Theological Education and Attention

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.

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10 thoughts on “Theological Education and Attention

  1. Kent, something about this post strikes me as off-base. FWIW, for a number of years now, I have edited papers for a theology PhD student at Fuller, and previously when he was an MDiv student at Denver Seminary. He has been deeply engrossed in the “masters” for all these years, but I have not, at least not the original sources … just standard Theology 101 and 102 at the masters level and by “osmosis”—from other MDiv students I have edited for or in dialog with some of the types who might frequent TF. It has been eye-opening for my PhD editing client to have my comments on the stuff he’s been doing, with surprising theological parallels and insights drawn mostly from my own constructive work, based in turn predominantly on narrative hermeneutics and theology done over the last 8 years in the laboratory of the local church.

    Two senses I get from your post:

    One is that it seems exclusivist, like “forget having any credibility as a constructive theologian if you haven’t done the hard labor with these masters.” It seems to sell short the “school of community.” I’ve learned so much since seminary from dwelling with theologically “illiterate” people who nevertheless had gained deep theological wisdom, that I wonder how accomplished theologians can manage to spend so much time in the books and in the academy and still learn some theology.

    The second is that the construct of master-apprentice seems way too linear. If there’s anything I’ve learned in my own studies, it’s that the best constructive work in theology doesn’t take place in a linear fashion. Only with space, time, and community to “stew in,” has my own constructive work finally begun to take off in a “mutually informing” kind of experience—much more “cyclical” than linear. My hope is to develop such a “cyclical” learning environment that may be much more analogous to “the school of Tyrannus” (Acts 19) than the academy.

    • Jim, great to hear from you again. Your second comment is spot on; I couldn’t agree more.

      I wonder about your first point. You don’t seem to be suggesting that “attention” as an activity that forms wise theologians is so bad, rather that the object of our attention shouldn’t be moved beyond our local contexts and all the richness that the brethren in our midst can offer. Is that right? It doesn’t seem from your comments that we disagree about the importance of patient attention as an activity through which the best sort of theological wisdom and discernment can be formed. It is more that we disagree about the scope and object of our attention.

      Let me clarify: I don’t in any way think giving careful attention to the writings of others (giants or otherwise) is exclusivist; if anything, it satisfies the priority you grant to the “school of community.” I am simply suggesting that we broaden the “school” to include not only those in our local body of Christ, but those from other localities: other parts of the world, other traditions, other ages, etc. I am suggesting that we broaden (saying as you do), the “school of community” so that it represents the body of Christ in all its diversity and richness.

      • Yes, I think you’ve got the gist of it, Kent. Your comments about “attention” as an activity are especially apropos; I guess what I’m saying could be reframed in those terms as follows: I certainly agree with the benefits of attending to the larger community and have argued for that vociferously in my own theological camp—I’m not saying that “the object of our attention shouldn’t be moved beyond our local contexts” as much as to question which object(s) should remain the primary focus of our attention.

        I went to seminary at the fairly old age of 32, then again at 56, after I had lived some life, and although I was able to “attend” to the objects of my study quite well—being almost a professional student by then—I maintained a skeptical and “exploratory” excitement about my studies that never stifled creativity but was always primarily text-based. Yet, it was not until my inchoate ideas stood the “test” of—shall we say—middle-aged men and women in the local body that the constructive aspects of my work really began to take off. My riff on “attention” is that it required every bit as much “attending” to the souls of the people I was connected to—as well as receiving their attention—to enable the constructive product(s) of my work to mature or “cure.”

        • Jim, I think the picture I chose is unhelpful because it gives an entirely individualistic impression. I imagine something far more communal, which would obviously include some work on my own but it would not only be this.

          I agree that we should be attending to those in our immediate presence in the church. Although modern theologians conceive their relationship to the church in various ways, I am quite happy to identify myself as a churchly theologian.

          In my mind, however, attending to others doesn’t negate the importance, value, or potential for attending together to important “texts.” Our theological educations are primarily text based because it is through texts that we have our only access to important figures from the past. This is no less true for Christian Scripture; it mediates access to apostolic teaching. This was true for the earliest Christians who had texts in their hands and it is no less true for us.

          I take your point though, and I agree that our attention to texts should take place in the context of attending well to each other.

  2. I believe there should be a balance. These ideas we form, not only at theological institutions but throughout life through many venues, first being God himself with Scripture, are drawn after careful thought processes. Often the conclusion are drawn not only from what we believe to be true, but also in relation to what we find lacking in truth.

  3. Perhaps I am missing the whole point here, simply being an undergraduate and studying Systematic Theology basics, but I wonder if the true point is that we learn more about the wonderful God we desire to follow more deeply. In a way, the Scriptures that we study are filled with many great teachings/understandings/experiences of great people who merely expressed Him to us in the books of the Bible. The Apostles John and Peter, Prophets Isaiah and Nathan, etc. were inspired by God to write what they wrote for their audiences and for us. Thanks be to His Holy Spirit for inspiration. Are not the later writers offering something that they feel inspired by the same Holy Spirit–not to mention, many on the very teachings from insights out of the Word of God? I gain a great deal by reading and studying what additional theologians have come to understand more deeply about God, and about what His Word tells us about Him. In a way, as we discuss in class what the Scriptures desire us to understand, aren’t we –at least in a small way– learning from a professor who is also teaching theological concepts, and inspiring students, but only in an oral format?

    • Donna, yes, training attention to sources of theological reflection either from the past or the present should find their telos (goal) in the knowledge of God and in lives that glorify him (you and I share this conviction). Your comment about “inspiration” makes me think that we should be cautious not to equate noncanonical writers with inspiration in the same sense that we would canonical writers, yet we should nonetheless attend to them. They like us seek to speak well of God and live well before him.

  4. Thanks for your article, Kent. Actually I’ve been thinking about this for some time. The situation is especially serious in (my) Chinese culture. We once invited around twenty Chinese scholars to an intensive lecture series and asked them to enter their research interests in a booklet, every scholar had somebody else’s name in their research interest! Once a Westerner said to me (in another Chinese conference), that we should hold a conference where no footnote is allowed on papers!

    I agree with you and Holmes at the end, that learning to be humble and listening to others (e.g. to theological “giants” and to other traditions) is a good discipline. And I agree that classical training is vital for any successful humanities scholar. But if this means not having one’s own voice, then this is something to be lamented. We are talking about theology: before God, everyone should have equal right to speak Him. To me, the discipline of theology, all down the years, is a thousands-year-old dialogue, where we all have our unique voice to add. It’s like singing in a choir, everybody should have his/her own voice.

  5. The more primary sources the better! Who wants to read a guy interpreting another guy? Expose your students to the time-tested works of theology that have already so affected millions. Cut out the middle man who only narrows the reader’s understanding with his own and open the sails of the mind to the brisk and rich winds of the timeless theologians, scholars, and saints!

  6. Pingback: Simone Weil on Study & Prayer (more thoughts on theological education and “attention”) « Theology Forum

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