8. A Theological School
You have been invited to share in a thought experiment about the questions, “What makes a good theological school?” and “What makes it truly theological and makes its schooling excellent?” That which ultimately makes a theological school theological and provides the criteria of its excellence as a school is not the structure of its curriculum, nor the types of pedagogical methods it employs, nor the dynamics of its common life, nor the structure of its polity, nor even the “sacred” subject matters it studies; rather it is the nature of its overarching end and the degree to which that end governs all that comprises its common life. What makes a school truly theological and what makes its schooling excellent are interrelated because both are rooted in the school’s defining end.
What is that end? Conventional wisdom assumes that the defining goal of a theological school is to educate clergy for the churches, or, more broadly, to educate leadership for the churches (whether it is lay or ordained leadership is probably irrelevant). Theological schools are usually classified as “professional” schools whose overarching purpose it is to educate persons ready to fill with competence the roles of the professional clergy. That, after all, is what the denominations found and support theological schools to do. The charters of many nondenominational schools make it clear that is what they were founded to do. True, a theological school understood on the model of paideia would not be defined by that goal; paideia aims to shape a person’s identity, not to equip the person to fulfill any particular social role. However, a theological school understood on the Berlin model would necessarily be defined by the goal of educating church leadership. Schleiermacher designed that model precisely to unite a research university’s wissenchaftlich education with education for one of society’s “necessary” professions. Theological education shaped by that model, as North American theological education is today, is by definition “professional education.” It is, in Edward Farley’s phrase, theological education on the “clerical paradigm.” 
The conventional view that a theological school is “theological” because it educates church leadership has been roundly attacked in the current conversation about theological education. Perhaps the single most dramatic and important consequence of the conversation is that the “clerical paradigm” has been thoroughly discredited. However, it is important to be clear about just what has been discredited and why. Nobody at all has denied that theological schooling can educate people for church leadership; nor has anybody denied that church leaders should undergo theological schooling.  Rather, two points have been made.
The first is that it is disastrous to define theological schooling as the task of educating church leadership because it distorts and finally destroys theology.  If what makes a theological school “theological” is that it educates persons to fill the roles comprising the profession of church leadership, then “theology” becomes a name for bodies of theory that are applied by religious specialists in the practice of church leadership. Since the practice of that profession is comprised of a large number of quite different types of functions, the sorts of relevant theory will need to be diverse also. “Theology” is fragmented. It becomes a collective name for an array of types of theory whose only connection to one another is the fact that they each bear on one or another of the functions that comprise the professional role of church leaders. Furthermore, “theology” is now defined, not by reference to its ultimate subject (God), but by reference to socially defined roles. On the clerical paradigm, the course of study in theological schools becomes fragmented and, further, is no longer “theological” in any fundamental and organizing way.
The second line of critique of the “clerical paradigm” is that it simply has not worked.  When theological schooling is defined as preparation for filling the functions that make up the role of professional church leadership, graduates turn out to be incapable of nurturing and guiding congregations as worshiping communities, the health of whose common life depends on the quality of the theology that is done there. The graduates may in the short run have the relevant skills to help congregations organize themselves to engage in the several practices that comprise their common life (religious education, worship, pastoral care, social action, gathering and maintaining resources, etc.), to nurture and sustain them in those practices, and to grow as organizations. However, those skills tend to become outdated fairly quickly as cultural and social changes occur. More seriously, theological schooling defined and organized as preparation for filling a set of ministerial functions unavoidably simply omits to cultivate in future church leaders the conceptual capacities they need in order to understand and to engage in those functions as theological practices, that is, as practices requiring critical self-reflection about the truth and Christian adequacy of what is actually said and done in the congregations’ current engagement in the practices that constitute them as Christian congregations. Educated on the clerical paradigm, church leaders end up being ill-equipped to provide the most important sort of leadership worshiping communities require.
If conventional wisdom’s answer is inadequate, what should we say is the overarching goal that makes a theological school “theological”? My proposal has been that a theological school is a group of persons whose overarching end is to understand God more truly. We have been elaborating that thesis by moving crabwise. God cannot be studied directly, so understanding of God must come through a focus on something else whose study is believed to lead to better understanding of God.
Our first sideways step was to refine our thesis by making it more concrete: The overarching end is to try to understand God more truly by focusing on study through the lens of questions about Christian congregations. Just what is meant by “focusing through the lens of questions about congregations” has not been explained yet. The next sidestep was to propose that congregations be understood as sets of social practices (where “practice” was defined in a somewhat technical way) governed by the worship of God. A third sideways step was to propose further that this worship is practiced very widely and publicly as discipleship in response to God’s odd ways of being present.
With this elaboration in hand we can now take one more crabwise step and explore our thesis’ implications about what makes a theological school theological and what makes it excellent schooling.
Hence in this chapter I will develop a proposal about what constitutes a theological school. The discussion parallels the proposal in the last chapter about what constitutes a congregation. The relation between the two, however, and in particular the meaning of the proposal that a theological school’s study be focused through the lens of questions about Christian congregations, will not be developed until the next two chapters. In this chapter we will focus solely on the notion of a theological school, on what makes it a school, and on what its being specifically a theological school implies for its being a school.
Hence in this chapter I will develop a proposal about what constitutes a theological school. The discussion parallels the proposal in the last chapter about what constitutes a congregation. The relation between the two, however, and in particular the meaning of the proposal that a theological school’s study be focused through the lens of questions about Christian congregations, will not be developed until the next two chapters. In this chapter we will focus solely on the notion of a theological school, on what makes it a school, and on what its being specifically a theological school implies for its being a school.
In doing this it will prove useful to use the language of “practices” and “acts” that we also used to describe Christian congregations. Let us consider a theological school as a complex set of interrelated practices, in the sense of “practice” outlined in chapter 6. The set will include practices of teaching and learning, practices of research, practices of governance of the school’s common life, practices having to do with maintenance of the school’s resources, practices in which persons are selected for the student body and for the faculty, and practices in which students move through and then are deemed to have completed a course of study.
My proposal is that what unifies this set of practices, making them genuinely “theological” practices and providing criteria of excellence, is that they are all done in service of one end: To understand God more truly by focusing on study about, against, and for Christian congregations.
The point of describing a theological school in terms of practices is to stress that the search for true understanding of God is not a free-floating “educational process” that is relatively independent of a material base and independent of arrangements of social, economic, and political power. Rather, understanding God is the end to which are ordered practices that, as we have seen in chapter 6, themselves inescapably have material bases. Furthermore, they are practices that are inherently institutionalized to some degree, that entail some structural and lasting arrangement of various sorts of social power. As a set of more or less coherent cooperative activities, a school has a social space marked by intersubjectivity,. However, that social space is necessarily defined, as was that of congregations, by a social form that is itself moral and political. The school is itself a polis, or at any rate a crossroads hamlet. The persons who share in its intersubjectivity have different roles to play, different responsibilities, different types and degrees of authority, different degrees of status and power. Moreover, the school as an institutionalized set of practices is itself a center of (usually very minor) economic, social, and political power in a larger host society. It enjoys some particular social location within that society, and at least in that immediate vicinity fills some social roles in which it exercises what social power it has. “Theological education” is not a process that is only accidentally and externally related to social realities. It is not merely “contained” or “embodied” in institutions, a ghost in administrative machinery. Nor is it simply “housed” in certain neighborhoods and “contexted” in certain social “matrices,” like a chemical reaction in a test tube. ‘Theological education” is an aspect of a theological school, abstracted from the school’s concrete practices which are inherently materially based, institutionalized, and socially situated.
