Thought is conduct

Posted April 1, 2015 by Graham Cheesman
Categories: Uncategorized


Thought is conduct[1]

Theological educators tend towards living in a dichotomy between thought and conduct. As teachers and researchers we are skilled at categorisation. We like to do the thought and send our students out to do the conduct. We separate the academic from the practical, the head from the hands and locate our job in the first so they can do their job in the second.

Or we link the two together as cause and effect. If we are traditional evangelicals, we say “get the theology right and the conduct will follow” (though it often does not). Or, if we are more liberation theology inclined we say the opposite “Get the conduct right and the theology will follow”.

But we do not consider thinking as conduct itself and that is a pity. What would be the result of affirming that our thinking is a part of our conduct?

  1. We would consider bad thinking immoral. Careless thinking becomes as bad as careless living in other respects. To break the laws of right thought becomes as evil as breaking the laws of right living. Yet spinning politicians, disingenuous advertisers, careless preachers and sometimes theological educators are guilty of what we falsely assume is a “lesser crime”.
  2. We would want to think as enthusiastically, openly and passionately as we want to live – the complete opposite of how we “thinkers” are thought of in society and even the church today. Some teachers are passionate thinkers and the students know them.
  3. We would consider the way we think as much a part of our discipleship as the way we live in other ways. If how we act is a part of worship to God, so is how we think. It is also what we owe God.
  4. We would realise that, if it is right to live in such a way as to love and benefit others, so also this as an end and objective of our thought life. It does not mean that we only discuss “useful” theology, but it does mean that we have no mandate for an ivory tower mentality for our thought life. We must have an eye for the value to, and effect on, others as we do in other forms of conduct.

Is there a theological undergirding to all this? Yes, in creation and redemption. Our minds were made as an integral part of us, to be used rightly as any other part, such as hands and eyes. And, for all the effects of sin, we please God, says Paul, by the renewing of our minds.

Teachers have to do a lot of thinking so, if thinking is conduct, it is a very large part of our conduct before God. Perhaps that is why James in his epistle says “Not many of you should presume to be teachers my brothers, because you know that we who teach with be judged more strictly”[2]

On the conduct of our minds.

[1] Clifford Geertz, quoted in Fred Inglis “Thoughts Unbecoming” Times Higher Education, No.2196, 26th March 2015, pp44-47, 47.

[2] James ch.3 v1.NIV.

Miserable Students?

Posted March 1, 2015 by Graham Cheesman
Categories: Uncategorized


Miserable Students?

In the early 19th century, a manuscript was discovered in the Hof-Bibliothek in Munich, probably written in the monastery of Benedictbeuern in the early 12th century. Here are two verses (1 and 3) of a poem from this text[1].

Let’s away with study,

Folly’s sweet.

Treasure all the pleasure

Of our Youth:

Time enough for age

To think on Truth.


So short a day,

And life so quickly hasting

And in study wasting

Youth that would be gay!


Let us as the gods do,

‘Tis the wiser part:

Leisure and love’s pleasure

Seek the young in heart

Follow the old fashion,

Down into the street!

Down among the maidens,

And the dancing feet!


So short a day,

And life so quickly hasting,

And in study wasting

Youth that would be gay!


I began a theology module taught last semester with a discussion of this poem.

So the question is, does study cut young people off from the joys of human life? Does our teaching make our students miserable? Would they far rather be down there with the dancing feet? I am convinced that we need a strong conviction that the opposite is true in the teaching of theology.

And we need to be able to pass that conviction on to our students if we are to succeed. Many of our students are young people not long out of school. Others are older, but, if they have come to college later, they are starting again in life in some way and the questions buzzing around in their heads are not always that different from those of the young person sitting next to them in class.

Our task is to help them all to live and love and have joy in God and life, including all the goodness of the world he has given us richly to enjoy – yes, even the dancing feet. Unlike most higher education subjects, theology and biblical studies are ideally placed to do this job. They are full of resources to help our students be happy and fulfilled Christian human beings.

It teaches them what real love is all about from the atonement. It instructs them in how a life can be centred gladly in a great cause in discipleship classes. It shows something of personhood and relationships in the study of the trinity. It gives a solid hope for the future in eschatology and a home and community in ecclesiology. It demonstrates what a real human being is like in Christology. It helps sort out all kind of issues with this world – even down to the sort of coffee we should drink – in the doctrine of creation. It shows how to live in peace. It builds models of friendship. Above all, it gives meaning and purpose to a human life in God himself and a glorious example of a life lived in complete dedication to God in the narrative of the life of Christ.

