Category Archives: academia

Indulging in Moral Irresponsibility

Recently, Pete Enns, a scholar of the Old Testament, wandered over to the annual gathering of the American Academy of Religion. This is the largest society of scholars whose work focuses on, you guessed it, religion.  That term is defined expansively (as it should be) to include the study of many known and lesser known religions.  Even I’m a member of the American Academy of Religion, though they probably don’t know it.

Enns returned a little disillusioned. In a recent blog post he wrote:

Folks, there are TOO MANY people out there with earned doctorates in Bible and Theology. There will never be enough jobs to accommodate the numbers. Schools are cutting or downsizing programs, but the PhD conveyor belt keeps moving along at a steady clip as if everything is just peachy.

One problem in all this that needs to be addressed with some urgency is the moral irresponsibility of academic institutions who blissfully offer degrees in fields for which there are no jobs.

I didn’t attend AAR this past year for various reasons, the biggest being I have too much work to and couldn’t get away to Boston for the week.  If that sounds like a bit of a brag from this graduate of Fuller Seminary’s PhD program, it’s not. Just the state of my current professional life that has a lot more course prep than the average.

Here’s what Enns concluded:

  1. Schools should be honest about how many of their PhD graduates have full time teaching positions.
  2. Schools should be honest about the job market for incoming students.
  3. Evangelical schools should not have PhD programs. That should be left to places like Harvard, or Cambridge, or even, the heavens defend us, Yale.
  4. Students who are fine with 3 should realize they’ll be competing for jobs with graduates from elite institutions, and those elite institutions look better in school catalogs.
  5. Schools should tell students to have a plan B and make that their plan A, and really to go ahead and forget plan A altogether because you won’t be hired in respectable academia. He suggests some plan B ideas: teach overseas (because apparently foreign places will take anyone); go into the pastorate (but don’t think you’ll be living the philosopher-king ideal–too much busyness for that–and the people don’t want your fancy book-learning).

I can offer a hearty yes to all of these, except #3 and maybe #4. Though I was dismayed to find more than a few on twitter saying yes to all of these, especially #3.  Mostly, I suspect, because they have degrees from places like Harvard or Cambridge, so want the jobs they have been told they deserve, even at Evangelical institutions. That is how the world is supposed to work.

And I also have to say that talking to job hunters at AAR is a bit like going to a singles bar and hearing people complain there’s no good relationships out there.

Even still, I’m inclined to agree him based on my own experiences in PhD studies and postdoctoral employment insecurities.  The last time I was at AAR, I was one of those battered job hunters, eager for a job or even just to be recognized as a human. “See, I have a name badge, and the nice attendant who checked me in gave me a tote bag.” I was very used to being looked through that week, present but not a real person.  It was a very discarnating experience.

I sent out a lot of applications, I got one interview, for the job I was temporarily filling, and was doing quite well at.  I didn’t get to the final rounds of interviews, even though I couldn’t be doing anything better. My teaching was well-reviewed, I had good publications, and so on.  Why didn’t I get the job? I wasn’t told outright, but my strong impressions match what Enns talks about.

It worked out fine, actually, as I got a call  about six months later asking me if I wanted to teach for Fuller. Which makes me, currently, one of those rare recent PhD graduates with a full time position.  It’s not a tenure track job, though, and that puts me in a nebulous category of success and an even more nebulous category of job security. My contract ends in June, and as of now I don’t have a job as of July 2018.

Hopefully that will change, and I have hope, but it makes it so I’m not looking at this discussion from the perspective of the mountaintop.  I’m on the ropes, and I’m not sure how well my rope is secured to the rock face.  But at 200 feet up, either direction is a challenge for my emotional serenity.

Every so often, like yesterday and last week Wednesday, I wake up at 3:43 in the morning with a slight panic about how irresponsible I’ve been. I have a PhD in Theology from an Evangelical seminary, with a minor in Church History, and a lack of other documented talents otherwise.

That I sometimes walk by those application carrels at Target and think about sitting down at one says how much I agree with Enns’s arguments.

But I’m a contrarian by nature and spent a life indulging in irresponsible behavior (at least in a professional sense), so there’s this certain amount of defensiveness that rises up in response. After waking up at 3:47 this morning again with that slight panic and concurrent resistant hope, I realized why I can agree with Enns about the state of PhD employment while still fundamentally disagreeing with his points, especially point #3.

That last part shows why I am sticking with academia for now. Who else would put up with such a sentence?

Anyway, while I don’t encourage anyone to go into academia, and heartily encourage those in academia to leave it, thus opening up cushy tenure-track positions for those of us who don’t listen to that first bit of advice, here’s why I disagree with Enns. It comes down to two significant crises, which while shockingly entrenched aren’t actually insurmountable.  Note, these are really only relevant for those of us who are somehow committed to #3. Anyone else is welcomed to keeping reading, if only for anthropological insights about that weird species called Evangelicals.

Here are the crises:

  1. Crisis of academia
  2. Crisis of imagination

1. The crisis of academia has two issues with it. Well, really there’s all sorts of issues if you are keeping up with academia outside the realms of multibillion dollar endowments, but two that are particularly important for PhD students and programs at Evangelical schools.

The first aspect is there’s a conflating of the “academic” with “intellectual.” Working in contemporary expressions of academia is not the only expression of intellectual life, and, more importantly, such contemporary expressions of academia do not define what it means to be intellectual.

Note, that academia does not want people to realize this.

