Saturday, July 23, 2011

The Spiritual Relevance of Theological Training, Part 1

“‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the first and great commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” ~ Jesus (Matthew 22:37-39)

Two posts ago I related some of my struggles with seminary, especially related to the emphasis on professional training for ministry. Some recent back and forth with a friend has stoked some further thoughts about seminary, specifically my attempt to gauge the relative spiritual importance of academic theological training. For the purposes of this essay, I’m going to consider biblical studies, systematics and church history, as my basic questions have to do with the spiritual relevance of the academic disciplines. In my opinion, the spiritual relevance of an applied disipline such as pastoral theology, leadership or practice is self-evident, provided that the pastor ministers in the name of Christ and in the power of the Spirit. This is not to say that that field does not need re-evaluation and reform in certain ways. Additionally, the relevance of liturgical instruction goes unquestioned provided that both instructor and student have an integrated grasp of liturgy and the imperative to love God with one’s whole being.

I see two Christian perspectives from which to evaluate academic theological training. The first and most important concerns basic Christian discipleship and formation, the second Christian leadership and pastoral responsibility. Either way, I believe its relevance can be considered through one lens: the commands to love God and to love our neighbors.

Scott McKnight calls Matthew 22:37-39 “The Jesus Creed.” These commandments, construed Christocentrically, constitute the distilled essence of Christian praxis. Anything which does not accord or strive to accord with these imperatives cannot be justly called “Christian behavior.” These calls to love underscore the whole ethical thrust of the New Testament and outline what it means to follow Jesus. Throughout this essay I will refer to living by these commands as “basic discipleship.” How then does theological education fit the Jesus Creed? I will attempt to answer this question by going through the “creed” line by line.

Theological training can and should cause its students to love God more deeply from the heart by more intimately acquainting them with the grand redemptive narrative of the Bible and, in particular, the redeeming work of the cross and the powerful victory of the resurrection. The seminarian must come to more clearly understand the God who prefers mercy to judgment, and so be filled with love. However, it is unclear, and perhaps improbable that the relentless specificity of academic theology is necessary for or essential to this task, except insofar as these basic ideas need articulation and defense over and against those who would appropriate the Bible to tell a different story. For those called to the apologetic task, this is no small order.

As for loving God from the soul, the psychological and emotional healing required for this are unlikely to be gained through academic pursuits. Moreover, the spiritual disciplines required to sustain soul care—meditation on Scripture, prayer, rest, community, celebration—neither require academic precision nor certification. Professional Christian counseling, however, should require academic training in both Christianity and counseling, although these disciplines will affect those receiving counsel only indirectly.

The imperative to love God with all one’s mind will often be cited as the Jesus mandate for theology and its professional training. I would argue that, while this is not an invalid application of the Jesus Creed, left alone it is a woefully narrow construal of the call to love God with our minds. For not only do we need care for logical consistency in our God talk, but also a consistent habit of turning our thoughts towards God. As Paul writes, “Be transformed by the renewing of your minds” (Romans 12:2). Theological sophistication and precision can never replace this; affirming orthodoxy will not, by itself, effect the mental transformation that God desires for us. Only the spiritual habits of Scripture meditation, prayer and corporate liturgical worship will do the trick.

Love of neighbor will be partly addressed when I consider the relevance of theological training to Christian leadership. Theological knowledge will be used to love others mostly through Christians' attempts to satisfy others' theological problems and conundrums. Basic questions like "Why suffering?" and "Doesn't the Jesus love and the Old Testament God hate?" can only be addressed by someone with at least rudimentary theological training, even if it's only congregation-based catechesis. Helping people in a particular cultural and intellectual setting become intellectually receptive to God and the gospel is of no small value. Even so, intellectual concerns are relativized by the hierarchy of needs, especially when the majority of the world waiting to hear the good news are poor and hungry.

All considered, I find theological training to be of limited value in the life of the lay disciple. Non-academic catechesis might go a very long way in shaping thoughts for God by training disciples in basic doctrine. It does stand to reason, however, that loving God with our minds means being lifelong learners: as much as our station, vocation and capacity allow, Christians should be growing in intellectual knowledge of God. For some that will mean academic theological training; for the vast majority it will not. However, considering the relevance of theological training vis-à-vis Christian leadership in my next post will, I think, reveal considerably more benefits to basic Christian discipleship, albeit in a somewhat indirect way.


Russ said...

It may be that, instead of training being the problem, how and what we train is awry. We train in philosophical minutiae, but not in basic reading of the Scriptures. I'm thinking of many heady sermons I've heard that obviously reflect much learning, but not much serious, on-the-ground discipleship and catechesis. If our training was reoriented, especially at a decentralized level, we might have more success -- especially with the "nominal" who need to see local engagement rather than hierarchical politics.

Hannah said...

Build a seminary/semi-monastic community founded around spiritual disciplines and focused intimacy with God first and academics later. Maybe the first year should be intensive reprogramming of people's lives so that they learn how to live as Christians more integrated within their whole lives (cuz, let's face it, very few churches teach that) and then add the overt theological training later (after you've absorbed much of it thru praxis). Then the first year at least would be helpful for laity and clergy-to-be alike. Coming from someone who has found formation to be the only real benefit from her theological training (at the moment - there were theological and biblical moments, and even a few historical moments earlier in the year, just not right now)

Mike Rad said...

Part of wrestling through these questions came as a part of realizing that some of the most important lessons I have been learning have only been tangentially related to my actual classroom learning. I have also found that I can give myself to my studies wholeheartedly, but that it is easy to do that at the expense of loving God with my whole being. I think seminary needs more space for real personal growth--it is naive to think that (a) seminarians come fully formed as disciples, (b) the churches we attend while in seminary are actively discipling us and/or (c) that as proto-church leaders we will just disciple ourselves and do a fine job of it without assistance.

The other scary possibility is that either the Zahl-ite legacy or humdrum Episcopalian chaplain-to-the-upper-crust formalism (or both) retains such an influence at the school that measuring success in terms of "loving God with your whole being" is not on the curricular map. The other possibility is that Trinity's tension between being an academic institution and a center for practical ministry training has not made space for facilitating growth in the core elements of Christian behavior.

Russ said...

So what can we do to change it? I agree with you. In my own field of work at Geneva, the same is true -- very little spiritual development of students. Some professors don't even want to do it, as "that is the work of the local church." While I would agree to that, in some measures, I also think that we who are forming in wisdom should be actively discipling our charges.

Mike Rad said...

Well, be the change you want to see in the world, right? I suppose my first goal is regularizing the kind of spiritual disciplines I know and/or believe to foster growing in love for God and for people. The second is like unto it: find some other peeps to join in.