Faith on Three Wheels

Faith on Three Wheels March 3, 2024

Next week is my birthday week, an annual opportunity for me to consider how old I have become. I have been the senior member in terms of experience at the college in my philosophy department for the past three or four years–and I’m pretty sure I’m the oldest in years as well (the other candidate is on sabbatical so I can’t ask him how old he is). We have three new faculty memers in our department this year and I am a member of one of new colleagues’ “peer review committee.”

One’s peer review committee, appointed by the department chair, consists of two tenured faculty colleagues who, after observing what you are up to in the classroom, meet with you at the end of the semester, individually or ganging up on you, to share their impressions both positive and negative. Not every college or university does this, but they should. The input of more experienced colleagues is always welcome (or, perhaps more honestly, is just about always welcome).

Almost three decades ago when I was a new, junior, untenured faculty member at my college, my classes were observed at least two or three times per semester by one or more members of my own peer review committee. One of the members of my  committee was an older Dominican priest and philosopher whom I will call Father L. Father L. had been a member of the search committee that hired me, so I had a bit of familiarity with him. I knew him to be a nice enough old guy, a bit curmudgeonly, very conservative in every way imaginable, more Catholic than any Pope one could conjure, and I suspected that as a traditional lecturer in the classroom he might not fully resonate with my dialogical, seminar and discussion-based classes.

I was not wrong about that. After his first observation of one of my classes, Father L. decided not to wait until the end of the semester to let me know what he thought. Walking with me out of the classroom in the wake of the exiting students, he said “That was pretty good. But if I was teaching that text, I would . . .” I don’t recall anything else that he said, because I immediately began preparing what my response would be when he came up for air. I replied that “Well, Father L., I’m sure that if you were teaching this text you would do it differently as you describe. But you’re not teaching this class. I am.”

Before you accuse me of insubordination and disrespect, in my defense I was not a new, green teacher. I came to Providence College with three full-time post-Ph.D. years of teaching at a different university and had become reasonably confident in what I was doing. I knew that my way of approaching this text and my teaching style worked and I was not about to let this old guy push me around (I can’t believe I just wrote that, given that at the time he was probably about the age I am now). As I recall he took our exchange well, but I don’t think he ever forgot it.

Fast forward ten years to about two decades ago. I was now a full professor with tenure and also the department chair in charge of 20 or so full-time philosophers. Including Father L., who was a decade older (and seemingly physically shrinking every year), a bit less nice, a bit more curmudgeonly, and occasionally the self-appointed bane of my existence as chair. This particular semester we were working on revising the philosophy major, which required discussing various courses in detail.

This particular day we were considering General Ethics, our introductory ethics course that we offer at least a half-dozen sections of every semester. The debate that day was about whether there should be a standard syllabus that all General Ethics teachers should abide by or whether each faculty member should be free to shape her or his syllabus as they thought fit (within broad parameters). The conservatives, including Father L. and several other philosopher priests, argued for the former since they thought all ethics classes at a Catholic college should focus exclusively on Christian/Catholic ethics. Others, including myself, thought otherwise for many reasons, starting with the foundational importance of academic freedom.

As the discussion progressed and the conservatives perceived they were losing, Father L. lost it. Directing his ire at me, he said “I’ve been in your classroom, and all you teach is the Philosophy of Morgan!!” I truly don’t remember exactly how I replied (the conservatives lost in the end), but I clearly remember what I was thinking: “Of course I teach the Philosophy of Morgan! What else would I teach?!?”

This was an early awareness of something that it took me several more years to fully own and embrace. Everything we do and everything we are is uniquely shaped by our experiences, history, and many more apparently subjective factors. When I first started writing this blog more than ten years ago, my wife Jeanne helped me realize over the first few months of essay writing that I did not need to include formal footnotes and nod officially in the direction of those who have influenced and shaped my perspectives and insights as one is required to do in academic writing. Everything I had studied and experienced over the years had, over time, become my own and could honestly be offered in my own voice. The Philosophy of Morgan, if you will.

Father L. retired not long after our department meeting exchange and passed away a couple of years ago in his nineties. I thought of my history with him for the first time in ages while reading thirty pages or so of Pete Enns’ new book Curveball on the stationary bike at the gym not long ago. Throughout his book, Enns effectively describes various curveballs that life has thrown him that have significantly shaped and changed his ways of thinking about, engaging with, and relating to God.

Enns comes from the same conservative Protestant world that I do, convinced of the primacy and literal, inerrant truth of scripture, believing that the Bible is the exclusive guide to faith and right relationship with what is greater than us. Curveball, among other things, is an account of his continuing evolution away from that starting point. Enns notes that several traditional Protestant denominations have more expansive ways than “sola Scriptura” to explain how persons of faith come to their beliefs about God. There is the Wesleyan Quadrilateral, for instance—scripture, tradition, reason, and experience—and the Episcopal three-legged stool (scripture, tradition, reason), both aids to help us understand how we come to put our faith into words.

My favorite of these aids comes from Catholic priest and mystic Richard Rohr, who likens faith and how we understand God to riding a tricycle. The front wheel is experience, while the back two are scripture and tradition. This is an attractive metaphor, first because a tricycle is something intended to be in motion, not stagnant. More importantly for this discussion, it is attractive because experience, which Rohr understands to include human reason and emotion, is front and center. Since each person’s experiences are unique, each person’s understanding and expression of faith will also be unique. There is no “one size fits all” or objective litmus tes for or understanding of faith.

I often am accused in comments on this blog, particularly by commenters on this blog’s Facebook page, of denying the “traditional” model of Christian faith in exchange for whatever I feel like making up on a particular day. I am being accused, in other words, of promoting “the Theology of Morgan.” My snarky response to that might be “What did you expect to find on a site called ‘Freelance Christianity’?” But a better response would be what I thought in response to Father L.’s complaint that I was teaching the Philosophy of Morgan. “Of course this is an expression of the Theology of Morgan! What else would it be? It’s the continuing product of my riding my tricycle of faith!”

Pete Enns and Jared Byas are fond of saying on their podcast “The Bible for Normal People” that there is no such thing as theology without an adjective, a theology that is not shaped by and filtered through each person’s history, experiences, hopes, dreams, and so on. They are right. Don’t be afraid to put an adjective in front of your own faith and theology—it is a unique product of your relationship with what is greater than us. Own it!

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