John B. Cobb, Jr., Ph.D. is Professor of Theology Emeritus at the Claremont School of Theology, Claremont, California, and Co-Director of the Center for Process Studies there. His many books currently in print include: Reclaiming the Church (1997); with Herman Daly, For the Common Good; Becoming a Thinking Christian (1993); Sustainability (1992); Can Christ Become Good News Again? (1991); ed. with Christopher Ives, The Emptying God: a Buddhist-Jewish-Christian Conversation (1990); with Charles Birch, The Liberation of Life; and with David Griffin, Process Theology: An Introductory Exposition (1977). He is a retired minister in the United Methodist Church. His email address is email@example.com..
The following paper was delivered in 1990 at a conference of theological school faculty . Used by permission of the author.
The deep changes needed in our world cannot occur without the self-reform of major institutions, most of which are inherently conservative and resistant to change. The church is one such institution. However, some of the smaller institutions affiliated with the church may be in position to bring about change, and theological seminaries are among the most important of them.
Our meeting here could be an historic event. It could be the beginning of a different kind of self-reflection by schools of theology, and of a process of thoughtful self-transformation. Such a development among schools of theology could encourage similar changes in churches and even in universities.
Of course, our gathering is more likely to be just one more of many occasions on which representatives of seminaries gather to discuss what might be desirable, knowing all the while that the realities of institutional politics preclude any significant change. We well know how difficult it is to change curriculum, how deeply we are all entrenched in our disciplines. But even if we fail to make much of a dent in our established ways, our meeting may be one more step in changing the climate in which we work, and, if so, it will be worth the time and effort that has been expended. Still, it will not be "historic."
Let me explain why, despite my realistic assessment that it will probably be otherwise, I hope so urgently for the historic outcome. My explanation will be quite personal.
In 1969 I was awakened to the realization that if humanity continued on its dominant lines of activity, the Earth was headed for catastrophe. I was shocked to the core of my being. I had been aware before then, of course, of various problems. I knew there was starvation in the world. I knew that there were continued patterns of colonial oppression. Noone could have lived through the sixties without being aware of the depths of racial injustice in our own country. And noone could live in Southern California and not know about smog.
But until that summer, this litany of evils, one that could be greatly extended, had seemed a matter of miscellaneous problems against which some headway was being made. One should select some problem, I thought, and do what one could to respond to it, supporting others who focused on other problems. That was our Christian calling. We needed to be involved in the ongoing struggle for justice, urgent, of course, but set against a background of long-term historical developments from which one could derive encouragement.
What I realized in the summer of 1969 was that history as we have known it, with all its greatness and all its horrors, would not continue unless its direction was changed. Efforts to mitigate particular injustices did not seem very significant if, as relative justice emerged here and there, the basis of livelihood for all eroded radically. Most of our best-intentioned efforts seemed more like rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic than like taking part in God’s work of gradual bringing of Shalom. The impending doom seemed so important that I became obsessed with it. Nothing else seemed to matter very much. I spoke and wrote and organized conferences about this in a rather shrill tone, I fear.
Nothing that has happened in the ensuing quarter century has changed my conviction that we are collectively moving toward destruction. Nor do I feel much better about participating in institutions, such as schools and churches, that continue to be part of the problem more than part of the solution. But I have realized, more and more vividly, that simply recognizing the danger does little good. Also, changing individual lifestyles, desirable as that is, does not go far toward saving the planet. If the catastrophes that are already happening, and the greater ones that are now inevitable, are to be contained and limited, there must be profound changes in institutions.
In 1973 our faculty in Claremont adopted a curriculum theme that acknowledged the global crisis and the suffering it was already causing as the context in which we taught our courses. It was a good step, and with Dean Freudenberger’s leadership, it had some effect on our scholarly work, on our teaching, and on the understanding of ministry of many of our graduates. But it had very little effect on the School of Theology at Claremont as an institution, and our graduates have had very little effect on the church as an institution. I do not minimize the importance of our effort or of its ongoing legacy, but I do feel the need to reflect on why its effects have been so modest.
These effects have been modest, first, because our commitment was modest. We could vote for the theme because this committed us only to be open to its possible implications, not to rethink either our individual courses or the curriculum as a whole. Second, since little was institutionalized, what did occur depended on wthe interests and concerns of particular people. As they leave, the whole thing tends to become part of the history of the school and its curriculum, fading into the past. Changing faculties bring changing emphases, and the institution within which these faculties work allows for this. But as an institution, STC continues to embody those values and those assumptions that result in unsustainable practices rather than others that might generate a sustainable society.
