Category Archives: academia

Reconceiving Seminary

Ever since Fuller announced they are closing their Sacramento campus, I’ve been thinking a lot about the future of seminary education.

The stated reason for the closing was financial, but in financial decisions there are also philosophical and strategic assumptions.  We were the fastest growing campus. Recently given approval to offer the MDiv degree from our site (in fact this long process of approval concluded almost the same time they decided to close us down).  But, with a need to refocus the budget changes were made based on perceived future value.

Events suggest our perceived value.  Colorado Springs campus was similarly assessed.  Houston, Menlo Park, Seattle, Phoenix, Orange County have experienced varying levels of reduction in budget, course offerings, marketing assistance, and uncertainty. Even the main campus at Pasadena has seen a drop in classroom numbers, even as the overall student body continues to grow (albeit not as full-time students)

Online is the growth area in higher education. Regional campuses are not seen the same way.

I taught both online and at Sacramento this past year. My online courses would fill up and have waiting lists within a few days of open registration.  This is not uncommon.  My Sac classes would never fill and would take a while to get to a satisfying number.  Indeed, theology classes were often cancelled because of low enrollment prior to my arriving here and getting a favorable reputation.

Students take online classes in abundance.  Regional campuses were created prior to the internet, to offer students the ability to attend classes within a reasonable distance from their home and work. With online classes, students can attend classes within their home or work.  Convenience reigns.  Classes fill.  Education advances into the Information Age.

And yet…

In the recent commencement at Menlo Park, I read this in the program:
“Fuller’s mission is to equip men and women for the manifold ministries of Christ and his Church.”

That’s a paraphrase. The official 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.”

Thoughtful, purposeful, and powerful concepts.  These orient the practical directions of seminary: about what we should cut, where we should focus, what we should do.

More than that, however, I think about the possibility of a theology of seminary education.

What is the place of seminary education in a coherent Christian systematic theology?

Not what theology should a seminary teach, or how many theology classes a seminary should offer.  Rather, is there a “theology of seminary”?

I think yes, and I think this is a part of a broader ecclesiology (the study of the church). How we understand seminary shapes and is shaped by our understanding of Christian community. How we understand seminary shapes and is shaped by how we understand the role of education in and for the church, in and for this world.

Rather than try to plead the cause of the Sacramento campus, or regional campuses in general, or otherwise argue for a way to help navigate severe budget crises, I think it more helpful to explore this potential theology of seminary.  A seminary is part of higher education but should operate according to a unique narrative, the Way of Christ.  We cannot jettison our theological mooring even if we are facing a financial crisis in the midst of a massive ecclesial transition.

I argue that a stronger theological mooring in light of our mission statement is precisely what will contribute to Fuller’s continued creative approach to mission, theology and ministry.  In this, we will participate more fully with the work of the Spirit, who is already raising up men and women for service in all sorts of places and all sorts of ways.

I’m not saying this isn’t happening or that I’m a lone voice crying out in the wilderness on this topic. There’s a lot of people thinking about these issues.  Because of my indeterminate circumstances, however, I want to dig deeper into it myself. I’m not an expert on higher education. But I am a good teacher (so I’ve been told) and I am an expert on ecclesiology.  I have experience in various campuses and have recently had a wonderful experience in Sacramento come to a rather abrupt and disappointing conclusion (albeit a very abruptly slow conclusion).

Again, over the rest of this summer, I want to consider a “theology of seminary.”  This isn’t devoid of practical suggestions, but just won’t start there.

After thinking about this a while, I wanted to start with that most basic of questions: what is the purpose of seminary.  And I invite anyone who is interested to muse along with me.

Posted in academia, education, seminary | 6 Comments

invocation

On June 10, I gave the invocation at the Fuller Seminary Sacramento commencement. As part of this, I was asked to add a few thoughts on the topic of education at Fuller. 

Here’s what I had to say:

In Matthew 25, Jesus gives this command to his followers:

“All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

Make disciples. What is a disciple?  Someone who understands and lives the teachings.

How do we make disciples? We learn, we teach, we reflect our salvation in Christ in a transformative way, so that in the power of the Spirit we are growing in Christ as a community in this world.

That has, then, been a key goal for the church since its beginning. Learning, teaching, enacting.

Very early in the church’s history, leaders realized the need for formal training, to teach those who were missionaries, ministers, teachers. Those who are sent out into the community, throughout the world, need training, so that they could train—could disciple–others. Education has thus always been a major part of the mission of the Church, an education that is not only learned but also lived.

In 1947, a group of Evangelists, pastors and scholars established Fuller Seminary to help continue this mission. Founded as the flagship institution for the new movement of Evangelicals, Fuller has trained men and women to serve as ministers, teacher, missionaries, and many other roles.  Alumni have gone all over the world to make disciples.  You are now part of this spreading story. 13528238_1193350570688948_1226412045210159905_o

Our goal at Fuller was not to teach you everything, that’s impossible to do in a ten week quarter, and too hard to do even in a small number of years.  Our goal was to initiate learning about our historic faith, to teach you about Father, Son, and Spirit, about Scripture, about the history of the Church, about how we can best use our gifts and calling in service to this church and God’s mission in this world.

Fuller comes alongside men and women who have been called to ministry, some vocationally, many not, to help propel their—your—calling forward. As teachers our goal is to introduce you to the depths and breadth of our faith so that you can then continue this work in your setting, wherever God calls you. And now, having done what we can do, we celebrate your accomplishment of graduation.

