November 30, 2010 / Theology
This essay is neither for nor against Glenn Beck. The philosopher Michel Foucault warns us …
June 27, 2008
Being Relevant May Be Irrelevant
A survey of the literature on contemporary theological education, and what’s wrong with it, has several persistent themes, which on the surface seem somewhat contradictory. One is that seminaries—or “schools of theology”—are becoming largely “irrelevant” to the practice of ministry and ministerial leadership. The other is that seminaries are increasingly asked to do too much and thus suffer from what in the military and to some degree in organizational theory is termed “misson creep,” the overextension of an institution’s goals and projects after the initial and relatively modest ones with which it started out have proven successful.1
Unfortunately, the criticism has not been confined to theological education. For almost two generations now higher learning in general, and American higher learning in particular, has been conscripted into the global service of the rapidly expanding knowledge imperium; this demands better inculcated and more polished recruits with the proper condominia of both practical training and theoretical sophistication. Theological education, which has evolved from the kind of metalearning that it represented during the Middle Ages to the foundational field it became in early Protestant colleges and universities to the specialized and technically advanced church-professional set of disciplines into which it morphed in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries, is now undergoing a fourth crisis of self-definition as well as a broader shift in scope and vision. While earlier shifts resulted from the changing nature of knowledge itself, the current struggle has grown out of the rapidly changing nature of Christianity itself (along with the church). The relevance, or irrelevance, of theological education today has less to do with what is learned, including the methodological criteria for what might be considered appropriate knowledge. More than ever it has to do with how a limitless fund of knowledge and the skills for generating that knowledge are eventually applied in a practical or professional setting, especially when that setting seems limitless and undefined.
The crisis of theological education ultimately stems from Christians who aim to become professional leaders in a world where Christianity itself is increasingly deinstitutionalized, and its leaders are rapidly becoming deprofessionalized. Again, this trend is not unique. It is integral to what has generally come to be known as the “postmodern predicament.” The postmodern predicament is one in which there are no longer discrete and recognizable “worlds” from which to derive discrete and recognizable “worldviews” that might serve to legitimate certain institutional structures, protocols, processes, and patterns of leadership. With regard to knowledge, the postmodern predicament, as philosophers and social commentators such as Jean-Francois Lyotard have routinely observed, is characterized by having less clearly defined warrants for making epistemological assertions.2 The postmodern predicament refers also to the fluidity and mobility of boundaries for the kind of expertise that certifies knowledge claims themselves. The components of the postmodern knowledge base are at once global, populist, pragmatic, antitraditionalist, hyperspecialized, and intricately interconnected.
The principles for the application of such knowledge are equally diffuse and protean. The digital communications revolution has created, as I have argued elsewhere, a global and largely unbounded “knowledge space.”3 This space of knowledge is what the French philosopher Gilles Deleuze has termed its “rhizomic” capacity for uncharted and interdependent trajectories of growth. Networks join up with networks to generate dizzying and rapidly changing constellations of relevance. Information is transmitted intensively, explosively, and “virally,” as Jean Baudrillard puts it. These kaleidoscopic rotations of information aggregates—whether we are talking about the London day-trader whose financial software transmits blips around the world that send the price of soybean futures skyrocketing or the Pakistani imam whose instantly disseminated internet da’wa inspires free-lance jihadists to bomb a nightclub in Indonesia—are routinely reshaping the cultural, political, social, and religious landscape like tides, storms, and strong wind blasts that constantly move and mold the dunes along an ocean beach.
