Presented at the Consultation on Designing, MDiv Curriculum, October 2003 by Daniel Aleshire, The Association of Theological Schools
For the most part, I am energized, even enamored by theological education. I like what goes on in theological schools and care about the work of religion that absorbs the efforts of most of our graduates.
I have always liked learning; I especially like the kind of learning that occurs in schools. I like lectures and reading papers. I like discussion groups (if everybody has read the paper or book), and I like to be challenged to think things I have never thought before. I went to school longer than anybody in my family ever had, and longer than a few of them even knew was possible. I love the subjects that theological studies engage, and I like the people who hang around theological schools-students and faculty, administrators and board members, graduates and donors.
I am equally engaged about churches. I have found something to like in country churches, urban cathedrals, store front churches, and even those cookie-cutter 1960s suburban churches. I have been moved by the drama of liturgical worship and the free form of Pentecostal worship. I have seen good ministry in family-sized lay-led churches and staff-driven mega-congregations. My sense of the world has been influenced by mass in Benedictine spaces, by Billy Graham crusades, by youth groups telling about their experiences on mission trips, and by watching widows hang onto each others' lives after husbands have died and children have moved far away. With all their failure and consummate inability to live by the Gospel they all proclaim, religious communities routinely touch the most profound moments of human existence. I shutter to think what life would be like without the communities that gather around the meaning and hope of God's redeeming work in individual lives, in communities, and in the world.
I can imagine that some of you are beginning to have some interesting thoughts about what I might say, given how I have started. The theologians may be thinking that I don't have a very critically reflective religious center, given that I claim to have been moved by a contradictory range of religious events. The pastoral counselors may be pleased that I chose to be self-revelatory but concerned that my life seems so limited in focus. The deans are wondering where in the world I am going with this talk, and the Bible people are looking for more hermeneutical clues before making their assessment. Think what you want; I do love what we do.
Theological education brings together two great joys in my life, but sometimes I get in a funk about it. Some days, there are one too many denominational fights, one too many faculty fights, one too many schools facing uncertain financial futures because of decisions made decades ago, and one too many deadlocks among school constituencies. I was in a funk a few weeks ago and was worried about what I would say tonight. It would be discouraging for me to say so early in this conference that nothing really works and that theological education should just pack its bags and go away. It would be dishonest to say I was hopeful. Then, I read the casebook on MDiv curricula that was prepared for this meeting. It made a difference. Really. As I read these cases, I felt encouraged-maybe not strangely warmed-but certainly encouraged. I think the work you and your schools have been doing can lead you to some very good clues about what is important in good MDiv education. The MDiv degree is invented school by school, and if it hopes to be good, it has to vary in some ways by theological commitment, contextual setting, and constituent needs. I want to identify some issues that I think should be addressed in MDiv education across the schools of ATS. These are necessarily general, and they lose the genius of specificity that is present in the cases.
MDiv curriculum revision is good to the extent that it addresses a range of irresolvable problems with honesty and creativity. The problems are not the curse of the curriculum, nor do they make MDiv education impossible, but they form at least part of the sub-structure that influences curricular decision-making. Of the many problems, I want to identify four.
1. One problem is disciplinary accrual.
If we were meeting in the fifth century, we would have less theology to teach, less history to teach, less of everything to teach. But this is now, and we work with disciplines whose content continues to accrue over time. We talk not just about the doctrine of the Trinity and what it means in our time, but the development of the doctrine, what happened to it by the first millennium, how it was treated by the reformers in Europe and England, what happened to it as North America was settled by immigrants and unsettled by the awakenings, what the Deists and Unitarians did with the doctrine, how it is perceived in the Pentecostal expressions of Christianity (where Christianity is growing at its most rapid pace), and what it means now at Trinity Church and in the lives of preachers and their post-modern hearers. The same is true for history and biblical studies. Our core disciplines continue to pick up new content, but seldom leave any of the other content behind. If we were medical educators, we could safely assume that we could teach chemistry and biology on the basis of what is known now, and while there may be historical references, old theories that have been discarded don't require much class time. Most of our old theories, however, continue to be the basis of truth for some part of the Christian family and need to be considered carefully prior to trading them in for newer truths. The more the content of theological disciplines accrues, the more difficult the disciplines are to teach in the three years that God has given for all time for the MDiv degree. Every curriculum revision begins with struggles around the allocation of space for the old disciplines that are always growing and the new disciplines that are always emerging. It is not a problem that is going to go away, so good curricular revisions come up with resolutions for now, knowing that other resolutions will be needed later.
