“Silence is the lie of a good, or the coward. It is seeing something you don’t like and not speaking,“ writes Kent Nerburn in Neither Wolf Nor Dog. This comment inspired me to write about my experience thus far at George Fox Evangelical Seminary.
I began 2013 as a Master of Divinity student with a concentration in Christian Earthkeeping (CEK). It’s a worthy program and I put a lot of time into deciding to pursue a degree in it. I ended the spring semester with switching to the Master of Intercultural Studies program, which is led by the North American Institute for Indigenous Theological Studies (NAIITS). A few people have asked me why I switched, and until now I haven’t provided a conclusive answer, usually shying away from a genuine response. NAIITS is a vital program for the church moving forward because it offers a much-needed critique of missions. It also provides a foundation from which to do local contextual theology that helps to develop a sense of place and from which to subvert our ecologically destructive theologies and politics. In relating this story, I hope to provide a prophetic blueprint for the future of the church.
A Postmodern and Postcolonial Pedagogy
I began reading Pedagogy of the Bible by Dale B. Martin as I awaited my flight to Portland. The book is a needed critique of seminary education in the States. Martin contends that seminary faculty should move away from historical and grammatical biblical interpretation in favor of a more interdisciplinary approach, essentially advocating a postmodernist revamp of seminary pedagogy. This may not be the best book for a budding seminary student to pore over, but as I reflect on my undergraduate experience, I realize the ways the book effectively communicates deficiencies in current Christian education. The pedagogical model that dominates one’s learning can all too easily become the method in which one teaches. To use a sports metaphor, how we practice is how we play. It is unfair to say this is true across the board, but it is the pattern the church at large follows.
Fabienne Worth argues that “Universities have responded to multiculturalism by opening their doors to minority students, expanding curriculum, questioning canons, breaking down monolithic disciplinary structures and searching for new teaching methodologies“. Seminaries, however, are still dominated by old white men telling students what other old white men have told them. The methods of interpretation remain archaic by the standards of contemporary literary criticism. It is harder to stop thinking like an old white man when I am being taught by an old white man. Western history has shown us the conquest and dominance typical of Euro-Americans. That same settler mentality has permeated the mission of the church over the last several centuries. It is crucial that the church embraces postcolonial theory and liberation theology as we move into a post-Christian western hemisphere and learn to listen to our brothers and sisters from the Global South and the marginalized communities in the United States. Can we reconcile our relationship with the earth and with this place we call the United States without trying to reconcile our relationship with those we have already wronged?
Invisibility of White Privilege
I’ve only just begun my learning in the NAIITS program. I cannot provide a comprehensive review of its offerings, but I will recap my experiences and expectations thus far. The main purpose of this program—and rightfully so—is to train pastors of indigenous churches, especially indigenous pastors. More than most areas of church history, indigenous missions have been fraught with disaster. NAIITS answered the call to begin healing those wounds. NAIITS also has things to offer the wider Christian community. As a white Anglo-Saxon Protestant, I have experienced the program as a process of accepting the wrongs wrought without trying to cover them up, ignore them, or run away from them. It’s an important part of true reconciliation because I am attempting to see the world from the victim’s perspective, and in turn I can come to understand how settler society has hurt itself by quelling the native voice. It’s high time the white race, including me, take a step back from the driver’s seat and learn from those who have been oppressed by our forefathers and the present state of institutional and systematic racism.
In Neither Wolf Nor Dog, Nerburn points out that as members of a hyper-individualistic culture, Americans (specifically settlers) value freedom far above honor. This means that we would rather ignore our past, the history that shapes our person, the privileges we have inherited, and the systems and institutions that allow our narrative as the dominant culture to be perpetuated. But, if we place honor above freedom, we take up responsibility for our forefathers—the slaver, the coercive baptizer, the sponsor of physical and cultural genocide—and we can begin to make amends. Contemporary society wants us to ignore these realities; it wants us to pretend to be colorblind and unaware of our pasts and others’ cultural and ethnic identities, along with their histories. To reconcile relationships with one another we must sing a different song. A song that tells the story of the middle place between the oppressor and the oppressed. In this new song we—those who inhabit positions of power—must step away from the podium and hand off the baton. I know that that conversation is being had in the academy. I hope more take up that conversation and explore the symbiotic relationship of diversity and healthy culture a la biodiversity and healthy agriculture.
Herein lies the beauty of NAIITS. The phrase “co-learner” is at the core of the pedagogical model. Being a co-learner means that each individual shares the responsibility of both teacher and student. We share from our hearts and our heads the experiences and thoughts we encounter as we wade through course material new to us. This past summer I had the privilege to study ecocriticism, an emerging form of interpretation in the literary field, but one hardly touched by biblical interpreters.
The online format was an initial problem for me at NAIITS. I am weary of online courses and degrees. Online classes in the past have not lived up to expectations, at times due to the negligence of the professor, other times due to my lack of self-discipline. While perusing a forum for a NAIITS class, I noticed co-learners were carrying on legitimate conversations; the threads looked like an anthology of essays instead of Reddit’s homepage. Because each co-learner has a vested interest in preserving and regenerating indigenous culture and/or taking up the cross of white privilege these conversations matter deeply.
