The fragmentation of knowledge and restoration of wisdom: educational reform in the new millennium

1999 William and Rita Bell Lecture

Public Lecture – March 16, 1999 – the University of Tulsa Campus – Sharp Chapel

Lecturer – The Right Reverend Craig B. Anderson, Ph.D. – Rector, St Paul’s School Concord, N.H. – President, National Council of Churches

It is proper to every gathering that the gatherers assemble to coordinate their efforts to the sheltering; only when they have gathered together with that end in view do they begin to gather. – Martin Heidegger, Logos

My lecture can be summarized in three words. The three words take the form of a Lakota greeting. Before greeting you, however, a word about the greeting.

A significantly formative period in my ministry was serving as the eighth diocesan bishop for the Diocese of South Dakota from 1984 until 1993. The Diocese of South Dakota is unique for many reasons. First, it is the only diocese in which Episcopalians can claim to be the majority church in nine counties of the United States. This uniqueness is ironic given the fact that the Episcopal Church, often seen as a church of affluence and privilege, could be the dominant church in nine of the poorest counties in the United States. This fact leads to a second related uniqueness; it is a diocese made up of a “minority” population. Of the 1118 congregations in the Diocese of South Dakota, 79 are on the reservations of the Great Sioux Nation. There are approximately 23,000 baptized Lakota, Dakota, and Nakota Episcopalians in the Diocese of South Dakota versus approximately 11,000 “non-Indian” Episcopalians. The third aspect of the uniqueness of the Diocese follows from the first two; it is the poorest diocese in the Episcopal Church, with over half of its income coming from the National Church budget.

Whenever the Lakota people come together for any reason – be it political, tribal, religious, or social – it is customary to begin and end their meetings with a common greeting. It is this greeting that I share with you tonight and the essence of what I have to say. The greeting in Lakota is this: “Mi takuye Owasin.” Using the sign of the sacred hoop in offering the greeting, it translates as, “We are relatives.” For the Lakota people, being related is the essence of our humanity; “Lakota” means friends or allies. Such a relationship includes not only all the two-legged, but the four-legged, the winged, the finned, all of creation; the earth itself. For the Lakota, one’s humanity is tied to being a member of a tribe with individual identity derived from a deeper recognition that human being, by its very nature, is relational.

My examination of the fragmentation of knowledge and the restoration of wisdom as descriptive of the need for educational reform in the new millennium, is informed by this basic tenet of Lakota culture – we are all relatives – and all human knowledge, when related, seeks to become the wisdom that our age so desperately needs.

The impetus or inspiration for this lecture came from an invitation that I received from the president of the American Geological Institute to speak at a symposium in November 1998 to celebrate AGI’s fiftieth anniversary. Three other speakers from different disciplines were also invited: James Adelstein, Dean of the Harvard Medical School and Chair of the Research Council of the National Institute of Medicine; Paul Anderson, Senior Vice President of DuPont Pharmaceutical Company and past president of the American Chemical Society; John VanderSande, Dean of the School of Engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. I was invited in my capacity as President of the National Council of Churches. In extending the invitation, the president noted that the earth science disciplines were seeking “multi-disciplinary collaboration” in an attempt to further their own professions and as a possibility of seeing new ways to address globalization within the geosciences. I was intrigued by the invitation and the imagination that informed it, but was quick to say to the president of AGI, “I can well understand your inviting someone from medicine, chemistry, and engineering, but why theology?” He responded by saying that he had read about my work and interest in the relationship between the “new theology” and quantum mechanics and the growing interest between theology and other sciences as well. He also was well aware of my call for an earth consciousness born of the work of paleontologist/theologian Teilhard de Chardin who advances the notion that theology has to do with creation, creation has to do with the earth, and the earth, as we understand it within Christianity, has to do with the incarnation.

The symposium exceeded our expectations. Adelstein noted the particular relevance of the medical sciences for the earth sciences in terms of medicine’s two principal parts – prevention and treatment – and the need to work with the earth science community around issues of global warming, which will have an enormous impact on public health. He further delineated health problems which were the result of environmental degradation, such as the radon problem. VanderSande, speaking for the engineering community, pointed to the need for understanding and cooperation, especially in the area of nuclear engineering and the need for information form the earth sciences in designing stable structures. Paul Anderson cited the need for cooperation in such fields as DNA research and the ongoing awareness that molecular biology is actually a form of chemistry.

