Theological Education in Skete (part 2)

“A theologian is one who prays truly, one who prays truly is a theologian,” Evagrius wrote.

I was very good at theological education in the Berlin model. I finished seminary with 144 quarter units, a 3.9 GPA, and a Masters of Divinity.  But, I wanted theology to do something, to make something, to be put in service of a task, a means to an end.  Theological education, in all its various topics, spurred me to insight and accomplishment, creative exploration and incisive critique. My ambition, my sense of self, intermingling in my continued delight in studying the ways of God that could, that should, make the world, or at the very least the church, run more smoothly.  I yearned.  It was a yearning of frenzy not of peace, of chaos not stillness, of fruitfulness not acceptance.  God said stop. And I finally listened.

Then God began to remake me.  I left behind the rational life and entered into a mountain life. I lived higher and dug deeper. Writing helped.  I read along the trails of theology and monastic life. I was single. I was, mostly, focused. I wasn’t content, but that wasn’t the issue anymore. I was called. Called to be where I was even if where I was didn’t make sense to anyone else, even me.  I was full of chaos and I was broken.

Where was I in the midst of this rebuilding of my theological self? I was in a new mode of substantive, if not formal, education. I had to face myself and face my complications and face my frustration and face my ambitions and, ultimately, face my God.  I put facing others well behind on the list.  I was physically in the mountains, a mile high, surrounded by trees, birds, refreshing hikes and infuriating neighbors who thought weekly reconstruction of their home was a good use of the space. For five years I lived among the trees, birds, refreshing hikes, and infuriating neighbors.  I was deepened and I was honed, facing my depression and anger and hopes and disappointments, temptations all while free to pursue creative fancy.

Where was I in terms of a theological education? I was in Skete.

Skete is a place in Egypt where monks found loose community in the midst of relative isolation. They were able to spend a lot of time in private prayer, wrestling with temptations, often (if able) reading Scripture, working at basic tasks to keep the acedia away. This wasn’t done alone, as the community allowed for a flexibility of discussion, prayer, confession, education. Conferences as John Cassian and his friend Germanus found most fruitful.  They learned in a community of informal education in ways that led them to deeper truths about God and themselves, able to engage this pursuit proactively and giving space to fight against the passions that led to frenzy and frustration.

My Skete wasn’t in a desert. I had snow in winter and I kayaked on a nearby lake and jogged on forested trails for exercise. But I was isolated from formal theological april20Cconversations (though my parents were quite adept at informal conversation, guiding me with much wisdom).  I was distant from a practical expression of my profession. I had a Master of divinity but was hardly even a master of my self.  I lost friends as they thought I had abandoned sense and practical responsibility. Maybe I had. Indeed I did.

A hermit said, “When you flee from the company of other people, or when you despise the world and worldlings, take care to do so as if it were you who was being idiotic.”

I was in pursuit of something deeper, something more. I had seen the Face and it had turned away. I knew there was something more–stillness, heaven, centering–but I never was in the right place to find it. I was in the wrong city. I was using the wrong maps.  I found myself constantly running from the tidal wave of discontent.

Rather than running away from the crashing wave, I turned around at let it crash over me. I was left to discover myself, to find God in the midst of the whispers and shadows, the singing of wind blowing through trees, the scratchings of men and women long dead.  And, on occasion, fruitful conversations with other women and men who may not have understood what I was about but who were curious enough to stay in touch and encouraging me that there was indeed something worth discovering.  I shared with them, they shared with me, an exchange of counsel and prayer and words of hope and wisdom.  Some I talked with on the phone, some I wrote online, some took me to literal mountaintops and real islands off the coast where contemplation could be indulged alongside exploration and a fair bit of silliness.

Skete isn’t a bad place if you find the right people.

Skete is the city where independent learners can find conversation and connection in their pursuit of understanding God and God’s call.  This is a place where becoming whole in God is the priority, not to accomplish a task but to participate in a calling of being who God wants you to be, a particular discovery in the unity of shared goals.

Where Berlin (intellectual) emphasizes orthodoxy and Jerusalem (missional) emphasicoptic-hermit-2zes orthopraxy, Skete prioritizes discovering orthopathy, a right understanding and expression of passions, including the fruit of the Spirit as part of faith, hope, and love.

I think the city of Skete has the most people, even though they’re spread out.  There are independent learners everywhere who are not finding their core theological education in either church or in an institution. Many have graduated such institutions and are left to fend for themselves. Other have experienced abuse or disregard in churches and institutions so to find God they enter the desert.  They love Jesus, seek Jesus, but don’t have a formal place to deepen their relationship with him once they go beyond the shallows of contemporary ecclesial life.  Some assume there is no more depth to be found. Those who know better begin a journey of discovery, using previous education, or suggestions from others, following rabbit trails of recommendations in footnotes or conversations.

