Reimagining Theological Education 500 Years After Calvin #AlwaysReforming

A version of this article was given as a talk at Missio Alliance’s Young, Restless, and Always Reforming conference in Philadelphia, on May 4, 2016.

On October 31, 1517 an Augustinian monk named Martin Luther ignited a movement in the Western church that would lead to the Protestant Reformation. It captured the people’s yearning for comprehensive reform of a church that seemed to have lost its mooring. In modern times it has become apparent to more and more Christians that the church seems to be floating and flitting about. It is obsessed with its own institutional survival, like a dog chasing its own tail. What kind of reformation do we need today for the church to remember its identity and pursue its mission?

The #AlwaysReforming Church Requires a Reformation in Theological Education

The modern American way of life has proven to be bankrupt. The ideals of individualism, production and consumption that have now been exported globally are destroying the environment, fragmenting local communities, and giving rise to alienated and anxious individuals who function as mere cogs within global capitalism. Multinational corporations are corrupting governments here in the US and around the world. The neoliberal framework imposed by the West as “globalization” has intensified conflict everywhere. Billions must navigate a brutal and exploitative economic system, struggle with degrading mental and physical health, and wonder how an endangered planet can be home for future generations.

If there is to be a new reformation in the church today, there must be reformation in theological education. Our experience is that conventional seminaries, whether “conservative” or “liberal,” train their students to help people cope with the effects of empire rather than equipping the people for a different way to live altogether—the counter-imperial, deeply communal way of Jesus. Earlier in our history, our church wanted to help train future Christian leaders through our pastoral internship program. But exasperated by the arduous task of deprogramming these post-seminary graduates from captivity to the status quo, we thought it’d be easier to equip them to be radical disciples from the start.

A Case Study: Underground Seminary

In 2104, Church of All Nations (CAN), a PCUSA congregation in Minneapolis, helped launch Underground Seminary as an experiment in equipping leaders for serious discipleship & forming radical Christian communities. Underground Seminary is theological education for those who sense a call to be radical advocates for the world today. Our focus is on intensive character formation, a rigorous post-colonial critique of our present systems, and nurturing intimate and sustainable forms of community life—basically, equipping our students to follow Jesus uncompromisingly. We value:

  •  Radical Discipleship: Following the way of Jesus through a life of service with and for others.
  •  Critical Pedagogy: Uprooting the logic of empire in the self that blocks our call to discipleship.
  •  Community Building: Loving others to form mature, reconciling Christian community.
  •  Fearless Leadership: Moving from self-preservation to selfless advocacy.
  •  Public Witness: Proclaiming God’s peaceable reign out of the community’s parabolic witness.
  •  Ecological Restoration: Imagining and embodying regenerative ways of life in this world.

What have we learned so far that we can offer to the Church as we reimagine theological education 500 years after the Reformers?

1. We need Reformed heroes to show us how to resist Empire.

Our mission is first to identify and root out the logic and impulse of empire from our person, and then to make disciples who will respond to the desperation of the present world with passion and compassion, intelligence and resolve. We believe that Jesus modeled a way for all people to live on this earth in peace. Our aim is to train future Christian leaders who can generate reconciling community as a hopeful response to imperial dehumanization. By decolonizing our very minds and bodies, we hope to truly equip our students to live constructively, rooting ourselves in history, the land, and kinship with all of God’s creation.

Though our church is part of the mainline Presbyterian family, we draw our inspiration from the radical reformers persecuted as “Anabaptists” by both Roman Catholics and by Lutherans and Calvinists. The Anabaptists’ clear identification of church-state collusion as idolatry made them a threat to both the Catholic Church and the fledgling Protestant movement.

At Church of All Nations (CAN) and Underground Seminary, our commitment to costly discipleship doesn’t come from Reformed catechisms and creeds, but from the way that the Confessing Church emerged to challenge Nazi rule in Germany, and the daring witness of Christians like Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the early 20th century German pastor, theologian and activist. We need Reformed heroes to show us how to resist Empire. Click To Tweet

2. Our education must thrust us outward into mission, not inward.

Underground Seminary’s mission is to offer a “this-worldly” education rooted in the experience of “life together” that equips students to follow the way of Jesus today.

