What are we teaching?

It troubles me when my seniors (the M.Div. class with whom I entered seminary) can say to me that they don't feel theologically prepared. That we haven't taught them Luther, and have hardly taught them to be confessionally fluent. The present "confessional crisis" may be a bad time for this, in which pastors and congregations who have simply subscribed without becoming capable confessional theologians are easily manipulated into following agendas set by those who are capable. However, I don't think there's a good time for confessional illiteracy, least of all in a Lutheran group that claims to reach back to Luther himself and the 16th c. Reformation struggles over church to find its formative understanding of the confessional tradition.

Or that they can say to me that they don't feel that we've given them the tools to think theologically, and consequently that they've reached a point where they really could use all that theological data, but only after having gone through the process of having it dumped on them in a mode of active resistance to bad instruction! That they finally are starting to get what it is to think theologically at the end of their tenure here, and wonder why we didn't teach *that* to them in the first place!

They want to cooperate in their own education, but too late -- and it is not their fault!

I've said, in tune with James Cone and others, that the perspectives of subordinated groups must be internalized into our theology. (Not co-opted!) That they cannot simply be "bolt-ons," afterthoughts to "real theology." That we must come to see ourselves as a perspective, a theologically valuable contribution, and to set ourselves to work. But to do so, we cannot simply take our bolt-on armor and call it a HMMV! Learning to do our first works over again cannot be equated with abandoning those works and ourselves and becoming who we are not. We stand here teaching liberation and Lutheranism, but not a liberating Lutheranism. Not a confessional and Luther-literate theology that orients itself to the problems, but liberation with an apology for teaching white men alongside. And we have theologians who could -- whose work is predicated on such a creative junction! Who are trying. But my seniors tell me they feel like Luther can be set aside, so long as we hit eco-feminism in every class. This is not a way to do justice to either! (And I learned that here, too.)

I've also said that the pedagogy of dumping gobs of theology onto students actively engaged in trying to scrape them off doesn't serve our purposes. We stress-test and burn-in our ministry students in order to make them fail where we can help fix them, because we fear the consequences if they break in the real world, without capable support at hand. But we do this at the same time that we add to their stress loads by sitting them in a classroom and teaching them 300-level theology for which many of them haven't gotten past the need for 100-level instruction.

We are building houses on untested foundations, attempting to raise upper stories on top of barely-validated ground floors. We are building these houses in spite of their residents. We are demolishing their kitchens and bathrooms because by signing the application, they consented to be remodeled -- only they don't know that coming in, even the ones that think they do. And only when the project is almost complete are we telling them why, and asking them if they'd like to pitch in at sweat-equity. But the design -- the design wasn't in their hands. Even the ones who volunteer to be theologians, only get at the design by inference.

I don't know what the answer is. But I do know it's got to start with teaching our students to be theologians, and teaching them the value of the Lutheran theological perspective as a set of tools for real work. For the love of God, and for better or worse, we're a Lutheran seminary. We can turn them loose in the hardware store after that, once we have them on board as what that baptismal oath says, "fellow members of the body of Christ and workers with us for the kingdom of God." We can give them surveys of material and projects and have a reasonable expectation that they will willingly choose some part of our work as church. But to take the recruit off the street, whose desire to be of service to the church causes her to apply, and to set her to work in a dizzying field of options without training -- that is folly. The results are our fault. To set her before catalogs of materials and ask her to choose and to value them without providing the basic knowledge and experience necessary for them to become intelligible and useful, is also folly and our fault. To provide this knowledge last, and to cause to dawn in her the realization that we haven't given the information really necessary for the job on which she has been apprentice and journeyman, should tell us that there is a problem in our pedagogy. The practical training is so good here. But the theological training has such potential! We have good pastors and good theologians by the grace of God. It is hard for us to decide what pieces of theology are necessary in the short time that students are at seminary, but if we do not raise them up as independent theological minds, and fellow-workers, we make the job that much harder all around.


  1. I should say, I feel adequately prepared, but I came from Valpo's pre-sem curriculum and grew up in my father's theological library. I'm one that they look at and wonder why they don't get it, and it's not because I'm any smarter. I've just been trained. I was able to participate in my education here from day 1. It is as Rahner said, we can't expect our students to come out of a system that has already taught them to be theologically literate at the level we'd like to start from. We can't, any more than we can expect them all to be single males, or married men with wives who don't mind picking up and moving where they're told. The system has to adjust, and it's doing so, but the world keeps moving faster.


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