Chapter 5: “Berlin”: Unity and Pluralism in the Current Discussion
The current discussion about what is theological about theological education focuses, I have suggested, on two broad types of issues, and in the process it offers various ways to negotiate between “Athens” and “Berlin,” between paideia and Wissenschaft cum professional education as models of excellent education. In the previous chapter we examined two examples of ways in which that negotiation may be done on the “Athens” model’s terms. Farley’s analysis of what’s wrong with theological education and the remedies he proposes focused, as we have seen, on issues of unity in theological education. The Mud Flower Collective, in contrast, focused on issues of pluralism in theological education. Although both proposals adopt paideia as the type of education appropriate to theological study and explicitly or implicitly urge its modification to embrace certain types of Wissenschaft, they disagree strongly about whether there is some transcendental structure that is self-identically, universally in all types of theological schooling, no matter where it is located.
Instead of proposing to negotiate a synthesis of “Athens” and “Berlin” on the “Athens” model’s home court, as the proposals we have just examined do, a second current in the present discussion of theological schooling tries to negotiate between them on the “Berlin” model’s terms. Here too, some proposals take the central issue to be theological education’s adequacy to a postulated ideal unity of the “Christian thing,” while others take the central issue to be theological education’s adequacy to pluralism.
We shall examine an instance of each. Exemplary of the first type is Christian Identity and Theological Education by Joseph C. Hough, Jr., and John B. Cobb, Jr.l Exemplary of the second is Max L. Stackhouse’s Apologia.2 Although the authors of these books wrote in their own names and on their own authority, each of these studies explicitly grew out of discussions of theological education in the theological faculties to which the authors belong. Both schools, one on the west coast and the other on the east coast of the United States, are associated with mainstream liberal Protestant denominations.3 Thus both books grew out of collaborative work analogous to that which produced God’s Fierce Whimsy, although a much less intense and sustained collaboration.
Unity with Pluralism in Accord with “Berlin”: John B. Cobb, Jr., and Joseph C. Hough, Jr.
Cobb and Hough place their proposal clearly within the “Berlin” type — or at least half of it: “The theological school is to be understood as a professional school. As such, its primary purpose is the education of professional leadership for the church.”4 They appear to accept Farley’s view that the central problem with theological education is its loss of unity. Furthermore, along with most of the other authors we have discussed, they too hold that the basis of restored unity lies in theological education’s overarching purpose. In this case the proposal is that the overarching telos of theological education is “the aim of providing the special education appropriate to church leaders” (5). Moreover, they agree with Farley that professional church leadership cannot be properly understood in a functionalist way (93).
The congruence of this with “Berlin” is evident. Recall that the rationale for including theological schooling in the newly founded University of Berlin was precisely that it prepared professional leadership for the churches (which were necessary for society’s well-being) and that such preparation was best done in conjunction with Wissenschaft the best of modern scholarship. We also noted that this bipolar structure of the “Berlin” type leaves it open to serious distortion, since one pole may come to be stressed to the disadvantage or even the near exclusion of the other pole. In particular we noted that the “Berlin” type underwent modification in studies of American theological education from Kelly onward in two ways: (1) the Wissenschaft pole increasingly shifted from education in how to do critical research to instruction in the results of research in an ever-growing number of fields, and (2) the “professional” pole was increasingly understood in a functionalist and individualistic way. Hough and Cobb share this modification of the “Berlin” type in its tendency to play down the Wissenschaft pole, but they resist its tendency to understand “professional” education in functionalist terms.
They disagree with what they take to be Farley’s explanation of why theological education is fragmented: “The current problem for the theological school is not that it is a ‘professional’ school, dominated by the ‘clerical paradigm.’” Hough and Cobb propose that the problem has two other roots. The first of these is that
the church has become uncertain and confused as to what constitutes appropriate professionalism. There can be no clear unity to theological education until there is recovery of clarity about the nature of professional leadership within the church. (5)
This confusion has left church leadership open to ideological distortion by its host culture as it “conforms to expectations established for it by a bourgeois society” (93). Later Hough and Cobb add a second cause of theological schooling’s fragmentation — the tension between the two poles of the “Berlin” model itself:
Theological education is torn between academic norms, defined chiefly as excellence in the historical disciplines, and modern professional norms defined in terms of excellence in performing the functions church leaders are expected to perform. (16-17)
This analysis sets the agenda for their discussion of theological schooling. They set out to clarify what professional church leadership is and how to reconcile “professional” education with Wissenschaft.
In order to clarify the nature of professional church leadership, it is necessary to be clear about the nature and purpose of the church. Here Hough and Cobb’s movement of thought implicitly replicates H. Richard Niebuhr’s and explicitly rejects Farley’s. Farley thought that what we had to get clear first was the nature of theology, theologia. Hough and Cobb object that Farley’s account of theologia” would so focus on personal and ecclesial life as to distract attention from the historical horizons of the world God loves” (4). They fear that an explanation of theologia in terms of persons’ inescapably private inwardness and the structure of human consciousness will be unable to exhibit theology’s necessary engagement in action in the public realm. Better to explain the nature of theology in terms of the church’s life and mission as a community active in the public realm. Such a theological understanding of the church will dictate in turn, as it did for Niebuhr, a theological understanding of church leadership.
The Nature and Mission of the Church
A properly theological account of the church and its professional leadership must begin by placing the church in the context of God’s work: “God has always and everywhere been creatively and redemptively present and working; and she is now and always will be creatively and redemptively active” (21). Consequently, the church must be considered in a world-historical context (20). For the most part, the world is unaware of God’s activity. However, within the world-historical context there is a historical line beginning with the emergence of ancient Israel, who “concentrated on God’s activity” (21). Hough and Cobb trace this history to the Christian churches:
Christianity is that movement within human history in which the efficacy of Israel’s witness to God’s creative and redemptive work has been mediated through Jesus and the apostolic witness to God’s activity in him. This witness affirms not only the activity of God in the world but also her loving forgiveness and acceptance of all those sinners for whom Jesus died, that is, all human beings. (24)
Since the church is that institutionalized community whose awareness of God’s redemptive and creative activity is shaped by the story of Jesus, it is a community that is constituted by memory — namely, its memory of Jesus. Hough and Cobb’s most frequent characterization of the nature of the church is this: “The church is the community which keeps alive the memory of Jesus Christ in the world” (49).
The Christian church has an identity, according to Hough and Cobb. It is constituted by the church’s memory. It is best described by telling the church’s story, narrating its memory: “This is who we are. We are the people to whom the following things have happened.” Drawing on H. Richard Niebuhr’s distinction, Hough and Cobb call this narrated memory the church’s “internal history,” in contrast to its “external history.”
“Internal history” is the history that participating members of a community tell about themselves; in it the importance of events and their interconnections are assessed by the events’ capacity to shape the community’s common life and invest it with meaning. It is characteristic of narratives of “internal history” that the current generation includes stories of events happening to ancient and very alien people as part of its own story. Who we are as twentieth-century Presbyterians, for example, cannot be told by narrating only the story of American religious history; we are also the people to whom certain things happened in sixteenth century Geneva and in tenth-century Scotland and in fourth century Rome and in first-century Galilee and in the family of Abram of the Chaldees. “External history,” by contrast, is told as though by an outside observer; in it the importance of events and their interconnections are assessed by their power to “explain” subsequent events.
That is not to say that successive narrations of the church’s inner history do not change. “Although Christian identity is always determined by an internal history centering on Jesus and the apostolic witness to him, its content and valuation are continually changing” (28). For example, the narrative of some churches has come to be broadened to include the internal history of other groups. (The story of who we are as twentieth-century Presbyterians, for instance, includes the story of the Council of Trent and of the Second Vatican Council.) It could also be broadened to include events outside Yahwistic Judaism, for the creative and redemptive work of God can be discerned everywhere (29). For example, the event of the Enlightenment has inescapably become part of modern churches’ internal history.
