Presented at the Seminar for Black and Hispanic Theological Educators October 2002 by Daniel Aleshire, The Association of Theological Schools
This closing reflection focuses on what I have heard this weekend. All of us hear many conversations in a conference such as this one, and I want you to hear what I have heard so you can judge if I have heard well.
1. Ed Aponte was right, when he wondered out loud: What does it mean to be on the Jericho road?
I was on it once. Jericho, as I remember, is about ten to twenty miles from Jerusalem, at a much lower elevation. The trip to Jericho is easier than the trip to Jerusalem, but either way, it is rugged-at least the old road. It follows hillsides, and as the elevation toward Jerusalem increases, the crevices become deeper. Everywhere, there are stones: stones to slip on, stones to throw, stones to put in your pocket for a slingshot in case you face a giant.
I think, in the case of race and ethnicity in theological education and in the case of this dialogue, that we are on the old road from Jericho to Jerusalem: it is a difficult, uphill grade. The road is tricky and treacherous.
2. Jeremiah Wright was right when he challenged us as theological educators to do our work for the church and the community it serves.
Theologians have always been attracted to counting the angels on the head of a pin. Over time, the angels change, as do the pins, but the phenomenon remains. Theological schools are educating persons who will work in congregations and church-related organizations, or who will do work that takes church-like ministries into new and perhaps non-church environments. If we don't have our hearts in the church, it doesn't make a lot of difference where our heads are. Dr. Wright talked about both the ignorance and arrogance of theological faculty. Ignorance can be cured, but the only hope for arrogance is repentance and redemption.
Racial/ethnic faculty, I think, have less of this kind of ignorance and arrogance than white faculty. This is a broad generalization and like all such generalizations, likely untrue, but there are pieces of truth in it. Racial/ethnic faculty are anchored in the church and to the communities the church serves. I received a call in the early 1990s from American Baptist Seminary of the West (ABSW) inquiring about J. Alfred Smith teaching at the seminary. The question was: "Could he teach more than adjunctively and still be pastor at Allen Temple Baptist Church?" I thought to myself: "Who in their right mind would keep someone like that out of a seminary classroom?"
Deep commitments to the church need to be expressed in intellectual labor that the church can use. Academic guilds provide contexts where people who do our kind of work can run their ideas by other people who do our kind of work-but our work is not just to get our ideas reviewed or approved by the guild. It is to get ideas, ultimately, to the people whose work and lives can be guided and enriched by them.
I have noted, in some occasions, how the racial/ethnic community has borne the church's historic witness in ways the white community seemed tentative about bearing. I once participated in a wonderful service at a very good seminary with deep and historic roots in the Christian tradition. This school is particularly sensitive about racial/ethnic inclusiveness as well as the thoughtful inclusion of other world religions. In this service, the rabbi read from the Torah in Hebrew and prayed in English. The Imam read from the Koran and prayed in Arabic and English. The Christian invocation was delivered in Spanish. As the service progressed, most of the white Christians made little reference to "Jesus" or "Jesus Christ." White Christians have a long history of triumphalism and that must be countered with a certain humility, but it was not until the Black choir sang a gospel hymn about "King Jesus," that any reference was made to traditional Christian language.
I wondered if, in this setting, a predominantly white choir could have sung such an anthem, or if it would have been heard as an offense. Why? One hypothesis is to affirm that the racial/ethnic community is preserving a form of historic and necessary witness of Christian communities. Another hypothesis is that whites, once again, have given to a racial/ethnic community the burden of bearing a load on behalf of the community as a whole, a load that the community is tentative about bearing itself. This is an over-analysis of one part of a wonderful and thoughtful service, but it caused me to wonder, and it came to mind in thinking about what Dr. Wright had said.
3. Ana Maria Pineda spoke about being a stranger, and we would all do well to be comfortable with struggling together as strangers.
We all live in more than one world and are members of more than one group. Among other things, that means that I can only relate to you faithfully to the extent that I understand that I don't know you and can't assume anything about you. All human beings are parts of many groups: racial groups, theological class, the spouse group or the singles group, the educated elite group or the down-home blue collar group, or maybe combinations of all of these and more. Because we are strangers, we can't assume anything and because we are strangers, our task is to find friends and family, and invite strangers to make their identities known. As Ana Maria said, the work of me as stranger dealing with you as stranger is difficult, and dialogue is the only way we can know one another. And, the dialogue is never finished. We learn from the journey. We spend our lives on the Jericho road, and it seems that we may never get to Jerusalem.
4. There were several things said that you should repeat often.
Barbara Austin Lucas said this about teaching: "You cannot teach anyone unless you see your destiny in their lives"; and about the classroom: "It is the community into which people go, not just the room in which they meet"; and about our scholarly lives: "There is no distinction between learning and burning." I am convinced that the most effective strategies for teaching are how well we know our stuff and how passionate we are about it. Apart from these two, PowerPoint can't accomplish much.
Raul Gomez took us back to Palestine, and asked what it means to go back to Galilee. The journey for Jesus was from Galilee to Jerusalem, and Jerusalem was where his earthly journey ended. We all get to leave Jerusalem if we are willing and when we leave, there can be dialogue. Raul reminded us that dialogue is individual and gradual; it occurs, truly occurs, when both parties are empowered as equals. And, in a piercing question at the end of the day, he asked us to ask ourselves, "What is entombed in us, and what is the stone that needs to be rolled away?"
