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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?
was published in 1992 by Westminster /John Knox Press
. This book was prepared for Religion Online by Herb and June Lowe.


This proposal has been an invitation to reflect critically on a theological school well-known to you.

When one has begun one's first academic year in a North American theological school, the Fall is on its way; when the second year has begun the Fall will almost certainly arrive. A sharp pinch is likely to be felt between assumptions and hopes with which one first entered into the school and the experienced reality of the school. One sure sign that this has begun to happen will be a shift in informal out-of-classroom conversations from talk about course work, or even from talk about people in the school, to talk about the school itself.

It will be talk in a very specific language. It is absolutely predictable that diagnoses of what causes the pinch and suggestions of ways to correct it will be posed in the same few pairs of contrast terms:

  • theory/practice -- as in, "This school doesn't do enough to integrate theory and practice";
  • academic/professional -- as in, "This school puts so much stress on professional training that it slights academics"; alternatively, this school may be strong academically but it provides little help in preparing for professional ministry";
  • head/heart -- as in, "The students and faculty here seem to assume Christianity is mainly a matter of feelings; it's all heart and almost no head"; or vice versa;
  • classroom/field -- as in, "Have you noticed how hard it is to get contextual learning here? Learning is all supposed to happen in the classroom and none in the field."

There is conventional wisdom in theological schools about these terms. Conventional wisdom has it that these pairs are largely interchangeable, as though they were simply alternative ways in which to name basically the same contrast. A major assumption in conventional wisdom is that this underlying contrast is inherent in the task of educating future clergy so that they will be ready for their ministerial functions. Furthermore, conventional wisdom has it that the two terms in each of these pairs are inversely related to one another: The more we have of one, the less we can have of the other. Consequently, conventional wisdom has it, every theological school must strike a quasi-quantitative "balance" between the poles of each pair.

Eventually one discovers that there is another piece of conventional wisdom about conversations that use these phrases to diagnose theological schooling's ills and prescribe cures: The conversations are interminable and inconclusive. One has only to participate in them for a relatively short time to begin to feel that they go in circles and get nowhere.

The proposal developed in this book is based on a hunch that discussions of theological schooling and proposals to reform it might get further if some of the assumptions and many of the terms conventionally used in the discussions were changed. The heart of the proposed reframing of the discussion is the effort to keep discussion of theological schooling as concrete as possible. The content of the proposal itself is doubtless an entirely utopian picture of a theological school. However, plausible or not, persuasive or not, sketching it is a vehicle by which to make some suggestions for critical reflection about some particular concrete theological school after the Fall.

Above all the proposal suggests that reflection on a theological school begin by distinguishing two questions and then asking how the answers to each might bear on the other question. The two questions are: What makes this school a theological school; what is "theological" about it? and, What makes this school the particular, concrete school that it is? Then the two questions impinge on each other: How does whatever it is that makes this school "theological" shape or modify its concrete reality as a school? How does what makes it the particular, concrete school it is shape or modify its being genuinely "theological"? An entire budget of questions for reflection grows out of these questions.

They suggest that it would be helpful to reflect on the following questions when we seek to understand, to criticize, and perhaps even to reform some particular theological school:

1. What marks this school as specifically "theological"?

Presumably, as the word "theological" suggests, it is theological because in some way it has to do with God and, furthermore -- since God is God -- it has to do with God for God's own sake and not in order to "use" God to some further end. "Having to do with God" is, presumably, the school's overarching goal. But just how in actual practice does this school "have to do with God"?

What answer to this question is assumed by this school's practices, especially its practices of teaching and learning? Do they, for example, assume that it is the study of distinctive subject matters that marks the school as properly "theological"? Or, do they assume that some distinctive method disciplining inquiry into those subject matters makes it properly "theological"? Does the assumption that either of these is "distinctive" to a theological school prove sound when this school's teaching-and-learning is compared with supposedly "non-theological" teaching-learning in, say, "liberal arts" studies? Are they really all that different?

Do the practices that make up this school assume that what marks them off as "theological" is the fact that together they are aimed at preparing future clergy to fill ministerial functions competently? In that case "ministerial functions" seem to define the goal of the school. Are these functions defined in a theological or in a sociologically functionalist way?

If they are defined in a sociologically functionalist way, is not the school then in practice defined in a nontheological way (i.e., without significant reference to "God") and thus in no important way any longer precisely as a "theological" school?

If they are defined in a theological way, how in actual practice is this school's goal to educate persons for "ministerial functions" related to its overarching goal in some way "to have to do with God"? If "education for ministerial functions" is in practice definitive of "having to do with God," is that not an idolatry of ministerial functions? Surely there are other richer ways of "having to do with God"? On the other hand, if the concrete way this school does "have to do with God" is ordered to education for ministerial functions, is it not then in practice using "having to do with God" for a further, ulterior purpose ("educating for ministerial functions"), thus corrupting its proper theological character ("having to do with God for God's own sake")?

More broadly, what do the practices that constitute this school seem to assume would count as genuine corruption of its properly "theological" character? For example, are they in any way designed to draw attention to ways in which their "doing theology"' might have become idolatrous, one-sided, ideological, or false? Do its practices of teaching and learning lay stress on the cu1tivation of critical capacities to identify and unmask such corruption?