Though you are now finished with your classes, this graduation is really a new beginning. This mission of the church, this mission of Fuller, continues to carry on in the mission in your life. This mission is to continue to learn what we introduced here, continue to teach what you have learned to others, continue enact in your life and your context the life that Christ calls us to live.  Go and make disciples.

Let us celebrate this beginning, praising God for what he has done in your life, what he is doing in your life, and what he will do in your life as the Spirit continues to do a good work in making disciples here in the Sacramento area and throughout the world.

Let us celebrate with great hope because Christ is indeed with us, to the end of the age.

Posted in academia, education, seminary | 12 Comments

A Brief Guide to Surviving Seminary

Back in 2011, the fine folks at Fuller Seminary invited me to teach a class called ST511 Orientation to Theological Studies. The course was a requirement for students who were accepted to Fuller on a probationary status. Maybe they had low grades, or didn’t finish their undergraduate degree, or some other reason. The main goal was to teach writing and research skills. I adapted it to be more of an introduction to the main topics in seminary with the writing and research skills developed through exercises along the way. We spent a couple weeks focused on Biblical Studies, a couple weeks focused on theology, a couple weeks focused on church history, and a couple weeks focused on ministry. Each week I also wrote a short reflection on an issue or theme related to the exercises, the topics, or general seminary issues (like navigating seminary faith challenges or how to read a book).
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Even though Fuller doesn’t let me teach this class anymore (it’s for PhD candidates not PhD graduates), they have graciously invited me to teach other classes, more advanced. Yet, I continue to have students in these classes who would benefit from taking ST511. Fuller does not require a background in Biblical/Theological studies and allows students to take their theology/church history courses in any order and allows students to begin their studies in any quarter. So, Because ST511 is not required for most entering students, I regularly have students who have little experience with the topics and even little experience with writing essays. They’re not dumb, they just come into their courses with passion but not training in how to do well in the tasks. Students often need support with more than the technical aspects of seminary. Even those who are good writers, whether from previous education or by being at Fuller for a while, encounter troubles in their studies: too much to read, too much to write, too little time to rest, material at odds with their assumptions about the Bible, theology, society. Navigating the emotional travails can be as taxing as navigating the course work.

So, I’ve continued to post my some of those ST511 musings in my theology and church history courses. Not as required reading but as optional support material for students in need. Over the last few years I’ve been asked about material to help students navigate research, writing, spirituality and I’ve sent my musings onward in those directions. But, it’s been somewhat scattered and disorganized. I figured it was worth putting into better shape. So I put these musings together in a book.

Here’s the table of contents:

Introduction 2
Writing in Seminary 3
Practicing Writing 7
Citing Sources 9
Spiritual Life while in Seminary 11
Writing as an Art and a Craft 1551j2JmyvGHL._SY346_
A Brief History of Fuller Seminary 18
Motivation and Writing 23
Sources for Research 28
Faith Crises in Seminary 30
How to Read in Seminary 33
Choosing and Prioritizing Sources 38
Writing an introduction paragraph 41
Thoughts on studying theology 46
Footnotes 51
Writing a conclusion 55
Time, Life, and the Temptations 60
Writing a research paper 67
Why we study theology 70
Theology and Ministry 82

So, a short book on big themes. It’s an introduction, an introduction to seminary. I call it A Brief Guide to Surviving Seminary. Available at Amazon as a Kindle e-book and now as a print book. Different covers, same content.

Posted in academia, education, seminary | 22 Comments

My job is teaching and writing theology. But I tend to be moved significantly by movies about artists. I’m not an artist at all, but find resonance in these stories. The movie Rivers and Tides is one of the few movies that I watch repeatedly, it’s one of my soul-cleansing movies for whenever I feel particularly parched.

Maybe theology really is much more than it is a science, a way of bringing out beauty and learning how to notice, bringing to light that which others may see without knowing what they’re seeing. Theology has turned into lectures, content to deliver, rules to keep, arguments to arbitrate, the insights of all of gathered reality formalized and structured. Maybe theology is about helping people see better, hear better, feel more, think deeply, awakening in them a sense of hope and life they never before new existed. Maybe theology is better conceived as art, paintings with words and using language to explore the bounty of truth all around us, initiated by God, exemplified in Christ, sanctified through the Spirit, drawing us all back into the swirling, dangerous divine.

I just finished watching a 2006 movie, Local Color, and it got me to thinking, encouraging and inspiring me in my own, well yes, art.

Posted in academia, art, writing | 2 Comments

Same (in which I talk about Subarus and Star Wars)

Same is same. Not exactly. In common conversation we know how same can mean different things. Unfortunately we’re a lot more adept at talking to each other about daily life than talking to each other about God, and tend to make all sorts of inexact absolutes when it comes to talk about God.

Why? Because we’re very protective about God and wouldn’t want wrong things said about him. Which is a funny thing for someone who has specialized in talk about God. Because people say all sorts of wrong things about God in all sorts of places.

Talk about God is a bit like traffic laws, if a person wants to find something wrong, they’ll find something to charge you with.

That’s my continuing frustration with the situation at Wheaton. I can understand both what Dr. Hawkins meant and why people are outraged by what they think she meant. What I don’t understand is how Wheaton College–a premier academic institution–was unable to do the same.

The same, there’s that word again. Some examples came to mind the other day of how same is same but not the same as every same. We mean something different by “same”. Yet we find a way not to get outraged by each other or insist a person means one thing when they intended another.

