Monday, April 07, 2014

Thoughts on Theological Education (II): Divinity and the Disciplines

If (as I argued in an earlier post) “divinity” is centred on (but not necessarily limited to) the preparation of students for Christian ministry and mission, this has important implications for its content and scope. While the theological curriculum intends to provide intellectual and spiritual challenge to the student, it does so primarily in order to equip them for certain professional - or at least ministerial and vocational - goals.

Its effectiveness in this task has become contentious, and it is not hard to find attempts to supplement the classical curriculum with content designed to offer increased knowledge and competence for changing realities. These include: the emergence and continued expansion of the fields variously defined as practical and pastoral theology; the emergence of degrees or awards designed specifically for “ministry”, “pastoral studies” and similarly, whether as alternatives to or complements to the classical theology or divinity degree; and the development of continuing education and training for theological graduates, both in academic and ecclesiastical settings.

These trends, all positive enough in themselves, have colluded with the recent misunderstanding of what “divinity” is; if divinity is not seen as “practical”, in the sense that graduates do not always seem well prepared for contemporary pastoral leadership, then by implication the classical curriculum has been characterised as “theoretical” or similar. Australian assumptions about the relation between theory and practice may also have contributed to what I think is actually a fundamental  misunderstanding. If “divinity” does not always seem to equip students well for contemporary ministry, this is not because it is not a practical or vocational type of study, but because the perceived needs have changed more than the curriculum.

How then to address this disconnect? Two things seem particularly important to me.

First, “divinity” can and should include the additional and practical areas noted above, and not merely be seen as (e.g.) exegesis, history, or hermeneutics. Divinity has in fact never been a single discipline at all, but has always been the collection of disciplines deemed necessary for adequate ministerial preparation.

“Divinity” therefore was and is more like medicine than like microbiology. Medicine can be described as a “discipline” only if we use the term vocationally, to convey formation of a practitioner, via what are actually various disciplines in the academic sense. So too “divinity” is not a single subject area (the limited imaginations of regulatory bodies notwithstanding), but refers to the provision of a preparation for practice via various academic disciplines.

It is worth remembering that the specialists who may go by the name “theologian” (i.e., who are teachers of “divinity”) are not very united by method or content in their work. The Hebrew grammarian, the modern historian, the philosophical theologian, and the sociologist of religion are joined in their vocational focus and commitment to an educational and ecclesial enterprise, not by the fields of their study. Of course the phenomenon of religion does provide a link, but it is a weak one that derives more and secondarily from that vocational commonality in the educational (and ecclesial) enterprise than from research fields. The stronger link is the commitment to equipping students for a form of practice.

My second point is that, while there is ample room to reconsider and reform the theological curriculum in the light of changing realities, there is also scope to rediscover why we inherited a "divinity" so focussed on the Bible and on doctrine.

"Divinity" is eminently practical, of course, but that envisaged practice was centred around the vocation of teaching and preaching. The disconnect that graduates and churchgoers now experience between training and practice does reflect a loss of the role of clerical and lay "divine" as the "organic intellectual" of the Christian movement, in favour of models centred on (e.g.) sacramental functionalism or provisional of individual pastoral care. The sacraments and pastoral care need not be de-emphasised in asking whether their performance is really where the distinctive charism of the "divine" should be focussed.

While the extended declamatory rhetoric of divines long past may not be an adequate model to reclaim the centrality of teaching and preaching in Christian ministry today, a renewed intellectual practice must undergird not merely homiletics but the whole mission of the Church. More than at many times in the past, the Church is engaged in a struggle of ideas: justice, mercy, compassion, indeed, but the reality and relevance of the Gospel underneath all. For this, we need not functionaries to slip into the existing slots of the lumbering ecclesiastical structure, but visionaries who can work with the people of God to discern the demands of God's mission in remarkable times. For this, we surely need divinity.

Thursday, April 03, 2014

Thoughts on Theological Education (I): Theology and "Divinity"

[This is one of two posts arising from an invitation from the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Divinity to contribute to a discussion in the University of what "divinity" means.

Persons learned in the Christian scriptures and the doctrines of the Church have traditionally been known as “divines” and their discipline as “divinity”; the word in this sense alludes not to God-like being, but to godly knowledge.

These persons were of course traditionally the members of the clergy; “divine” was a synonym (perhaps with slightly stricter parameters, related to learning) for “cleric”. While this equation no longer restricts the student population studying “divinity", the connection is important, for it reveals something often ignored in contemporary discourse about theological education. To offer a degree in divinity was - and arguably is - to prepare someone for the ministry and mission of the Church; it was not to expose them to a body of abstract knowledge about faith, God, or Bible, except to train them in the use of such knowledge for effective pastoral leadership of communities who shared that faith, and for preaching in particular.

Some contemporary discourse about theological education argues or assumes something different, namely that theology (now the more common term, and probably more amenable to this other definition) is pure exploration into divine truth, or Christian tradition, or some similar concept (dependent perhaps on confessional or similar understandings) - something like the Latin and Greek theologia underlying that modern term.

This alternative and more abstract view has arguably grown in popularity as the participation of lay persons in theological education has increased; while some of these have studied with pastoral goals in mind, others have done so primarily for the more abstract purposes noted. So of course this exploration can and does occur; my point is not to decry this by any means, but to point out that the curriculum which sustains those explorations is designed for another purpose.

