Fostering Theological Inquiry When We Disagree:

A Dispatch from the Front

 by Douglas Ottati
Pemberton Professor of Theology & Ethics
Union Theological Seminary (Richmond)

Paper Presented at the 1998 Covenant Conference
November 6, 1998

This afternoon, I want to talk a little bit about fostering theological inquiry, and in particular, fostering it at our theological seminaries, but not only there. And I realize that this may seem like a rather abstract and even bland topic; and so I want to begin by indicating why I think it’s important.

Theology Matters

A friend of mine who has been a pastor at the same Presbyterian church for more than twenty years told me that a couple of months ago, he was with some of his members and he asked one of them what she liked about the church. And she said, “There’s no thought control.”

This past weekend, I was with a number of members of a church outside of Washington, D.C. with their annual retreat, and at one point, the grown daughter of a Presbyterian minister said that she had always felt that Presbyterian churches are places where you can ask questions, even ones that make some people feel a touch uncomfortable.

Neither of these two people, is a trained theologian, but they both have a point: Theology matters. It matters because it tries to help people and communities interact with current situations and realities in a manner that is faithful to God. It matters because it tries to help us picture God, the world, and ourselves. Reformed theology has never been beholden to a single hierarchy or authoritative teaching office, and God willing, it never will be. It affirms creeds and confessions, but as subordinate standards that are subject to error, and which invite us to interpret the Scriptures.

Moreover, we Presbyterians today work with a family of doctrinal standards, rather than just one. That is precisely because theology matters. Reformed Christianity often has spawned wide-ranging and vigorous theological conversations rather than narrowly restricted monologues — although it’s got its share of those, too.

Historically, this has led to rather regular disagreements and debates about everything from the authority of Scripture to the relationship of Church and State, speaking of revisions in Westminster early and often, the priority of grace, slavery, the ordination of women, marriage and divorce, the presence of Christ in the Eucharist, civil rights, nuclear armaments, feminism, the inclusiveness of the Church, and more.

Of course, if theology matters, then it follows that so does theological education. For one thing, seminaries prepare ministers and educators for the Church, and so the nature of this preparation affects the congregations and the courts of our Church. It influences the sorts of questions people feel as if they can raise and ask and talk about. It helps to shape the sorts of theological conversations that our congregations invite and sustain in the midst of their worship, ministry, and witness.

So this afternoon I want to talk about fostering theological inquiry and, in particular, fostering it at our theological seminaries. But the topic is important because finally it has to do with more than our seminaries. Finally it has to do with the sorts of theological conversations that can and shall take place in our churches.

 Our Current Ecclesial-Cultural Context

Each of our ten theological institutions is shaped by its own distinctive history and core constituents. This makes it difficult to generalize about Presbyterian theological education.

At the same time, all of our Presbyterian schools are committed to a longer tradition of theological inquiry, and all find themselves having to act on this historic commitment within the rather contentious contemporary climate of the Presbyterian Church (USA). So, in its own way, each Presbyterian seminary confronts a signal question: How shall we foster and sustain vigorous theological inquiry in the midst of serious disagreements?

Despite occasional appearances to the contrary, no PC(USA) seminary is an island. Each of the seminaries is tied to the denomination, its courts, congregations, and members for doctrinal standards, money, students, placement, and more. This is why the challenges that confront us as we try to foster and sustain theological inquiry cannot be adequately understood apart from our current ecclesial-cultural context.

Three features of this wider context seem especially important for our purposes here: ecclesiastical pragmatism, institutional erosion, and a polarized ethos.

1. Pragmatic ecclesiastical leadership

Since the foundation of the Republic, no American has been constrained by the State to support a church either by mandatory membership or by taxation. The churches have therefore had to attract the voluntary participation and financial support of their members.

As a consequence, ecclesiastical leaders in America have proven remarkably sensitive to and engaged in the interests, values, and concerns of their lay constituents. Ministers in America spend an awful lot of time with laypeople. It’s in part because they’re good people; but it’s also because every Sunday, there’s a kind of referendum on the way things are going. And that doesn’t happen if you’re an established church..

