I opened one of my favorite academic journals recently and was intrigued to see an editorial by Stephen Holmes on theological education. He observes that students in theological studies (especially postgraduate) are often directed to spend the majority of their efforts attending to the ideas of others. In doing so they defer the work of actually speaking well about God themselves.
Holmes wonders if this should be lamented. Could educational practices focused on careful, lengthy attention to the ideas of others actually work against the ends and purposes of our discipline? Maybe we should just get down to the business of constructive theology more quickly. Holmes describes the situation this way:
Faced with a potential research student, passionate about understanding divine providence, we advise her to study the doctrine of providence in Barth or Calvin or Thomas Aquinas; when we set ourselves to write on God’s final intentions for the saints, we fill chapters with careful expositions of Gregory Palamas on deification. We trace the ideas of others in their particular context, and defer the task of making a theological proposal of our own.[...]
If the heart of our discipline lies somewhere between this disputed territory between speaking well about God and living well before God, our seemingly endless reflections on other writers demand defense; are we in fact evading our proper calling, practicing our discipline inadequately (or even refusing to practice it)?
It is a fair question, and my postgraduate studies followed a similar pattern. In fact, when I supervise independent studies with our best undergraduate students I shape the project along the same lines Holmes describes: we select an important figure, read him or her carefully and together, trace the lines of their thought, then communicate the findings orally and in writing. Could I be unintentionally trapping these budding theologians in an endless circle of attending to others when they should be giving their own account of the living God?
Before I share Holmes’ answer, how do you see it? For those of us who care about theological education, should we lament the fact that we often focus heavily on attending to the work of others? Should we just get down to the business of speaking well about God?
Holmes says, “No” (and so do I).
Wrestling with a writer of genuine theological genius forces us to stretch our own abilities to their highest reach; taking the time to listen carefully and respectfully to voices from other traditions, from other cultural contexts, or from other periods in history can help us identify our own prejudices and unexamined assumptions; engaging with another can enlarge our imaginations and open us to previously unimagined possibilities. We have no need to be ashamed of giving careful attention to the voices of the tradition on the way to doing our own constructive theology.
I agree with Holmes. Careful attention cultivates all the best habits of young (and old) theologians: patience, humility, charity, discernment, etc. This applies when attention is being given to luminaries from the Christian tradition just as it does for contemporary figures – even, and maybe especially, if they come from contexts and traditions different from our own.
This approach is not always popular, both with students and with other educators. Especially these days it seems I have to “sell” my students on the value of thinking along with giants on whose shoulders we stand. Thinking with them is often difficult work. Athanasius, Irenaeus, Gregory of Naziansus, Aquinas, or Barth just don’t express themselves in sound bites (or tweets), and the rewards of tracing their thought are many times hard-won!
Stanley Hauerwas likens the process of developing as a theologian to the apprenticeship of a novice to a master bricklayer. The craft can only be learned by watching, learning, and patterning ourselves after masters. This doesn’t mean we “copy,” but that the wisdom, skill, and craft of theology is just as easily caught as taught. For Hauerwas, “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.'”
It is a good word. It encourages me to continue assigning primary sources to my students and attending to them together, not in the hopes that they “lay their bricks” just like them but that they learn the craft of laying bricks carefully and well.