Back in the seventies there was also some activity in the churches. The most creative leadership came from the American Baptists. Jitsuo Morikawa gathered around him a group of imaginative younger Christians (including Harvey Cox, at one time), and with them he initiated a program they called Evangelistic Life Styles. Sadly, the term evangelistic is used more often in other ways, but in that usage it meant bringing truly good news of God’s salvific work in the world against the background of realistic assessment of what our current activities were doing to the Earth. It gained the support of the denomination as a whole, and I am sure that it had an impact in many congregations. But the institution was not significantly affected at either the local or the national level. For the most part, this program, too, has faded into history.
I worked closely with Morikawa for a number of years, and I learned much from him. I learned that even within our present institutional structures a bureaucrat with vision and political skills can bring about changes that are genuinely Christian. But I also saw how costly such success is, and how easily patterns revert to normal when the energy and creativity of the unusual leader is removed.
From time to time Morikawa talked to me about the importance of a theology of institutions. At first I paid only polite attention. I had no idea what a theology of institutions would be, and I assumed that if there was anything to be done on such a topic, it was the task of my colleagues in sociology of religion or Christian ethics. But Morikawa thought otherwise, and by his persistence he opened my eyes.
After he had retired from his work with the American Baptists, and had retired again from an interim ministry at Riverside Church, he settled in Ann Arbor. In his self-effacing way he became a remarkably successful missionary to the thoroughly secular University of Michigan. His most visible achievements were arranging to bring Hans Kueng and Gustavo Guttierez to the univesity for extended and effective stays.
But he also wanted the leadership of the university to look at itself and its institution. On one occasion he arranged for me to address this leadership group. In the process of preparing to do so, I finally began to understand what a theology of institutions would be. It is a quite simple notion, but one that had eluded me all the same. Nor do I find that other theologians are accustomed to this mode of thinking.
A theology of institutions is an examination, from a Christian point of view, of the basic values and assumptions underlying institutional life, and, where these assumptions are found inadequate or inappropriate, it includes the proposal of alternatives. At least for me, a Christian point of view today takes seriously and centrally the fact that continuation of our present course of action will doom the world that God loves. Since none of our institutions were founded with this in view, all are vulnerable to criticism. Proposing different assumptions and then going on to implement them is the hard part.
I have focused exclusively on the one point that concern for sustainability played no part in the establishment of any of our institutions. But much more can be said. The assumptions underlying these institutions are also anthropocentric, androcentric, and Eurocentric. And the particular practices and patterns associated with these assumptions accentuate the contribution of all our institutions to the unsustainability of our society.
To summarize what I have said thus far, there will be no redirection away from the precipice toward which we are now heading without a reform of institutions. Such a reform requires critical reflection about the values and assumptions on which institutions in their present form exist. In all cases, among the assumptions underlying our institutions, a pervasive one is that the wider context in which they are set will endure. As a result, none of our institutions are structured for the purpose of changing this wider context so that it will be sustainable. Until they are so structured, history will continue on its self-destructive course.
But where can the reform of institutions begin? There is no easy place. Institutions are inherently conservative. They have survived by holding steadfastly to tested forms. They evolve very slowly in response to changing social patterns.
The main exceptions to these generalizations are those institutions that are most sensitive to the market. Competition in the market requires changes, often drastic ones. Businesses die, and new ones, taking different forms, are born. Unfortunately, market-driven change is not what is needed now. Businesses will change as shortages become acute, or as pollution leads to legislation that restricts them. Some will anticipate the increased demand for pollution controls and begin manufacturing them in anticipation. In this sense they can be proactive. But to expect business and industry proactively to adjust their basic structure for the sake of creating a sustainble society would be to misunderstand the nature of the market that dictates their actions. In any case, the market itself, as the more fundamental institution, changes very slowly.
There are nonprofit volunteer organizations that come into being around visions and the desire to implement them. Some of these are shaped fundamentally by the values and assumptions that I, as a Christian, affirm. It is not impossible that some of these now peripheral organizations can bring into being new institutions to replace the presently dominant religious, educational, legal, medical, political, and financial ones. In view of the conservatism built into existing institutions, this may be our only hope.
