Where to Start
Theology literally means the study of theos or God. Theological education extends an exciting invitation to explore the study of God with implications for all of life. The invitation to love God with all of one’s mind in graduate-level study also seeks to engage the heart, soul, and body of theological students. This invitation in many cases includes the exploration of one’s calling or vocation in life.
Theological education is a spiritual invitation to explore one’s own love of God and neighbor. This is realized in community with those who both honor and question the spiritual sources and wells that have and will sustain persons, communities, and societies. Sustenance is found in living spiritual traditions and in the new offerings of God’s Spirit to address present and future challenges in the world. Spiritual life and traditions are studied from the perspective of loving critics who daily recognize our human limitations and God’s ever-present grace.
Theological education is an intellectual invitation to explore critical and post-critical faith perspectives that pose a challenge for those who are threatened by a movement to closely examine conventional faith understandings. James Fowler considers the stages of individual reflective faith and conjunctive faith that young, middle age, and older adults can encounter on their life journeys during theological study. Basically, individual reflective faith invites a choice of one’s own personal beliefs, values, and commitments within and beyond inherited faith traditions to affirm and own a particular religious identity, especially one that is shared with faith communities. Theological study provides an opportunity to explore theological options from which to choose intentionally. Conjunctive faith integrates life’s polarities and mysteries in a both/and perspective and embraces an openness to a diversity of truths and traditions beyond one’s own particular faith perspective. Theological study invites students to wrestle with the integration of faith and life. Both these faith stages named by Fowler call for a stretch intellectually and personally for those called to study in community with teachers and fellow students both in and outside the walls of theological schools.
Theological education generally has been organized around a discipline division known as the theological quadrilateral that is comprised of four areas of study: biblical, theological, historical, and practical. In addition, historically a two-fold pattern that interfaces theory and practice is often maintained that combines the academic and professional preparation of theological students. This combination intends for clergy and laity that they be informed, formed, and transformed in ways that enable them to be effective in their callings in the world. These curricular and organizational patterns were identified historically in the mid-twentieth century in a series of theological education studies sponsored by the then American Association of Theological Schools, now the Association of Theological Schools (ATS), the body that accredits theological schools. The Carnegie Foundation also supported the studies, which are commonly known as the Niebuhr studies. H. Richard Niebuhr, Daniel Day Williams, and James M. Gustafson write and edit the study reports.
A more recent study also supported by the Carnegie Foundation, Educating Clergy, focuses upon preparation for the professions of priest, pastor, and rabbi in particular as the primary, though not exclusive, constituency of theological education. I think that more broadly theological education seeks to engage the head, heart, and hands of persons. It strives to foster the student outcomes of critical and creative theological reflection, spiritual imagination, and transformative practices in a variety of ministries. H. Richard Niebuhr back in the twentieth century hoped that theological education might nurture the love of God and neighbor. I think that Niebuhr’s purposes should now be expanded to include God’s love of the world (John 3:16) understood as God’s creation. This additional purpose is crucial with the global ecological crisis that confronts humanity.
My thoughts up to this point assume one is presently studying or convinced they are to begin theological study. A prior decision requires discernment whether to undertake such a venture. Discerning a call to begin study at a theological school is best considered in conversation with a number of people. First a conversation with those who know you well in your current situation is important to broaden your personal perceptions of what theological study can mean at this point in your life journey. A call to a theological seminary, divinity school, or a graduate program in theology may be distinct from having clarity regarding your profession or ministry after your study is completed. For me personally, clarity came two weeks before completing my Master of Divinity program. Either I was going to pastor an urban congregation in Brooklyn, New York, or begin a doctoral program in the area of religious education to prepare for a career in teaching. The financial support to pursue further study was secured close to my day of graduation.
In addition to persons who know you well, for those considering the preparation for particular ministries, such as congregational pastoral ministry, interaction with persons currently leading such work can be valuable in a process of discernment. In my case, persons in both campus ministries whose advice I initially dismissed only heeding them five years later, and persons in my local church provided feedback that I should consider seminary training because of the gifts they identified in my ministries with others. It should be noted that resistance to a call to seminary is not uncommon among those studying at theological schools from my years of teaching experience.