Following the beach analogy, we might say that theological education historically and habitually has sought to provide a big, bright umbrella to shield spiritually delicate souls from their ever challenging environment. Such an education often reflects the view of Christian learning as a quiet haven from the cacophony of social messages and a retreat site from the extremities of the culture wars. On the flip side, much of mainline Protestant theological education from the late 1960s to the present became an invitation not only to beard the elements, but to go skinny-dipping in broad daylight. In other words, theological education was bent on becoming relevant, an open-ended commitment which sacrificed the integrity of the theological dimension of the curriculum on the altar of pop-cultural acceptability. The sixties rush toward relevance among mainline Protestants had more to do than many realize in driving those denominations toward eventual irrelevance; this, combined with the loss of membership and influence, gave a wide berth for the evangelical revival that followed a decade later. Unfortunately, many trend-sensitive evangelicals, a large portion of whom have joined at the hip such terms as emergent with relevant, are making the same mistake all over again. The issue in theological education is not what particular culture or cultural sector one either sides with or seeks to “engage.” In H. Richard Niebuhr’s terminology, the Christ against culture of conservative sectarianism can easily capsize and go bottoms-up as little more than a new and improved version of the Christ of culture, especially if that culture is appealing to a particular constituency that has drifted away from the church as we know it.
A postmodern theological education is both relevant and irrelevant in the same breath. Or to put the matter more mischievously, it has to steep itself in its own irrelevant classical particularities in such a strategic manner that it is able to engage, critique, and transform the culture in a way that is genuinely relevant. An analogy can be found in what is frequently muttered, sometimes to the point of cliché, about the value of a liberal arts background. A liberal arts education that is focused on its own content and conventional priorities rather than the broad and complex interaction of specific knowledge and skill sets which empowers a person to pursue lifelong learning is neither “liberal” nor a serious education. Education is not necessarily about learning anything. It is about equipping and forever re-equipping to learn. Likewise, theological education that concentrates on what pastors or church professionals are supposed to know, especially when the character of church itself is undergoing dramatic upheavals, can quickly become outdated or inconsequential. As George Barna has tirelessly reminded us recently, most self-proclaimed Christians in the upcoming decades will not even “go to church,” and those that do will concoct an addled array of house fellowships, situational or street ministries, or experimental networks and styles of “gathering” that barely resemble familiar examples of church.
Theological education must be de-linked from the classical curricular paths that were designed for the machine-minting of Christian professionals to serve in what are effectively a variety of either entrepreneurial or corporate-style faith organizations in which a customized or niched product (e.g., Bible-church worship focused largely on the entertainment value of the Sunday morning Jesus show for the entire family, or emergent-casual sorts of meet-up modalities involving candles and sandals instead of bells and smells) is carefully designed for the consumer preferences of their clientele. In the same way that many foresighted pundits in higher education almost a generation ago concluded that a solid, diversified, and current event-sensitive (i.e., not necessarily classical) portfolio of coursework in the liberal arts was just as valuable for cultivating future business leaders as an instantly obsolete regimen of technical preparation, so the accepted wisdom may be shifting gradually away from regarding theological studies as background research and apprenticeship for jobs that will be relatively rare in the future and more toward a view of the enterprise as a kind of master knowledge for infusing Christ into the culture, no matter what our professional, parachurch, or cryptochurch occupations. The motto in business education gradually became something like “get a good education that makes you capable of lifelong learning; then learn the specifics on the job.” Likewise, the keynote in theological education in the future should be “learn who Christ is and how he is constantly transforming culture; then find a way to put your own talents to use as his accomplice.”