The reality is that academia is a system, a self-sustaining system that is primarily about self-sustaining.  It is only, I’d argue, secondarily interested in actually promoting objective knowledge for its own sake. Academia seeks power and influence and security in itself, so offers people power and influence and security within itself in order to perpetuate.

There’s a lot of good effects from this, but the core issue is that “academic” and “intellectual” are not equivalent terms with equivalent goals. Sometimes, (read this next phrase in a conspiratorial whisper) it is even the case they have contrary goals.

This connects with the second aspect of the academic crisis: there’s a strong interest in ceding control of academic theology to secular institutions, which do not have intellectual theology’s best interests in mind.  If schools want to rise in academic stature in accordance with the academic perception perpetuated by academic powers, then it makes sense to go only with those who have degrees from reputation enhancing schools.

This, of course, will keep the rankings always the same, as Harvard and Cambridge, or even, the heavens defend us, Yale, will always dominate. This is why, of course, they like the system as it is!

But, being by nature more revolutionary, I’m not sure the divine right of ivy is itself a bearer of intellectual priority.  So schools have to ask themselves whether their goal is to participate in perpetuating such a system or if their goals lie elsewhere. Should secular institutions define what it means to study Christian theology?

For many in academia, the trouble with Evangelical institutions is a bit like King Edward’s trouble with Scotland, they’re full of Evangelicals. Academia does not want Evangelical schools to succeed and so it’s odd that schools still seek validation from those who want to encourage their dissolution.

Is Christian theology best served, intellectually, by having a narrow range of perspectives contributing to its development? Is there a benefit to having Christian theology developed and taught by those with a driving commitment to its thriving rather than its diminishment? A degree from a reputation enhancing school may not in fact provide the best actual education for the intellectual contribution to Christianity.

This certainly isn’t to say that there are no Evangelicals graduating from academically premier schools, more to say that such schools are not themselves in the business of helping Evangelicalism become stronger or more intellectual.  Most institutions, and the people in them, would be entirely happy to have Evangelical schools close for all sorts of reasons that aren’t related to intellectual rigor.

To let these schools, and their assumption of academic priority, define what theology is and how it should be taught seems a fundamental betrayal of our own calling as Christians and as a church.

Martin Luther

Theology isn’t just a set of topics to consider, a field isolated to its own discussions, and following a pattern in which little read articles based on little attended presentations define intellectual achievement.  It is a living experience that resonates throughout our lives and our cultures, coming to terms with all that is in ways that give shape to our hopes and guidance in our concerns.

At least that is what theology meant for most of the last two thousand years, before it was co-opted by an academy that sought to defang its radical social impulses and protect itself from its critiques. Christian theology historically developed in the context of rigorous Christian devotion and passionate Christian practice, which gave added impulse to intellectual depth and study.

This is not dismissing the importance of intellectual rigor to say we need training institutions committed to the living faith of Christ, it’s encouraging it.

For instance, my research interests were in the intersection of systematic theology and missional ecclesiology, focusing on Moltmann’s theology with a strong pneumatological priority. I think this provides a significant amount of guidance for the future of church life, which has been affirmed by both students and publications. Fuller Seminary made this research possible in a way that I’m not sure could have happened elsewhere.

Studying with Moltmann himself may have been better, but he was long retired by the time I started and as he did contribute a recommendation for my PhD application, he encouraged my irresponsibility. He never suggested instead applying to either Harvard or Cambridge, oddly enough.

“Have courage,” he wrote in a letter confirming his recommendation.  I didn’t realize how much courage it would take to keep pressing on.

I may not be able to get a job at Harvard or Duke because of my institutional pedigree, but I’m still confident I have an intellectual contribution to make that is important for both the church and the academy, one that’s unique precisely because of my particular training.

We need variety of PhD graduates to keep intellectual perspectives lively! We can’t trust, nor should we, a few institutions to say they’ll be fair in carrying the weight of free intellectual inquiry. People from similar places all sound a lot alike, after all, and that leads to intellectual inbreeding.

2.  The crisis of imagination.

By assuming that academic is equivalent with intellectual and ceding academic control of theology to the secular academy, the church has let itself be fundamentally co-opted in its expression of its own beliefs.  This goes two directions.

One, the anti-intellectual direction that led conservative institutions and conservative churches to reject academic standards, to embrace a kind of sanctified ignorance.

The other is the anti-spiritual direction that led other institutions away from living faith toward an idealized anthropology, a bizarro-gnosticism that glorifies the physical and denies the Spiritual a space of existence.

This all resulted in a narrow imagination for advanced learning: that the only reason for a PhD in Bible and Theology is to teach in academic institutions that are defined by the academic system.

  This is the fundamental crisis Enns is getting at, as there are not enough jobs in the diminishing religion departments of these institutions, and thus it is morally irresponsible for many institutions to give these degrees and professionally irresponsible for anyone to get one of these degrees.

Yes, but I’m not willing to say that this is how things should be or must be.  In ceding control of academic theology to a particular system and then letting this system define who is able to succeed in such a system, we are perpetuating the continuing decline of Western spirituality.

Maybe we should stop doing this.

Maybe the trouble is that we’ve been indulging in moral irresponsibility for far too long already.

Maybe, rather than seeing advanced theological education as a problem, and encouraging less people to take it up, we should see it as a cause worth celebrating.

Women and men all over the world want to be trained to the utmost in understanding the Bible and theology. Women and men all over the world see their calling as teaching others, as providing counsel and insight in particular contexts. Women and men all over the world are called in service to the church–which may include participation in the academy as part of their vocation. They are called to the Body of Christ, not as extroverted social networkers or cheerleaders, but as educated tutors of the faith who work in undergraduate institutions, seminaries, graduate schools, and someday (I suggest) even training centers for advanced teaching oriented to maturing Christians.

Maybe rather than seeing them as a problem to be solved, making them feel depressed about the contrary nature of their calling and their prospects, and this a calling to be repressed, we should imagine possibilities beyond the realm of academic limitations. Maybe we should find ways to embrace intellectual flourishing that aren’t dependent on secular institutional bureaucracies or academic professional societies for validation.

Maybe the failure of having too many PhDs in Bible and theology is a problem that creates an opportunity for a new age in Christian intellectual life. Rather than say, “No more!” to people interested in advanced learning, we develop structures that deepen of our faith, coordinate with our practices, that give all Christians access to advanced training.

Maybe, just maybe, we should encourage women and men to pursue their calling and to be a better kind of church that makes space for such learning to find a wonderful productivity. Maybe rather than fighting over scraps and emphasizing restrictions, we could see there’s a wider world of potential.

Which isn’t really even about abandoning academia even, it’s about making sure that if we embrace intellectual rigor we don’t let ourselves be limited by negating gatekeepers who want to control the intellectual boundaries.  A Christian theology that develops within its own goals of deepening and thriving will provide a lasting testimony of intellectual contribution to the world.

I think this is the way of hope and gives me a lot of excitement about my own role and calling in and around academia.

Of course, I might be wrong about all this, about the crises and possibilities, and about my own academic future. At which point there really is only one question I’m left with: Do you want fries with that?

Posted in academia, education, professional | 1 Comment

The art of textbook choosing

I’ve learned over the years, there’s an art in choosing just the right texts for a class.

I wonder if this is one of those problems that are new to our era, like having a dynamic classroom experience. It used to be, a professor could have multiple pages of notes, or even a book they’ve written, read those notes in front of a gathered collection of variously engaged students, and that was called teaching a class. To add a dynamic element, they’d reserve some time at the end of the class for questions. Anything else could be saved for office hours, every other Tuesday from 3-4:30.

For books, there were standard tomes, that covered all the assumed ground.

For a theology class, the assumed ground was, to be sure, rather limited in scope and perspective, generally reflecting a narrow theological tradition and almost certainly a narrow gender and geographic distribution.

That’s not a critique, that’s just how it was done, for generations upon generations.

Times have changed and they’ve changed within short amount of time.

I have to teach in ways I was only rarely taught, and choose books in light of a diversity I was very rarely exposed to during my undergraduate and much of my masters degree.

This is a good. By all means, it’s a good. Better pedagogical possibilities. Just more work.

The challenge isn’t finding good books. There’s a lot of good books out. Too many. I can assign about 1200 pages of reading for a class, and that reading needs to maximize both content and perspective. Really, it’s an impossible task. Something has to give.

The goal then is to find the balance of representational books that help orient students in continued study. Basically, to make them aware of what exists.

One solution is to get a lot of reserve reading, to basically find 20 pages here and 20 pages there, from chapters, articles, etc. and so on. That’s a good but complicated solution, both in the compiling and in the processing (every chapter/article has to be requested with a separate form). It has the upside of wide-ranging, often historically important, sources. The downside is that it doesn’t provide students with a lasting resource. I go in assuming students won’t sell books back after the end of the quarter.  Intentionally naive. But, I do like to think about books that provide them continuing resources for their growing theological library.

I’m teaching two classes this quarter. One is HT501, which is formally titled “The Church’s Understanding of God and Christ in its Theological Reflection,” but I informally call it “Theological Reflections on the Trinity” because the themes of the class are Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, focusing on the theology relevant to the particular Persons and as Trinity.  I wrote a long description of my books and approach to the class as part of the proposal process.  Here’s what I had to say.

The other one is IS502, Practices of Community, which is part of the Integrated Studies set of classes offered at Fuller. These are a blend of spiritual disciplines and pastoral/spiritual theology.

We go through 8 disciplines that help contribute to a thriving and growing community experience: Hospitality, Truth-telling, Promise-keeping, Forgiveness, Christian Formation, Gratitude, Testimony, and Group Spiritual Direction.  In teaching, there are those that begin with specifics and hope to translate that into broad principles and there are those that begin with broad principles/examples and hope that translates into specific expressions.

I’m definitely more of the latter. I want to awaken student’s imaginations about their own spirituality and context, not give a bullet-point list of tasks to carry out. This reflects, I know, my own approach to learning. I hate lists of rules, but thrive on being provided depth of discussion and can easily see how this applies to me.  Not everyone learns like this, so I’ve learned to add texts that provide a diversity of learning styles, with the goal that everyone will find at least one text that really matches their own approach, while being challenged and stretched by other texts.

This class was especially interesting for me as it reflects discovery of books from throughout my own theological journey.

