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.

6 comments

  1. Mabuhay ! Long live ! Reverend Donaldson ! Yes, NOT OF SCHOOL, BUT OF LIFE ! I believe that the time has come for those in the Margins of our society to be HEARD when they REFLECT upon their raw experience vis-à-vis their faith. I just experienced this visiting a prisoner in a pre-trial correctional center (a.k.a. jail !) who reflected upon the goodness and mercy of God despite of what he has done. He still experienced the love and care of God by sending good people, that is, fellow prisoners who showed kindness by sharing their scare food with him and helping him when he could not walk because of his gout ! Doing theological reflection in action ! Made me feel like a novice in theological reflection ! Thank you for sharing this reflection. Look forward to your postings ! I guess our paths have crossed a couple of times in SU activities. I am currently enrolled in DMin program.

    Fr. Luz C. Flores
    Anchorage, Alaska

  2. I really resonate with your posting ! By, the way, I am an avid follower of Paulo Freire since I was a theology student at Loyola School of Theology in Quezon City, Philippines, about some 40 years ago !

  3. Hi Dr. Donalson,
    I felt seen, heard, and lifted up in this blog post. I appreciated how you addressed our need to accept a de-centering of Western paradigms, both globally and within our learning environments. Personally, I see this de-centering as an exciting movement for (finally) recognizing the value of other perspectives and embracing them as co-creators in shaping our world. But de-centering the Western paradigm in anything is bound to be perceived as a threat by those who disproportionally benefit from this historical, colonial dynamic. So in some communities change is slow, if it happens at all. For those on the margins, this slowness is…harmful, to put it lightly.

    I appreciate your bold statement that declining enrollment may also be due to theological schools not creating curricula and learning spaces that reflect current needs. The liberating truth is that people have so many more options now. They certainly don’t need to wait for institutions to shift out of colonial paradigms. In fact, given the statistics you cited, it might be necessary for many people to realize their potential outside of traditional theological education…until there’s more of a culture shift. A lack of diverse, socially relevant materials in the classroom places the burden on students of educating their peers in a space that has no context for them, or else struggling to find “acceptable” materials and resources that align with their realities. Additionally, weak classroom skills in inclusivity invite alienation for students already experiencing multiple vulnerabilities.

    Finally, your blog post reminded me of what happened to the Matteo Ricci College (now the Matteo Ricci Institute) in 2016, when SU students became fed up with the curriculum and organized a protest. Here is a quote from the Seattle Times article regarding student perspectives during the protest:

    “At issue, they say, is a classical curriculum that focuses on Western ideas and history, in part through the teachings of philosophers such as Plato and Aristotle.

    They expected Matteo Ricci to help them knit together Seattle University’s commitment to social justice with a rigorous academic program that would leave them well-prepared for leadership and teaching careers.

    Instead, the students say, the college’s focus is too rigid and limiting, at a time when a broader understanding of the world is vital.”

    Link to the article: https://www.seattletimes.com/seattle-news/education/too-many-dead-white-dudes-seattle-u-students-protest-programs-curriculum/

    1. Schyler,

      Your thinking and and voice have a long history here at Seattle University, you do not stand alone in your analysis. When Archbishop Connolly advocated the escalation of the Vietnam conflict at the Commencement of 1969, two dozen graduates walked out without receiving their degrees. The beauty of this environment is that we have a storied tradition of students who seek to give voice to the voiceless. The environment of Seattle University is one that cultivates wholeness of students who seek to engage a more just and humane world.

      Your passion is only a sign to me that our work here at the School of Theology and Ministry is not in vain. Continue to lean into the very best of your own genius and I am positive that you will make a profound impact on both the school and the world!

  4. Indeed… what solid fear lurks under this reality? What diabolical bias drive this unholy preservation? When will the shifting miracle manifest?

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