True theological education is a “there” and “back” exercise

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images-3Last week I tweeted/facebooked

It is not enough to be the smartest person in the room. Someone normal must be able to understand you. #NoteToYoungPhDGraduates

It opened up an interesting discussion on FB. There were some who joked about sending this tweet to Northern Seminary Professors (of which I am one). There were others who talked about doing some in depth study on a subject like Sexual Ethics in (a class of mine) and then not being able to go back to church and make sense to anybody.  There were some who just complained about not being able to easily enter into theological discussions- the Theo-jargon was just too much.

All of this, I think,  gets at the point of this post:  “true theological education is a there and back exercise.”

1. Theology requires us to go somewhere, usually over “there” to a different place we are unfamiliar with. We study theology usually because we have questions about God, culture, and Christian life. But if the answers were obvious, we would not need to study. We would not need to read books that challenge our thinking and indeed require us to stretch. Instead, we need to understand how we got to think what we think. We need to understand culture and where the assumptions come from that drive what we do and how we experience. We cannot think ex nihilo because we are then basically parroting the culture(s) that taught us to think, feel and relate like this. Not all culture is good, not all culture is bad, but to discern culture we need to self-reflect how it impacts us. Likewise, Christians need to understand how they came to understand salvation in this particular way (or other beliefs and practices). We need to understand church history, Scripture, the history of interpretation. If we don’t go “there” we will assume the way we think about salvation is the only way to think about it in the whole entire world and in the history of Christianity (anyone know somebody like this?)

The study of theology therefore requires us to go “there” and this is what enables us to lead in church life NOT out of ego, hubris or plain ignorance, but out of the ability to ask good questions, direct to sources of authority and lead good reflection. Understanding the breadth behind the issues helps us navigate the new turf of the cultures we are living in. You gotta go “there.”

2. But the work of theology does not end “there.” We must be able to go “back” to be among our friends, families, churches, coffee shops, everyday life, and be able to listen and know deeply the languages and cultures of the people we live life with. We must then be able to know how to take our theological growth and speak from it in that language, know what is helpful to teach, what is helpful to observe, what you just have to keep to yourself as helpful to you. We must in the end be able to lead by being among, by being able to ask questions, put questions into context of Scripture, teach Scripture, put the questions in the context of history, offer answers as the questions come, give illustrations and stories, pray, and most of all speak in terms that the other person does not require a dictionary for. Going “back” to be among will then help you be a better theologian, ask better questions, better translate the gospel, and grow yourself. It might be said this going “back” is more essential to good theology than the going “there” part. It might be said that the going “back” takes more effort than the going “there.” But too often, people theologically educated think their degree has given them an office to pontificate and the “people” will just have to deal with it. I suggest this kind of person is short for the ministry and soon to become irrelevant in both spheres of the “there” and “back.”

We need both the “there” and “back” for life and ministry. Both are necessary for true theological education. You?

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11 responses to “True theological education is a “there” and “back” exercise

  1. OK… super amazing kudos for linking the idea of theological study as a “there and back again” journey with the story “The Hobbit”. I dub thee Tolkien Theology Nerd at Large. 😉
    Seriously though… these are excellent thoughts. It challenges the “theology for theology’s sake” mind set that sometimes sets in to people as well as makes sure we recognize the need for asking the questions. Thanks!

  2. I think this is great stuff. “But if the answers were obvious, we would not need to study. We would not need to read books that challenge our thinking and indeed require us to stretch.” But the difficulty of “back again” for me after having been stretched has been that the congregation is often more interested in hearing about why they do not need to be stretched, why what they already know is enough. It is disheartening.

  3. Thank you for saying this. It is also hard for spouses or close friends of seminarians who have picked up the language and adopted convictions without ever truly going “there” to sort through a faithful way “back”. True seeking is required of all of us.

