Theological Educator as… (Ruminations of a Novice, Pt. 1)

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.

wooden bridge 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?

19 thoughts on “Theological Educator as… (Ruminations of a Novice, Pt. 1)

  1. James, on the first point, I’m not so sure. Yes, one way to frame the task of the theological educator is (surely) one who “grounds students in the Christian faith”, but to be an educator is to challenge learners to explore ways of thinking outside their “home countries” of thought and belief. Whether or not this is a by-product of the former, that seems up for debate.

    On the second point, yes, encountering the triune God through theological reflection should produce “fear”. One would hope that it would entail the same fear and trembling that led Moses, John the evangelist, and Isaiah to their knees. Is your point an ordering issue? If not, why put one kind of fear on another level than the other and thereby downplay the fear-producing aspect of thinking in fresh ways? Encountering the triune God and encountering new modes of thought both produce a “fear” of sorts, but wouldn’t we want to say that these are different sorts of fear altogether (again, if you are working toward an ‘ordering’ of the two this doesn’t matter). From a learning perspective, the psychological and emotional dissonance wrapped up with being challenged to think about the world according to new modes of thought produces one kind of “fear”, but encountering the Triune God another altogether.

  2. More than one image comes to mind, but let me begin with “Theological Educator as formator”. If the word “formator” sounds strange, I stole it from my colleagues at a Roman Catholic seminary across town. They are fond of strange words that uniquely capture a complex thought; but then, they have been at this business for a while so they can say in a word what takes evangelicals a paragraph.

    As formators, theological educators are responsible for formation and are uniquely involved in it. However, what many discover as they subject themselves to theological education is that formation occurs in unexpected (sometimes unpleasant and unwelcome ways). Kent has commented on the experience of fear. I will build on that by suggesting that one source of that formative fear is the terror that something important is being taken away – or at least placed at grave risk.

    To use a mathematical metaphor, formation, at least the type we need most, is a matter of subtraction and division as much as (perhaps prior to) addition and multiplication. I have found a common pattern among seminarians who experience some disturbing sense of being scandalized by their theological education. They seem to have entered theological study assuming that the process would simply add to what they already know and believe; adding to it in the sense of giving better ammunition for it, securing and galvanizing it, etc.

    What sometimes creates even more confusion (I suspect) is that the subtraction and division they experience is taking place within a confessional context (e.g., for those in evangelical institutions). That is, they cannot simply dismiss the fear and its sources quite so easily.

    So, as formators, theological educators induce the “scandel” while simultaneously coming alongside as a sister or brother, a companion in faith. As such, theological educators have an unusual formative opportunity that is rarely afforded those calling is to do the “addition”.

    That raises the question of what constitutes faithfulness for theological educators. I would suggest one factor is helping students know how to reconstruct (the law of parsimony or “the simplicity on the other side of complexity”). Note that I did not say doing the reconstruction for them (though I am convinced that some of that should happen); it’s teaching and modeling for them HOW to do that reconstruction and giving hope that the process is worth it.

    • Don, I love the idea of theological educator as “formator”. I only worry that it narrows down the telos of theological education to the individual and his or her spiritual formation and not to the individual’s role in God’s Kingdom consummating work in the world. I worry it is not (beware: trendy word coming up) missional enough.

      Any thoughts on this?

      • A fair concern, Kent, which is why I mentioned that “more than one image comes to mind.” This is only one. It is regrettable to me that the field of spiritual formation has blossomed into it’s own (often isolated) “discipline” that is often championed as some kind of antidote to the dangers of rigorous biblical and theological inquiry. In Western Christianity (both culturally Western and Western as opposed to E. Orthodox) it is also quite individualistic. As social Trinitarianism and concomitant social understandings of the imago progress within Western theological circles, that individualism is slowing being challenged. Yet, it’s more deeply etched than we know and will not be quickly overhauled.

        Your presenting question for this dialogue should lead us to consider how theological educators and theological education function AS (not “with” or “alongside”) formation. Once spiritual formation and the role of “formators” are isolated from theological inquiry in any way (and there are a number of subtle ways that happens – fodder for another line of conversation, I suppose), dangerous results follow. One example among many is that we polarize “knowing,” “being,” and “doing” or theological education, formation, and mission. Is there genuine formation into Christ’s image that is not intricately interwoven with love of neighbor and all that that involves missionally? Is not a missional life intrinsically formative? Are we not acting theologically in the mix of all this?

