Mentoring as Embodiment

The Culturally Savvy Christian is not primarily the conveyor of concepts, but a living example of the integrated Christian life. This is true in everyday life and even more so in the academic arena. The most effective educators understand that lecturing conveys content but mentoring invests a life.

This is one of the lessons I gleaned from renowned Cal Berkeley sociologist Robert Bellah this weekend where he was honored at the C.S. Lewis Foundation Faculty Forum for his distinguished Lifetime contribution in Faith and Scholarship. His best-known book is “Habits of the Heart” and in December 2000 he received the National Humanities Medal at a White House ceremony.

Like Martin Marty and others with whom I’ve become acquainted in that generation of scholars, Bellah is energetic, witty and intellectually precocious, but most important, he is intentionally generous as a mentor of the next generation. Letters from around the country described his impact on scholars for whom Bellah was not only a model of intellectual pursuits but also a friend. Co-author Richard Madsen used the phrase, “Bellah embodied” to refer to the lessons he learned just by watching the man at work close-up in the flesh.

In preparing for the panel I moderated, I came upon a paper Bellah wrote describing a 1970 epiphany that radically changed his teaching style from that of a lecturer conveying content to a mentor who invested his life. He describes it in a paper titled, “The Integrated Self confessions of a former establishment fundamentalist.”

[Finally, let me say that teaching religion in a way that tries to respond to the current cultural crisis is itself a kind of religious discipline. For how can one try to integrate culture if one does not also try to integrate oneself? Norman O. Brown said recently in talking about his own development that he had been trained to be an abstract intellectual, and an abstract intellectual is a mind without a body. I realize that when I started teaching I was a disembodied ghost presenting abstract concepts. I have finally learned that that really isn’t teaching. Especially in the present situation, students are not going to care about the little generalizations you give them for purely abstract reasons. They need to see humanly why they are important.

I have learned that the primary resource you have as a teacher is yourself, your whole self, mind and spirit and body, and unless you are willing to teach with your whole self, with everything you have, you are not really going to teach at all. Needless to say, I haven’t gotten very far in my efforts. But I can say that every effort has been enormously rewarded.]

I read this Bellah quote at the conclusion of a panel in which we explored the subject “How Religious Academics Can and Should give Expression to their Faith on Campus.”

A hush came over the room when I read this quote to an audience comprised mostly of professors and those aspiring to be professors. I glanced at Bellah and noticed tears in his eyes. For us the Bellah quote was a challenge for our future endeavors, for the retired Bellah it was a kind of benediction and tribute to a life well lived. After the panel I shook hands with Bellah and said, “Thanks for the way you invested your life.”

Bellah’s writing will have influence for a season, but in the faddish publishing world only a few books become more than a flavor of the month, but Bellah’s life invested in the next generation will bear fruit for generations to come.

For those of us who love the world of ideas, it is sobering to know that our ideas only matter to others when they are embodied. People will not hear our ideas if they can’t see them. Discipleship is mentoring and Bellah was an example of one who took seriously the challenge the Apostle Paul issued to Timothy: You then, my child, be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus; and what you have heard from me through many witnesses entrust to faithful people who will be able to teach others as well.

‚© CRS Communications 2003

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