June 25 2021

Is Theological Education Entering a Post-Christian Future? Reflections from the 2019 AAR Conference

Ramón Luzárraga, Benedictine University

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The Theological Education Committee of the American Academy of Religion chose as its topic for the 2019 Annual Meeting in San Diego, “Is Theological Education Entering a Post-Christian Future?” Historically, when the majority of people in the United States think of “theological education” or “seminary,” the assumption is that an institution of higher education, either with a current or historical sponsorship by a Christian church, is engaged in one or more programs of study to educate people for ordained or lay ministry or to prepare them for further study beyond the masters degree for an academic career.

Jewish religious groups do not have a clergy in the sacerdotal sense. Despite this, American Jewish groups established educational institutions whose structures followed the structure of a Christian seminary or university. If Americans thought of theological education in religions outside of Christianity and Judaism, it is likely, and not without reason, they would think such institutions existed overseas. Buddhists, Hindus, and Muslim communities have been present in the United States in significant numbers since the 19th century. However, it was not until the 1970s that members of these religious groups organized in sufficient numbers and marshalled the resources to found free-standing educational institutions which were separately incorporated from a temple or a mosque. As a matter of course, religious instruction was part of the curriculum. We began by asking whether these groups would imitate how Christian churches and Jewish groups structured their education along the lines of a seminary or a university with discrete areas of study encompassed by an overall degree program, or would they develop unique educational structures that would be welcomed by their peer institutions, accreditation agencies, and state educational boards, or would they develop a hybrid of the two. We agreed it would be presumptuous and ethically problematic to expect or demand religious groups outside of Christianity and Judaism to build educational institutions that would follow a traditional seminary or university model.

Our discussion was helmed by Angela Sims, the president of Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School. The speakers were Roger Green, professor of English at Metropolitan State University of Denver; Daijaku Judith Kinst, professor and chaplain at the Institute of Buddhist Studies and the Graduate Theological Union; Rachel S. Mikva, professor of Jewish studies at Chicago Theological Seminary; Viraj Patel, a doctoral student in the history of religions at the University of Chicago; Nevin Reda, assistant professor of Muslim studies at Emmanuel College of Victoria University in the University of Toronto. I, associate professor of theology at Benedictine University Mesa, was the respondent.

Roger Green’s presentation revolved around a statement written by George “Tink” Tinker, emeritus professor of native traditions at Iliff School of Theology. Tinker was invited to join the panel, but declined it on grounds of the AAR’s chronic “lack of receptivity to Indigenous-led panels and frustration that non-Indigenous scholars at times build their entire careers without understanding the emic concerns of Indigenous peoples and their traditions.” Green and Tinker argued that from the Amerindian perspective, it is impossible for theological education to become post-Christian. The paradigm of Eurochristian domination is so entrenched in the culture of the United States that any attempt to reform or replace it is another expression of that same domination. The Eurochristian worldview according to Green and Tinker provides a deep framing which marks European and North American culture as hierarchical and binary, something which “cannot be escaped by atheistic rejection, denominational restructuring, or personal disavowal.” Therefore, any educational project developed by historically Christian seminaries is viewed with deep suspicion as another means of erasing Amerindian identity and their work to rediscover and revive their traditions and identity, because those institutions cannot help but produce new theological movements out of its Eurochristian frame.

Daijaku Judith Kinst, considering the plural makeup of our meeting, opted to not go into a “deep dive” of this question in light of Buddhist faith and practice. Instead, she began by asking a question parallel to that brought up by Green and Tinker: “What assumptions and what context underlie and frame this question and how do they shape any answer we would give?” Kinst argues that the term “theological” is problematic for Buddhists because it assumes an understanding of the divine that Buddhists do not share. It privileges Christianity by making it the reference point against which other religious traditions are to be compared. Consequently, “theological” as a concept would include certain trajectories of inquiry and exclude others. Full religious dialogue could not be had. She preferred the term “Dharmalogical,” because it recognizes that Dharma is central and the basis for all Buddhist religious inquiries, but that word would not be suitable for religious contexts outside Buddhism.

Kinst turned to a possible solution. If scholars of religion allowed the term “theological” to be expanded beyond its original Christian meaning to be defined as “the careful study and critique of the texts, teachings, and practices of a sacred tradition and an exploration of the ways in which they are applicable to lived experience,” then the practice of theology would be understood as having been in existence prior to Christianity. Then, it could include all religious traditions on an equal footing. Kinst identified this as theological study transformed into a “multi-nodal model of dialogue that does not privilege any one tradition and also does not denigrate or erase it…a consortium model that creates a dynamic field of exploration in which the understanding of all involved is enriched and deepened.”

