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Stability

October 30, 2017

Stability

I once claimed for our college that “our faculty are very stable”. Some wag asked whether I meant that as a comment on their length of service to the college or their psychology!

Stability (in the first sense) is a rare thing today with our very mobile society. Few stay in the same place in the same job for many years. Indeed, theological education institutions are presently finding problems with their very specific courses introduced in the last ten years (youth ministry, mission studies, worship, counselling, sport ministry etc.) because, in the lifetime of a servant of God, they can begin as a worship leader, become a youth leader, go abroad as a cross cultural missionary, come home to become a church pastor and even eventually end up in a college teaching. We need a very solid base in biblical and theological studies within any such “specific” courses in order to facilitate the current practice.

Stability is actually an ancient Christian practice, especially in the monastic tradition and was often taken as a vow in addition to poverty, chastity and obedience, or seen as a sub-heading under the category of obedience. For the monk it meant that, except by a dispensation of his superiors, he must remain in the monastery of his profession. This is in massive contrast to our present society and, famously, Thomas Merton struggled with this element in his commitment.

And yet, stability is a Christian practice. It says that we are not those who assume that the grass is greener elsewhere, that, just with a change of external circumstances, we can solve our internal restlessness and weaknesses, that covenant means covenant and commitment means commitment. It is a denial of the search for perfection elsewhere and the getting on with making what we have more perfect. We tend to agree with this concerning marriage. Marriage is for life, for better for worse. Not every commitment is so covenantal but it would be a good idea if we, as Christians in a consumer culture, regarded our membership of a local congregation more in that light. As Spurgeon once said to someone who was moving around churches looking for the perfect church “If you do find the perfect church, please don’t join it for then it would no longer be perfect”.

But what of those of us in theological education? The commitment to serve in a college or seminary is not covenantal like marriage. We must not be seduced into a rigidity of life by a thoughtless commitment to stability. Sometimes in our job as a theological educator a move is right and good – if only for the sake of the rest of the faculty! A career move can sometimes be right for better fulfilment of a calling which also may be changing and growing, or even for growing influence for the kingdom. There are other good resons for moving on. But should we not deliberately inject the concept of stability into all our thinking about such change? Stability helps us face our weaknesses, grow in usefulness where we are and blesses the college with continuity of ministry.

It is often the best choice among other options.

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Does God drink coffee?

September 29, 2017

Does God drink coffee?

Drinking coffee is a bit like the Christian Church. I had better substantiate that.

Firstly, it has a similar geographical history. It began as a significasnt practice in the Middle East, arrived some centuries later in Europe, eventually made its way across the Atlantic, became a partially capitalistic and expansionistic western phenomenon and came full circle, spreading back into the areas of the world from whence it came. So now we have Anglican churches and Starbucks in Jerusalem.

Secondly, many adherents practice an elaborate ritual. Every serious coffee drinker knows that you need to follow a step by step ritual to make excellent coffee. You must choose the beans carefully, then grind them to the right fineness, set the machine up properly, heat the special cup, check the temperature and pressure in the machine and ensure that the hot water goes through at just the right speed (about 40 seconds for a single espresso) and sugar it carefully. And this ritual like many others, is strangely peace-bringing as it gently leads you to the moment of taking the coffee itself. Like the Christian Church, you can either do this yourself or pay clergy (or baristas) to do it for you.

Thirdly, and at last I have got to the main point of this post after some wild speculations, you can choose to take it with others or on your own. It can be a social phenomenon or a personal religion. For the serious coffee drinker, it is often the creating of “me time”. You make the coffee (not necessarily as elaborately as set out above), sit quietly, heave a sigh of relief for a moment away from the chaos of the world, and imbibe on your own. However, the “me time” for the Christian so often turns into the “me and God” time.

Many readers of this post will know just what I am talking about. You make the coffee, go and sit down and say aloud or inside “Well, Lord……here I am again” or some such. You become reflective in His presence and enjoy the company for a few minutes until the busy world drags you back in to its whirlpool.

It was a strange title. Does God drink coffee? Probably not; but he is very happy to sit with you while you drink yours.

Useless reading

September 1, 2017

Useless reading

This is the time of year for many when we are preparing or revising our courses for teaching in the new academic year. It is therefore a good time to ask the question “Do we read because we teach or teach because we read?”. I had better explain that.