In short, as we were at pains to show in chapters 1 and 2, theological schooling is always concrete. It will be seriously misunderstood if it is analyzed in a way that leads us to treat it as something free-floating, abstracted from the factors that make it concrete. The advantage of using the language of “practices” and “actions” is that it highlights that concreteness and keeps it central to reflection on theological schooling.
What makes the school “theological.”
What makes a theological school “theological”? We can elaborate our thesis now: A theological school is a group of people who engage in a set of social practices whose overarching end is to understand God more truly. The practices are very diverse. They are not only practices of teaching and learning, but also practices of raising funds and maintaining the school’s resources; not only practices of governing various aspects of the school’s common life, but also practices of various kinds of research; practices not only of assessing students and when they should be deemed to have completed their courses of study, but also of assessing faculty and judging when they should be promoted and when terminated; and so on. These practices are related to one another in very complicated and often very confusing ways. However, they all are ultimately ordered to the same end: the understanding of God. That is what makes the set of them theological. They all somehow, at one remove or another, have to do with the logos of theos, the understanding of God.
What does that involve? It will be especially helpful in unpacking what that involves to use the analysis of “understanding” we sketched in chapter 6. There we stressed that coming to understand something generally involves disciplined and critical deepening of certain abilities which are guided by interests that are themselves socioculturally situated. Our concern here is with understanding God, and the same three factors will be involved.
A theological school is a community of persons trying to deepen certain abilities or capacities specifically in regard to God. They are engaged in a kind of growth. What sort of growth? The growth this community seeks is growth in its abilities or capacities to apprehend God’s presence. God is not to hand. God is not immediately available to be understood. Indeed, we cannot hope to comprehend God. At best we can hope to apprehend God’s presence precisely in the odd ways in which God is present.
In one sense of the term, we can say that this community is engaged in conceptua1 growth. Consider Charles Wood’s characterization of concepts: “Concepts are instruments of understanding, opening up the possibility of new sorts of discernment and response. Generally speaking, a concept is a particular ability or capacity (or complex thereof), ordinarily related to language.” 
Concepts are “instruments of understanding.” Coming to understand something is a matter of enriching one’s repertoire of relevant concepts. One comes to understand by learning concepts, by conceptual growth. But what sort of growth is “conceptual growth”? What are concepts, that they can “grow” in us or that we can “grow” in respect to them? In chapter 6, in my discussion of”understanding,” I argued the view that to learn a concept is to acquire a capacity or capacities to do something or a capacity or capacities to act in a certain way; I shall follow that advice here.
Four features of what it is to learn a concept were stressed: We show whether we have learned the relevant concepts or not, whether we understand or not, by our actions relative to what we seek to understand. For example, I show I understand or fail to understand the sign “Keep off the grass” by my behavior, both in regard to where I walk or ride my bicycle and in regard to my talk when questioned about the sign and my behavior; I may even show my understanding by getting onto the grass, depending on what I say when the inconsistency between my act and the sign is remarked. Learning a concept involves, furthermore, undergoing a relevant discipline. Moreover, learning a concept is usually a matter of degree. We understand “more or less” and understanding can often “deepen” by acquiring additional capacities through relevant disciplines. Finally, learning some concepts is more existentially involving than is learning other concepts. That is, the discipline involved in learning some concepts shapes our very identities as persons, whereas the discipline through which other concepts are learned does not. Consider the difference between acquiring the abilities involved in playing chess and the abilities involved in faithful friendship; acquiring the concept “faithful” shapes one’s personal identity in a way that acquiring the concept “checkmate” does not.
The point to be made, then, is that as a community of persons that seeks to understand God truly, a theological school is a community seeking to learn concepts, that is, to grow in abilities and capacities relative to God. Doing so will involve certain disciplines. It may sometimes involve shaping learners’ personal identities. Acquiring the relevant abilities and capacities will always be a matter of degree.
Whether or to what degree they have understood, that is, have acquired the relevant abilities, will be shown by relevant things they say or, in some cases, by the ways in which they act. As the discussion in chapter 6 suggested, none of this is unique to theological schools and the learning that goes on there. Coming to understand anything in any context involves this sort of disciplined growing in abilities and capacities. However, it is helpful to see a theological school as a community of persons engaged in acquiring particular abilities and capacities.
What sorts of abilities and capacities? Concepts are instruments of understanding “opening up the possibility of new sorts of discernment and response.” In seeking to understand God more truly, then, a theological school seeks to help persons acquire abilities and capacities that make possible new sorts of discernment and response regarding God. What sorts of concepts are these?
First of all, “God” itself. From Søren Kierkegaard comes the dark but intriguing remark that “God is not a name but a concept.”  “God” is not in the ordinary sense either a common or a proper name.  We use “dog” as a common name either to denote a type of mammal, a class of items in the universe, or one individual of that class (“the dog”). We may use “Muffin” as the proper name to denote a unique individual of the class. But we cannot use “God” to denote either a class of items in the universe or any individual instance of the class. Nor can we use “God” as the proper name of a unique item in the universe. God simply isn’t to hand that way in the universe. God is not an item on the inventory list of the cosmos. “God” is not correctly used as a name.
Rather, coming to understand God involves two things. It involves receiving capacities to attend to and apprehend God as and when God will be present; it involves, that is, receiving capacities to discern God’s presence. At the same time it involves receiving capacities to respond to that presence by understanding everything else, other persons, our shared natural and social contexts, and especially ourselves in distinctive ways, namely, in relation to God.
To understand God more truly is thus to undergo rich and complex conceptual growth, growth in a rich mix of capacities to discern and respond in various ways to God and to everything else as related to God. Consider some examples: Understanding God involves growth in one’s grasp of the concept “glory,” the capacity to discern the power inherent in God’s presence; but that is inseparable from, though not the same as, growth in one’s grasp of the concept “awe,” a capacity to respond appropriately to that power. Correlatively, understanding God involves growth in one’s grasp of the concept “contingency,” the capacity to discern one’s own, and everything else’s, radical dependence on God’s power; but that is inseparable from, though not the same thing as, growth in one’s grasp of the concept “thanks,” a capacity to respond appropriately to that contingency. Or: Understanding God involves growth in one’s grasp of the concept “wrath,” the capacity to discern the judgment inherent in God’s presence; but that is inseparable from, though not the same as, growth in one’s grasp of the concept “guilt,” a capacity to respond appropriately to that judgment. Correlatively, understanding God involves growth in one’s grasp of the concept “fault,” the capacity to discern one’s own, and everything else’s, brokenness and deformity before God; but that is inseparable from, though not the same thing as, growth in one’s grasp of the concept “repentance,” a capacity to respond appropriately to that fault.