Rachel Mikva argued that the transformation of theological education afoot in North America is the replacing of a historically dominant model with many alternatives. She focused her remarks on one of those alternatives, speaking from her own experience: the integration of non-Christian faculty and students in historically Christian schools. In her case, she works as a professor of Jewish studies in an historically Christian, United Church of Christ seminary. Mikva offered four reasons for the development of this alternative, cautioning that this list is not exhaustive. First, with the demographic decline of Christian churches in the United States and the loss of students studying for ministry, seminaries are adapting by introducing programs to attract a broader student body and donor base. Second, the perennial problem of interreligious conflict and the necessity to maintain and expand interreligious dialogue for the common good has motivated seminaries to establish programs where religions are not simply objects of study, but are also practiced by human subjects with whom relationships are fostered for the common good. Third, the establishment of relationships with persons who practice different religions deepens spiritual formation. According to Mikva, boundaries are transformed from barriers between faiths into meeting places of encounter with other faiths. Students benefit by becoming more conscious of how they embody their own religious tradition. This is achieved through their gaining a dual perspective of viewing their tradition from outside as well as within. Encounters such as these enable students to refine their ideas about religion and their own religious identities. Fourth, seminaries who transform their educational programs along these lines would better serve their students by educating them better to understand and thrive better in a world marked by increasing religious pluralism.

Viraj Patel opened his remarks by asking whether the sunset of theological education as we know it is being mistaken for a beautiful dawn of something new. To address that question, Patel argues that we must clarify the difference between theology and religious studies. The former has methodologies which date to the European medieval epoch, while religious studies is of more recent vintage, namely 19th century Germany, and is a product of the European Enlightenment. This would serve as a first step in creating institutional spaces for professors of theology or religious studies from religions other than Christianity. But Patel then turned to a challenge theology and religious studies as practiced in Europe and the United States presents to Hindu religion scholars. Scholars of other religious traditions can stand “disconnected” from the traditions they practice when they conduct theological or religious studies. On the other hand, Hindu studies are never objective. For example, people training to be Swami cannot disconnect academic study from their personal formation. This means that their work is not respected in religious studies. Hindu scholars of religion, Patel argues, pay a professional price for the nature of their work. The work to create institutional space for Hindus here would be a challenge, the first among many.

Nevin Reda retrieved the work of Sajida Jalazai to make the argument that mapping Islamic theological education onto a historically Christian intellectual infrastructure can yield something new. Reda envisions not a post-Christian future, but a dynamic interreligious context that can serve to revitalize theological education for all churches and religions involved.

Reda proceeded to center theological education around three key concepts from the Prophet Muhammad as articulated in the Hadith of Gabriel. The first is islām, which literally means wholeness-making, peacemaking, wellbeing-making and safety-making. Muhammad explains islām in terms of practice: uttering the testimony of faith, praying, fasting, giving charity, and pilgrimage, otherwise known as the five pillars of Islam. The “practice” dimension is associated with the discipline of Sharia, or rather fiqh (jurisprudence), the human interpretation of Sharia, which in Islamic contexts has both a legal and an ethical dimension. The second term is imān—belief. This dimension is associated with the discipline of kalām, which is often translated as dialectical or discursive theology into English, and denotes theology in conversation with others, whether they be of other religious traditions or whether they be different sects and persuasions within the fold of Islam. The third term, ihsān, means perfection of faith, beauty, and goodness. This dimension is associated with the discipline of taṣawwuf (Sufism), which was historically studied in institutions such as the khānqāh, zāwiya, ribāṭ, and dergah, in contradistinction to the madrasa, where jurisprudence was studied. Reda then turned to Sufism, which possesses a theological dimension and studies some of the same subject matter found in other branches of Islamic theological thought; however, there is an important distinction. Whereas kalām is theology in conversation with others, Sufism is theology in relation to God.

Reda concluded that Emmanuel College’s classification of its curriculum into Bible, history, theology, and pastoral disciplines, and its required courses in the study of sacred texts, the teachings and tenets of faith, the history of faith tradition, and moral tenets or faith-based ethics, have their counterparts in the Islamic tradition. This mapping could yield a fruitful dialogue amongst students and faculty in their studies.

I respond as a Roman Catholic theologian, focused on potential points of dialogue between Christian theology and the theologies or faith traditions of the religions it encounters. Beginning with Green’s and Tinker’s argument, I question their insistence of the rigidity of the Euroamerican framework of the received Christian tradition, and its inability to create with Amerindian traditions something new. Due to constraints of space I shall offer one example of this: Black Elk, the Lakota Sioux holy man who became a catechist in the Roman Catholic Church. Damien Costello, using the same postcolonial theory Green and Tinker use in their argument, demonstrates how Black Elk’s conversion was not an abandonment of his Lakota identity, but was in continuity and built on the dynamics of Lakota culture. His Catholic faith, with its sacramental and liturgical worldview which enable it to incarnate itself in any culture, enabled Black Elk the catechist to challenge the domination Green and Tinker oppose. When I read Tinker’s work, he broadly reminds me of José Carlos Mariátegui. The latter sought to critically retrieve an indigenous Marxism to liberate his native Peru. Tinker wishes to make a critical retrieval of Amerindian tradition to do the same. Why can’t a popular, incarnated, indigenized popular expression of Catholic faith be an allied resource for his work? Black Elk is one of many examples found in the Americas of a popular Catholic Christianity which, despite the hierarchical nature of its Church, enabled Amerindian peoples in this hemisphere to take a religion brought to this continent with conquistadors, and make it their own. They did so, not apart from the Catholic Church, but with a great deal of autonomy regarding their lived experience of the faith which bishops either may or may not have liked, but had to respect.