Congregations have emphasized participatory programs in everything from governance to stewardship to worship, education, and mission as an emblem of church life in America. They have also furnished services such as age-specific social events, marriage counseling, and athletics. At the seminaries, this pragmatic bent supports an emphasis on the tasks of ministry such as preaching, teaching, pastoral care, counseling, administration, and fundraising. It requires that theological inquiry and reflection be disciplined by genuine attention to ecclesial practices, and that’s a good thing.

However, it sometimes also leads to something that’s not so good. It sometimes also leads us to devalue serious theological reflection as an academic and abstract enterprise that is largely beside the point, an ancillary head trip removed from the real-life blood and guts of ministry.

2. Institutional erosion

The second point in our current cultural context is institutional erosion. Mainstream churches once relied on a circle of interlocking agencies and communities to educate their members and to foster theological conversation and inquiry. Families engaged in regular Bible study and devotions; public schools contributed to the formation of Protestant values, beliefs, practices, and attitudes.

Congregations furnished regular services of worship as well as regular occasions for religious instruction. Church-related colleges and universities probed mainstream theological heritages and perspectives in dialogue with arts, sciences, and humanities. University divinity schools, denominational and free-standing seminaries offered advanced training for ministers, church professionals, and theological educators. Indeed, much of the finest theological scholarship was supported by the universities. Church-related journalism offered regular discussions of current issues and advanced the mainline perspectives.

Today, these institutions have changed, and some have dropped out of the circle altogether. A variety of economic and cultural pressures have rendered the family a beleaguered community, particularly when it comes to passing on heritages and traditions. Serving plural constituencies as well as the exigencies of the modern economy, public schools have adopted a non-religious stance. Responding to the cosmopolitan objectives of their constituents, as well as to the cultural utility and prestige of autonomous, “nonsectarian” inquiries, many church-related colleges and universities no longer attempt to advance particular theological heritages and perspectives. Instead, they support departments of religion whose chief aim often is to foster an area of study that fits in the rest of the university. The consequent decline in theologically literate readership has contributed to a decline in significant church-related journalism, and where such journalism does survive, its basic audience has been reduced almost entirely to church professionals.

The erosion of ecclesial educational and interpretive institutions means that when it comes to theological inquiry and conversation, Presbyterians and others today look almost exclusively to the congregations and the seminaries. Indeed, as more and more colleges and universities turn toward religious studies, the task of fostering explicitly normative and Christian theological scholarship falls increasingly to the seminaries. But for a few notable exceptions, there is simply no one else left to do it.

3. A polarized ethos

A third feature of our wider context is a polarized ethos. A widespread polarization in American life between conservatives, who are committed to traditional attitudes and institutions, and progressives, who want to revise these attitudes and realities, constitutes a major axis of cleavage in contemporary American Protestantism.

The divide has deep roots. Americans today typically live and move amidst a dizzying plurality of perspectives on human life, society, and the world. We also operate within the context of a relatively common, standardizing, and mobile cosmopolitan culture. Interstate highways, fast food franchises, corporate strategic plans, and indistinguishable airports all make for the “McDonald’s-ization” of American culture.

In our daily activities,. our discussions and debates, we find ourselves interacting with persons and communities whose outlooks are variously influenced by diverse affiliations, experiences, and ethnic backgrounds, as well as by different religious and political commitments. Regular contact and communication with different groups, their varied languages, vocabularies, outlooks, and practices can challenge and erode the distinctive orientation and identity of any particular person and community. So can regular participation in institutions, roles, and practices that tend to relegate more particular ethnic, local, and religious traditions to a largely private and elective sphere.

Indeed, our identities often are rendered precarious by constant pressures toward compromise and eclecticism. This is the buzzing confusion from which conservative demands for distinct and traditional identity emerge with heightened intensity.

