“Theological literacy” is a topic of obvious interest to writing consultants, teachers who—along with their other duties—help students master the craft of writing. So when the Boston Theological Institute, the consortium of Boston-area graduate theological schools, gathered the writing consultants from its nine member-schools last year, they tried to define the term. They didn’t complete the assignment in a day. But Forrest Clingerman, the institute’s operations manager and editor of its newsletter, parleyed the question, “What is theological literacy?” into a twenty-five-part newsletter series, with responses to the question from faculty at the institute’s schools as well as other academics and a reporter from the Boston Globe. In Trust has selected the cream of the crop
The perspectives are diverse: “We had an ecofeminist one week and a Thomist the next,” Clingerman recalled delightedly. And interest in the newsletter, which is delivered free to the member schools, was piqued. “Faculty who hadn’t shown any interest in the paper before began to pick it up,” Clingerman said. On the other hand, making the leap from having a pile of good information to having a conversation is something that even the best of newsletters is hard-pressed to do.
by Sharon Peebles Burch
As Strother Martin said in the movie Cool Hand Luke, “What we have here is a failure to communicate.” On one side we have a seminary faculty, well trained and astute, and on the other, a congregation expert in dealing with the vicissitudes of daily life. The key to practical theology is to bring what goes on outside the classroom into the academy, and vice versa.
The fact that congregations often reject the knowledge prized by seminary faculties is reflected by the lament of my colleagues that they are required to deal with students who are a good deal less prepared for seminary training than they were in earlier years. No longer can it be presumed that congregations send students who are well acquainted with the Bible, much less with the rudiments of biblical criticism. Professors of theology face incoming students who assume their personal interpretation makes an idea Christian or not Christian. When faculties meet new students, they assume that the students know little or nothing about the disciplines that comprise seminary curriculum and consider it their task to help students dismiss their idiosyncratic ideas, introduce them to the patterns of argumentation that signal intellectual competency, and provide access to the Christian corpus in a useful way. What the students know from congregational involvement is considered more of a liability than an asset.
It is just these assumptions that constitute the rejection by seminary faculties of knowledge prized by congregations. The major contribution students bring to seminary at the outset of their training is their tacit understanding of congregational values, practices, and dynamics. Sensitivity to the congregation that formed them for ministry is part of their call. In addition to being “touched by the spirit,” and “press[ing] on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call to God in Christ Jesus,” (Phil. 4:14), they understand the rudiments of the sort of institution where they will work. Instead of being honored for the knowledge of the congregation they have, they discover their reading of scripture is thought naive, the popular bromides that suffice for theology in their home churches are considered trivial, and the single most important event in their lives, their conviction that they are called to the ministry, is not relevant to the intellectual demands of seminary disciplines. They spend their years in seminary “getting over” the very formation that brought them to the ministry in the first place.
This standoff stems from a lack of information on both sides. Seminary faculties lack access to how the developments in their disciplines affect local congregations. Time alone prohibits the kind of research it would take to track how their ideas are received, for such research would entail knowing something about the sociological and theological perspectives of the congregations they might interview, plus the practices that characterized their worship, administration, and Christian religious education. Most congregational members lack the training accurately to identify and describe how the specialized work done by scholars in a seminary relates to the way they study the Bible or understand politics or ethics.
Practical theology is redefining itself as the discipline that deals with the practices of both theological education and congregations. It is interested in the sociological profiles of a congregation and the theological perspectives embedded in a congregation’s practices. Because it is part of the seminary, its practitioners are conversant with the disciplines that nuance Christian self-interpretation and can present how they are being received and applied. At the same time, practical theology can translate to congregations' academic work as it relates to their practices.
The vitality and validity of the Christian message is expressed through the practices of believers.
Human beings regularly are called to make choices between utterly unacceptable alternatives, e.g. working mothers who cannot sacrifice jobs in order to care for sick children; elderly couples who must choose between sacrificing their estate or doing without care. These choices produce anxiety, guilt, and tension. What difference does it make that one is a Christian in the face of such problems?