Our courses in theology could even be re-titled “The basis for living a fulfilled life as God intended”.

So don’t just let your students gaze out of the window at the dancing feet of others, let your theology teach them to dance.

[1] English translation Helen Waddell Mediaeval Latin Lyrics (London: Constable, 1909) p203.

Singing theology

Posted February 1, 2015 by Graham Cheesman
Categories: Uncategorized


Singing Theology

Karl Barth’s lectures on dogmatics given in Basle in 1946 used to begin with a psalm or a hymn. Mine last month in Belfast did not.  The reason is worth exploring.

Initially, the connection between hymn singing and teaching theology/biblical studies does not seem close. They are different activities. However, Barth was not alone in putting them in conjunction. Jesus, after the discourses in the upper room – the most theological teaching in the gospels – sang a psalm with his disciples at the end before they left.

Our lack of connection between the two, hymn-singing and teaching theology, is due to a certain recent movement of each away from the other. Theology has become more and more an academic exercise and, to the extent that it conforms to the objectivity of enlightenment university academia, struggles to find a place for sung belief. Hymn-singing has become less of a rehearsing of the great theological themes and, as Ward says, more of a transactional event between the singer and God. Thus these two activities have drifted apart.

However, there is no good reason why they should inhabit separate boxes. Sometimes we talk in self-satisfied tones of moving from the chapel to the lecture theatre and back but that un-necessarily separates the two activities. Integration is not furthered by having separate rooms for worship and theology. Anselm’s useful definition of theology that it is “faith seeking understanding” seems to me as not any more useful than to see theology as “worship seeking understanding”.

And now to the practical bit! What if the teacher doesn’t have a musical voice? What if the students are reluctant? I guess if you decide not to sing a worship hymn as a part of your theologising with your students, you have the right. But then you will have to find another way of impressing on them (and reminding you of) the intimate connection between theology/biblical studies and worship, or you do them a dis-service.

Perhaps it would just be simpler to sing.


Posted January 1, 2015 by Graham Cheesman
Categories: Uncategorized



There is one characteristic of Christ-likeness that is shared by both the beatitudes and the fruit of the Spirit. This is gentleness and it is my contention that it is central to our teaching.

In the Greek, “gentleness” the noun is praotes and the adjective “gentle” is praus. The authorised version in English translates these without exception as meekness and meek but more modern translations, drawing on contemporary usage, tend to translate them as gentleness and gentle, but occasionally, in certain contexts, meekness and meek.

Barclay points out that the words were used to refer to a wild animal such as a horse that has been tamed. So they do not refer to an absence of strength but a presence of self-control, specifically not to hurt. Jesus was called praus.

This blog has often been interested in the characteristics of the relationship between teachers and students in theological education. Gentleness/meekness seems to be a central element in that; in what way?

Humble gentleness

We can, with care, say that the English word meekness is often used with reference to an internal disposition of the heart, whereas gentleness is often used of a way of interacting with others. This is akin to humility, a quietness of soul that does not push itself forward or consider itself too highly. It is based on knowingly being a recipient of grace. Such a disposition of meekness opens the door for relationships with all. It issues then in gentle dealings. It does not strive, cause difficulty or hurt others. It is in the business of calculating carefully what our words and actions will do to others. It is open to learn from all, including students. It will ask “What right do we have to any other attitude?”

Protective gentleness

We tend to under-estimate the vulnerability of our students (and sometimes of our fellow staff). They need to know that they will be protected by us; that we will, like Christ, not break the bruised reed, even if they have done the bruising themselves. Sometimes, especially in certain cultures, we need to preserve the sense of self-worth and “face” of the students in class. Student open-ness within the teaching process only comes if we are trusted to be gentle if they are wrong, say silly things, or mess up. Gentleness creates safety which promotes learning.

Boundaried gentleness

Gentleness is never without limits. If it means that we do not hurt or create difficulties for another person, we have to add “unless absolutely necessary”. Gentleness, for instance, cannot extend to over-generous marking, which is a form of bearing false witness. Although gentleness will always be as merciful as possible, it also has to maintain discipline and do what is just. In Jesus’ case, it did not stop him becoming angry occasionally or speaking in frustration to his disciples.