What we didn’t anticipate, and what was perhaps the most important learning in the conference, was the realization that, in each of our separate fields, there is a fragmentation of knowledge owing to increased specialization, new subdisciplines, new methodologies, and an increase in professional organizations. While specialization is an obvious and needed aspect of all sciences and academic disciplines, what we discovered in the panel discussions that followed was the common problem that such specialization has resulted in political turf protection, guild loyalties, and a hierarchy of subdisciplines to include a concomitant lack of communication despite our common language and jargon which far too often divides us.

A related irony attended the conference. The earth scientists had hoped, through a multi-disciplined collaborative approach, that they might be able to break through the impasse within the geo-sciences themselves. We all resonated with this hope. This realization gave the symposium a new and unanticipated direction – how can we hope for multi-disciplinary approaches when, within our own disciplines, there is fragmentation of knowledge, which is becoming increasingly apparent and in need of correction? While I would love to regale you with the many insights that surfaced from this discussion, suffice it to say that there was a clear recognition that the problem was not peculiar to the earth sciences.

Given this realization, we resolved to find ways to continue the conversations begun at the symposium through the establishment of “bilateral and trilateral” conversations between the conversation partners represented at the table. In short, many of the good ideas and problems that were identified call for more sustained conversation. Second, and as important, was the recognition that within our disciplines and professions we need to find intentional and concerted ways to move beyond fragmentation and the attendant politics of acadame to include the inter- and intra-disciplinary turf wars to a unity that incorporates diversity but has as its telos a wholeness that I shall name Wisdom1.

A wise wag once commented concerning bishops that, “Generally speaking, bishops are generally speaking,” I shall attempt to avoid that charge by talking specifically about the fragmentation of knowledge and the need for reform by singling out theology and will suggest as a propaedeutic, Wisdom. By attending to the specific, there is the possibility of making some generalizations that may apply to other fields of knowledge. Given the intent of the Bell lectures, I shall address the fragmentations of theology through a Sinngeschichte of theology or history of its meaning.

Etymologically, theology is derived from two Greek terms, theos and logos which translate as discourse on God or “God talk.” Theology is a derivative enterprise given the fact that it is a reflection on religious experience and questions arise from our experience with God. In addition, theology is a collaborative enterprise and, by it very nature as discourse, requires dialogue and conversation with texts and other theologians, both historical and contemporary.

In his seminal work, theologian Edward Farley2 writes about the travail of the theological school. While I shall not attempt an exhaustive rehearsal of his arguments or suggestions regarding theological education, his analysis of theology offers valuable clues regarding the phenomenon of the fragmentation of knowledge. I offer the following history of the meaning of theology, informed by Farley’s work, as a way of gaining some perspective on the problem of the fragmentation of knowledge. In so doing, I shall concentrate on Christianity and Christian theology over the last two thousand years.

In its most original sense, following narrative, theology was a habit of the human soul, a cognition which attends faith with salvation (unity with God) as its final end. As such, theology as habitus was seen as a wisdom which informed Christian practice. In the early church, theology given its action/reflection methodology aimed at the “culturing of human being in areté” or virtue with the goal of paideia or piety; in short, a life aiming at the highest virtue possible. This original notion of theology as a habitus was unitary and moved from action to theory to praxis grounded in wisdom – informing piety guided by virtue.

While theology as habitus continued in the early church and throughout the first several centuries of the church, theology as a science became a dominant understanding in medieval Christianity with its emphasis on cognition and its legacy of Plato and Aristotle to include the rise of episteme – epistemology (or knowledge). The movement was away from a habitus of the soul to a distinguishing of the true from the false. Such a notion of theology was promulgated in monasteries through memorization, expounding on texts, and meditating on scripture. We see within this period and later in the Middle Ages to the Enlightenment – roughly the twelfth century to the rise of the modern university – the notion of theology as a science and a particular unity given the fact that theology was regarded as the “queen of the sciences.” We also see in this period a distinction between theology as discipline and theology as knowledge through a Thomistic concern for “science” versus an Augustinian orientation in seeing theology as the mind’s road to God. Characteristic of this period is a practical concern for salvation oriented in existential and personal knowledge of God. Science in this sense still has a component of habitus, but a wisdom and praxis that can be extended and deepened by human study and argument. In addition, the “study of theology” becomes a term associated with theology itself, along with the sciences of law, medicine, and philosophy – with theology being the end of those disciplines. It is also interesting to note that the location for the doing of theology during this period shifts from the church to the university.