There is a heroic element in the way Christian congregations, made up of laypeople who have a peculiar and idiosyncratic relation to the Christian corpus, practice their faith. The pursuit of what it means to be Christian in light of contemporary insight, discoveries, and hermeneutics by seminary faculties is an example of compelling dedication. Practical theology promises to make these resources mutually available, thereby promoting theological literacy.
Sharon Peebles Burch is professor of systematic theology and Christian education at Boston University School of Theology.
Learning Church Language
by Brant Pelphrey
Two children were pretending to read from bank brochures. The little boy told his sister, “This one’s in Chinese” and began to make “Chinese” sounds. Interestingly, he was right—the brochure was in Chinese—but of course he was making up the words.
Although I was taught to read at an early age, I became functionally illiterate in middle age when our family moved to Hong Kong, where we had to learn real Chinese. I soon found that vocabulary is only part of language. Equally important are behaviors, nuances, ways of life.
Christian friends from other cultures say that America is theologically illiterate for several reasons. On one level, Christians in America do not seem to know the basic vocabulary of Christianity. In surveys, college students place Moses on the ark and the Three Wise Men in the garden of Gethsemane. On another level, theologians use jargon that has little cultural resonance in the West. We say that Jesus Christ is the Word of God, but the deep and essential meanings of Logos that existed for the apostolic writers are missing. The same is true for Trinity, Incarnation, grace, salvation, worship, Church—concepts that were articulated in a venerable Greek language and culture foreign to Americans.
Finally, however, there is the level of understanding that moves beyond words. The living grammar of historic Christianity is one of repentance (metanoia), inner purity, kindness, wisdom (sophia), struggle (ascesis) and the discipline of self, transfiguration (metamorphosis), and the practice of interior and exterior silence (hesychia). The saints call this the language of heart (nous), in which theology is prayer and prayer is theology.
There is no theology without heart. One does not need to be Christian to know this. Recently an Apache friend said to me, “The problem with the White Man is that he has no heart.” We Orthodox would extend the analysis to include all the cosmos. The tragedy of sin is a disharmony in which the divine language common to humans, animals, and the earth itself has been lost.
Divine language was restored to humans by the incarnate Word, who gave the Apostles tongues and understanding. Yet heart is difficult to learn. It is not at home in a plethora of words, perhaps least in the contemporary jargon that the West calls “theological”—the language of criticism and speculation about God often designed to shock more than to bless. This language, grounded in rationalism and naturalism, is unfamiliar to the Church. Here contemporary theology, like the boy reading the bank brochures, plays at making up its own language. By contrast, the saints knew that the task of theologians is not to invent the word of God but to learn it.
Theological literacy is learned in the Church in the same way that children learn to read. We listen to Mother pronounce the words (in the liturgy) and observe the lives of the saints (Orthodox are helped along by “pictures,” the holy icons). To do this, Americans must inevitably translate both ancient texts and ways of life.
Sometimes help in the translation comes from unexpected sources. For me, teaching Christian spirituality in China prompted a dialogue with Tao, which helped to clarify Logos. A hermit-monk in Scotland shared the language of asceticism. Living in Cyprus gave an inkling of the ancient language, in speech and architecture and village custom. Years in the Third World emphasized reliance on God and not on American technology and wordiness.
According to the saints, divine language is best learned through shared prayer and work. One should have agerontas, an “old man” (or woman) whose life is the textbook. Although it is fashionable in the academy to speak of “mentors,” Western-style education makes spiritual mentoring virtually impossible. Can we restore the ancient practice in new settings? Are we open to the personal effort it would require?
