Sorting through the 'right stuff'
I distinctly remember a conversation 20 years ago with my diesel mechanics instructor in the Navy. The topic of faith had come up while we were on a break from class. He had recently converted to Buddhism from Christianity because, in his estimation, "Christianity required too much study."
His statement stayed with me as I journeyed through theological education, encountering many of the same sticking points that put him off. I learned biblical languages, classic and modern philosophy, world and church history, and theological interpretation - it was a lot of study, but at the end of the day, had I become a better Christ follower?
And then I got it. My Navy instructor believed, or had been taught, that Christianity was about knowing all the right stuff. What I discovered through my own overabundance of education was that I could know all the right stuff and still have no clue how to live into the faith I knew so well. It is the difference between orthodoxy (having the right opinion) and orthopraxy (having the right actions.)
I hear the same revelation from many life-long Christians - including clergy. Being connected with our faith requires practical experience. Only through venturing into the margins of society where Jesus roamed; finding support, nurture and room for vulnerability in a faith community; and beginning to know "the least, the last and the lost" did I begin to feel that my faith was alive.
No doubt, theological education - whether in a formal college or seminary setting or through church-based curricula - helps us to interpret what we encounter experientially. There is an important reflective role that theological education plays as we view the world through what is known as the Wesleyan Quadrilateral: scripture, tradition, reason and experience.
As I write, the renewed conflict in Gaza has entered its third week. While it is certainly true that the problems in the region are political, there are strong theological underpinnings to the ongoing clash.
A student of history would point out that the land collectively known as Israel has been politically controlled by Jews for a relatively small time over its 4,000 year span. That same student would know that a Jewish remnant has maintained a contiguous presence in Israel over that same period, constantly seeking its sovereignty.
The student of theology would remind us that Jews, Christians and Muslims living in Israel and Palestine all consider themselves "people of the Book" - calling upon the same Hebrew scriptures, counting themselves as sons and daughters of Abraham, to frame a common theological heritage. Yet we are all too aware that differences of expression run deep enough to spill blood to this day.
A student who has contextually lived with or worked alongside marginalized peoples would seek to understand the systems in place that have led Israelis and Palestinians to such desperation and violence.
There may be no better example of why theological interpretation of political events is important to us as faithful citizens of the world.
And so we have turned our attention this issue to the topic of theological education - especially as it relates to our UCC and related seminaries.
Recent news has been filled with dire projections for the future of seminaries. They are beleaguered by declining enrollment, drained endowments and a shift in religious culture away from M.Div. requirements for pastors.
But statistics don't tell the whole story of what is happening in theological education. Seminaries are well aware of their financial situation and the changes in constituent needs. They are responding to these circumstances with incredible agility and creativity - not diluting their core "product" of theological training, rather finding new ways to structure and deliver it. Most importantly, they are discovering ways to integrate the experiences of faith into their curriculum - providing a solid base of practical knowledge to accompany the academic.
Maybe that is what my Navy instructor missed out on - putting his hands and heart into the active pursuit of doing what Jesus did.