Personal theology and curriculum design

Posted June 2, 2017 by Graham Cheesman
Categories: Uncategorized

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

Posted May 1, 2017 by Graham Cheesman
Categories: Uncategorized

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.

Livingstone and theological education

Posted April 1, 2017 by Graham Cheesman
Categories: Uncategorized

Livingstone and theological education

The East London Institute for Home and Foreign Missions (Harley House) has a strong case for claiming the title of the first college of the Bible College Movement. On the 18th of April 1874, the students of that newly formed college lined the road to watch the coffin of David Livingstone pass by on its way to burial in Westminster abbey. The coffin actually contained only the external remains of Livingstone, his heart, as is often said, was buried in Africa (along with his spleen, pancreas, intestines and a few other items, which is not so often said).

Livingstone had a poor relationship with theological education. Prior to going to Africa as a medical missionary, he was assigned to a training scheme under a Rev. Richard Cecil in Ongar, whose report on Livingstone was so bad, Livingstone was made to do an extra year by the London Missionary Society before he was allowed to go. He founded no colleges in Africa, but that was not his task.

In 1973, Tim Jeal wrote a (justly) revisionist biography of the national hero, David Livingstone, pointing out the dark areas of his personality and his weaknesses, including the fact that almost no-one in Africa was converted as a result of his work. So why is Livingstone buried in Westminster Abbey and Jeal is not at all likely to obtain that honour? Doubtless there is the factor of a Victorian desire for a hero of the empire at the time but surely there is more than that. He captured the imagination of the country as a man and as a Christian.

For me, the thing that stands out in Livingstone’s life is his passionate single minded intention to serve God with his life by following what he believed God had called him to do. He railed against his critics, including his fellow missionaries, got on with almost no-one, his wife was low down his list of priorities, but he also wrote this in his journal during his first and greatest journey;

“O Jesus, fill me with thy love now and I beseech thee accept me and use me a little for thy glory. I have done nothing for thee yet and I would like to do something.”

That led him into three missionary journeys, to open up central Africa for missionary effort, and eventually to die there with his work incomplete. I would be happy to remember him for those two sentences alone.

And us? There is so much important stuff to think about as theological educators – teaching techniques, learning theory, accreditation requirements, subject specific reading and research, curriculum design, all of which enhance our work. But behind all that I would like to think that we had the Livingstone spirit, of doing it all out of love for God and the desire to do something for His glory by fulfilling our calling.

Then the burial in Westminster Abbey may not seem so important.

Learning how to teach badly

Posted March 1, 2017 by Graham Cheesman
Categories: Uncategorized


Learning how to teach badly

Sometimes you and I do not teach well. It happens to the best of us.

We come away from the class feeling we did not do the subject, the students or ourselves justice. Maybe we pitched the level wrongly, we lost the attention of the class, we clearly didn’t know the subject deeply enough, were not sufficiently prepared. It was a bit of a mess.

Of course, feelings sometimes do not reflect reality. It is natural for mood to go down after the excitement of teaching. Unfortunately, the reality is sometimes that we did not do well. So, what is the best response?

  1. Firstly, don’t be downcast. The greatest among us don’t deliver greatness every time. In case you did not notice, you are a fallible human being and prone to making mistakes. This is a good reminder that you are not so wonderful. Sometimes we fashion our own thorns in the flesh and impale ourselves on them, but the result is the same, hopefully; humility and relying on God.
  2. Secondly, remember the sovereignty of God. Sometimes when I have taught or preached badly, people have come up and thanked me for blessing them with what I said. We are dealing with a God who has a sense of humour, the sort that puts us down and yet makes us laugh. Just don’t rely on it.
  3. Thirdly, analyse, analyse, analyse. How can you fix it if you do not know what went wrong? Was it the level? The relevance? The knowledge? The style? The mood? the structure? The amount of interaction generated? The visuals? The preparation? The staleness of the material? Were you just too tired that afternoon? Put in place systems and attitudes as far as you can to avoid that particular problem again (at least for a while).
  4. Fourthly, don’t worry too much about student reaction. Most never did think you were perfect anyway so they will not be surprised. They would only be surprised if you were in denial about your mistakes. Maybe a few of your special supporters in the class would like to think that you are perfect but they especially need to see that making mistakes and acknowledging them is a greater perfection than pretending there have been no mistakes. Next session why not tell the class that you felt you did not do the subject justice last time and say why, then teach as you should and could. They will go out that day with a good lesson for their ministry, richly illustrated by someone they like.

The question is not whether we sometimes teach badly, it is when we teach badly, do we do it well?

Newspapers and theological education

Posted January 30, 2017 by Graham Cheesman
Categories: Uncategorized


Newspapers and theological education

Finlay Peter Dunne’s character “Mr Dooley” is reputed to have said the following

 “The job of the newspaper is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable”.

He didn’t quite say it like that but this is the way Gene Kelly quoted it in his film Inherit the Wind and it has been remembered this way ever since.

It seems to me that this is a good description of the task of theological colleges and seminaries.

We have afflicted students who need to be comforted. More and more, students are coming to us out of a broken society with stresses, problems and difficulties. We are not hospitals and cannot accept candidates primarily so we can straighten them out. However, my experience is sometimes (certainly not always) time invested in helping such students mature and change creates servants of God who learn to cope with their own wounds and weaknesses and do a good job for the kingdom.

