“Out There” or “In Here?”
When I was in seminary, a thread that ran through most of the M.Div. classrooms in which I was a student (and later a teacher) had to do with how future pastors would be expected to “translate” the fruits of their ostensibly growing theological erudition – terminology, historical themes, exegetical strategies, etc. – into terms that laity could understand. While some aspects of this concern for “practicality” could be grating, especially the sort of “what good is it if it doesn’t preach?”-model anti-intellectualism that seminary professors have complained about quite literally for centuries, it also stems from some more commendable impulses. Part of effective ministry is teaching, and teaching depends upon conveying complex information in relatable fashion to those who are not experts in the discipline.
And theology is nothing if not a discipline. In a marvelous barrage of expectations that I have occasionally posted on my office door, David Bentley Hart responds to the notion that theology is a realm of purely subjective feelings with no solid content of its own:
Now, as it happens, theology is actually a pitilessly demanding discipline concerning an immense, profoundly sophisticated legacy of hermeneutics, dialectics, and logic; it deals in minute detail with a vast variety of concrete historical data; over the centuries, it has incubated speculative systems of extraordinary rigor and intricacy, many of whose questions and methods continue to inform contemporary philosophy; and it does, when all is said and done, constitute the single intellectual, moral, spiritual, and cultural tradition uniting the classical, medieval, and early modern worlds. Even if one entirely avoids considering what metaphysical content one should attach to the word “God,” one can still plausibly argue that theology is no more lacking in a substantial field of inquiry than are history, philosophy, the study of literature, or any of the other genuinely respectable university disciplines.
Moreover, theology requires far greater scholarly range. The properly trained Christian theologian should be a proficient linguist, with a mastery of several ancient and modern tongues, should have formation in the subtleties of the whole Christian dogmatic tradition, should possess a considerable knowledge of the liturgies, texts, and arguments produced in every period of the Church, should be a good historian, should have a thorough philosophical training, should possess considerable knowledge of the fine arts, should have an intelligent interest in such areas as law or economics, and so on. This is not to say that one cannot practice theology without all these attainments, but such an education remains the scholarly ideal of the guild.1
While the seminary classroom is, of course, a far different animal than that of a graduate program in academic theology proper, and while a great variety of approaches exist among seminaries and their faulty as to how best to form students in the beginnings of the sort of disciplinary mastery that Hart proposes, it remains the case that the complexity of the theological enterprise requires that those who are receiving masters-level training in preparation for ministry should be ready to think about how best to teach effectively in terms that laity can understand.
Hence the concern in seminary courses for how students are being formed to talk about theology “once we get out there in the parish.” But notice the implied spatiality of that concern – laity are “out there,” while students are, in quasi-Gnostic fashion, “in here” in the classroom strategizing about how translation might happen.
So this then raises the question: what happens instead when laity, and also pastors long removed from seminary, are brought into the seminary classroom, not in the form of specialized “continuing” or “lay” education tracks (programs which, to be blunt, tend to be institutionally underresourced and marginal in most mainline seminaries), but rather opening up masters-level seminary courses to participation by laity and pastors in the field?
An Experiment in Progress
For the past two years at Christian Theological Seminary, we have been engaged in exactly that experiment. In intentional partnership with the Indiana-Kentucky Synod of the ELCA, whose bishop approves course topics in exchange for using synod channels for publicizing the courses to pastors and laity in the synod, we have offered opened up selective masters-level courses to pastors seeking continuing education and laity seeking edification. Pastors and laity pay a flat fee (generally around $200 for the semester, which is not too far off from what the average seminary makes in profit on masters-level course tuition once financial aid is taken into account) and commit to procuring books on their own. In exchange, they are invited to be full participants in the seminars (save for the writing assignments that are necessary for seminary students seeking degree credit for the courses).
