Decaffeinated theological education

Posted November 1, 2013 by Graham Cheesman
Categories: Uncategorized


Decaffeinated theological education

The purpose of coffee is to enliven. Real coffee is not just sweet and tasty; it contains caffeine which mimics the action of a neurotransmitter. It has life in it. Decaffeinated coffee is a nice drink but doesn’t make the heart beat faster; the key ingredient has been taken out.

So what is decaffeinated theological education? It is theological education with the key ingredient, the life taken out. And the key ingredient? Love to God. If the theological educator does not deliberately inspire love to God in the students, his teaching has been decaffeinated. I mean that it must inspire love to God with their minds; in their heart of hearts out of which everything else springs; in worship and then flow over to love for those God loves.

Now, just as there are a number of different brands of decaffeinated coffee, so there are varieties of decaffeinated theological education.

One brand is EUT – enlightenment university theology, dis-interested, uncommitted theology – an investigation or study of the phenomenon called Christianity and a set of classical texts called scripture, all of which can be done without faith commitment.

Another brand with a similar taste is DFAD – pandering to the desires of some young people to get a degree – and if they are Christian young people, it may as well be a theology degree, often in a safer place than a secular university. But here the theological café can do a good job. They may come in for decaffeinated coffee but when they taste the real thing, caffeine and all, they are often changed and go out with deep love for God in their hearts to serve Him with their lives.

One more brand of decaffeinated theological education is SFPP – study for practical purposes. There is a form of vocationalism that misses the point. It says “You will never be a good missionary or minister unless you grow spiritually, so we need to help students grow in their faith.” That is not love for God. Love for God is not one of ingredients of a good cake, it is the reason we bake the cake in the first place.

The real job, of course, is done not by the café designer but by the barista, the one who makes and serves up the coffee. He or she determines whether the caffeine is present or not. The café provides a pleasant place to drink it. So the most important contribution is not made by the college or seminary, but by the theological barista, the teacher. It is his or her job to see that the caffeine is in the cup, the aim of the love of God in the teaching.

Why serve up a nice, sweet, tasty theology with the key ingredient missing? For goodness sake, give them the real thing.

Decaffeinated theological education never did make the heart beat faster.

Old teachers are better

Posted October 1, 2013 by Graham Cheesman
Categories: Uncategorized


Old teachers are better

My thesis is simple; older teachers make the best theological educators more often than not.

Oh, I know the arguments in the other direction – I have even used them myself when I was a young teacher. “Teachers” we are told “need to be close to the youth culture of their students.” “The old fellows cannot keep up with the new technological developments” (although why good teaching suddenly after two thousand years can only take place through IT is a mystery to me). “The challenges of this generation are so different from being a Christian in the previous generation.” As the saying goes, old teachers never die, they just lose their class.

So, perhaps it is time to say to all the youngsters teaching today in theological education that the above may well be true but, generally speaking, the older teacher is a classier act than the younger teacher. Why? Here are a few good reasons;

  1. We know ourselves better than we did when we were young. After all, we have been in close proximity to ourselves for many years and, however much we may have tried to fool ourselves, the truth has come out by now. So we are good at helping with the vital task of self-discovery, self-understanding, that is going on in the hearts of our students (and some younger lecturers).
  2. We have discovered the difference between wisdom and knowledge. We know that the average theological education experience for students is heavy on knowledge but only experience can bring wisdom. We have seen much and heard much. Every student is unique but, because of our experience with many students and colleagues, we may well understand you better and perhaps help you beyond knowledge to biblical wisdom.
  3. We tend to take more account of deeds than words in our spirituality. We have heard plenty of student pledges of dedication, thousands of hymns and choruses of total surrender sung. But we have not seen so many going out and getting on with the job of bringing in the kingdom, at real personal cost to themselves. We have heard plenty of talk about community by staff members but not always enough love shown to all.
  4. We are often gentle and kind. We have nothing much left to prove now. We have done most of what the Lord has asked of us, we are not hungry young academics with a research profile to create, people to impress and ladders to climb. There is more space to be gentle.
  5. We have usually become more tolerant and open. Life was very black and white when we were young, we knew how God worked and where he was not. But slowly, out of wider travel, encounters and surprising discovery, we have realised that it is more complicated than that. There is no need to abandon our theology to come to the place where we can say with Faber that “the love of God is broader than the measure of man’s mind” and with Philips that the God of our younger days was “too small”.

