Co-Creating Spaces as a Faith Integration Strategy

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Co-Creating Spaces as a Faith Integration Strategy

Douglas L. Kelley, Ph.D.

Arizona State University, Professor of Social and Behavioral Sciences


I have been a scholar, of sorts, for over thirty years. It has been a mostly marvelous time of engaging students and ideas through teaching and writing. I have taught and written at community colleges, at private Christian liberal arts universities, and for the last two decades at a large public research university. A central issue for me during this journey has been how, as a Christian, should I integrate my faith with my scholarship in and out of the classroom?[1]

Although I struggled with faith integration during my doctoral program at the University of Arizona, my first serious consideration came while teaching in my first faculty position at Seattle Pacific University, a Christian institution. It is tempting to imagine that teaching at a Christian institution makes integration of faith and learning somewhat natural. I found just the opposite. Thoughtful integration posed a significant challenge. The general problem with integration that I have observed and experienced is that it is too easy to believe one has mastered integration simply by starting a class with a devotional or creating assignments around religious or moral topics. The real challenge, in my estimation, is to integrate faith into course content in a way that is significant and appropriate, and to humbly embody the gospel in one’s classroom presence.

In what follows I pursue these challenges. Before I do, I offer one guiding thought: there are multiple ways to integrate faith into our identities as scholars at public universities. Writer, speaker, and activist Parker J. Palmer tells us, “As we learn more about who we are, we can learn techniques that reveal rather than conceal the personhood from which good teaching comes.”[2] What I am sharing in this essay is primarily my own journey, imperfect as it is, that, interestingly enough, is also how I teach. I begin below by recounting how my relational approach developed, with an emphasis on the need to be true to one’s own self as a teacher. This precipitates discussion of how faith and worldview naturally lead to choices and construction of content that inevitably reflect central gospel themes. Final thoughts re-vision the scholarship of teaching in terms of co-created spaces that provide new ways of seeing and approaching life.

A Holistic Approach to the Scholarship of Teaching

The most significant influence in my life and my teaching, regarding how I engage others in my faith, comes from my long involvement with the para-church ministry, Young Life. I have been involved with Young Life since my Christian conversion at age 16—most currently as faculty advisor for the Young Life Club at my university. Young Life’s general approach to sharing the gospel can be characterized as relational incarnational ministry. Students’ main experience of the gospel is in their leaders’ lives. Leaders earn the right to be heard as they build committed, caring relationships with their students. So words come later. This can be a tough perspective for academics who are often trained to “convert” people through their words. However, when I enter a classroom I try not to assume that students have any real reason to listen to what I have to say. Instead, I hope to earn that right through our interactions and the co-creation of our classroom environment.

The Apostle Paul (something of an academic himself) eloquently describes this relational perspective in 1 Thessalonians 2:8 when he states, “So, being affectionately desirous of you, we were ready to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you had become dear to us” (English Standard Version). This statement reflects my own journey into academics. I had considered professional Christian ministry as a career but was drawn to the examples of my Young Life mentors (still my mentors and friends today!), both of whom worked “real” jobs. Together they have had as much impact on others’ lives as anyone I know—not because of what they did professionally or how they “taught” the gospel but by how they related to and cared for others. In this way I was drawn to the professorate for student transformation through relationship.

This has meant being intentional about how I relate to students both in and out of the classroom. Getting to know students outside of the classroom changes what happens in the classroom. When I speak at residence hall events, meet students for coffee to discuss graduate school, advise student clubs (which has meant joining activities such as weekend camps and house building in Mexico), and invite students into my home for film and discussion, I get to see a part of each student that does not show up in the classroom. And I am assuming they get to see a different part of me.

A breath of fresh air for me within the classroom came from reading Parker Palmer’s book, The Courage to Teach. Through this book, I gained permission to be myself in the classroom and in my writing and research. And, in many ways, it is our own selves where the gospel most clearly resides as it becomes incarnate in each of our lives As the Apostle Paul boldly proclaims in 1 Corinthians 11:1, “Be imitators of me, as I imitate Christ.” Perhaps those of us who grew up with a modernist perspective of the world can get by with simply hearing arguments for and against God. But today’s students need good thinking, plus good story, and good connection.

