I am going to explore the vocation of theological educator in a series of posts. Although I have academic settings in mind, we could also imagine how these ruminations might be applicable to the vocation of pastor/priest, Sunday school teacher, and even parent. By way of disclaimer, the subject in question is Christian theology, and I make no apologies for discussing its instruction from the standpoint of faith.
Let’s begin with a role that, while not exclusively or comprehensively defining the theological educator, is nonetheless quite central: a theological educator leads students to fearful places.
The French philosopher Albert Camus describes the great value of travel as “fear”. “It is the fact”, he explains
that, at a certain moment, when we are so far from our own country … we are seized by a vague fear, and an instinctive desire to go back to the protection of old habits … At that moment, we are feverish but also porous, so that the slightest touch makes us quiver to the depths of our being (Notebooks 1935-1942, pp. 13-14).
Instruction in theology – teaching for the transformation of the whole person for the purpose of embracing one’s role in the drama of redemption - entails leading students out of their “own countr[ies]” of thought and belief to places that invite the consideration of long-held presuppositions, biases, and assumptions. Doing so involves “fear” because the dissolution of old ideas (and beliefs) and the formation of new ones entails a level of uncertainty and dissonance. This level is higher for some than others, but it exists for everyone nonetheless. It is at the point of crossing over from old to new (or in some cases even considering the status of the old) that “the protection of old habits” tempts us to go back to the familiar shore.
Related to instruction in theology, we could talk about this in terms of the educator’s role to walk with students through the examination of their long-held but rarely examined embedded theology. An embedded theology is the ‘system’ of beliefs about God and the world that is at work in the formation of self-understanding, friendships, work, play, worship, prayer, etc. So when someone says to me, “My faith and my church mean a lot to me” or “Times are tough but God will see me through” it has been my experience that he or she speaks from an operative, though never considered or explicitly stated, collection of ideas and beliefs (i.e. embedded theology). In this sense, leading students to fearful places involves, at least in part, the invitation and guidance to carefully identify and examine (switching metaphors) their theological bedrock – an unsettling endeavour for most indeed!
What this is NOT: leading students to fearful places is not a trusted professor or figure of ecclesial authority leading theological neophytes off the cliff-edge of their belief system. Success is one’s task is not measured by the degree of uncertainty one can produce or in the number of disillusioned students one can turn out. Instances of this (and, sadly, they are not few) evidence nothing more than powerplays by insecure educators seeking self-approval in their ability to unsettle their students. There is no love in this.
Because theological instruction entails none of this, its pastoral character becomes plain (I will say more on this in another post).
So for students of theology, what has been your experience with this? For theological educators, what practices have best enabled you to lead students into the careful consideration of their beliefs? In doing so, what values have been operative in your pedagogy?