This used to be a very solitary pursuit indeed. It doesn’t have to be anymore. The internet allows communities of such learners to find connection and conversation. It did for me.

And the fruit of my time in Skete was writing two published books and receiving a fully paid fellowship at Fuller for my PhD.  I went back to Berlin Pasadena, but often visited Skete in times of frustration or emptiness. Skete is my hometown now, the place I find peace, and given the uncertainty of academic careers, may be the place I return to more permanently at some point.  I don’t think this is God’s plans, but I’ve learned not to anticipate.

The dangers of Skete are manrays14y.  A person has to be able to self-tutor and self-navigate the many pitfalls and distractions. They have to be able to focus, as there’s no demand to stay on course. They have to be willing to risk relationships in the pursuit of the unknown and stay the course when all is dark.  Stay in one’s cell and there one will learn everything the desert fathers said. The cell is a slow teacher, unhurried and without immediate reward.

It is easy to fall away, get lost in the shuffle, get pulled out of the process. It is also easy to be lulled by one’s own sense of progress into assuming more maturity than one possesses.  It is easy to be arrogant and easy to be depressed, easy to be to rigorous and easy to be all too lax.

But the views in Skete are marvelous to behold and it seems to be a place where many people find themselves when they don’t know where else to go.  So is well worth considering as a key city in the framework of theological education.

And that’s that’s the last city I have to talk about. I’ve presented a brief map and tour guide of these places, sharing my experiences with them.  At the end of this tour, however, I’m not convinced these are the best way to talk about theological education. While these cities are descriptive I am not sure they are the best way to understand the future of theological education. I think cities are the wrong analogy in our era.

So, I’ll keep sketching out my thoughts in the next post in this series.

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Theological Education in Skete (part 1)

I was pre-law in college. Took the LSAT and did very well on it.  But I couldn’t apply to law schools because of the financial trauma. The application fees were expensive, but so was Wheaton, and I couldn’t get ahead of those bills, which tied up my transcripts until well after graduation.  I worked, and my family was more than generous as they were able, but every time I’d start to catch up, there would be an emergency draining bank accounts.

The delay allowed me to catch up to myself and consider my passions and real interests. I wanted to be a lawyer because of an idealism about how I could help people, including my family.  But then I kept meeting lawyers, none of whom liked their jobs.  And in my free time I increasingly was going back to the books I discovered at Wheaton: Eugene Peterson, John Wesley, JI Packer, and many others.  It wasn’t a time for peace for me, as I was still recovering from my time at Wheaton, which enlightened me intellectually but crushed me spiritually and socially. I felt alienated from life and all my hopes and plans were cut off by chasms in every direction.  I knew God had led me there but I couldn’t see that it was a good thing.  My pursuit of God made everything worse in my life.

That’s troublesome language, there, I know. “It wasn’t God,” people want to say.  It was God.  And I say this more confidently than ever.  Why? Because of all that reading I was doing.  I found light in the midst of deep darkness by discovering the place of darkness in the lives of people who found the light.

To live is Christ, I prayed deeply my junior year, teach me to understand this.  I assumed the way to life was through mountain tops and achievements and discovering great insights and transforming the world. I didn’t expect the place of hurt, the place of abandonment, the forsaken experience of crying out to a silent God who made things darker the closer you got to the entrance, at every step defeat, and every victory accompanied by even greater loss.  Needless to say, I wasn’t a very good evangelist during this season.

That which should work out didn’t. That which shouldn’t work out also didn’t.  It wasn’t that I couldn’t do anything right. It was that I could do everything right and it didn’t make a lick of difference.  There was a storm in my life and a storm in my soul, pursuit of peace in one erupted the storm in the other. God would not help me but would not leave me alone.  WalkatDuskpres

In finding the glimpse of light in writings of long ago, I knew there was something still to discover. I was being drawn onward not pushed away.  My casual reading turned more serious when I quit my seasonal job at the post office and bought the 10 volume set of the ante-nicene Fathers.

No one I knew had read them, I didn’t have access to discussion groups. All I know is that I found depth and life and hope in them. Even more, I found this emphasis on love that rocked my experience of church.  Reading through these started a turn in my life, but a turn like a supercargo ship. It wasn’t a quick process.  I found life. I found the profound emphasis on love. But I hadn’t yet found myself.

On a cool for California day, very early in 1999 I walked over to a nearby county park. I was filled with anger and I found that every time I went to church my anger and depression worsened.  Attempts to share, to open myself to possibilities, to try to find guidance was met with confused responses and attempts to put me in the box of programs that were set in stone.  My one light, my one release, was playing saxophone in the worship band, but the day came that I couldn’t even do that without my inner being raging inside.

Did you know that historically, the followers of Odin who  took his name for themselves were Berserkers? Boiling over with rage is not often socially acceptable, especially in church, so I just left before the service started without mentioning it to anyone.