2. Another problem is the dominance of a liberal arts paradigm in our disciplines and the MDiv educational goal of excellence in the practice of ministry.
Theology, history, philosophy, ethics, biblical studies, and language studies are venerable liberal arts disciplines. Theological educators have paradigms for their scholarly work that are anchored in the scholarly methods of the arts tradition. We know the methodology for analyzing texts and interpreting them. The curricular problem is that our good liberal arts scholarship, and the knowledge that it produces, is pressed into service of an educational goal that, in the end, is focused on the good practice of ministry. I remember a faculty lounge conversation several years ago in which one of the better graduates of our school had resigned from a church for some rather serious sexual misconduct. One professor, whose discipline will go unnoted, commented that he could hardly believe what the student had done because he was such a good theologian. His statement reflected a kind of Platonic imagination that if one learns to think right, one will do right. Practice follows knowledge, and smart people who are well educated will act smartly. I realize that I have slipped into the domain of human character and not professional performance, but the parallel tends to apply. By teaching biblical studies in the best of the arts tradition, we hope that we are educating students to preach the Bible well, or teach it well, or use its resources well in congregational conflict and decision-making.
This is a problematic connection. I think the Bible or church history or theology must be faithful to the scholarly paradigms of the liberal arts, but I also think this faithfulness poses an educational problem. MDiv education is graduate professional education not graduate academic education. While our scholarly work should be done in the arts traditions, excellence in pastoral work is not defined by excellence in the liberal arts. Our disciplines, for the most part, are clearly anchored in an appropriate intellectual style that is different from the intellectual style that the best of our graduates may use in ministerial practice. This poses an educational problem that is not going away. We are using the right intellectual style for the advancement of our disciplines, but that is not the style our graduates use for the advancement of their work. So, it too is a problem that a curricular design must seek to resolve.
3. A third problem is that theological educators know less about the intellectual work of practice-these other intellectual styles-than we know about the intellectual work of critical and constructive engagement with content.
Both practice and engagement with content are sophisticated intellectual activities, but they are fundamentally different kinds of activities. Peter Gomes recounts his experience of hearing YoYo Ma play as an undergraduate at Harvard. It was not your typical student recital. There was an intelligence, a genius, in the playing that captured listeners. Even if Yo Yo MA is not the world's greatest musicologist, or music theorist, few would discount the exquisite intellectual work that his playing represents. I think most of us have greater difficulty understanding the intellectual canons associated with excellent practice than the canons associated with excellent mastery of content or critical analysis. Not only are we less critically aware of the intelligence of practice, some indicators are that excellent practice requires multiple intelligences, and mono-intelligent people like me are supposed to help MDiv students develop the multiple intelligences-none of which we understand very well-that they will need to be excellent practitioners of the pastoral arts. This is an educational problem that will not go away, and we cannot excuse ourselves from addressing it. It has to be addressed in constructing an MDiv curriculum.
4. A fourth problem is more tender, perhaps more personal: it involves the value that we place on experience itself.
Here, I am not referring to the value we place on the experiences the students bring with them to MDiv education and want us to give them credit for having, rather the experience of engaging in ministerial work as a way of developing the intellectual skills necessary to do that work with excellence. I recently explored university web-sites to see how other kinds of schools are constructing education for intellectually sophisticated forms of practice. Here is what I found. The Master of Social Work (MSW) at the University of Pittsburgh, which is highly regarded in social work education, requires eighteen credit hours of supervised field and clinical work. That is eighteen hours of sixty for a professional master's degree-almost one third of the total required credits. I looked at a few ATS schools' web-sites, and the MDiv requirements typically had six or fewer hours of supervised ministry, and often three of those could be completed by taking a CPE unit, that I think may be as much as required in hopes that it will provide some healing of student hurts more than developing skills crucial for pastoral practice. I looked at a few M.D. degrees, and much of the degree is built around clinical practice, starting in the first year. Medical education does not proceed from text book to cadaver to live people. It involves these, but not sequentially. The students are in clinical situations very early, I think, because there is a perception that they can only learn some of what they need to know by intense, intellectually rigorous experience.
If social work schools, medical schools, and theological schools are all educating practitioners, why do we give so much less educational effort to experience-based learning? A part of it is the accrual in our disciplines and the resulting crammed character of the curriculum. A part of it is that we don't have the equivalent of hospitals where experienced physicians, students, and sick people are gathered together in the middle of a weekday afternoon when we want to have classes. I have a hunch that some of it is that we are just not convinced that much of the learning necessary for excellence in ministerial work requires an experiential context. We probably should have some intense discussion about how important experience is for theological learning, which intellectual attainments can accrue only through experience, and how we make better curricular use of ministerial work as a way of learning how to do ministerial work well.