The authors are clear that the church can easily use its internal history in distorted, complacent, self-justifying, and idolatrous ways. Interestingly, the two illustrations the authors give of this — individualism and a dualistic view of human nature — come from the Enlightenment (cf 31-43). Rather than necessarily signaling the authors’ rejection of the Enlightenment, however, this fact may simply show the self-critical power of intellectual movements rooted in the Enlightenment. Although modern individualism and a dualistic view of human nature may have their roots in the Enlightenment, so also do the modern techniques of radical self-critique that Hough and Cobb both celebrate and use as partial antidotes to idolatry. Nonetheless, it must be admitted that, although it is now part of the church’s internal history, the Enlightenment appears in this book largely as a source of dangers and distortions for the church. Although the authors stress that there need to be checks against these distortions, they are remarkably unclear about just what those checks are (cf. 27-28).
Distinctive features of the church’s internal history give its communal identity a distinctive shape and define what the church’s purpose is. Three features of that distinctive identity are notable. First, because God’s activity takes place in the midst of political, economic, and social history, it takes place in institutions. Indeed, “the primary theological understanding of human institutions is that they are among the crowning creative redemptive achievements of God” (50). Accordingly, the church cannot be just an intersubjective communion of human subjectivities. It is necessarily an institution, and its institutionalty is to be valued positively.
Second, because God’s activity in the world is creatively and redemptively for the world, the church whose identity is constituted by remembering God’s activity must itself be for the world. This specifies part of the church’s purpose: to be “not simply a community of caring people, but a community dedicated to mutual caring and ordering its [institutionalized] life to that end” (52). This caring includes evangelism, telling its internal history because “those who know the story’s healing and directive power want others to know it too” (54). Further, this caring is to be for the whole world in which God acts, including the dispossessed and oppressed; and the church is also to care for the world in its intellectual and cultural fragmentedness by serving as an “integrator” (cf. 55-67).
Third, as a place of awareness of God’s creative and redemptive action in the world, the church’s inner life centers on worship and holiness. This is the other part of the church’s purpose. On the one hand, in response to God’s activity in the world, the church is brought to repentance for its failures in being “for” the world, and it commits itself to be a community “in which the practices of faith, hope, and love are habitual…. the community of holiness is the community within which the Christian character is both nurtured and expressed by the practice of distinctly Christian virtues — faith, hope and love” (71). On the other hand, in response to God’s activity, the church engages in worship, the “practice of the community of the people of God by which they reaffirm their tradition as a living tradition, one in which God is met ever anew” (75). It is striking that although worship is described as “the central act of the church, that activity apart from which the church cannot be a church at all” (74), it is not mentioned as the church’s purpose until the end of a long and somewhat disconnected list of “images” that characterize the church’s distinctive identity.
Thus it is that a theocentric description of the church as a community that discerns and announces God’s activity in the world yields an account of the purposes of the church that is rooted in the church’s identity. In this context, theology is given a teleological definition: “The major task of theology and ethics is to encourage students to think globally as Christians about the issues of the day. To think as Christians is to think from the memory of the church” (105). To do theology is to think about the things the church is doing in and for the world out of its memory of what God has been and is doing in and for the world. The authors agree with Farley that if theological schooling is to overcome its fragmentation theology needs to be reconceived, but they worry that his way of reconceiving theology as theologia is so focused on personal and intra-church life that it remains disconnected from the public realm. In contrast, Hough and Cobb have defined theology by reference to the mission and common life of an institution that in its God-relatedness is inescapably located in the public realm in which it may be more or less active.
Minister as Practical Theologian
A properly theological account of professional church leadership can only be given in terms provided by this theocentric account of the nature and purpose of the church. Hough and Cobb are clear that not all church leadership is “professional.” That term ought to be applied only to those who are “appointed leaders to perform certain representative functions” (77). On the other hand, “professional” church leadership is not limited to the ordained clergy. Images of professional church leadership have changed several times in North American religious history. Under the impact of recent cultural changes, the churches have become as bureaucratized as any other institutions. That generates a range of expectations of professional church leadership as “management.” That sociological fact is warrant, in Hough and Cobb’s judgment, for the conclusion that “the minister as Manager is the strongest candidate for the dominant image of professional leadership” (78).
Thus what makes the leadership “professional” is that it bears the marks of a manager. What are these marks? Relying on Harold Leavitt’s analysis, the authors urge that excellent management “consists of problem-solving, implementing, and pathfinding.’’5 What makes the leadership “church” leadership, lay or ordained, is that it is the work of a “practical theologian.” A “practical theologian” is analyzed here as a combination of “Christian thinker” and “reflective practitioner.”
“Practical Christian thinkers” are “pathfinders” for the church. They are capable of helping congregations to envision goals for the church in its global context. Key to this is helping Christians to perceive their situation as Christians. This needs to be done, not by applying shared ideas, theories, or principles, but by illuminating the present by the church’s internal history, by exhibiting the relevance to contemporary events of the church’s memory, especially of Jesus. That involves both knowledge of the history of past efforts at the same task and knowledge of scholarly study (i.e., “external history”) of the church’s internal history. Such leaders need
first, a clear Christian identity; second, an extensive and reflective understanding of what constitutes that identity; third, self-consciousness as to how that Christian identity shapes perception of the present concrete world-historical situation; fourth, wise discernment of the implications of this Christian perception for action. (84)
“Reflective practitioners” are “implementers” and” problemsolvers” for the church. In addition to engaging in practical thinking, they participate in reflective practice. Here Hough and Cobb join Farley in their own way to reject the picture of church leadership as a movement from theory to application. Their explanation of their alternative implicitly depends on Donald Schoen’s analysis of reflective practice. “Practical Christian Thinkers reflect not only about practice. They also reflect in practice” (85). The church community, including the professional church leader, is already engaged in the activities that comprise its mission. The reflective practitioner is especially skilled at working collaboratively in this activity with fellow church people to identify problems in this practice, devise means of solving them, and test the means against the community’s vision of its goals. The work of the reflective practitioner can even involve a type of “reflective research” that may profit from being done in an educational setting (87).
Neither the “practical Christian thinker” nor the “reflective practitioner” can be subsumed to the other; each demands the other. Together, in the authors’ view, they comprise the best image for professional church leadership today — the “practical theologian.” This is not a functionalist picture of church leadership:
Practical theology is not one function along with others. It is a mode of reflection that continuously reevaluates the use of time and energy in and by the church in light of what the church truly is. A shift of roles or functions [e.g., from preaching to liturgy, or from counseling to social action] would not affect its appropriateness. (92)
To be engaged in practical theology, to be a professional church leader, simply is to be doing theology “professionally” on Hough and Cobb’s description of theology.
Theological Education as Church Leadership Training
The character of theological education follows from the nature of professional church leadership as “practical theology” since the unifying goal of theological schooling is to educate such leadership. As the theological discussion of church leadership in the context of a discussion of the nature and mission of the church shows, four things need to be provided by theological education.
First, there needs to be a “close connection between the subject matter of courses in Bible and church history and the deepening, broadening, and clarifying of Christian identity” (95). It is in the study of Bible and church history that “the church’s future leaders learn who they are as Christians” (97) — that is, they learn of their “Christian identity” by learning their “internal history.” Study of this internal history should be critical, to check against inaccuracy and idolatry. It should include the internal history of women and minorities in the Christian movement. It should tend toward universality because “the basic identity of leaders for the church should be as inclusive as possible…. The goal is that we experience our identity with all for whom Jesus died” (101). On this view, “particularism” — that is, “the particular focus on God’s work with those people who have recognized it” — is something to be “overcome” (101; emphasis added).
