically for it. Together they comprise a remarkably unified book, one that contains deep insights and strong convictions on a number of related subjects: the nature of the faithful life, growth in faith, the centrality of practices to faith, the way in which education forms practices, the educative responsibilities of congregations, the interface of religion and higher education, and the character of theological education as a form of "love's knowledge." The book is written in a clear and evocative style, and its pages, as Robert Coles remarks, "stir the mind and touch the heart."

Dykstra's premise is that there is in the Christian churches, and in the United States as a whole, "a profound spiritual hunger for something." His hope is that it is a hunger that may be met, at least in part, "by a truly theological education in Christian practice" (3). The hunger is not being met by the broadly available resources of our culture, and Dykstra wonders whether the churches really possess the sort of bread that will satisfy the hunger. Part of the problem is that a kind of practical atheism infects church life, the "nasty suspicion" that nothing real corresponds to the language of faith, and that communities of faith have lost the only sort of bread that truly gives life -- a bread that we do not produce and cannot control. This bread can be found, Dykstra believes, only by participating in a set of practices that constitute a different way of being in the world, a way of grace as distinct from a way of achievement. The responsibility of education is to engender such practices.

Two chapters focus on the theme of education and Christian practices. On the surface the practices seem quite ordinary. They range from worshiping, praying, studying and interpreting scriptures to providing mutual encouragement, suffering with and for one another, giving hospitality to strangers, criticizing and resisting powers and patterns that destroy human life, working to create social justice. The problem is that we have scarcely scratched the surface of these practices and do not understand what is really involved in them. In the end they turn out to be not so much practices or efforts as they do "places in the contours of our personal and communal lives where a habitation of the Spirit is able to occur" (64).

How, then, can education evoke such practices? This requires a closer definition of "practices." They are cooperative human activities, built up over time, through which individuals and communities grow and develop in moral character and substance. The basic pedagogical task is to form people in such practices through a great variety of methods: discipline, training, exercises, reflection, self-criticism. But there is something peculiar about Christian practice, Dykstra believes. Faith is not a human achievement; it is a divine gift. It does not entail mastery of skills but the right use of gifts graciously bestowed by God for the sake of the good that God intends and assures. This strange turn away from achievement and mastery toward receptivity and responsiveness distinguishes Christian education from other forms of education. "Education in faith is not ultimately an ethical or spiritual striving but rather participation in the educating work of God's Spirit among us and within us" (78).

But does Dykstra really want to claim that God's educative Spirit is at work only in Christian communities and not in the world at large? Does he believe that the gratuitous turn occurs only in religious and not also in secular education? He wrestles with these questions in two chapters on religion, higher education, and theological education. Here he qualifies the distinctions. Even a secular university can become a "community of conviction" dedicated to the moral as well as the intellectual formation of persons. There are powerful countervailing forces at work, to be sure, and in effect a struggle is underway for the soul of the (post)modern university. Teachers and students are tempted by all sorts of hubris, but when education is truly taking place we may find a kind of "humility in the face of realities that do not finally submit to our fantasies and manipulations" (137). Simon Weil offers a striking instance of this attentiveness. Thus, rather than resigning himself to a strategy of conflict and separa tion between religious and academic communities, as Stanley Hauerwas does, Dykstra calls for a strategy of complementarity. Each community has something essential to offer the other.

The two elements, faith and learning, ought to come together above all in theological education, and Dykstra adopts Martha Nussbaum's phrase "love's knowledge" to epitomize a conjunction that must resist all polarization. At its best, theological education might offer a prophetic model for education as a whole. That it rarely does designates a fundamental challenge for the future. Dykstra has contributed to the building of this future through his visionary work at the Lilly Endowment, and now he is contributing through the essays in this splendid book.

I have little to add by way of criticism. I wish Dykstra had spelled out more fully the idea that habitations of the Spirit occur wherever and whenever education is truly taking place. A certain tension is evident between his commitment to a particular faith community, the Reformed, and his larger educative and spiritual vision. More attention to the diversity of religious communities and traditions would have been welcome. Most of us are involved in these tensions, and Dykstra works his way through them with wisdom and graciousness.
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Title Annotation:Review
Publication:Cross Currents
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 22, 1999
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