I often drive the same car as Amy. It’s a Subaru Outback. Before we got our Outback, we drove a Honda Civic. She drove the civic, I drove the civic, it was the same Civic. Now I drive that Civic still when I commute to work. Same Civic. She rarely drives that car now, but when we look at pictures of road trips we talk about driving the Civic. The same Civic I drive now. Same is same. We had some friends at Fuller who had the same car, a Honda Civic. Not our car, of course, I mean it was also a Civic.

We were in a parking lot a while back and Amy pointed out a Subaru that was a 2007 champagne colored outback. Same car that we own. So, I got out and took it home. No, I’m just kidding. It was the same car, but not our car.

If I said to someone that I have the same car, they wouldn’t assume that I meant we share the same exact car in the way my wife and I have the same car. We know what we mean when we use the same word to describe different kinds of sameness.

Same, but different. “Same” can have a range of meanings.

Back in the 80s, my family had a tan colored Outback that we drove all the time. Same car as I own now, but a different year. Well, not the same car of course; same make and same model, but that car finally died in the 90s and my dad got rid of it. It was an Outback, we own an Outback now.

I got the same car for my family! Only it’s not the same car, but you know what I mean. Because we know that same can mean different things depending on the context. When I told my dad we got the same car, an Outback, he didn’t assume I meant that I hunted down the same exact Outback my family owned in the 1980s.

Did Dr. Hawkins mean there are no differences between Islam and Christianity? No. Did she conflate the theology of the two? No. Same can mean same when we’re talking about a similar set of properties and history, even as there may be quite a bit of difference between two actual examples. Absolutely. We do it all the time.

My 2007 Outback is very different than the 1980s Outback of my parents, and I imagine a new Outback is yet still different than theirs or mine. But it’s the same car even if I can’t walk onto a car lot and drive away a brand new one. “But I have this same car!” I could tell the salesman. No, no you don’t, he would reply.

I did tell the salesman when I bought our 2007 that we had the same car when I was younger. He knew I didn’t mean the exact car on his lot that we were trying to buy. That would be silly if I had to clarify that I meant the same model not the same car.

We’re a lot more generous to each other when we talk about cars. What about a more serious topic? Star Wars.

Same Millennium Falcon is in both the original trilogy and the new Star Wars. Same is exactly the same. I liked they didn’t try to modernize the electronics. It looks exactly the same. Same is same.

Luke Skywalker is the main character in the original trilogy. In the early 90s, Timothy Zahn wrote a series of Star Wars novels that took place after the time of Return of the Jedi, called the Thrawn triology. Luke Skywalker is a character. Same character as in the original trilogy.

The new movies aren’t based on the Zahn novels nor any previously published story set in the Star Wars universe. Luke Skywalker is in the new movie, the same Luke Skywalker who is in the original trilogies. The same character who is in the Zahn books.

But that’s impossible because the new movie is very different than the books. Luke Skywalker is in both, but isn’t the same, because it’s a different story, with different events and revelations.

The new movies supersede any books. The movies are called canon. Here’s a bit from Wikipedia:

The Star Wars canon is what is officially regarded as “canonical”, or officially part of a story, in the Star Wars media franchise. The official Star Wars canon consists of the six released Star Wars theatrical feature films, the Star Wars animated film and television series The Clone Wars and Star Wars Rebels, and every other material released after April 25, 2014, unless otherwise stated.

So, the Zahn books have the same Luke Skywalker as in the original trilogy but are not considered canon. The official telling of Star Wars uses the movie. But, if someone were to read the Zahn books now they wouldn’t be wrong in saying that it’s the same Luke Skywalker.

Same but not exactly the same. Same, but still having varying qualities of accuracy. Same, but one is considered true and one is considered extra-canonical. Both share the qualities of being a telling of Star Wars. One is right, the other is now not right. One is canon, one is not. But it’s the same characters in both. Same but different. Same even as one is better and the official telling of the character. I appreciate the way Zahn told the story but the Star Wars universe now doesn’t have Thrawn or Mara Jade or those force draining Ysalamiri. Luke Skywalker is a character but does different things and acts in different ways and responds to different situations than in the new movie. This is only going to get more different as more movies are released.

Different Luke Skywalker? Yes, but no. Luke is the same, but there is a different revelation about what Luke Skywalker said and did. We can speak about sameness while acknowledging there is a canonical version in contrast to other versions. Same while different.

When Dr. Hawkins says there is a same God, she was not speaking with theological rigor but in common parlance of a shared history and understanding. There’s a perception of a same quality of God’s being, even as God is actually rather different in Islam and Christianity. Which is why I don’t see Dr. Hawkins as violating the Statement of Beliefs at Wheaton and think it rather anti-intellectual for Wheaton to accuse her of doing so. We can, and should, have conversations about the differences between Islam and Christianity in both practice and theology. The revelation of Jesus makes a radical difference and the understanding of God as Trinity is vitally important.

Though, of course, if you asked the great majority of Christians to describe the Trinity, they’d likely fall into one of the classical heresies. Even if they claim to be theologically conservative, they wouldn’t be talking about the exact same God as the one the church believes in.

Maybe that’s why I hear Dr. Hawkins statement with a lot of grace and respect the attitude and purpose in which it was said. People say all sorts of wrong things about God, even and often from pulpits. Heaven help the person who is always looking to be offended when no offense was intended or implied. I would guess that anyone at Wheaton, including the President, could be accused of violating the Statement of Faith based on a particular interpretation and exactness of that statement. That way lies chaos, of course.