The answers to these questions need to be framed as concretely as possible. The suggestion developed in this proposal is that discussion can be kept concrete if we reframe conventional description and analysis of a theological school in language centered on stipulated uses of "pluralistic," "understand," "concept," 'act," and "practice." Among other things, this terminology makes it possible to exhibit what is deeply questionable about the contrast pair "theory/practice" that conventional wisdom likes to use in analyzing theological schools. Is the way that we "have to do with God" really. analyzable into "theory" which is then subsequently applied in "practice"? Is it not at least as true to say that "having to do with God" is first of all itself a set of practices that gives form to subsequent critical reflection on it? Accordingly, is it any more adequate to the way this theological school "has to do with God" to analyze it in terms of a contrast between "theory"' and "practice"? If this terminology seems inadequate to keep discussion of theological schooling concrete, what would be more adequate terminology?

2. What makes this school the concrete, particular school it is?

What is the polity of this school? How are the practices that constitute this school interrelated? The school is constituted by a great deal more than "teaching and learning." It is a community with a common life. It engages in worship. It engages in various types of self-regulation -- ordering and, if necessary, disciplining its common life, managing its personal and material resources, admitting students, monitoring their progress through a course of study, evaluating their academic work, hiring faculty and staff and evaluating their work, and so forth. That is why it is inadequate to analyze a theological school mainly in pedagogical terms, for example, by critique of the school's relative reliance on "classroom" teaching vs. "field" or "contextual" learning. To be sure, there is no school without teaching, and more effective teaching would make for better schooling. But pedagogy is only one element of a far more complex whole. It takes all of these practices somehow braided together to make a school. All of this is done in ways that are to some degree institutionalized as the school's polity. Just how are the practices constituting this school intertwined? Just how is that intertwirnng institutionalized? How are power and status distributed in this polity? Who has access to them, on what conditions, to what degree?

What historical traditions determine the particularity of this school's culture and ethos? For example, what tradition or tradition of construal of the Christian thing has shaped it? (In other words, does it sit on the road from Geneva or Trent or Canterbury, etc.?) Which historic construals of the Christian thing does it explicitly own? What traditional judgments about how best to go about having to do with God shape it? the contemplative way? the affective way? the way of discursive thought? the way of action? What historical pictures of the relation between the school and the church shape it? If there is more than one, do they shape different aspects of the school's common life (one shaping its teaching and learning, another its life of worship, perhaps another its common life as a community of students, faculty, and staff)?

How does this school's social and cultural location help make it the concrete actuality it is? From what types of social location are its students, faculty, and staff drawn? How diverse is that and what tensions does that diversity create in the school's common life? Within the micro-society and culture that this crossroads hamlet is in itself, what types of social location are characteristically assigned to faculty, to staff, to students? As an institutionalized set of practices, how is this school located in its immediate social and cultural setting? How does it characteristically interact with its immediate neighborhood? what types of social dynamics and tensions do all of these factors create, helping to shape this school's characteristic communal identity?

How does this school negotiate between two models of excellent schooling to which it inescapably is heir and from neither of which it can escape: "Athens," which shapes theological schooling as paideia, through which people grow conceptually in regard to God by way of teaching that communicates indirectly, and "Berlin," which shapes theological schooling as "professional education" by way of inculcating capacities for rigorously disciplined critical and self-critical inquiry?

3. How does this school's being "theological" modify its concrete reality as "school"?

Does the particular way in which this school goes about "having to do with God" constrain its polity in any way? Does it require, for example, that the school's polity explicitly include institutionalized mechanisms enabling the school critically to examine the practices making up its common life for ways in which they are deformed ideologically and idolatrously? Because it is this school's way of "having to do with precisely God," does it require that the school's polity institutionalize protection for "freedom to teach and freedom to learn?"

How does this school's particular way of "having to do with God" both unify the school's practices of teaching and learning into a single course of study and make them adequate to pluralism?

Whatever it is, is it in principle capable of doing both? Can it prevent a course of studies from fragmenting into a clutch of courses? Can it do that without minimizing or denying the reality of several sorts of deep pluralisms in the Christian thing? If it is capable of being adequate to the pluralism, does it do that in a way that simply increases the fragmentation of the course by requiring more and more additions to the clutch of courses?

If what makes this school properly "theological" is not the same as what the school relies on to unify its course of study and keep it adequate to pluralism, what does it rely on? How is it related to whatever it is this school assumes makes it a "theological" school? Can the two really be different and the course of study nonetheless remain genuinely a "theological" course of study? If the course of study were to be genuinely "theological," would that which unifies it and makes it adequate to pluralism not necessarily have to be the same as that which makes the school "theological"?

Does that which not only unifies this school's practices of teaching and learning into a single course of study but makes it adequate to pluralism imply a contrast between "academic" schooling and "professional" schooling? What defines "academic" schooling that "has to do with God"? Since conceptual capacities needed to understand God include capacities that are "existentially" significant while at the same time fully as rational and as rigorously disciplined as any other capacities to understand anything else, can academic schooling be understood adequately simply as the acquisition of capacities for disciplined accumulation and mastery of data and capacities for critical and self-critical theorizing (cf the "Berlin" model)? So too, what defines "professional" schooling? Is professional not a sociological category? If theological schooling is defined sociologically as professional schooling, has not the theological integrity of the schooling been corrupted again?

