In Part 1, my guests told of their own experiences in theological education and in taking on leadership responsibility for an institution of theological education. They also provided their own assessment of the state of theological education.
In this episode, Part 2, my guests describe how theological education is being done in each of their institutions in terms of curriculum design, in light of the decline of Christianity in the United States, and in the experience of the Covid pandemic. They conclude by offering their thoughts on what conversations still need to occur about theological education as we move forward into the future.
All Christians should be interested in what is going on in institutions that train people for Christian ministry because what happens in those institutions–how people are trained and what they are taught–finds it way, for good or not, into churches.
Back in the late 1970s and early 1980s there was such dissatisfaction with theological education that the stirrings of an extensive and extended conversation about what was wrong and what needed to be done had begun. The first significant work of that conversation to appear in print was Vanderbilt theologian Edward Farley’s Theologia: The Fragmentation and Unity of Theological Education, published in 1983. Farley’s assessment of the problem was that because of the impact the modern sciences, theological schools had become places that trained people in the increasing number of Biblical, historical, theological/philosophical, and practical sciences. He urged the recovery of what he called theologia which he defined as the capacity for judgment and wisdom or a habitus–a habit of mind and sapiential knowledge that arises from the experiences of a devoted life of faith. Farleys research was deep, illuminating, and perceptive. His conclusions and proposal resonated across the conversation. However, Farley’s contribution had a significant blind spot.
Even though no reference was made to Farley and his contribution, that blind spot was revealed and named two years later, in 1985 by the Mud Flower Collective–a group of seven feminists scholars of different races and ethnicities–in their book, God’s Fierce Whimsy: Christian Feminism and Theological Education. Their assessment of the problem is that it is due to the so-deeply-embedded-that-it-goes-unnoticed legacy of colonial imperialism and white male supremacy. Their proposal was to reveal this legacy, challenge it, and correct it. It could be argued that Farley’s contribution is an example of how deep and unnoticed this legacy is because he fails to even be aware of it and thus to acknowledge it.
As is often the case, initial prophetic voices goes unheeded. So it was with the Mud Flower Collective’s contribution.
Last year, nearly forty years since conversation of the 1980s, Willie James Jennings, former dean of Yale Divinity School, has both revived that conversation about the inadequacy of theological education and the Mud Flower Collective’s critique in his book, After Whiteness: An Education in Belonging. The fact of his assessment that the inadequacy of theological education is still due to the legacy of colonial imperialism and white male supremacy reveals how little has changed in forty years and how deeply the legacy in embedded.
In my mind, both The Mud Flower Collective’s and Jennings contributions in the accuracy of their assessments and in the way they demonstrated theological learning and inquiry, not only through critical analysis, but also the use of personal stories and poetry, are exceptional examples of the theologia Farley was seeking and proposing.
To tell us of their own experiences in theological education, to provide their own assessment of state of theological education in conversation with Jennings’s book, to provide us with a description of what is going on with theological education in their respective institutions, and to give us some sense of theological education’s future, I have invited three deans of seminaries and divinity schools to be my guests for a two part conversation. Each are in positions to shape and guide theological programs in the schools where they are. In this episode, Part 1, we will focus on their experiences and assessments. In the next episode, Part 2, we will focus on what is happening in their institutions and the future of theological education.
Dr. Emilie M. Townes is Dean of Vanderbilt University Divinity School and Distinguished Professor of Womanist Ethics and Society.
The Reverend Dr. Kelly Brown Douglas is Dean of the Episcopal Divinity School at Union Theological Seminary, the Bill and Judith Moyers Chair in Theology at Union Theological Seminary, Canon Theologian at the Washington National Cathedral, and Theologian in Residence at Trinity Church Wall Street.
Dr. Karen Massey is Associate Dean of Masters Degree Programs at Mercer University McAfee School of Theology, Associate Professor of Christian Education and Faith Development, and Watkins Christian Foundation Chair.
In this episode, I have invited back as my guest Dr. C. Michael Hawn. Michael is University Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Church Music and Adjunct Professor and Director of the Doctor of Pastoral Music Program in the Perkins School of Theology at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, TX and was one of my professors during my church music training at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky.
In the book he compiled, edited, and co-authored with a team of outstanding church music scholars (James Abbington, Emily R. Brink, Kathleen Harmon, Lim Swee Hong, Deborah Carlton Loftis, David W. Music, and Greg Scheer), New Songs of Celebration Render, Michael begins his Introduction by asking the question, “Are hymns relevant to Christians today? (p. xxv)” He goes on to say the book is an effort to address that question (p. xxvi).
The reason I think this question and this book are important is that both the question and the book are a part of a vital reckoning taking place. Christianity is struggling with its complicity in the evils of European colonial imperialism and male white supremacy that have so shaped all aspects of the cultures of Europe and the United States and the work of global Christian missions.
In the 1960s, due to the impact of secularism, it was becoming apparent Christendom was losing its influence and power and denominational Christianity was declining. Theologians were declaring God is dead and pastors were decrying the relevance of the hymns in the hymnbooks available to them for their worship planning because those hymns either did not speak to the situations in which the pastors were ministering or the theology expressed in those hymns was inadequate or false.
It wasn’t that God was not and isn’t still at work, or that the Church and congregational song were dying due to irrelevance. Rather, Christianity was and still is going through a transition of loosing itself from a dominant and questionable legacy. As Christians and their congregations began to do this, congregational song blossomed in immensely creative ways into new, what Michael calls, ‘streams.’
What we discuss in this episode is the fruit of this blossoming, especially since the 1960s and the impact of Vatican II. The book focuses on seven streams in this creative outpouring and flow. In doing so, we will get a better picture of how God is still active with, in, and through the Church and how congregational song is one of the integral means by which the Church is continuing to thrive.