Bonhoeffer challenged the dualism within the Western Christian tradition that led to spiritual inwardness (and its obsession with personal innocence), theological abstraction, and social apathy. Instead, he emphasized the sociality of the faith through the incarnation.

Jesus Christ must be real both personally and communally within the world. This led Bonhoeffer to question the strictly academic approach to pastoral formation with his Finkenwalde seminary experiment during World War II. For Bonhoeffer, seminary education was a time of “intensive preparation for service to others,” with a focus on material reality, community life, and non-anxious embodiment.

3. We must be formed to resist the impulses toward individualism.

Our socialization into the forces of empire requires a process of resocializing the self, which at times can be painful. We believe that discipleship is essentially a decolonizing of the body from the reflex of fear to love.

Theological reflection coupled with daily life together as a seminary household can make discipleship real. Students live and train with a small cohort for two years under the guidance of a resident director. Training consists of a combination of intentional community living, study, work, service, mentoring, worship, and play. Participation in community life is a vital component, as the student’s academic work and personal reflections are related to the larger experience of discipleship.

The ability to offer and receive hospitality with grace is also an important value. Students actively engage in the community life of CAN, and also connect with and learn from other communities and organizations.

A Reimagined Course of Study for the #AlwaysReforming Seminary

Our studies consist of three tracks, with each track building on the previous:

1. UNVEILING: Exposing the Workings of Empire

Material History: Geopolitics, Economics and Ideology

In this track we seek to understand how the world works. We look at the “civilizing” impulse as a particular way of being in the world—one that is very recent and unique historically. This is contrasted with indigenous lifeways, which civilization attempts to exterminate at every turn. Kinship structures and connection to the land are broken in order to bring people into direct relationship with the state—a traumatic process that is normalized over time.

Given that we live in the ruins of five hundred years of Western colonialism, we focus especially on the rise and spread of the West, along with the hierarchical and dualistic ideologies embedded at its core: sexism, Christian supremacy, settler colonialism, white supremacy, and neoliberal capitalism, which turns people, communities, and the earth itself into commodities to be exploited for profit. We unpack the relational, psychological and ecological consequences of the loss of indigeneity as a lens through which to interpret the destructive globalizing march of Western culture today. We hope to begin naming and confessing the dehumanization inherent in our current way of life and to begin reimagining more generative, just, and humane ways of life in this world as a central part of our Christian vocation and witness.

2. REIMAGINING: Reading the Bible as a Counter-Imperial Witness

Socio-Political Hermeneutics: Empire, Mythology and the People of God

In this track we learn to read the Bible as a collection of diverse testimonies of a people struggling to keep (or restore) their humanity in the midst of empire. Informed by a socio-political hermeneutic, we hear the prophets calling Israel out of the imperial idolatry of the “Canaanites” to follow Yahweh, the god of the ancestors, in a faithful communal life of sharing, cooperation and care for the earth.

Under Roman occupation, Jesus returns to this tradition by casting out imperial demons and renewing village life amongst traumatized peasants in Galilee, while simultaneously denouncing the cooptation of the Second Temple by the Jewish aristocracy. Calling his disciples to the “way of the cross,” he is ultimately executed by the Roman state only to be vindicated by Yahweh through resurrection from the dead.

3. BIRTHING: Healing Roots to Liberate Spirit and Restore Kinship

Transforming Embodiment: Identity, Theology and Place

This track focuses on the healing of the self from the uprootedness and dis-ease caused by empire. Western dualism splits the modern individualized person from a sense of connection to ancestors or future generations, from kinship relations with the earth and human community, and even from one’s own body and emotions. This loss of the past and future, and the elimination of Spirit from creation, frees neoliberal capitalism to turn everything into a commodity to be exploited for profit. We aim to stop the damage and spread of this way of being by rooting students in the real—in ancestry, the earth, community, and the body—in order to give birth to liberating Spirit and intimate kinship in the world.

The Church today is in need of reform. Rather than chasing after our own institutional survival, we must remember our identity and pursue our mission. This kind of ongoing reforming work necessitates reimagining the way we educate. We are learning much through our experiment at Underground Seminary, which I offer here in hopes we can pursue faithful theological education for the Church in the 21st century. Instead of chasing survival, we must remember our identity & pursue our mission. Click To Tweet


Download Jin S. Kim’s original workshop at Missio Alliance’s Young, Restless, and Always Reforming here for just $0.99.