So, for this class I picked:

  1. a book that discussed community from a Biblical perspective, Paul’s Idea of Community by Robert Banks which radically affected me in my junior year at Wheaton.
  2. A book that discusses community in a rich historical Christian tradition, The Conferences by John Cassian, which radically affected me during my first year of MDiv studies, and may have changed much of my trajectory and outlook on Christian life and ministyr more than any other single book besides the Bible.
  3. A book that discusses an active missional community, Thin Places by Jon Huckins. My good friend who introduced me to the Channel Islands during my first quarter of seminary, and continued to be a vitally important friend, spiritual compatriot, and camping buddy, during my 20s, moved to be part of this community. I also used this book as a key resource for my dissertation.
  4. A book that discusses a deep theology of community in light of a very practical expression of it, Community and Growth by Jean Vanier. Vanier’s work is one of the more enlightening and inspiring theologies I’ve read in recent years. I’m using this one and others of his for my current book project.
  5. To add to these more general overviews of theology and expression I have a couple books that provide specific discussion of our chosen disciplines,Spiritual Disciplines Handbook by Adele Ahlberg Calhoun, which I discovered when I worked for Field Education during my PhD studies.
  6. Living into Community by Christine Pohl is the book required for all sections of IS502 taught at Fuller. This was a new text for me, I read it because I was teaching on it, and I’m happy to say it’s a wonderful book I can highly recommend.

A quarter length class isn’t enough to provide all the content on any topic, so my goal is more to provide substantive introductions and help orient a trajectory of continued learning.  That’s why I say every class students take at Fuller is a beginning to continued study. My goal, is they take these tools and discussions with them as they continue learning and leading after they graduate.  That makes my task much more achievable.

Being achievable makes teaching more gratifying, taking a lot of the weight off trying to cover far too much material in far too short amount of time.

Posted in academia, spirituality, teaching, theology | 1 Comment

Imaging Theology (part 2)

When I began teaching full-time I put together powerpoint presentations on various topics, so the imaging of theology and church history became a regular task. For the last class of my undergraduate theology gen ed class I wanted to pull all the themes of the Apostle’s Creed and theological method together.

For some reason, a particular image came to mind that I then spent quite a while trying to find in my archives.  I spent so long trying to find it because it so perfectly captured my sense of what we were about.  When I thought about the theological task for the sake of my students and myself, this is the image that came to mind:

 

I took this picture about ten years ago or so while camping on Santa Rosa Island. Santa Rosa is part of the Channel Islands National Park, five islands off the coast of Southern California. I first visited during my first quarter of seminary, and they remain one of my treasured places of discovery and renewal.

This picture evokes the theological task with its narrow winding path and brown grass, which becomes a lush green with rain. The trail seems in the middle of an endless field but I know that eventually one meets up with the ocean.  It also seems lonely, but I was with two friends at the time, walking nearby, just past the airfield on the island that drops off supplies for the national park service and occasional day-hikers.

With all that in mind, the task takes shape. A winding journey with memories and community yet still calling for a lonely kind of participation, a journey that may involve beauty and accomplishment or thirsty trudging through barren landscapes. Keep walking. It is mystical and it is wonderful. But I can’t prove it unless you go there yourself.

So, this image  has been with me for the last four years or so.  It is my longest stretch without visiting the Channel Islands and a very long stretch that has pulled me out of contemplation and into a frenzied busyness of teaching, where constant new courses have left me little time of focus or reflection.

It is a slog, but not without its own worth. And that worth pulls me back into a re-evaluation, a recovery in the midst of the busyness. A remembering. I’ve been trying to remember my own calling in theology.  I’ve gotten caught up in the images of others, the way they suggest things have to be in order to make it in this competitive world.

Today is the first day of Winter Quarter. I’m teaching another new-to-me class, my eighth since starting full time at Fuller in Fall 2015.  I’ve taught my other class a couple times before, so only have the regular tweaking and responding.  I got back from a trip to Oregon this past Friday, bringing with me a bad cold. Getting back into the swing of things hasn’t been easy. But rather than being a distraction, it’s part of the equation.

Theology isn’t separate from life, it’s how we engage in life, how we see the world and how we invest back into it at moments of success or defeat, focus or frustration.  It’s a Way and this way involves a cast of characters and experiences that might seem to pull us away from the rarefied world of theological reflection if we’re not intentional about keeping on task.

Only, what I’m learning, is that the task of theology is this cast of characters and struggles and investing the rarefied reflections into the mundane everyday.

Which isn’t an easy realization for me.  Because I’m a very strong introvert, struggling to establish a lasting place in my vocation, pulled this way and that by all sorts of forces that keep me from writing, reading, indwelling the theological depths.  I’m spread thin and while performing well in my teaching, keeping up with it all–and family, and all the demands of lived life–deflates the thrill of the quest, the renewal of the contemplation, the discovery of new vistas.

I want to seclude, to hide, to take up the pattern I’ve seen so many others in history adopt, the isolated control of time and space that allows for sustained research and complex integration of ideas. I want to drink deeply of the beauty and riches of God’s being and goodness and complexity.  I thrill in this, become alive in the exploration.

Just let me be and my mind comes alive, my hopes renewed.  But my very engagement with theology, the work of God in my life and in those around me, leads me outwards not inwards, involved not isolated.  My batteries are nearly always on the edge of empty.  But rather than run away from this, I’m learning to run with it.  Somehow.

I can’t escape the earthiness of a Christian theology that not only calls for community but highlights participation with others as a central theme.  It leads me away from what I want towards what I know I need, even as I struggle with how this might work out in that nagging interest in a permanent position.

I hate that nagging.  The future should be one of hope not frustration, of earnest expectation, not nervous agitation about what might go wrong or not work out. If my vision is of the Living God, then I should be living in freedom in the midst of this present opportunity.  I’ve misplaced that joy, that waking up with excitement about the tasks at hand. I’ve forgotten the love of theology that animated all my best steps over the years.