Which leads to a good lesson: Hear others as we would like to be heard.

Posted in academia, church, Wheaton | 1 Comment

Put more simply in light of Wheaton’s statement:

“You are the God who sees me,” for she said, “I have now seen the One who sees me.”

This is Hagar’s response as noted in Genesis 16:13, speaking of God, in light of God’s looking after her and her son Ishmael.

Does Wheaton College believe the Bible is true in regards to Genesis 16 and 21?

Is Wheaton committed to its actual statement of faith or to contemporary biases?

If there is more to this story that relates precisely to Wheaton’s statement of faith, I very much would value hearing about it and will be happy to update any responses I have.

Otherwise, I can’t see how Wheaton can keep its decision to put Dr. Hawkins on leave and still maintain its statement on the authority of the Bible.

Does Wheaton see the God who saw Hagar?

Posted in academia, politics, popular culture, Wheaton | Leave a comment

The Muslim Response of Wheaton

As a still conservative alumni of Wheaton College, who could still sign their statement of faith, I’m very interested to see how the recent situation with Dr. Larycia Hawkins, a political science professor plays out.

Not only am I an alumni, I spent my time at Wheaton, and since, studying the history and content of Christian theology, and continue to teach it at an Evangelical institution.

The issue at hand:

“I stand in religious solidarity with Muslims because they, like me, a Christian, are people of the book,” she posted Dec. 10 on Facebook. “And as Pope Francis stated last week, we worship the same God.”

From their official statement:
“Some recent faculty statements have generated confusion about complex theological matters, and could be interpreted as failing to reflect the distinctively Christian theological identity of Wheaton College.”

“Some recent faculty statements have generated confusion about complex theological matters…” Ha! No kidding. Faculty have been generating confusion about complex theological matters for a long time. That’s a big part of a rigorous academic education.

Wheaton isn’t a Bible college, after all, it’s an esteemed liberal arts college. Able to wrestle with complex theological issues without retreating behind artificial walls.

Wait, is this just about the issue with a poli-sci professor or in general? Oh, just about this one issue?  That’s a problem to me.

ct-wheaton-college-professor-larycia-hawkins-20151216In the past few years, I’ve tended to argue in a way that likely fits Wheaton’s stance.  Allah is not the Father of the Son.  Both religions would agree on that. There are important differences in the character and work of the God we’re talking about.

And yet, there is a shared story. Christianity, like Islam, did not arise from an isolated revelation. Christianity comes out of the Jewish story, stating something about that continuing revelation of God in Jesus.

The God of Abraham is the Father of the Son.  Yet, Jewish believers disagree with this statement, saying we have corrupted and co-opted their theology, that we do not serve the same God at all.

Islam began in a similar context, where Judaism and Christianity and pagan religions were known.  Islam pushed against the worship of idols to worship the One God, the God of Abraham.

There are important differences. Yet, there’s a shared starting point.  There is one God.  The God of Isaac is also the one who looked after Ishmael. God expressed a solidarity with Ishmael in keeping him safe. The God of Ishmael is the God of Paul the Apostle.

Jesus did not interact with Muslims, but he did interact with Samaritans, who worshiped the same God with very different theologies and worship. 

Jesus met the woman at the well, used the Samaritan as an example to the Jewish leaders about loving one’s neighbor.  He did not paper over differences (especially at the well) but neither did he break solidarity.  There was a common ground that Jesus highlighted.

There are many differences between Christianity and Islam in terms of God’s mission and God’s nature. There are, to be sure, also many differences between Christianity and Judaism. Both Islam and Judaism reject the Trinity, the identity of Jesus as God. Whereas Judaism rejects Jesus as Messiah, Islam has a very high regard for his mission and purpose.

Is this enough to say Christianity and Islam are the same, there are no important differences? No.  But it is enough to say there’s a common ground where an expression of solidarity indeed raises questions about complex theological matters. But such questions do not lead us away from a Christian faith, not even away from an Evangelical faith.

We are to be people who love, people of hospitality and friendship. We are to express a hope for a renewed peace and celebrate God’s goodness in the midst of different contexts. We can say that we share a common ground even with people who are different, because of what similarities we do share (there is one God, this is the God revealed to Abraham), and in the midst of our differences.

As Christians, as Evangelical Christians, we hold to a strong view of the Bible. Wheaton holds to a view called inerrancy, which is the idea that the Bible is true in every respect.

Sadly, in this case, from what I know through media reports, Wheaton is betraying its fundamental theological stance in order to take a rigid position on a subject which the Bible gives us space.

In light of Wheaton’s suspending Dr. Larycia Hawkins, I can’t help think that Wheaton is also a place that would suspend Paul the Apostle, who spoke of a shared foundation to the Areopagus, and also added a key command for women to wear headscarves.

I can’t help think Wheaton would also suspend Jesus, who expressed a solidarity with the Samaritans and others in his ministry, whose interactions and behaviors caused concern with the religious conservatives of his time.

He, shockingly, even included Gentiles, we who are not Jewish who have been grafted into the vine. Would Moses recognize us as followers of his God?

Wheaton decided that because a situation raised a complex theological question it leads to dismissal and silencing, rather than conversation about common ground, the kind of conversation that could help Wheaton truly live into its statement of faith and calling as an institution.

