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On What Ground?

Recognizing that this old dog was going to be expected to perform new tricks, I spent part of the last three months reading some of the literature on the nature and purpose of theological education.  It’s been a long time since my own seminary education – thirty five years to be exact – and while I have been in and out of our schools frequently as an encouraging and supportive visitor during my time of national leadership in the United Church of Christ, being immersed in a full time call to Chicago Theological Seminary represents something altogether different from my previous ministry.  Am I ready for this?   What do I bring?  What must I learn?

Nearly eighteen years ago Yale theologian David Kelsey, one of my own teachers, wrote an important book on theological education titled, Between Athens and Berlin.  In this book he surveys and assesses earlier efforts to delineate the nature and purpose of theological education, including the work of H. Richard Niebuhr in the 1950’s.  Niebuhr had posited “the increase of the love of God and of neighbor” as the core theological purpose of the church, and proposed that rather than the priest nurturing that purpose on the basis of institutional authority, and the preacher on the basis of scriptural authority, the emerging model was of the “pastoral director” guiding the community and “interpreting the mind of the community-before-God” toward the end of the increase of the love of God and of neighbor?

Kelsey’s interest here is in assessing the implications of this model for theological education.  But he also offers a critique that provides, I believe, enduring challenge for the church and its schools fifty plus years after Niebuhr’s book.  If authority is to be found in the “community-before-God,” how is the minister, the “pastoral director,” protected from, to use Kelsey’s words, “the serious threat of being taken captive ideologically as a religious sanction for a certain kind of North American middle-class life and its values?”  As American religious communities have increasingly come to see themselves as locally self-authorizing, belligerently resistant to institutional authority of any kind, and often unmoored from scriptural authority either through biblical illiteracy or self-privileging hermeneutical blinders, the threat grows.  Elsewhere I have described this as the dominance of “respectable religion” over “evangelical faith.”

Kelsey puts it bluntly, asking on what ground the minister can stand, “when such a stance is necessary, as witness to the community’s ultimate purpose to increase love for God and neighbor, or to stand over against the community’s idolatrous preoccupation with its proximate purpose to nurture community?”  It is precisely this preoccupation with the proximate purpose of the church and its ministry – nurturing community – that engendered the church’s largely ineffectual response to the idolatries of the post-9/11 world, a response that ranged from outright blessing of the American imperial project, to frightened retreat from public resistance.  On what ground, indeed, do we pastors and church leaders stand?

This question has enormous implications for theological education.  Chicago Theological Seminary seeks to be “an international force in the development of religious leadership to transform society toward greater justice and mercy, (CTS Vision Statement).  If we are to accomplish this developmental task in a church climate that is at once tending toward self-indulgence and simultaneously frightened of its apparent vulnerability, then it seems to me that helping our students identify and claim “the ground on which to stand” is crucial.

Four days into a new job with a long title and a still to be fully defined job description, it is not quite clear to me how I will contribute to this task.  What is clear is that this is a task well worth engaging not only for the sake of the church, but even more for the transformational mission toward justice and mercy that the love of God and neighbor ultimately implies.  For this reason I am exceedingly grateful for the invitation to come to CTS.  It remains unclear whether the old dog can learn new tricks.  But he is eager to try!

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