And theological education does its part in afflicting students. In 2008, Barbara Walvoord wrote up a fascinating analysis of first year students in religion and theology courses (Blackwell). It describes the coping mechanisms Christian students employ when faced with critical thinking patterns in theology and Biblical Studies for the first time. Intense Christian community has been known also to be a burden. Expectations seemingly beyond the capabilities of the student in their lower moods, are destructive. Unless the right comfort is offered at key points, our colleges and seminaries can be bad for the spiritual and mental health of some of our students.

We also have comfortable students who need to be afflicted. Sometimes, students come to us to do their first degree, from comfortable middle class backgrounds. They attend our chapel services where they sing warmly, sometimes with their hands in the air, words and phrases of total love and devotion to God, write essays for us on mission and Christ’s sacrifice, feel the emotion but do not end up doing the deeds. We send them on placements overseas and when they come back, we ask them if they enjoyed their time.

Words of affliction are quite in order in our job, challenging a culture and set of attitudes that need to be reformed in the minds and hearts of our some of students. It is all about implications. Maybe we have forgotten the tough implications of what we teach – the work of Christ, the claims of God, the command of mission. Maybe we are more comfortable expounding the exegetical problems of a text than letting it hit us between the eyes in its implications for our lives.

As you know, student bodies are often a mixed bag. There is no blanket task of comfort or affliction. The discernment of when to comfort and when to afflict is a needed gift. It speaks of the dual duty we have as theological educators of lecturing a class and also building relationships with students where these things can be discerned one to one.

In this respect, comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable, colleges and seminaries are like the best newspapers.

A significant year

Posted January 1, 2017 by Graham Cheesman
Categories: Uncategorized


The significance of 2016

Significance is a slippery concept with varied definitions. For me, in the context of my calling as a theological educator, it refers to the judgment that last year, my life has not been entirely in vain.

For the theological educator, significance includes (although is not exhausted by) usefulness to God and others and so can be looked for and rejoiced in, with a careful eye to its occupational hazard, pride. It must, however, always be distinguished from importance which has a reference to the opinions of others. J.B. Philips’ translation of Galatians 6v4 puts it well.

“Let every man learn to assess properly the value of his own work and he can then be glad when he has done something worth doing without depending on the approval of others”.

It is right therefore to look back on students helped – and sometimes inspired – to understand things well, to live well for God, and the ripples of hopefully good influence which progress outward as those students  will influence others when they pass into forms of ministry in the future. This is a comfort and a cause of celebration for us at the end of the year.

It is also a joy to look back on staff relations, how not only have we been helped by the fellowship and inspiration of colleagues but we have hopefully been a bit of a help to them. Getting through their day has been easier because of us, maybe; seeing something new of theology, or the love of God in us has been a warming of their minds and hearts.

There has probably been some progress in our personal writing and studying – never as much as we hoped for or wanted, that is par for the course – but progress none the less. Hopefully there have been times when there has been joy in life and pleasure in the presence of God related to our work.

It has not been a good year for all who read this post and there have been disappointments for us all. I hope very few theological educators reading this post would use the title of Osborne’s notorious play to describe 2016 – “look back in anger”. Yet many may well have a tendency to look back in disappointment, driven by the constant words in our ear “must do better” planted there by decades of negative ministry received.

That is for another time, but on this first day of 2017, raise a glass to 2016, a significant year in our lives as theological educators, and let us be thankful.

Making Wine

Posted December 1, 2016 by Graham Cheesman
Categories: Uncategorized


Making Wine

So many passages of scripture have been used to illustrate key issues in theological education but Jesus at the wedding feast in Cana is hard to beat. How so?

Firstly, we should not forget the simplest interpretation of the act of Jesus. He saw a young couple caught in a bit of a social mess, the wine had run out, so he stepped in to make sure that the wedding went smoothly for them. That little act of compassion is described by John as Jesus showing his glory.

For us as theological educators, showing our glory is usually more about demonstrating our cleverness, the books we have read, the degrees and awards we have gained. But we best show our glory in the little ways we help students who are in a bit of a mess and need a hand with this essay or understanding that issue. Students understand this.

Secondly, the central act of Jesus turning water into wine is used by John to illustrate the new order of the messiah. The water pots were for the old ritual cleansing, the way of rules and regulations. Jesus turned their contents into wine, the symbol throughout scripture of Joy. We are to ask for our daily bread but Christ gives more, “wine that makes glad the heart of man”.

How we need to escape from the attitude that we are mainly there to enforce the regulations of learning and assessing and see our role as a Christian teacher instead as the bringer of joy to our students, by what and how we teach and who we are. We turn boring water into joyful wine. It’s what we do.

Thirdly, there is an instructive use of this story in Bernard of Clairvaux. He is writing on community in monastic foundations and says that we may do everything we can to create Christian community but it will never be enough. We still need the touch of Christ to turn the water of our efforts into the wine of true Christian community.

That is true of the communities of our colleges and seminaries. Indeed, it is true of all our efforts in theological education. Working hard to fill the water pots is important; praying for Christ to turn our carefully gathered water into the joyful wine of the Spirit in the hearts of all those in the college community is vital.

So, to paraphrase the apostle, let us take a little “wine” for our student’s sake.

%d bloggers like this: