To Understand God Truly by David Kelsey
David Kelsey is Luther A. Weigle Professor of Theology at Yale University Divinity
School in New Haven, Connecticut. His article is based on his convocation address
in 1996 inaugurating a new academic year in which YDS, under the leadership
of its new dean, Richard Wood, set out to develop new curriculum and programs
recommended by a review committee, which was chaired by Kelsey. To Know God Truly: What's Theological About a Theological School?
1. Orientation: Or, After the Fall
Every year on the weekend before the start of the fall term of the theological school where I teach, the student organization offers a retreat as part of the orientation for new students. New faculty members have also found it helpful. For years it was held at a lovely little conference center on a rocky neck projecting into Long Island Sound. It is an opportunity to reflect on one's own expectations of theological education and to begin to get a sense of the nature and overarching purposes of this particular school in which one has invested those expectations. The retreat has always been called "Before the Fall."
Inevitably, a fall does come. Innocent idealizations of theological education give way before concrete realities of the particular theological school whose ethos is the medium in which one now largely lives and whose polity constrains one's life in powerful but often elusive ways. At some point virtually everyone involved in the enterprise feels the pinch of a misfit between yearnings and expectations that are important (and vulnerable) parts of one's personal identity, on one side, and on the other a set of unexpected, often unintelligible, frequently frustrating "givens" that appear to be important (and invulnerable?) parts of the identity of the school. The pinch gives rise to questions. What are the purposes and priorities that really govern and structure this school? What is realistic to expect of theological education, whether done in this school or in some other? If institutional reality could be remade to heart's desire, what would the ideal theological school be like? Most basic of all, since it is theological schools and theological education we are questioning, what is theological about them? Theologically speaking, what ought to be the purposes and nature of theological education? What theological commitments ought to be decisive criteria for assessing and reshaping the ethos and polity of a theological school?
Those are the types of questions this book addresses. I have five hopes for it. First, I hope for the book to be accessible. I have not tried to achieve this by simplifying complex issues or by avoiding serious theological analysis, critique, and argument. Of course, I hope to achieve accessibility partly by explaining what I mean, and what I take others to mean, as clearly as possible in plain English! But I also hope to achieve it by constantly supposing that I am addressing someone who has entered the world of a theological school fairly recently -- perhaps a student starting her second year of study, or an academic who has just joined a theological school faculty and has never herself been previously involved in theological education, or a person newly appointed to the board of trustees of a theological school. This is a book addressed to those who have felt the pinch of a misfit between their expectations of theological education and the realities of a theological school. It is addressed to questions that arise after the fall -- usually in the dreary February of the second year one is in the school.
Second, I hope the book will succeed at being a collegial partner in an ongoing conversation. For nearly a decade now a lively but fragile, potentially important theological conversation has been going on among theological educators about the basic nature and purpose of theological education. It has been nurtured in many ways: by research into basic issues in theological education underwritten by competitive grants offered by the Association of Theological Schools (ATS) and funded by the Lilly Endowment, Inc.; by the work of some theological educators commissioned by the Endowment to think about these questions; and by a series of seminars and conferences convened by the ATS to discuss some of the results of this research and reflection. I have had the opportunity to observe this conversation from a privileged vantage point. I have become deeply impressed by the importance of this conversation to the health of theological education in North America.
The conversation is nonetheless fragile because hitherto there has never been a lively tradition of discussion of theological education by those who are engaged in doing it. Fortunately, theological education is not itself a scholarly specialization. It has no academic guild. Consequently, no faculty member is promoted or awarded tenure for research and writing on this topic. There is little literature on the matter. There is not even the shared vocabulary that would make discussion easy. Nor has there been a clear knowledge of which assumptions are widely enough shared to make it possible to state disagreements as genuine engagements and not as exercises in talking past one another. The conversation could easily break down because it has so little standing in the world of theological education, has no well-established tradition to nurture it, no reward system to encourage it, no institutional home to give it enduring structure. At the same time the liveliness and potential importance of this conversation are shown by the remarkable number of significant articles and books it has generated over the past half dozen years. I intend this book to be a contribution to the conversation, moving it along in new directions, perhaps, but only in dialogue with other voices from whom I have learned a great deal.
My third and fourth hopes for this book are closely connected but are quite distinct. I hope to make suggestions about the most helpful way to think about these issues -- suggestions about the differences between more useful and less useful ways to pose the issues -- as a contribution to making others' discussions of these topics more fruitful. I consider these suggestions to be largely formal. They are not designed to support one side of a disagreement about the nature and purposes of theological schools against the other side. Rather they are designed to help disagreements be posed in ways that are as productive as possible in generating further conversation and new insights.
My fourth hope is to make a cogent case for a sketch of the particular theological view that the purpose of a theological school is to seek to understand God more truly, and that a school's "nature" follows from this "purpose." I consider this to be a material theological proposal. In a discussion of his book Theologia: The Fragmentation and Unity of Theological Education, [2 ] Edward Farley once ruefully observed that any essay on the nature and purposes of theological education is inescapably a contribution to utopian literature. This book will be no exception. It will be utopian both in the sense that I make no attempt to explain how we can get from here to there -- how to actualize my proposal - and in the sense that, given human nature and the state of the world, it is probably a quite "unrealistic" proposal. In these ways utopian essays are "useless.' However, at its best a utopian essay provides both unusual distance from the world as it is and a view of the world from an unusual angle. It sketches its city -- or, in this case, its crossroads hamlet -- in ideal terms with ironic intent. Despite its straight face, it is not so much a proposal seriously to be believed to be the best of all possible practical arrangements as it is a critique of present arrangements that is pointed enough to provoke significant conversation. A manifesto is flatfooted advocacy of a blueprint for reform; it's the irony that makes a proposal utopian. I hope for this book to be useful precisely because it is ironically utopian.
My ways of realizing these two hopes will be deeply intertwined in this book. Formal suggestions are terribly abstract. Without some illustrative material it is often very difficult to grasp and hang on to the point of the suggestion. Accordingly, the way I develop my own theological sketch of the idea of a theological school and the way I argue for it in preference to alternative theological views is meant as a series of illustrations of some suggestions about fruitful ways in which to pose these issues. Of course, I hope to persuade you that my material theological view of the theological school is the most compelling one. If I fail to do so, however, I hope that by that very failure I will have commended to you the fruitfulness of my suggestions about how to pose some of the central issues. The two are quite distinct hopes.
My final hope for this book is to bring into the center of the conversation the importance of the public and concrete character of theological education and the importance of attending to all the factors that make for that concreteness. It is for that reason that I propose to shift the name of the topic from "theological education" to "the theological school." "Education" is a very abstract term. It is used to designate a process. But the educational process always takes place in some particular institutional setting located in a particular socio-economic context, has a particular ethos of its own that amounts to a "culture" open to ethnographic study, has its own structure of power, is offered by a particular group of faculty members themselves socialized in various ways as academic professionals, and is undergone by a particular student body. The phrase "theological education" misleadingly invites us to consider our topic in abstraction from much or all of that. In ordinary English, the word "school' seems more readily to connote the concrete institutional dimensions of the enterprise than does "education." I hope to make the case that it is theologically necessary to attend to the concreteness of theological education. A genuinely theological answer to the question "what is theological about theological education?" will keep these sociological, political, and economic dimensions of the enterprise at the center of the discussion.
What have we got into?
The most obvious characteristic of the world of theological schools is the enormous diversity among its citizens. It is a deeply pluralistic world. Oddly, much discussion of what is theological about theological education ignores the diversity among theological schools. It may well be that theological education, if it deserves the name, is a process whose governing purposes are the same in all theological schools. It is also true, however, that the process never takes place in the abstract. It always takes place in some concrete location, in some particular school whose unique identity is rooted in its history, in some tradition of piety and theology, in its local culture, its ways of being financed, its ways of governing itself, its relations to a denomination, and its relation to the academic disciplines' "guilds."
The relation of this concrete location of education to the process of education is not like the relation of a husk to a kernel of wheat. It should not be assumed, for example, that the differences between theological education at Denver Seminary and at Harvard Divinity School are merely marked variations on "essentially" the same process simply because they are both genuinely places of theological education. "Theological school" should not be contrasted to "theological education" as "container" and "contained." Because the two interpenetrate so deeply, conceptual contrasts like "form/content" and "structure/ content" are not helpful in trying to understand theologically the nature and purpose of theological schools.