Now I had better stop before I go too far. All of this, and much more, can only be true if the older teacher maintains a lively mind and a loving heart – which does not always happen. Students can help here if we are open to them. As it is said, they make you old and keep you young, both at the same time. And I know that we need young lecturers to relate quickly to the situation of the students. I am really pleading for a mixed age faculty where we all share our own special riches.

But I stand by my thesis. Older teachers make the best theological educators more often than not.

And if you are reading this as a fresh young teacher, don’t despair, you too will be old one day and, if you keep your head and your heart in good condition, you will be an ever greater blessing to your students.

Rush to Judgment

Posted August 31, 2013 by Graham Cheesman
Categories: Uncategorized


Rush to judgment

Judgment is a thorny subject for theological educators. On the one hand, we are told by James that not many Christian should become teachers because “We who teach will be judged more strictly” (James 3v1).

And then, although we are told many times not to judge our brother, the whole assessment system we use does that in one way. Nor is it enough to say that we just judge academic attainment so such verses do not apply. If we have spiritual, ministerial and discipleship objectives for our teaching then in some ways we have the duty to make judgments in those areas as well – not least for the students themselves and also for their potential employers.

So we are under strict judgment ourselves and have to judge with grace and carefulness. This is not usually the atmosphere with which we approach the end of year marking, report writing and reference composing.

Like many reading this post, I have been judging for many years, as internal and external examiner in a variety of settings and as one who seems to be writing a constant stream of references for my ex-students. Here are a few things I have learnt;

  1. Done properly it is a time consuming, hard part of the job.
  2. Teachers ought to do the marking and assessment themselves, not leave it to other to “grade papers”. This is because in judging the students, we are judging ourselves. We can see how far we have been successful in achieving our objectives only when we take part in the assessment. Teachers are as much on trial as the students when we face a pile of scripts for marking.
  3. The distinction between formative assessment during the course and summative assessment at the end of the course is especially relevant for theological educators. The first is much more important than the second (although both have justification), we are in the business of forming students more than grading people.
  4. Numbers do not matter so much. It is always very difficult to justify giving a 62 rather than a 64 for a piece of work. But when we are judging ability in ministry or personal commitment to Christ, numbers become ridiculous. If you are marking a history essay, 50% is not such a bad mark. If you are teaching a pilot and half of the test is getting the aircraft up safely and half is getting it down safely, 50% is not such a good score.
  5. This leads me on to my central observation. We should remember that, in theological education, the easier something is to assess, the less important that something is.
  6. And lastly, this rule also applies to our teaching.  By all means read the student feedback forms but realise that they hardly touch the centre of good teaching. Love for students, love for subject, love for God, the presence of God within the teaching situation and the transforming of the spiritual and ministerial aspirations off the students rarely feature in the forms. But who will deny that these are in the centre of what we are trying to convey and to do?

Some of my statements above are a bit bold. Please judge me with grace and carefulness.

Who are “the least of these”?

Posted August 1, 2013 by Graham Cheesman
Categories: Uncategorized



Who are “the least of these”?

Martin Luther King Jr. asked this question of North Americans in one of his famous speeches in the civil rights movement. He was referring to Matthew 15 v 40.

“I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these my brothers, you did for me.”

The point is that, when Christians meet the needs of the poor, hungry, thirsty, marginalised and in trouble, they are ministering to Christ himself.

Now there is a tendency today to refuse to see our students as poor, thirsty, needy and in trouble. This is rightly seen as an old, “top down” view of teaching, and Henri Nouwen himself castigated teachers who see themselves as spreading a rich table of truths for the poor, needy students who come to them as empty beggars to receive. He was concerned to stress that students also come with great gifts to the teaching situation, in their own experiences of life and God.

And this is true but it is not the whole truth. Theological education is a complicated business and we need to hold a number of attitudes in tension. Eschewing the pride of the teacher which Nouwen was keen to combat, we can also say that students are needy, and our job is to meet their needs.