  4. I know this is all part of the work that gets done in the “going back and being among” process you envision, but it’s worth emphasizing that it’s equally difficult to sustain the convictions picked up “there” when you get back. In my experience, once you leave a community that understands “there,” the gravitational pull away from all things “there” gets pretty strong in the midst of the existing theological/ecclesial culture “back” home.
    In addition to stories of those coming back and pontificating (and thereby becoming irrelevant), I could tell other stories of those who have come back and after 5 years or so on the ground have completely re-assimilated back into the theological/practical world (or lack thereof) of home – simply because the gravitational pull toward the existing culture is so strong (and also because that’s how we learn to survive). In this place we find ourselves asking, “Did I even go over there?”

    In the journey “there and back,” if we want to be faithful to what we learned “there” without pontificating OR assimilating once we get back, we have to be prepared to die. And that death, for me, is the hinge point for everything else; it is, as a good friend once told me, the crucible in which your new man will be formed.

    Has anyone else experienced this?

    1. Seth,Amen to you … to your comments about humility, cross and dying to self …
      … pause ….

      … I’d add something to the backdrop of your comment. I think a theological education is most essential to church life when it is “up for grabs” due to massive disruptions of the culture surrounding it. Here without theological moorings,i.e. the ability to navigate theologically, we either get excessively defensive in our leadership or excessively assimilative. If, on the other hand, one has the wherewithal to be theological from with/among a people in a culture, I think he or she can help a church navigate life in Mission.
      and just one more comment … when we return home to a church that is very secure in its culture … the kind of theological education that reinforces everything you already believe… works well and functions to the satisfactions of the ones employing that pastor/theologian. I don’t know however whether mission ever happens.

      May we all be navigators of God’s future in mission whereever we find ourselves …

  5. Perhaps the ability to go there and back needs to be a bit more immediate than theological education was before. The distance covered to go and then return seems too great. Often students who go there become like monarchs or salmon who die in the locations of where their new ideas were generated. Perhaps it is more like sitting in theaters seats, but also going up on the balcony from time to time. A balcony with a great library and practioner-reflection-ers revolving up and down to get the different perspectives.

  6. I love the “there and back” concept.
    What is difficult is refusing to believe we practice something because we’ve studied something. The academic compartment can unintentionally shape us to believe we have figured out how to fix the world from a intellectual laboratory. This is a chronic problem. If the “there and back” was tighter and closer we might short circuit this tendency. Nothing humbles you more than getting all idealized from studying and then trying to live it out with a complicated, diverse, stubborn community that moves at a snails pace.

    The other tendency I’ve noticed is that Grad students often times acquire subtle disdain for those who don’t know what they know now. They’re not sure how to integrate without resentment towards those who haven’t made the same intellectual migration.


  7. Excellent insights. I absolutely agree that we as theologians need to speak in such a way as to allow “ordinary Christians” to understand. Yes, the comparison to “there and back again” is not only cool/awesome/nerdy, but also applicable to many seminary classes and professors. When I was in seminary, yes, it was important and necessary for me to get a firm handle on–say–the Trinitarian controversies of the 2nd and 3rd centuries, in order to more clearly discern the subtle errors and fallacies that can insinuate themselves into everyday church/Christian life in the 21st century. Therefore, I can then better direct my Christian friends or congregation to applicable Bible passages and theological interpretations concerning the current difficulty.
    At the same time, I appreciate your call to grasp the theological intricacies, but not to get lost in the theological jargon SO prevalent in many of the seminary-ivory-towers of academia. Yes. Excellent call, on your part. @chaplaineliza

  8. I love the metaphor of navigation and I’ve used it a few times. Navigation is a significantly different skill than map reading. The points on a map are fixed, and when one wants to locate a point in the real world one simply locates oneself by correspondence to known geography or artifacts, and then proceeds step by step methodically to the next point. If you have a compass and a bit of logic, this is really, really easy.
    But navigation requires no fixed planetary points. Instead, one learns to read the sky – the stars, really – and orients by a point outside the world. This requires a sense of 3D space, and the ability to apply an imaginative framework to the real world.

    Navigation, on the other hand, is a skill that is learned in the wilderness or on the ocean. It requires courage and the ability to withstand harsh conditions. And it requires something that is never required of map readers: faith and a fundamental inner quiet. When there are no physical points to locate ourselves, we rely on an internal compass, oriented by something outside our context.

    We don’t really need navigators in times of cultural stability. We need them desperately in seasons of transition!

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