        In a post above, someone made reference to embedded theology. As we might all admit, we’re all theologians and always doing theology. I think one task of the theological educator is to be a guide who helps people do theology well. That is not exactly the same thing as imparting theological language and categories and affirmations, though it’s mighty difficult to teach theology without those. Sadly, those are often mistaken for the theological task itself – a sad and fatal mistake.

  3. I agree here with Kent? It might be that even “fear” might at times, be something good? The Bible told us at times to “fear God.” Because he is great and terrible and powerful.

    Ironically then, couldn’t an educator that drops his class to some extent, even into a fearful uncertainty … perhaps ironically, be guiding us to … God?

    Rather as Kierkegaard – after the apostle Paul – suggested that we must seek God, in “fear and trembling”? Since after all, God is infinite, and infinitely complex; and all our simple theologies will likely fail, when we confront the infinite? And we therefore meet God … in part when we feel challenged, and inadequate; even in our ideas as to who or what God is?

    Of course, this can be overdone. Still?

  4. And as Don points out, after the division, the burning away of false or dead wood, chaff, there comes … addition, even multiplication.

    And as for community/communion? If we lose our old churchly moorings, we can however, join the company and fellowship for example, of theologians.

  5. G, thank you for responding (and why sound so surprised that you agree with me?).

    I take it that your point in the first comment is the following: God is infinite and therefore beyond total comprehension; therefore, dropping students into a “fearful uncertainty” would be guiding them to the infinite God because, in the end, we can only hope for such uncertainty. I see your point, and I agree with it in part: in doing theology and in guiding students in the theological task we must keep alert for hubris, that we not forget the provisionality of all our theological reflections this side of the eschaton. I am not sure I feel comfortable “dropping students into a fearful uncertainty” unless I was willing to walk with them through it and have given them the resources to continue the journey (given them the fishing pole if you will).

  6. If I may weigh in on James’ last point, the ethos of theological education must always be accountable to the gospel and the ministry of the gospel. Simplistic and cliche as that may sound, it helps explain why the process of theological education can sometimes induce fear and why it is sometimes experienced as a stripping or subtraction. The gospel is ever scandalous – even to believers. In some respect it never stops scandalizing us! One of my own fears as a theological educator is that I can seem to be faithful when I am simply reducing and domesticating God’s wild self-revelation to manageable (even if horribly nuanced and complex) categories; thus risking immunizing people against the gospel rather than tilling their capacities to hear it.

  7. James, when you say, “if we situated the ‘leading into fearful places’ bit under the aim of grounding one in the CHristian faith, then the dangers you point out would never even come into play” I entirely agree, and I thought I was doing just that.

    Beginning these brief and incomplete “ruminations” as I did was only a way to catch the readers attention in much the same way that I try and do in a first class with students. So when I later said, “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” I intentionally wrote “entails” because I don’t believe this is the purpose of theological education but one aspect or consequence of its central aims. I did not map those central aims here because this little essay was only intended as the first of several “ruminations” to get conversation started.

    Thank you, however, for giving me some great thoughts that will surely be rattling around in my head as I continue working through a theological account of theological education (perhaps something that will appear near the end of this series of ruminations?). By way of sketch: I would situate theological education within the ongoing drama of redemption in order to locate its formative efficacy in the work of the Spirit, its telos in the church’s mission in the world, and its immediate focus on the cultivation of skills and virtues necessary for men and women to play their role in the the kingdom drama.


  8. Kent:

    Don’t worry! I think James is more annoyed at me, than you! No doubt our “Foundationalist” dialogue around the corner, (now archived?) did seem a little like an endless intellectual hot-dogging session at times. Still, it was fun, and made some serious points I think; even regarding Theology.

    Thanks to you both in any case, for this forum.

  9. All,

    This is a great conversation that I resonate with heavily. In my undergraduate theology classes I felt very much pushed off the cliff edge of my most central beliefs, stripped of my entire theological epistemology and had it replaced with a gaping void. I went on to become a Bible teacher at a Christian high school with an unhealthy amount of smug skepticism (myself, not the school). I grieve over the damage I may have done to some of my early students with my celebration of ambiguity. The theology professors in my MA program at Fuller have thankfully had a much more constructive and redemptive approach, as opposed to a few of the NT and OT profs. Now I’m coming to Aberdeen next fall to really get set straight. Can’t wait!

