Sunday, April 06, 2014

Thoughts on Theological Education (II): Divinity and the Disciplines

If (as I argued in an earlier post) “divinity” is centred on (but not necessarily limited to) the preparation of students for Christian ministry and mission, this has important implications for its content and scope. While the theological curriculum intends to provide intellectual and spiritual challenge to the student, it does so primarily in order to equip them for certain professional - or at least ministerial and vocational - goals.

Its effectiveness in this task has become contentious, and it is not hard to find attempts to supplement the classical curriculum with content designed to offer increased knowledge and competence for changing realities. These include: the emergence and continued expansion of the fields variously defined as practical and pastoral theology; the emergence of degrees or awards designed specifically for “ministry”, “pastoral studies” and similarly, whether as alternatives to or complements to the classical theology or divinity degree; and the development of continuing education and training for theological graduates, both in academic and ecclesiastical settings.

These trends, all positive enough in themselves, have colluded with the recent misunderstanding of what “divinity” is; if divinity is not seen as “practical”, in the sense that graduates do not always seem well prepared for contemporary pastoral leadership, then by implication the classical curriculum has been characterised as “theoretical” or similar. Australian assumptions about the relation between theory and practice may also have contributed to what I think is actually a fundamental  misunderstanding. If “divinity” does not always seem to equip students well for contemporary ministry, this is not because it is not a practical or vocational type of study, but because the perceived needs have changed more than the curriculum.

How then to address this disconnect? Two things seem particularly important to me.

First, “divinity” can and should include the additional and practical areas noted above, and not merely be seen as (e.g.) exegesis, history, or hermeneutics. Divinity has in fact never been a single discipline at all, but has always been the collection of disciplines deemed necessary for adequate ministerial preparation.

“Divinity” therefore was and is more like medicine than like microbiology. Medicine can be described as a “discipline” only if we use the term vocationally, to convey formation of a practitioner, via what are actually various disciplines in the academic sense. So too “divinity” is not a single subject area (the limited imaginations of regulatory bodies notwithstanding), but refers to the provision of a preparation for practice via various academic disciplines.

It is worth remembering that the specialists who may go by the name “theologian” (i.e., who are teachers of “divinity”) are not very united by method or content in their work. The Hebrew grammarian, the modern historian, the philosophical theologian, and the sociologist of religion are joined in their vocational focus and commitment to an educational and ecclesial enterprise, not by the fields of their study. Of course the phenomenon of religion does provide a link, but it is a weak one that derives more and secondarily from that vocational commonality in the educational (and ecclesial) enterprise than from research fields. The stronger link is the commitment to equipping students for a form of practice.

My second point is that, while there is ample room to reconsider and reform the theological curriculum in the light of changing realities, there is also scope to rediscover why we inherited a "divinity" so focussed on the Bible and on doctrine.

"Divinity" is eminently practical, of course, but that envisaged practice was centred around the vocation of teaching and preaching. The disconnect that graduates and churchgoers now experience between training and practice does reflect a loss of the role of clerical and lay "divine" as the "organic intellectual" of the Christian movement, in favour of models centred on (e.g.) sacramental functionalism or provisional of individual pastoral care. The sacraments and pastoral care need not be de-emphasised in asking whether their performance is really where the distinctive charism of the "divine" should be focussed.

While the extended declamatory rhetoric of divines long past may not be an adequate model to reclaim the centrality of teaching and preaching in Christian ministry today, a renewed intellectual practice must undergird not merely homiletics but the whole mission of the Church. More than at many times in the past, the Church is engaged in a struggle of ideas: justice, mercy, compassion, indeed, but the reality and relevance of the Gospel underneath all. For this, we need not functionaries to slip into the existing slots of the lumbering ecclesiastical structure, but visionaries who can work with the people of God to discern the demands of God's mission in remarkable times. For this, we surely need divinity.