Revolutionary and Rhizomic
This particular take on theological education, of course, assumes a radically different perspective on the nature of both Christian community and Christian leadership than even many “counter-cultural” luminaries are probably willing to acknowledge. It presupposes a sea change, what Barna terms the “revolution” that is taking place on planet Christian. Barna’s take on the revolution is more demographic and pollster-like than other equally prescient assessments. “Revolutionaries,” he notes by way of generalization, “have no use for churches that play religious games, whether those games are worship services that drone on without the presence of God or ministry programs that bear no spiritual fruit. Revolutionaries eschew ministries that compromise or soft sell our sinful nature to expand organizational turf.”5 Barna’s emphasis is personal integrity and Christian commitment in the midst of all the consumer-driven wants and demands on our life. But it also implies a new organizational metaphor that does not refer to any specific organization. “Every Revolutionary I have interviewed,” Barna writes, “described a network of Christians to whom he or she relates regularly and a portfolio of spiritual activities which he or she engages in on a regular basis. This schedule of relationships and ministry efforts is the Revolutionary equivalent of traditional congregational life.”6
In my forthcoming book GloboChrist, I argue that these networks are spreading all around the world.7 Like the internet, they are vast, infinitely articulated, and ever-changing threads of connectivity, filaments of “relationality” in which Christ is always present, regardless of the cultural, economic, or even the religious setting. What we call ministry is simply making Christ “incarnational,” as Michael Frost and Alan Hirsch call it, through these networks of relationality in what openings or opportunities God puts before us.8 It is what Hugh Halter and Matt Smay in their new book refer to as the “tangible kingdom” or “incarnational community.”9 It is what I would name a global, relational, and transformative network that is both Christ-infused and God-grounded, drawing to itself all other worldly networks and relationships. It is a rhizone, a zone of Spirit-fed connectivity and relationality made up of ever-expanding, contracting, and intertwining activities and life-sharing of Christ-followers. Just as, according to the old saw, a house is not always a home, so a church is not always a place, or even an organization for that matter. The word church derives directly from the Greek kyriou, a genitive possessive form which means literally “that which is the Lord’s.” So what we call the church is simply the manner in which Christ is using the different occasions and our affiliations to reshape the world in accordance with his eschatological purpose and to conform our own both scattered and interconnected lives to his image.
Theological education is comparable to what in the computer business is known as network engineering. A network engineer needs to understand how the guts of a computer work, but even more importantly, she or he is required to design and implement novel, creative architectures for sharing and processing complex configurations of information with different spatial distributions and topographies. Similarly, someone with a seminary degree needs to know how to read and interpret the Bible (even in its original languages), to be familiar with the history of Christianity, and to have facility in the kind of faith-based intellectual reflection we know as theology. But more importantly, they should understand how to begin to deploy those base competencies in a multitude of interpenetrable contexts. As Dr. James Muilenberg, a famous Old Testament professor of a now bygone era, used to put it: “There are basically two things you have to read every morning if you’re going to minister—the Bible and the newspaper.” We have to learn how to read the Bible, but we also have to figure out how to read the “newspaper,” or in this day and age the online news and blogs.
It has been said too often that we are now in a post-Christian world. A better phrasing would be a post-churched world. Ironically, that may be what Christ really had in mind when he enunciated what has come to be called The Great Commission. Jesus said “go and make disciples of all nations,” not “go find a good location to start churches.” The difference is not all that subtle. As disciple-making disciples we need to be gearing our theological studies toward becoming makeover artists in redesigning our Father’s house, not plodding toward one day becoming junior partners in the management of his firm.
1. For example, see Louis Weeks, “Overextended: The Increasing Demands on Seminaries,” The Christian Century (February 20, 2007), 26-31.
2. This argument is the gist of Jean Francois Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge (Minneapolis MN: University of Minnesota Press, 1984). Reputedly it is the book in which the term postmodernism as a descriptor for current intellectual trends is used for the first time.
3. The idea of a global “knowledge space” is developed in my book The Digital Revolution and the Coming of the Postmodern University (London: Routledge/Falmer, 2002).
4. See George Barna, Revolution (Wheaton IL: Tyndale House, 2005).
5. Barna, 13-14.
6. Barna, 116.
7. Carl Raschke, GloboChrist: The Great Commission Takes A Postmodern Turn (Grand Rapids MI: Baker Academic Books, 2008).
8. See Michael Frost and Alan Hirsch, The Shaping of Things To Come: Innovation and Mission for the 21st Century Church (Peabody MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 2003).
9. Hugh Halter and Matt Smay, The Tangible Kingdom: Creating Incarnational Community (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2008).
Carl Raschke is professor of religious studies at the University of Denver, specializing in continental philosophy, the philosophy of religion, and the theory of religion. He is an internationally known writer and academic who has authored numerous books and hundreds of articles on topics ranging from postmodernism to religion, popular culture, and technology.