Currently the effort to turn study of Bible and church history into a grasp of Christians’ internal history has relied on critical “objective” history combined with hermeneutical theory applied to bring out objective history’s meaning for the community. This is the basis of Farley’s proposal about the structure of theological study. Hough and Cobb believe that this is inadequate (cf. 97). They seem to be calling for a new range of questions to govern study of Bible and church history. Not just “what happened?” and not just “what is its meaning?” but “who does it assert that we are?” needs to be the question to which all aspects of the inquiry are ordered. This is not a question that sets the agenda or dictates the methods of any of the academic disciplines in intellectual or institutional Christian history, Old or New Testament. Accordingly, course work in these subject matters in theological education can no longer be defined and organized as they have been by research agendas and methods of the relevant disciplinary specializations. Here Hough and Cobb agree with Farley. Courses will, to be sure, presuppose the research of those specializations. They may well engage in some of it too. But the purpose of such courses is no longer wissenschaftlich, to capacitate students to go on to do such research for themselves. Despite their few occasional comments about the importance of theological schooling in these subjects being “critical,” Hough and Cobb are explicit that preoccupation in such courses with “methodology” is a symptom of what’s wrong with theological education today (cf. 3). Accordingly, their vision of theological education would seem to require that courses dealing with these subject matters would have to be survey courses oriented to the question “Who does this material say that we are?”
As we have seen, consciousness of Christian identity needs to be set in a global setting. Hence the second requirement of theological education of “practical theologians” is that it must generate a well-informed and highly self-conscious “global consciousness” in students.
Clearly, not every Christian will have an identical view of the most salient features of our global situation. There are many legitimate differences of judgment. But we cannot consider our internal history seriously without acknowledging that God’s work is for the whole world. (103)
This can only partly be accomplished by sustained instruction; it also requires the “presence of a multiethnic, multicultural student body and faculty” (104) and student and faculty visits in thirdworld countries. Note that in this way Hough and Cobb address issues about the adequacy of theological schooling to pluralism precisely by the way they address issues about the unity of theological education.
Third, theological education of “practical theologians” needs to capacitate future church leaders as “practical Christian thinkers.” In traditional terms the relevant subject matter is that of “theology and ethics.” In Hough and Cobb’s framework, the “major task of theology and ethics is to encourage students to think globally as Christians about the issues of the day” (105). Fulfilling this task requires a transformation of theology and ethics as they have usually been understood. To begin with, the separation between the two must be overcome. Then the “subject matter” must change: although practical Christian thinking must be a thinking “from the memory of the church,” it can no longer be a thinking about the memory of the church, about what exemplary earlier Christians thought about their situations. Rather, it must take as its central subject matter the church’s mission in the present global situation. The purpose of courses in theology and ethics, then, would not be to explore ethical “positions” or “systems” of theological thought as such but rather to “help students to become practical Christian thinkers” (106). “It is the style of thinking, not the particular conclusions, that the seminary can teach” (108).
Here too, no established academic discipline in theological education takes the church’s mission as its subject matter. Contrary to present arrangements, the structure of the curriculum in regard to the need for educating practical Christian thinkers cannot be dictated by any structure or map of the sciences. Indeed, “abolition of disciplinary boundaries would be a first step toward liberating seminary faculties to consider the most important issues facing the church and to encourage students to do so as well” (107).
Finally, in dialectical relation with the third need, theological education of “practical theologians” needs to capacitate future church leaders as “reflective practitioners” in parishes. This is
the joint task of the church and the seminary. While the church must assume a major responsibility for education for pastoral reflection in practice, the seminary makes its major contribution by providing opportunities for reflection on the practice of Christian leaders in general and specifically on the practice of pastors. (127)
Churches would assume the major responsibility for this if they adopted Hough and Cobb’s proposal that, following graduation from theological school, students be placed in “teaching congregations” for one year as “probationary ordinands.” Here in “the institutional location of pastoral practice under the supervision of practicing ministers” is the place “where church management, polity, and general pastoral care can best be taught” (121). The theological school, for its part, would assume responsibility for course work that studies Christian congregations in all their variety, as well as course work that focuses on models of practice, thus cultivating students’ capacities to reflect on ministerial practice (cf. 121-25).
These are not four parts of an essential structure, nor are they four moments of a movement essential to theological schooling. They do not dictate any particular curriculum, although the authors offer a concrete example of what a curriculum that accorded with these four desiderata would look like (cf. 129-30). They are simply the four desiderata of any excellent theological education, which follow from a theologically warranted picture of professional Christian leaders as “practical theologians.”
This proposal to recover the unity of theological education by negotiating between “Berlin” and “Athens,” but on the “Berlin” model’s terms, is both instructive and worrisome. It is particularly instructive in showing the possibility of reconceiving the unity of theological education on a teleological basis (as have the other proposals), but without postulating an ideal “essential” structure to the education’s ultimate subject matter. Accepting the conventions of the “Berlin” type, it grounds the unity of education in its overarching goal of educating professional church leadership for the churches. What makes this education theological is that its goal is defined theologically and not functionally: it is leadership of those who share “Christian identity” — that is, that community which recognizes and responds to God’s creative and saving activity in and for the world — guided by that same Christian identity. In this regard the proposal recovers the theological integrity of the “professional” education pole of the “Berlin” type from distortions in prevailing twentieth-century modifications. Theological education that is unified by having all of its aspects ordered to this one goal would also be a kind of paideia. It would be a shaping or forming of persons in their Christian identity, especially in their capacities to think about that identity practically and to practice it reflectively so that they can offer others “vision” and help in “implementation” for their common enactment of Christian identity. It incorporates the “Athens” type on the “Berlin” type’s terms.
It is worrisome, however, that this proposal’s way of recovering unity in theological schooling on the “Berlin” type’s terms appears to be at the expense of Wissenschaft. The worry is not created by Hough and Cobb’s critique of established academic disciplines and their boundaries. Farley, who takes Wissenschaft with utter seriousness, does the same. Rather, the difficulty comes with the authors’ resistance to attention to “methodology” in studies of Christian identity in theological education. It is not that they fail to recognize the power of disciplined, critical research to unmask idolatry and ideology in intellectual life. They make this point themselves a couple of times, although they do not much emphasize it. Rather, the difficulty is that they do not seem to appreciate how education into the practice of disciplined critical thinking is crucial to church leaders’ capacities to offer both vision and implementation in a fashion that involves genuinely perceptive assessment of the present situation and truly insightful grasp of Christian identity. Knowledgeability about the results of studies of the world-historical situation and about the results of biblical and historical studies, but not about their methods, would not be sufficient for that sort of leadership.
The deemphasizing of Wissenschaft is also worrisome because it threatens to undercut theological education’s importance to the church. Hough and Cobb themselves make the point that, while the churches desperately need “intensive thought” about their mission in the present situation, they entirely lack the “organs for that kind of thinking.” Theological education, however, “would seem to be a place for serious thought about the church’s mission” (107) and thus is in a position to provide the churches a singular service. The suggestion has striking parallels with H. Richard Niebuhr’s insistence that theological schools must be “intellectual centers” for the church. Furthermore, Hough and Cobb’s proposal could address a problem we found with Niebuhr’s proposal. Niebuhr, we saw, construed the intellectual work of theological schools entirely and explicitly as “theoretical.” We worried that that left it entirely unclear how or why we should expect it to make any difference to action. The polemic against the picture of theological schooling as a movement from theory to application, which we have met in all the current literature about theological schooling, only underscores that worry. Hough and Cobb have an entirely different picture of the character of theological schools’ intellectual work. It is not the task of developing a body of theory to be applied later to action. Rather, it is the reflective practitioner’s reflection about action while acting. We noted in passing the authors’ observation that there is a type of research that is congruent with this picture of a theological school’s intellectual work; but they never elaborate. Their proposal’s relative denigration of schooling in methodologically disciplined research makes it seem unlikely that the type of theological school they envision could in fact become the sort of resource of the church for which they themselves call.