Anger and depression are two sides of the same coin in my experience. The one outward the other inward, a storm that raged at the world, God, myself; a cyclone of indeterminate blame and exhausted frustration.

I skipped church, bought a Sunday LA Times, walked over to sit by the lake at the park. and read the paper. The reading turning to contemplating, the contemplating turning to praying, the praying turning to listening.  Stop obsessing about money and letting it drive you.mt sac and more 074

What would I do if money wasn’t an issue?  How would I spend my time?

Clearly, even without money, I found myself making rather irresponsible and socially confusing decisions to read books written by long dead Christians.  This inclination was part of the stirring that I found alternately invigorating and infuriating.  I wasn’t able to make sense within a life that wasn’t making sense.  My depression would blossom and I would turn back to solace in the saints.  I liked studying Scripture, Church history.

“Have you thought about seminary?” the little whisper asked.  So I started looking into seminary. For the first time, we were able to save money without an emergency draining the funds. My transcripts were freed, my application submitted, my application accepted, my time at seminary beginning in Fall of ’99.  I traveled to Berlin Pasadena for my studies.

Fast forward to early 2003.  I finished my coursework the previous summer. My last internship was officially done in early December of 2002, but was drifting on. I had worked on a number of projects, led a small young adults ministry, played in the worship band.  But the previous years had not progressed smoothly.  Everything I could do, I did well and as far as I could tell I even did right.  But nothing clicked and that which clicked clacked soon after.  Church upheavals and dysfunctions deepened. The dynamic reality that was NewSong was caught in all sorts of competing tensions.  A pastoral search that should have gone quickly after the lead pastor resigned (well after he should have), dragged onward.

I was caught up in the politics of church life and despised it.  I found light and life with the people in my ministry and a number of others, but couldn’t find light or encouragement with those who were defined as leaders and elders.  I finished seminary with strong acclaim by professors and others, with encouraging creative instincts in ministry, but when I looked for mentoring there wasn’t any to be found.  I was left adrift and my depression broke free from its constraining chains.  I tried to join the army.  I tore my ACL after starting the process.  I sought jobs. Not even interview. I couldn’t afford to pay the gas to drive the 20 miles east to the church. I had to drop out of ministry life.  I tried holding on to making sense but there was no sense to be found.baldy01

Once again I turned to my books and to writing. When I wrote I felt alive, I felt free.  I read John Cassian, and spurred on by my interest in John Wesley, I discovered Evagrius and others.

I started reading a lot of monastic works and finding renewed hope, if not life, in their words. I found the volumes of the Philokalia, and I fell in love with beauty.  There was something living beyond the horizon of my experiences.  So after finding all my funds and all my interest in regular living falling away, and finding life and hope in reading and writing, I decided in late 2003 to move to the mountains.

I turned 29 that same month.  I lived with my parents, helping out as I could. I wrote a lot. Wrestled with God and myself a lot.  Realized that God wasn’t calling me to do but to be, and to be me with God. Realizing the passions and frenzy in my soul were constant clamor, undermining my peace and contentment. In the nothingness I found something.

I found theology.  I discovered the city of Skete.

I realized I had already been in Skete, between my time at Wheaton and Fuller. Now I was back, and I was back for a long stay.

More on Skete in the next post.

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Theological Education in “Azusa”

In my last theological education post I described the model of Azusa proposed by Cheryl Bridges Johns.  Again, the name is a bit misleading. When I think of the city Azusa, I think of the closest movie theater to my hometown growing up, and an example of a concrete/asphalt suburb that developed in the 50s and 60s before civic landscaping was a priority.   Split in half by the 210 (Interstate 210), it’s more of a working class town with recent renewal projects. Route 66 is a straight arrow through the northern portion alongside which sits Azusa Pacific University.

In my experience of formal theological education, it was on my commute to Fuller. It was the city before Irwindale and after Glendora, the east half of the drive before getting to the 605.  More recently, now on the other side of theological education, it is the city where I first taught theology full time. Teaching at APU radically influenced my experience and understanding of theological education. But that’s not what Johns is referring to.azusaacrepair

She’s not talking about the city of Azusa in her framework. At least I’m pretty sure she’s not.  She’s talking about the Azusa St. revival, which started in the city of Los Angeles on Bonnie Brae Avenue. The revival that began on one street moved to Azusa St, which is about 25 miles from Azusa, California.

So, really, she should call her model “Los Angeles.”  Given that the Pentecostal movement more formally began in Topeka, Kansas that might be the most fitting name. That said, Azusa is much more evocative than Los Angeles, and entirely more so than Topeka.  Sorry, Topekans. Bias against the fly-over states predates the ability to fly over them.