But on the other hand, Americans today also live and move amidst globally linked economic and political realities, vulnerable natural ecologies, and increasingly interdependent and powerful technologies. We confront new possibilities and limits that insinuate themselves into even our most personal choices about sex, children, and care for aging parents. We confront troubling moral questions about severe economic disparities, international compromise and cooperation, the distribution of medical technologies, food, and more. We also confront the proliferation of relatively inexpensive and highly destructive weapons. Almost no American physician, autoworker, parent, stockbroker, farmer, student, soldier, executive, pilot, truck driver, airline passenger, or office worker is entirely unaware of these things.

And under these conditions, our traditional, inherited, and more locally-bounded horizons, attitudes, and institutions regularly are subject to reevaluation and revision. How shall we understand the family in a mobile society where there are increased educational and employment opportunities for women, and where medical technologies have significantly increased our life expectancies?

How shall we understand the business corporation within an interdependent, global, and multinational environment? How shall governments understand their national interests in a post-Cold War, multi-polar world? Or again, how shall churches understand salvation and religious truth in a world of many faiths?

This is the increasingly intricate, encompassing, and influential web from which progressive demands for relevant interpretation, engagement, and revision emerge with a heightened intensity.

Let me summarize a reading of our current ecclesial-cultural context this way. Conservative demands for distinct identity and progressive demands for relevant engagement and revision often come into conflict. Furthermore, when it comes to theological inquiry and conversation within our eroded institutional framework, these conflicting impulses often compete for the highly limited and strained institutional resources of seminaries and congregations. They support a strong, if also a rather tense, interest in the theological positions of ministers, seminary faculty, and students alike. At the same time, however, the pragmatic bent of ecclesiastical leadership often undercuts commitments to serious theological conversation, scholarship, and reflection.

Reformed Theology

To this we should add the following observation. Reformed theology has good reasons to value both conservative and progressive impulses. The confession that we belong to the one God who creates and redeems, that sin’s corrupting power is both radical and universal, that the true meaning of Jesus the Christ is redeeming grace and transformation, and that genuine faithfulness is a living-for-others within God’s universal commonwealth of justice and love, is a historic treasure borne by a particular community as subject to corrosive forces as any other.

We will not be faithful if we neglect this confession, and we cannot plausibly expect people to know what it means or to be formed in its convictions simply in virtue of participating in the dizzying plurality and standardizing popular culture of American society. Indeed, we may reasonably expect the integrity of any particular tradition to be challenged. In this sense, the conservatives are right. We need to attend to our received tradition, and we ought to be especially concerned about the intentional formation in persons of a distinctly Reformed piety and confession.

At the same time, our distinctly Reformed confession holds that our present circumstance is providential rather than merely accidental, and that genuine faithfulness is a living-for-others in God’s world. We shall not be faithful witnesses if we neglect the meaning of these convictions in our own place and time. Moreover, we cannot plausibly expect the mere repetition of past traditions automatically and adequately to address the altered patterns and expectations of life in our highly pluralistic, technological, and globally linked society. Neither can we plausibly expect people not to take up or adopt some interpretation, posture, attitude, or stance in response to our compelling circumstance.

In this sense, the progressives are right. We should be especially concerned to interpret theologically and engage faithfully the intricate and expansive interdependencies that characterize our contemporary world.

Interestingly, however, double endorsement also implies double criticism. Progressives are correct to maintain that faithful participation in God’s all-inclusive reign requires that we interpret and engage the threatening and promising realities of our global and cosmopolitan circumstance. Left to its own devices, however, the progressive impulse often underestimates the identity-diffusing and corrosive dimensions of our pluralistic situation as well as the ability of cosmopolitan societies to deaden the sense that there is a God in relation to whom we should order our many activities and involvements.

Conservatives recognize these challenges and appropriately call for renewed commitment to the strategic formation of Christians in a historically distinctive community and its particular piety. Left to its own devices, however, the conservative impulse often fails to recognize that the integrity of Reformed piety and faith requires us to engage our contemporary world in a manner that may lead us to question and even revise inherited beliefs, attitudes, and institutions.