Nevertheless, it is worthwhile to continue the search for existing institutions whose values and assumptions include possibilities for self-criticism and reform despite the conservative tendencies built into them. When we examine isntitutions with this question in mind, the major candidates are the religious ones. Judaism and Christianity, in particular, are committed to ideals that function as a basis for self-criticism and reform. More and more religious organizations are recognizing the importance of the environment and making appropriate theological pronouncements. In principle they are calling for changes that imply their own reform.
Between such theoretical assertions by a few leaders and actual institutional changes there lies a great gap. A few local congregations may be experimenting with real reform, and these should be celebrated. But on the whole, the oldline churches, from which the best statements come, are struggling for their survival. Reform and restructuring are currently determined by this struggle rather than by proactive response to the needs of the world. There is not much likelihood of any denomination undertaking to reorder its life so as to contribute to the sustainability of life on the planet.
Apart from occasional local congregations, the most promising place to begin is with small educational institutions closely tied to the church. There is some renewal in small church-related colleges of a concern with the meaning of their church connection. What does it mean for them to be Christian? Are there ways that this should shape their mission, their curriculum, their internal structure? I am hopeful that in some cases this may lead to reordering their lives in light of the most urgent issues.
Theological schools provide the other avenue. Perhaps the question as to what their church-relationship means is asked less searchingly among us because of the apparent self-evidence of the answer: we are preparing ministerial leadership for the churches. Nevertheless, this need not exhaust the answer to the question. We can also ask: What kind of leadership do our churches need in a world heading for disaster? Our church relationship can also mean that we exist to serve in the church’s mission to the world. It might mean that, in order to do this, we ourselves need to become Christian communities. In my understanding, following the World Council of Churches’ earlier formulation, that would mean becoming communities that model just and sustainable patterns of life. I understand that our purpose in gathering here is to reflect on whether we do indeed have such a calling and, if so, what it would mean concretely to respond.
Most of us are more immediately involved in issues of gender, ethnic pluralism, and justice than in global environmental questions. The latter can seem a distraction from the immediacy of the former issues, which often have strong constituencies in our midst. These tensions have been part of the church’s reflection for some time.
At the time of the United Nations Stockholm conference on the environment, the World Council of Churches remained aloof. It was deeply committed to justice for the Third World. Much of what environmentalists were saying seemed to call for a redirection of energies from issues of justice to those of preserving the environment. I have described how I was myself affected by my new awareness of what was happening to the planet as a whole. Some of the suspicion was justified.
The suspicion was often intensified by the fact that middle class persons from the First World sometimes seemed chiefly concerned with the aesthetic quality of their environment. I recall that my own town of Claremont set up a citizens’ committee on the environment whose proposals were designed to enhance the quality of life for those affluent enough to live there. The recommended policies would have made Claremonters even more dependent on their automobiles and forced population growth into neighboring towns and orange groves.
Hence, the World Council and others were not entirely wrong to think that the environmental movement sometimes placed the enjoyment by the rich of a beuatiful environment above meeting the basic needs of the poor. To some, the environmental movement was another First World trick to block the economic development of the Third World. Nevertheless, the Stockholm conference itself, the growing awareness that the poor are the first to suffer from environmental degradation, and the recognition that the crisis is of an ultimate character for all, brought the World Council around. At Nairobi in 1975 the Assembly added the word "sustainable" to its call for a just and participatory society. At Vancouver the analogous phrase was "the integrity of creation."
Whereas in contexts other than the church, interest in the environment has sometimes been separated from concern for justice, this has not happened in the church. The title of our gathering might suggest otherwise: "theological education to meet the environmental challenge." But the subtitle reassures us: "toward just and sustainable communities." The Christian task forces dealing with the environmental crisis have typically borne such names as "eco-justice."
The problem has been to integrate these two concerns rather than to have them lie side by side in tension. In my opinion, the work of the World Council on this subject has been good. In the book I wrote with Charles Birch, a leader in World Council deliberations, the three concluding chapters argued in a variety of contexts that only a just society is sustainable and only a sustainable society is just. We tried to show quite concretely how, again and again, the reforms that make for justice make for sustainability and the reforms that make for sustainability make for justice. Within the church, there is little danger that environmental concerns will work against the cause of justice.
