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.


Posted August 1, 2014 by Graham Cheesman
Categories: Uncategorized



One of the objectives in our teaching is clarity but how do we achieve it when we are teaching the Word of God?

Martin Luther has something to say about this. He talks of two types of clarity of the Word of God; claritas externa and claritas interna. Now Claritas externa says that everyone can understand the message of scripture, know the fundamental will of God and what is the good news. Claritas interna, however, is not achieved by human reason or strength but by the Holy Spirit in response to prayer and an obedient life.

On the face of it, this seems to exclude the hard work of scholarship but that would be to mis-represent Luther. He was strong on the necessity of education for faith, on the study of the original languages (the sheath of the sword of the Spirit) and on the need to be able to give a good account of your faith using rationality and disputation. The scientific study of theology is certainly Lutheran.

But there is more to theology for Luther than external understanding based on rationality. We are not just dealing with ancient documents like any others, nor are we un-involved scholars, the essential thing is for you personally to hear the Word of God clearly. Luther’s famous triad of what makes a theologian is Oratio (prayer), Meditatio (meditation on scripture) and tentatio (temptation – working obedience out in the struggles of life).

So what about our classrooms? A large proportion of theological education today is integrated in some way with national and international higher education which still tends to operate within the enlightenment paradigm. As Wolterstorff describes this in his article “The Travail of Theology in the Modern Academy”, it includes seeing all learning as generic rather than particular in that one does not study as a woman or man, African or Westerner, Muslim or Christian, but as a rational human being with unbiased critical judgment.

Luther would have loved the hard, rational, careful scholarly work done in this way but he would have added “Come Holy Spirit” and told us that the conditions for Him to come to us are faith, obedience, prayer and the open-ness to be personally changed. At one point, he advised those who were to become theologians to “Kneel down in private and pray seriously and with humility to God that he may give you by his beloved son his Holy Spirit who may enlighten you, lead you and give you sense.”

Our job as teachers is to see that the rational task of higher education today results, by hard careful scholarly work, in a claritas externa of scripture and theology by the students – and tested, if necessary by examination open to all. We must also help our students to a claritas interna by the help of the Holy Spirit, available to those who have faith, struggle in prayer and commit to work out their discovered truth in their obedient lives.

Anything else is to be less than biblical in studying the bible and less than theological in studying the great theologians such as Martin Luther.

The Return of the Lecture

Posted July 1, 2014 by Graham Cheesman
Categories: Uncategorized


The return of the lecture

Of course, it has not gone away. It is still the most used of all teaching methodologies in higher education and theological education. Teachers in these situations even tend to be called lecturers. It is financially important. If one lecturer teaches thirty students, the college collects thirty sets of fees and only has to pay out one salary.

However, most of us know that the lecture has got a bad name. Important studies such as that of Bligh in 2002[1] find it to be as effective in transmitting information, but less effective than any other form of teaching in just about every other area of teaching and learning. Internet based delivery of courses (MOOCs aside) seems to show the lecture to be irrelevant and current areas of educational theory such as constructivism and reflective practice which discuss how students learn, structure and use their learning, generally do not rate the lecture very highly.

Those who defend the lecture (apart from accountants) often talk about how it enables the lecturer’s enthusiasm for the subject to be conveyed to the students and how the lecturer can control the level and content to make it most suitable for the students. These are important positives, but the greatest justification for the lecture is usually missed.

The lecture creates the community of learning.

Week by week (or intensively over maybe ten days), the students and the teacher live together in the same room and spend time learning together. The best classes I have ever taught have been when that sense of community has been created. When we say that it “worked”, this is usually what we mean. But what sort of community? It is a community that is led by the teacher, but can we picture its nature? Once we ask this question, we have a number of surprising pictures available to us.

What about a TV series? These are community activities. They are what is happening with a group of people in some sort of community relationship. They suck you in, they make you look forward to “participation” again next week at the same time, they have drama and emotion.

Or a party? We go there with friends to enjoy ourselves, we talk and learn a lot from each other. We also get to make new friends as friends introduce their friends to us. Those new friends can sometimes then become friends and companions for life. I got to know Martin Luther, Karl Barth, Gustavo Guttierez and Henri Nouwen that way.