Or: Understanding God involves growth in one’s grasp of the concept “grace,” the capacity to discern the healing and liberation from fault inherent in God’s presence; but that is inseparable from, though not the same thing as, growth in one’s grasp of the concept “joy,” a capacity to respond appropriately to that healing and liberation. Correlatively, understanding God involves growth in one’s grasp of the concept “saved,” the capacity to discern one’s own, and everything else’s, healing and liberation from fault; but that is inseparable from, though not the same as, growth in one’s grasp of the concept “free,” a capacity to respond appropriately to that salvation. To understand God truly involves learning an indefinitely large network of concepts that open up the possibility of new sorts of discernment and response. To seek to understand God more truly is to undergo growth in an enormously rich array of interrelated abilities and capacities in regard to ourselves, other persons, and our shared natural and social contexts, all as related to God.
A concept is an instrument of understanding, “a particular ability or capacity (or complex thereof), ordinarily related to language.” The discernment and response to God and ourselves that certain concepts open up are always mediated. They are ordinarily mediated by language. That is, the concepts that open up the possibility of discernment and response to God are abilities and capacities ordinarily related to language. However, the qualification “ordinarily” is very important. It is difficult to be very specific or clear about this, for it is a suggestion that raises enormously complex problems; but it is possible in some cases that the facilities relevantly associated with particular conceptual competencies are musical, painterly, graphic, or mutely behavioral facilities rather than verbal facility. Or perhaps we should say that “language” needs to be understood broadly as any medium of communication, not only speaking or writing. What is important is that use of some specific, concrete facility mediates the opening up of the possibility of new discernment and response to God.
In Christian communities discernment and response to God is mediated in a variety of ways — by ritual action, normative patterns of behavior, exemplary persons, appropriate images and music, and above all written and spoken words. That is to say: in Christian communities, persons conceptual competencies to discern and respond to God are abilities and capacities related to the facility to participate in ritual action, to behave according to norms, to attend to exemplary persons, to make and rightly to see appropriate images (very often of exemplary persons), to make and rightly to hear appropriate kinds of music, and so forth. However, the rituals, norms, and criteria of exemplariness and appropriateness are finally rooted in texts comprising the communities’ scripture. More exactly, they are rooted in those texts as they have been conventionally used over long periods of time within the communities’ common life; they are rooted in scripture-in-tradition. 
Some of those texts are narratives, but the greater part of them are laws, oracles, letters, and nonnarrative poetry. However, central among the traditional ways in which these texts have been used in the communities’ common life has been the placement of nonnarrative materials within the context of the narratives, the interpretation of the significance of the nonnarrative materials by their attachment to important moments in the narratives. Thus legal texts from Deuteronomy, Exodus, and Leviticus are located in the context of narratives about God’s covenant relationship with Israel and are construed as explanations of the practical implications of who Israel is in relation to God. Prophets’ oracles are located in the context of narratives describing how God is related to Israel, and who Israel is – and is failing to be — in relation to God, and construed as announcements of promise and not simply as predictions of doom. New Testament letters are put into the context of synoptic Gospel narratives about Jesus and construed as comment on those narratives drawing practical implications regarding who the church is and what appropriate response to God’s presence is. Nonnarrative Psalms are placed in the context of narratives about Jesus and are construed as expressions of his relation to God and God’s relation to him. The narratives, for their part, are traditionally used as descriptions of who God is and who the people of Israel are in relation to God, who Jesus is and who the church is in relation to Jesus.  Ultimately, then, in Christian communities persons’ conceptual competencies to discern and respond to God are abilities and capacities related to facility in using scriptural narratives as descriptions of God, Jesus, themselves, and the world in all their interrelations.
This has important implications regarding the concepts that are instruments of Christians’ understanding of God (grace and joy; saved and free; wrath and guilt; fault and repentance; glory and awe; contingency and thanks; and the like, including the concept “God” itself). The relevant abilities and capacities need to be disciplined in quite particular ways. Many of these concepts (all of them, some theologians have argued) are given distinctive shape and content by scriptural narratives used as descriptions of who God is and who Jesus is in relation to God. The structure and movement of these narratives tend to shape the ways in which communities of Christians discern God’s presence and respond to it in thought and word, affect and action. Thus, for example, what they learn to discern as the graciousness of God’s presence is determined by stories about God’s liberation of Israel from Egypt at the exodus, by Hosea’s prophetic likening of God’s relation to Israel to a lover’s forgiving love for a faithless spouse, by Isaiah’s prophetic celebration of God’s return of Israel to its homeland from Babylonian exile, and most decisively by narratives about Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection.
It is not as though there were something like a generic concept of grace of which Christians simply use a variant. The situation is more particularist than that. There is a range of concepts of God’s grace, wrath, glory, and the like, of human joy, guilt, awe, and the like, that are characteristically and particularly (though not necessarily uniquely) Christian. One does not grow conceptually in the ways needed to discern and respond to God simply by acquiring abilities and capacities related to “grace,” “wrath,” and “glory,” and the like, as they are generally used in ordinary language in one’s society or as they may be generally used in the various world religions. Christianly speaking, one grows conceptually by having one’s abilities and capacities in relation to language — and therewith to ritual action, normative patterns of behavior, exemplary persons, music, art, etc. disciplined by just these biblical narratives. To be sure, one brings concepts learned in one’s host society and culture to this disciplining. Moreover, knowing other religious traditions and key concepts in them that are like – sometimes very like — key Christian concepts is enormously helpful in clarifying the Christian concepts (and vice versa). Characteristically Christian conceptual capacities may or may not overlap, one by one, in one way or another, with concepts other groups have. However, nothing but confusion is generated by assuming that they are simply variations of generic concepts.
As a community aiming to understand God more truly, then, a theological school is a community engaged in conceptual growth. That is growth in certain abilities and capacities — in regard to a variety of matters, but centrally in regard to language — that mediate discernment and response to God. What needs to be stressed is that such conceptual growth is a matter of degree. It is not growth from “no concept” to “having a concept.” After all, one enters into the process already in possession of a rich array of conceptual capacities. The growth is more a matter of redefining, deepening, complexifying, noticing distinctions but also noticing overlaps in concepts called for in differing contexts, among concepts already learned.
This growth is a matter of degree in two ways. First of all it is a matter of degree how deeply scriptural narratives discipline one’s capacities in regard to how one speaks and acts, how one takes oneself and one’s neighbors and the shared world, all in relation to God. Borrowing a suggestion by George Lindbeck, we might say that it is a matter of the degree to which one’s speech and action are Christianly “grammatical.” 
The conceptual growth in which a theological school is engaged is a matter of degree in a second way. Some concepts, we noted in reflections on “understanding” in chapter 6, are more existentially significant than others. Learning them usually involves some shaping of one’s life, some forming of one’s personal identity. The concept “love,” in contradistinction to the concept “infatuation,” is an obvious example. Infatuations simply happen to people. One learns the concept, that is, the capacities involved, by having it happen to one. It may throw one’s emotional life into turmoil for a while. But learning the concept “infatuation” does not of itself tend to deepen people. Learning the concept “love,” however, learning the abilities and capacities needed to love someone over an extended period of time through a variety of circumstances, involves shaping, often deepening and changing, one’s very identity.
