Fresh perspectives needed on educating religious leaders into the 21st century

Fresh perspectives needed on educating religious leaders into the 21st century

January 31, 2009
Written by Daniel Hazard

The Rev. Serene Jones. Ron Hester photo.
The following is excerpted from the Rev. Serene Jones' inauguration speech as President of Union Theological Seminary in New York City. Used by permission.

What will it take for us to educate that new generation of religious leaders to inhabit the world being remade before our very eyes?

It will require us to rethink some of our education fundamentals in at least the following five significant ways. Since rethinking pedagogical purpose and method was part of Union's original charter, this is work we are well-equipped to do.

First, we are entering a period in which the most important task is going to be developing new eyes to see what is happening around us - as both what counts as "religion" and how we conceive of "the public" are redefined. In this regard, our students shall lead us as many of them already live in these new spaces carved out by technologies that recraft our minds, imaginations, and our sense of community. Learning - and not just teaching - must stand at the helm of our endeavors.

Second, while we absolutely must maintain a strict division between church and state in our policy lives, we need higher education to see that it takes a village to educate a minister, of any sort. In other words, the secular academy is just as responsible for the task ahead of us as are theological schools. This doesn't mean holding prayer sessions before science class, far from it. It does mean not turning away from the oddity of the confessional commitments of our students and of the religious communities that form them and for whom they are being formed. But rather, in recognizing the full selves our students bring, we can see our educational institutions as places for us to learn more about the deepest impulses that sustain or fracture our collective life together. Union's relation with its college partners, here and around the world, will continue to need energetic tending.

Third, the way forward for theological education will be deeply interfaith or it will fail. The fact is our lives are now interfaith, in bone deep ways. We live in interfaith families: we eat Middle Eastern food for lunch, kosher for dinner, sugar-laden cereal for breakfast. We have hymns on our iPods, yoga mats in our backpacks, Talmudic meditations by our bedsides, and the smile of Islamic charity on our faces. The fact that these merged and mixing practices are not always recognized as "interfaith" is only proof of how deeply they are ingrained in us. Our educated understanding of religion needs to embrace the diet of insight and imagination that marks our hybrid practices. In this regard, the future will be carried by the presence of our interfaith partners and the extraordinary possibilities for dialogue found here in Morningside Heights.

Fourth, we've never needed the classics in our curriculum more than now. We need to master ancient languages - they teach us the mystery of otherness. We need the rigors of systematic theology to spur clear thought. We need the careful analysis of history to keep us honest about where we've been and what we can know. But we also need to give fresh new attention to the questions of formation and practice - to all the performed dimensions of religious life. We need to reclaim the old truth that dogma is at best a stumbling for words to describe a practice that lives in the embodied soul. It's in the flesh of our daily practices that our lives are formed and that our collective future will be forged. In our poetry and art as much as in our doctrines will reside the power of future conviction.

Fifth, we must face the stark economic reality in which we live. This means being prudent and wise in the use of the resources we have; and being fiercely persuasive in conveying our ability to use new resources for the common good beyond our own halls. It means recognizing that new poverty for some always means an exponential increase in suffering for those who have always been on the underside of the stories of prosperity our country loves to tell. And it means seeking more than being with the poor - though that injunction must also remain - but seeking the eradication of poverty globally. To this end, we must continue to support and to grow with such radical initiatives as our very own Poverty Initiative and the sense of social movement and possibility to which it attests.

These five challenges do not encompass all that lies before us. In fact, part of the point is that we don't completely know what lies before us! But they are a start at what I think is going to be necessary as we live into this unfolding future. They chart a course unique at one level in Union's history, but old and familiar at another. It is a course that finds faith vitally alive in the space of rift and crisis.

Jones is an ordained minister in both the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and the United Church of Christ. She was educated at the University of Oklahoma and received her M.Div. and Ph.D. in theology at Yale.

Prior to her appointment as Union's president, Jones spent 17 years on the Yale Divinity School faculty, most recently as the Titus Street Professor of Theology. She also held faculty appointments at Yale Law School, in the Department of African-American Studies, and served as the chair of Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at Yale University.

To learn more about President Jones: 

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