Yet, Azusa St (if not Azusa, CA) still does fit because while the movement itself began in Topeka, blossomed on Bonnie Brae Ave, it took root on Azusa St as a theological movement that spread throughout the world.  As a model of theological education, it seeks after holistic learning and expression.

Cheryl Johns notes, “Its paideia would enculturate students into an inviting and yet dangerous landscape of education where the disciplines of science and the humanities interact to formulate new paradigms. At the core of the curriculum would be an all-consuming passion for God and the kingdom. Visions and dreams would be honored as well as highly technical scholarship.”

That’s a handful of a description.  What it comes down to is orientation. What is the orientation of a theological education? Is it about becoming better citizens in a given society? Is it about becoming esteemed within the structures of academic life? Is it about being a faithful participant in an established ecclesial tradition? Is it about drawing others into the life of Christ?   Each of the cities we discussed so far orients in one of these directions.  azusastreet

The Pentecostal emphasis focuses on becoming whole in light of the dawning Kingdom of God.

If that sounds outside the realm of theological education, then that’s another indication of how the Modern project has so totally dominated contemporary discussions. In this project, we look for objective knowledge or pragmatic expression. In the Pentecostal approach, learning about the world coincides with expressive participation in it and for it.

This is ultimately pragmatic, but not always immediately so. It enters into the mystical and transcendent as it radicalizes hope in a new way of encountering life.  We become who God has made us to be in the fullness of our particular gifts in the context of a community.  In effect, the Pentecostal model adds a “lab” requirement to theological learning, in which all that a person is becomes honed and sharpened.  A person is invited to risk utterances and expressions in the rhythm of the Spirit, a risk that should be coupled with discernment. This discernment isn’t about negating a person, however, it is about helping them best determine the ways in which God is using them to contribute to the whole community.  Ideally at least.

This has been a worthwhile discussion for me personally as it has pushed me to think about my own theological influences and journey.  Most of what I’ve shared so far has been part of long-term reflection. But this discussion on Azusa (St.) got me thinking about the importance of my informal theological education, especially prior to going to Wheaton.

Growing up, my family had a lot of financial and health issues. Pervasive. These led to a lot of less than voluntary moves, assorted other upheavals, constant encounters with crisis.  In one of the brief relatively stable times of my life we lived in Santa Barbara where my dad was a branch manager for a security company. We had moved up there from eastern LA county and where my mom had gotten involved with a flock of charismatics.  We had been going to a Wesleyan church but then in the new place started attending an Assemblies of God church.

LFC-FBI don’t remember a lot about the theology of the church, just the assorted odds and ends that stand out to a 9-10 year old boy. My first clear memory of speaking in tongues was at what I think was a Mario Murillo event at the church. I could be wrong about it being Murillo, but I do remember speaking in tongues, probably around age 10 or 11.  I felt a call to ministry not long after that.  But life twisted and turned, forcing us to leave the sun-kissed Santa Barbara area in summer of ’87, and returning back to less than ideal circumstances in La Verne, CA (about 12 miles east of Azusa, CA and 37 miles east of Azusa St.). Less than ideal because both financial and health issues entered into even sharper crisis for a extended time.

We went to church, but I don’t remember having any connection with church.  If there ever was a time in my life where I just felt a non-relationship with God this was it.  Probably a lot of clinical depression and other issues in the mix but a major part was the upheaval of a community.  While my parents worked at a boys home in the city, we lived for a year on that campus, which was located in an upper-middle class neighborhood.  We found a place to rent across the street where we lived throughout my time in high school. But we were in desperate straights. I have a wonderful immediate family who I love very much, as good as a family as a person can ask for in terms of love and commitment.  But everything else in life was caught in turmoil. The youth groups I attended tended to be of the entertain ’em and sneak in a bit of Gospel approach, targeted for upper middle class kids.  I had zero connection with that life and with that message.  I had good friends and a loving family, and even a renewed life with God borne out of constant lament, but my connection to church was tenuous.

While in junior high, I became friends with a guy whose dad was a Foursquare pastor in town. After floating along in various churches, which had various problems of holding on to good pastors, we started attending this Foursquare church. FourSquare_church_logo

And it was here that I had my first real encounter with Azusa (st.) theological education.  Now the basics were that of most youth groups at the time.  Fun, games, a bit of singing, bit of teaching, very young youth pastor, still attending Life Pacific at the time.  Deeper than the basics, however, was the freedom and investment this pastor gave.  We were invited into an exploration of depth of our understanding and expression. We were given space to take risks, some of which bore fruit and some of which still haunt me with their awkwardness. I was invited into discovering the Spirit’s work in my life, a work of developing leadership, prophetic, prayer, music, expressive exploration that wasn’t always profound but was allowing me to hone listening to the Spirit’s work in my life.