As we noted earlier, persons appear to have the ability to undergo this sort of shaping in an “as if” mode. It is as though they can imagine what it would be like for them to undergo such a shaping of their own identities, imagine what it would be like to be “that sort of person” so vividly that they can grow conceptually in the requisite ways but entirely in the “pretend” mode. They do not simply grow in their abilities to talk about the concept in question; but neither do they appropriate it in such a way that learning it actually shapes their own personal identities. Either way, whether authentically or in an “as if’ mode, growth in regard to some concepts can be a matter of degree, namely, the degree to which the growth also involves an actual or imaginable change in the learner’s personal identity.
We are developing the suggestion that what makes a theological school “theological” is that it is a group of people who engage in a set of social practices whose overarching end is to understand God truly by exploring what is involved in trying to understand God. So far we have elaborated the claim that understanding God Christianly involves conceptual growth. Conceptual growth is growth in certain abilities and capacities to discern and respond to God and is disciplined by scriptural narratives. However, as we noted in the discussion of understanding in chapter 6, our abilities and capacities are always guided by certain interests. In regard to understanding God, what kinds of interests? What interests drive a theological school’s effort more truly to understand God?
Descriptively speaking, they are an enormous variety. Persons come into a theological school with interests ranging from mild curiosity about God, through the passion to save one’s own soul, to an intense longing to right injustices with God’s help, to (very rarely!) a wholly self-indifferent intensity of adoration of God for God’s own sake. However, God is not an item on the inventory list of the universe and cannot be understood the way such items may be. To understand God is, at best, to have the capacities and abilities needed to apprehend God as (or: “if and when”) God is present. These include capacities for loyalty and trust, for living out of another’s promises, for joy in another’s reality for its own sake. In short, they include above all capacities for faith, hope, and love. These are abilities and capacities that must be guided by interests in God’s own peculiar ways of being present, rather than be guided by interests in God’s solving our problems or saving us from our oppression. Those are the normative (as opposed to descriptive) interests that must drive a theological school’s effort to understand God.
As we have seen, such capacities are existentially very demanding, whether acquired authentically or “as if.” Acquiring them normally involves deep shaping of persons’ lives. This means that either the interests people bring to theological schooling will undergo significant change, or not much specifically theological schooling will occur. Detached interests requiring no existentially significant conceptual growth will be under pressure to give way to existentially shaping conceptual growth. Interests in God as useful to achieving personal wholeness, even of the most “spiritual” sort, and interests in God as necessary for social justice and emancipation, even the most urgent cases, will be under pressure to surrender pride of place to apparently irrelevant” interests in God that take the form of joy in and celebration of the odd ways God is present, for their own sake.
The capacities needed to apprehend God must be guided by interests in God’s peculiar ways of being present and by God’s idiosyncratic reality, not by persons’ interests in realizing or fulfilling themselves; but the shaping and transforming of persons’ identities this involves will in fact also bring with them movement toward fulfillment of their humanity. The conceptual growth, that is, growth in the relevant capacities, needed to apprehend God must be guided by interests in God rather than interests in God’s solving persons’ problems or liberating them from their bondage; but that does not exclude such interests. To the contrary, precisely because of the idiosyncratic reality of God and God’s peculiar way of being present, interests in liberation from oppression, realization of our full humanity, and the righting of injustice are mandated as an integral part of interests in God. They are not simply inferences or inevitable consequences of interests in God for God’s own sake; they are an inherent and integral part of proper interests in God. They are interests relevant to understanding God, however, because of how God is present to be apprehended and not because they are morally admirable and compelling interests — although they are certainly that also — that persons bring with them to the effort as a theological school to understand God truly.
Like any effort to understand, a theological school’s effort to understand God is a matter of conceptual growth guided by certain interests that may themselves be transformed in the process, and like any effort to understand, those guiding interests are themselves socioculturally situated. What does that imply regarding a theological school?
Consider the school as a community of persons. The persons who make up this community each have distinctive personal identities deeply shaped by the social, political, and economic location of their families of origin and the communities in which they were nurtured and educated. In particular they will, by the accidents of personal history, if by nothing else, have been located on one side or the other of social and economic conflicts that have an extended history and are broadly systemic to their society. As we pointed out earlier, this situatedness inevitably will shape their understanding of themselves, their neighbors, larger social realities, and, among other matters, God.
Beyond that, a theological school will as such be itself a microculture. It will itself have its own ethos rooted in its unique history and intellectual and cultural traditions and in the ways in which economic aiid political power are distributed and managed within its common life. Different members of the community will have different locations within this society. Sometimes the distinctions among locations will be distinctly and formally drawn: staff vs. professional academics; students vs. both of the above; tenured vs. nontenured faculty; some or all of the above vs. the administration, and so forth. Sometimes the distinctions will be wholly informal and implicit but nonetheless socially significant within that tiny culture.
The fact that the interests guiding a theological school’s efforts to understand God are socially and culturally situated has two main consequences for all efforts to understand God. It means, first, that the understanding of God that persons in a theological school come to have is always concrete. Its concreteness is in large part a function of the community’s shared sociocultural location. This community is not alone in seeking to understand God. Innumerable other individuals and communities of persons arc also seeking to understand God. In every case, the understanding is concrete. Indeed, the deeper the understanding is, the more concrete it is. For, as we have just seen, the capacities and abilities involved in apprehending God’s presence are existentially significant. Acquiring them involves shaping of persons’ identities. The identities being shaped are precisely personal identities constituted in large part by their sociocultural situatedness. That, in all its intersubjectivity and sociality and relative freedom, is what is quite concretely shaped. This concreteness inevitably means differentiation among various communities’ (in this case, theological schools, but the point is not limited to schools) understanding of God. There is an inescapable pluralism of understandings of God. It threatens to make various “understandings” of God both mutually exclusive and mutually unintelligible.
The second consequence of the situatedness of a theological school’s guiding interests is this: It means that any given concrete understanding of God is open to the suspicion of being ideological. That is, it is open to the suspicion of being biased in a way that not only reflects persons’ sociocultural situatedness (that was the point of the previous paragraph), but beyond that obscures the ways in which they benefit from social and cultural privilege. An understanding of God characteristically is ideological in this way when it suggests that the injustice from which some suffer and others benefit is not evil at all but rather is divinely sanctioned. The fact that interest in God’s idiosyncratic reality and peculiar ways of being present are situated means, in short, that the conceptual growth they guide is always open to the suspicion of being in bad faith, of being more of an interest in using God for our own purposes than an interest in apprehending God for the sake of apprehending God.
Concreteness and the suspicion of ideology arc the main consequences of the situatedness of the interests guiding a theological school’s efforts to understand God; but the fact that these socioculturally situated interests guide efforts to understand precisely God brings countervailing consequences. God is not on the inventory list of the universe, but social, political and economic powers and their arrangements are, and so are our locations within them. Those powers, capable of indefinitely various arrangements and interrelationships, are part and parcel of our concrete finitude. They are inherent in what it means for us to be items on the universe’s inventory list. In traditional theological terminology, concrete finitude was called “creatureliness.” To say that God is not on the cosmic inventory list, while we are, is a wholly negative remark; but to say we are on that list as “creatures” is to say that for all the differences between us and God, God is positively related to us: Creator to creatures. That is one of the peculiar ways in which God is present to us. To be concretely finite is no predicament we should wish to escape, no bondage from which to yearn a liberation; it is simply not to be God.
