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.
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.
A 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.
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.
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.