Each year, ATS administers the Graduating Student Questionnaire for those schools that choose to participate in this program. This past spring almost 5,000 graduates from 125 schools completed the questionnaire. One of the questions asked them to identify the three most influential aspects of their theological education. Because each graduate gives three answers, we count the total number of responses that each of the sixteen influences receives. The most responses, almost twenty percent of the total, went to "faculty." So if you are depressed, wondering if anything you do is of any value, remember these data. Given all the things that influence what students receive from their theological education, faculty are at the top. Second and third place, in the most recent sample of MDiv students, were tied, with about ten percent of the total number of responses given to biblical studies and ten percent of the responses given to field education. Imagine that, students said that their field education had as much impact on them as did biblical studies. The bottom-ranked influences were community life in the school (2.2%) and ecumenical interaction (1.4%). Also near the bottom was required readings (3.8%). There are two ways to interpret these data. One is that with very few credit hours, field education was able to attract the same rating of importance as biblical studies, which likely required twenty or more credit hours of work. The other way to interpret it is that there is huge educational potential in experience-based learning that we may be underutilizing in theological education. The value we place on the kind of learning that accrues to experience is, once again, a curricular problem. There is not one right answer, but our curricular imagination should prompt us to value what can best be learned through experience as much as it prompts us to value what can best be learned in the library, in individual work, in the classroom, and in informal conversations with peers and faculty.
No curricular revision is going to solve these problems. They are deeply embedded in theological education. Good curricular work, however, engages these problems and is not content with voting them down because they can't be solved.
The ATS standards are quite clear about the work of the MDiv as it is embedded in the theological curriculum. We all have little texts that become part of our personal canons, and I have one from the ATS standards.
In a theological school, the over-arching goal is the development of theological understanding, that is, aptitude for theological reflection and wisdom pertaining to responsible life in faith. Comprehended in this over-arching goal are others such as deepening spiritual awareness, growing in moral sensibility and character, gaining an intellectual grasp of the tradition of a faith community, and acquiring the abilities requisite to the exercise of ministry in that community.
That statement is more than a bureaucratic accrediting text for me. It is personal, and it takes on substance in persons. As I glanced at the participant list for this meeting, I could not help but think about three wonderful theological educators from schools represented here.
Ken Mulholland was dean and professor at Columbia Biblical Seminary. Across many years, he served ATS in several ways. He was a missionary pastor and strategist. He had the capacity to care equally about individuals and the world's people as a whole. He was, if I ever met one, "an Israelite in whom there is no guile." He died after a debilitating bout with cancer. Steven Happel was a gentleman administrator, a priest of the church, and an engaging conversation partner. He met with a group of deans of university divinity schools that ATS convenes during the AAR/SBL meeting, and often brought a colleague from outside the U.S. to share the conversation. Steven's heart was in the church and his head was in scholarship, administrative organization, and the unique structures of Catholic University of America. He died recently. Tim Lull died while recovering from surgery last May. He was president at Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary and was one of the premier Luther scholars in North America. I think Tim was a bit like Luther, at least as I imagine Luther to have been: namely, brilliant and devoted. Tim had more tenderness and humor, and was less tormented than the reformer, but no less a theologian or lover of the church. He wrote a Screwtape Letters type book on his conversations with Luther. Tim imagined several visits with Luther across the years; the most memorable for me was the conversation that Tim reported on the long walk back to town from a German concentration camp. Tim asked Luther what all he meant by his comments about the Jews, and if he thought there was any link between what he said and what Nazi Germans did in the first half of the twentieth century. Luther tried to explain, but is left in Tim's narrative surrendering to the ambiguity of human failure.
All these people, in their own ways, in their different traditions, were the theological curriculum. In them, there was a "wisdom pertaining to responsible life in faith." In them, there was a deepened "spiritual awareness" and "moral sensibility and character." They grasped the faith intellectually, but more, they had learned to live into its hope and out of its longings.
The curriculum is not just in the choice and arrangement of courses and degree requirements. It is also in the teachers who so embody it that they form a cloud of witnesses that continues to give us "wisdom pertaining to responsible life in faith." They are a curriculum that needs no revision.
I love this work. It is such good work.