It is striking, finally, that in none of this does Hough and Cobb’s proposal depend on the postulation of an unhistorical structure underlying the “Christian thing.” It should not be thought that “Christian identity” is just another way of naming a postulated essence of “faith” or “religiousness as such” or “reason” or “human nature.” It might be, but it is not so necessarily; and in Hough and Cobb’s hands it seems not to be.
To be sure, “identity” points to the same fact as “structure” does: commonality in and through change and diversity. However, there is this possible difference, which Hough and Cobb seem to be exploiting. To postulate an essential structure is to urge that commonality in diversity and change requires that, permeating or underlying all the varieties and changes, there must be some one pattern or structure that itself transcends the cultural variations and historical changes and “explains” the commonality. However, to speak of “identity-in-variety” can draw attention to a completely different way of looking at the matter. Here the suggestion is that the integrity of the historical and cultural concreteness of the lives of persons and communities must be respected above all. Correlatively, “commonalities” ought not to be reduced to some one “explanation” (the ahistorical and nonrelative “structure” of consciousness, or whatever). Rather, commonalities may be looked at as family resemblances created by innumerable overlaps of an indefinitely large number of features. There is no way to map all of that exhaustively. No exhaustive description of any one person or community is possible. However, descriptions adequate for certain purposes are entirely possible (for purposes of identification, for example, or of comparison on particular scores, or of analysis in particular respects, etc.). What is crucial is to keep the concrete individual life or community in its irreducible, historical, and relative individuality as the subject matter. And for that, “identity” is an appropriate placeholder. On this issue, if Farley’s proposal about theologia was the thesis that got the current discussion of theological schooling started, Hough and Cobb provide the dialectical antithesis that keeps it going.
Pluralism with Unity in Accord with “Berlin”: Max L. Stackhouse
Cultural and religious pluralism present the basic issues for theological schooling that most concern Max L. Stackhouse in Apologia. The book grew out of discussions about theological schooling within the faculty of his own theological school. It consists of reviews and critical reflection on papers prepared for that in-school discussion and on books and essays generated by the wider conversation about theological schooling. In these reflections Stackhouse gathers an agenda of issues and theses that he develops in a proposal that concludes the book. The central theses of Stackhouse’s proposal come together in this paragraph:
The vocation of Christian theological education is to prepare women and men to be theologians and ethicises in residence and in mission among the peoples of God in the multiple contexts around the globe. The core of this preparation must be the cosmopolitan quest for the truth and justice of God. In Christian theological education, these will be best treated by careful, critical, and constructive concern for orthodoxy and praxiology, with the constant recognition that an apologia is necessary at every juncture.6
This clearly locates his proposal within the “Berlin” type of excellent education: “Theological education in seminaries prepares leaders for the churches. That is not all it does, but that is what it is designed for” (15). What makes a theological school a theological school is, as Schleiermacher argued, that it educates a professional leadership for a necessary practice. In this case the practice is necessary, not, as Schleiermacher held, for society’s well-being, but for the church’s well-being. More exactly, perhaps, this professional leadership is necessary for the church’s global mission (cf. 49).
Therewith comes the crisis confronting theological education today. Precisely because it is global, the mission that theological schooling serves is contextualized in a variety of ways. Especially in ecumenical church circles, this has generated a high “sensitivity to pluralism” (23). There is a crisis about the adequacy of theological schooling’s address to this pluralism.
However, although Stackhouse shares this judgment with the Mud Flower Collective and, marginally, with Hough and Cobb, he analyzes it entirely differently. The Mud Flower Collective, we saw, urged that the inadequacy lies in theological schools’ failure to incorporate a pluralism of ways of experiencing and knowing into theological schooling in such a way as to preserve their respective integrities. Stackhouse, by contrast, urges that the inadequacy lies in the way in which theological schooling is incorporating the relevant pluralism. The grounds on which pluralism is being incorporated are “shaky” and create a situation in theological schooling that “is programmed for greater disarray and intensified conflict” (8).
Note what is implied here. “Conflict” on account of pluralism is a sign of something amiss for Stackhouse, whereas for the Mud Flower Collective it was a sign of health. The heart of the issues is this: Theological education, in Stackhouse’s view, incorporates the relevant pluralism in a way that inescapably implies a systematic relativism about all questions of truth and justice regarding God; it implies that the “Christian thing” has no intrinsic unity or identity. Thus, for Stackhouse issues about unity and issues about pluralism in theological schooling come together. The root of the fragmentation of theological schooling lies in the way it addresses issues of pluralism; a more adequate address to pluralism would also resolve the questions about unity.
Stackhouse finds this problem repeatedly in the literature he reviews. Again and again he sees the same underlying issue, which he poses in terms of a long-standing philosophers’ controversy between “realism” and “nominalism.” Stackhouse explains that nominalists
argued that all humans could really know was their own experience, and that on the basis of some apparently common features of particular experiences, those who had control of a culture could give names to — could “nominalize” — some general phenomena to organize them for the sake of what would make sense to their own experience.
By contrast, realists, “in the classical sense,”
argued that when we spoke of things like God, or God’s truth and justice, . . . we were speaking (always inadequately) of real, universal phenomena that not everyone experienced in the same way, but to which we were normatively subject in our thought and actions…. These phenomena could be known to be universally valid by the deeper reaches of reason and revelation…. Knowledge of them was, in principle, accessible to all people, in all cultures, in all conditions of life.7
Theological educators who stress the historical and cultural conditionedness of human knowing in general and of the “Christian thing” in particular emerge as “nominalists.” They reject the very possibility of identifying criteria by which to judge the “transcontextual” or universal truth of differing historically conditioned pictures of what Christianity is and what conduct it requires. On Stackhouse’s analysis they are implicitly committed to the position that any one view is as valid as any other. That, in his view, is the basis on which theological education is by and large attempting to be adequate to pluralism.
But this assumption will not do. As Stackhouse sees it, such a view undercuts the very nature of the “Christian thing” and subverts the entire project of theological schooling. For Stackhouse, the very idea of “contextualizing” the “Christian thing” implies that there is something transcontextually “real” to be inserted into various contexts. The “Christian thing” (my term, not Stackhouse’s!) involves claims about God and about justice. Further, it is something whose truth and justice must be capable of being assessed, not just “for” some context, but in principle and universally. Stackhouse’s entire argument seems to require the view that adequacy both to the ideal unity of the “Christian thing” and to the reality of pluralism requires that one be a “realist” of some sort.8 It also seems to require rejection of the “nominalist” view that pluralism is finally irreducible. Beneath all the pluralism of experiences of God and of sociocultural locations of Christian living there must be at least a core that is transcontextual and that constitutes the authenticity of those various experiences as “Christian.”
This has several implications for theological education, all of which are entailed in the distinctive twist this view gives to the school’s overarching and unifying goal to educate leaders for the church.
