4 January 2015
First UMC, Coon Rapids, Iowa
It might seem like a strange thing to say after all my studies and training, but there are times when I find it rather disconcerting to look out at my students while I’m talking and to see them vigorously taking notes. I know I should be glad at their diligence, but there’s a part of me that wants to stop and ask, “How do you know I’m not just making stuff up?” Seriously! There are probably a few things going on there. On the one hand, while scholars may project confidence in their assertions, the competitive world of academia can generate some real self-doubt: will I ever know enough? will people actually believe what I’m saying? do I believe what I’m saying? This is why mental health centers on college campuses are so vital and so busy.
On the other hand, for real pedagogical reasons—that is, for serious concerns about the methods and processes of teaching and learning—I want my students to have a healthy hermeneutic of suspicion, to use a fancy term. A hermeneutic of suspicion (and now you should be taking notes!) is an interpretive framework whereby a person doesn’t just accept what is said at face value but wonders what stands behind and beyond an idea or expression. For example, for a long time it was assumed that women were not active in the earliest Christian communities because of such statements as the one in 1 Corinthians 14 that women should remain silent in the assemblies (v34). But appropriately skeptical readers of the Bible, especially women, started to say, “Wait a minute! If women were being told to be quiet, that probably means they were actually already speaking.” And from there, people started reading with different eyes to the texts, not assuming women’s absence but instead looking for their presence. For instance, in Romans 16, we find that Paul names Junia, a woman, as being among the apostles (v7), quite a significant designation, and Junia is just one among other women named for their essential roles in the earliest Christian communities.
All of this is to say that we can actually miss out on important details and misread the evidence of history when we take as final what is said rather than asking questions with a healthy amount of suspicion. Again, it’s odd to say it, but sometimes seeing my students furiously scratching down everything I’m saying makes me nervous that they’re taking me too seriously. Of course, it is possible to take notes (and it’s good to take notes!) and to ask questions too, and many of my students do both of these things quite well. But I still wonder, “What if I were just making stuff up?”
Rest assured, I don’t just make things up, and I am honest with my students if I don’t know something. But the bigger point here is that, in these moments, I realize just how much my students are trusting me. They are looking to me as possessing some level of intellectual authority, as well as having power over their grades. I take quite seriously this issue of power dynamics and strive to be worthy of my students’ trust, at the same time as I seek to empower them to engage as full and equal participants in discussion, with their own knowledge, questions, and, hopefully, suspicions.
Our relationships of all kinds—between partners, siblings, friends, colleagues, civil authorities, and so on—are variously marked by sometimes minor and sometimes quite significant power dynamics. We recognize this when we consider the various ways we have the ability either to harm or help others, or the ways others can hurt or benefit us. Our words have power. Our actions have power. And so do the words and actions of others. We know this in our own lives, from relations with our closest family members to the consequences of governmental deliberation and action.
I am not sure there is any escaping the reality of differing dynamics of power, though we might work consciously to shape their effects toward the good. And indeed, power can be used well, from teaching that inspires to legislation that benefits people’s lives. But problems arise when we cling to power out of fear that we might lose it. And this is precisely what we find in this morning’s gospel lesson.