After high school, I began attending another church, one that was not formally Pentecostal, but which I think was just as interested in fostering this Azusa (st) approach. It was the Flock that Rocks. NewSong is now considered one of the proto-emerging churches, launching the Gen-X ecclesial movement, and otherwise expressing a postmodern style, though with Modern framework behind it still. It was Conservative Baptist in formal connection, though hardly anyone would know this.  This was my home church during some radically different phases in my life and in its life.

The early experience was the most vibrant, where everyone was under thirty, most everyone was single, and the church had manifold ministries in all sorts of directions based on the interest and passions of those involved.  I was part of a setup-teardown crew (it met in a gym) and part of a small group, one that was really a holistic house church in the way that it transcending a weekly meeting and became a community in life together.  I got a chance to teach, to experience transforming worship, to see the vibrant nature of a body of women and men expressing and learning the life of Christ in the context of eastern LA county.

Then I went to Wheaton. Where life was Athens and that had little room for Azusa.  The freedom and vibrancy got packaged back into a box. There was certainly spiritual growth for me, but it became highly isolated as I just didn’t fit well into the model of Midwestern Reformed ecclesial assumptions. I didn’t know how much freedom and learning I had prior to Wheaton and how it radically shaped my responses to my time there, disappointing and frustrating me while I learned what Athens could teach.

To be sure, my time at Wheaton was far from entirely negative. As I’ve written before, I met God at Wheaton, but I wasn’t able to process this learning into a positive embrace of joy and renewed life. I certainly was not able to express it freely and as the particular person God was forming me to becoming.

My critique of Azusa, however, is that in emphasizing the subjective side it can prioritize the expressive over the contemplative and intellectual. It can become unmoored from tradition and then get caught up in the more dramatic, more glittery, kinds of Spiritual moves.  People are still people and people tend to want to show off, appear more mature, do great things for God while not grounded in God.

As my mom suffered from severe health issues, a lot of people saw her as target, a way of somehow proving their own spiritual adeptness. They were oriented in competition and performance, not love.  My wife had encounters with Pentecostals when she was younger who likewise were spiritual bullies of sorts, insisting on a narrow range of expressive spirituality rather than understanding the broad work of the Spirit in a person’s life.  Neither of these experiences are uncommon. There is a certain elitism and performance expectation that if not pursued results in alienation or diminishment. If expressive spirituality is a sign of faith, then lacking particular, expected results becomes a sign of unbelief. Only that isn’t the case, not whatsoever.  Spiritual expressiveness does not always indicate spiritual maturity or Spirit-endowed wisdom, both of which seem a priority for true theological education. And the work of the Spirit can often be profound in non-dramatic expressions.

I’ve not been a part of a formal Pentecostal institution, but my impression has been they tend to be a hybrid of Berlin and Azusa, with the classroom formal education not fluidly interacting with the expressive.  Fuller Seminary has some history with an attempt at integration, with its “Signs and Wonders” course becoming a lab for expressive experimentation. That was not without its own problems and critiques, however, to say the least.

Azusa type theological learning gave me a sense of my calling, propelled me into a confidence of exploration, but gave little depth in continuing to navigate through dark nights and deep valleys of the soul and life’s continued crises.

It was in a dark night that I first heard told of another city, and it was in that “city” that I found restoration and renewal.  This city isn’t unknown, but it isn’t included in these frameworks of theological education, so I’m going to add my own creative contribution to the framework.  Next up: the city of Skete.

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The Lie and the Hope

The lie is that people have to be motivated by fear.

The lie is that people have to be motivated by lust.

The lie is that people have to be motivated by competition or comparison.

The lie is that people have to be driven into success, fight off others, push aside anyone who stands in their way.

The lie is that people won’t have freedom without violence. That people won’t have wealth without greed.

The lie is that death has the final word.

The hope is in resurrection.

The hope is that freedom may be found in choice. That people can be fruitful in generosity.

The hope is that people can find success in stillness, empowering others, gathering together those who are left aside.

The hope is that people can be motivated by love and by seeking the best for others.

The hope is that people can be motivated by hope.

The hope is that people can be motivated by peace

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“It is a confused prejudice to judge the degree of contemplation by whether the object of contemplation appears more or less sacred, more or less internal, more or less spiritual. That would mean assuming that God is more present, more readily heard or contemplated in the internal silence of idleness than in committed action.  This may not be so, and there is no reason why it should be so.  It may be that it is on the road to Emmaus that one finds the person one was looking for in the past or in the memory of sacred actions; or on the road to Damascus a false and Pharisaic religiosity may be broken in favor of a contemplation and conversion qualitatively incomparable with any prior experience. It is not certain that Christian transcendence can be found in the temple better than in the city, in concern for oneself than in concern for others.”

~Ignacio Ellacuría

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Azusa (part 1)

I’m a bit of an ecclesial mutt.  Some families can point to involvement in denominations going back generations, and if you’re in those denominations they like to point it out. I, on the other hand, have a bit of trouble describing my specific denominational tradition.