Pastoral gentleness

One of our tasks is to challenge students to think hard thoughts that are sometimes painful, that damage pre-conceptions. This is all part of theological education, especially when we receive students from churches that are simplistic and shallow in their thinking and theology. At such points, our duty to challenge has to be accompanied with pastoral gentleness, caring for and preserving their faith, their dedication to Christ and respect for scripture, while helping them to think deeply. You betray your trust if you simply enjoy disturbing students without also gently caring for them.

Jesus once said (Matt. 11.29) “learn from me for I am gentle and humble in heart and you will find rest for your souls”

Would it not be wonderful that those who learn from us would find rest for their souls because of our gentleness?


Posted December 1, 2014 by Graham Cheesman
Categories: Uncategorized

The mechanism


It has become a standard requirement of theology courses that they be concerned with the three great objectives for their students – academic formation, spiritual formation and ministerial formation. Additionally, we all seem to agree that “balance” between these is never enough but we must strive towards “integration”. The problem is that this concept of integration is now in danger of becoming one more phrase, one more aspiration meaning little.

If we were to ask whether our college is thinking about and practicing integration well, could we describe the markers against which we can compare ourselves, or the goals we can set ourselves? Below, I suggest five key areas of thinking and practice that I hope will be useful. These points came out of a recent masters seminar on theological education I conducted with three thoughtful students in Belfast and I am grateful for their stimulation.

  1. We need an integrating concept.

Different writers have tried to integrate the three objectives by taking one of them and making it the integrating factor, such as ministerial formation in some presentations of missional theological education. Others have complained that for too long, it has been academic formation and instead taken spiritual formation as the single key. It never seems to work to elevate one about the others. More usefully, it has been suggested that worship or the glory of God be the integrating concept. It can be argued that Bonhoeffer in his little book Life Together uses Christ himself.

  1. We need an understanding of how they fit together

Some have used a Venn diagram to illustrate how each relates to the other two separately and together. Some have talked about different lenses through which we view the material or tasks. Also usefully, some have taken the Trinitarian concept of perichoresis as a specific Christian ontology of unity in diversity. As in the persons of the Trinity, each of the three is bought to life by the others and when you encounter one you encounter the other two. That would have grand implications for lecturing, ministry placement and chapel.

  1. We need a Biblical and Theological basis

There are plenty of biblical resources to help us conceive of the way to integrate these aims. There is Paul’s pattern of moving from doctrine to practice based on the doctrine, Christ’s insistence that we will only know if we obey, the relationship of the Holy Spirit to understanding, and so we can go on. There are also plenty of theological resources – especially from pre-enlightenment days when it was un-natural (except in certain scholastic circles) to have dis-interested or godless theology. I still stand in awe of Calvin placing within his institutes a chapter on self-denial. If we teach the need for integration to ourselves and our students, we are just teaching the bible and good theology.

  1. We need to remember we are dealing with people

Integration is personal in that we are preparing/teaching, persons, singular individuals who do not exist in three parts. It is rightly now common to speak of holistic theological education because we know that the students have to be un-divided. We teach John Smith or Mary Jones who have heads, hearts and hands which need to work together. Just as importantly, if we want to have any chance of getting through to John or Mary, we need to exemplify the three united in our person, to be as their teacher, a devout-scholar-minister.

  1. We need practical ways of helping the integration

You probably do some of these already. Tools available are reflective practice journals, integrative seminars, integration essays at the end of a semester, mentoring, certificates or diploma supplements which do not just talk about academic achievement and so on. Perhaps above all, we can set out the goal of integration to our students at the beginning of their time with us and frequently throughout their course.

Every college or seminary is somewhere on the spectrum between fragmentation and integration. Maybe the five areas above – conceptual, structural, biblical, personal and practical – will help us place our institution on that spectrum and encourage us towards the task.

Out of this World

Posted November 1, 2014 by Graham Cheesman
Categories: Uncategorized


Out of this world

Christians, rather simplistically, are advised to be “in the world but not of the world”. Our classrooms are to be neither. I would like to propose the classroom as a sanctuary from the world.

