What Is Theological Education Like?

I’m sure I’ve talked about this before (yes, here at least), but as Seabury’s seniors graduate and as the Board of Trustees meets, and as I think over the content and methods of introducing students to the New Testament, I wonder again what graduate education in preparation for ministry should be like. Or — to put it differently — toward what are we preparing students?

In some fields, we expect practitioners to have mastered a field of vitally-important facts. I do not care how my civil engineer feels about cement, steel, and road surfaces; I care urgently that the overpass stays up while I drive over (or under) it. I don’t care how my doctor thinks about pneumonia, I want my doctor to treat my infection with an appropriate combination of medicines, pain relievers, and prescribed behavior. I want my engineer to know the properties of various materials. I want my doctor to know what’s likely to happen if I take these two prescriptions at the same time. These are, to a great extent, independent of the practitioner’s attitude, self-expression, will, preferences, or aspirations. Indeed, I positively don’t want a practitioner in this kind of field to permit her personality to color her relation to the “factual” aspects of her practice.

At an opposite extreme, some fields reward “creativity” and pure expression and personality. Some sorts of performance art (stand-up comedy, abstruse dance forms, monologists) can amount to the projection of attitude and self-expression on a large scale. Such modes depend hardly at all on knowing anything extrinsic, but almost entirely on the practitioner doing his thing.

For purposes of crude comparison, we can characterize the first as objective/cognitive practices, and the second as affective/intuitive practices. While of course the first are not purely objective, nor the second entirely devoid of cognitive underpinnings, I think they’re worth proposing as general points of orientation — if only for the purposes of showing the many shades of mediation that lie between them, and the ways that the ideal types themselves already inhabit one another (the value of bedside manner for a doctor, the knowledge of gestural semiotics and kinesiology for the dancer).

With this sort of schema, we can observe that the legal profession, for instance, calls on both sorts of excellence in varying degrees, in varying practices. Surely, lawyers should know the law and the precedents; but surely also they benefit from a creative sense of how law and precedents might relate to one another. And teams of lawyers (warning: I know nothing about legal practice) might benefit from drawing on some who stone cold know the case law, and others who have a strong imaginative grasp of what makes for a convincing innovation in legal argumentation.

What about church leaders?

My sense of the current status of theological education would suggest that we can cite a tremendous variety of perceptions of how church leaders ought to be prepared and to practice, and at the same time a high degree of unclarity about these. That doesn’t seem propitious to me. For my part, I take the consequences of “untrue” theological practice as much more grievous than of, let’s say, a very unpalatable, vacuous performance routine. I’d suppose that no matter how friendly, “effective,” or appealing a church leader might be, their practice involves serious dangers to their congregations and their neighbors if they do not know the gross anatomy and pharmacology of their role. The alternative — so far as I can see — involves suggesting that “it doesn’t matter,” and my reading of history, of theology, of Scripture, of the examples of the saints, and of a variety of other sources of evaluation suggests that the “doesn’t matter” position not only places real people’s real well-being at hazard, it cuts off the very limb from which it propounds its innovative, appealing, creative, provocative intervention.

Shari said:

My my. We will make a conservative of you yet!


[Thanks, Shari; this simply reaffirms (should I say “reasserts”) what I’ve been claiming all along, that I’m not the “liberal” that folks who disagree with me about sexuality take me for. Uncomfortably for me, many of those who agree with me about sexuality can tell that I’m not in with them, either, so I end up displeasing everyone. I do not take that as a sign that I must be doing something right, but neither do I take it as the demonstration that I have to choose between the two alternatives.


Simon says:

Dear Adam,
the training of church leaders first and foremost must be on the foundation of prayerful contemplation; the development of an unshakeble personel relationship with God. With this foundation any requirements of the leader will be filled through the Holy Spirit, biblical knowledge will be given through revelation when required. If this is true why do we have a written record of God’s word? What purpose does it serve if knowledge comes from the spirit alone? I stand by my original statement but with this addition: What graduates of a theological education require (and I think this stands for post-graduates of all fields) is the skills and the base knowledge to find the answers they don’t have.


[Thank you, Simon (by the way, “Adam” is my last name; most people call me “AKMA”).

I’m not entirely certain I grasp your point, so I hesitate to comment extensively. Most of what I have to say relative to this matter can be summed up as: Theological students do not need management training if that presupposes that theological truth and understanding of the Scriptures don’t really make much of a difference. Once students have attained a vivid, durable grasp of the truth they proclaim, then management/vocation-specific training may be useful. Here in the U.S., some constituencies have placed a high priority on training seminarians to run a vestry meeting, supervise small-office accounting, organize communities for solidarity and effective action, and so on. These are good things, but they depend for their cogency on understanding what’s up with God; otherwise we’re just offering a degree in social work with a theological veneer and, sometimes, lower academic standards.]

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