The Cream of Theological Education
There is a strange custom in theological education which I am unable to understand. Perhaps some readers can enlighten me. I have visited plenty of colleges in Europe and beyond in the last few years and almost all of their lecture rooms have blank walls painted cream (or “magnolia” as they say in the UK).
Is there a reason for this? No doubt some will say that it is done this way in order that the students are not distracted, but the reason does not stack up. If we were serious about this, we would close the blinds or the curtains as well so they could not look out of the window. Or even do what one college did in the inter-war years in the UK – build a partition wall down the length of the classroom with males on one side and females on the other so all could see the lecturer, but men could not see women and vice versa, and so not be distracted.
I could criticise this custom by saying that students are no longer at school, but students coming in to our classrooms are not reminded of school because, nowadays, the walls of school classrooms are covered with stimulating pictures, charts and colours – it has been shown to help learning.
In any case, we tend to say that the classes which go best are those when students come into our own room for a seminar. We generally decorate our rooms with good colours, nice curtains, pictures on the walls and beautiful or meaningful objects around us. After all if those things do not distract us and create a happy and rich ambiance for our work, we guess they will do the same for our students.
Maybe there is an historical reason. Many protestant non-conformist churches tend to decorate their worship places in cheap plain and functional ways and it is not surprising to see blank cream walls in such church buildings. The theological reason here, of course, is that we emphasise the Word spoken and have a protestant fear of any ornaments or pictures in church. But in so doing, in church or theological college, as we set out to create emptiness for the Word we often instead create coldness.
Can I dream a little? Class begins and the students come in to a warm, rich, comfortable, stimulating atmosphere, some real colour on the walls, curtains at the window of pleasant fabric, pictures hanging, a few beautiful objects around, no full waste paper bins or dirty white boards. Comfy chairs and decent carpet not made of industrial plastic. In my dream, I would also ask for coffee brewing on the ring and cups ready (with saucers!) for use. The smell is wonderful. The strange habit of the coffee break in nice surroundings has merged with the classroom. The teacher and the students start to talk to each other and the class is under way.
Now that is hospitality and, as Nouwen, Palmer, Shaw and others have pointed out, hospitality is at the core of good theological education.