  10. (My apologies in advance for the rather dramatic and melancholy tone of this post.)


    I am unsure about this statement:

    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…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.

    I tend to think that some students (and here I will invoke those thousands upon thousands of students inhabitating Christian liberal arts colleges in the States) will need to be led off the cliff of their belief system, if such a system includes things like those bewildering “literal” renderings of Revelation, hoping that Providence gives them enough hints and signs to find “the right one,” thinking that Christianity is primarily the story between their individual souls and God, and especially by pointing out how Americanism constantly and implicitly informs their Scriptural hermeneutic and in fact usually triumphs over Scripture.

    Robbing students of these beliefs would not be “powerplays by insecure educators seeking self-approval in their ability to unsettle their students,” but acts of love.

    • Ken, yes, the examples you list would be acts of love indeed! The scenarios I am imagining here, however, are those in which professors having led students “off the cliff edge” are then unwilling to accompany (or “walk with”) those students through the difficult and inevitably painful process of reconstructing those foundations or fail to give them the requisit skills to continue the process once those students leave their care. This comes back around again to why I believe the role of theological educator includes a significant pastoral function (something we will discuss later on).

      Adam, glad to hear you are heading to Aberdeen! I hope your experience their will be as positive and challenging as mine.

    • Ken,

      I agree that this kind of deconstruction is necessary, but it is only an act of love if the students are led from error to truth, rather than from error to nihilism. I experienced this same stripping my fundamentalist/dispensational upbringing but there was no active attempt by those early professors to fill the remaining void with the gospel; it was just left a void. I’m picturing a demon getting seven of his friends and finding an earlier vacated room well cleaned and empty, ready to be re-inhabited.

  11. Thanks to all for an invigorating read! As one who has entered into the working world where time to ruminate on weighty topics such as this is scarcely thin, you bring a needed refreshment to my mind and subsequently, my heart.

    I find your post quite thought provoking Kent! James, Don, G and others, your responses helpful in guiding my thoughts on this. As one who is dabbling in theological education at the moment I have been investigating my own pedagogical method and now have more food for thought.

    How the post and thread of spoken to my heart at the moment is the need for a educator to carefully and lovingly peel away theological, biblical, cultural, and historical assumptions about their beliefs and expose what lies beneath to the examination of the Spirit. This is a very critical process in education and one if done wrongly, or even rightly with the wrong spirit, can lead to damage. I just met a man who asked me why does it seem that his friends who go off to theological education come back skeptics rather than joyful servants of God? Oh, the difficult task of each of us who desire to educate others! Truely, this task before us all cannot and will bring glory to God if we do not, in all humiliation, come before God empty in need of His presence and Spirit to say anything worthy of the Gospel of Jesus Christ!

    What I find of great worth as a novice educator myself, is the charge by Kent to pluck up the courage to expose our beliefs to the dividing sword of Scripture, or more accurately, the Spirit for refining. The educator, with the loving hands of a smith, needs to be willing to enter into the “shoes” as it were of the student to know when to pull them from the fire, to shock them in the water, and to put them back in the fire. John of Cross comes to mind as he elucidates how God brings us into the Dark Night in order to strip us of our vestments, theological and actual, in order to draw us into a deeper understanding and relationship with him. Is this not the task and challenge to each of us.

    In a way Kent I find your charge exciting, terrifying, and all together impossible! But praise be to God whose strength is made perfect in our weakness! I look forward expectedly to the rest of your posts and the subsequent dialogue. James, Kent, Kyle and others, you have no idea the impact of your thoughtful, transparent posts have on others – Keep it up!

    • Derek, it is good to hear from you again. Your allusion to John of the Cross’ teaching on the Dark Night seems right on to me. And it indicates again why theological educators must embrace the pastoral character of their task (or, to take Don’s word from above: “formator”). Good word D and thanks for the encouragement!

  12. Pingback: Theological Educator As…(Ruminations of a Novice, Pt. 2) « Theology Forum

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