They need re-assurance that they do hold something valuable in the situation; they need guidance in their thinking; they need the raw material of what others have thought on the issues we are discussing; they need a good model to follow. Sometimes they get into difficulties with their faith and they need re-assurance and hope. Occasionally they need rebuke.

Then there are students with particular needs. Some struggle more than others academically, for instance, and there is a debate going on as to how far we should respond. After all, if we spend many more sessions with one student than others, are we not becoming unfair because they will all sit the same exam? Here surely pastoral responsibility must triumph over academic process (provided there is equality of opportunity to access all the help each student needs).

But the key issue before us is how we respond to what must surely be a startling truth of theological education.

Provided we relate to students as those in some way in need, which we must, then what we are doing for our students, we are doing to and for Christ himself.

How can we respond to that? With two things; with carefulness, to ensure that we do care and do act in love to our students, as Christ asks us, – and with joy. I am sure many Christians have dreamt of caring for the man of sorrows as he walked this earth. The theological educator can do this, for Jesus would say “for as much as you did it to the least of these my brothers, your students, you did it unto me”.

Now that is an encouragement with which to start the new academic year which will be, no doubt, full of “student problems”.

Lost in Space

Posted June 1, 2013 by Graham Cheesman
Categories: Uncategorized


Lost in Space

We all know that the physical space in which we teach can be stimulating or deadening for our students but, since Nouwen and Palmer, we now know the even greater importance of the psychological space we create by our intentions, attitudes and relationship with our students. They talked about a free and friendly space without fear but with boundaries, in which authentic encounter can take place with the teacher, with the truth, and each other.

A forum for theological educators from across South East Asia took place in Bangkok in May this year organised by a small group of concerned practitioners. It explored the matrix between learning, space and relationship and one key issue to come out of the discussions was the importance of seeing our learning and teaching taking place within a space that is fundamentally Christian. But what does that mean?

Firstly, it means that we cannot buy into the secular enlightenment university paradigm of teaching theology and biblical studies, which regards them as just a few more objective scientific enterprises which do not need faith or the Holy Spirit to succeed. We must assert that they are to be done by Christians for Christian purposes. In the words of Aquinas, they are faith seeking understanding.

Secondly, it means that we see our calling in theological education as a form of ministry, for God, to our students. Our objectives for them are as for ourselves, that they may love the Lord their God with all their heart, soul, mind and strength and their neighbour as themselves. As such, all the great passages in the New Testament about Christian ministry become guides, challenges and encouragements to us in our work.

Thirdly, it means that we consciously create the space for encounter; for the students to encounter us teachers as fellow Christians striving, with them, to please God; with each other in real Christian community; with the fellowship of past and present scholars; and above all, with God. We teach and learn in the conscious presence of the God we talk about. We are not just looking for knowledge about God but greater knowledge of God.

Fourthly, it means that we model for our students a real engagement with society and lead them into that engagement. We do not create “locked away” Christian space that has no interface with the world, we create real “discipleship in the world” space. This means, among other things, a deep and full and free engagement with the academic enterprise of society, academia – working at its level, heeding its quality control rules, engaging with its questions and being a respected partner. Christian space is open space, not narrow space.

This does not exhaust the concept of Christian space and I would encourage readers to extend it in the comments section below.

We must now do two things. We must work out just what this means for our practice in teaching. And we must, because it is the harder and less safe option, have the courage to try to create just such a Christian space for ourselves and our students.

In the words of Captain Kirk, “to boldly go……It’s teaching, but not as we know it….”

Students that Shine

Posted May 1, 2013 by Graham Cheesman
Categories: Uncategorized


Students that Shine

We talk about a student “shining” in class. Do we know what that really means?

For this we must go back to what is now a common description of the task of theological education – teaching for transformation. This widespread concept has a problem; the emphasis seems to be on changing the student, that we must transform them from what they are to what they could or should be. But is that the full story?

What if we used the word transfiguration instead?

This word refers back to the time when Jesus appeared to three of the disciples, shining in his glory. But the glory was not given to him, it was what he possessed, what he was, what he would be – because that is what he is. Jesus was not transformed from one thing to another, he was transfigured. It was just that his reality was, for a few moments, allowed to shine through.  It was a display of what was there, but hidden until then.