Palmer tells us that the “seldom taken trail” is to ask, “Who is the self that teaches?”[3] And later he shares, “I began to look for a way to teach that was more integral to my own nature, a way that would have as much integrity for me as my mentor’s had for him—for the key to my mentor’s power was the coherence between his method and himself.”[4] I first learned this idea of congruence as I pursued my Master’s of Counseling Degree. Congruence between my words, my body, and my actions allowed me to create a safe space for client transformation. It took some time for me to translate this idea into the classroom and my writing. My teaching is now characterized by creating a space where students are safe to ponder and question, to risk vulnerability and change. As I state in a recent publication, my goal is to “create a space where if something good can happen, it will.”[5]

An example of how this safe environment is created in the classroom occurs in my course, “Forgiveness, Mindfulness, and the Healthy Self.” Early in this class I bring in religious experts to talk about forgiveness from the perspective of their faith traditions. This typically includes a Jewish rabbi, a Buddhist priest, the head of the local Muslim congregation, and a Christian minister. The information that is presented by each representative is important, but the superordinate goal is for students to begin to understand that our classroom is a safe space to explore their full human experience, including experiences of spirituality. My “Inner-City Families” course provides another classroom example. Here students complete reading reflections, listen to guest speakers, and spend three hours a week volunteering in embedded inner-city nonprofit organizations. The classroom space becomes a place to process their experience. A hallmark of this course is creating a safe space where students’ worldviews are challenged, including aspects of their faith (or non-faith), as they engage new situations for which they have no easy answers. For instance, the worldview of a student of mine was significantly affected through an experience she had working with an undocumented fifth-grade child. The child had just learned that she was to be deported to Mexico. Though born in the United States, she was being sent “home” to a country that was completely foreign to her. As my student looked into the tearful, brown eyes of this young girl, her understanding of immigration would never be the same.

These classroom experiences do more than simply provide a way to talk about ideas; they model a way of engaging moral dialogue and a relational way of knowing.  Moral dialogue, or genuine dialogue as discussed by Jewish philosopher Martin Buber,[6] is less about a particular topic than it is a place where relational partners experience a sense of mutual relationship. This experience itself is transformative.

Risks to teaching from a relational perspective are significant. To teach relationally requires the instructor to be vulnerable with his or her students. This means that resistance and rejection can feel more personal than otherwise. It can also make teaching more difficult in the sense that one cannot hide behind a podium or PowerPoint presentation. When I am tired or depressed, it is more evident to my students. The challenge becomes letting my state of being transform what happens in the classroom rather than unsuccessfully masking it. A poignant example of this, for me, took place four years ago as three people close to me died within the span of a year. During that time, teaching my relationship classes as normal was virtually impossible. So, when, appropriate, I would let my grief into the classroom as we discussed such topics as death, grief, anger, depression, suicide, and other related topics.

On the flip side of being vulnerable, one who teaches relationally must maintain appropriate boundaries. The classroom is not a therapy space for instructor or students.  And the advent of social media has meant having to decide how to handle online connection with students, such as “friend” requests. In my classes, this relational approach to teaching has also meant that I have often instituted policies such as no laptop computers and no leaving the classroom during class. If our learning together is to be mediated through our relationships, then establishing a space for those relationships is crucial, though not always appreciated by students.

 An Integrated Approach to Content

As important as it is to embody the gospel, integrating faith into course content is also a central task. As we think about integrating content, clearly it is inappropriate to impose one’s faith-based agenda on unsuspecting students. However, what we might consider as gospel-themes permeate our courses and our research. All of the sciences and humanities struggle with questions that result from living in a world that God has created.  As such, all that we study connects to the gospel, whether it focuses on themes such as organization and chaos, love and justice, health and illness, life and death, or forgiveness and reconciliation. I will use two examples to demonstrate this process because I have both taught and written in these areas. Forgiveness is a good starting point, followed by a discussion of social justice.

Teaching and writing about the forgiveness process has taken my students and me into the realms of philosophy, religion, and social science and has been a gateway for unpacking numerous gospel themes. As previously mentioned, in the “Forgiveness, Mindfulness, and the Healthy Self” course, I legitimize religious and philosophical discussions (in the social science course) by bringing in speakers from various religious traditions to help us understand some of the socio-cultural roots of forgiveness. As we pursue the somewhat recent social scientific forgiveness movement, we have opportunity to explore such gospel themes as mercy and forgiveness, grace and punishment, justice, nonviolence, and healthy reconciliation. At a core level, discussion of forgiveness represents the Paschal Mystery itself—that is, the mystery of death and resurrection. For application, I designed this course with weekly exercises for students that include contemplative prayer/meditation, self-forgiveness, religion/life purpose reflection, and a welcoming prayer/practice.[7] For each exercise I ask students to experience and reflect from their own vantage point. For example, with contemplative prayer I encourage students of faith to sit in the presence of a loving God, and non-faith students to consider sitting peacefully with their own selves or a benevolent universe. This provides opportunity for discussion and for students to hear one another’s experiences and perspectives.

My book, Just Relationships, uses a social justice lens to examine interpersonal relationships. The book itself emerges from a long tradition in the Scriptures that highlights God’s concern for those on the margins and argues that justice—through love—results in advocacy. The book includes case studies and prompts for applying course concepts. It engages ideas of justice, morality, love, dehumanization, shame, power, forgiveness, and reconciliation. This book emerged from my course on inner-city families, referenced previously, and was the result of ten years of listening to guest speakers (many of whom were people of faith) and interacting with students in their service-learning experiences.