A curriculum that really was designed for that pure theologia would not be constructed accordingly to the typical three-, four-, or even five-fold schema that dominates theological education in the English-speaking world: Bible, Theology, and Practice, or Bible further divided into OT/NT, and Theology into historical and systematic streams. A degree structure that was “theological” in that other sense might either be primarily conceptual and hence centered on the field of systematic theology as we have it perhaps, or else “ascetical” as the term was once commonly used and hence based around prayer and liturgy, or perhaps empirical and based around the social and historical facts of religion.

My point then in this and a following post is not to argue for the merits of a particular approach to theological education, but to point to some realities about it. Theological education as we know it is actually still “divinity”, and divinity is still essentially organised (and funded etc.) as preparation for ministry.

Monday, March 03, 2014

Camels for Abraham, or Truth and Fact in the Bible

[From a sermon for Commencement 2014, preached in the Chapel of Trinity College, March 2 2014; Genesis 15:1-11, 17-18, Psalm 99 and Romans 4:4-13]

The Bible begins, in the Book Genesis, with a set of stories that have a universal if certainly mythic character - Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, Noah and the Ark, the Tower of Babel. But in Gen 12 a somewhat different sort of story begins - not a universal but a specific story, about the forebears of Israel and the Jewish people.

A certain “Abram” is called by God to leave his home in what is now Iraq and journey with family, retainers, and herds of camels and sheep to an unknown land of promise. Along the way, he encounters God a number of times, his name is changed to “Abraham", he adopts the rite of male circumcision as a sign of his faith, and he acquires descendants who we are told came to include not only the Jews but Arabs and other Middle-Eastern peoples.

Abraham was actually in the news last month because of the publication of a new study from Israeli archaeologists about camels. While the Genesis story refers to Abraham as having camels, and the implied chronology of Genesis places Abraham sometime between 2000 and 1500 BCE, the witness of carbon dated evidence published by Dr. Erez Ben-Yosef and Dr. Lidar Sapir-Hen of Tel Aviv University's Department of Archaeology and Near Eastern Cultures suggests domesticated camels only got to his part of the world in more like 1000 BCE, half a millennium later. The story did not add up.

There was a forceful but predictable backlash on the internet. All sorts of people, most rather less qualified than Drs Ben-Yosef and Sapir-Hen, offered their firm opinions about ancient camels; some observed that there could still be older camel bones waiting to be discovered, which is of course true. But none of this reaction was really about camels, and little of it was even about Abraham; it was about the Bible, what it is and what it means.

In our time it is difficult to maintain the middle ground between forms of scepticism that dismiss the value of biblical literature out of hand, and of fundamentalism which insists on the literal accuracy even of stories that historians, let alone physical scientists, would not defend in such terms.

In fact biblical scholars - most of them people of faith - have quietly acknowledged for over a century that there are elements of the biblical stories of Abraham and his offspring  - and not just those possibly anachronistic camels - which seem more at home in later centuries than those they are supposed to be set in. But the stories of Abraham are not journalistic or eye-witness accounts of ancient events, even though they do have a relationship with history; rather they have been shaped by telling and re-telling, formed for the readers and hearers, both in oral tradition and then in varied literary sources underlying the present text of the Pentateuch. The truth we are offered in them is not always the truth of fact, but often the truth of value, meaning, and purpose. Abraham’s story is one of trust, and of hope - not primarily of camels.

Ironically the most prominent proponents of both sides of that debate have far more in common than they realize; they have both accepted the dubious premise that truth and facticity are the same thing. The sceptic must dismiss Abraham, and the Bible with him, because he does not have camels; the fundamentalist must find camels for Abraham (as well as an ark for Noah and various other dubious pseudo-historical accoutrements) lest the Bible be untrue; both are so worried about whether or not these camels are facts, that little or no attention is given to what they - or more to the point Abraham - might mean.

Many of us who study these documents as both history and poetry would say something like this: The Bible is true - and some of it happened. For truth and reality take forms beyond the narrowly historical and the strictly material, although they include it.

The apostle Paul’s letter to the Romans reflects the interest of the new Christian movement, which had already spilled beyond the peoples who claimed physical descent from Abraham, in that already-distant ancestral figure. Paul claims (Rom 4) that Abraham is relevant to his readers as a model of faith, rather than as a literal ancestor. Not only Jews (and Arabs) who adopt circumcision and the Law of Moses, but Greeks and Romans too can be Abraham’s spiritual descendants.

This claim offers an interesting hint about reading the Abraham narrative itself, and the Bible. Descent from Abraham, Paul says, is not about the fact of literal ancestry or inheritance but about faith. What is significant about Abraham is that he was called, and that he went; not because of the evidence, we might add, but despite it. Those who follow are the true descendants of Abraham.

But the evidence is ultimately important too of course. The whole of the story that follows, of promised land, suffering and redemption, of Moses and Miriam, or Mary and Jesus, of Paul and (if it is our story too) of us, depends on that ancient and mysterious “yes” about which, historically speaking, we can be sure of little more than that it happened. And yet it did.

Abraham’s is a good story with which to start the journey of our own academic year. In it we will be challenged to pursue truth in all its forms. Some of these forms will even involve facts. May we go forward, with discerning and enquiring minds, and like Abraham also with courage, and with hope.