Ministers are first of all to be theologians and theological ethicists in residence among people of multiple contexts, equipped to preach and teach, organize and persuade, critically evaluate and defend as appropriate, and represent in cultic forms of poesis [making] and concrete forms of praxis [action] those genuinely cosmopolitan theories of God’s truth and justice that can be reliably known and contextualized in every culture, society, and civilization, in the face of alternative religious, philosophical, and social orientations that are less true and less just. (165) The twist is this: Future leaders are to be educated specifically for the task of a “cosmopolitan” quest for the truth and justice of God. We will examine each of these three aspects in turn.
The Truth of God
The quest for the “truth of God” implies that theological education must focus specifically on the quest for “right” theology, for orthodoxy. There is some ambiguity about exactly what this means. It is clear that, for Stackhouse, theology is a form of Wissenschaft. It is also clear that theology is a theoretical undertaking, as it had been for H. Richard Niebuhr, and that theory precedes action. Stackhouse defines theology as
the ordered discipline rooted in reliable knowledge of that which is ultimately and universally real (God), although different from both material reality and human invention, and accessible to reasoned discourse (logos). Unless theology in this sense is possible, theological education is impossible and ought to be given up. (162-63)
More specifically, theology is rigorous philosophical-theological work. Its subject matter comprises doctrines, theories about God. To be sure, doctrines are stated in highly symbolic language that “points to” and “grasps” ultimate reality rather than descriptively “corresponding” to it. Furthermore, that language is culturally shaped and has changed over time (cf 168-70). Moreover, doctrines themselves are not static; they, too, develop over time. Nevertheless, it is theology’s task so to test these theories for truth that the results will be genuinely scientia, well-founded theoretical knowledge. This corresponds exactly to Schleiermacher’s picture of how professional theological schooling in the University of Berlin would also be wissenschaftlich.
What is not entirely clear is whether Stackhouse is claiming that we must assume the possibility of probative weighing of theological theories and of meaningful disagreements about them, or whether he is claiming that such probing has in fact been accomplished and that the disagreements have in fact been resolved in ways that no reasonable person could deny, and that somebody knows what the results are. The latter is suggested by Stackhouse’s contention that he can identify four core doctrines that, under varying historical formulations, “have been accepted by the whole church over its entire history” and “provide the boundaries of what it means to be Christian”: (1) that humanity is sinful and in need of salvation; (2) that revelation takes place in history in the way that the Bible authoritatively indicates; (3) that the doctrine of the Trinity accurately points to God; and (4) that Jesus is the Christ (170). According to Stackhouse, these are the four fundamentals of Christianity.
This is a very large claim. Unless it is circular (e.g., “If a group does not accept one of these, it doesn’t count as part of the ‘church’” it raises the vexed question of whether it is in fact historically true that all four of these doctrines have been accepted by the whole church over its entire history, and how we would know.
The question “How would we know?” underlines the vagueness of Stackhouse’s formulation of these four “doctrines.” What is their material content? On that subject there has been and continues to be unended disagreement within the church. Lacking clarity about their content, how could we judge whether in fact the church accepted them in all times and places?
However, there is evidence in the book that Stackhouse has the more modest claim in view. A number of times he makes the point that theological education makes no sense unless we assume that it is possible to make truth claims about God and that it is possible to subject them to significant disagreement and reasoned evaluation. To assume these things does not require us also to assume that the disagreements can be decisively resolved, once and for all, let alone that they ever will be in this world. It does not require us to deny the possibility of reasonable disagreement not only outside the church but within it as well. All that would be claimed is this: If we engage in the practice of theological education, then we commit ourselves to the view that it is possible to make truth claims about God and to weigh arguments in favor of and against them, even if they never are and perhaps never can be “knock down” decisive arguments. Perhaps this is the force of Stackhouse’s contention that theological education must focus on “orthodoxy”: it must not focus on those theories about God certified once and for all to be “right” or true, but instead must focus on the ongoing task of testing our theories about God to get them as “straight” or as “right” (orthos) as we can. At any rate, that would seem to be all that he needs to urge in support of his analysis and critique of theological schooling.
The Justice of God
The quest for the “justice of God” implies that theological education must focus on what Stackhouse calls “praxiology,” the assessment of “right action” of Christian praxis.
The distinctive function of theological education in this area is one of interpreting, learning, and teaching how theory and practice are related and ought to be related through the clarification of that kind of justice which can, and ought to, guide praxis. (187; emphasis added)
(I will try later to show that there seems to be a tension within Stackhouse’s discussion of theory’s relation to practice.)
Stackhouse is clear that Christianity does not “involve any specific orthopraxy [right action] at all” (184). A theological school is not in the business of “prescribing ‘right actions’ for the world.” Instead, theological education in this area consists of shaping “the will, the heart, which is the mainspring of practical action for justice in the world” (187). This is the point at which Stackhouse’s proposal includes a type of paideia within a form of education that basically adheres to the “Berlin” type of excellent theological schooling. Here tensions between “Berlin” and “Athens” are negotiated on the “Berlin” model’s terms.
Stackhouse’s proposal can be read to urge that theological education must shape the will by a paideia that forms in students dispositions to “right action,” to Christian praxis.9 The “basis” of this praxis is a piety structured by institutions, policy, and principle. The piety “includes at least prayer, worship, and mission” (190). For Christians, piety is given structure by the institutions of baptism and the Eucharist and by the polity governing ministry. Piety is further structured by the policy it adopts regarding its relation to its host society: Will piety “resist the social and cultural patterns of its civilizational environment” or will it “recognize structures in the social and cultural environment with which it can work . . . ?” (196). Each choice structures piety in a distinctive way.
Piety is also structured, finally, by moral principle. Institution and policy must be tested as to their justice. This must be done in a “deprovincialized” way, in full consciousness of the global context in which praxis is enacted. Stackhouse argues that justice can be assessed by transcontextual principles: for example, that “the law of life is love” (204); that the goal or telos of human life is defined by the telos of God’s action — namely, justice, for which the Christian “symbol” is “the Kingdom of God”; and that “internal to the praxis of God’s justice is an eternal moral law” (207). Theological education as paideia shapes us to be disposed to engage in this piety structured in these three specific ways. This involves cultivating, not only dispositions for Christian praxis, but also our capacities for reflecting upon our praxis so that it is genuinely principled activity. And that requires our engagement in rigorous, theoretical, wissenschaftlich inquiry in moral theology.
Here a curious tension appears in Stackhouse’s account of theological schooling as focused on “praxiology.” The function of theological education in this area is to explore “how theory and practice are related” in Christian praxis. How are they related? Stackhouse’s discussion seems to entail two quite different views that are not easily synthesized.
When theological schooling’s focus on “praxiology” is construed as a type of paideia (as it mostly seems to be throughout the books eleventh chapter, “Praxiology?”), the relation between theory and practice is treated in very much the same way Hough and Cobb treated it. The paideia seems to be aimed at making us “reflective practitioners.” Rather than capacitating us to be skilled at moving from theory to application in practice, or from theory to assessment of action after practice is over, the schooling seems to be aimed at capacitating us for principled reflection upon our Christian praxis while we are engaged in it.
However, when theological education’s focus is on “orthodoxy,” the relation between theory and practice seems to be treated as though it were precisely what the first view rejects. Now “doing theology” seems to be an engagement in a wissenschaftlich theoretical undertaking that logically must come before practice and be applied to practice. It is not self-evident that these two views of the relation between theory and practice are coherent, but Stackhouse has not explored the matter.
