a journal of analysis and comment
advancing public understanding of religion and education
Vol. 36 No. 2
‘Going Spiritual’ and the Civic Loyalties of Theological Education:
Mentoring Future Faculty
Martha E. Stortz
A Tale of Two Cities
I situate my presentation in the midst of current conversation about higher education/theological education.1 To do that I enlist the help of a third century North African Christian apologist. Defending the emerging Christian faith against charges of simplicity and naiveté aimed at it by the classically trained "culture despisers” of his own time, Tertullian raged: “What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?!"2 Theological educators reframed the debate: “What has Athens to do with Berlin?” The revised question points to two very different models for theological education.3
Athens stands for the Greek vision of education as paideia, a training that seeks above all formation. Education conforms the soul to excellence through increasing knowledge of the Good itself. Despite Tertullian’s protests, historically Athens had quite a bit to do with Jerusalem, and paideia shaped religious learning for centuries. While the emphasis was on excellence, the focus was becoming a certain kind of scholar/theologian, one who possessed the qualities of mind and heart that counted for excellence in that role. Athens was the predominant model in medieval universities and continued to influence European universities up to the end of the 18th century.
Analogously, the difference was between merely swimming – and being a swimmer, between playing basketball – and being a basketball player. It’s the difference between knowing something and being a certain kind of knower.
Athens surfaced in the GTU Wabash-Teagle project in very intentional ways. Criteria for mentors and mentees focused on shaping a certain habitus, as Elizabeth Drescher has observed. They reflected habits of heart and mind that counted for excellence in teaching and scholarship, writing and research. Because mentees and mentors were often paired across disciplinary lines – a mentor in Reformation history paired with a mentee in systematic theology – the point of intersection was not a common body of material nor even common disciplinary skills. Rather, the focus was formation, how these present and future faculty embodied their craft.
So much for Athens.
The other model for theological education is more recent and has its roots in 19th century and the University of Berlin. Here an emphasis on rationality and critical inquiry emerged. In this tradition, inquiry is, as David H. Kelsey it in his insightful Between Athens and Berlin: The Theological Education Debate4 is critical, disciplined, and orderly. It’s worth remembering that the founders of the University of Berlin wondered whether an institution dedicated to critical inquiry should even have a divinity school. And that suspicion sent theologians and scholars of religion ever since scrambling to prove their discipline could be as “critical, disciplined, and orderly” as the more “objective” social and hard sciences, like sociology or mathematics. In this model, students learn how to engage a body of knowledge in ways that are disciplined, critical, and analytical. They develop acknowledged competencies and assessable professional skills.
Analogously, you’re not a swimmer if you can’t flip your turns or clock a decent time in the 100 yard IM. You’re not a basketball player unless you can shoot the free throw. You’re not a scholar/theologian unless you’ve published a bunch of articles in refereed journals. And you’re not a future – or even present! – faculty member unless you’ve submitted, had accepted, and presented in some scholarly guild like the American Academy of Religion.
Berlin surfaced in the Wabash-Teagle Project in precisely these ways. And here we are. If you like, we can show you assessable results of the project, complete with charts, tables, graphs, and percentages.
So much for Berlin.
A Third City?
These two models for higher/theological education, Athens and Berlin sit together very uneasily. We see the same tension in the debates between theology and religious studies, a fault-line that runs through this guild. At a place like the Graduate Theological Union, we bear the tension in our very name. Berlin surfaces in our desire to be a graduate institution for the critical study of religion; Athens appears in the descriptor theological, recognizing that we are, after all, a consortium of seminaries, schools dedicated to the formation of leaders for churches and synagogues.
In the midst of this “tale of two cities,” the Astins ask the “Big Questions,” which they define as questions of meaning and purpose, value and authenticity.5 They identify these questions of ultimate meaning as “spirituality.” This definition of “spirituality” makes a lot of sense in the “spiritual but not religious” world in which we live and move and have our being, particularly in California, where the most popular thing to do on Sunday morning is attend the Church of the ‘Latte Day Saints, hanging out at the local coffee shop, sipping a caffeinated beverage which it took a whole paragraph to order, and reading the NY or the LA Times. Online.6
So if future faculty – and those who mentor them – want to “go spiritual,” in the Astin’s sense of the word: where do they go: Athens or Berlin? I don’t think “going spiritual” finds a home in either Athens or Berlin. So if you’re going to “go spiritual,” you need another city entirely.
So in the concluding part of this presentation to address a few big – well, at least modestly large – questions of my own. They are questions of belonging, and questions of belonging are always questions of identity. We are, after all, the company we keep, whether we hang out with people or texts or ideas. First question: what is that third city to which the Astin’s “Big Questions” belong? And finally, where should the civic loyalties of future faculty belong?
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