Over the course of my life, I’ve been part of an interesting array of traditions: Baptist (various kinds), Wesleyan, Assemblies of God, non-denom of the Bible Church kind and of the charismatic kind, Foursquare, Nazarene, Emerging. The church where I did most of my active ministry time was planted as a postmodern Conservative Baptist church for a while before splitting away from that denomination for various reasons.

My formal theological education came in what can be called “Broadly Evangelical” institutions. Though they were broad in student traditions, the faculty at Wheaton (still) and Fuller (much more so when I did my MDiv) were very Reformed.  Coming out of Wheaton and through Fuller meant that I had a lot of different threads and paths I might have taken.   I consider myself a Pentecostal Wesleyan because this best expresses my understanding of Christian thought and practice. Though not dogmatic, as I appreciate the emphases of a number of traditions (which is likely why I like teaching at Fuller). My being a Pentecostal Wesleyan isn’t because of allegiance to a family tradition, it comes from my own searching and journey.

Why not a Wesleyan Pentecostal? Well, because I currently am part of a Wesleyan church.  I like to also call myself a Californian theologian, because my theological and family influences really only make sense in the 20th century religious history of this state.fixedw_large_4x

I note this both because of my tendency to begin with overlong prefaces and because it feeds into my understanding of the next two “cities” that I’ll visit in my exploration of a theology of theological education.  While the four cities I’ve discussed so far–Athens, Berlin, Jerusalem, Geneva–may be considered the “standard” models, they do not necessarily represent the whole of theological education in history nor even in my own life. In this post, I’ll start my discussion of another yet “city,” and leave out the prefaces from later posts. If you’re in need of a long preface for those posts, feel free to come back to this one. Now, finally, on to the main content.

Cheryl Bridges Johns suggests a fifth city to add to the standard list: Azusa. By this, she is referring to the Azusa St. revival, so it’s a bit misleading if you’re a Southern Californian like I am. Most people aren’t (though LA traffic sometimes feels like the majority of the world is on the freeway), so the reference is still useful.

In her article, “Athens, Berlin, and Azusa: A Pentecostal Reflection on Scholarship and Christian Faith,” Johns notes the “cities” of Berlin and Athens tend to disregard Pentecostal patterns and priorities. These cities assume more of a static experience of faith, an established narrative of what it means to understand and express truth.  Geneva is explicit about this task, understanding the variety of traditions out there and being intentional about enculturating a student in what is often understood as specific contrast narrative of faith.

Athens and Berlin are less explicit about the goal of enculturating a narrative, but no less active in such a pursuit.  Indeed, they tend to be totalizing about it, essentially saying “This is what it means to be educated,” as with Berlin and “This is what it means to be a good citizen” as in Athens.  They universalize their goals and in their models create self-replicating systems of meaning.  This is the nature of education in general, whether intentional or not. Once education goes beyond the goal of teaching bare facts (the so-called 3 Rs: reading, (w)riting, and ‘rithmatic), it enters into the process of enculturation.  How we use time indicates what we see as important and the direction we think we should go.

The main use of the term “doctor” suggests the emphasis of a given age.

Back in the middle ages, the term Doctor was an expression of theological mastery that provided trustworthy theological teaching.  Doctor comes from the word “to teach,” after all.  These are the men (and later women) who every student must study.  In the Enlightenment, understanding of both the purpose of knowledge and what it means to be a good citizen moved away from a theological emphasis.  The term Dr. became an expression of wide general knowledge, attributed to the great polymaths like Benjamin Franklin or Samuel Johnson.  In our scientific age, a doctor is a physician.  Not that the title is exclusively used for physicians, but in popular culture it really is assumed that when you say you are calling a doctor you’re not phoning up your friendly neighborhood theologian.  We’ve gone from theology as a core of learning, to broad knowledge, to professionalization and vocation.

What matters? Theology and right belief in God? A wide understanding of the world, human nature, and all fields of human knowledge? Professional skill in a specific field?  All these are patterns of culture that then impose a narrative on those who would seek to be successful in that culture.  Azusa_street_group_photo

But what is it that the Spirit wants of us?  That’s the question of Azusa. The Pentecostal emphasis on unity in Christ and diversity of expression by Christians highlights the need for a flexible, individualized course of training that allows each person to find freedom in their formation. This doesn’t rule out theological education, of course, it just resists a static model of what it means to be a fully formed person.

Following the definition of Pentecostal knowledge offered by Jackie Johns, Cheryl Johns pushes back against assumptions that Pentecostals are somehow nonrational or anti-intellectual. Rather, Pentecostalism “is transrational, and the ‘spectrum of knowledge includes cognition, affection, and behavior, each of which is fused with the other two.”  Reason, in other words, is just one element of discovering and expressing truth.  She highlights the “relational logic of the Spirit” approach taken by James Loder and Jim Neidhardt. I had James Loder for a class on Theology of Faith and Human Development, and his class and book was among the more radical influences in my seminary career. That I poured an immense amount of my time in this summer class to the neglect of my class on the Life and Work of Jesus suggests a lot about my own educative priorities.