Cosmopolitan Theories of God’s Truth and Justice
Finally, the quest for “cosmopolitan theories” of God’s truth and justice implies that the core of theological education is apologia of a distinctive type. Apologia means “making a case for” or “demonstrating the truth of” doctrines. Repeatedly in Stackhouse’s discussion of the quest for God’s truth or “orthodoxy” and the quest for God’s justice or “praxiology” we have seen him stress “that an apologia is necessary at every juncture” (209). Apparently he thinks that this is necessary because orthodoxy and praxiology are two sides of a single enterprise of which apologia is the center: “Apologia. . . , marked by a quest for orthodoxy and praxiology, must become the core of theological education” (208).
In Stackhouse’s view this apologia has a definite agenda. It must show that religion is not “a derivative or epiphenomenal expression of something else — something more fundamental, more objective” (142) — but rather that it is
based on a fundamental presupposition that there is a metaphysical-moral realm that is real, transcendent to the empirical world, and simultaneously sufficiently present to human reflection and experience that it can be taken as the decisive point of reference for the understanding and guidance of empirical life and historical existence. (l43)
It must show that religions make a difference in human life. It must show that some religious claims are less true or less just than others. The global context of the church’s mission requires apologia to be done in a distinctive way. It must be cosmopolitan. That is, it must take the realities of worldwide cultural and especially religious pluralism more seriously into account than earlier types of apologia did (cf. 159-60).
Accordingly, whatever else it may be, if theological education “is not a center for the formation of the mind through academic training, it will have failed in its primary task” (141). That task can be specified more exactly: it is to capacitate students’ minds quite specifically for apologetics, for making well-warranted cases for theories about what can and cannot be known about God, what should and should not be done in fidelity to God’s nature and action. Theological education should capacitate students to demonstrate universally and transcontextually what is God’s truth and Justice.
If the overarching goal of theological education is to educate future professional leadership for the church by capacitating them for apologia, marked by a quest for orthodoxy and praxiology, how does that goal affect a theological course of study? It does not imply any particular structure of movement for the study of theology. When Stackhouse discusses the “fields” in the curriculum, he simply assumes without argument the validity of Schleiermacher’s three-part curriculum; it is not clear what his rationale for this structure is.
The first part of this three-part curriculum consists of historical fields, which Schleiermacher called “historical theology.” Stackhouse locates biblical studies, world religions, and church history in this section. Incidentally, just why any of them should be included in theological schooling is not explained. If biblical studies is included because of one of the four core “doctrines” that Stackhouse says the church has held everywhere at all times (namely, that God is revealed in history in the ways to which Scripture testifies), then it is odd that world religions and church history are included in the same field. There is no similar “core doctrine” that says that either of them testifies to God’s self-revelation. The basis for inclusion of world religions and church history in theological schooling would have to be quite different. The second part of the curriculum consists of normative fields, which Schleiermacher called “philosophical theology.” These embrace systematics, ethics, and missiology. And the third part of the curriculum consists of the practical fields, which Schleiermacher called “practical theology.” This includes preaching, education, church management, psychology, and pastoral care.
While the focus on apologia with regard to the truth and justice of God does not imply any change in this structure, it does imply a distinctive orientation for all courses in each of these fields. The way Stackhouse works this out is instructive. It is as though the academic work done in each field must be guided by a distinctive overarching or, we might say, “horizon” question. Thus historical scholars can contribute to apologia by
testing the adequacy of what they do [not merely by meeting standard historical-critical standards for historical research, but beyond that] by showing how it aids in clarifying God’s truth and justice in new and wider contexts. If these studies fail the test, they will properly be relegated to antiquarian hobbies. (219)
Accordingly, course work in the historical fields must basically be governed by this question: What in these historical materials is pertinent “for contexts around the globe”? Stackhouse suggests that biblical scholars, for example, working within the horizon of this question, would order their research and teaching to answering these questions: Is there anything in these texts that is “of universal and perennial import for knowing God’s truth and justice”? Anything that is pertinent “only to contexts that are structurally, functionally, and semiotically similar to the contexts in which these texts appeared and to which they speak”? Anything that is pertinent “only to the contexts in which they first appeared”? (218).
Stackhouse calls historical work governed by these questions “postcritical theological reflection about the meaning of a text” (218). Does his view assume the validity of a distinction in a historical source between its possibly universally true “kernel” and its historically conditioned and limited “husk,” with the implied promise that we can extract the more or less widely pertinent kernel from its time-bound husk? If so, it would be strikingly like the fundamental presupposition of much of late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century “liberal” theological exegesis of Scripture. This was precisely the way of seeking wider pertinence of ancient writings that fell into disrepute because it drew an arbitrary and unwarranted line between what is and what cannot be “conditioned” by its historical setting. Though , there is nothing wrong in seeking texts’ wider pertinency, the liberal way of doing it increasingly came to seem so incoherent that any attempt to resuscitate it would require careful argument. Surely its revival cannot be accomplished simply by asserting that it is valid after all.
Course work in the normative fields contributes to apologia by clarifying “the means by which metaphysical principles of truth and moral principles of justice can be known with relative reliability” (219). The work of the normative fields is, as Schleiermacher said, basically philosophical work. Accordingly, course work in the normative fields must be governed by this question: What can be shown by well-warranted arguments to be universally true and just? This requires of such work the willingness to take the risk of proposing normative answers, of presenting “models of orthodoxy and praxiology” and defending them (220).
Course work in the practical fields contributes to apologia by adjudicating “the adequacy of what the others offer.” Those in the practical fields accomplish this adjudication by testing against “the psychological disabilities, the power plays and hidden interests, the structural constrictions, and the stinginess and meanness that preoccupies much of life in every context” — in short, by encounter with “sin, and the need for salvation.” Furthermore, they must do this testing in the widest possible context — that is, in a global context. Apparently course work in the practical fields should be governed by some such question as this: Can these theories be applied in these contexts in ways that bring salvation to the modes of sin encountered here? Stackhouse says that the practical fields “are, in some senses, at the mercy of the historical and the normative thinkers, for they inevitably rely on understandings of the past and on proposals about what is true and just in what they do” (220).
It falls to the practical fields to make the move from theory to application. Once again the strong contrast between Stackhouse’s proposals and the others we have examined in the current discussion is confirmed. The others agree that the roots of the disarray in theological education today lie in large part in its implicit assumption that theological education is a movement from theory to application; then, in their different ways, the other proposals seek to replace that assumption with some other picture of theological education’s inherent movement. In contrast, Stackhouse’s proposal, in making apologia central (and also in its “orthodoxy” pole — though apparently not in its “praxiology” pole), seems to continue to assume the validity of the theory-to-application picture of the movement of theological education.
The centrality of apologia in this proposal highlights a curious internal incongruence throughout the book. Clearly the author has a high estimate of our rational capacities. Indeed, the final chapter begins with a section called “In Praise of Reason.” Much of the argument of the book would seem to require the claim that “reason” has a single, ahistorical, and transcultural “nature” or “essence” in all human beings. However, the book itself does not venture into a theoretical discussion of the concept of “reason.” This book has, rather, the character of a prophetic warning. It seeks to call theological educators back from the abyss of intellectual and moral relativism and the vacuousness and triviality that they entail. It can be safely assumed that none of the parties to the conversation would, on reflection, deliberately adopt a position of thoroughgoing theoretical relativism. Nonetheless, on Stackhouse’s analysis, theological educators drift toward relativism when they attempt to address pluralism (in itself an important thing to do), but in misguided ways. What is misguided about these attempts, Stackhouse seems consistently to say, is that (however unintentionally) they imply that Christianity cannot make rational truth claims or, if it does, that there are no rational criteria by which they may be assessed. According to what concept of “reason” and “rationality”? Obviously, the answer is Stackhouses concept of reason, although this concept is not much explained. The failure to explain or give reasons for that concept of reason suggests that Stackhouse assumes it to be self-evidently the concept to which everyone is accountable; if it is self-evident, it needn’t be reasoned.
