The Dis-integration of Theological Education

The Dis-integration of Theological Education September 7, 2021

Some years ago a seminarian approached me about a gnawing dis-ease that he was experiencing with the curriculum associated with his degree.  I can’t quote him directly, but the sense of what he had to say was more or less along these lines:

You know, he observed, when I was an undergraduate I majored in philosophy and we were exposed to a wide variety of philosophical perspectives.  But no matter how widely the point of view varied, I still had the sense that we were working on a common project.  Categories like epistemology, ontology, and metaphysics, among others, provided a scaffolding for the work that we did.  By contrast, I don’t experience the work that I am doing now in the same fashion at all.  It is almost as if every class represents a discreet undertaking and there is no common theological project.  Why is that?

His question has stuck with me, though – inevitably – my answer to it has evolved.  And it certainly deserves a longer treatment that is possible in this format.  But briefly my explanation is this:

The direct answer is that he experienced theological education as disparate and disjointed because it is.  But there are several underlying or related reasons for that disparity:

  • One is that theological education has devolved into competing forms of discourse, each with its own concerns and vocabulary.
  • In turn, each form of discourse is rooted in separate communities.
  • Those communities constellate around different concerns and dynamics, be they racial, sexual or engendered.
  • Over time, those communities have cut themselves off from the rest of theological discourse, preferring the kind of segregation which – in the late twentieth century – was considered undesirable.
  • At the same time, the larger theological syllabus that shaped theological conversation for centuries has been branded as racist.

The implications are far-reaching:

  • One, there is no common project any longer. Decades ago one might have discerned differences between theology done here on the North American continent and theology done in the UK or in Germany, for example.  But something of a common vocabulary remained.  That is no longer the case.
  • For that reason, it is possible for seminarians to receive a relatively eccentric education with noticeable gaps in content. That will become increasingly the case as seminary educations become advocacy- and identity-based.
  • This also means that graduates will have an historically attenuated knowledge of the Christian faith. It was already possible to receive an education in Protestant seminaries that offered relatively little or no orientation to Roman Catholicism or to Eastern Orthodoxy of a positive or constructive nature.  There is now even less interest in orienting students to the historical theology of Protestantism and, if it happens, it is more likely to happen in courses devoted to church history.

Together, these trends are bound to deprive seminarians of the training that they really need.  Ministry is an integrative and holistic task, predicated upon the notion that clergy are called to proclaim, defend, and live out of a deep acquaintance with the Christian faith.  Achieving a measure of integration was already challenging enough, given the compartmentalized nature of higher education.  But now theological education is even more incoherent. Clergy whose theological education is captive to a narrow theological discourse will find it difficult to perform that task.

Photo by Martin Adams on Unsplash

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