I am a local seminarian. I live near campus and will continue to attend local classes in person, spend time in the library, and engage with the student body. I hope that over the next few years other students will see the value of the Master of Intercultural Studies program offered by George Fox in partnership with NAITTS. I hope we can form our own community and conversations, inviting the larger seminary community into those. The program was approved for credit last year, so I remain optimistic current and future students will see the value in it, and chose to matriculate. Even if I remain somewhat isolated I will carry the ethos of the co-learner with me in my conversations at the seminary, in local classes, and at my local church.
I moved to Oregon first to work toward my M.Div but also to learn more about permaculture through hands-on experience. I was working on a farm south of Oregon City but was badly mistreated. (Farming interns are at serious risk of being exploited, especially if they have no safety net. There is need for a website for interns to provide feedback on their experience at farms as well as a fund to provide scholarships for those that would like to learn to farm but do not have the privilege to do so.) Ken Loyd, discussed below, helped me come to grips with being mistreated and helped me begin to move forward.
Randy and Edith Woodley steward (or own, as Adam Smith would have it) a four-acre farm that seeks to be regenerative, organic, and biologically diverse; it is called Eloheh Farm. I was more than happy to move there and help, leaving the oppressive farm behind. The ability to interact with Randy and Edith daily largely quelled previous reservations about NAIITS and online learning. Certainly not everyone can come work at Eloheh or live with other NAIITS professors; I am in a special position. I would be surprised, though, if Randy or any of the other NAIITS professors would not set aside time to discuss and co-learn with NAIITS students.
I met one of those students, Ken Loyd, when he came to talk at the seminary about his church-planting experiences in Portland, OR. I guess Ken is kind of a big deal; I really didn’t know him outside of the guy that helped me see my own pain and provided the intimate space to talk about and work through it. I wasn’t aware Ken was a NAIITS student before our first profound interaction. I have gotten to know Ken better over the last few months and have heard about how important the program has been for him. While I don’t know what Ken was like before the program, I know the kind of person he is today and I want to be as much like that person as I can.
Radical Reconciliation with Earth and People
I believe the state of our ecosystem and how Christian theology has allowed and excused our ecosystem’s destruction is one of the major themes that needs to be addressed. This is why I originally began the M.Div CEK program. I have also come to understand how we conceptualize and thus treat our environment is how we conceptualize and thus treat Other. Not just on an individual level, but on a racial and institutional level. One of the things permaculture has taught me is that biodiversity is the key to healthy soil and healthy ecosystems. The church can no longer be a monocultural hegemony. In order to change the destructive system of the institutional church, those who are privileged must look elsewhere for direction and allow other voices into the conversation. We must learn what the earth meant to those native to this land, the people that have been studying it for thousands of years. In a western constructed reality Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK) comes off as myth and folklore, but what is the difference between western science and TEK? Fikret Berkes defines TEK, as “a cumulative body of knowledge, practice, and belief, evolving by adaptive processes and handed down through generations by cultural transmission. [It concerns] the relationship of living beings (including human) with one another and with their environment.” If TEK were applying for the same job as western science, TEK would boast thousands of years more of experience than its counterpart. It is the duty of those that destroyed and suppressed this knowledge to reverse those trends and learn from these deep wells of knowledge. Christian praxis should increasingly reflect this.
I have highlighted some of the aspects of the NAIITS program that are not offered in any seminary. This article is not a polemic against seminary. I hope I was able to share my perspective gently and to encourage prospective seminarians and seminaries alike to take more seriously the indigenous voice. Kent Nerburn writes in Simple Truths, “The true measure of your education is not what you know, but how you share what you know with others.” Do I think everyone should switch to the MAIS program led by NAIITS? No; diversity is essential to a healthy Christian community. I hope my lifestyle will be a testament to the good medicine NAIITS and the MAIS degree from George Fox Evangelical Seminary can provide to the church and ecotheology. Unlike the western epistemological model Native American epistemology is rooted in practice, not theory.
“We do not want churches because they will teach us to quarrel about God, as the Catholics and Protestants do. We do not want to learn that. We may quarrel with men about things on earth, but we never quarrel about the Great Spirit.” -Chief Joseph
Matt Cumings stewards land at Eloheh Farm, which seeks to decolonize indigenous peoples and provide them with a sense of identity and tools to develop an ethic of the land. He is also currently in the midst of an internship with EcoFaith Recovery, a network of Christians waking up to the profound ecological-economic-ecumenical spiritual crisis we are facing on the planet. He studied Urban and Intercultural Ministry at Cincinnati Christian University, and is currently working on a Master of Intercultural Studies at George Fox Evangelical Seminary, a program led by the North American Institute for Indigenous Theological Studies. He hopes to form communities utilizing permaculture principles and watershed discipleship to shape a regenerative orthopraxis that restores justice to oppressed peoples and lands.