All of which is to say that, within a Reformed frame of reference, conservative and progressive impulses ought not to be ultimately opposed. Fundamentally, they are mutually dependent aspects or dimensions of the same thing.

The progressive impulse to relevant engagement cannot survive apart from the conservative impulse to maintain a distinctly Reformed confession which enables believers to envision and imaginatively interpret the world as God’s commonwealth. The conservative impulse to foster and guard the integrity of a distinctly Reformed confession cannot maintain itself or come to completion without leading to the progressive impulse to envision the contemporary world as God’s commonwealth and to relevantly engage it.

Stated positively, Reformed theology joins a critical respect for received tradition with a critical engagement of current knowledge and circumstances. It is a faithful inquiry which requires very wide-ranging conversations.

These conversations extend backwards in history to include persons and communities at other places and times. In our own time, it extends outwards from our own place to include persons and communities around town and around the world. Just because they take Christian traditions seriously, Reformed theologians enter into conversations with Martin Luther King, Jr., Karl Barth, Jane Addams, Friederich Schleiermacher, the Scots Confession, Julian of Norwich, Thomas Aquinas, Hildegaard of Bingen, Anselm, Augustine, the Nicene Creed, Origen of Alexandria, the Apostle Paul, the prophet Amos, and many, many more.

Just because they intend to envision and engage the contemporary world in a relation to the God made known in Jesus Christ, they confer with Rosemary Radford Ruether, Jurgen Moltmann, the Second General Council of Latin American Bishops, Katie Canon, Gustavo Gutierrez, Desmond Tutu, and many others.

Just because they aim to interpret all of life in relation to God, Reformed theologians converse with philosophers, sociologists, biologists, novelists, physicists, politicians and more. That’s not the latest dispatch from a liberal theologian. Jonathan Edwards, the good puritan, regarded “natural philosophy” — that is, science — as “the study of the manner of God’s acting in the world.”

Now, in these wide-ranging conversations, advantage does not always go to the dead, as if the mere fact of having lived in an earlier time constitutes a privileged access to truth. But neither does advantage necessarily go to the living, as if the mere fact of being alive now constitutes privileged access.

It does not necessarily go to those near by or those far away. The advantage does not always necessarily go to the sociologists, the biologists, the novelists, the politicians, or the philosophers. It does not necessarily go even to the theologians. And this is why, at one time or another, good Reformed theologians who enter into these conversations are bound to disagree, and also bound to say and to write things that one or another polarized constituent in our current context will find questionable, unfortunate, or even unacceptable.

Like a pastor, Reformed theology tries to help people and communities interact with their current world in a manner that is faithfully responsive to God. Reformed theology is a faithful inquiry that tries to help us envision God, the world, and ourselves. It aims at a clarification of life in light of the gospel of Jesus Christ. It tries to help us picture in relation to God everything from our biological make-ups and our families and our sexuality to our societies and our natural environments.

But in order to do this, it cannot be narrowly right, left, or center. Instead, Reformed theology must enter into wide-ranging, critical, and vigorous conversations with Scripture and with diverse companions, past and present. And it needs the freedom to do it.

Supporting Strong Seminaries

If I am correct, then the faithful inquiry called Reformed theology is at risk, because these wide-ranging, critical, and vigorous conversations are at risk. The erosion of ecclesial-educational and interpretive institutions mean that these conversations now take place in fewer institutional locations. Indeed, as our colleges and universities turn increasingly toward religious studies, the theological seminary has become the primary institutional home for theological conversation. And yet, at the very moment when we look to the seminaries to support these conversations, our ideological polarization in church and society places them under increasingly restrictive pressures to uphold narrow agendas, right, left, and center.

What then shall we do?