Such complex theological questions are not new to Wheaton.

Indeed, at the very beginning, the founder, Jonathan Blanchard, raised significant concerns about this current holiday season.

In his view, Christmas arose from pagan backgrounds and had nothing to do with the Son of God. He did not celebrate it and did not want to cancel classes during this Christmas season.

He was convinced by others to allow a break. Despite his real concerns, it was a holiday in which students could see their families and celebrate with them.

The complex theological issues about Christmas have not gone away. Jesus was certainly not born on December 25. The nativity scenes and many carols have significant Biblical and theological errors.  Yet, once again, Wheaton will take a Christmas break to show solidarity with our culture and traditions. Once again, Wheaton sends me an e-card that celebrates the birth of our messiah.

Because this fits within our cultural comfort and assumptions we are willing to paper over the complex theological questions.  “No sound does he make,” we sing in the carol, a carol that is quite docetic throughout.

All because that despite the issues, there is enough of a valid story in the Christmas celebrations that give us a place to celebrate God’s work.  We celebrate love, and hope, and peace.  We celebrate faith, a faith that God has for us, his people, to be a people who offer hope and love and peace to others.  We celebrate a gift. For God so loved the world, he sent the Son into this world.

God loves. God seeks. God shows a persistent solidarity with this world even though we all have sinned and fallen short. This is God’s work, not our work.

That is the God I believe in. The God of Abraham.

In claiming to hold onto its statement of faith in one way, it seems to me that Wheaton has rejected its statement of faith in other ways. Wheaton has bowed to the pressure of reactive others who would rather hold onto cultural patterns of division rather than find the common hope and peace and love that is our calling as Christians who serve the one God.  Wheaton has sought an easy way out of polarizing questions rather than follow the lead of the inerrant Scriptures they say they prioritize.

We are witnesses, and witnesses might disagree on key elements yet have common ground in a shared story. We can show solidarity with what we share without compromising on important differences.

There are times and places to discuss these differences. This season, this time, seems to one in need of solidarity and hope.

Follow the Scriptures, Wheaton. For Christ and his Kingdom, reinstate Dr. Hawkins.

Posted in academia, Christmas, Wheaton | 23 Comments

the broken state of public discourse

Anyone who is online and involved in segments of the opinionated classes–religion, politics, academia, etc.–quickly realizes the minefield that is public conversation.  The goal isn’t necessarily to contribute to the gathered understanding, but rather to establish yourself on a side, or show that you are one of the good people.

For instance, it’s pretty common for me to read something like, “If you don’t say _________  about _______, then you don’t understand or believe the Gospel.”  There’s always an interest in tying Jesus not only to a particular goal but to a particular stance.

I think I’ve been reacting to this for a long while.  And honestly, at my core I’m a fair bit rebellious. I’m resistant to being told what I must say or write.

I’m a rather opinionated person, to be honest, so it’s not that I don’t have a response to issues that are happening in this world. More, my recent silence to events or issues has more to do with really what is a postmodern critique. I’m suspicious with how public discourse is being used to perpetuate cycles of dysfunction.

There are sources of power that depend on such dysfunction in order to maintain their own authority.  Politics and Media are chief among them, as they must fuel disorder to maximize the psychological and social distress which they then can exploit. Religious leaders often have the same goal.

These systems establish authority and meaning for a class of people who then seek advantage within those systems or find themselves alienated or demonized. A fair amount of people who say things aren’t actually grounded in substantive understanding or belief.  They say what they say to establish themselves as faithful players in the system.  The winds change, they do too.

This is why much (most) public discourse is not really as much as a conversation as a antagonizing pattern of establishing the good people and the evil people. People rush to vocalize their stances so as to maintain or build their status in the particular system they aspire to find meaning in.

Religion, politics, academics, etc. it’s all the same as with pop culture: people tend to be less concerned about truth, beauty, or real consideration of the moral or aesthetic issues and more concerned with aligning themselves with those who can provide favor and advantage.

Tenure is supposed to secure freedom of thought in academia, but it misses the social pressures in seeking intellectual validation and approval by peers. Salvation by grace is supposed to secure freedom of thought in theology, but grace has long been coupled with proofs of one’s status as graced–toe the line of theological and ecclesial conformity or you will be rejected as having never received grace.

I’m working on a new book project this year, on the topic of liberation, and I’m currently reading through some books by Jean Marc-Ela, an African theologian.

When people must be on the lookout, like tracked animals, the development of a literature of paean and laud to the established regime translates into a form of prostitution  to which intellectuals are condemned for the sake of their families–in order to spare their elderly parents or their sisters and brothers the unpleasantness sure to ensue if a writer or speaker does not toe the party line.

Silence is as suspect as speaking or writing–paradox of paradoxes–since it can be interpreted as a form of disapproval of the prevailing regime.

Voluntary marginalization is a dangerous and precarious option where the multitudes are made to kneel before the idols of the day, ready to convulse in a hail of knee-jerk reactions at a moment’s notice.

It is not difficult to imagine the conscience drama in certain intellectual circles where writers and speakers are constrained on every occasion to utter the oracle pronounced to be the thinking of all citizens. Here, to speak in public means to repeat a discourse already heard.

The obligation to submit to official conformism fosters a parrot mentality, in which any critical reflection is a threat of dissidence and schism. The mind is locked up in a repetitious liturgy of the world of myth.

