Personal theology and curriculum design

Personal theology and curriculum design

I was explaining a fairly intricate set of arguments associated with a particular view in theology and one of my students put both hands in the air and said “Whatever!” meaning “What does it matter?”

He had a point. Our curricula are too strongly boundaried, usually more by the tradition of the subject than the purpose of the task. And this is hurting the image of theology at a time when theology is increasingly seen as irrelevant by Christians and churches – especially the newer, fast growing emerging churches.

To be fair, theologians today are more aware than before of the need to “do” theology, to let the Word speak into the context in which theology is done. Scholars such as Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen are exploring global theology that relates to contemporary scientific, postmodern and religious thought, as people are thinking and debating today. It is delightful to see scholars like him struggle to be relevant to the contemporary intellectual scene even if we do not agree entirely with the results. But those of us who are committed to teaching and forming students of theology in our classes have a similar but additional task – to relate theology to the people we teach. To make theology personal as well as global.

I have written before on how this needs to be done while teaching the classical subjects of theology; so when teaching Trinity, we need to show how our prayer life is moulded by addressing the Father in the name of the Son by the help of the Spirit; when teaching the humanity of Christ we can introduce discussion on coming to terms with our own humanity; and so on. But why not write such subjects into the theology curriculum? Just a glance at the table of contents of Calvin’s Institutes, for instance, and seeing how he deals with self-denial as well as Christology, Christian life as well as Trinity, will show that this is not an un-usual pattern in historical theology until recently.

There is plenty of material in biblical, historical and contemporary scholarly writings to create a theology of friendship, a theology of beauty, a theology of laughter, a theology of wine (tricky one), a theology of human love, a theology of peacefulness (you will have other subject headings here). We must not make the mistake of trying to bundle these sorts of issues under yet another traditional heading such as “Practical Theology” or “Ethics” and so continue the confining of “classical” theology to the old subjects and excusing most theologians from teaching on them. These are theology proper, theology as it actually relates to the people we teach. You can hardly escape the bible’s interest in these things. The bible does personal theology.

I am not asking for the abandonment of the classical discussions in theology – I have enjoyed them most of my life and hopefully passed some of that enjoyment on to students. They are fundamental and necessary, “whatever”. I am asking for curricula with a more eclectic, more biblical approach, one more in tune with pre-enlightenment theology, which includes the personal. To see a sprinkling of these subjects in a curriculum of theology would go a long way to re-habilitating theology in the minds of some students and in the attitudes of some churches.

Fundamentally our calling is not to imput data into rows of computers, but to form persons who will go out and form persons, so let us include personal theology in our theology curriculum.

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5 Comments on “Personal theology and curriculum design”

  1. edithvilamajo Says:

    Thank you Graham. yet again, for a very inspiring blog post. Amen to all! Thank you.


    Edith Vilamajó

    > El 2 jun 2017, a las 9:07, Teaching Theology escribió: > >

  2. perryshaw Says:

    I recently read a piece by Sam Ewell, drawing on Rowan Williams’ words “I assume that “the theologian is always beginning in the middle of things.” Sam continues, “Williams argues here that the theologian neither begins at the beginning, in the sense of ‘starting from scratch,’ nor begins at the end by securing a standpoint that provides a complete and totalizing overview. Rather, the theologian is always already ‘placed’ within history, and, therefore, works from a practice of common life and language already there, a practice that defines a specific shared way of interpreting human life as lived in relation to God.”

  3. Drew Gibson Says:

    As a Practical Theologian, I couldn’t agree more. I sometimes, jokingly, refer to the PT department as the ‘anti-hypocrisy department’ of the theological faculty/school/college. If theology does not bring together eternal truth with contemporary life, what is the point? At best, uncontextualised theology is simply a hobby, fun but not much use to anyone, it’s the equivalent of bird watching, train spotting, doing cryptic crosswords. At worst it suggests that intellectual enquiry is an end in itself and that comes perilously close to hypocrisy, even idolatry. The two points that define good theology are Scripture and the life of the multi-layered community of which the theologian is a part. Practical Theology is never simply ‘applied theology’, it is a dialogue that produces a lived message, formed by the words and actions of the church in the world. Other theological disciplines only have spiritual validity as they contribute to this dialogue. What about the following for a claim? Practical Theology, properly understood, is the core theological discipline, around which all of the others take their place and in relation to which all the others have their validity.

  4. PatrickM Says:

    Thanks, as ever, Graham. We are working on a university revalidation process at the moment. The whole team have read Perry Shaw’s book together (greetings Perry if you are reading this comment). One way we are trying to integrate the personal is writing learning outcomes across the curriculum that include the personal and behavioural as well as cognitive. In doing so, we are intentionally working against the sort of fragmentation that you describe – particulary the Cartesian dominance of the cognitive. Assessments will then have to be creative in including all three domains. It is hard work but exciting to see what is emerging.

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