5. Utopia

To Understand God Truly
by David Kelsey

5. Utopia

Now a thought experiment and an invitation: The experiment is one more utopian exercise in sketching what makes a theological school theological and what makes a theological school a school. Along the way the experiment will urge that there are a few issues that are truly basic. They are more fundamental than are any of the issues in which theological educators have tended to invest a great deal of attention and energy. They are more basic, it will be urged, because the ways in which they are decided pretty much determine how other issues in theological schooling are worked out. Further, the experiment will propose a language in which it may be more fruitful to state both issues and proposals than is the language often employed.

The invitation is to conduct your own thought experiment about what some theological school known to you is and ought to be. It may very well be that you see good reasons to disagree with the proposals sketched here. All the same, it may be that the issues identified here as basic strike you as the right issues to think about. In that case, this proposal is an invitation to discuss a shared agenda, even though the discussion leads us to differing proposals about how to deal with the issues. Or it may be clear to you that the wrong issues have been identified that there are other issues more fundamental than the ones singled out here. Nevertheless, it may be that the modest conceptual scheme proposed here will prove useful in formulating those issues, showing why they are more "basic," and showing why your proposals about them are illuminating and fruitful. In that case, this proposal is an invitation to use a shared language to discuss what the issues really are as well as to discuss alternative resolutions of them. Or, of course, you may have reasons to believe that even the slightly technical language advocated here leads me to state the issues misleadingly. In that case, this proposal is an invitation to make a counterproposal about how best to say what the basic issues are in theological schooling and how best to resolve them. Naturally, I hope to persuade you of the wisdom of my own thought experiment; far more importantly, the experiment will have served its purpose if it stimulates and focuses fresh and continuing discussion of theological schooling by all of those who are involved in it, students and trustees, administrators and faculty.

The three central issues

The next five chapters are devoted to developing a proposal about the purpose and nature of a theological school. That is, they elaborate a proposal about how to explain what makes a theological school theological and what makes it a school. As I noted in the first chapter, the proposal is a contribution to a larger, ongoing conversation about what is more frequently called "theological education" than it is called "theological schooling." That conversation raises three major interconnected issues which my proposal aims to resolve.

Since the relative success of this proposal depends on the degree to which it does show how to resolve these three issues, and since the proposal is organized by the way the issues depend on one another, it is important to identify them clearly here at the outset:

a) How shall the theological course of study be unified?

b) How shall the theological course of study be made adequate to the pluralism of ways in which the Christian thing is actually construed, that is, interpreted and lived in concrete reality?

c) How can "theological education" itself be understood concretely, that is, how can it be described so that what makes it "theological" is made clear without denying or ignoring its concreteness and the ways in which that concreteness makes it deeply pluralistic in actual practice?

A word about each of the three is in order.

The first two issues arise within the conversation about "theological education" itself; the third arises when one stands back from the conversation and reflects on the way in which it has been conducted. As the new literature about "theological education" began to grow during the past decade it quickly became clear [l] that for some participants the central issue facing "theological education" is the fragmentation of its course of study and the need to reconceive it so as to recover its unity, whereas for others the central issue is "theological education's" inadequacy to the pluralism of social and cultural locations in which the Christian thing is understood and lived.

Edward Farley's path-breaking Theologia: The Fragmentation and Unity of Theological Education, [2] which may fairly be said to have launched the conversation, urged that the major issue for theological education today is the fragmentation of the theological course of study and proposed a way to recover its unity. In quite different ways, so have such other widely read books as Charles Wood's Vision and Discernment: An Orientation in Theological Study[3] and Max L. Stackhouse's Apologia: Contextualization, Globalization, and Mission in Theological Education.[4] It has been a common student complaint for a long time, of course, that the theological course of study lacked "integration." The fact that a great many theological schools' curricula long ago fragmented, in H. Richard Niebuhr's phrase, into "a series of studious jumps in various directions"[5] is beyond dispute. It is important to underscore that the writers who focus on this issue stress that fragmentation of the course of study is unacceptable in a theological school not simply because it makes for bad schooling, but because it makes for bad theology. Generally they hold that a fragmented theological curriculum is unacceptable because it is inadequate to a unity that "the faith" or the "life of faith" is supposed to have. Because it fragments the integrity of the faith, it is inadequate to its theological subject. Writers in this group (Charles Wood is perhaps an exception) tend to assume that the Christian thing has some time-and culture-invariant essence or structure that makes it one selfsame thing in all times and places. Accordingly, a course of theological study would be theologically adequate if its organizing structure were derived from the inherent structure of the Christian thing. Hence they propose that unity can be restored to theological education by recovering for its course of study the structure and internal movement that is dictated by the very essence of Christian faith.