However, it does not appear that the thinkers about whom Stackhouse is worried are adopting their responses to pluralism simply out of a high “sensitivity” to pluralism. They seem to have adopted them for two additional reasons. One is the conviction that the familiar, indeed entirely traditional and conventional, address to pluralism that Stackhouse’s book represents simply has not been intellectually successful. The second reason is the conviction that the root of the failure of the treatment of pluralism represented by Stackhouse lies in its inadequate understanding of reason.
If there is anything to this speculative account, then the thing that Stackhouse appears to assume need not be argued is the very thing that most needs to be argued — namely, the nature of “reason” and “rationality.” It needs to be argued in a noncircular way if the debate is to be significant. That is, critique of another’s view in order to support one’s own cannot simply assume the validity of one’s own view. It may be, furthermore, that explicit and implicit differences about the nature of human reason are at the core of the differences in “anthropology” or views of what it is to be human that we have repeatedly seen to underlie differences about excellence in theological schooling.
What’s theological about theological education? In the current conversation, I suggest, the four proposals we have just examined are good examples of prominent types of approach to this question. At first exposure the relations among them are likely to seem hopelessly confusing. Any two may start at apparently opposite places and then suddenly converge. Others appear to agree about a good bit, but after moving in parallel for a while suddenly diverge, only to intersect with one another again, sometimes with new companions. The pattern of movement among them may appear numbingly complex. However, if we focus on features of each of these proposals that we found instructive and features about which we had reason to be cautious, we will, I think, begin to see the points of tension that: give a pattern to their movement.
All parties agree to the point we found instructive in Newman: Education will be unified if it is ordered to a single overarching goal. More particularly, theological education will be unified if all aspects of the enterprise are ordered to “doing theology” in an appropriate way. Furthermore, all parties agree that the chief criterion of this “appropriateness” is that it be done in a way that capacitates students to “do theology” themselves.
But what is “theology”? Here, I think, is the central crux. The question that marks the point of divergence among partners to the conversation is this: What is theology and how is it related to human powers? Put slightly differently: What is it to “do theology” and what do we have to do for people to capacitate them to do it?
One position (that of Stackhouse) holds that Christian theology is largely a kind of theory that can be applied to life. As theory, it claims to be universally valid cross-culturally. It is “objective.” Theories engage in human rational powers. The task of exhibiting universally valid truths requires the postulation that human “reason” or “rational power” is universally identical crossculturally and ahistorically. What kind of theory is theology? The answer to that is determined by the nature and purpose of professional church leadership: it is “church theology.” The central purpose of professional church leadership is apologia — that is, to formulate and defend theories or “doctrines” about God’s truth and God’s justice for Christian communities worldwide to apply in their lives in diverse cultural settings. The unity of the “Christian thing” is thus the unity of an internally coherent system of doctrines, a body of theory. Accordingly, what will make education “theological” is that it engages students’ rational powers in such a fashion as to capacitate them for rigorous, disciplined, systematic theorizing about God’s truth and justice. Theological education is thus a movement from a theory to its application. It will be unified and harmonious education to the extent that it is adequate to the unity of the “Christian thing,” exhibiting and advocating the coherence of the whole body of Christian divinity — that is, the theory to be applied. This clearly locates the proposal with the “Berlin” type of excellent education. Theological education is theological because it educates professional church leadership through schooling in historical and, above all, philosophical Wissenschaft.
We saw that the picture of our rational powers taken for granted by this position is controversial, and so is its thesis that logically we have to adopt this view of reason to make sense of the enterprise of theological education. That it is controversial among the theological educators who have participated in this debate is no evidence, of course, that Stackhouse’s position is wrong or even weak. It may be a “minority” view in this circle, which is not necessarily representative in this regard of theological educators generally; it is very likely to be the “majority” view among professional philosophers, Christian or otherwise (it is, after all, a philosophical issue). However, questions of this sort cannot be settled by majority vote. What is of more immediate concern is the question of the coherence of the proposal. Simply within the framework of Stackhouse’s proposal, even if the implied picture of reason is granted, it is unclear that it can coherently hold together the wissenschaftlich education required by focus on God’s truth and the paideia in piety called for by focus on God’s justice.
The other three positions hold that it is precisely the picture of theological education as a movement from theory to application that is at the root of Christian theological education’s current inadequacies. They agree that the picture of theology as a body of theory is profoundly misleading, and therefore that theology needs to be reconceived. Furthermore, they agree that theology must be reconceived in such a way that it clearly engages the whole person. Theology must be understood not as something that chiefly engages one’s rational powers only but rather as something that engages all one’s powers as an integral whole. This is why the “Athens” type of education cannot be abandoned. It is necessary in order to make credible that education in theology effectively bears on the totality of human life in the public realm as well as in the private. The three proposals differ, of course, over how to do this.
Thus a second position holds that Christian theology is a kind of wisdom, perhaps wisdom in being a person in any of the dimensions of human life, private or public (cf. Farley on theologia). Here what defines theology is not the nature of professional church leadership (as in the first position), but faith-within-its-situations. Theology is rooted in and grows out of faith-within- its-situations. Theology grows out of a complex whole with both objective and subjective poles: on one side, the objective situation with its many dimensions, including the Christian “mythos,” which is comprised of symbols, practices, doctrines, etc.; on the other side, the human subject located in that situation. However, theology is rooted in the subjective pole of this complex. It is faith, one type of subjectivity unreflectively shaped by the total Christian mythos and concretely located in some situation, brought to critically reflective self-awareness. Theology is rooted in and grows out of the whole human subject as shaped by its situation, a situation that includes the Christian mythos. In that sense theology is “subjective.” So understood, theology is at once a subject’s disposition (habitus) to be wise and a subject’s capacities to be critically self-reflective in its wisdom (capacities for “dialectical activity”). Despite the many ways in which it is modified in different situations, faith is at bottom one selfsame thing in all faithful people at all times and places. It has the unity, not of a single coherent system of doctrines, but of a single way of being “set” in the world as a person. This is the unity of the “Christian thing.” Hence, theology too, both as habitus and as a “dialectical activity,” is the same in all times and places. Accordingly, what will make schooling “theological” is that it shapes human persons so that they are formed by the habitus of theology (paideia) and capacitated to engage in truly critical reflection.
Clearly, this proposal is an instance of the “Athens” type of excellent education modified to incorporate some of the “Berlin” type. Theological education is not a movement to anything beyond itself — that is, beyond its forming persons in specific ways. Indeed, it is unified and harmonious precisely to the degree that it stays adequate to the unity of the “Christian thing” by being ordered to the sole end of forming persons in these ways. It modifies the “Athens” model by appropriating the critical inquiry of the “Berlin” model. We saw that it is unclear whether this proposal can coherently incorporate aspects of the “Berlin” type because it is unclear whether the two sides of theology (habitus and “dialectical activity”) cohere with each other. More seriously, we saw, it is open to the objection that it fails to show how theology bears on the public dimensions of human life; in this view, theology seems confined to the private realm of the interiority of consciousness. The proposal intends to make theology engage the total person. But, the objection goes, the proposal adopts a view of human persons as centers of consciousness above all subjects, a view of faith as a specific mode of that consciousness, and a view of theology as that faith brought to an exquisite level of critical self-awareness. That leaves theology engaged with persons’ interiorities; but the proposal leaves it dubious whether or how theology engages persons’ public lives.