Nevertheless, any school of theology that engages in serious reflection about reshaping itself in ways appropriate to the environmental challenge will face difficult problems. Despite the positive relation of justice and sustainability, priorities dictated by the immediacy of pain felt by victims of injustice can be in tension with those derived from an overview of how a just and sustainable community should shape its life.
This brings me to another theme. The slogan emerging from Nairobi in 1975 was "the just, participatory, and sustainable society." When Birch and I wrote our book we simplified by treating "participatory" as an essential feature of being "just." The term "eco-justice," likewise makes no explicit reference to participation. The new slogan formulated in Vancouver omits "participatory" in calling for "peace, justice, and the integrity of creation." The subtitle of this conference speaks only of justice and sustainability.
I am not supposing that any of us intend to reject the reality of participation when we drop the word. With respect to the subtitle of this conference, paticipation is clearly implied in the word "community." Nevertheless, the failure to highlight the importance of participation could have negative consequences.
Impatient as I am to see radical changes made, I have also come to realize that changes are sustainable only if they are made through processes of widespread participation. Indeed, today I would be more inclined to simplify the earlier slogan of the World Council to "participatory and sustainable," subsuming justice under participation, than to subsume participation under justice, as I did earlier. Different communities understand justice differently. Simply calling for justice can be one more way in which some of us impose our ideas on the practice of others. Those of us shaped by the Enlightenment, for example, often think of justice in quite individualistic ways alien to persons of some other cultures. On the other hand, if the others participate equally with us in shaping the community, the result will embody some acceptable form of justice.
Whereas I believe that within the church the tension between justice and sustainablity has been fundamentally resolved, this may not yet be the case between participation and sustainability. Participatory decision-making may not lead to outcomes that favor sustainability. The outcome depends on who is participating and the nature of their commitments. One reason that institutional change did not occur in the seventies was that most people treated the environment as one issue on a list that included higher priorities. When the people making the decision think that way, wide participation in decisions will not redirect institutions toward sustainability. In that earlier context, those who thought as I did could act only in marginal ways.
It is my hope that in the 1990’s, at least in some of our schools, the situation has changed. The awareness of the pervasiveness and finality of the environmental crisis is now more widely shared. Those who focus primarily on the liberation of particular oppressed people or on other specific causes are usually not indifferent to the fate of the Earth. There may be sufficient consensus on the urgency of developing a sustainable society to achieve agreement on some elements of institutional reform for which only a few were ready in the seventies.
But this does not mean that we should try for reform based on this area of agreement alone. The reform that is needed requires the engagement of people in terms of their primary and most immediate concerns as well as their acknowledgment of this comprehensive one. Only this inclusiveness will make the reform genuinely participatory. The reform of institutions must be sensitive to all the particular concerns of the groups who make it up as well as the shared commitment to sustainability.
There is a second reason to hope that the nineties may allow for changes for which we were not ready in the seventies. This is because we have been deeply affected for two decades by the various liberation theologies and especially by feminism. Feminists have persistently awakened us to the depth to which patriarchy shapes all our disciplines, the disciplinary style of thinking in general, our way of teaching, and the hierarchical structure of our institutions, as well as our ignoring of the consequences of our actions for the Earth. Some feminists have gone beyond critique and deconstruction to explore alternatives. They are far ahead of most non-feminist environmentalists. Most of what they have proposed, and to some extent implemented, stands ready for employment by the whole institution if it wants to transform itself into a just and sustainable community.
The just and sustainable communities that we want to become must be participatory. Furthermore, the way of moving towards them must be participatory. This process takes time and energy. It can lead to failure with respect to its initial goals. But it is the only way.
It may be relatively easy to get participation of faculty at the level of conversation. The problem here may be that we professors are all too accustomed to talking, but talk freely only because we are confident that no significant change is really demanded of us. The most difficult of all areas for reform is likely to be the curriculum. Unless we professors consider involvement in the theology of institutions to be as important as advancing our own disciplines and our careers within our guilds, little will happen. This means directing that we will be willing to direct our critical and constructive inquiry to the theological school itself.
The participation of the trustees in extended conversation may be the most difficult to secure, simply because the school is not the place of their primary involvement. In addition, they are likely to raise some of the most difficult questions. Within the present institution they are charged with the responsibility to find the money to support the institution. The sorts of reforms that may be proposed by students, faculty, and staff may seem to them to make their job more difficult, even impossible. They cannot responsibly support changes that will lead to the demise of the institution.