Theological learning is intrinsically a work of community, of communion (koinonia). Americans will have a better chance of becoming theologically literate when we replace the paradigm of theological study as intellectual exercise with that of the worshiping community where students and mentors work together. This is the way of the ancient church, and theological literacy requires a dialogue with the ancient church: for it is here that we will learn the language of the church.
Brant Pelphrey, Ph.D., is adjunct professor and currently assistant to the president and academic dean of Hellenic College/Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology, Brookline, Massachusetts.
by Martin E. Marty
“Theological Literacy” can best be advanced when formal theologians more readily and more frequently find less formal genres and modes of expression than they now use to reach new publics.
HarperCollins, one of the larger publishing houses that produces works in theology, religion, and spirituality, recently made news when its spokesperson assessed that the current market for serious theology is about 13,000 people. Since many of those 13,000 are regular reviewers, many of the works of theology go directly from publisher to professor to the review pages of journals, there to repose and, usually, die uncited and unexplored.
There are sad and savage ironies here. Without question, with seminaries remaining at roughly their usual size and theology being at home in religious studies departments, with many Ph.D.s in theology “producing theology” even as they go into a variety of vocations, we can say that never in American history have there been so many active and productive theologians.
Add to this an only slightly more risky suggestion: There is a very high quality of theological refinement. Well-equipped professors in systematic, constructive, and other forms of formal theology serve as mentors to bright and ambitious newcomers. They have polished their craft and informed themselves well. Many have something to say.
Now add one more asset: The public shows evidence of having spiritual hungers and of seeking meanings and interpretations of life in almost unprecedented measurable ways. The bestselling not-very-good interpretations of life on the “spirituality” shelves of bookstores, the retreats, the conversations about the subject in mass media, all suggest that what theologians talk about, or used to talk about, or might talk about, could find a hearing, but does not.
Not long ago I asked Christian Century editorial colleagues, and they asked some of their trusted contributors: Can you name five to ten books in formal theology that one might commend to a highly educated, humanistically curious, nontheological readership? Some of the people queried had trouble coming up with one such book.
Not all theology has to be in a mode comprehensible by and attractive to a least common denominator of nontheologians. But should there not be some analogues to the writing by top scientists, medics, economists, and the like, who win Nobels in their fields and also address larger publics, to whom they explain themselves without having to dumb themselves down? Where are they?
Why the difficulty finding, or producing, or publicly relating such? One can point fingers in many directions. The ethos of the profession often forces young talents to be as obscure and uninteresting as possible if they want to get published. Anyone who ventures with an imagination or walks out onto the theological No-Person’s-Land with a bit of chutzpah gets fired at and soon ducks for the trenches, down where the footnotes lie buried and unread.
Of course, not all academics are gifted with abilities to write. Learning to write is a lifelong discipline, and full-time classroom teachers often have difficulty finding time to refine their art and craft. Some never had a chance to learn how to communicate in writing; colleges today are not always capable of teaching students how to write. Some subjects are and remain technical and difficult. Now and then one hears of academic snobbery that puts down anyone who rises up to reach publics. (That ought not to disturb any mature person, but, then again, it might). And some theological topics are necessarily arcane, better suited to the boiler room of theological schools than to the marketplace. The public’s attention wavers when you mention hermeneutics, deconstruction, structuralism, and post-anything, yet theology must address some elements of the cultural current.
All that aside, the God-topic demands attention and deserves clear expression. The profession has to put a premium on clarity and directness if it wants to get out of the corners and niches where the larger culture places it. We who make our living off theology have to be mutually supportive. We may have to learn some rules of the game about genre by reading the fiction, poetry, imaginative literature, and “public” essays from which the religious public now gets or deduces its theology.
Not all problems of “theological literacy” are the fault of a willfully blind, stupid, or dismissive public. We in the profession have to do some fundamental re-casting, re-framing, and re-aiming if we wish to fulfil more parts of our vocation.
Martin E. Marty is Fairfax M. Cone Distinguished Service Professor at the University of Chicago and director of the Public Religion Project.