It seems to me that this is a very important thing to say about our teaching of students. We have the task of providing the opportunity, encouragement and help for the glorious things inside the heart and mind of the student to shine out. There is plenty of talk about creating the right learning “space” for our students (not so much physical space as mental and psychological space). The objective of transfiguration says that we need to create space for our students to shine.

What sort of shining? There is no doubt that all our students will all shine one day. They will be restored by the power of the resurrection to what humanity was intended to be. Then there will be plenty of shining glory around them, plenty of dedication, plenty of clarity, plenty of creativity, plenty of sweet reasonableness – they may even be on time to lectures if lectures are still allowed in the new heaven and the new earth! All of this is there in the seed now and we want it to flower before then. We want glory before glory. To achieve that is the job of the teacher.

So, this creates a number of key questions: What is the glory already there to be displayed? How will it be different for each student? What keeps the glory from being revealed? What can the teacher do to create the space where it can be revealed?  These are vital questions but a different set of questions which arise from the transformation concept we are used to dealing with.

Now we had better come down the mountain. Sometimes the only thing shining in the lecture room is the data projector. Students are often not what we would like them to be, let alone what they really are, glorious in Christ. We need transfiguration but we also need transformation.  We have to bring something, the teachers have to cart in the glory sometimes. Students also have to become what they presently are not.

But, when all’s said and done, transformation concepts are not enough. Transfiguration is the flash of glory for a while, which we pray for and work for, and which leaves us, with Peter on the mount, longing for it to be permanent in our students.

We will have to wait for that and, meanwhile, we could do with a bit more transfiguration ourselves.

Are We Necessary?

Posted April 1, 2013 by Graham Cheesman
Categories: Uncategorized


Are we necessary?

Against the right expressed by the Catholic church to possess the authoritative interpretation of scripture (and therefore the right to define doctrine), the reformers asserted the right of private judgment. With William Tyndale, they wanted the boy who follows the plough to read scripture for himself and decide what it says. For that, they also had to assert the perspicuity of scripture – that the meaning of the text is clear to the ordinary Christian. Why then do we need lecturers in biblical studies and theology?  There are two frequent responses to this question.

Firstly, there is that of the cynical onlooker.

This assumes that we have decided to make things complicated in order to make ourselves indispensable. In other words, our job is all part of an enlightenment professionalism which refuses power to traditional authorities and instead creates a knowledge elite. This has power over ordinary people by being the only ones who have the knowledge and understanding that those people need but do not possess – in law, medicine and the church. It is just such a role that many in emerging churches reject today and so do not use traditional theological colleges as they otherwise could.

Secondly, there is that of the horrified historian.

This says that the Reformation, in asserting the right of private judgment and the perspicuity of scripture actually led people to see so many different truths that today, if David Barrett’s World Christian Encyclopaedia is to be believed, we have over 20,000 different denominations. This view holds that even the reformers realised the consequences of their assertions and quickly put in place statements of faith to constrain the interpretation of scripture. Soon after that, some of them started killing each other for exercising the right of private judgment.

Clearly neither of these responses is adequate. Can we find a space between perspicuity and authority within which we can operate as teachers?

Parker Palmer says some useful things about this. “A learning space has three major characteristics, three essential dimensions: openness, boundaries and an air of hospitality”[1]and “The teacher is a mediator between the knower and the known, between the learner and the subject to be learnt.”[2] We can say that it is the learner’s job to learn and she can do it. In that respect, we hold to perspicuity. Yet it is also a task that should not be done alone. It should only be done “together with”.[3]

Firstly, it is done together with the Church – that has been doing it for a long time now and in many different cultures and situations. A hermeneutical community of one walking behind a plough reading the New Testament is in an un-necessarily weak situation.

Secondly, it is done together with an informed guide who, in the categories of Palmer, encourages openness, sets boundaries of speculation and creates a hospitable space where the work can be done together. Such a guide makes available the work of the Holy Spirit in the Church over two thousand years and among as many cultures, and creates the learning space which makes the work of the student possible and joyful.

That is our necessary task.

[1] Parker Palmer, To Know as we are Known: Education as a Spiritual Journey (New York: Harper Collins, 1993) p71.

[2] Ibid. p29.

[3] Ephesians 3v18.


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