In turning to the period of the seventeenth century to the present, we see yet another shift in the development of theology and its ongoing fragmentation. Theology as a habitus and science disappears during this period, and it is replaced by a series of disciplines, subdisciplines, fields, and areas of inquiry. All have as their subject theology but in different ways. Theology now becomes systematic, practical, moral, Biblical, aesthetical, philosophical, and pastoral, to name but a few of these various categories which result in an aggregate of specialties without an explicit unity. The Enlightenment and continental pietism, to include the rise of seminaries as well as departments of religion, reveal two concerns coming from this period: first, theological scholarship as a forerunner to the academic study of religion; and second, theology being seen as primarily concerned with training for ministry. The second notion is coupled with the rise of seminaries in the 20th century.

Within the United States, Farley notes a three-stage development regarding this period. First, from the seventeenth century to the beginning of the eighteenth century, theology as training for ministry is primarily divinity with the goal of piety. Persons training for ministry attended Harvard, Yale, and subsequently read with a priest to continue or complete their education in divinity (piety). A second stage can be seen beginning in the eighteenth century to the middle of the twentieth century where learning is emphasized over piety. Divinity becomes a discreet discipline. During this period, there is a development of a graduate component of theological education through the founding of seminaries and in the universities themselves. A third stage can be seen beginning in the 1950s to the present with the notion of theology becoming professional education for the minister as a profession with an emphasis on technique. The late Terry Holmes, Anglican and theologian, writes critically of this turn of theological education to technique and functional specialties for the exercise of ministry and ministerial activities. The shift here is from the person and piety to the office or profession of ministry. Theology as a habitus and science is diminished if not entirely lost as it looks to extra-theological disciplines (e.g. psychology) for authority.

We see in this brief Sinngeschichte the seeds of fragmentation. From pluralization and specialization born of the Enlightenment, the autonomy of theology and its authority are critical factors in theology moving from mere accepted authority to the need for demonstrated authority. In the process, theology moves from a habitus and science to a series of discreet sub-specialties. In this movement from a sapiential habitus to practical know-how, theology becomes, in the minds of many, a technology or theory to be applied. The problem is that theology loses its referent, its soul, its habitus, and is no longer a unity but a discipline that becomes a series of disciplines and specialties with a concomitant division of theory and practice.

Second, we see in this brief Sinngeschichte a movement of theology from a way of speaking about God, as the word suggests – a habit of the soul intending wisdom in the personal and existential concerns of the believer – to a series of subdisciplines and specialties used primarily in the practice of ministry. Finally, in a post-modern, post-critical age where theology itself is somewhat suspect, even in religious circles, theology as a systematic enterprise has been abandoned for a series of “regional theologies,” which attach themselves to particular ideologies and secular disciplines, be it in the form of liberation, aging, friendship, or fill-in-the-blank, which become an odd way of appropriating and correlating scripture and tradition in addressing existential situations.

If one looks beneath the theme of the fragmentation of theological knowledge, one also sees the abandonment of claims and the surrendering of territory within theology as it takes on a professional cast and becomes the domain of seminaries and graduate schools of religion. The average Christian, educated in Sunday school and Confirmation classes, receives what was originally intended as a theological habitus, but now the perception of theology has changed. Let me test that here and now. How many of you think of yourselves as theologians? [Only a few hands are raised.] I would submit that all of you are, if in fact you ask the question of God, its meaning, and its relevance for you in your life and in your faith journey. But it is clear that we have lost this original sense of theology as a habitus in seeking this kind of sapientia. What we have instead is a guild of scholars who speak a particular jargon and write essays in theological journals read by other theologians within their disciplines who have very little in commerce with other theologians outside their discipline.  All of which discloses a hierarchy of theological being—Biblical theologians being the purest, systematic theologians being more intellectual, and practical theologians held in some disdain by the former but holding the former in disdain themselves by virtue of the fact that they stand at the intersection of inherited tradition and the existential situation in all of its complexity and difficulty and have to attend to the person they are called to minister to as a practical theologian funded by the notion that praxis sublates theory.