The other components of the seminary community will have to acknowledge the validity of the concerns expressed by trustees. The tendency to assume that trustees are "conservative" and that they reject new ideas for that reason alone is unfair. Many of them are at least as committed Christians, serving the seminary out of love of the church, as are any other members of the community. Trustees who are confronted with proposals for radical reforms which they have not participated in shaping will be justifiably suspicious that they are unrealistic. But if they are part of the process throughout, there can be hope both that the reforms proposed will be truly practicable and that they will be recognized as such by the trustees.
In most cases, the community that must participate in shaping a participatory community committed to justice and sustainability will include representatives of the denominations most involved in the school. Institutional reform is not likely to succeed if the churches with which the school is most closely related to do not feel ownership. Sometimes the key persons will already be among the trustees, but in many instances other church people should be involved.
It is obvious that this kind of process will not take place unless there is general awareness of the need for change, on the one hand, and strong commitment on the part of key people. Unless becoming what we are called to be is our first priority, it will not happen. The cost in time and energy to already overworked people is simply too great. One major reason that institutions are inherently conservative is that continuing in existing ruts is far easier and less demanding than asking searching questions and allowing ourselves to be reshaped by the answers.
But any institution that risks entering such a process could also stand to gain. Even if the outcome falls far short of the just and sustainable communities for which we hope, the interaction among the many groups involved, the deeper levels of reflection, and the heightened understanding would by themselves move the institution some steps toward the just and sustainable community. The process insures some elements of the product.
If what emerged out of a process in which the church participated was recognized by the church as a just and sustainable community, the enthusiasm and support of the church would surely be enhanced. The possibility of considering analogous changes in other church institutions, even including the denomination as such, would arise. A true renewal of the church might ensue. This is what I had in mind at the outset when I said that this gathering could be an historic event.
I have proposed an ideal pattern of participation. That ideal is both necessary and dangerous. It is dangerous because it can easily be misunderstood.
One form of misunderstanding would be to suppose that for it to work everyone involved in the institution must take an active part. This will never happen, and disappointment that it does not happen can sour the process if there are false expectations. The process should be open, and those most involved should be representative of the diverse constituencies. They should also be in touch with many of those they represent to encourage their interest and support, elicit their ideas, and mediate these to the core discussion. Town meetings and other devices will be required in order to become sensitive to the concerns of persons other than the core participants. But the community should not hope for the impossible. Constituents will not feel ownership of the process if they are not confident that their voices are heard. But most of them will not, indeed, cannot, commit the time and energy for full particiption throughout.
A second form of misunderstanding is that a participatory process reduces the role of leadership. On the contrary, it requires more leadership, and more skilled leadership, than does a hierarchical style. Without skilled leaders deeply committed to the goal and the process, the result will be failure. Such leadership is not limited to facilitating the larger group. It includes the introduction of proposals for discussion and pushing for practical agreements when the discussion indicates that there is a chance that these may have wide support.
A third misunderstanding could be that all the desires of all the participants could eventually be harmonized in a universally satisfactory conclusion. If participants judge the outcome primarily by how fully their primary agenda are implemented, there is not much hope for change. They have the right to expect that their concerns will be heard and that the outcome will be affected by the group’s desire to deal with them. But only if participants have a lively sense of the limits of what is possible, of the need to bargain and compromise as well as to arrive at solutions that meet the needs of all, in short, of the creatureliness of all of us and of all our institutions, can reform take place. Expecting too much blocks change as effectively as expecting too little. When measured by perfectionist standards, the result of the best reform will fall far short, especially since one person’s perfection seems oppressive to others.
Since I am emphasizing the process by which a just and sustainable community comes into being, and since that process is a participatory one, it would be quite inappropriate for me to say what the resulting community would look like. On the other hand, since I have also said that leadership includes introducing proposals to be discussed rather than simply facilitating other people in expressing their concerns, it may be appropriate to note some of the topics that could be considered. I will list sixteen. I am sure you can add others.