Or perhaps a corporate work space? No-one is simply a passive observer here, but a needed part of the community effort. People come together to make things happen, projects are progressed, people change and grow in interaction with others.

Or a form of church? We come together each accepting the other, each bringing a gift, where there is a person with a special gift of teaching but above all where learning is facilitated by the Spirit and the presence of God – where two or three are gathered in his name in community.

So, the use of the concept of the lecture as community not only breaks open the understanding of a good lecture by offering us new parallels, it gives us space to describe it (at least in theological education) in Christian terms and a Christian ontology.

The interesting thing about this perspective is that it seems to demand what good teachers and thoughtful students have always wanted from lectures – a real relationship between teacher and student, and student and student; interaction and activity together; question answering, problem solving and application; humour, the enjoyment of life together and truth mediated through genuine personality.

The first and greatest task of the lecturer is not to convey information, it is to create the community of the classroom.


[1] Bligh, D, “What’s the Good of Lectures?” (Intellect, Exeter: 2002).

Three mile an hour teacher

Posted June 1, 2014 by Graham Cheesman
Categories: Uncategorized


Three mile an hour teacher[1]

It should come as no surprise that the Bible is full of walking, but the idea that it was merely a mode of transport is far from the truth.

When Paul wanted to go to Assos, he sent the rest of the missionary team around the peninsula by boat and walked across without them.[2] Jesus saw Peter and John as he was walking by the shore of Lake Galilee[3] and later, he sent his disciples across the same sea, leaving himself to walk around alone.[4] He ended up walking across the water but that is another story. What is it that causes biblical characters to choose to walk and what is it about walking that makes it so valuable for theological educators?

Walking is a place without words

When the saints of old talked about silence, they did not mean the absence of the wind in the trees but the absence of words. Our society has a love affair with words. They talk to you out of advertising boards, TV, newspapers, books, radios in cars. Our faith is a very wordy faith. The Reformation began in universities and it shows. Above all, theological education deals with words, We read, write, speak, assess words. It is the most wordy job in the world.

In fact, words gain power in proportion to their absence. Henri Nouwen argues persuasively that words spoken out of silence are more powerful than words spoken out of busyness.[5] Nouwen took his own advice and spent a number of retreats at the Trappist monastery in Genesee during his busy teaching duties at Yale. Walking is our own little retreat from words into silence.

Walking is for healing

As Dr Johnson said, the two best doctors are often the left foot and the right foot. Ajith Fernando from Sri Lanka talks about how he copes with stress and the way it deadens his spiritual life;

“During this time, I developed the discipline of walking, sometimes two or three miles until I felt the joy of the Lord return.”[6]

There is a quietness of spirit which comes over us as we walk, especially if it can be within the beauty of nature, a dis-connection from the stresses of a life which our society dictates must be lived at such a high speed, and a return to a natural speed not only of our body but also our mind. And walking gives us the absence of doing, to create healing space for us to think about being.

Walking is so as not to be alone

Walking on your own is saying that people are a joy and blessing but we need time without them. In fact, the three things modern man seems unable to be without –busyness, words and people – are all put on one side when you walk. But it is not to be alone, it is to be alone with God.

God is always with us, he is everywhere, even in our busyness but that is not what we usually mean when we speak of the presence of God. What we mean is attention, to fully enjoy the presence of the other. This is the opportunity walking gives us with God. As the Japanese theologian Kosoke Koyama says, we have a “three mile an hour God”.[7]

Now, why don’t you close the computer and go for a walk?



[1]This material was previously published in The Theological Educator

[2] Acts 20 v 13.

[3] Matthew 4 v 18.

[4] Matthew 14 vs 22-25.

[5] Henri Nouwen The Way of the Heart, New York, Ballantine Books, 1981, pp9f.

[6] Ajith Fernando An Authentic Servant, Singapore, OMF International, 1999 p3.

[7] Kosuke Koyama, Three Mile an Hour God¸ Neew York, SCM, 1979, pp3ff.

Selling theology

Posted May 1, 2014 by Graham Cheesman
Categories: Uncategorized


Selling theology

As colleges, we take great care designing products (our courses), selling them in the marketplace using professional logos, marketing people (student procurement officers), advertisements, brochures and stands in trade fairs. We have growth objectives, five year future planning, and the head of the organisation is a sort of managing director of the whole operation, responsible to a board, with the treasurer peering over his or her shoulder. And when colleges die, they eventually almost always die for financial reasons.