The centrality of the second issue is most passionately urged in God's Fierce Whimsy,[6] written by Katie Cannon and the Mud Flower Collective. It is also pressed in various ways by several contributors to Beyond Clericalism: The Congregation as a Focus for Theological Education, a collection of essays edited by Joseph C. Hough, Jr., and Barbara G. Wheeler.[7] Many theological students, especially women, African Americans, and Hispanics, regularly and vigorously object that their "theological education" is in important respects inappropriate to the faith communities to which they belong and to the social and cultural worlds in which they expect to live and work in the future. Theological educators in this second group stress that the conventional course of theological study is inadequate to the pluralism of ways in which the Christian faith is understood and lived. They are impressed by the ways in which gender, race, and class differences shape both different understandings of Christian faith and different social worlds in which it is lived out. They contend that the conventional course of study in "theological education" unjustifiably privileges a very narrow spectrum of that diversity as though it were somehow "normative" and definitive of the Christian thing.

To be sure, justification for privileging certain construals of Christian faith is sometimes offered through the claim that these construals best represent the essence of the Christian thing. However, as writers in this group tend to suggest, that type of argument overlooks the fact that characterizations of the "essence" of Christian faith are themselves deeply shaped by the social and cultural locations of the people who make them. Theological education thus ends up being inadequate to a great many construals of the Christian thing that have not been privileged, and is also inadequate to a great many "worlds" in which the faith is actually lived. Here too it must be underscored that this group's contention is not only that this is educationally inadequate, but, more than that, it is theologically inadequate. It is theologically inadequate because its unwarranted privileging of a narrow spectrum of construals of the Christian thing amounts to a kind of idolatry, an absolutizing of a historically and culturally relative human construct.

Do we have to choose between these two issues? This is where the third issue comes in. It seems clear on the face of it that both of these first two issues do genuinely confront North American theological schooling today. Yet as stated they seem interconnected in a negative way. If we focus on coping with the loss of unity, are we not driven to postulate an inherent structure or essence to Christian faith that is the basis of the curriculum's restored unity and is more basic than and more important than all pluralism? Focusing on restoration of the unity of "theological education" seems to require us to treat pluralism as something relatively superficial or merely apparent. It seems to lead to minimizing the importance of the issues raised for theological schooling by pluralism.

On the other hand, if we focus on coping with a theological course of study's inadequacy to pluralism, are we not driven to deny that the Christian thing has any one underlying structure or that it is any one thing in and through all of its diversity? Focusing on the challenge to make theological schooling adequate to pluralism seems to require us to deny the usual basis for unifying the course of study. It seems to lead to minimizing the importance of the issues raised for theological schooling by the fragmentation of the course of study. Indeed, it seems to threaten us with an increase in that fragmentation as more adequate attention is given in the theological course of study to more and more of the diverse ways in which the Christian thing is concretely actual. Is it not the case that to stress the issue of fragmentation is to deny that there is any serious issue raised by pluralism, while to stress the issue raised by pluralism is to deny that there is any serious issue about fragmentation?

The answer to that last question is, "No, not necessarily." It only looks that way because of the terms in which the issues have been posed, especially the "unity and fragmentation" issue. A central theme of my proposal is that these first two issues appear to be mutually exclusive because of the unnecessarily abstract manner in which they have been formulated. They are both posed as issues about something called "theological education," which is conceived as a kind of process that is one self-identical reality even though it admittedly "takes place" in or is "contexted by" a great variety of institutions in a great variety of social and cultural locations. But the "process" cannot be disengaged so neatly from its institutional "housing" and social "husk." Part One of this book has been devoted to sketching some of the ways in which "theological education" is in actual practice something particular and concrete, and in its concreteness deeply and irreducibly pluralistic. Thus the very way in which the conversation about "theological education" has been conducted gives rise to the third of the three issues to which this proposal is addressed: How can "theological education" be described so that what makes it "theological" is made clear without denying or ignoring its concreteness and the ways in which that concreteness makes it deeply pluralistic?

Where we are going, and why

As will be quickly evident, the proposal developed in this part of the book first addresses the third of the three issues sketched above as the way to get at the other two in their interconnectedness. Before launching into the development of my proposal, it will be helpful to have an overview of where the discussion is going and why. First I will summarize the proposal itself, and then I will outline the steps through which we will move in order to develop the proposal.

What is theological about a theological school? What makes a school "theological," as I argued in Part One, is that it is a community of persons engaged together in the enterprise of trying to understand God more truly. However, we immediately noted that God cannot be "studied"directly; "understanding God" always proceeds indirectly. So we modified our characterization of a theological school: It is, I suggested, a community of persons trying to understand God more truly by way of studying some other thing or things whose study is supposed to enhance our understanding of God.

