Theology as Apprenticeship

In his memoir, Hannah’s Child, Duke theologian Stanley Hauerwas reflects on the relationship between the crafts of brick laying and theologian (the initial quotation is from Seamus Murphy’s memoir Stone Mad).

‘With hammer mallet and chisel we have shaped and fashioned rough boulders. We often curse our material, and often we speak to it kindly – we have come to terms with it in order to master it, and in has a way of dictating to us sometimes – and then the struggle begins. We try to impose ourselves on it, but we know our material and respect it. We will often take a suggestion from it, and our work will be the better for it.’ In like manner, I think of theology as a craft requiring years of training. Like stonecutters and bricklayers, theologians must come to terms with the material upon which they work. In particular, they must learn to respect the simple complexity of the language of the faith, so that they might reflect that radical character of orthodoxy. . . . Karl Barth’s work represented for me an uncompromising demand to submit to a master bricklayer, with the hope that in the process one might learn some of the ‘tricks of the trade’ (p. 37)

I resonate with Hauerwas’s description (see here), and it makes an apt metaphor for the professor.   I step into the classroom as a theologian and stand among young men and women who are themselves theologians (whether they know it or not). That they hone the craft of speaking to and about God under my watch and under my care is profoundly humbling. How I interact with the Christian Scriptures, which “masters” I direct them to look with me, and how my life takes shape under the Cross all has a part in their apprenticeship.

Perhaps more humbling is the apprenticeship of my children. Their theological instincts are  shaped through our everyday life together: our prayers, walks, my discipline or lack thereof, my tender or hurried embraces, the way I hold my wife, the look in my eye when they disappoint me. Whether I like it or not—whether I seize the opportunities or not—each are “showings” of life with God, living speech of an ongoing conversation. That is humbling.

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2 thoughts on “Theology as Apprenticeship

  1. This is a brilliant metaphor about craftsmanship and the acquisition of a theological competency over time. The beauty of apprenticeship is that the apprentice much first master the the smaller seemingly insignificant details before approaching the more difficult tasks of shaping, understanding and accepting the stone. However, I do think we are often slow in helping the student understand the “why”. In the deeply theologically significant film “The Karate Kid” Daniel had grown tired of waxing on and off, sanding this way, and sanding that way. It was not until Mr. Miagi introduced to him the practical aspect of the acquired movements as they pertained to Karate that he understood the significance of all that he had been practicing in seemingly unrelated projects. I am afraid that many students may storm off angry and tired because they feel we may have just given them another project rather than help them to understand why this basic skill is important to know and will ultimately lead to the mastery of the subject through word, practical application and the introduction of the next skill set.

  2. Thanks to both of you for being willing to share what you are learning, your readers are better for it!

    I think Josh touches upon a common trend among students that runs deep into their pre-college “shaping”. That a student becomes flustered and angry with assignments to the point of storming off and rejecting the teacher (much like Daniel was about to do before Miagi stopped him) demonstrates an assumption in the student that the professor’s method ought to conform to a certain standard (or maybe that education as a whole ought to have immediate rewards).

    Much like in terms of stone, at the beginning of the process of carving, cuts, breaks and fractures are far more extreme than later stages of refining, smoothing and polishing. For the student, maybe this entails beginning with an education in education, to lay a solid foundation, though this process might entail a violent break with previous expectations.

    For Daniel, his assumptions are shattered when Miagi demonstrates that his skills have serious application. It is unfortunate that Miagi has to earn Daniel’s respect in this way, but it was the way Daniel had to be shaped given his starting point. When shaping stone, “We will often take a suggestion from it, and our work will be the better for it” speaks to just this, I think.

    To (hopefully) offer something encouraging to you Josh, your fears need not be final (in terms of the student’s process of formation). As a professor is in some ways a temporary artisan of his or her subjects, he or she contributes to the shaping process of individuals, though not necessarily to the point of completion.

    Professors receive students in a certain condition and leave them unfinished, to continue their process elsewhere. You need not evaluate your own role as a professor in terms of completing the shaping process, but only in contributing to it in some positive way (being willing to step down from the place of artisan to become the contextually-appropriate tool for the Most High Artisan so that when the student leaves your care, he or she is closer to what God wants them to be than they were prior to your meeting).

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