Just Relationships is a good example of how scholars can expand their own perspectives to understand more fully what they research and teach. For example, in that book I use Equity Theory as a beginning point to examine notions of justice and Attachment Theory to talk about worldview. In this way, I look for practical and moral applications of these ideas. Taking Equity Theory as a case in point, in Just Relationships I reference work by Morton Deutsch to understand distributive justice as a function of equity, equality, and need. (Sometimes fairness is a matter of who needs the resources most.)[8] I then cast procedural justice more broadly in terms of relationship process (processual justice), which launches a discussion of treating others with respect and creating a more broadly conceptualized relationship ethic. The result is often an energetic discussion about how justice in personal relationships goes way beyond the simple distribution of resources—it is a process that humanizes one’s relational partners.

A favorite discussion that emerges in several of my courses is referencing psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor Victor Frankl’s notion of personal transcendence,[9] as we discuss psychologist Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Is it possible to reach self-actualization by pursuing it directly? We have fruitful discussion as I explain Frankl’s suggestion that self-actualization is only achieved through self-transcendence.[10]

Critical to the process of creating a safe environment where professor and student can be authentic is to not be afraid when students draw conclusions in opposition to my own faith and to know how to set appropriate boundaries. For example, one semester a young man asked me in class, “I want to know your opinion as to whether a couple should live together before marriage.” I started to respond with current research on the topic when he interrupted me, “No, I want to know your opinion.” I paused, then told the class that because this was such an important issue I would let the class out ten minutes early and anyone who would like to stay and talk about cohabitation before marriage was welcome to do so. This resulted in an informal, honest conversation with students that included faith as one of several considerations when thinking about living together before marriage.

An Epistemology of Love for Co-created Classrooms

Ultimately, for me, an integrated perspective on teaching and scholarship means to introduce students to an epistemology of love.[11] As a scholar who teaches and writes, this perspective has been a critical shift for me. It means that integration of faith and learning is not merely trying to slip religious references or moralisms into my writing, lectures, and discussion. Rather, it is engaging students and readers in such a way that they discover a new way of seeing—of approaching—themselves and the world. Listen to Parker Palmer’s words on this:

If we dare to move through our fear, to practice knowing as a form of love, we might abandon our illusion of control and enter a partnership with the otherness of the world. By finding our place in the ecosystem of reality, we might see more clearly which actions are life-giving and which are not—and in the process participate more fully in our own destinies, and the destiny of the world, than we do in our drive for control. This relational way of knowing—in which love takes away fear and co-creation replaces control—is a way of knowing that can help us reclaim the capacity of connectedness on which good teaching depends.[12]

In sum, I find this approach to teaching and learning to be remarkably similar to Jesus’ own use of parables, story, and personal connection to show people God the Father. As Jesus consistently lived out, revealing the Father is not as much correcting bad theology as it is transforming a way of hearing and seeing. In this same light, my personal desire is to co-create spaces wherein my students may engage gospel themes, seeing them in a way that brings liberty and peace to their lives and communities. Listen to Jesus’ words in Luke 4:18 in this regard: “He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed.” For non-Christians this may mean gaining an openness to gospel themes (e.g., forgiveness) that had previously eluded them. For Christians this often means deconstructing overly simplistic views of faith, for example, viewing forgiveness as simply stuffing emotions and moving on. In final analysis, my co-created classrooms are intended to be safe spaces for genuine dialogue in the pursuit of truth. This truth is pursued through the sciences, the humanities, and faith to more fully know our God, our own co-createdness, and the world in which we live.


[1] For helpful consideration of this question, see Ernest L. Boyer, Scholarship Reconsidered: Priorities of the Professoriate, upd. and exp., Drew Moser et al. (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2016).

[2] Parker J. Palmer, The Courage to Teach: Exploring the Inner Landscape of a Teacher’s Life (San Francisco: John Wiley & Sons, 2007), 25.

[3] Ibid., 6-7.

[4] Ibid., 23-24.

[5] Douglas L. Kelley, Just Relationships (New York: Routledge, 2017).

[6] Martin Buber, I and Thou, trans. Walter Kauffman (New York: Touchstone, 1996).

[7] Douglas L. Kelley, “Prayer and Forgiveness: Communication and Christian

Applications,” Journal of Communication and Religion 35, no. 3 (2012): 254-271.

[8] Morton Deutsch, “Justice and Conflict,” in The Handbook of Conflict Resolution: Theory and Practice, 2nd ed., eds. Morton Deutsch, Peter T. Coleman, and Eric C. Marcus (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2006), 43-68.

[9] See Victor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning (New York: Pocket Books, 1963), 175.

[10] For further discussion of Maslow, see the essay by Jonathan Pettigrew included in the current volume.

[11] See N. T. Wright, “Wouldn’t You Love to Know? Towards a Christian View of Reality,” N.T. Wright Page, September 1, 2016,

[12] Palmer, The Courage to Teach, 56.

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