What are these "other things," and under just what circumstances might their study lead to "understanding God"? We have noted that historically there have been a variety of subjects whose study has been taken to be the best indirect way to come to understand God more truly: scripture, tradition, "salvation history," liturgy and the dynamics of worship, religious experience, the historical Jesus, and so forth. These are the various subject matters that are the immediate or direct objects of study in theological schooling. However, they are not what make theological schooling "theological." They may perfectly well be the immediate subject matters of inquiries that lead to truer historical or psychological or sociological understanding with no necessary bearing on understanding God. If it were a distinctive subject matter (say, the Bible) that made theological schooling "theological," then every time scholars examined 1 and 2 Kings to help reconstruct the economic history of the ancient Near East, they would be engaged in "theological schooling"! We must look beyond its immediate subject matter to identify what makes theological schooling theological.

Each of the subject matters that may serve as an immediate object of inquiry in theological schooling may be studied in ways made rigorous and critical by any of several methods and "disciplines" of inquiry. Predominant among them in modern theological schooling have been the historians' disciplines, but the methods and disciplines of psychologists, sociologists, philosophers, and literary critics have also been widely used. However, none of these methods and disciplines is what defines the inquiry as theological or makes the schooling that engages in them theological schooling. There is no distinctive "theological method" that must be used to make all inquiries into all subject matters studied in a theological school genuinely theological. All of the disciplines actually employed in the study of various subject matters in a theological school are also used in a variety of types of schooling that do not claim to be and are far from being theological. We must look beyond the scholarly methods and disciplines it uses to identify what makes theological schooling theological.

What makes a theological school theological is neither its various subject matters nor the scholarly disciplines it employs but rather its overarching goal: to understand God more truly. But insofar as God can be understood, it is only indirectly and not directly. The way of indirection goes through some tradition, that is, through a complex of beliefs, truth claims, practices of worship, stories, symbols, images, metaphors, moral principles, self-examination, meditation, critical reflection, and the like. For Christians it is what I have chosen to refer to as the Christian thing. In actual concrete practice, it is diversely construed. It is, perhaps, more an extended family of traditions than the "Christian tradition." Nonetheless, the various subject matters that are the immediate subjects of study in theological schooling are studied insofar as they are constituents of the Christian thing. They are not studied because study of them one by one in independence of one another and free-standing, as it were, is going to lead to truer understanding of God. Rather, they are studied in their highly complex and variable interrelations as the Christian thing. In Christian theological schools, I suggest, they are studied insofar as their study leads, to that understanding of God which can come in and through the Christian thing, that is, insofar as their study can lead to understanding God 'Christianly.'

The interconnections among a theological school's immediate subject matters are elusive. If the goal that makes a school "theological" is to understand God more truly, and if such understanding comes only indirectly through disciplined study of other "subject matters," and if study of those subject matters leads to truer understanding of God only insofar as they comprise the Christian thing in their interconnectedness and not in isolation from one another, then clearly it is critically important to study them as elements of the Christian thing construed in some particular, concrete way. But where does one find that?

That brings us to the heart of my proposal. I will argue that the Christian thing is present in concrete reality in and as various Christian congregations or worshiping communities in all their radical pluralism. This is not to claim that the Christian thing is only present concretely in the mode of actual congregations. It is to claim that for the purposes of addressing our three central issues about theological schooling it is the decisively important mode in which the Christian thing is present. My proposal will be that those three issues can be resolved if theological schooling is reconceived this way: A Christian theological school is a community of persons trying to understand God truly by focusing study of various subject matters through the lens of questions about the place and role of those subject matters in diverse Christian worshiping communities or congregations.

Some things this proposal is not: It is not a proposal that a theological school be defined by the overarching goal of being "for" congregations. The proposal might be misread as a suggestion that a theological school be seen as chiefly a research center and training school dedicated to promoting "church growth," celebrating (perhaps uncritically) the importance of churches to American history and culture, and devising "pro-church" ideological positions on major social policy issues. To the contrary, as I hope to show, this proposal entails that a theological school be as vigorously against Christian congregations and churches as it ought, in other ways, to be genuinely "for" them.

Nor is this a proposal that a theological school be "about" Christian congregations in the sense that they become the central subject matter studied in a theological school. The proposal does imply that congregations ought to be one of the subject matters that are the direct objects of study. However, the proposal does not imply any major changes in the traditional array of subject matters studied in theological schools. The proposal does not even imply that study of congregations should be given pride of place (and of curricular time and faculty energy!) over, say, biblical studies. The subject matters are not what define a school as "theological" and rearranging them or changing them will not of itself make a school any more genuinely "theological."

