Musings on Theological Education

The traditional model for theological education in the West has for years featured a banking method of instruction. The banking model featured a sage on the stage dumping information into the assumedly empty heads of students who were expected to regurgitate the thoughts and ideas of learned professors. Somehow our institutions of higher learning have come to see knowledge as a gift bestowed by those who consider themselves knowledgeable upon those they consider to know little or nothing (Freire 2000).  Theological scholarship of a Western Anglo-Teutonic nature upholds a hegemonic view of sacred text and disinherits voices from the margins in the quest of faith seeking understanding. Much of the difficulty in moving our theological thoughts in a progressive direction is rooted in teaching methodology that upholds bias toward the supremacy of the dominant culture. Theologies are about power…. These discourses and seminary pedagogies are about the hegemony of power- the distribution and the economy of this power (Cone 2018). 

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A full eighty percent of the faculty teaching in ATS (Association of Theological Schools) accredited institutions in 2017 where white (Young 2018). Given the abundant weight of dominant voices and the overwhelming preference for the western banking model of education, seminaries and schools of theology have often been repositories for colonization. In the banking system of education, the assumptive narrative is that memorizing information and regurgitating it represents gaining knowledge that has been properly deposited, leaving little room for resistance discourse or counter-cultural critique (hooks 1994).  Perhaps one of the reasons there is a steady decline in the enrollment of most seminaries and schools of theology is that they are woefully tone deaf to the voices of those on the margins. The faculty fails to embody and reflect the reality of the communities who most engage organized religion and there is little education for critical consciousness.  While I have heard countless arguments regarding the reasons for the decline in enrollment, few are taking seriously that the pedagogy of our religious institutions is out of sync with the needs of our society.

It might serve us well to reconsider a new pedagogical framework entirely for theological education. I suggest that our programs begin to feature voices from the margins who traffic in education for critical consciousness. This pedagogy makes oppression and its causes objects of reflection by the oppressed, and from that reflection will come their necessary engagement in the struggle for their liberation (Freire 2000).  Forty-two percent of students enrolled in ATS accredited institutions self-identify as being other than the dominant culture and yet their stories are still not centered in the academic enterprise and the majority of their instruction is not by people who share their narrative (Young 2018).  How revolutionary would it be if these voices, along with women and other minoritized communities, were centered in institutions that make the classroom a democratic setting where everyone feels a responsibility to contribute to the central goal of expanding the conversation? It would be interesting to see religious education where the experience and the voice of the students was centered on par with the academic training of the professor?

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Accepting the decentering of the West globally, embracing multiculturalism, compels educators to focus attention on the issue of voice. A focus on who is speaking and who is listening rather than seeing students as passive consumers in the educative process would be transformational for many seminaries. This is the revival that is needed in the halls of religious education. Religion does change and religions do change and often that change is superficial before it is structural and systemic, but if religious education as we know it is to survive in the contemporary moment, our systems of religious education must catch up to the changes already in the making (Frazier 1974).  

Heretofore much religious education in the West has lacked integrity. While holding forth lofty aims such as freedom, equality, and justice to be central to the message of the Gospel, there has been an absolute failure to create learning environments and outcomes which reflect these very virtues. Integrity is the integration of ideals, convictions, standards, beliefs, and behaviors. When our behavior is congruent with our professed values, when ideals and practice match, we have integrity (hooks, Rock My Soul 2003). The current sociopolitical landscape is inviting religious education to a new integrity where its own praxis and pedagogy become the sight of liberating education.

Feel free to comment below!

Non schola, sed vitae,

Rt. Rev. Edward Donalson III, DMin |Director of Liturgy and Worship| Assistant Clinical ProfessorSCHOOL OF THEOLOGY AND MINISTRY | SEATTLE UNIVERSITY

Works Cited

Cone, James H. 2018. Said I Wasn’t Gonna Tell Nobody. Maryknoll: Orbis.

Frazier, E. Franklin. 1974. The Negro Church in America . New York: Schocken Books.

Freire, Paulo. 2000. Pedagogy of the Oppressed. New York: Bloomsbury.

hooks, bell. 2003. Rock My Soul. New York: Atria Books.

—. 1994. Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom. New York: Routledge.

Young, Mary H. 2018. Committee on Race and Ethnicity: Cultivating Educational Capacity Conference . Pittsburgh : The Association of Theological Schools.

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