Without free thought there can be no progress in any area, and the triumph of unanimity that checks that free thought demands a whole ritual, currently manifested in the bowing and scraping to established regimes… The unity established through a one-party system is galvanized by the banishment of any form of dissidence labeled as threatening to public security.

Does this mean avoiding any public discourse? No.  For me, however, my sensitivity to the structures of power and how discourse is co-opted by the powerful for their own gain has led me to step back as I deal with my own temptations and, honestly, dependency.

I need approval and acceptance, not for a social sense of self, but because as of summer I need employment and income.  I see what I am told I need to say and think in order to gain status, who I must reject and who I must align with in order to get books sold, contracts, employment. I realize this and can’t get away from a verse that has afflicted me since seminary.

Woe to those who go down to Egypt for help, who rely on horses, who trust in the multitude of their chariots and in the great strength of their horsemen, but do not look to the Holy One of Israel, or seek help from the Lord. (Isaiah 31:1)

I say afflicted because as this passage stands out to me, I’ve stepped away from doing the things I should be doing in order to find the status I want or need.

I see this need, this interest in looking for those who may satisfy my very real concerns, and then seek to hold onto my integrity by not playing the game as it is being played.

Where is real freedom to be found?  It is very freeing to be on the outside, where dependency on approval for status and livelihood is not an issue.  But it is also a place of isolation and need.  The outside doesn’t pay that well, nor feed or house my family.

My security is bought at a price.  So, find a system to cling to–Right, Left, Populist, Academia–and commit to it, overlooking the faults of one’s “own” while demonizing those others.  That’s the temptation.

Real issues are used by people in power to secure their own power, they not only do not seek to alleviate the core problem such resolution is against their self-interest. They utilize the true believers and idealists to further establish their own gain.

Politics (on both sides), social causes, religious zeal; full of abusers and the abused, the latter often taking on a Stockholm Syndrome pattern of devotion to those whose self-interest drives the dysfunction. Public discourse is often more a game of social maneuvering than a pursuit of the fullness of truth.

I am silent because I don’t want to play into that system, even as I am absolutely obligated to speak up about issues that occur in my immediate context.  We are called to be good neighbors not loyal partisans.

I am often silent now because I’m trying to navigate how to speak outside the system within the systems, holding onto the fullness of hope and identity in Christ rather than clinging to a meaning derived from ultimately false patterns of meaning. I want to be a prophet not parrot the false-prophets that abound on every direction.

“We must conclude,” Ela writes, “that an acceptance of conflicts of opinion and a divergence of options, without the reduction of the opposition to silence, is not really incompatible with the pursuit of national unity and the progress of the masses.” Nor is is incompatible with the pursuit of good theology, unity of the church, or progress in social questions.

And so I wait on the Lord to give me wisdom and words. The pressure of not waiting is backed by the threat of judgment and dismissal and rejection: say “this” or you are rejected. Silence is indeed suspect.

That makes the goal of waiting on the Lord a difficult, brutally difficult, task.  Because those who are not waiting insist others join them in their chorus.

Posted in academia, personal, professional, religion, theology | 20 Comments

Theology as prophetic orientation

In Christian traditions, God is the primary prophet. He tells us about himself, then has others convey this knowledge. The prophets in the Bible rarely, if ever, are saying something new about God. They remind the people what they already have learned. After the Torah, the rest of the Bible is mostly commentary, and warnings, and revitalizing.

So, then, what does God tell us about his own self? What does God tell us about creation? What does God tell us about salvation, judgment, promise, redemptions? What does God tell us about the Spirit? Who is God? A simple one? A multifaceted unity? A complex unity of three persons? How does that work? What does God want us to do? Be? How are we to gather together? Who is included? What is the human condition, the human struggle, human failings? God tells Moses that he is the God of their forefathers and the I am for all generations? So, that’s history, what can we know about God’s work in history?

The challenge in these questions is to take the insight of many different narratives and teachings and speak of God in a way that is coherent with God’s revelation and has meaning for us in this present experience so that we are oriented with integrity to God’s continued work that reaches to us from the future.

It behooves us to get this right. It’s a challenge and a task to speak of God that relates the I am to who we are.

The sermon notes (now from a couple weeks ago) continue to help me orient the discussion:
The Profaning of God’s Name

  • When the delivered Israelites go to Mount Sinai to receive the law, the third commandment is that they “shall not make wrongful use of the name of YHWH your God, for YHWH will not acquit anyone who misuses his name.”
  • Ezekiel describes what the Israelites have done as a kind of corrupting or defiling of the nature and character of God. Because the people failed to enact justice and mercy but instead followed after power and the worship of idols, then the name of God was defiled. The people around Israel did not know YHWH as a God who hears the cries of the oppressed; instead they associated YHWH with the life of all the other gods.

That telling about God involves both a relationship and a study. A delving deeply into the revelation and considerations of God from those who have wrestled with his reality, living it out and filling out themes along the way. It is a spiritual task that involves the heart, mind, soul. There is no anti-intellectualism in Scripture, there’s no rejection of learning or study, indeed these are celebrated again and again, with the warnings coming in regards to false study or, often worse, ignoring God’s being or nature. Ignorance of God is no excuse, and intentional ignorance is worthy of judgment.

