Previous | Next

Fall 2017 · Vol. 46 No. 2 · pp. 247–249 

Book Review

A University of the Church for the World: Essays in Honour of Gerald Gerbrandt

ed. Paul Dyck and Harry Huebner. Winnipeg, MB: CMU Press, 2016. 289 pages.

Reviewed by Sara Wenger Shenk

“There is no such thing as a neutral educational process,” wrote Paulo Freire, a Brazilian philosopher and educator (1921–1997). “Education either functions as an instrument that is used to facilitate the integration of the younger generation into the logic of the present system and bring about conformity to it, or it becomes ‘the practice of freedom,’ the means by which men and women deal critically and creatively with reality and discover how to participate in the transformation of their world” (Pedagogy of the Oppressed, 1968).

Reading A University of the Church for the World: Essays in Honour of Gerald Gerbrandt brought Freire’s conviction to mind. Freire, a deeply spiritual man in touch with the causes and consequences of human suffering, inspired a whole general of critical educators with his ethically grounded pedagogy for social change. I find fascinating resonance with Freire’s vision in the marvelous collection of essays honoring Gerbrandt. While on a very different scale of influence and context, Gerbrandt clearly inspired a whole community of Mennonite educators and their educational collaborators to consider what it means to be a university that is ethically grounded in the story and life of the church with a vision for social transformation.

This collection of essays was a marvelous read. As I dutifully began the volume, I expected a heavy, dense compendium of dry abstraction that I would simply skate through in order to offer the requested review. Instead I found each essay offering intriguing glimpses into the wondrous worlds of biology, music, literature, the Scriptures, international development, theology, church, administration, academic freedom, art, borderline fecundity, Slow Food, you name it. It may be that one needs to be a bit of an educator-nerd to get high on a book like this, but it’s rich, and well worth the time of anyone who feels the urgency and moral imperative for the church to fully invest in educating leaders for God’s reconciling mission in the world.

The essays come from a great representation of colleagues who were inspired by Gerbrandt’s vision for church-based, Anabaptist liberal arts education which gave rise to Canadian Mennonite University. In one of the essays, Robert Suderman states pointedly that “an Anabaptist identity will not birth itself; it will need dedicated midwives.”

Based on the testimony of the nineteen colleagues, teachers and administrators who contributed to the volume, Gerbrandt’s vision, mentoring, and passionate persistence gave birth not only to a vision, but to a living, breathing community of educators with moral imagination, pedagogical creativity, wise judgment, and passionate faith. {248}

The essays provide perspectives from administrators, educational theory and practice, as well as deep dives into disciplinary and interdisciplinary explorations. They raise countless intriguing questions: What is the shape of an Anabaptist spiritual/ethical formation? If there were a Mennonite epistemic practice—a communal, truth-seeking practice—what does it look like in a liberal arts university? How do we form identity by the gospel—intentionally and tenaciously? If, as Gordon Matties asserts, “The redemptive goodness motif is nothing other than the key signature for the entire Bible,” how do we form leaders to engage the world redemptively with a vision for God’s goodness, God’s shalom? How can a university of the church for the world become a powerful force to hold together the teaching of the church with a transformative presence in the world?

In varied ways, essayists named how singularly important it is for the university to be clear about its telos, its purpose, values, and mission. The loss of telos in secular universities has not liberated research, teaching, and learning as might be supposed, but cast them adrift. A university of the church for the world functions not only on behalf of social transformation in the world but must also persistently and imaginatively “call the church back to its mandate” and not simply “engage in academic pleasantries.”

Central to the work of a university poised to serve God’s redemptive purposes in the world and the church is the holistic formation of persons and of leaders within a faithful, thoughtful community of formation. Secular universities have largely given up on any intention to form the whole person whereas a university of the church will intentionally cultivate wisdom for seeing the world aright and accompany students in discovering their vocation. Essayists note how practice-based and dispersed education as well as community-formed habits like confession and prayer help one grow in wisdom and understanding. Whether reading literature, doing biological research, engaging cross-culturally, or interpreting the Bible, students in a university of the church are not only gaining professional expertise—they are learning habits of the heart and mind like patience, humility, respect, responsibility, and love.

Perhaps the most intriguing and even exhilarating accomplishment of this collection of essays is the “fecundity” they evidence when holding together the creative tension of the “borderland” between church and world, theology and science, public and private universities, liberal arts and professional practice, local and dispersed learning, North American and international, Mennonite and interfaith, and so on. As David Wiebe observes, it is challenging to manage both the dangers and fecundity of an “ecotone,” that border zone between two ecosystems, but such a zone harbors a greater variety and density of life.

John Brubacher’s essay, for example, reflects on biology as a liberal art, wrestling with big questions about meaning and human purpose, {249} and teaching persons how to distinguish between “better and worse interpretations of evidence—despite inherent limitations of the scientific method.” He cautions against expecting questions to be unambiguously answered by science alone, illustrating their theological implications and arguing that “a richer understanding of our humanity (both theological and biological) is the fruit of teaching biology in a liberal arts context.” And another example of this borderland fecundity is Jeremy Bergen’s essay on teaching theology in a public university. He mentions telling the stories of four different theologians and the different social locations from which they reflected theologically. This shows how deeply contextual theology is and how dynamic it is.

“Science and religion are inspired by the same questions,” notes Tim Rogalsky, “but come at them from very different perspectives.” And he further observes: “As a Christian mathematician, I find it absolutely fascinating and cool to discover a secular artist (Salvador Dali) using mathematics to connect to Spirit.”

I personally have grown increasingly fascinated with the Jesuit paleontologist, Teilhard de Chardin’s observation: “Less and less do I see any difference between research and adoration.” Essays throughout this volume bear this out. I can’t imagine a more fertile, fruitful, dynamic, and exhilarating community of learning to live and work in than a university of the church for the world. I’m grateful for Gerbrandt’s vision and for all those who are embodying it in Canadian Mennonite University and many other church-university-school-faith community ecotones.

Sara Wenger Shenk
Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary, Elkhart, IN

Previous | Next