To read because we teach is our default mode. We have the course contents in front of us, we need to produce notes for ourselves and the students, we need to be contemporary in our content and that means reading the books and articles. We read because we teach.

To teach because we read is a way of talking about a different attitude. Our intellectual life is not circumscribed by the content of our teaching. It is, in part, separate from it, wider and richer. It roams free across genres and subjects, follows our curiosity and expands our interests. From that rich, unconfined intellectual activity, we become excited about new ideas and applications and these, along with their excitement, are fed into our teaching.

OK, sometimes this means that, when we are in the classroom, we stray a bit off message but students have to get used to the idea that it is you, not a subject that is front of them. In fact, that is precisely what they want (provided you give them what they also need in order to do well in the assessments, of course).

Our natural reaction to such advice is one related to available time. We are very busy people, especially this time of year; we can hardly find time to keep up in our subject and do the narrow research required to re-validate ourselves as lecturers, so how will we be able to carve out time to read wider? This is an honest problem and one that needs to be addressed by the seminaries and colleges which employ us as much as by ourselves.

Yet I maintain that this concept is not just a desire for those who can spare the time to enrich themselves, but an integral part of our calling and God’s mission.

Ranging widely and probing with interest in all sorts of places in society’s intellectual continent is a pre-requisite for building that bridge between the Word and the World which is the task of the theological educator today. The bridge has to be anchored by our interest and understanding at both ends. The fun, ideas, sufferings and riches of our eclectic reading provide the ability to let the Word speak into them all. And ranging more widely in the broad continent of the historical and geographical Church’s intellectual heritage allows us to understand the breadth of God’s work, God’s people and God’s love, much of which will come to us as new riches.

We can easily get old in the task. Many of us started off with a ferocious appetite for all sorts of ideas, thoughts, understandings, books and authors but sometimes gradually our intellectual house gets smaller, with more walls than windows.

It is not impossible for any of us to open up a little more to new “non-essential for teaching” reading. Just take one interesting book at a time.

Come and join us

July 18, 2017

Dear prospective students,

We know this is the time of year when many of you are thinking about enrolling for theological education and here at Corpus Christi seminary, we want you to know that learning with us aims to change you and give you a foundation for the rest of your life. Here is how you could change. (Just to help you remember as you take your decision, I have put them in alphabetical order.)

  1. Attitudes – We expect you to go away at the end of your course determined to live your life for God and His mission in the world.
  2. Biblical understanding – not that you will know the dates of the kings of Judah, but that you will know how to exegete the different genres of scripture.
  3. Companions – warm community will give you relationships and friendships which will last a lifetime.
  4. Disciplines – disciplines of a successful human life, good study disciplines and the practice of the spiritual disciplines.
  5. Employment- colleges are often judged by this; for us this means a knowledge of your gifting and an understanding of your vocation for God.
  6. Formation- The big one; growth in spiritual, academic and ministerial formation blended together to form Christlikeness.
  7. Gladness- Knowing that serving God is not a miserable thing but it can lead to a happy fulfilled life in Him.

These are our desires for our students. They are true and very beautiful, but there is another set of truths you should be aware of in coming to us;

These things can happen, and have happened to many students from good theological schools. Sometimes they don’t happen. There are three players in this game. Firstly, there is God, who alone by his Spirit does these things, makes these changes in students. The school can only provide some conditions in which these changes are possible. Secondly, there is yourself and your commitment to work hard to grow and to change with the help of God and the school. Thirdly, there is the school itself and its own mission, staff and hard work.

I can’t even say that we as a school will do our best because sometimes we fall short of best in this work because we are human, not all wonderfully gifted, sinful and often tired. Truth is, as a staff, we would love more of these changes in our own lives.

But perhaps you as a student and us as staff, being sinful, weak human beings relying on God, can get together at Corpus Christi Seminary this year, come under His word and see what can be done for our mutual change in these areas, for God’s glory.

Now do you want to come?