Which isn’t exactly the truth either. I’ve poured myself out in my teaching and in my family, trying to be faithful to these callings in ways that I’ve not always seen in theological/ministry, where teaching is deprecated and families are ignored.

It hasn’t resulted in substantive writing and publishing over the last couple years, however.  So, in my low moments, I’ve pondered needing to isolate, to put up walls, to invest in more obviously professional tasks, the kind that also animate my love of writing and sense of self in accomplishment.

I ended the year with this tension. And begin this new one with it unresolved. That’s probably why I was excited to bring back from Oregon a new image of theology, one that brings together my developing sense of my own calling and goals in this new year.  I saw this picture and it helped me recover a sense of both my calling and my love, renewing a sense of the theological task in my personal and professional life.

I stand before an endless ocean, full of bounty and danger.  It extends beyond the horizon, yet meets up with me in varying depth.  I can stand or walk forward or along the beach, expanding what I experience at every step.

But I’m not alone. It’s not just me and the ocean.  I stand with my little girl, Vianne, whose love for life explodes onto the scene every morning and extends through her day.  She is brave, willing to stand with me, yet scared when the waves crash and overpower. I’m responsible for her in this place. Yet, she’s responsible for me too, calling me out of my selfish isolation. We stand together, learning with each other, each in our own way.

The image speaks more deeply than what I can write, a new image that has only begun to work in my sense of calling and efforts as this new year, and new quarter, begin.  I can likely reflect more on it but I’ll end with Vianne’s refrain that calls out to life and reminds me of what I’ve been missing about theology for a while.

“Bring on the fun!”

Today is also my eight year wedding anniversary. God could have worked in a lot of ways, keeping me focused in isolation, in solitude, in asocial discovery.  Only that’s not the work God did in my life. He opened the door to life with Amy, whose love for God led her likewise down winding paths and challenging seasons.  Our trails joined up and in this we find a daily discovery of God’s inviting promise, doing more and more in our midst than we can imagine, even as we struggle with holding onto that sense of focus that we assume we need in order to pursue our calling.

This is our calling, together, now with Vianne and Oliver. And that’s part of the fun. I’m thankful for it. Bring it on.

Posted in academia, adventures, everyday theology, seminary, spirituality, teaching, theology | Leave a comment

Right Passions

I begin each week of my online courses with a reflection on the theme of the week. It is a devotional beginning, a way of getting the students to think about the topic in light of Scripture, often more pastoral and personal than specifically theological. Of course, the theological is part and parcel with those elements, even as the conventional approaches to theology these days are more academic in tone.

In my class on the Holy Spirit this week, we’re looking more closely at the topic of orthopathy, which means “right passions” in theological parlance.  Along with orthodoxy (right beliefs) and orthopraxy (right actions), it is one of the ways the Spirit works to orient our self, in our community, with God.

In case you’re interested in what I’m up to in my teaching, here’s my reflection that begins this week’s discussion:

Consideration of Week 4

Read: 1 Kings 19:1-18; Jeremiah 20:7-18; Acts 16:11-34; Ephesians 5:15-20

When I was in college, I experienced a roller coaster in my relationship with God.  I went to a Christian school in the Chicago area because I felt God leading me there. And God had plans for me while there but they didn’t seem to fit into the expected college experience. It was a place of training and training often involves breaking.  Which came. Harshly. Before that there was an awakening.  Moments and days in which I felt my heart and mind and whole being opening up in a new vision of God’s work, a deep awareness of God’s presence, an assurance of God’s being.

There were moments of theophany, of discovering a deep truth behind the apparent truths, a perception of complete coherence. I didn’t have words for these experiences even as I knew they were real. I felt my very being stretch and expand, feeling at times both loosely connected to this world and utterly embedded, a part of God’s creation.  Then a turn.

Everything crumbled, the light went from on to off, the presence of God departed.  At least that’s how it felt. A turn to loneliness deepened by even the absence of God’s encouragement and hope. I felt destitute. Empty.  Prayers extending into shadows and emptiness.  Feeling lost in my faith, my being, my hope.

Carried on by that earlier divine presence. There’s something there. I knew it. But could not see it or feel it.  All was dark.

I refused to let go, even in the pain and frustration.  I read more, sought answers, asked for counsel.  Reading helped but only to show that my experience was not unique. It was a common experience through Scripture, throughout the stories of women and men in history. They were close to God and then they encountered a wide ditch of God’s absence. No way forward. No way back.

I knew the facts about God, the story about God’s work in Scripture and history, the doctrines of faith.  But where was the life?  I missed it but knew there was something there.  I pressed on, not giving up, not running away.

A path was there but it was surrounded by dangers and thorns and troubles.  Encouragement came in fleeting glimpses, the fifth door on the left slightly ajar. Just enough sense of joy to become bread crumbs of discovery, a persistent discouragement at every other turn to prevent me from walking down distracting roads.

God kept me on the path, but did so by a dynamic interaction that led me through ups and downs, through college, into seminary, at churches, in the mountains, back for more study and then teaching.  The ups and downs were not required by God, but were my experiences of being buffeted in too many directions, competing narratives and goals pulling me left and right, out and in, up and down, rather than steady in my faith and patient in the journey.

My heart variously strangely warm and strangely cold, a roller coaster turning into a refined palate, increasingly able to attune myself in God’s grace, centering in Christ, navigating in the whispers and moves of the Spirit.