Daijaku Judith Kinst’s vision of a reformulated understanding of the theological has already been practiced in a significant way in dialogues between Buddhist and Roman Catholic monks. She was correct to point out the main limitation of those dialogues, that full agreement on the understanding of the divine cannot be had. Even the word “divine,” which in the West usually implies belief in a personal transcendent God, would not work for Buddhists. Despite this limitation, the shared experiences of monastic discipline and practice is an example of a node of dialogue of which she speaks, and perhaps their example could lead Christians and Buddhists to discover other such nodes.

Rachel Mikva’s talk reveals that Christian seminaries and freestanding graduate theologates are dividing themselves into two groups. One group is taking the route of schools like Chicago Theological Seminary or the Catholic Theological Union, hiring faculty and recruiting students who practice a religion other than Christianity. The other group, which would include nearly all Roman Catholic seminaries and several Protestant seminaries (for example, my own master’s alma mater, Yale Divinity School), have chosen to remain exclusively Christian in the practice of their mission. In Catholic academic circles, the dialogue Mikva articulates has been done in the decades since Vatican II by theology or religious studies departments in Catholic universities.

Mikva’s reasoning for seminaries expanding their curriculum—faculty and student outreach—is sound and there is little to object to the noble goals she articulates. Here, I bring in Dr. Reda’s program for theological study as a potential blueprint which could complement Mikva’s framework in order to create a new academic convivencia which could outshine those historical moments when Jewish, Muslim, and Christian scholars worked together. This vision could be strengthened if the three Abrahamics faiths critically retrieved their respective philosophical traditions, although Reda cautions that philosophy is not studied in come Sunni circles. Despite this challenge, such moves could serve, too, as a concrete means to dialogue to the point one can bring the Hindus and Buddhists in as equal partners.

On the other hand, Catholic and Protestant seminaries and theologates could reasonably eschew Mikva’s or Reda’s vision because they do not see either ecumenical or interreligious dialogue as their primary educational mission. In 1993, The Pontifical Council for Christian Unity released its “Directory for the Application of Principles and Norms on Ecumenism.” This council addressed how seminaries ought to apply the principles and norms of ecumenism in the formation of priests. They directed that a course on ecumenism come toward the end of the overall course of study, so that the seminarian can use his theological education to contextualize what he learns in that class. Lecturers and experts from other religious traditions can be invited to speak, but their being hired onto the faculty is not spoken of because they would not be able to secure permission to teach from the local bishop or from Rome. Paramount to the seminary or theologate’s mission is “the continuing Catholic character of the institution in question as well as its right and duty to form its own candidates and to teach Catholic doctrine according to the norms of the Church.” (Directory for the Application of Principles and Norms on Ecumenism, sec 81). If ecumenical dialogue with fellow Christians is restricted in this way in a Catholic seminary, one can also conclude that interreligious dialogue is restricted in a similar fashion, if not more. The Congregation for Clergy’s document The Gift of Priestly Vocation, released in December 2016, makes no reference to ecumenical and interreligious dialogue in seminary formation. The Catholic Church has long declared the importance of ecumenical and interreligious dialogue, but not at the expense of places where this church can do its own thinking and formation. Their concern about Mikva’s or Reda’s respective visions would be that interreligious study and dialogue would marginalize the core mission of the study of Christian theology and practice for the education and formation of clergy and lay ministers.

I agree with Viraj Patel that the distinction between theology and religious studies should be made clear. Our shared concern is centered on a partial agreement that theology has a subjective dimension in contrast to religious studies. Theology is when a scholar of religion commits to believe and practice the faith being studied. Religious studies requires no such commitment on the part of the scholar. The Christian, unlike what Patel argues about Hindu thought, believes that one can critically stand outside one’s faith and its theology thanks to our championing philosophy which helps gives us the method to do that. His call for theological study to make space for Hindu scholars and their wholly subjective approach to religion would be a challenge. How can one evaluate or assess academic progress? One cannot grade spiritual development. Perhaps philosophy can help here too?

If what we are discussing here is to become a reality, it requires Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, and other scholars being in close proximity, already in active dialogue, to develop this grand convivencia of scholarship and life together. As our participants have demonstrated, the existing theological consortiums in Berkeley, Chicago, and Toronto, as well as other places, are in the best position to do this. Their home cities are religiously plural, which would yield and attract from elsewhere qualified faculty and students. These consortiums already have the academic infrastructure and access to material resources to attempt this work. And, they work in political environments where to have that dialogue without government interference is constitutionally guaranteed, and that government is willing and able to protect the freedom to dialogue from religious militants who would try to suppress that dialogue. Similar environments for this kind of theological study could be found in countries like Australia and India. In the latter case, India needs to control Hindu militants and renew its guarantee of protecting the rights of religious minorities. However this evolves, what must continue is what we did in San Diego, stay at the table and negotiate these challenges because, as the Jesuit John Courtney Murray put it, civilization consists of people living together and talking together.