When we name God, we do not control God. When we call on the name of God, we are orienting ourselves in a situation of dangerous possibilities. God works, but God is who God is, not who we want God to be. God responds, but is not all things to all people. If we name God, then speak falsely of his character, values, goals, we are liable to judgment. It’s not mere strong language that’s being condemned in Exodus 20. “You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not acquit anyone who misuses his name.” Misusing God’s name is about making God seem to others something he is not. It is abusing the relationship for our own power or benefit or pleasure. When we teach about God things that God does not see as true, we are misusing the name of God. The Jewish scholars sought to bypass the danger by no longer using the name of God, using ways to get around saying the name, lest they say it vainly. Jesus was not convinced by this workaround.

We are given the Name and we are given the name so as to encounter this God who is, walking rightly, with justice and mercy, in truth. Who is this God? What has this God done? What is this God doing? What will this God do? That is the prophetic task, and it is the task of those who claim to be theologians to find coherent ways to speak of these realities, teaching who God is to each generation, ever deeper so that the people may go ever farther in the calling this God gives.

So we need theologians as prophets. But that doesn’t let theologians off the hook. False prophets, after all, do abound.

But there were also false prophets among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you. They will secretly introduce destructive heresies, even denying the sovereign Lord who bought them—bringing swift destruction on themselves. Many will follow their depraved conduct and will bring the way of truth into disrepute. In their greed these teachers will exploit you with fabricated stories. Their condemnation has long been hanging over them, and their destruction has not been sleeping.

So opens 2 Peter 2. Jeremiah 14 has this to say:

Then the Lord said to me, “The prophets are prophesying lies in my name. I have not sent them or appointed them or spoken to them. They are prophesying to you false visions, divinations, idolatries and the delusions of their own minds. Therefore this is what the Lord says about the prophets who are prophesying in my name: I did not send them, yet they are saying, ‘No sword or famine will touch this land.’ Those same prophets will perish by sword and famine. And the people they are prophesying to will be thrown out into the streets of Jerusalem because of the famine and sword. There will be no one to bury them, their wives, their sons and their daughters. I will pour out on them the calamity they deserve.

If I’m commending the role of theologian as a prophet, then I can’t ignore the warnings that comes with such a task and such a title. To be a theologian is not a casual affair, though many have treated it as yet another among many academic specialties. Maybe for some it is. For those who take this God seriously, it is a serious task and calling.

Many in the past tried to get around the warning about wrongly using God’s name by no longer using the name God gave Moses. Instead of the Name, they used the title Lord or God. In most of our translations, the name of God is translated as LORD in all caps. Jesus wasn’t convinced by this false show of piety. It’s not the name that’s the issue, it’s what we’re representing as relates to this name. If we do oppression as Christians, the name of Christ is brought into the service of the oppression, and we are making wrongful use of the name. If we condemn or alienate in ways that aren’t aligned with God, we are misusing the name. We are appropriating God’s authority for our own purposes. That’s vain. And that’s dangerous.

Academic theologians are quite a bit in this danger. I’m not only talking of the ones that are more freely indulging in heresy or don’t believe in God at all. They’re liable to judgment, sure, but not really more than everyone else. There an obvious target. In the model of Romans 1, however, I’m more interested in looking closer to home. What about the theologians who speak the words of God but are primarily oriented in systems that have, to say the least, other concerns. The academic system, for instance, in which theologians are obligated to God somewhere five or six steps down the list. The academic system leads theologians to seek academic honors and gratification, to frame the discussions so as to please academic colleagues, to be respectable in their institutions and respectable in their guilds and respectable in pursuing the theoretical fads of the moment. Being an academic is a very privileged perch, after all, where one relies on the money of those going into debt to pay for a protected status.

Again, the danger in response is an anti-intellectualism. So, we have the intellectuals on one side who serve idols of status and power and vanity. On the other side, we have those who serve the idols of ignorance and whatever whims of religious culture they might be part of. Who are the ones who seek God first, who speak deeply with learned discernment about who God is and what God is doing?

If a theologian truly is in the role of a prophet, then it’s not really feasible to find theology entrapped in the power structures of either academia or the church, where the systems dis-orient the message so as to co-opt the name.

That’s not to say that theology can’t be truly prophetic in academic or ecclesial circles. It’s just it’s a dangerous and difficult task. To be worked out with fear and trembling rather than arrogance. We don’t have idols of gold or silver or wood. We do have idols of conferences, tenure, publishing, and collegiality. Or for those of us who are on the underside of academia, we have idols of jobs, of networking, of benefits. What does it take to get those things? Sometimes it seems like we need to co-opt the name of God, use the language and message of God, living our calling vainly, in order to gain a place at the table.

We associate YHWH with the life of all the other gods of our time. And people then realize the theologians have little or nothing to say about God himself.

It doesn’t have to be like this.

Posted in academia, spirituality, teaching, theology | 2 Comments

Theologian as Prophet

As my PhD in theology is still somewhat fresh, and my career is in what might be best called a nebulous phase, I think a lot about what it means now to be a “theologian.” I’m a professional at that, after all, so I should really know what that profession is about. I’m still wary, honestly, about using that term as it seems so, well, grandiose. But, what else would I say?

That’s what my professional education and training is in. Evagrios of Pontus would suggest that a theologian is someone who prays truly and someone who prays truly is a theologian. I’d like to think that I fit that, or at least I fit that better as I go along in this life. Is that it then?

Jeremiah

I like Evagrios’s comment but I mig ht make a suggestion, one that incorporates that and extends it into a profession. Dare I say calling? Is there a charism fittingly labeled as “theologian” in our era?