Three seminars – “Theology of Mission in Indianapolis,” “Life and Thought of Dietrich Bonhoeffer,” and “Popular Theology and Public Discourse: C.S. Lewis” – have featured this mixed-constituency arrangement. As the professor in each case, I have to say that they have been a success so far (to the point that two more courses, “Popular Theology and Public Discourse: Heaven, Hell, Salvation” and “Atheism Old and New,” are on the books for this coming academic year). The courses tend to be about 30% seminary students in various masters degree programs, 20% parish pastors or chaplains, and 50% interested members of the public (with a much higher participation by the public in the online course since it was offered in hybrid online format, as future courses will also be).
Because the courses are first and foremost masters-level seminars, by necessity the reading list is demanding. For the Bonhoeffer course, we read eight full Bonhoeffer texts plus the recent Charles Marsh biography; for Lewis, we read ten full Lewis texts plus biography. I am confident that the reading requirements meet or exceed the amount typical of most M.Div. courses.
Is it challenging to “pitch” the level of discourse – lectures, discussions, etc.- in such a way that students with radically different levels of background in theology can feel empowered to engage the discussion? Not any more so than in a traditional seminary classroom, where professors encounter the exact same range among degree students (from the 21 year old who majored in religion as a church-related undergraduate program to the 50-year-old former engineer who has never taken a humanities course, and everything in between). And indeed, it has not been uncommon in my observation that some laity have more extensive catechetical/theological/philosophical background than the seminarians.
As I have observed the learning patterns for all three constituencies, I have noticed that the benefits of these mixed constituency classrooms play out in distinct but related ways for each of the three constituencies.
For pastors in the field, the courses not only provide an opportunity to engage or re-engage substantive theological texts, but it also provides them an outlet for discussion where they can give voice to theological speculation without having the added responsibility of being in pastoral relationship with the class participants. When pastors lead Bible studies or participate in local text studies, they are (rightly so) conscience of their ongoing pastoral and collegial relationships with the others in the room; the classroom, however, is a kind of experimental space where pastors can engage and espouse theological notions in a preliminary and safe manner. This acts as a kind of intellectually and spiritually charged academic respite for them. Meanwhile, I have observed that pastors that have been in the field for awhile can be inspired by the energy and fresh eyes brought by seminarians even as pastors are gratified to be able to share wisdom from their experience.
For laity, the courses provide theological solid food that goes above and beyond the oversimplified fare that comprises much “popular” theological exposition. One of the reasons why the experiment works is precisely because of the demanding reading and discussion load – just like marathon runners, people want to feel like they have really achieved something once they have finished these courses. The challenge enunciated by Hart is part of the attraction, even if the outcome will not be certification for “professional” practice in theology or ministry.
It is perhaps seminary students that benefit from the most. By observing experienced pastors and especially laity in action, pastors can watch their future council presidents and key lay leaders reason along with Bonhoeffer, Augustine, James Cone, etc. in ways that put the lie to the idea that laity cannot handle serious theological terminology and inquiry. The classes demonstrate in embodied form that laity are hungry for the intense nuances and intellectual capital amassed by the Christian theological tradition(s) over the years, and seeing this in action is tremendously empowering for future pastors as they envision their teaching/co-learning roles within congregation. Seminaries are of course not the only places that can convene and curate these conversations, but they are key loci within the network.
It should be noted, too, that as many seminaries deal with declining enrollment in professional programs, this may be a case where necessity becomes the mother of invention in providential ways. If seminaries can retool their existing strengths to imagine themselves as curators of theological education for everyone (including skeptics and “nones,” a surprising number of whom will come to a seminary on Bonhoeffer), then the financial and missional benefits to the schools and to the churches will be immediate and paradigm-changing for theological education. Indeed, it is always lovely when what looks like decline gives church institutions the nudge that they need to do what they ought to have been doing in the first place, and it is my belief that mixed-constituency theological education is a key example of this principle in action.
Dr. Robert Saler is Executive Director of the Center for Pastoral Excellence and Research Professor of Lutheran Studies at Christian Theological Seminary in Indianapolis.
- ^Hart, “Theology as Knowledge,” http://www.firstthings.com/article/2006/05/theology-as-knowledge, accessed 6/14/15.