The terminology suggested by this utopian proposal makes it pointless to contrast "academic" with "professional." It proposes to terminate an interminable discussion by proposing a way to reframe the issues. This prompts yet another line for critical reflection: Are the contrast pairs conventionally used in analysis of theological schooling really interchangeable?

The contrast pair "classroom/field" has to do with pedagogy, with questions about how to teach and in what contexts so that people learn best. Does not the pair "academic/professional" normally have to do, not with pedagogy, but with the social context of the goal of the schooling, with the question whether the schooling aims at preparing people to fill specific social roles (professional) or at making them generally well-informed and capable in all circumstances of "thinking critically" (academic)?

Moreover, does not the contrast pair "theory/practice" cut across both of the other two? Does it not pertain to the relation between thought and action? Does it not mainly have to do with what it is to understand and, perhaps more deeply, with what it is to be human? Do we not have to ask about the relation between theory and practice in both classroom and field, in both profession and academy? Can it really be, as conventional discussions of theological schooling so often seem to assume, that theory lines up with academic and classroom (and, as we shall see, "head"), while practice lines up with professional and field (and, as we shall see, "heart")? If the terminology proposed here for reframing these issues itself is finally judged to be inadequate, then what would be more adequate terminology?

How do the several relevant, recognized academic disciplines function in this school's practices of teaching and learning? That the school necessarily includes those practices means, in this culture, that it must necessarily include academic disciplines. How does the fact that it is a theological school constrain the concrete ways in which the disciplines function in these practices? Do the disciplines in effect determine the content of the courses and the organization of the curriculum? Do they use any particular organization of the curriculum to justify the autonomy of their own scholarly research agendas? Do they contribute to the fragmentation of the school's course of study?

Conversely, does the specific way in which this school "has to do with God" have the effect of minimizing the role of the disciplines and their ability to nurture in learners' capacities for independent and rigorous critical thinking? Is there any way in which this school's particular way of "having to do with God" can honor and embrace academic disciplines precisely by employing them in its own interests "having to do with God"

4. How do the factors that make this theological school the particular concrete school it is shape or modify the way in which it is properly "theological"?

How do the historical heritage, the social and cultural location, the internal culture and ethos, and the polity of the school concretely particularize the school's way of "having to do with God"? These factors determine the concrete reality of the practices that comprise the school; how do they shape its practices of teaching and learning "having to do with God"?

For example, how do they shape the particular ways in which authority and status in teaching and learning are assigned, acknowledged, and, if necessary, enforced?

How do practices other than those of explicit teaching and learning nonetheless conceptually form persons in the micro-culture that is the school? For example, how do the practices in which this school engages in transactions with its immediate neighborhood, with the larger host society and culture, with third-world cultures, or with other religious communities all help form learners' ways of "having to do with God"?

What does this school's polity effectively teach about what it is to "have to do with God"? How is this school's overarching goal concretely enacted by the role that worship has in its common life, and by how decisions about that role are made?

How does the particular culture of this crossroads hamlet concretely determine the way it attends to the personal religious life, the emotional life, the social life of the people who make up its population?

Is it adequate to pose the central diagnostic question in relation to these matters as a question whether this school in its full social reality tends more to form persons "heads" or their "hearts," as though if it were more a matter of heart it would then necessarily. be less a matter of head, or the reverse? The persons being formed are fully as concrete, as deeply particularized by history, by social location, by being bodies as is this school. It is the entire bodied agent who is formed by this theological school's complex of practices aimed at somehow 'having to do with God." Do the contrast terms conventionally used in discussions of theological schooling, such as 'head/heart," really serve to illuminate the relation between this school and these persons, or do they not rather tcnd to obscure it by abstracting it from its social, cultural, and very physical dimensions? The terminology suggested by this proposal as a way to reframe these issues makes the head/heart contrast pointless: "Conceptual capacities" arc as necessary for emotional life (heart) as they are for critical reflection (head); bodily "action" is as integral to reflection (head) as is experience (heart) even "religious experience." However, if this terminology, is fina1ly judged to be inadequate too, then what would be more adequate?

This is but the beginning of the budget of questions for critical reflection about a theological school that is generated by the interplay among these four groups of questions. In the world of North American higher education most theological schools are like crossroads hamlets. However, down the roads at whose crossings they stand comes all the most powerful cultural traffic of their host society. This makes theological schools, for all their relatively small size, very complex microcosms of their larger siblings in academe and, indeed, of their larger social and cultural worlds. If one has for any reason invested one's life for a while in such a school, and especially if one has begun to feel a pinch between expectation and experience, it is important not only to reflect critically about the school but also to reflect critically about the wav in which the school is being described and analyzed. Perhaps it is only by being ironically utopian that this or any proposal can serve as an invitation to just that sort of critical reflection about a theological school well known to you.

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