In our creatureliness our apprehension of God is always concrete, and so always situated and so always partial, but never exclusive. If our efforts to understand God are guided by interests in God’s peculiar ways of being present for their own sake, then apprehending God present as Creator requires the capacity to be in constant intellectually empathic conversation with others in their concrete — and therewith creaturely — understandings of God. That the guiding interests are interests in God for God’s sake means that the inescapable pluralism of our understandings of God bring with them a mandate to enter into others’ understanding and share ours with them. That countervails what would otherwise be the tendency of our situatedness not simply to pluralize, but to fracture our efforts to understand God into mutually exclusive, mutually unintelligible “understandings.”
We saw that the situatedness of interests guiding a theological school’s efforts to understand God makes that understanding not only concrete but also open to the suspicion of being ideological. The fact that these socially located interests guide efforts to understand precisely God brings a second consequence that countervails, though can not completely eliminate, the suspicion of ideology. Theologically speaking, ideology is a form of idolatry. It is false worship because it is worship of something that is an item in the cosmos. To say that God is not an item in the cosmos is a wholly negative remark; but to say, in traditional theological terminology, that one of the peculiar ways God is present to that cosmos is as the Holy One is to say something positive. Indeed, it is to make two interconnected remarks: God’s presence both relativizes the importance of everything in the cosmos and judges everything in the cosmos that absolutizes itself. As the Holy One, God alone is sacred and deserving of worship. To treat any item in the universe, including status quo power arrangements and “understandings” of God, as in some way “absolute” or inherently “sacred” is idolatry. In short, the presence of God means criticism and unmasking of ideology. Any effort to understand God truly that is guided by an interest in the peculiar ways in which God is present involves acquiring capacities for critique of falsity, including the falsity of ideology. For all of their being situated, interests guiding the effort to understand God have consequences that work to countervail the tendencies of situatedness to distort understanding.
We have been elaborating what is involved in saying that a theological school is a community of persons trying to understand God truly. The general point has been that to understand God involves developing a range of capacities and abilities to apprehend God. Three points emerged: (a) Cultivating these abilities is a kind of conceptual growth that requires disciplining. (b) These abilities are guided by interests in God’s peculiar ways of being present, interests in them for their own sake rather than for their moral, therapeutic, or redemptive consequences. Above all, these abilities are guided by interest in truth and require rigorous testing as to their truthfulness. (c) Because these interests are socioculturally situated they are diversely concrete, threatening to fragment “understandings” of God, and they are open to the suspicion of ideological bias; but because they are interests in God the capacities they guide also require cultivation of capacities for conversation with other concrete understandings and capacities for critique of ideological self-deceptions.
We need now to turn from reflections on the overarching goal of a theological school (i.e., to understand God truly) which makes it “theological,” to explore the implications of that goal for what makes a school the particularly concrete thing it is. The question will be, does having the goal to understand God entail particular things for a school’s institutional reality? Before we do, however, we ought to raise a question about the applicability of this proposal to theological schools located on different roads at their intersection with the Berlin Turnpike.
In chapter 2 we traced four different Christian traditions regarding what it is to understand God: understanding God by, respectively, the way of contemplation, the way of discursive reasoning, the way of the affections, and the way of action. Does the proposal sketched here about a theological school’s understanding God tend to privilege some of these four over the others? Not necessarily.
Admittedly, by stressing the relation between understanding and abilities, this proposal seems to favor the way of action interrelated with the way of discursive reasoning. After all, abilities and capacities are abilities and capacities to do certain things. And it is in relation to the doing that one makes reasoned judgments about what is appropriate to do.
But note: This does not of itself exclude either contemplative understanding or affective understanding of God. Everything depends on what sorts of “doing” are in question. That has not been predetermined by construing “understanding God “in terms of cultivating abilities and capacities in relation to God. Conventional contrasts between action and “passive,” “inward” contemplation are ruled out by our concepts of action and practice. Without further qualification, the capacities cultivated in theological schooling could just as well be capacities for “doing” contemplation or capacities for specific affections as they could be capacities for intentional bodily action and discursive reasoning.
What this chapter’s construal of “understanding God” does require is that the capacities are capacities for what is in principle public action. These capacities are not primarily private phenomena, present to subjects’ inwardness and secondarily and only accidentally related to outward and public behavior. Rather, they are dispositions for public actions — perhaps contemplative practices, perhaps discursive reasoning employing a publicly shared language, perhaps physical expressions of emotions employing culturally conventional facial expressions or bodily movement, perhaps intentional bodily action (as we have noted, just which of these public actions has not been specified). Of course, most such public action can be suppressed or distorted. We can disguise our feelings, contemplate motionlessly and silently, reason voicelessly, act indirectly and misleadingly or not at all. Nonetheless, these are all suppressions or distortions of enactments of certain capacities. They are not the failure of private phenomena to find adequate public expressions, nor are they private “causes” failing to have their usual public “effects.” The capacities and abilities for apprehending God are precisely dispositions for certain public actions and cannot be defined independently of those actions.
What makes the school “concrete”
I have been explicating what a theological school is in parallel with the way I explicated what a Christian congregation is. Just as a congregation may be seen as a set of social practices, so a theological school is best seen in its concrete particularity if it too is taken as a set of social practices. What constitutes a Christian congregation, we urged, is the practice of the public worship of God in Jesus’ name. All the other practices that comprise the common life of a congregation are governed by and ordered to this broadly understood worship. So too, we have urged, all the practices comprising a theological school are governed by and ordered to one overarching end: to understand God truly. That is what unifies it.
There is an important dissimilarity between the two, however. The worship that unifies a congregation is a practice; but the aim to understand God truly that unifies a theological school is not itself a practice. It is a goal to which a number of quite different types of practices are ordered. We can distinguish at least four types.
There are practices of teaching and learning through which conceptual growth takes place. Some concern abilities and capacities that are normally acquired, as in classical paideia, through the practice of critical and dialectical discussion of texts. Others concern abilities and capacities normally acquired, as in classical Wissemchaft, through the practice of supervised research. Some concern abilities and capacities normally acquired by reflective participation in practices that comprise other quite different institutions, such as hospitals, congregations, agencies providing assistance to the disadvantaged, and the like. All these practices of teaching and learning are constitutive of a school, but no one of them alone is.
Secondly, these practices of teaching and learning each require distinctive sorts of social space. Familiar examples are the seminar, the lecture, the conference about a research project, the practicum concerning a “field placement,” solitude in which to read, reflect, and write. Accordingly, a theological school will also embrace practices by which these social spaces are created and maintained. These include practices concerning the regular scheduling of the community’s time and conventions governing the patterns of relationship, mutual expectations, and responsibilities between students and teachers. Practices of teaching and learning and the practices that maintain the social spaces that learning and teaching create all require a variety of kinds of material support. Persons need to be housed and fed. Collections of books and research materials need to be housed and kept available. Salaries have to be paid. Clearly a third type of practice comprising a theological school consists of practices by which the school’s material resources are maintained.