First, there is the content of the curriculum. To what extent is it shaped by awareness of the most pressing needs of the world? Does it offer a vision of a just and sustainable community. To what extent does it motivate students to lead in forming such communities and enable them to do so? To what extent does it help them to understand both how the existing church blocks appropriate response and also its resources for metanoia? To what extent should students participate in determining the curriculum? What role should the church play? If we cannot truly rethink the curriculum, so that the horizon of all of the teaching is the reality of the world in which ministry occurs, any other changes that are made will be unsustainable.
Second, there is the method of instruction. This is the most threatening area for me personally, and it may be that I bring it up now only because I am at the end of my career. I have enjoyed conventional lecturing and seminar discussion. I am not persuaded that these are always poor forms of teaching. But I am persuaded, in spite of my habits and prejudices, that there are other ways of involving students that are more empowering, that my style models a way of relating that is inferior to others, in short, that many of the methods others are using are more appropriate for a just, participatory, and sustainable community. In particular, we need to ask: Is the content and style of instruction sensitive to the ethnic diversity of the students? Does it meet their differing needs and involve them in ways that are appropriate to their cultural differences? If it undertakes to help them transcend their cultures, does it do so in accordance with their own desire to do so?
Third, there is the matter of how we worship. Can worship perform its function of building community around a shared love of God and the world? Can it open us up to one another, or does it become one more source of division? Can it overcome the deep seated habits of associating God with the individual human soul and reestablish the self-evidence of God’s primary relationship to the world? Can it manifest and internalize the unity of the concern for the oppressed and for the Earth?
Fourth, there are questions of hiring practices. Is affirmative action working satisfactorily? Should special consideration be given to having a faculty and staff that in some way mirror the ethnic diversity within the student body? Should concern for the Earth become a requirement of those to be appointed? How otherwise can reforms be sustained? What about the membership of the Board of Trustees?
Fifth, there are questions of rank, tenure, and salary? Do the differences between tenured and non-tenured faculty and the different ranks contribute to a just and sustainable community or inhibit its development? Are salary differences within the faculty, within the staff, and between faculty and staff appropriate or damaging? Are there any ways to establish salaries other than market competition? How open should the budgeting process be to the various segments of the seminary community?
Sixth, there are questions about the relation of employment and finance to the students. Could or should students constitute a larger portion of the employees of the School, reducing their need to work elsewhere? Would that enhance community or hurt it? Could seminaries organize themselves so that financial pressures on students would be reduced and more of them could give primary attention to their participation in the life of the school? Can this participation become a central part of their preparation for ministry?
Seventh, there is the governance of the institution, the separation of powers among students, faculty, staff, and trustees. Can we find ways of governance that allow for greater participation of the whole community without making undue demands on participants or clouding the diversity of roles and responsibilities within the institution? Can we gain greater mutual appreciation and respect through freer interaction?
Eighth, there is the question of the funding of the institution and the investment of its resources. If funding is now dependent on sources that resist institutional change, can these sources participate in discussions that would reassure them about such change? Can other sources of funding be found who would be enthusiastic about a just and sustainable community? Can investments be withdrawn from companies whose role works against justice and sustainability? Or can the trustees use the institution’s investments to work for change within such companies? Can money be invested in small, local businesses, especially minority ones or even in student-operated businesses meeting the needs of the community?
Ninth, there are buildings and grounds. When new buildings are constructed, can they be designed to make minimum use of scarce resources? Can they be built so as to encourage community among those who occupy them? Can old buildings be remodeled to such ends? Can the grounds be planted in ways that reduce the pressure on resources — such as water in dry areas or the need for air conditioning where it is hot? Is maximum use being made of solar energy for heating and cooling as well as for hot water? Are there other ways that some of the energy needed on campus can be produced locally?
Tenth, there are purchasing policies. Can the school meet more of its requirements through purchase of locally produced goods? For example, can more of the food served on campus be grown on local farms? Can the school support those farmers who are growing food organically? Can places be found on campus to grow some food there? Can the school engage in affirmative action with regard to purchasing from small minority businesses? Can we avoid supporting unjust and unsustainable ways of producing food? Can faculty, students, and staff also arrange their purchases with similar considerations in mind?
Eleventh, there are other questions about the food served on campus. What role should meat play in the diet? Are there reasons to avoid meat altogether or at least to eat further down on the food chain? Can we avoid supporting those forms of factory farming that cause extreme suffering to animals? Should there be an effort to introduce the whole community to the foods of different cultural groups represented within it?
