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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.
The music for this episode is from a clip of a song called ‘Father Let Your Kingdom Come’ which is found on The Porter’s Gate Worship Project Work Songs album and is used by permission by The Porter’s Gate Worship Project. You can learn more about the album and the Worship Project at theportersgate.com.