By Reno, R. R.
First Things: A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life , No. 207
It's not easy to answer, the simple question of where to study theology. Interests, backgrounds, convictions, and levels of academic preparation combine in complicated ways when choosing a graduate program in theology. Still, certain qualities always matter: intellectual climate, commitment to students, corporate personality, and the atmosphere of faith at the institution. Keeping these factors in mind, we can try--or at least I can try--to work up a rough ranking of graduate programs in theology. Let's start with intellectual climate. Am I smart enough? Am I working hard enough? Are my standards high enough? Taken to an extreme, the pressure of such questions becomes demoralizing. But the more common danger in academic life is lassitude and self-congratulating mediocrity. All of us tend to walk when we don't have to run--a universal human tendency made worse by a very American egalitarian ethos that prizes amiable stupidity over demanding intelligence. Academic reputation can serve as a rough proxy for high standards. But beware programs whose big names fly in for a semester here or there. Academic culture cannot be built in airport lounges.
The same holds for professors in endowed chairs, who function as lofty aristocrats, removed from the faculty members who actually advise students and oversee dissertation research. Professors who won't answer emails or meet with students are worse than useless. They encourage a selfish atmosphere that injures their less famous but more committed colleagues. The latent (or not so latent) rancor can make the experience of graduate school sour indeed. Like clergy of old, professorial superheroes scramble for sinecures. More than fifty years ago, Jacques Barzun correctly identified the academic flight from students: "The highest prize of the teaching profession is: no teaching. For the first time in history, apparently, scholars want no disciples."
So, when looking for a graduate program in theology, don't get starry-eyed over big-name schools or celebrity professors. A unified, committed group of professors at any university is far, far superior to famous professors who are rarely around. Graduate programs flourish when professors give more time and attention to graduate students than to their own careers.
In other words, assess the moral character of any graduate program you consider. An uneven academic climate can be overcome by the special chemistry that often develops between a few superb professors and their graduate students. A culture of selfishness or conflict among faculty almost always leads to the neglect or mistreatment of graduate students.
A good, graduate program in theology doesn't just have high academic standards and a commitment to students. It needs to stand for something--neo-Thomism, or Barthianism, or postliberalism, or neo-orthodoxy, or some other angle of vision. The labels never fully capture the complex interplay of faculty interests, but they do suggest a theological culture--a corporate personality capacious enough to allow for interesting arguments yet defined enough to give the arguments weight and focus.
Too often, students, faculty, and administrators-in their different ways--underestimate the importance of corporate personality. Not long ago, Harvard Divinity School stood for something. So did Claremont, Yale, the University of Chicago, and Union Theological Seminary. They were alive with the urgency of the mainline Protestant project, which reflected the needs of a living community of believers negotiating the relations between modern identity and the traditional demands of faith.
The dramatic decline of the once dominant Protestant establishment has set these programs adrift. With little sense of purpose, they tend to divvy up faculty appointments: some historical specialists, a feminist, a liberationist, somebody doing world religions, perhaps a Jewish scholar or a Muslim--even a faculty member or two who represent a moderately traditional outlook. …