I tentatively think so. I’ve been considering this for a while and my musings got a spark in the sermon notes printed in the church bulletin this past Sunday. (For the sermon, here’s a video)

There’s four sections in the notes, and so I’m going to do a post per section, adding my musings to the comments by Scott Daniels. I think the role of theologian can (though certainly not must) fill the role of prophet, and as such this gives theologians both a calling and an orientation in the church, something both theologians and the church have often ignored.

From the notes:
The Work of the Prophet: Deconstruction and Reconstruction

  • The prophets fulfilled a very important–if dangerous–role in the nation of Israel. Generally speaking, there are three key leadership roles in the OT: prophet, priest, and king. The problem with kingship (and the prosperity it represents) is that it seems inevitably to erode the radical uniqueness of God’s people in the world.

Who serves the role of “king” in a Christian sense? Jesus, of course. As savior and lord, Jesus is the head of the church, he is king of kings and lord of lords. There can’t be two heads and while we may certainly have power structures in churches and society, there’s only one in charge of the mission. It’s a messianic mission empowered by the Holy Spirit. Messiah and Spirit and Father. The king in the OT was a cultural accommodation, meant to provide a visible headship, an immanent analogy. Of course, a king hates being limited to analogy so often took on airs of absolute power. Nowadays, there’s none that can or should serve that role.

We have immediate access to God through the Son in the Spirit, and any hierarchy is more parliamentary than royal in function. That being said, kings represent the temporal order of things, the political and legal systems in this world. We do have those systems and wherever else our allegiance might be, we participate in these systems. Who is our king? Who defines our status and participation, who is included and excluded. That’s a big question, but moving away from the present one. Let’s move on…

  • Priests take care of the day-to-day spiritual needs of the people and administer the worship taking place in the temple. Priests, however, tend to be status-quo kinds of leaders. They are no less prone to corruption than are kings. Too often the priesthood becomes a religious prop for the reigning monarch–whether they are good or bad.

Priests are the key players in the religious system, a system that involves making connections between the transcendent and immanent, between the ethereal and earthly. It also involves navigating perceived paradoxes in life, giving meaning to our role in the universe. The trouble is that in this system, there is the expectations of the system. People expect the system to function in a predictable way. Priests (or pastors) are conditioned to performing their duties in a predictable way. The establishment of a rhythm is itself part of the system. But in times of corruption or issues of life or faith that are outside the orientation of the system, a person can find emptiness, desolation, exclusion.Prophet-Elias-Grk-ikon

I encountered this in junior high and early high school, during a season of extreme financial stress in our family, coupled with major health issues, there was no resonance in the churches or youth groups. They were oriented towards middle and upper middle class religious system.

Meanwhile, my family was struggling to eat and pay rent and struggled with knowing where God was in the midst of a crisis in which almost all our family and friends were Christians but we were left to struggle alone. For the most part–I had very close friends during this time that were sustaining influences, true community, even though I didn’t know then how to express my hurt or need. It was just life as it was and it had nothing to do with church.

The religion system just didn’t reach into our lives, and the religious system is also susceptible to corruption. Arbiters of heaven and hell, transcendence and coherence, can use this power for their own benefits, financially, socially, psychologically.

This is a big reason why I struggle with the emphasis of church as the kingdom of God. It leaves no room for critique. It also prioritizes the religious system as the whole experience of life. If you’re finding value or success in that system (as does, for instance, people Stanley Hauerwas) it makes sense to commend it. If you’re on the outside, then you’re told to get on the inside, because that’s where you’ll be filled. jesus_scrollThis isn’t to reject the religious system, but rather to suggest there needs to be a critical voice, one that calls the church (and its leaders) towards deepening, towards refocusing, away from tendencies that are not values of Christ’s mission or the Spirit’s work.

The Church, after all, may always be pointing towards a kingdom, but it’s not always the kingdom of God. Sermons, for instance, can be very powerful messages of God’s word. They also, however, can embed distortions and symbolize unfortunate power structures and disoriented theology (by prioritizing one person and one medium as the expression of the Spirit in a church setting). The pastor, for better or worse, is part of the religious system that is the church so reflects the values and priorities of this system, sometimes more than the people who are present, who are the people Christ values and the Spirit is working through.

The sermon notes continue:

The prophets, on the other hand, come from outside the political system (they are usually weird and antisocial in some way) and speak the word of the LORD to the king and to the priests. This is why they often are persecuted because they speak from outside the system, to the system. The word of the LORD from the prophet is therefore often hard for the people to hear. When the people finally are able to hear the deconstructing word of discipline from the prophet they are then able to hear the reconstructing words of hope from that also flow through the prophets.

To the system, but not of the system. That seems a great description of the role theologians can play. The idea that the prophetic must somehow be anti-intellectual or unlearned is a great mistake. Often it is the people who spend the most time with the texts who are able to discern the trends, the “signs of the times,” the message of God for a moment or generation. The Holy Spirit works in spontaneous ways but also in deeper gifts, charisms of learning and teaching and discernment.

The trouble, of course, is that theologians may give their allegiance to other systems. The education industrial complex system, for instance, which creates structures of power, meaning, identity, success that often orients a person’s passion into patterns that buttress the system rather than lead to truth or transformation. So, the idea of a theologian as prophet might be both a call and a challenge, for both the church and those who have made it their life to study and teach the ways of God.

There are more notes to muse on, so there’s more to come.

Posted in academia, musings, religion, society, theology | 1 Comment