If theological education were simply broken, we could fix it. But what if it suffers from increasing irrelevance, perceived or real? Theology is not a deliverable object or commodity that can be repackaged or re-labeled. It’s not an object or a product at all. It’s a process. A subversive journey of communal engagement. A spiritual metabolizing in social embeddedness. It dislocates. It re-locates. It gives and it takes. It comforts and discomforts. It exposes and embraces. It breaks and it heals.
Educational delivery of theological content still matters greatly, but we actually have even bigger fish to fry. Take location, for example. Existentially, it feels very different whether we theologize on a campus or metabolize where people actually live and work and play. Campuses can become like strip malls – convenient to some, soul-less to others. Like it or not, many of our physical locations in theological education aren’t as helpful anymore for metabolizing as, perhaps, they once were. Suitable for talking about life; less so for doing it. Great for discussing case studies. But not for indwelling them. In the age of post-secularism, theological meaning matters most if it’s embedded socially. Let’s theologize and metabolize! Substance and transformation!
So, why has theological education itself been transformed so little? Granted, different theological convictions have emerged. But the outlook, locations, pedagogy, epistemology, pressures, economics, silos, ministry models have largely remained static. OK, the students have changed! And therein lies the rub. Can we keep preparing students who represent a changing world without changing ourselves? It seems, at times, as though we were training our graduates for some sort of parallel universe – one that is safe, dependable, cognitive and predictable. But what if “safe” and “predictable” are inexorably losing their appeal? And what if we were proactive – prophetic even – in rebooting our theological efforts? Our “consumers” aren’t wowed so easily anymore by efficiency, convenience, scalability. Good for them! Perhaps, they stopped being consumers. They are beckoning us to rediscover them as collaborators and fellow sojourners. As storied human beings, in other words, who have much to contribute and who are no longer merely looking to have quality delivered to them.
Theologize and metabolize…. For us in Minneapolis this has meant starting a new school, the Twin Cities School of Theology, AKA TwinSoT. So what’s new? To illustrate, here are some of our random “notes to self”. Here we go: Rethink as much as you can. Turn stuff upside down and test it. Do it backwards and see what happens. Write your best syllabus at the end of the course, not the beginning. Reduce the role of graded papers. You can do better than that. Negotiate assignments. Don’t tweak existing degrees when you can write new ones. Theologize in the real world, not in isolation. Find a cool downtown warehouse with lots of small businesses in it. Move there. Co-construct your content with your learners; don’t deliver it. Integrate at the highest level. Tear down the “-ology” silos. Go interdisciplinary instead. Do community like you mean it. Including volunteer work. And movies. Urban gardens and cooking. Bee keeping. Brewing beer and baking bread. Welcome diversity. It fuels your transformative fire. Refuse the conservative-liberal dualism. Refuse any dualism! Stop worrying about “products”. Think “needs” and satisfy them. Befriend VPs of Human Resources. Learn from them. Don’t own bricks and mortar. Lease space and share it with non-Christians. Low overhead is beautiful! Stay nimble. Be cool if you can’t help it. But don’t prioritize it. Make mistakes. Regroup and be better for it. Bottom line: Metabolize or exist. Choose one! You can’t have both.