The future of theological education

June 23, 2010

church / culture / theology

Last month, my wife graduated from Candler School of Theology at Emory University, where she got a Master of Divinity. She did an incredible job there; learned a great deal, taught a great deal, challenged and was challenged, and came out with great grades, a deeper theological identity, and a great hope to eventually move into PhD work and teach on the college level, being involved in and teaching others to be involved in the cutting edge of what God is doing in the world. I’m insanely proud of her.

She hopes to teach on the collegiate or graduate level after getting a PhD, partly because she wants to help open the eyes of folks who come into these institutions to things they haven’t seen, and also partly because she can affirm folks that want to do new things. She has unique and deep skills and passions that will flow into the changes that need to happen in the broad higher educational system.

Along the lines of unique possibility, there has been a lot of recent attention given to Claremont School of Theology‘s project to educate ministers within Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, and so on as well as in Methodist Christianity, allowing the traditions to teach students with their own faculty, but encouraging the students to learn from those in other traditions. Claremont is part of the mainline establishment, but lots of folks who are open to emerging things attend there, will attend there, or have commented on the implications of this project for the future. Some have said that this project is the future of the church.

I don’t buy it. Granted, the potential for this project is big. But it’s only big in that it can, and probably will, lead its participants to develop relationships with those who practice and lead other faiths and also participate in the project (certainly a small number of such practitioners), and to understand the faiths of these folks more authentically. This is a good thing, certainly. It’s necessary, and it’s possible that in some trickle-down way, it will eventually lead to less violence, hatred, and misunderstanding between the practitioners of these faiths. Also a good thing.

But do you see how that’s illustrative of the fact that this isn’t as big as it might sound? It’s a continuation of a trickle-down model of theology, ecclesiology, and cultural understanding. Graduates will hope to be the ones forming the theology, the ecclesiology, and so on that is consumed by their parishioners. There won’t be any attempts to create new systems that deal with the economic and cultural changes that will, in all likelihood, continue to change the way we do everything else.

I want to see a much more ambitious future from theological education. Theological education currently teaches students to be the dispensers of knowledge and the representatives of God to their communities. If it is to thrive, it has to learn to create communities that teach each other, represent God to each other, and create spaces for people to encounter God themselves (as Mars Hill says, “create spaces for the resurrected Jesus to speak to people” and “make sure we’re not blocking it for others”). I have enough deep experiences from undergrad, and I know enough folks who have been to graduate school and have had deep experiences, to be aware that institutions of theological education are, on their better days, communities that teach each other, communities in which students represent God to each other as much as possible, and communities in which space is created to encounter God.

But the communities that students are taught to lead, or taught to create if they are expected to create anything, are not like this. Ministers teach their communities, and their primary tasks are to dispense knowledge and provide symbols of God, whether through pastoral care, sacraments, or other things. Often the language that is used is not so blatant, but essentially the message is that ministers are still the representatives of God on the earth.

One of the most beautiful things about postmodern culture is that it isn’t primarily concerned with what people think they know. No one who doesn’t have roots in church starts attending because they agree with the knowledge that gets dispensed. It’s very possible for folks interested in such things to learn how to think theologically on their own. Further, another of the most beautiful things is that people don’t expect someone else to represent their spirituality. This is one cause of the rise of the “spiritual but not religious” people that the church is so afraid of. They don’t understand the idea that it takes an authority figure to represent God to them.

Do you see the potential that exists here? The kind of systems that could be created if we could dream bigger than the (admirable, but in practice often a bit cheesy when institutions do it) future of creating dialogue and friendships with people of other faiths? The kind of communities that could be created by an education like this? That’s my hope for the future of theological education, which could contribute to a beautiful future for the church. Granted, it may not be able happen until these institutions lose some things or new institutions and models arise, but too often this is how change works.