A third position (that of the Mud Flower Collective) holds that Christian theology is reflection on persons’ concrete experiences of relationships, reflection that is ordered to establishing justice. What defines theology here is neither the nature and purpose of professional church leadership nor the nature of faith, but concrete experiences of personal relationships. It is in and with personal relationships that we experience the presence (or absence) of God. As reflection on experiences of personal relationships, theology is something “subjective.” It is subjective, but it is not “private,” for experiences of personal relationships are always also experiences of the distribution of social, economic, political, and cultural power. Reflection to discern God’s presence in personal relationships must also be reflection on the implications of God’s presence with regard to the distribution of power — namely, the demand for justice. Hence, theology engages all the powers of a person, both those pertaining to our private lives and those pertinent to our lives in the public realm. At the same time, the concreteness of personal relationships means that theology itself is no one thing. Personal relationships are always located in historical and cultural contexts that differ, often profoundly, from one another. Experiences of God vary as do experiences of relationships. They cannot be reduced to universal common denominators. Hence, as reflection on experiences of personal relationships to discern the presence of God, theology itself will be irreducibly pluralistic.
Accordingly, theological education is a shaping of persons’ capacities to hear others’ accounts of experiences of personal relationships and of persons’ capacities to tell their own stories in such a way as to discern God’s presence in those stories. Theological education will be adequate to the irreducible pluralism of modes of experiences of God if it includes within the school itself a pluralism of modes of experience of God that are genuinely “other” by reason of different ethnic, sexual, racial, and social locations. This position evidently belongs with the “Athens” type, but it has been radically modified by the rejection of the assumption that usually goes with paideia — that of a universal “essence” to human nature or to human experience. Indeed, this position rejects the assumption found in the first two positions that there is some universal, ahistorical, cross-cultural “essence” or structure either to theological education’s ultimate subject matter or to its course of study. As we saw, it seems necessary that this mode of paideia embrace at least two sorts of Wissenschaft. First, it would seem to need to use some body of critical social theory as a tool to help unmask and analyze unjust distributions of power; and second, it would seem to need rigorous and critical reflection, such as is found in the second position, to examine what it means to say that we experience God in experiences of personal relationship and indeed how that could be possible. The question then is whether this can be provided without adopting the view of human personhood that seemed troublesome in the second position.
The fourth position (that of Hough and Cobb) holds that Christian theology is critical reflection on the practice of Christian ministry while engaged in Christian ministry. Like the first position, it defines theology by reference to the nature and specific purposes of professional Christian church leadership and not by reference either to faith or to experience of personal relationships in general. But unlike the first position and like the others, it rejects the view that theology is a body of theory to be applied in the practice of ministry. Professional church leadership is defined by reference to the nature and purpose of the church. The church is that community of persons that shares a common distinctively Christian identity. That identity is best described, not by discovering its underlying and universal essence or structure, but by telling the “Christian story” of God’s redemptive activity in history, in the public realm. Thus the unity of the “Christian thing” is more like the unity-in-change-and-growth that characterizes the integrity of a living person than like the unity of a systematic body of theory, even a body of theory undergoing correction and emendation.
The church’s purpose is to draw attention to what God has been doing for the rest of the world and to respond in gratitude by engaging in those public events in which God may be discerned to be acting redemptively now. Professional church leaders are to be reflective practitioners whose purpose is to assist congregations to keep clear a vision of God redemptively at work today and to test critically how far the church’s active response to God’s action is consistent with its own identity. To “do theology” is to do these two things in the thick of the church’s active engagement in its ministry. Theology engages all the powers of the persons involved in the church’s ministry. The criterion by which both vision of God’s work and faithfulness of churchly action are tested is the Christian identity the leader shares with the community.
Accordingly, what makes theological education theological in this view is that it is schooling in the results of two sorts of wissenschaftlich inquiry: historical research into the “Christian story,” which deepens and corrects future leaders’ grasp of their Christian identity, and research into the findings of various kinds of studies of the world to sharpen future leaders’ capacities for critique of the effectiveness and faithfulness of the church’s action in the world. Clearly, this position belongs with the “Berlin” type in its stress on “professional” education, though it has been modified to include paideia-like nurturing of persons’ Christian identities. As we saw, however, it seems to be an oddly one-sided version of the “Berlin” type of excellent theological education. While it emphasizes the model’s stress on “professional” schooling, it seems, unlike the other three proposals, to de-emphasize the model’s stress on schooling by way of participation in Wissenschaft, in rigorous, methodologically self-conscious inquiry.
We also noted that this position is open to criticism for its unnuanced references to the “Christian story,” which tend to ignore the demonstrable pluralism of the “Christian thing” and perhaps also by extension the pluralism of “Christian identities.” Nonetheless, unlike the second and third positions, this one does not make theology something “subjective.” Theology is not faith’s critical self-reflectiveness, nor is it personal experience’s self-reflectiveness. On the other hand, unlike the first position, it does not make theology out to be something “objective” either. Theology is not the name for a body of universally true doctrine. Nonetheless, it is “objective” in its own way: theology is reflection on the “Christian story” and on communal action in light of that story. Granted, the “story” describes the “identities” of persons and guides the actions of a community of persons. All the same, it is not subjects and subjectivities on which theology reflects, but a single story and public action.
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Is it possible to take the best of all four of these positions to form a single picture of theological education? Such a picture of theological schooling would correlate with a picture of the nature of theology; it would pertain to the public as well as the private dimensions of human life; it would be adequate to the pluralism of the “Christian thing” and to the pluralism of the social and cultural worlds in which it is lived; it would be unified without having to assume the sort of universal essence or structure to theological education that belies deep pluralism in the “Christian thing”; and it would retrieve the strengths of both the “Athens” and the “Berlin” types of excellent schooling. In order to do all of these things, such a view would have to find a way to ease the tensions among the voices in the debate to which we have already attended. Perhaps that can be done partly by a fundamental change in the “conceptuality” employed to analyze the basic issues in theological education and to propose resolutions of those issues. In the next chapter we shall examine a proposal that can be read as an effort to do just that by transposing the discussion into a different key.
1. Hough and Cobb, Christian Identity and Theological Education (Chico, CA: Scholars Press, 1985).
2. Stackhouse, Apologia: Contextualization, Globalization, and Mission in Theological Education (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 1988).
3. At the time they wrote, Hough and Cobb belonged to the faculty of the Graduate School of Theology in Claremont, California (Methodist); Stackhouse is on the faculty of the Andover-Newton Theological Seminary in Massachusetts (United Church of Christ).
4. Hough and Cobb, p. 19, emphasis added; subsequent citations will be given parenthetically in the text.
5. Hough and Cobb, p. 79. The reference is to Harold J. Leavitt, “Management and Management Education,” The Stockton Lecture, London Business School, 16 March 1983.
6. Stackhouse, p. 209; subsequent citations will be given parenthetically in the text.
7. Stackhouse, pp. 23-24. This is an extraordinary (and perhaps anachronistic) use of nominalism according to which Edward Farley’s work can be classified as “nominalist” (cf Stackhouse, p. 133) and, it appears, the “phenomenological” movement in general is “nominalistic” (cf Stackhouse, p. 26). (Husserl would have been astonished.)
8. Note this statement by Stackhouse:
In other words, there is no possibility, so far as, we have thus far been able to discern, for Christian theological education to proceed without . . accepting at least a modified realist view of the nature of truth…. (Pp. 182-83)
However, it is not entirely clear that Stackhouse is fully committed to this proposition. Elsewhere, without objection and in apparent agreement, he cites evidence produced by Lamin Sanneh as suggesting that in fact “Christianity has never been fully satisfied with either an exclusively nominalist or an exclusively realist” position (p. 25)
9. For this paragraph, cf. Stackhouse, pp. 190-208.