Am I Distinguished? (Don’t Answer That)

Am I Distinguished? (Don’t Answer That) February 4, 2014

Yesterday I started teaching two classes at United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities. Never heard of it before? Not surprising. It’s a small, liberal seminary, affiliated with the UCC, the UMC, and the UUA. I taught a class there in 2012, and last summer I was approached about teaching more. And about a title. So they gave me on: Distinguished Lecturer in the Practice of Theology.

That’s a pretty fancy title for an adjunct professor, but it looks good on the back of a book. Plus, I’ve never heard of anyone with that title before. A Google search shows that no one else in the world has this title, so it fulfills my need for uniqueness.

A funny thing about that title is that I rarely lecture. I do with undergrads, but my pedagogy with grad students — heavily influenced by bell hooks — is to ask trangressive questions and catalyze discussion.

The two classes I’m teaching are dissimilar.

The first is “Worship in the Church,” a required class for UMC and UCC students. So we’ve got those, plus PC(USA)s, UUAs and ABCs. Yep, lots of letters. Denominational alphabet soup. Some students seem a bit, shall we say, anxious that the worship professor is a non-denominational emergent guy. But I’ve got lots of guest speakers lined up — you can bet your life that I won’t be teaching on hymnody.

The second course is “Theologies of Atonement.” I’m running this course like a traditional, European theology seminar. In that style, students read the manuscript of the book that the prof is currently writing, as well as related texts, and the prof lectures through the material. I’ve dropped a bunch of heavy reading on the students, more than they usually get in a masters-level course. And they were eager to dive in last night.

I was honestly surprised at who signed up for the atonement class. A couple students are commuting over from Luther Seminary, one is a working Presbyterian pastor, a couple are not Christians, and at least one is most recently a Wiccan. Why people who don’t affirm the divinity of Christ want to spend 14 weeks reading and talking about the atonement, I don’t know. But I know that it’s awesome for me because it will deeply enrich the plural perspectives that I’m attempting to bring to the book.

So, it should be an interesting semester.

Finally, if you’re interested in taking a class with me that includes canoeing in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, I’m teaching a masters-level course for United in May and a D.Min. course for Fuller Seminary in September. You can contact those schools if you’d like to enroll in one of those.

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  • As a Lutheran, it brings me great satisfaction that some people from Luther are taking an Atonment class from you.

  • Lausten

    I would love to be a fly on the wall for that class. I’d promise not to buzz your head too much.

    • I think we’re going to record some of the discussions. Maybe podcastable.

  • Ric Shewell

    With so many people who do not believe in Christ’s divinity, how will you avoid every discussion turning into “Does God exist?” I feel like most of the QTHC turned into that discussion, to the point where nothing could really get done.

    • It’s interesting that several high profile atheists — like Pete Rollins — continue to confess a strong affinity for Jesus Christ. I don’t quite get that, but I should probably get my arms around it.

  • Scot Miller

    I’d much rather be known as a distinguished lecturer rather than a middling one. (Congratulations, by the way!)

  • I love the part “in the practice of theology.” I love thinking of theology as a practice, as a verb rather than a noun. Theology as a lifestyle.

  • David Blackwell

    I would love to see the Syllabus for the Atonement class

  • Derek Mellott


    I am a current/On Leave student at United. I’ve definitely heard some buzz about your courses. I am kind of a “none” and fit in well with the diversity of the UTS ethos. I’m kind of a theistic agnostic to use a non-existent term. I guess that is to say I believe in the possibility of God yet do not maintain a belief in God. I appreciated Ric Shewell’s comment because as a student of United I do see the “God Question” come into play quite a bit thereby placing insistence upon theocentricity rather than christocentricity consequently avoiding the question of Christ. I find that many of the non-Christian students reject atonement theology altogether specifically while being quite dismissive of Christ generally. However, I think even non-Christians, and more specifically those who believe in God fail to see that they indeed have a Christology by virtue of having an opinion of him at all ; even if that Christology entails a rejection of Christ. It’s an interesting thought. I guess my question for you in light of these observations are these: do you believe that a Christian must believe in atonement? Obviously scripture clearly thinks so. How do you as a Christian theologian formulate a theory of atonement that’s biblical yet relevant to a contemporary audience? It seems to me that the greatest problem with Christian theology today is that it seeks a contemporary hermeneutic shaped by the advent of the various forms of biblical criticism but in doing so creates a biblical interpretation that is vastly different than what you see in scripture. Would one be right in protesting that this newly formed theology has simply adopted the language and themes from the Bible but redefined and re-conceptualized them in such a way that they bear little resemblance to the views of the various authors of the canon? Perhaps what I’m trying to ask is how do you reconcile original intent with a contemporary exegesis when they seem to be mutually exclusive? Further, in addressing the question of the “what for” in regards to Jesus’ death it seems that an atonement theory is just one response to that question. I find it more useful to look at his life rather than his death. His death shows the extent of human cruelty whereas his life shows the extent of human love and compassion. Perhaps it is his life one must look at when asking the question of atonement. By doing so, it becomes clear to me that we must seek reconciliation with one another rather than reconciliation with God. One could say that reconciling one’s self with one another is the act of reconciliation with God, in which case I might be forced to agree but then what are the implications for this position when it seems to stand in stark contradiction to Paul’s atonement theory. Fortunately, I am not plagued with fidelity to scripture as I do not see it as divinely inspired nor am I beholden to the prescription of “sola scriptura” in terms of authority. (One of the benefits of being non-Christian) Did any of that make sense? A lot of questions here. Probably to many to be answered on this forum. Hopefully this perspective is seen as a part of that plurality you are looking for regarding your book rather than a criticism or diatribe against Christianity. Take care Tony!