Such dynamic experiences tend to resist intellectual analysis, resulting in those groans and utterances of tongues or music, trying to express that which is indeterminate at first, then indescribable.  Trying to find the words leads deeper down the path. I discovered and was given words not so that I can manage God but so that I can come alongside, able to be a voice of comfort, hope, counsel, a heart transformed by the Spirit better able to participate with the Spirit in my context.

The presence of God is indeed more than a validation for us. The Spirit calls us and is shaping the whole of our being to be renewed in light of God’s life and mission.  Becoming attuned to this mission reaches into the deepest parts of ourselves, places we are most vulnerable and broken, places we may also be the most strong and full of meaning. Our spirit in the presence of God’s Spirit.

What are your desires on this day? What is your mood? What are your passions and hopes and fears?  Lay these out, call them by name, seek wisdom about what is oriented in God and what needs redirection towards God. Let the Spirit comfort, let the Spirit transform.  It is not easy, ohttp://dualravens.com/ravens/wp-admin/post-new.phpften difficult, though sometimes it is wonderful.

The promise of this journey is peace and stillness, even in troubles, hope in times of mystery, rest in times of comfort.  When our desires and emotions match the mission of God in the moment we begin to dance, no longer tossed and torn by the storms. We become effective in the moment, in the place, in the purpose.  At the end of all things, still standing (Eph. 6:13).

Posted in academia, Holy Spirit, spirituality, teaching, theology | Leave a comment

Beyond the Citadel of Theological Education

Using cities as analogies for theological education is very evocative.  They speak of a place, a way, an era, a narrative all at once.

The sights and smells and food and language of one city is different than other cities.  Pasadena is not Paris and Paris is not London, London is not Los Angeles, Los Angeles is not Tokyo, which is not Mexico City, which is not Shanghai, which is not Mumbai, which is not like Chicago, which is different than Athens, Berlin, and Rio.  Istanbul (not Constantinople) is different than Rome which isn’t like Madrid or Havana or Topeka.

Very different in different ways but very still having a core reality in common. They are cities. If you want to experience them, you have to travel to see them.

Cities became cities by being places of gathering and often places of protection. Early on they were walled fortresses, able to gather in those who were near so as to keep them safe–at least for a time–from marauders or armies.Me at Carcassonne

These cities were only rarely fully surrounded by walls. They had citadels, little cities, within their limits.

Learning was also seen as vulnerable to assault and so colleges became little cities of their own. Colleges were quite literally citadels.

Be it castle or college, there was a place within a place where the body or the mind was protected and nourished.

The analogy of a city for different theological education models isn’t just an analogy. They also represent real places. Places where people left their homes and traveled to in order to study the ways of God with the gathered experts alongside fellow students. Athens, Berlin, Geneva, Jerusalem, Azusa St, and Skete drew people, pulled them from their homes, shaped them into a new kind of person for a new kind of world, formed a barrier from the outside.

Theological institutions likewise formed as citadels within their context. They are a place to educate the chosen and elites (because who else can afford the cost or time). They  gathered in, marked with a degree of learnedness, inaugurated each student into the narrative of what was deemed most important in a particular Christianity.

0421bb10A person learned the content of theology and also the culture of theological education. They then went outward back to home or other settings, sharing the content with others.  We teach as we have been taught. We share that which we have been shown important. We prioritize that which we know best.

Some were trained as pastors, to manage the parish they were assigned. Others became missionaries, sent out to begin new churches. Should any of these be successful enough to raise up new leaders within their context, they sent such promising students there to the citadel and back again.

Citadels of theological learning express the theological priorities of different traditions. Yes, we can categorize citadels in terms of specific models. But they remain the same basic method.  Go there. Learn. Finish. Then go elsewhere. Manage on your own.

This was the way it had to be. How else could someone learn from experts? How else to become a master of a long-established tradition? One must go to where the teachers are and learn however the teachers taught.

So, the different models became patterns throughout history, where people learned in different cities than where they were from or where they were going to minister.  It was demanding, and often limiting. Who is able to pack up and leave their homes? Who is able to devote themselves to a full load of study while in a new location?

To alleviate some of the pressure on this demand, some of the citadels set up outposts which provided access to at least some of the material and experts. They offered classes in a micro-model of the citadel.  They weren’t ideal but often made the difference for students.wheaton_628239983

This isn’t unique to theological education, of course. For most of history, education was based on a citadel model, little cities that used distinct language and emphases, inviting men and later women to come stay within their zone of training and protection.

Citadels were the only substantive model out there, some small and some large, but the same basic approach. The little cities boasting big city terminology like university. The big cities claiming small city values like authenticity and community.  Move to our city, the literature invited.

Then something changed. Everything changed. Just like heavy artillery and then airpower ended the use of walled cities, the information age has radically changed the need to physically go somewhere and live there in order to learn. Over the last ten years, this has caught up to higher education with online learning becoming a major force.  Almost everyone prefers a live classroom experience, but with so many other factors involved, taking a class online increasingly becomes the chosen option.

The foundations of the citadels have crumbled, replaced by a web that reaches around the world.

But we still tend to think of theological education in terms of cities, expressed as citadels, projecting force from a headquarters outward and onward. The reach is global though the  students get the fullest experience within the old, beaten but not yet broken citadel walls.  The great bulk of resources are spent to maintain the walls, bolster the citadel approach.

And this is what so many of the current representatives of the theological cities have in common. They are citadels in an information age, finding it increasingly difficult to sustain the established models but not yet able to determine how else to express their chosen “city” but as a city within a city.  Yes, we may have different modalities, but we are the city we were founded in.

But rather than thinking of theological education as a city, a city that expresses a particular element within the framework, maybe a way has opened up to hold onto that which made the cities great while going beyond their many limitations. Such an approach can integrate technology and other possibilities in ways that citadels never could, and marshal resources that blend together the various “city” emphases in a holistic, transformative way.Hubbard Library

Rather than thinking of theological education as a citadel, maybe we should think of theological education as a network, small hubs that bring together the depth and bounty of an established institution while allowing a local context to stay integrated.

Those who learn, serve; those who graduate, teach; those who minister, are ministered to; honoring the sanctity of a community by letting those called to the community find their calling within the community.

By participating in a network based at a hub, someone can pursue theological education alongside others who they may very well stay alongside for the rest of their lives. This can be a growing, deepening community of learners who facilitate a lifelong connection to the depth and breadth of the Christian faith.

I think seeing theological education in terms of such a network brings the discussion back within ecclesiology, the doctrine of the church.  Those who are called to go elsewhere certainly can, but we shouldn’t insist that those who are called to a place must leave that place and break their ties for an extended time just to go to a place where they have no roots and little connection. Before, there wasn’t a choice. Now there is. And it is indeed an opportunity.

Theological education is traditionally set up as a citadel.  Maybe it is time to break the city model entirely and think in terms of a network.  A difficult transition, but I think there are places that can pursue this well, having many elements already in place. It’s a radical idea, but I’m a Californian theologian, so I don’t see why that is a problem.

Long posts are indeed a problem, so I’ll sketch some more thoughts about the network concept in another post.

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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.

Posted in academia, education, personal, seminary, theology | 3 Comments

Models of Seminary

I haven’t posted on my seminary musings for a while, but this doesn’t mean I’ve abandoned this topic. Indeed, as I’ve traveled, conferenced, worked on current classes and future courses, the theology of a seminary education has continued to burrow into my daily thoughts.  So much so that my problem isn’t as much what to say as it is where to start.

I’m tempted to jump into my own ideas about what a seminary education of the future should look like–and I do have some developing ideas–but that wouldn’t show any of the background to my thoughts nor the much wider conversations about a theology of seminary education. And as I’ve poked around the topic, I have found much of worth indeed.  So, in this post I’ll offer a brief summary of key themes and ideas I’ve encountered now in various directions.

First some key books. First is Between Athens and Berlin: the Theological Debate by David Kelsey.  In this book he offers two main types of theological education that exist in North America. The title of the book indicates his terminology. I’ll get to those more thoroughly in a little bit. Quickly, Athens is more concerned with personal formation and Berlin is more concerned with intellectual training.

Second, there is Reenvisioning Theological Education by Robert Banks.  In addition to the two suggested by Kelsey, Banks suggests “Jerusalem” as a third model. This model prioritizes a missional approach to theological education. It is worth noting that the first edition of [amazon text=Paul’s Idea of Community&asin=978-0801045547] by Banks was a central text for me as a sophomore in college when I began to seriously wrestle with the purpose of the church. A number of theological impulses that later landed in my dissertation began with the research I did at that time and with this book in particular alongside Lesslie Newbigin’s works.

A third key resource is an article written by Brian Edgar titled, ” The Theology of Theological Education.” He summarizes the first three I mentioned and adds a fourth which he, following the pattern, calls “Geneva.” This model approaches theological education from a confessional standpoint, in which the student in taught initiated in a particular theological tradition, learning to live and teach within it.  Tradition is seen as the key avenue for knowing God, and so this model invites the student into the relationship with God and with the history of God’s particular work.

Here’s the helpful diagram Edgar uses in his article:
Theol_ed_diagramEach of these is helpful in different ways. That’s my struggle as I think about it.  And I continue to wrestle not only with these models but also how any such model might also be best established in a given context.  How do we approach these models in light of a global and connected world, where students may enter into seminary with different vocational goals, different theological traditions, different experiences and priorities of ministry?  Is it best for a particular seminary to specialize in one of these modes and leave other seminaries to carry the mission of the others?

And more particularly, I continue to wrestle with the way Fuller Seminary can best carry out its own mission, which does not fit neatly into any one of these categories while involving all of them. Here’s the current mission statement:

Fuller Theological Seminary, embracing the School of Theology, School of Psychology, and School of Intercultural Studies, is an evangelical, multidenominational, international, and multiethnic community dedicated to the equipping of men and women for the manifold ministries of Christ and his Church. Under the authority of Scripture we seek to fulfill our commitment to ministry through graduate education, professional development, and spiritual formation. In all of our activities, including instruction, nurture, worship, service, research, and publication, Fuller Theological Seminary strives for excellence in the service of Jesus Christ, under the guidance and power of the Holy Spirit, to the glory of the Father.

In reflecting on the context of Fuller in light of these models, I think about how best we can prioritize our time and resources to fulfill our mission. I am not an administrator at Fuller, I am a teacher, so my interest is more in those pragmatic directions.

A few things come to mind in light of this that contribute to my theological musings.

Theological education has to be relational, we are formed as persons in the context of a community.  It has to be transformational, otherwise why put in the time, effort, and money. This transformation should include the whole self, including the mind.  It has to be contextual, as students are not objects intended for a general setting but are formed in a context of a particular community located in a specific time and place. Without reflection on and from these contexts, the education will be unmoored and irrelevant.

We are participants in the Christian tradition called to help communicate and shape this tradition in light of current concerns and present struggles.  Becoming creative participants in this tradition is the only way we can balance the many strains placed on us from one side or another. We need to teach discernment and we need to teach engagement, both in light of Scripture, history, and current reality.

Does this mean picking one of the models and digging into it? Whether or not this is even possible, it still doesn’t help answer how any one or all of these models may best be applied in light of current technology and current cultural shifts. Which is why I’ll keep musing on a theology of seminary for a while longer.

Posted in academia, teaching | 13 Comments

Conceiving a Fuller Seminary

As I think about the possibility of a theology of seminary education, I thought it worthwhile to revisit  a core text in my early musings on seminary: George Marsden’s [amazon text=Reforming Fundamentalism&localise=1&search_link=0&multi_cc=0&live=0&asin=0802836429].  Indeed, I read this well before I considered attending seminary, while I was at Wheaton and still intending to go on to law school.  It and Marsden’s companion book [amazon text=Fundamentalism and American Culture&localise=1&search_link=0&multi_cc=0&live=0&asin=0802836429] formed part of my research in my American Church History class project on my family religious history.

Though it wasn’t an immediate factor, I strongly suspect Marsden’s book influenced my later decision to attend Fuller.  That and Fuller was down the 210 freeway from where I was living.  But mostly the book, I’m sure.  I didn’t choose Talbot, after all, and that was down the 57, about the same distance.

It has been 20 years and three degrees since I last read it.  I’m a little worn and so is my copy of the book. A mouse found the stored box of books a nice place to spend winter and chewed up the edges of its furniture.

No great damage done and a lot of very worthwhile information inside.  I think it especially interesting to note how Fuller described itself early on. Three passages from Marsden stood out to me in my continuing musings.

The first three catalogs included these three purpose statements (quoting from Marsden, 55-56):

 First, “no interdenominational theological  seminary of outstanding academic and evangelical qualifications” existed in the rapidly expanding “budding culture’ of the far west.

Second, “naturalist modernism had invaded many old line seminaries.”

And third, other independent seminaries, (meaning Dallas, Westminster, and Faith), were “too often associated with a particular doctrinal emphasis which limits their usefulness.”

Thus early on Fuller tended towards being apophatic in its self-understanding, emphasizing what it was not and who it was not like.

In more positive terms, Fuller understood itself as interdenominational and independent in the pursuit of both academic and evangelical goals.  It was West coast in expression and context, serving a specific developing region.  Pasadena had a population of 104, 577 in 1950 and Los Angeles had a population of 1,970,358, most of the surrounding area was farmland (cf. my family religious history link above).

Fuller (both the school and the man) sought a school that could be be a training center for evangelism and apologetics while pursuing a rigorous academic culture by both faculty and students.  As Marsden (p56) notes, Fuller’s first press release described it as a “research center for Evangelical scholarship.”

A well-to-do, famous radio evangelist got a group of well-regarded and highly educated pastors and scholars together to help ignite a renewed expression of conservative Christianity.

This emphasis on academics became a priority for Fuller Seminary, which makes sense given the rather low social and academic reputation of mid-century Fundamentalism. To be heard, to make a difference, they realized they had to be rigorous in scholarship and education.  Ockenga w Faculty at Old Campus.1

Alongside this emphasis on scholarship, there was also a strong initial push towards social involvement and, of course, pastoral expression.  Evangelicals were characterized by wanting to engage broader culture rather than feeling a need to separate from it, to bring back social action as part of a more holistic understanding of the Gospel.

John Wesley, of course, was not alone in seeing how evangelism and social reform went hand in hand. A significant number of social reforms were led by conservative Christians during the 18th-19th centuries. It was in the early 20th century that social action became identified with liberal theology. The Social Gospel was put in contrast to evangelism, liberals adopting the first and rejecting the second, fundamentalists prioritizing the second and distancing from the first.  Sadly this division defined religious development throughout the century.

Those who started Fuller knew their Bible and their history, so wanted to put aside these divisions.  However, without a specific advocate for this aspect, social engagement was not emphasized in practice.  Marsden (p82) notes:

“In 1947 the call for more social involvement among fundamentalists was little more than that–a call. In reality, this theme received relatively little attention at the early Fuller. The two overwhelming priorities were remaking the modern mind and evangelism. The school was to be a great center for scholarship; and it was also Charles Fuller’s school, a place for training a generation of missionaries and evangelists.”

Fuller was thus conceived as an expression of new hopes and goals for Evangelicalism, rising out of its Fundamentalist limitations to embrace, indeed return to, a more historic pattern of conservative Christian belief.  This embrace was to happen in a new context, a developing and highly dynamic context far away from the established centers of traditional seminaries back East.

I focused on the early understanding here, but it is worth noting that over the last couple of decades Fuller has very much developed in emphasizing social involvement.  This can be seen in various ways, such as engagement with the arts and social justice concerns.  Some may see this as a turn away from Fuller’s early priorities, but it is certainly not. Such emphases express some of the earliest, and long undeveloped, ideals of Fuller and Evangelicalism.

After almost 70 years, Fuller is still coming to terms with its own initial impulses.

For more on Fuller’s history, in addition to Marsden’s book I heartily recommend David Allan Hubbard’s 1979 lecture.

Posted in academia, education, seminary | 6 Comments