 

[posted early this month because of holidays]

Theological education in a post-international world

June 29, 2017

Theological education in a post-international world

We are in an era where walls are being built between nations rather than bridges, the UK is cutting its ties with the rest of Europe and new laws are being enacted all over the world to keep out migrants from other countries. This is a challenge to theological education in three ways;

Firstly, it impedes the travel of students and lecturers between colleges and countries. For instance, it is difficult enough nowadays to welcome students from outside the UK into UK colleges and Brexit will make that more difficult, especially for students from countries in the European Union. Protectionist immigration laws anywhere also make very awkward the task of colleges and seminaries in appointing the best teachers regardless of where they were born. In some instances, participating in international visits and conferences has become more difficult. This does not apply presently to all countries but increasing government legislation in some is making it harder and harder to maintain international classrooms and staffrooms in our colleges.

Secondly, it challenges the very theology of the Church that we teach. The concept of the nation state with all its protectionist immigration policies could be challenged politically as not the best thing, or even biblically as not necessarily supported by scripture, but this is deeper. There is only one Church spread across the world and, for a Christian, the nation they happen to belong to is of far less importance than the spiritual kingdom they belong to (although some politico-Christian rhetoric recently hardly reflects this biblical position). To teach such theology in our classrooms (and we must) is inhibited by a growing world view in many of our societies that as nations we are separate from other nations and must put ourselves first, that the stranger is somehow lesser than ourselves. Our societies are moving increasingly in a different direction to our theology.

Thirdly, the whole idea of the nature and place of community in theological education is threatened by this growing world mood. While each college and seminary has to develop community within itself, theological education as a whole should also develop the worldwide community of theological education in general. We need to continue the momentum towards the idea that the hermeneutical community which reads scripture together, does theology together and talks together about how best to train for church service is as wide as the world. Thankfully technology is helping us here, only a few nations at the moment impede the free travel of ideas across the internet and some organisations are working industriously in the area of bringing us together although they are, in places, cycling against the wind.

In theological education, as in cycling, when the wind is against you, you peddle harder. Let us, each college or seminary, think through what we can do to increase the international element in our education. Let each international organisation re-double its efforts and see if we can express together the basic nature of theological education – as a task which naturally reflects the fact that God so loved the entire world.

Personal theology and curriculum design

June 2, 2017

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.

The classroom and the world

May 1, 2017

The classroom and the world

The classroom is not the world. It is a safer, sanitised version of the world, less evil, more loving, reasonable. It is, in fact, an oasis from the real world.

In the classroom, we think things through, listening to each other carefully. There is little violence even in words, virtually no sex (apart from an occasional glance across the room!), tragedies are small and dealt with by a smile. No babies die of poison gas in theological education classrooms, although they do in Syrian towns. We all have enough to eat, supplemented by coffee and biscuits now and then.

And this is OK. We are meant to create a quieter, safer place in which to do theology and grow. It is a pattern in both scripture and church history for God’s people to withdraw at times. The problem is re-entry into reality. That has to be done on a daily basis as we step out of the classroom and read the newspaper, walk the streets, and as we step out of the college or seminary at the end of our course – back into a world where terrible evil is rife, people are not sweetly reasonable and tension can sometimes be cut with a knife. And we do ministry in that very real world.

So, the classroom has also to be the place where the Word and the World intersect. It must provide the equipment to enable students to make that transition back into the real world. And some of that transition needs to occur in the classroom itself. This not to deny the importance of “irrelevant” theology; we have the right, even duty, to study theology and the text of scripture for its own sake, for truth’s sake (more on this in a future post). But it also has to equip the student for the real world.

The classroom has to be both safe and unsafe, enclosed and open, apart and engaged. To create such a classroom is the duty of the theological lecturer. The teacher stands in the classroom as the mediator, the broker, between the Word and the World.

How does he or she do that? Firstly, by having a foot in both camps. It is not enough to be familiar with the Word and unfamiliar with the World if we are going to build bridges for our students between the two. Secondly, by introducing prayer for the world and its problems, specific and general, for our students and their struggles, into the classroom time. Thirdly, by deliberately applying the material, at some point in the process of teaching, to the real world (and real students’ lives), with their strange mixture of good and evil, their complicated relationships and messy reality. We craft theology in order to help our students live lives pleasing to God in the real world.

A difficult task, but theological education classrooms were never meant just to be safe places for theological teachers.


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