So are we a business?

It is hard not to say yes to this question, and for good reasons. Institutional theological education is a very expensive way to train a student (sorry, customer). We are constrained by legislation (often for a charitable business) to be accountable to government and those who provide the money. Anyway, market-led courses are indicative of a servant attitude to the church, we give them what they perceive they need. This whole approach stresses good accountability and good stewardship.

So why are we uncomfortable with this?

Firstly for the same reason that many secular universities are uncomfortable with the commodification of higher education and the consumer approach that is growing across the world. It does not lead to good learning, which is fundamentally not a product to sell.

Secondly, the language of business distorts what we are trying to do. Our products are our students not the courses we design to sell. Our aim is to develop people not be successful in the competitive marketplace of theological education. The customer we ultimately need to satisfy is not the church or the student, but God who gave us a mission.

Thirdly, Economic viability, although ultimately essential, is not the best factor of judgment in most of our decisions. It is not economically sensible to reject a marginally unsuitable student, because we need to fill the college. It is not economically sensible to run an important course with too few students. It is not economically sensible to design a course just putting in what the customers want rather than what the students and the church need.

The truth is that theological education today needs to be looked at through more than one lens. One of those valid lenses is the business lens but if the thing we see through that lens is all we see, we have diluted out mission. We need board members, rectors, treasurers who can look at the college through more than business glasses.

Following our sense of mission and calling as a college generally is good business sense. However, as was said long ago, “But if not, we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold you have set up.”

Dealing with Differences

Posted April 1, 2014 by Graham Cheesman
Categories: Uncategorized


Dealing with differences

I doubt if it will come as a shock to anyone reading this that those working in our colleges do not always agree with each other and that tension sometimes occurs between staff.

People are complicated and every situation is different, but are there some basic rules that we can all follow to help us in such situations? Here are a few suggestions – OK, more than a few but life is more complicated than four simple rules:-

  1. If you are in leadership, do everything you can to lead within an open and trusting relationship with staff.
  2. If you are staff, recognise the complexity of the task of leading and recognise the authority of those who lead.
  3. Remember that the best decisions, especially in a time of conflict, are those taken together with as many people involved as possible, who then own the decision.
  4. Exhibit gentleness as a fundamental Christian virtue – both a beatitude and a fruit of the spirit – it must govern the way we speak to others and of others at all times.
  5. Acknowledge weakness and sin in all. We are not, any of us, wonderful people with perfect hearts who nonetheless occasionally make mistakes. We are all selfish, sinful, weak human beings and we therefore need to be humble with ourselves and forgiving of others.
  6. Say sorry when necessary. It is a sign of maturity and strength, not weakness. Everyone knows you are not perfect, so why pretend to be?
  7. Strive for consensus, but if that is not possible, look for compromise, except on those things that damage the fundamental mission of the college.   Even God compromised with his people in the Old Testament.
  8. Be there. Spend time in each other’s offices; of those we agree with, but especially of those we disagree with. Leadership especially needs to be constantly talking with all staff on their own territory.
  9. Always thank God that you are working together for him in such an influential job as theological education, training the future leaders of his church.
  10. Model for the students the attitudes and processes of good, loving, co-operative Christian service in a team. If you can’t do that, better stop teaching them scripture.
  11. Respect must always be offered and be seen to be offered to all by all. In some situations, trust breaks down, but basic respect must survive – to those above you, below you and alongside you, at all times.
  12. Attend to the issue of communication, especially from the decision makers to all affected; from one department to the other; to all, about everything possible, in every way.
  13. Consider whether the structure of the college and in particular its leadership and decision making structure, needs to be changed.
  14. If you are in leadership, never simply tell staff off for their attitudes but deal with the issues.
  15. Remember that your unity is based on a common experience of Christ. You are in the same family together whatever arguments may take place within that family.

There is nothing more difficult than leading in a time of conflict, or being authentically Christian in a time of conflict.   However, when those in an organisation come back to a position of serving together with joy after a difficult period, this is a wonderful gift of God.



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