Manifestly, all of this requires governance. Hence, fourth, a theological school will embrace practices that give it social form. It will have a polity. It will institutionalize practices by which to select who participates in teaching and learning and by which to hold them accountable for the relative excellence with which they engage in those practices. It will institutionalize practices by which the routines and conventions of its social spaces are administered. And it will institutionalize practices by which its resources are gathered, maintained, expended responsibly, and replenished.
What makes a theological school concrete is the fact that the practices that comprise it are not only institutionalized but have material bases and sociocultural location. In our reflection on the notion of a social practice in chapter 6 we noted that all practices are inherently and inescapably concrete in this way, that is, institutionalized, materially based, and socioculturally located. It is not simply the case that, as we noted above, the persons engaged in a theological school’s quest to understand God truly are driven by interests that are located socially and culturally. It is also the case that the school as a school is concrete in this way. We must ask, therefore, what implications the school’s being “theological,” that is, having the overarching end to understand God, has for the institutionalization, material bases, and social and cultural locatedness that make it concrete.
A theological school has some sort of polity, some institutionalized way of governing its affairs. Obviously, if its excellence in schooling depends on all its practices being governed by its overarching goal to understand God truly, then that end must govern the school’s governance practice also. This is not to suggest that some one governance pattern, or some small set of such patterns, is manifestly dictated by adopting the goal to understand God.
Historically there have been a variety of polities in theological schools in North America. Protestant “freestanding” seminaries are often officially governed by a board of trustees. They are trustees of a corporation that legally owns the school. Some of these boards are entirely free of ecclesiastical control and appoint their own successors. In other cases there are various checks and balances between boards of trustees and governing bodies of denominations with which the schools are associated. Typically, the board of trustees of a school of this type appoints a president of the school, who is charged not only with articulating a vision of how this particular school in all its concreteness, given its theological and cultural history, its present social location and responsibilities mandated by charter and trustees, can best pursue its overarching goal, but also with finding ways to keep that vision so vividly alive that it shapes how the school actually enacts the practices that comprise its common life. Furthermore, the president is charged with administering the school according to broad policies established by the board and, in concert with the board, with fund-raising, maintaining the school’s property, and the like. There is a great deal of variation among schools of this type regarding the role, responsibilities, and authority of faculty in the governance of the school. The variety ranges from cases in which faculty elect some members of the board of trustees from among their number, to cases in which faculty as a group is formally charged with certain responsibilities (say, nominating new faculty, or establishing policies governing the academic program of the school), to cases in which faculty effectively have neither responsibility, authority, nor power in the school’s polity.
There is another type of school which is legally wholly owned and operated by a church judicatory. Roman Catholic diocesan schools and schools operated by religious orders are most often of this type. Protestant schools of this type have not been unknown. If they have boards of trustees, their responsibilities and authority are usually limited to fund-raising and management of the school’s physical resources.
A few theological schools are organic parts of universities. Their polity is simply part of the polity of the university as a whole. Typically, the university’s board of trustees, or its functional equivalent, appoints a dean as the chief executive officer of the theological school. With the deans of other schools in the university, the dean is accountable to the university’s president. Characteristically, faculty play a fairly large role in the governance of such schools’ academic affairs and common life. In all cases in which faculty are formally charged with certain responsibilities and have specified authority and power in the school’s polity, there is a good bit of difference regarding the relative roles of tenured and nontenured faculty. In some cases faculty roles are entirely reserved for tenured faculty, in others all faculty take part equally.
The issue is not whether one or another of these polities, or some other not yet devised, is in closer accord with the overarching goal that makes a theological school theological, namely, to understand God truly. Rather, the question is this: Does the school’s overarching goal to understand God truly have any implications for the way the school is governed by any of these polities? Repeatedly we have seen that the effort to understand God (or anything else) must be self-critical. That is a criterion of excellence in schooling. Any polity must be so designed as to hold practices of teaching and learning accountable in this regard. However, the obverse of this is that the effort to understand God must be a genuine effort. A test of its genuineness is, in part, its freedom to embrace differences of judgment and even the freedom to be mistaken. That too is a criterion of excellence in schooling. Accordingly, it is a criterion that any polity by which a school is governed must be designed to meet.
Clearly, the issue we are discussing is the one usually characterized as “academic freedom.” That is a perfectly accurate and proper characterization. As we saw in chapter 4, academic freedom is a central Enlightenment idea and was institutionalized in the design of the University of Berlin. The slogans were “freedom to teach” and “freedom to learn,” polemically resisting the imposition of constraints by either church or state. Insofar as North American theological schools are also located somewhere on the Berlin Turnpike they have adopted a model of excellent schooling that gives academic freedom pride of place. For that reason, theological school faculties vigorously resist what they perceive to be impositions of constraints on freedom to teach and freedom to learn, whether the constraints are ecclesiastically imposed or otherwise.
However, entirely proper as it is, the phrase “academic freedom” may be misleading as a name for the freedom at issue here, the freedom theological schools’ governance must not reduce or circumscribe. As an Enlightenment idea, “academic freedom” is usually associated with a rationale that depends on a particular view of human nature. Why is the academy to be free? Because the academy is the realm of rational inquiry and reason is autonomous. To restrict freedom of rational inquiry is a self-contradiction. If it is restricted, it is not free; and if it is not free, it is not rational. The near identity of rationality and autonomy, and of autonomy and freedom, is the keystone of a distinctively Enlightenment view of human nature. It is a powerful body of philosophical theory that has fought nobly in the philosophical wars of the past two centuries. But we are not obliged to tie our discussion to it or to its refutation.
It is enough to point out that there is a theological rationale for this freedom. The freedom in question is entailed in the overarching goal that makes a theological school theological: the effort to understand God truly. God alone is God. God is apprehended as one who brooks no idolatry, who claims faithfulness to God over faithlessness to our theological traditions and personal theological opinions. Accordingly, our objective to understand God truly requires of us that we cultivate capacities for self-criticism. As we saw in chapter 2, North American theological schools are located on various “Roads” and “Streets,” all of which in one way or another have historically taken paideia as the model of excellent schooling. In paideia we are formed in such a way that we come to have certain habitus, certain settled dispositions to act in characteristic ways. Among those habitus that must be cultivated in a theological school is the capacity for critique and self-critique. That, in turn, implies the freedom to differ in understanding and to understand mistakenly.
The rationale for academic freedom need not be a view of human nature; it may be put theologically as a matter of faithfulness to God. If the defining goal of a theological school is to understand God truly, then as a matter of faithfulness to God the freedom of a theological school’s effort to understand must not be constrained by the way in which it is governed as a political and social reality in its own right.
There is a demurrer often entered to this line of thought by some who claim basically to agree with it otherwise. Many theological schools are openly and clearly defined as agencies of particular Christian denominations. They are understood both from the side of the denominations and from within the schools to have as their chief responsibility the education of clergy for the denominations that sponsor them. Do these denominations not have the right, indeed the responsibility, to insist that the schools’ efforts to understand God yield understanding that is consonant with the traditions of the denominations sponsoring the schools?