Student and staff generally live lives patterned by stress. This varies between persons but few in this complex busy world are free from tensions. They may be tensions arising from relationships, money, lack of time, pressures put on the students, not least by our assessment systems. But when students gather in the classroom, they are in a refuge for a while where other things can occupy their churning minds. They have the chance of a significant thought life for a while.

Students and staff also generally live lives dominated by the mundane. There are buses to catch, dogs to walk, breakfast to make, the cash machine to visit, cheese to buy, clothes to wash, the car to take to the garage and birthday presents to buy. The classroom is a welcome escape from the ordinary, the mundane, into the realm of big ideas, great calls to arms, passionate truths.

In the classroom we also finally and gratefully have time to think about ourselves and God. Often even the church services we attend do not give us this space, let alone the everyday round of things to be done. Even our private devotional times are often a rush. But now, in the classroom, whether it be from a text, from a doctrine, from a piece of church history, we can contemplate ourselves and God in all seriousness and the slowness we need, with some guidance from one who has done this before.

And then we can bring back the world, but on better terms, on our terms. We can see it from the standpoint of the important, as God sees it and how we as children of God and serious human beings can see it, if only given the space and time to get our vision right. This will lead to a better engagement with the world – one born out of Christian seriousness rather than out of time pressures, one born out of the great issues of the faith rather than immersion in the ordinary.

Not an easy thing to teach like that, but maybe the most important thing we can do as teachers is shut the classroom door.

We need to talk………

Posted October 1, 2014 by Graham Cheesman
Categories: Uncategorized


We need to talk……

Faculty or staff meetings spend a lot of time talking, but rarely do they talk about what sort of spiritual life they aim for in the students.

In 1988, Kenneth Prior wrote an assessment instrument for colleges and seminaries to help them evaluate their engagement with the spiritual formation of their students.[1] At one point he asks “Is there a written or otherwise formally acknowledged definition of spiritual formation in your institution, is it functional and contemporaneous or does it need evaluation or revision?”

Since then, we have become less confident about our ability to produce such a definition. Some have expressed worries about too tight a definition which would lead students to be “moulded” into spiritual clones of their lecturers (or even of their lecturers when they were young a generation ago!). We are more aware now that each student has an individual journey closer to God. And we are rightly wary of a simplistic “graduate profile” of a mature Christian, designed to apply to all students.

However, the need for faculty to talk together about what they mean by spiritual formation is surely as vital as ever. This is especially so in these days of eclectic spirituality, where evangelicals especially are re-discovering the spirituality of past generations and of other traditions and using these to enrich their own pilgrimages.

The truth is, when we meet together as a faculty or staff we tend to talk about anything but what we aim for in this area, possibly out of personal anxiety that we are not all that spiritually formed ourselves. But to avoid good, deep discussion about one of our key objectives as theological educators must surely be damaging to our task together.

Can I therefore suggest that we do meet as faculty or staff with this clearly on the agenda – and here are a few guidelines for approaching it in a non-threatening way;

  1. We can explore the three tensions in this area of theological education which were set out in the Iona discussions; spirituality and academics; internal piety and external discipleship; individual and corporate spirituality.
  2. Or we can explore Henri Nouwen’s idea that spirituality really consists of relationships. In the great commandments “You shall love the lord your God with all your heart soul, mind and strength and your neighbour as yourself” he sees the three fundamental relationships- with God, with others and with ourselves. Do we add to these the relationship with the church and with creation?
  3. Or we can explore spirituality as the result of the work of the Holy Spirit in the life of the believer. We can maybe start with the fruit of the Spirit in Galatians and go on to see what else Paul says such as in the great passages in Romans eight.

These are just three ways of creating an agenda, starting the discussion about what we mean when we tell the students that we want them to be formed spiritually. And is it worth the talking?

  1. It creates a clarity of purpose as a college or seminary in a key area of its work.
  2. It helps a greater unity among the staff in this task, avoiding conflicts and misunderstandings of each other.
  3. It enables us to feed off each other, in ideas, knowledge and experience to help us fulfil our callings.
  4. It provides an opportunity and incentive for us all to think about our own personal spiritual development and so grow in grace.

I hope by now you agree that we need to talk. So why not send this to your dean, principal or rector?


[1] Amirtham and Prior n.d.(1988) Resources for Spiritual Formation in Theological Education (Geneva: WCC ) 91-97.


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