Anyway, as Johns describes it, the relational logic of the Spirit “is based upon the proximate relationality of the human spirit, the contingent rationality of physical reality, and ultimately the Trinitarian relationality of God’s Spirit.”  We’re relational beings, shaped by those around us, in a specific context, formed by the Spirit as a community in particular ways.  300px-AFM_on_azusa_streetTheological education, then, involves a fluid interaction of this relational development with practice and understanding.

Education is deconstructive in resisting static absolutes and expressions, while orienting each person in light of their calling in Christ within the overarching reality of the Kingdom of God.  Because the work of the Spirit is primary, there is an openness to a wide variety of wisdom from all sorts of directions, without limiting wisdom to a narrow range of accepted topics, sources, practices.

As Johns writes, “Its paideia would enculturate students into an inviting and yet dangerous landscape of education where the disciplines of science and the humanities interact to formulate new paradigms. At the core of the curriculum would be an all-consuming passion for God and the kingdom. Visions and dreams would be honored as well as highly technical scholarship.”

This post is now getting a bit too long and I haven’t yet described my experiences with this model and my critiques of it, so I’ll make that discussion a subject of another post soon.  Suffice it to say that this model has been profoundly influential in my non-formal Christian education, to the point that it really continues to drive a lot of my research and personal development.

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Interlude

Being a travel writer sounds like good fun. Go to exciting places and meet interesting people. Find out all sorts of new customs and try out flavors of foods you’ve never even heard of before.  Write about the exotic experiences to others, highlighting the good, maybe mentioning only a sliver of the negative.

It’s interesting that when we want to watch shows or read books about exciting destinations we tend to turn to expert travelers. It’s the residents who know more about a place. They’ve dwelled in its history, know the neighborhoods to visit and the neighborhoods to avoid.  But, they know it so well, that it is easy for them to get bogged down in description.  We want a quick overview, after all. What can we see in a day and where’s a good place for dinner.

Writing about theology has the same problem.  There are a lot of tour guides out there.  Offering a quick trip through various doctrines or topics. And there are a number of residents, who have lived a long time in the world of theology, providing an in-depth study of the history of a particular corner, but not really speaking a language most people can understand.

That’s the tension I’m feeling.  Give too quick of an overview of the various models–the “cities”–of theological education and I risk oversimplification. Say too much and I get bogged down without ever getting to my main goal in these musings.  It’s like being on a road trip and getting distracting by the sights along the way rather than getting to the destination.

But, to get somewhere you have to go through other places.  My hope in not just describing the models but sharing a bit about my own story with them was intended to give some brief depth. I’ve spent time in most of these “cities” (except Geneva) and so I’ve gone beyond the superficial and know what each place is like in different seasons.

On a personal note, I’m using this blog as a way of sketching out ideas and exploring themes.  Some have bemoaned blogs for their tendency to encourage unedited publishing.  That’s certainly a danger. My writing can certainly use editing. Yet, blogs have an immediacy that makes them useful, hopefully even a conversational encouragement.  Blogs aren’t a fully formed systematic theology. They’re much more like Table Talk, where the table can be as wide as the whole world.

I’m also trying to practice writing.  One of my goals is to get back into a more fluid, even conversational, style.  And that takes practice.  For instance, one of my problems in writing, speaking, and teaching is that I spend too much time on prefaces before getting to my main point. This post originally was intended to be my discussion of the “cities” of Azusa and Skete. But then I wrote a preface that’s too long.  Now the preface is its own post and doesn’t nearly as crowded.

I like places with less crowds.  My writing should have less crowds too.

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Live Your Creed

I’d rather see a sermon than to hear one any day.
I’d rather one walk with me than just to show the way.
The eye is a better pupil and more willing than the ear.
Advice may be misleading but examples are always clear.
And the very best of teachers are the ones who live their creed,
For to see good put into action is what everybody needs.
I can soon learn to do it if you let me see it done.
I can watch your hand in motion but your tongue too fast may run
And the lectures you deliver may be very fine and true
But I’d rather get my lesson by observing what you do.
For I may misunderstand you and the fine advice you give
But there’s no misunderstanding how you act and how you live.

by Langston Hughes

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“Confession is not about receiving a lesser sentence in some kind of cosmic documentation of rights and wrongs but is rather about becoming healthy. Confession is about acknowledging sin to work toward healing it.” A student in my summer class nicely sums up one of the core practices of worship we discussed.

