Magazine article The Christian Century

Formed by the Saints

Magazine article The Christian Century

Formed by the Saints

Article excerpt

WHAT I LIKE ABOUT teaching theology here is the diversity of the student body and the openness and freedom we have as faculty in addressing the issues of the day in a variety of ways." This quote, which accompanied a seminary advertisement in a recent edition of this magazine, is a succinct statement of what is wrong with seminary teaching today.

The quote is not original or unusual, merely typical. Left to our own devices, seminary teachers attempt to mask the depressing sameness of our almost universally ill-formed students with talk of "diversity." We speak proudly of "openness" and "freedom" while rigidly policing ourselves for deviation from the conventional norms, as we anxiously await the world to tell us which "issues of the day" we may address in our "variety of ways."

In so doing we mirror rather than transform the students whom we teach. Our difficulty is that we have students who have been formed in no specific ecclesial tradition--other than the tradition which has taught them that they ought to honor no tradition. Of course, the belief that one's own opinions and experiences are more significant than those of the church is itself part of a tradition--a tradition which has characterized theological education in mainline Protestant seminaries for much of this century. So the real question ends up being not, Will a tradition determine how I think? but rather, Will the tradition which determines how I think be faithful to Christ and his church?

Some theologians speak of the need to develop "critical thinking" in our seminarians, to teach the "hermeneutics of suspicion." Criticism on what basis? Most of us combine radical suspicion of historic, institutionally embodied faith with a naive faith in our ability to think for ourselves. Feminist thought has demonstrated that everyone's thought is located somewhere, and is tied to some configuration of power. Or, as Bob Dylan put it, everybody serves something. Too many of us theologians have left our students to wallow in their own subjectivity rather than challenging them with a perspective not of their own devising.

I recall hearing Letty Russell speak of "theologizing from women's experience." I thought, "I hope that women have had more interesting experience than I have had." A colleague, Mary McClintock Fulkerson (author of Changing the Subject), has shown how appeals to "women's experience" may be merely another instance of the subjectivizing, universalizing tendencies of Western liberalism. What the church needs from its leaders today requires more than merely experientially based theology.

Harvard Divinity School's Jon Levenson complained in this magazine February 5-12, 1992) about how "in an institution once explicitly and formally Christian ... [and] largely dedicated to the education of ministers, one can deny with utter impunity that Jesus was born of a virgin or raised from the dead. But if one says that he was the Son of God the Father, one runs afoul of the institution's deepest commitments." In the hands of contemporary theological educators, the creeds of the church are now, Levenson said, no more than "a matter of personal preference."

For some years a major task of theological education--one it has been slow to shoulder--has been to introduce poorly catechized students to the church's tradition, to drag them out of their subjectivities toward something they could not have thought on their own. …

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