There are two issues here, one rooted in the fact that what we are discussing are schools and the other in the fact that what we are discussing are theological schools. Central to their being schools are their practices of teaching and learning. On both models of excellent schooling symbolized respectively by paideia and by Berlin, teaching can only be done indirectly. Simply to transfer directly from the teacher to the student a single line of thought is not teaching but indoctrination. The function of commitment to particular theological traditions in theological schools, whether or not symbolized by required subscription to a confessional statement, cannot imply that schooling there may only consist of directly communicating a single “authorized” line of thought on any given topic. That would mean that there is no room for serious critical questioning and assessing. where questions are not open, capacities for critical and rigorous reflection cannot be cultivated. where capacities for critical and rigorous reflection arc not cultivated, no schooling is being done, theological or otherwise. But where questions are open, there is room for differences of judgment, including what may turn out to be erroneous judgments. whatever a school’s commitment to a particular theological tradition may mean, therefore, insofar as it is a school, it cannot entail restrictions on the freedom of teachers and learners to differ and be in error.
That brings us to the issue rooted in these schools being “theological” schools. A school’s commitment to a particular theological tradition, sometimes symbolized by required subscription to a confessional statement, might be taken to mean a commitment to specifiable boundaries to what questions may be explored and what range of answers to those questions may be critically examined. That, I suggest, would be theologically a misunderstanding of what the commitment means. Rather than imposing boundaries to inquiry, such commitment is better seen as the identification of a center and 1ocation to inquiry. A given theological school may in fact be explicitly committed to a particular theological tradition or “position.” The tradition or position is valued as a true construal of the Christian thing. That commitment is part of what makes the school the particular concrete reality that it is. Theologically speaking, it is part of its creaturely finitude. That is its concrete location for theological schooling. That descriptive truth may be symbolized by the requirement of faculty subscription to a confessional statement. However, that commitment also symbolizes something normative: a commitment to value understanding God truly more highly than it values anything else, including presumably its theological tradition and its faculty members’ personal theological positions. Since God can be understood Christianly only indirectly through study of the Christian thing, this school is committed to trying to understand God starting with critically reflective study of the particular construal of the Christian thing represented by this tradition. This is the center from which inquiry will proceed here. However, that commitment need set no boundaries to the array of other particular theological traditions and positions it may study as part of the way to truer understanding of God, nor boundaries to the range of critical questions that may be asked of any and all construals of the Christian thing. Even when its polity requires faculty to sign a confessional statement, such a school may in full self-consistency encourage freedom to teach and freedom to learn. Generally speaking, the degree to which a school’s polity allows efforts to understand God to differ and even “err” is the degree to which is genuinely an “effort”; and that is a mark of the school’s excellence.
As a set of more or less institutionalized practices, a theological school is itself a center of social, economic, and political power, however small, in its immediate neighborhood and social setting. The excellence of its schooling, we said, depends on how far all the practices that comprise the school are governed by the central end of the school to understand God truly. Clearly, then, that end ought also to govern how the school uses its social power in its immediate vicinity.
The school has immediate social, economic, and political location. Every such location is a living community whose relative social health depends in part on roles played in its common life by local institutions that are symbolically powerful, stable, and long-lasting. It is always an open question what role a theological school plays in nurturing the social health of the neighborhood. So too, in every such location there are questions about the justice of the ways in which social, economic, and political power are distributed and how that distribution affects the people who live there. It is always an open question what the school will do to draw attention to those injustices and how it will use the economic, social, and political power it has there, however modest, in concert with others to right such injustice. A decision about these questions will inescapably be made. It will either be made inadvertently and be entirely implicit and probably unrecognized in the school’s way of relating to its social context, or it will be made as a matter of deliberate policy. Only when the decision is made as a matter of deliberate policy can the school’s ways of relating to its immediate situation truly be governed by its overarching end, be open to self-criticism, and become an integral part of the effort to understand God truly.
It will not do to resist this suggestion on the grounds that a school is not a social agency, that its defining end is to understand God, not to be an agent of change in its immediate neighborhood. Indeed, its defining end is to understand God. Its excellence as a theological school is not measured by its effectiveness as an agent of social change. However, many of the practices comprising the school involve transactions with its immediate social setting. Supplies and services are purchased. Resident students participate in neighborhood organizations. Some school practices may be open to the surrounding community.
These transactions constitute social locatedness. And they teach both the school’s neighbors and its students. The ways in which these transactions are conducted inevitably work to symbolize to the school’s neighbors that its local purpose is to underwrite the status quo, or, alternatively, that the school functions in and through its transactions with its neighborhood to raise and address questions of local justice.
At the same time, the school’s transactions with its neighborhood inescapably teach certain concepts to its own members, that is, teach certain capacities and abilities about how to lead an institution in its relationships with its immediate social context. The practices that involve these transactions cannot be neatly separated from the practices through which are taught and learned concepts bearing on understanding God. The question of relative excellence in schooling does not turn on whether the school as a set of institutionalized practices is an effective agent of social change but on whether all of its practices including those that involve transactions with its immediate social setting cohere in regard to the concepts, that is, the abilities and capacities, those practices teach.
There is a third way in which a theological school’s overarching goal shapes it in its concreteness. Not only must that goal shape the institutionalized polity that helps make it concrete by requiring structural guarantees of freedom to disagree in the effort to understand God. Not only must the overarching goal shape the transactions that constitute its concrete location in some social setting so that they cohere with the abilities and capacities it teaches as instruments for understanding God. The overarching goal to understand God must also shape the ways in which all the school’s practices are institutionalized so that self-criticism is an institutionalized feature of those practices.
Precisely because a theological school is an institutionalized set of practices, it will have within itself some particular structure of social and political power. Inevitably, in such a structure some people have privileges and access to resources that others do not. Among the interests driving the school’s governance will be interests rooted in this structure and concerned to preserve it and the privileges it gives some persons. Precisely because a theological school engages in transactions of material goods and services, including police and fire protection, with the particular community in which it is set, its location there is concrete. Among the interests driving these transactions will be interests to preserve the features of the arrangements of social, economic, and political power in that community from which the school benefits. Thus a theological school, precisely as a concrete social reality in its own right, is vulnerable to ideological distortions arising from within itself in regard to its governance and externally in regard to its social location. That is, there are strong tendencies to be uncritical of the status quo both within the school itself and in its immediate social setting; indeed, there are strong tendencies to preserve arrangements just as they are and to obscure ways in which they may be morally dubious.
It is inadequate to urge the sanguine view that while such ideological blinders are certainly deplorable they are relatively harmless to a theological school’s pursuit of its central goal to understand God. Such a view is plausible only on the assumption that the school’s practices of teaching and learning through which it seeks to understand God are relatively disengaged from its practices of governance and self-maintenance. It assumes that “theological education “is some sort of activity or process that simply “goes on” within one or another type of institutional structure, housed by the institution but relatively freefloating within it. That is a picture that serves only to obscure or mystify the inescapable concreteness of “theological education.”