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Jerusalem and Geneva

My formal theological education in theology began in Athens and carried on in Berlin. Not the actual cities, the framework cities of theological pedagogy. Wheaton, with its highly intentional integration of faith and learning in a liberal arts setting, sought to form the whole person. In looking back, the model of the ideal Christian was itself of a certain sort. If you fit into this mold, Wheaton was a place to thrive. If you didn’t, well, Wheaton was a place of shaping and sharpening, if not thriving. I never felt at home at Wheaton the place, even if I took as advantage of the intellectual offerings as much as possible. I found important mentors, though in my books not in person. I felt spiritual deepened and spiritual emptied in successive waves. Then instead of law school I went to Fuller, where the Berlin model was emphasized. But southern California was home, and I had my family, friends, my home church to provide a measure of grounding and community. But when church dysfunction started slashing and burning my ecclesial life, and continued life issues tugged at me from almost every direction, I didn’t have the resources to navigate my frustrations or my successes. Neither Athens nor Berlin were particularly contextualized for me, shaping and forming, but in general ways that didn’t give me a continued map in my calling.

These aren’t the only cities in a theology of theological education. Scholars have added a few more stops on this journey.

In a 2005 article titled “The Theology of Theological Education,” Brian Edgar adds Geneva as a model. In “Geneva,” theological training takes place in a confessional setting. Confessional means a context where a specific ecclesial tradition, liturgy, interpretation helps orient the seminary student in the life of this tradition. 50537Teaching involves including the student in a developed narrative, one filled with heroes, and conflicts, and priorities. As Edgar puts it, “Formation occurs through in-formation about the tradition and en-culturation within it.” The city of Geneva was the setting for Calvin’s great work and became a center for Reformed thought and practice. Life was not segmented into isolated fragments, rather every part of life was thought to be included in a new vision of ecclesial transformation. Edgar notes that theological education in Geneva is understood through contrasts. The context of theological education is a confessional seminary rather than a broader academic institution, where the training takes on the priorities and methods of this university. The goal in Geneva is for students to know God through the context of the confessional tradition. It is not about training the mind or the transformation of one’s own self. It may include these, but these are not the core values.

I can’t say that I’ve ever visited Geneva, either the real city or the theological model. My theological tradition is fairly diverse, rather than established in a set tradition. I consider myself a Wesleyan Pentecostal or a Pentecostal Wesleyan, as these form the bulk of my own ecclesial influences. My parents come from a Conservative Baptist background, Fundamentalist and Evangelical. It might even be said that my family religious tradition is emerging movements, as discontent with establishment leads towards embracing new patterns of devotion and community. We’re pioneers who made our way westward in geography and Christianity. I’m a Californian Theologian more than anything else, really.

In an American context, we can see the Geneva model expressed in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. My family tradition has tended to play the part of Roger Williams in that story, valued participants who are either kicked out or happily leave for better soil. This family tendency really does resonate in my own life and thought, but I can’t imagine shaping a seminary after it. Of course, the fact that I’m very interested in exploring new models of theological education is likely driven by this in-formation and en-culturation.

A fourth city to consider is Jerusalem. Proposed by Robert Banks in his book Revisioning Theological Education, Jerusalem emphasizes a missional priority, where education takes place in the midst of outreach and praxis, seeing the reflection and expression going hand in hand in developed informed practitioners. While we had significant ministry opportunities at Wheaton, most were not embedded in a context, rather Wheaton was certainly more of a bubble (or rather a “citadel” as I’ll discuss in a later post). Fuller was much the same way for me. peter-preaching2Ministry was a secondary act, rather than a coordinating experience. That said, part of the tension I had with both Wheaton and Fuller was my own missional instincts. I am certainly not an evangelist, but I do have a drive to have an integration of my faith and life within the context of a community. My home church after high school had a very strong missional impetus, and I was radically shaped by the emerging/missional conversations that happened in the late nineties and then onward. Indeed, my dissertation, later book, argues for a transformative church that draws personal, communal, and contextual formation. That said, or maybe because of these experiences, I am not sure this is the best model for foundational theological and ministry training.

These settings are often very demanding and immediately pragmatic, about getting things done rather than developing as a whole person who can then contribute with discernment in a context. I know Banks doesn’t see this as necessarily the case, but in my experiences the busyness of missional life leaves integrated formation a distant goal. That is why so many missional communities tend to shine bright and burn out quickly, or have a high turnover rate, as people embrace but then wander elsewhere. Indeed, I’m not sure missional models are intended as theological formation. Paul the Apostle, for instance, was sent out as a missionary after spending many years in learning and reflection. Being grounded in an understanding of the faith and of one’s own self is key to persistence and deep transformation. We have to be grounded in order to not get co-opted by the many narratives of the context or established pragmatic patterns.

I have a couple more “cities” in my next post: The city of “Azusa,” as proposed by Jackie David Johns, and “Skete,” which is a city I’m adding to the list.

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