True Theological Education is a “There” and “Back” Exercise
By: David Fitch
Last week I tweeted/facebooked, “It is not enough to be in the room. Someone normal must be able to understand you. #NoteToYoungPhDGraduates.”
It opened up an interesting discussion on FB. There were some who joked about sending this tweet to Northern Seminary Professors (of which I am one). There were others who talked about doing some in depth study on a subject like Sexual Ethics in (a class of mine) and then not being able to go back to church and make sense to anybody. There were some who just complained about not being able to easily enter into theological discussions- the Theo-jargon was just too much.
All of this, I think, gets at the point of this post: “true theological education is a there and back exercise.”
1. Theology requires us to go somewhere, usually over “there” to a different place we are unfamiliar with. We study theology usually because we have questions about God, culture, and Christian life. But if the answers were obvious, we would not need to study. We would not need to read books that challenge our thinking and indeed require us to stretch. Instead, we need to understand how we got to think what we think. We need to understand culture and where the assumptions come from that drive what we do and how we experience. We cannot think ex nihilo because we are then basically parroting the culture(s) that taught us to think, feel and relate like this. Not all culture is good, not all culture is bad, but to discern culture we need to self-reflect how it impacts us. Likewise, Christians need to understand how they came to understand salvation in this particular way (or other beliefs and practices). We need to understand church history, Scripture, the history of interpretation. If we don’t go “there” we will assume the way we think about salvation is the only way to think about it in the whole entire world and in the history of Christianity (anyone know somebody like this?)
The study of theology therefore requires us to go “there” and this is what enables us to lead in church life NOT out of ego, hubris or plain ignorance, but out of the ability to ask good questions, direct to sources of authority and lead good reflection. Understanding the breadth behind the issues helps us navigate the new turf of the cultures we are living in. You gotta go “there.”
2. But the work of theology does not end “there.” We must be able to go “back” to be among our friends, families, churches, coffee shops, everyday life, and be able to listen and know deeply the languages and cultures of the people we live life with. We must then be able to know how to take our theological growth and speak from it in that language, know what is helpful to teach, what is helpful to observe, what you just have to keep to yourself as helpful to you. We must in the end be able to lead by being among, by being able to ask questions, put questions into context of Scripture, teach Scripture, put the questions in the context of history, offer answers as the questions come, give illustrations and stories, pray, and most of all speak in terms that the other person does not require a dictionary for. Going “back” to be among will then help you be a better theologian, ask better questions, better translate the gospel, and grow yourself. It might be said this going “back” is more essential to good theology than the going “there” part. It might be said that the going “back” takes more effort than the going “there.” But too often, people theologically educated think their degree has given them an office to pontificate and the “people” will just have to deal with it. I suggest this kind of person is short for the ministry and soon to become irrelevant in both spheres of the “there” and “back.”
We need both the “there” and “back” for life and ministry. Both are necessary for true theological education. You?