A major concern of this book is to take that concreteness seriously and see how doing so might shape our understanding of any given theological school. To that end I have stressed how understanding is always guided by materially based interests. Understanding is itself concrete. On the one hand, far from being evil, that is simply a function of our finite creatureliness. On the other hand, it is open to being distorted in self-serving and oppressive ways which are forms of idolatry. The overwhelming evidence is that we consistently dwell in that opening.
In the case of a theological school this means that both the social location of the school itself and the locations of various persons within the school, taken as a small society in its own right, leave the effort to understand God open to ideological distortion. Practices of teaching and learning are not different in kind from practices of governance and self-maintenance, as though one type were “concrete” and the other not, one type “institutionalized” and the other not. In a theological school they are inseparable. Some interests driving a school’s practices of governance and self-maintenance will tend to distort ideologically the practices through which it seeks to understand God..
Conversely, the school’s overarching goal to understand God truly requires that such ideological distortion be identified and corrected. There is of course, no way to guarantee adequate self-critique. Some systematic theological perspectives may tend to stress this issue more than do others, but there is no one correct theological stance that is not open to being used in ideologically obscuring and oppressive ways. It is not theological theory but a community’s traditional practices that matter here. What is called for is an ethos, a tradition of social practices that are self-consciously vigilant in self-examination in these regards. Given the concreteness of all social practices, this means that openness to and occasions for self-critique of its own ideological distortions must be built into the ways in which all the school’s practices are institutionalized. Because persons have different locations within a school’s internal arrangements of power and status, there will be a variety of interests and a variety of perceptions regarding whose interests are being served. What is needed are formal arrangements that enable the parties to this internal pluralism to check and balance one another. Just as there is no one correct form of polity implied in a theological school’s overarching goal, so there is no one correct institutional mechanism to accomplish internal ideology critique. That it must somehow be accomplished is nonetheless emphatically implied in the goal to understand God truly when those who seek to understand are a concrete community of embodied agents. The degree to which it is accomplished is another mark of a theological school’s excellence.
A utopian proposal
What makes a theological school theological and what makes its schooling excellent? We’ve conducted a thought experiment in response to those questions and in this chapter it has yielded some elements of a utopian proposal about a theological school. A theological school is a set of social practices. It is concrete in that its practices are institutionalized, are guided by interests that have material bases, and are located in a larger host society. This constitutes the school a small polis in its own right, a crossroads hamlet with its own social spaces and its own social forms. Its criteria of excellence as a concrete social reality, I have suggested, are rooted in the same thing that makes it theological: the overarching goal of all its practices to understand God truly.
Hence a utopian picture of a theological school would include the following elements. A theological school consists of a number of social practices, central to which are practices of teaching and learning. That is what constitutes it as a school. The teaching and learning yield conceptual growth. To understand something is to have acquired the requisite concepts. Hence the way to understand something is through conceptual growth. It is growth in certain abilities and capacities in regard to certain media, especially language. This growth is a matter of degree, and comes through certain disciplines. what makes the school a theological school is that its practices of teaching and learning yield growth in abilities and capacities to discern and respond to God in the particular and odd ways in which God is present when and if God is present. The relevant practices of teaching and learning include critical and dialectical study of texts, supervised research, and reflective involvement in the practices that constitute other institutions like hospitals, congregations and social service agencies. They create their own distinctive social spaces and the social spaces require social forms. These practices of teaching and learning a resources for the school, practices of managing its common life, practices by which students are admitted and new faculty selected, and so forth. Practices of teaching and learning are “central” in that all other practices are ordered to their well-being, protecting their social space and maintaining their social forms. But what constitutes the set of practices as a theological school is that all these practices are ordered to and guided by one end, the effort to understand God tuuly, which is not itself a practice in its own right but rather the overarching goal of the entire set of practices comprising the school.
This generates two sets of marks of excellence in theological schooling. The first set is this: It is re central to a complex set of other practices, such as practices of collecting and maintaining excellent to the extent that the conceptual growth is guided by an interest in God for God’s own sake. It is excellent to the extent that precisely because it is guided by that interest, it is self-critically concerned with the truthfulness of its discernment and response to God. It is excellent to the extent that precisely because it is guided by interest in God for God’s own sake, it honors the inevitable pluralism of understandings of God by serious engagement in conversation with differing understandings. It is excellent to the extent that, precisely because its guiding interest is in God for God’s own sake, it is self-critical of ideological distortions of its own efforts to understand God.
A second set of marks of excellence in theological schooling comes into view when we turn to reflect on the concreteness of a theological school: Its concreteness consists in part in its having institutionalized practices of governance, and its schooling is excellent to the extent that its polity leaves room so that the effort to understand God can be genuine by being free to err. Its concreteness in part consists of its transactions with its immediate host community, and its schooling is excellent to the extent that its transactions are deliberately and self-critically shaped in such a way that what they symbolize to the immediate neighborhood and what they teach members of the school community itself are consonant with the concepts taught and learned in its central practices. Its concreteness in part consists of its own internal arrangements of power and status, and its schooling is excellent to the extent that built into those institutionalized arrangements are mechanisms fostering ideology critique within the school.
In this chapter I have made a proposal about what constitutes a theological school and what the implications are for its excellence as a school from the fact that it is specifically a theological school. I have said nothing about Christian congregations, on which we spent a good bit of energy in the last chapter. It is time now to bring the two discussions together. I shall do that in the next two chapters on a theological school’s course of study, what its content should be and why, how it can be at once unified and adequate to the pluralism of the Christian thing, and how it may be at once “academically disciplined” and “professional” schooling.
Notes Farley, Theologia, pp. 87-88.  One apparent exception to this is Christian Identity and Theological Education by Joseph C. Hough, Jr., and John B. Cobb., Jr. (Chico, Calif.:Scholars Press, 1985), who make a point of stressing that theological education must have as its end or telos the education of ministers (pp.4-5). However, it becomes clear that they too reject the “clerical paradigm” insofar as that is a way of defining, not theological education as a type of education, but theological education as theological. They too reject the conventional view that what makes theological schooling theological is that it prepares church leaders, implying that “theology” is to be defined as the theory required by the practice of the profession of church leadership.  See Farley, Theologia, pp.127-135.
 See Wood, Vision and Discernment, ch. 5.
 Wood, The Formation of Christian Understanding, p.35.
 See above, chapter 6, pp.125-127. Søren Kierkegaard, Philosophical Fragments, 2nd ed., tr. David F. Swenson and Howard V. Hong (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1962), p.51.  In my view Kierkegaard overstates the point. There does seem to be something like an extended sense of “proper name” that fits the way “God” is used in Christian discourse as a place-holder for the One whose identity is best described, so Christians believe, by cycles of biblical stories about God relating to the world as its creator, God relating to humankind through the history of Israel, and God relating to persons in the life, death, and resurrection appearances of Jesus.
 See David Tracy’s development of the phrase “scripture-in-tradition” in “On Reading Scripture Theologically,” in Theology and Dialogue, ed. Bruce Marshall (Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1990), pp. 35-69. See James Barr, The Scope and Authority of the Bible (Philadelphia. Westminster Press, 1981)
 Cf. George Lindbeck, The Nature of Doctrine..