In his book, Theologia, Edward Farley calls for a recovery of the unity of theology through a retrieval of the habitus of theology intending piety through the restoration of wisdom.  Given his analysis and call for reform, let us now return to our earth science friends and our relatives in South Dakota, in that order, to see if some general observations can be made regarding the fragmentation of not onl theology but other areas of knowledge.

In rehearsing the foregoing Sinngeschichte of theology as a habitus, science, discipline, subdisciplines, areas of study, I saw my colleagues from medicine, engineering, chemistry, and the earth sciences nod knowingly.  Diversification, specialization coupled with relativism, pluralism, and post modern skepticism, all found their way into the panel discussions which followed as factors contributing to the fragmentation of knowledge.  Such fragmentation, it was felt, was only exacerbated by institutionalization, be it within professions or within the academy.

However, following this recognition a sacred moment of sorts ensued—a deep awareness that within our own fields, professions, and disciplines, the necessity of specialization had resulted in fragmentation and a lack of communication that further resulted in a breakdown of communion and academic community in a deep sense.  It was a sobering moment and invitation to inter-disciplinary cooperation.

From the National Academy of Sciences in Washington DC, I now invite you to return to the beginning of our time together and my greeting from South Dakota.  Me takuye Owasin, my relatives.  Relatedness as a primary definition of human being suggests that education as a human endeavor has as its goal understanding and wisdom as a form or relationship.  Such relationship as knowledge yielding understanding, grounded in age and experience, which is definitive of wisdom—is needed in this day and at this time.  The explosion of information, our ability to store and collect data and our fascination with technology have alienated us from this more basic understanding of the goal and end of all education.  Paul Ricoeur invites us to move beyond the complexity of diversity to a deepened simplicity, a second naiveté.  Such a simplicity is not simplistic or reductionistic but rather an awareness that, prior to diversity, there is unity.

For the Lakota people, such wisdom is one of the four Lakota virtues.  As a virtue it is grounded in community, identity, and communion with all of creation.  Within schools and churches (as locations for the exercise of theology), it is our task not only to produce knowledgeable and technically proficient persons, but to produce good persons and citizens.  This will involve a retrieval of areté or virtue as the goal of all education.  It will require a retrieval of religion in education; religio, not in a narrow or sectarian sense but, as the word suggests, to weave together or see relatedness leading to a wholeness.   It will require teaching virtue and forming character through a respect for and discernment of different historical manifestations of religion and spirituality.

Mi takuye Owasin, my relatives at the University of Tulsa.  I bring you a greeting; I bring you an invitation and a call to reform.  The greeting is that we are relatives.  The invitation is to relationship.  And the reform is to a new relatedness in our common pursuit of knowledge, understanding, and wisdom.

1 For those of you interested in getting some sense of the symposium, I refer you to Janice O. Childress’s article, “Linking the Science: An Interview with the AGI 50th Anniversary Symposium Keynote Speakers”, GEOTimes (news and trends in the geosciences), December 1998.

2 Farley, Edward. Theologia, Fortress Press, Philadelphia, 1983

The Bell Distinguished Visiting Professorship and Lecture Series honors the late William H. Bell, trustee emeritus of The University of Tulsa and individual trustee for the Chapman-McFarlin charitable trust complex. The professorship and lecture series also honor his wife, Rita Bell, as well as the Anglican faith and personal commitment to ecumenism of J.A. Chapman and Leta M. Chapman.

On March 16, 1999, The Right Reverend Craig B. Anderson presented the tenth public lectures in the series. Published here, it draws together observations rooted in Bishop Anderson’s work among the Sioux Nation in South Dakota and his leadership in ecumenical and education circles throughout the U.S.

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