Twelfth, there are still other questions about the use of resources in the functioning of the community. Can we not only recycle but also reduce the amount of paper and metals used in the academic and business life of the school? Can we avoid so much packaging? To take the use of paper as an example of our institutional consumptive habits, must papers be written on only one side of a page? Must they be double spaced? Can they use the backs of used paper? Do we need as many copies of documents as we typically make? Can modern technology substitute for so much use of paper instead of increasing it? Do we need as many copies of documents as we make? Can we dry our hands on less paper?
Thirteenth, there are other issues of lifestyle. Can or should life on the campus become more communal? Should this reflect cultural lines, or should there be more experiments in cross-cultural intentional community? Can changed lifestyles be a means of living more cheaply and reducing financial pressures on students and on the school budget? Can changes of this sort have an effect on faculty and staff as well?
Fourteenth, there are questions about the nature of student life and organization. Should the community strive to integrate each student directly into its total life, or should it affirm instead a diversity of caucuses or groups within it? In short, should it aim to be a single community, or should it model itself as a community of communities? How can it best implement either goal? If caucuses continue to be needed in a just and sustainable community, will the new context affect their self-understanding? Can their present focus on grievances shift to a more constructive one?
Fifteenth, there are questions about how a seminary relates to other schools of theology. Is this relation primarily competitive? Does this competition cost each seminary money that could do more for the church and the world if it were spent cooperatively? Can just and sustainable communities develop just and sustainable relations with one another? For example, can recruitment for ministry become more cooperative and less competitive?
Sixteenth, there are questions about how faculty members relate to their guilds. If we learn to teach with different foci and emphases, perhaps with less isolation from one another and more emphasis on the needs of students, the church, and the world, can we affect the ways in which our guilds function? Can the academic disciplines themselves be reformed? Or can ways of organizing inquiry and teaching other than through traditional disciplines actually replace the disciplinary and guild systems?
I have one specific proposal that would apply both to the process of working towards just and sustainable community and also to the curriculum that would eventuate. It is that courses be designed for the study of the institution itself. In my opinion, a just and sustainable community must be one that is continuously reflective about its own nature. It is also my observation that the one object of study most assiduously avoided in contemporary higher education is higher education itself, and especially the institutions that provide it. We, in theological schools, devote considerable attention to a critical study of the church. Thus far we have devoted almost none to a critical study of ourselves. This brings us back to the importance of self-study as the central way to engage in a theology of institutions.
One example of self-study has been provided by David Orr at Hendrix College, and now, I understand, at Oberlin. I hope that Jay McDaniel will tell us more about this. It is my understanding that it concentrated on purchasing policies of the school and came up with proposals that enabled the school to buy more local products. Examining the actual social and ecological effects of the institution upon its environment proved to be an important contribution to the education of the students as well as to the improvement of the institution.
Obviously this is not the only feature of a school of theology the examination of which would be highly educational to students. All of the topics I have suggested for discussion, as a seminary seeks to become a just and sustainable community, could also be considered in seminars. Indeed, having groups of students devote part of their regular study time to pursuing these questions could facilitate the process greatly. These students would also be gaining practical skills for understanding and reforming the institutions in which they will subsequently serve.
In conclusion, let me summarize my basic theses.
l. The deep changes needed in our world cannot occur without the self-reform of major institutions.
2. These institutions are inherently conservative and resistant to such changes.
3. The church is one institution that does engage regularly in self-criticism and from time to time reforms itself.
4. Today there is very little prospect that any of our oldline denominations are in position to engage in such reform.
5. However, some of the smaller institutions affiliated with the church may be in position to do so.
6. Seminaries are among the most important of such institutions.
7. If reform begins in seminaries, it could spread.
8. Such reform requires a depth of reflection and a breadth of participation that are difficult, but not impossible, to secure.
9. The experience of raising fundamental questions about who we are in a participatory context will be inherently valuable even if we do not succeed in all respects in becoming just and sustainable communities.
I do not intend to say that the fate of the world rests on our weak shoulders. However limited our work, it is my hope that God use our efforts to counter the movement toward self-destruction. If we decline to respond to God’s call, I hope that God can find some other channel for transforming and redeeming activity. But I long to see us both try and succeed. I do believe in all seriousness that those of us in seminaries are in a strategic place for working with God for the salvation of the world. I hope our weariness and fear will not deafen us to the call to risk and dare. May God bless you all.