A third group of persons with whom to discuss the possibility of theological education is those currently working and teaching at theological schools. I do recall a letter received from a seminary professor who shared his advice regarding a possible career in Christian counseling that led me to apply to programs in clinical psychology and social work. The advice included the recommendation of a Master of Divinity degree prior to the possible integration of Christian perspectives in counseling or social work at the doctoral level. That advice enabled me to discover and deepen my love for Christian education. For me, Christian education embraced a preventative communal approach to share with persons the resources of their faith in confronting life transitions and crises.
Beyond these three groups of persons, those considering theological education are wise to pray about their decision and be in communion with God who is both the subject and object of theological study. Such a suggestion calls for spiritual discernment along with an open heart and mind to be surprised by joy in the act of seeking a full and faithful life in service to God, neighbors, and the world.
The Five Commandments of Theological Research
Readers should be delighted that there are not Ten Commandments to recall in considering the challenging task of theological research that is at the heart of theological education. These five commandments need to be applied to distinct theological disciplines that are the topic of chapter 4, but they provide a helpful overview of the basic expectations that are operative in theological study and research. The naming of these commandments is not original to me, but was passed on by Max Stackhouse who served as a colleague and mentor when I first joined the faculty of Andover Newton Theological School in 1986. The commentary or midrash on Max’s five commandments are my elaborations upon the oral tradition I received and are offered to initiate novices to the wonders and challenges of theological study that can be seen as a form of worship.
The five commandments as passed on to me:
1. If it is not theological, it is not deep
2. Wrestle an angel
3. Pick a prism
4. Tell the truth, warts and all
5. Read, formulate, talk, read, and reformulate
Here is my midrash on Max’s commandments.
1. If it is Not Theological, it is Not Deep
This is the academic equivalent of the first commandment of the Jewish Scriptures: “You shall have no other gods before me” (Exod 20:3; Deut 5:7). Or it is first of the great commandments noted in the Christian Scriptures: “You shall love the Lord your God with all of your heart, soul, mind, and strength” (Mark 12:30; Luke 10:27; Matt 22:37). Theology helps to move us beyond our immediate context to address matters of continuing significance and depth. In a theological school, theology is still the queen of the sciences. Theologies vary, but the awareness of our theological traditions and the implicit theologies in our work is foundational to theological study and research. For example every psychology or psychological school embraces an implicit theological anthropology. A theological anthropology is an understanding about persons and their origin, disposition, need, makeup, and ultimate destiny that proposes values or virtues to guide human life.
2. Wrestle an Angel
This second commandment is to choose something to study or research that can potentially wound us. Another way of saying this comes from Abraham Heschel who noted that “religion begins with a question, and theology with a problem.” Addressing real and deeply felt questions and problems involves taking a risk like wrestling with an angel as described in Genesis 32:22–32. In this account Jacob is at a major point of transition in his life as he returns home to encounter his estranged brother Esau. He is alone the night before the encounter having sent his family ahead. Jacob is dealing with a number of contending forces and fears in his life. Just as conflicting spiritual and moral forces and certain negative forces impact Jacob, they inhibit all persons, groups, families, communities, and the very social and structural fabric of our lives. The task in wrestling may be to name the destroyers of life, life as God intended it to be lived in fullness and joy even amid suffering. Naming, opposing, and contending with the destroyers of life is risky, but certain positive forces hold promise for renewal, restoration, and hope in our personal and corporate lives. Jacob wrestled with an angel and was touched at the point of his greatest strength—his hip or groin. He had a history of running, but he could no longer run after wrestling with the angel of the Lord. This commandment requires us in theological research to be vulnerable enough to expose our strengths and see if they need to be transformed remembering the watchword of the Reformation (both Protestant and Catholic Reformations) semper reformanda, always ...