Furthermore, this is not a pedagogical proposal. It does not imply any particular recommendations to the effect that theological schooling ought (or ought mostly) to take place within particular congregations, or that classes ought to include selected parishioners along with theological school students, or that only persons who also lead congregations (or have recently done so) ought to do the teaching, and the like. Such suggestions may well have merit for certain schools under certain circumstances. It is, I shall argue, a contingent matter. Individual schools must decide such questions in the light of their unique histories, particular traditions, and concrete locations. It is doubtful whether such pedagogical questions can be helpfully discussed or answered in the abstract. In any case, this proposal carries no necessary pedagogical consequences and tends to imply that the effort to devise generally applicable pedagogical proposals of this sort is a dubious project.

What the proposal does argue is this: Study of various subject matters in a theological school will be the indirect way to truer understanding of God only insofar as the subject matters are taken precisely as interconnected elements of the Christian thing, and that can be done concretely by studying them in light of questions about their place and role in the actual communal life of actual and deeply diverse Christian congregations. The proposal will be that doing this would provide a way to make a theological school's course of study genuinely unified without denial of the pluralism of ways in which the Christian thing is construed, and it could make the course of study more adequate to the pluralism without undercutting its unity. A way to make this point is to exploit two metaphors: We could think of questions about the communal identities and common life of diverse Christian congregations as the lens through which inquiry about all the various subject matters studied in a theological school could be focused and unified. We could think of questions about the place and role of the various subject matters within the common life and identity-formation of pluralistically diverse Christian congregations as the horizon within which all inquiry, teaching, and learning regarding any subject matter takes place.

The chapters making up Part Two develop this proposal. The initial move will be sideways. In chapter 6, 1 will address the third central issue noted above. I will suggest some ways in which to describe very concretely both congregations and schools, what pluralizes them, what goes on in them, and how that is somehow "unified" without denial of their deep diversity. In chapter 7, 1 will then follow my own suggestion and offer a sketch of what a congregation is. In chapter 8, 1 will apply the same method of description to sketch what a theological school is. Then building on these two chapters side by side, in the next two chapters I will draw out what happens when theological schooling is focused through the lens or within the horizon of questions about congregations. Chapter 9 will develop the proposal's implications regarding a theological school's course of study, the basis of its unity and of its adequacy to the pluralism of actual concrete construals of the Christian thing. Chapter 10 will develop the proposal's implications regarding education of church leadership, including clergy, and its implications regarding education in the several academic "disciplines."

It will be obvious that one background assumption has been important throughout this book: the best way to the universal is through the concrete particular. This maxim has shaped the book in several ways. So far as the task of this book is concerned, it means that if one wants to understand truly and Christianly the universal God, the "God of all," it is best to do it by going through the concrete particularities of communities of persons who describe themselves as engaged by and responding to the universal God.

Furthermore, so far as the "voice" of this book is concerned, this background assumption means that I can hope to address "universally" all who are involved in theological schooling only by writing openly and explicitly out of my own concretely particular situation in theological schooling. This book grows out of my experience teaching theology in a university divinity school that has no organic relation to any Christian denomination, was historically associated with the Reformed, in contrast to Lutheran or Anabaptist, branch of the Protestant movement, and has now become thoroughly interconfessional in both student body and faculty. Furthermore, I reflect on these matters as a Protestant Christian whose theological views have been most deeply shaped by the Reformed theological current within the Protestant river, as that was channeled by nineteenth-century theological liberalism and then intersected first by that peculiar eddy in liberalism called "neo-orthodoxy" and then by various other theological eddies still swirling in the last half of the twentieth century. This is hardly a unique location for a North American white male theologian. But it is mine and is certain to shape my reflections in specific and concrete ways, to many of which I may be largely oblivious.

The background assumption of this book means, finally, that so far as its content is concerned the best hope of saying things of general relevance to persons involved in all types of theological schooling today lies in making some particular and fairly concrete proposals that may turn out to be directly pertinent only to a few types of theological schools but may provoke and help other persons in other types of schools to think through these issues for themselves.


[1] See, e.g., David H. Kelsey and Barbara G. Wheeler, "Mind Reading: Notes on the Basic Issues Program," Theological Education, vol. 20, no. 2 (Spring 1984), pp. 8-14.

[2] Edward Farley, Theologia.

[3] Charles Wood, Vison and Discernment.

[4] Max Stackhouse, Apologia: Contextualization, Globalization, and Mission in Theological Education (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1988).

[5] H. Richard Niebuhr et al., The Purpose of the Church and Its Ministry, p. viii.

[6] Katie G. Cannon et al., God's Fierce Whimsy (New York: Pilgrim Press, 1985). Cf. I. Carter Heyward et al., "Christian Feminists Speak," Theological Education, vol. 20, no.1 (Autumn 1983), pp. 93-103.

[7] Joseph C. Hough, Jr., and Barbara G. Wheeler, eds., Beyond Clericalism (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1988).