Disruption and Hope: Religious Traditions and the Future of Theological Education, ed. by Barbara G. Wheeler (Baylor University Press, 2019, 170 pp., $30).
Disruption and Hope is a collection of essays written in honor of Daniel Aleshire in celebration of his retirement after 27 years at the Association of Theological Schools, including 19 years as executive director. The volume includes six essays on the challenges facing theological education in the 21st century with an introduction by Barbara Wheeler and an afterword by Aleshire himself.
Four of these essays discuss general issues facing specific traditions: Lutheran, Anglican, Catholic, and evangelical. The remaining two chapters address how institutions of theological education are facing the challenges of religious pluralism and interfaith dialogue, one written from an evangelical point of view and the other from a mainline Protestant perspective. As Aleshire points out in his afterword, all the authors are both scholars and administrators, rooted in theological and academic traditions but also with considerable experience dealing with the practical problems facing institutions of theological education.
The first chapter, by the Lutheran New Testament scholar David Tiede, addresses the challenges facing theological education through the lens of Lutheran theology. For Lutherans, the fundamental theological principle is justification by grace through faith — God’s unconditional love for human beings shown in Jesus. But the other side of the coin is that God’s grace empowers us to love our neighbors as Christ has loved us. Lutherans have historically expressed the priorities of the church arising from this principle through the phrase “was Christum treibet” (“what serves Christ”). In other words, what course of action will most clearly proclaim God’s unconditional love and show forth that love to the needy neighbor? Tiede, who was president of Luther Seminary for 18 years, provides a detailed analysis of the problems facing contemporary institutions of theological education with an eye to asking how Lutherans may “serve Christ” in a time of decreasing enrollment, fading denominational loyalty, and technological innovation.
The second chapter is by Martha Horne, who led Virginia Theological Seminary from 1994 to 2007. Horne addresses the same issues as Tiede, but from an Anglican perspective, emphasizing the comprehensiveness and diversity of Anglicanism and the primary role of Scripture in Anglican theological reflection, particularly as experienced in the liturgy and as read through the lens of Christian tradition. For Horne, the key to Anglican theological education is the practice of reading Scripture in conversation with others, bringing diverse contexts to the table.
Practically speaking, Horne suggests that the decline of the residential seminary and the rise of hybrid educational models points back to an older model of Anglican theological education in which aspiring candidates “read theology” with more experienced clergy and learned through apprenticeship. Thus, like Tiede, Horne finds resources within her own tradition that not only can survive changing times but provide a guide to navigating the challenges that lie ahead.
Father Donald Senior’s essay on Catholic theological education, in contrast, does not focus on practical challenges or suggest specific structural changes. Senior, president emeritus of Catholic Theological Union, acknowledges that Catholic institutions show little interest in major change at this point and are likely to “muddle through” for the time being. Senior then expounds the four pillars of priestly formation as described by Pope St. John Paul II: human, spiritual, intellectual, and pastoral. Senior also explores the “ecclesial vision” of Pope Francis as found in his encyclicals and closes by discussing how this vision affects the four dimensions of formation for ministry (whether of priests or lay ministers): A formation program inspired by Pope Francis’ work will strive to create ministers who demonstrate empathy; have a “deep personal relationship with Jesus Christ”; have an “eye for beauty,” including the beauty of Scripture; avoid clericalism; identify with the poor; be steeped in the church’s intellectual tradition; and follow Pope Francis in emphasizing mercy.
In the fourth essay in this collection, Richard Mouw, president emeritus of Fuller Seminary, addresses issues faced by institutions identified broadly with the evangelical tradition. The primary issue in his essay is the pervasive distrust of seminaries among American evangelicals. Mouw points out that this attitude is hardly new in American Protestantism. Several important evangelical institutions began as Bible institutes with a narrow focus on training for evangelistic and missionary work. Yet many of these institutions eventually developed into accredited educational institutions offering, among other things, theological education. Mouw warns that this process is not inevitable, but he is optimistic about the long-term usefulness of seminaries. Mouw writes that seminaries need to learn how to “feel with the church”: Rather than seeing the often anti-intellectual megachurch culture as the enemy, seminaries should seek to engage these communities positively and to help them do their work more effectively.
The final two chapters both address the question of how contemporary theological education should prepare Christians to engage religious pluralism. The first of these, by Douglas McConnell, advocates a posture of “joyful witness.” Like Mouw, McConnell is affiliated with Fuller, having served as provost from 2011 to 2016. He assumes that Christians will be seeking to evangelize non-Christians and will be working from the assumption that saving truth is found uniquely in Christianity. Citing Timothy Tennent, McConnell advocates an “engaged exclusivist” approach which recognizes “God’s preparatory activity through general revelation” while also “maintaining a missiological focus.” McConnell’s other slogan is “convicted civility,” this one a borrowing from Mouw. He points to Fuller’s emphasis on vocational formation as a means whereby students are formed in the practices of “convicted civility,” learning how to witness to their faith without engaging in polemic and while appreciating the good things found in other religious traditions and in the cultures that have produced them.
Judith Berling’s contribution, in contrast, approaches interfaith dialogue from a more mainline Protestant perspective in which the goal is mutual understanding. She addresses the challenges that financially strapped institutions face in implementing programs of interreligious education. Perhaps the most insightful section of her essay is her analysis of the relevance of the “nones” to interreligious education. More and more people in the United States define themselves as unaffiliated or only loosely affiliated with a religious tradition. Interreligious education needs to take them into account rather than simply teaching students how to relate to classically defined religious traditions. She argues that theological educators need to recognize that traditions are “profoundly shaped by context and complex intersectional social locations.” She writes that the flexible or loose way in which many contemporary people relate to religious traditions is not a threat but is rather an opportunity to reflect more deeply on how the incarnational faith of Christians relates to the society in which we live.
All six of these essays are thoughtful reflections on the challenges facing theological education, illuminated by the riches of specific traditions. Interestingly, the three mainline Protestant essays focus much more heavily on institutional and financial challenges and seem more concerned about the future of their institutions. The two evangelical pieces, both written by people associated with Fuller, seem more optimistic, and both they and Donald Senior’s contribution from the Catholic perspective focus on theological and pastoral issues rather than on practical questions of institutional viability. But all six essays contain helpful theological and pastoral reflections, and all acknowledge that institutions of theological education face difficult challenges in the years ahead.
This book is a helpful guide to thinking creatively about the resources such institutions possess to address these challenges and also in enriching our understanding of the issues by seeing how people from quite different perspectives address them.