The diversity among theological schools is partly rooted in differences among their deepest theological commitments and it is partly rooted in historical and sociocultural factors. I shall argue that any theological "idea" of a theological school must take the "non- theological" factors shaping a school as seriously as it takes the "truly" theological issues. This is my first formal suggestion about the most helpful way to pose questions covering theological education: Keep reflection tied to concrete social reality by keeping the concrete particularities of theological schools central to the discussion. To that end it will be useful to sketch the "location" of theological schools on the map of North American academic and religious institutions.
For purposes of this book we shall identify the world of theological schools in North America as all accredited graduate schools of theology in the United States and Canada. That is, we shall identify the boundaries of the world of theological schools with the membership of the Association of Theological Schools. Admittedly, this is somewhat arbitrary. There are many schools that are not members of the ATS calling themselves "theological schools" or "seminaries" that train leaders for churches. However, it can be justified as the least problematic way of tracing the boundaries of the world of theological schools. The Association of Theological Schools is an agency that accredits Protestant and Roman Catholic theological schools in Canada and the United States. Its criteria for accreditation give us the most formal description of what all these schools have in common. Among those standards, for example, is the requirement that usually degree recipients from accredited undergraduate colleges and universities may be admitted as students: thus theological schools are "graduate" schools. Despite the extreme pluralism marking this world, all 179 of the association's accredited member schools (as of 1990) have in common that they have met ATS standards. (In addition to its accredited members, the ATS in 1990 included eight "Candidate" schools involved in the two-year process of accreditation, and eighteen nonaccredited "Associate" members, for a total membership of 205 schools.)
If a theological sketch of the idea of a theological school is a utopian exercise, the community it describes is less an ideal city than a crossroads hamlet with an overwhelmingly white male population. In the larger world of academic institutions, theological schools are lilliputian. Twenty years ago Warren Deem, a professional consultant to the ATS, remarked that "the average Protestant seminary today -- with its 15 faculty and 170 students -- has resources which are more analogous to a neighborhood primary school than to a modern graduate professional institution. 
Modest changes in the relative statistics during the past twenty years have not undercut the force of the analogy. In 1989, enrollment in the M.A. and M.Div. programs of 202 reporting theological schools averaged 278 students per school if one simply did a head count of students (or 188 if one calculated on the basis of "full-time equivalence" [FTE], and they averaged a faculty of 17 full-time faculty members per school (on an FTE basis.) About 46 percent of the students were enrolled in M.Div. degree programs requiring three or more years and designed to prepare persons for ordained leadership roles in the churches. Almost 37 percent of the total student population were enrolled in one- and two-year master's programs (M.A.R., M.R.E., M.T.S.) or in nondegree certificate programs. The rest were enrolled in other, more advanced degree programs.
On average, they are still overwhelmingly white and male communities. As of 1989, there were more than twice as many men as women in M.Div. programs. African American students, men and women combined, amounted to less than 7.3 percent of the total student population. In size, theological schools are still more like primary schools in white neighborhoods that discourage the education of women than they are like modern graduate professional institutions in an open and pluralistic society.
Within this world of hamlets there is nonetheless a good deal of variety. For one thing, despite their small size on average, there is a great range of size among theological schools. Moreover, there has been a twenty-year trend toward relatively larger student bodies. In 1989 there were twenty-nine schools with fifty or fewer students. The smallest had a student body of eight. At the other end of the spectrum there were three schools with student bodies of a thousand or more in 1989. The largest reported 3814 students. For another thing, there has been a steady drop in the number of students engaged in theological education full-time. Only a little more than two-thirds of the total enrollment of theological schools (68 percent) were full-time students in 1986 (the last year for which this figure was available); by contrast, well over three-quarters (78 percent) were full-time in 1978.
The financial resources of these academic hamlets are as relatively small as are their populations. Theological schools accredited in the United States by the ATS in 1988-89 averaged expenses of $15,226 per FTE student out of average revenues of $15,560 per student. Almost a third of all expenditures (32.1 percent) went on average to pay instructional costs. Another 20.4 percent was spent on administrative costs and 6.2 percent for library expenses. On average only 9.5 percent of total expenses was reported devoted to the costs of operation and maintenance of the schools' plants.