5. If we are to have dialogue in the classroom, it cannot occur only in the classroom.
Marcia Riggs and Carlos Cardoza-Orlandi taught us that what we say in the classroom grows out of the care and friendship we nurture apart from the classroom, and the respect we pay to one another in the classroom grows from the respect we have out of the classroom. Evelyn Parker and Ed Aponte taught us that what happens in the classroom is a function of our skill as teachers. Dr. Parker sets the parameters and mediates the authority shared by students as teachers in her course. What happens in the class, as Ed pointed out, is something that is influenced by the courses taught, not just who is teaching in the classroom. Luis Rivera and Deborah Mullen taught us that classroom teaching has an integral connection to institutional structures and strategies.
We will not dialogue with one another or the students in theological education; we will not be good in the classroom apart from these three dimensions-personal friendships, pedagogical practices, and institutional strategies. No one planned that these three sets of teachers would, together, say this, but what I heard that was most powerful was the statement they made together, as engaging as their individual statements were. Effective classroom dialogue across races will require all three elements.
6. Popular religion is where our roots are, where our students will go, and we do not do our work well without taking seriously the wisdom that popular religion embodies. Both Dwight Hopkins and Harold Recinos instructed us well at this point.
We have, at times, done well at making popular religion a straw person to show how good our more refined versions of religion are; we have sometimes been willing to make popular religion the object of our study, but both Harold and Dwight taught us that popular religion can be a source for our wisdom. If academics take popular religion seriously, it becomes our teacher, not our student.
All weekend long, I have been thinking about how to sort out variables: which issues are most attributed to race/ethnicity, which ones to ecclesial family, and which ones to social class? These variables are so interconnected that they cannot be separated, but with popular religion, class is a distinguishable variable. Education, particularly theological education, causes a class change. It doesn't make a student rich, but it creates a class change. My brother and I both made commitments to ministry as teenagers. He dropped out of college and I never stopped going. He worked during his twenties and thirties at a variety of jobs, left the church for a while, came back to it, began to help with music, became more involved in leadership, and when he was in his early forties, a congregation that was down to ten people called him as pastor. It was the oldest church in the county. While there were hundreds of people buried beside the church, almost no one was in it on Sunday morning. Both the church and my brother thought that his job would be to close the place down. It is a rural, blue collar church-not many farmers, just folks who live in the area, work hourly jobs, and a few who had even served some jail time. They are people who have had problems with welfare, landlords, the health care system, and occasionally needed emergency assistance. Some have financial resources, most don't. A few are college graduates, most aren't. My brother has been there eighteen years, now. I joined him this past Easter Sunday for the first service of worship in the new church building; constructed across the street from the old church where the dead people weren't taking up so much room. There were about 140 people there that day.
My brother never finished college, and because of the accrediting standards I oversee at ATS, has never pursued theological education. He and I disagree on most theological issues, but had I gone to that church as pastor with my B.S., M.A., M.Div., and Ph.D, it would have died for sure. Popular religion reigns there, and I wouldn't have known how to be the kind of pastor who, in eighteen years, could both restore the congregation and take it where it had never been. The difference is class-not social class, but the educational class-that theological education induces.
American religion, in general, is failing blue collar whites as much as it is racial/ethnic working class and poor. Our attention to popular religion has to provide the intellectual resources we need to educate students to go to those communities and congregations and serve them effectively.
I have concluded that popular religion has as much sin in it as seminary religion does, and I want to add a second to James Evans's question to Dwight Hopkins and Dwight's response. I am the product of popular, blue collar, white religion that was, at many points, deeply theologically flawed. Jeremiah Wright talked about seminary ignorance, but talk at church can be ignorant, too, and that ignorance can hurt and oppress, just like the ignorance of faculty members can. I have learned that original sin is as present in the church as it is in the seminary. So we need to learn from popular religion and educate students for the congregations full of popular religion, but never to romanticize either.
We will not serve racial/ethnic communities or much of the white community until we learn how to educate people with the intellectual and pastoral resources they need to work in other than educated, professional congregations-white or racial/ethnic. We will not have educated them well if we have not helped them see how to address the deeply flawed convictions that are part of popular religion and every other kind of religion.
7. Some final thoughts. In closing, I want to make three more comments, primarily about the implications of what I have heard for this weekend.
First, I don't know whether theological education is on its way to Jericho, Jerusalem, or Galilee. Sometimes, I think we are stuck in a tunnel. These meetings are the beginning of the ATS process to drill some holes, fill them with dynamite, and set them off. I don't know whether the result will be blasting through to the light on the other side, or simply causing the roof to fall in on all of us. We'll see.
The second is how to get deep, substantive learning without the human pain that is the most profound teacher. Roger Shinn once wrote in an essay that the most educational experience he had ever had was being in World War II. What we want to do in education, he suggested, is to get the same effect, but in the gentle, ever docile environments of educational institutions. He wondered if it could happen. I am moved by racial/ethnic Christians. Oppression has dug deep wells, and racial/ethnic Christians have learned things, wise things, that are not easily learned by people who have not been exposed to the same cultural trauma. Theological education needs this learning, but it cannot get it on the backs of racial/ethnic faculty and students. So, I wonder: How can the broader community benefit by the gift you, as racial/ethnic faculty, bring without making you the bearers of the burden for the community as a whole?
Finally, we need to remember the voices that were not heard this weekend. There are so many voices in the broad ATS community that we cannot represent them all in any one event. In addition to the voices I heard here, there are some that were not heard, and our final duty is to remind ourselves of the absent voices. Conservative Protestants construct liberation themes differently than the dominant voice we have heard in this meeting. Don Miller, in a study of new paradigm churches in Asia, Africa, and South America, makes the quip that while the Gospel has a preference for the poor, the poor had a preference for Pentecostalism. We need to hear that and find its wisdom. The more conservative Protestant and Evangelical Protestant voices that are powerfully present in racial/ethnic communities have been, for a variety of appropriate reasons, quiet in this meeting. We need to hear their silence.
Well, that's what I heard. Good work has begun. More work is ahead. We will continue the dialogue.