The greatest part of revenues (36 percent) came on average from annual gifts and grants from religious organizations, individuals, and government contracts. This is "soft" money that cannot be relied on to repeat itself yearly. On average, roughly a quarter of the revenue (24 percent) came from student tuition (excluding tuition covered by financial aid) and another fifth (20.5 percent) from endowment funds. Only the latter is relatively "hard" money, a source of income providing a reliable basis for long-range planning.
It is important to note that none of these figures, whether for expenditures or for revenues, covers what the ATS calls "auxiliary enterprises," food, housing, books, and so forth (12.4 percent). This area is a net drain on theological schools. Between 1983-84 and 1985-86 theological schools reported that their deficits in auxiliary enterprise expenditures grew on average by 73 percent.  Presumably much of the apparent surplus of revenue over expenditures went to cover this deficit.
Within this financially constrained world there is nonetheless a striking variation of revenue and expenditure per student from one denomination to another. In 1987, the last year for which these figures are available, the continuum ranged from revenues of $15,727 and expenditures of $14,501 per student in schools affiliated with the Protestant Episcopal Church to revenues of $3,950 and expenditures of $3,536 per student in schools affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention. In the same period Roman Catholic theological schools reported average revenues of $9,137 and average expenditures of $8,613 per student; nondenominational and interdenominational schools reported average revenues of $5,664 and expenditures of $5,673 per student.
Clearly, the average theological school is not awash in funds available for discretionary spending, for covering the start-up costs of major new academic "experiments," for providing new student services, or even for providing adequate support services for administration and faculty. Nor has the average school likely sources in industry, government, or organized religion to which it can turn for major grants to fund such projects - or even to fund research with a high enough surcharge for "administrative costs" to help release other funds for innovative projects. Financially, the average theological school is like a primary school in a small town with a very limited tax base that is not likely to grow much in the foreseeable future.
In the cosmos of higher education, theological schools are in other respects like crossroads hamlets. Their small scale invites certain kinds of expectations. Clear recognition of their small size, however, imposes important reality checks on just those expectations. Compared to theological schools, most institutions of higher education in the United States and Canada seem to range in size from large to gigantic societies. After several years spent earning a degree in such contexts one understandably comes to yearn for an educational experience in a more intimate community, not just advanced seminar by advanced seminar, but as a total academic environment. A theological school's relatively small size fosters the expectation that it might provide just that kind of setting for learning. Moreover, the religious needs and commitments that often interest people in theological school tend to place a high value on experiences of "community." Again, the school's small site encourages the expectation that sharing the common life of a theological school ought to provide just such experience. Furthermore, when one begins to see ways in which the theological school one has entered might be improved, its relatively small size can invite the thought that, compared to much more massive institutions, it ought to be relatively easy to change.
Further reflection suggests, however, that it is precisely the smallness of theological schools which requires that such expectations be checked for realism. This does not mean that we should abandon such expectations.It means, rather, that expectations should be kept concrete. That is, they should be carefully nuanced so that they are expectations of these schools in their concrete particularity. "Smallness" is an abstraction; it is theological schools that are (relatively) small. For one thing, as we have seen, they are very limited financially. Hence, one's picture of an ideally intimate community as the context for teaming must involve a 'smallness' a theological school can afford. The picture's implications regarding ratio of students to instructors or to supervisors, its implications regarding support services for students personally, support services for students' work in the library or in the "field," for housing arrangements, and so forth, must be manageable in a financial setting with few discretionary funds. If realization of the picture requires changes in the school's faculty or overall deployment of resources, there may need to be changes that can be introduced incrementally. Most school budgets do not allow for massive start-up costs for new programs. For another thing, as we have seen, the average theological school is not a very pluralistic hamlet. It includes far fewer women and people of color than does American Christianity at large. That is another feature of the present concrete reality of theological schools. The absence of internal pluralism in a theological school can significantly inhibit change. That is especially true if the changes one has in view are responses to perceived theological and cultural pluralism within the churches, or responses to religious and cultural pluralism in the host cultures into which the churches are sent in mission. If pluralism outside the theological school is not reflected inside it, the school as a community may itself be too invested in institutional patterns appropriate to a less pluralistic church and world to be easily changeable . Small, intimate but homogeneous villages are not necessarily easier to change than large, pluralistic, and impersonal cities.
The citizens of these crossroads hamlets grumble. Itis not too much to say, that they complain vigorously about their common lot sometimes loudly. About what, specifically? It depends a bit on one's role and status in the hamlet.
Anyone who has lived for a time in student dormitories or apartment buildings or has eaten in their dining halls can recall endless student complaints about the theological school's curriculum. The complaint may be that the curriculum is too "academic" and insufficiently 'Professional"; too "theoretical" and insufficiently "practical"; or, conversely, that it is too single-mindedly focused on producing 'Professional ministers" in a certain model and too inflexible to allow individual students to pursue their own intellectual interests; and, above all, that the curriculum consists of too many small pieces of information that are not adequately "integrated," that it provides not so much a course of study as -- in H. Richard Niebuhr's wonderfully wryphrase - "a series of studious jumps in various directions." One will also recall equally frequent complaints about the lack of "real community" within the theological school. Increasingly during the past two decades one could also have heard complaints that there are insufficient numbers of women and persons of color within the student body and faculty, that the school is insufficiently "pluralistic."
If one had spent time with faculty at coffee hour or lunch or weekend socializing, one might have heard these complaints and, in addition, grumbles of a different sort: that the teaching load is so large as to leave no time for research and writing; that local church and denominational demandson faculty leave insufficient time to keep up with new literature in the field, let alone contribute to it; that committee responsibilities cut inappropriately into time required for academic matters, that responsibilities to provide pastoral care and spiritual direction to students erode time needed to prepare for teaching and to contribute to scholarship; that sabbatical leave policies are nonexistent or inadequate to help resolve these conflicting demands on faculty time. Faculty characteristically complain about inadequate resources as well, inadequate library resources, inadequate secretarial and other "support" services, too little power in the school's governance structure to help shape the context of their work, and the like.
Administrators grumble about these same matters and in addition have complaints peculiar to their roles. A recent survey, whoseconfidentiality was guaranteed, asked deans of Protestant and Roman Catholic theological schools belonging to the Association of Theological Schools what the major problems or issues are that their schools face. Their responses included familiar problems: the need for curricular reform to integrate "theoretical" and "practical" sides of ministerial education more adequately, or to make the course of study more truly "professional"; the need to make theological schooling more adequate to ecumenical and global "pluralism"; the need to improve the quality of theological school teaching; the need to make theological schooling more truly a "spiritual formation." Their answers, however, included another range of problems rooted in administrators' specific roles and responsibilities. As one respondent wrote, 'I need basic help [regarding]: Board governance and development, administrative structuring, and dealing with a diverse student body. . . ." The complaints from this quarter are that theological schools have been badly organized, inadequately managed, insufficiently prepared to raise needed funds; they face a shrinking pool of candidates for admission and an ever smaller pool of appropriately prepared future faculty members. Newly appointed administrators complain of being inadequately supported by their own schools to deal with this legacy. Genuinely basic help would be help that addresses this sort of problem. At this point administrators' grumbles even extend to the recent literature addressed (like this book) to basic issues in theological schooling. "Too often," one respondent wrote, the literature "fails to move beyond the hermeneutics of the issue or problem, leaving the person who must 'do something with the problem' frustrated!"
Clearly, there are certain problems in theological schooling today that keep reappearing in this grumbling. They have to do, notably, with
These are all crucial problems confronting theological schools today. For some schools they are critical. The survival of some schools depends on the solution of one or more of these problems in the near future. More broadly speaking, the future of all theological schools obviously depends on the ways they solve these and other such problems. Indeed, they are often cited as cumulative evidence that theological schooling is, as such, in a state of crisis today.
Note, however, that grumbling in theological schools gives expression to another type of issue that cuts across these problems. It is not accidental that the grumbles listed above can all be formulated in the "how to" form. They are all problems in the strict sense that at least in principle they admit of solutions. Of course, in many concrete cases circumstances may be such that they cannot be solved in actuality. The needed resources imagination, or skill may simply not be available. Nevertheless they invite a problem-solving approach. In many theological schools it is urgent that the problems be addressed. If they aren'tthe schools' futures will be seriously compromised. Grumbles about theological schooling expressed as problems calling for solutions must not be denigrated as though they were a relatively superficial nuts-and-bolts approach to challenges faced by theological schooling. They signal real difficulties, and deep ones.
However, complaints about theological schooling can give rise to another kind of question. Indeed, many of the expressions of theological school grumbling as "problems' to be "solved" also give indirect expression to this second type of question. This second type of question raises issues, notably:
It is not accidental that grumbles about theological schooling are expressed here in questions taking a "should we" form. They raise conceptual issues. They do not pose a problem; rather, they challenge the very terms in which conventional wisdom has posed the problems. They do not solicit workable "solutions'; rather, they solicit conceptual "resolution" of basic conceptual disagreements about how best to describe theological schools' (problematic) reality. They arise at the point of conflict between differing perspectives on the nature and purpose of theological schooling and force the basic issue: "What's this enterprise all about, anyway?" "What's theological about a theological school?"
This book addresses grumbles about theological schooling insofar as they are expressed in the second, the "should we," form. That in no way, discounts the importance, nor minimizes the urgency, of grumbles expressed in the "how to" form. At least partial remedies, it should be noted, are available for some of the "how to" complaints. Some graduate business schools offer summer institutes for academic administrators. Workshops are available to help boards of trustees and their presidents clarify their goals and responsibilities. Institutes are available to assist theological schools to develop more effective "development offices." Moreover, many of the "how to" problems can only be solved in ways unique to a particular school's concrete situation; generalized advice and abstract recommendations are of little use. By focusing on issues in the "should we" form, this book, like a number of other recent studiesof theological schooling, raises questions that must be asked constantly while we are attempting to solve the real problems of any particular theological school. It challenges conventional wisdom about how most helpfully to describe what the problems are. It asks whether some of the most widely perceived problems in theological schooling are not in fact made more obscure and intractable simply because of the concepts we conventionally employ to pose them in the first place. This book urges that it is of utmost importance to think critically about how we are thinking about theological schooling precisely while we are in the midst of the process of "doing something with the problems" that most certainly do threaten theological schooling.
The firststep in that direction is to get clearer about the types of factors that make each theological school the concrete reality it is. That involves clarifying where our theological school hamlets have been located by history and how very diverse these locations are. The next chapter offers a sketch of those matters.
 Cf. David H. Kelsey and Barbara G. Wheeler, "Mind-Reading: Notes on the Basic Issues Program," Theological Education (Spring 1984), pp. 8-14. Representative articles generated by this discussion have appeared frequently in Theological Education since 1983, notably in the issues for Autumn 1983; Spring 1984; Spring 1985; Supplement, 1987; and Supplements I and II, 1988.
 Edward Farley, Theologia: The Fragmentation and Unity of Theological Education (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1983).
Warren Deem, Theological Education in the 1970's: A report of the Resources Planning Commission (Dayton, Ohio: ATS, 1968), p.779.
Gail Buchwalter King, ed., ATS Fact Book on Theological Education for the Academic Years 1988~9 and 1989-90 (Pittsburgh: ATS, 1990), pp.4-10,25,26, tables 1.01, 2.04, and 2.04b.
Ibid., p.25, table 2.04a.
Ibid., p.14, tab1e 1.04a; and pp.4-10, table 1.01.
See ibid., pp. 8~91, for documentation of this paragraph and the next.
ml figures used are the most recent audited figures available at the time of writing. The figures are calculated on a "per head" basis.
It grew from $60 per FTE in 1983-84 to $104 per FTE in 1985-86; cf. ibid..; cf. William L. Baumgaertner, ed., ATS Fact Book (Vandalia, Ohio:ATS, 1987), p.47.
Baumgaertner, ed.,ATS Fact Book (1987), pp. 132, 142.
H. Richard Niebuhr et al., The Purpose of the Church and Its Ministry (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1956), p. viii.)
For an account of the severity of this particular time bind in Roman theological schools, see Robert J. Wister, 'The Teaching of Theology I9501990: The American Catholic Experience,"America (Feb. 3, 1990), pp 90-91.
The survey was conducted in 1989 by Auburn Theological Seminary as part of research leading to an evaluation of a variety of projects in theological education sponsored by the Lilly Endowment.
Viewed 62169 times.