I don’t know the entire answer, but part of it, I think, is this. Support strong church-related seminaries that are apt to sustain the wide-ranging, critical, and vigorous theological conversations on which good Reformed theology depends. Attend to the health of their fundamental structures and resources. Make sure that the institutional machinery which guards and fosters theological inquiry is in good repair. Rather than pressure schools to devise programs to meet every conceivable need and trend, strengthen the institutional resources that make for vigorous theological conversation and inquiry.

Five areas seem especially important.

1. Maintain and strengthen independent seminary Boards of Trustees which are not directly appointed by church courts and assemblies. Were it not for the fact that this is an institutional strategy with a long history in Presbyterian circles, we might call this the learn-from-the-sad-example-of-your-Southern-Baptist-friends clause. Fundamentally, it is a matter of checks and balances that anyone who understands institutions with the aid of a strong doctrine of sin (and frankly, I don’t see how you could understand them without one) will easily recognize. Presbyterian seminaries appropriately are tied to the denomination, its courts, congregations, and members. But in order to foster and protect theological inquiry, they must also retain a significant measure of independence. Otherwise, they will be unable to support theologians and to train pastors who occasionally say and write things that people and groups in the church may not want to hear.

2. Furnish financial aid sufficient to support a large proportion of seminarians, either in full-time studies or at least in significant-time studies. Theological students need the time to engage in and develop the habit of regular theological conversation, inquiry, and reflection. Even a full-time student who is struggling to learn about tasks of ministry, fulfill a field education requirement, pass ordination exams, initiate the process of finding a call, attend to family and friends, can find it difficult to make time for theological conversation and reflection. Valuable as so many life experiences doubtless are, it often becomes only more difficult to find the time when part-time studies compete with full-time employment.

3. Support well-endowed theological libraries that are able to keep up and expand their collections. A stroll through a seminary bookstore is an opportunity to gauge many of the theological conversations taking place on a campus at a given time. A visit to the library indicates the broader context. It shows us something of the more extensive and expansive conversations that can take place on that campus. Here we glimpse the broader possibilities and limits for inquiry on a campus. And to coin a phrase, “a theological conversation is a terrible thing to restrict.”

4. Support strong faculties committed to the enterprise of theological education, conversation, and inquiry in the service of the church. Obviously, this means maintaining (and sometimes improving) levels of compensation so that we can attract and keep faithful inquirers. It means encouraging faculty in significant lines of theological inquiry and research by upholding regular sabbatical leaves with pay. And it means encouraging faculty to be available for theological discussions with ministers, in denominational committees, adult church classes, officer training, and congregational retreats. (These last two points need to be taken into account when seminaries consider appropriate teaching loads as well as how many faculty positions they ought to maintain.)

This afternoon, however, I want to emphasize another point. If the seminaries are the primary institutional home for theological inquiry, if good Reformed theology requires wide-ranging conversations that combine conservative and progressive impulses, and if the seminaries are tied to denominational constituencies whose ideological polarization places them under restrictive pressures to uphold narrow agendas, then, at a moment’s notice, those of us at the seminaries who teach and write theology may find ourselves on the front lines in the struggle for academic freedom. Indeed, the issue of academic freedom is at least as pressing at church-related seminaries as it is at any other sort of educational institution in America.

5. One very traditional and effective institutional strategy for fostering and sustaining free theological inquiry is tenure: that is, the placing of professors into positions from which they cannot easily be fired for what they write and say. In fact, it remains among the most effective institutional strategies for doing so. Obviously, it may also be abused. Tenure may become a license for laziness and a failure to engage in the very conversations and inquiries that it’s meant to protect. This is why we need to maintain clear policies and rigorous standards for granting tenure. It’s also why tenured faculty should be informed by regular peer consultations and reviews. And it’s why seminary administrations should retain at least some power to make judgments about remuneration of tenured professors. Nevertheless, the erosion of tenure at our seminaries would be, were it to take place, would be an ominous development from which rigorous and free theological inquiry in the Presbyterian Church U.S.A. might very well find it quite difficult to recover.

I should also add that, if the most direct threat to the work of particular theological inquirers today often comes from the ideologically polarized ethos of church and culture, the most immediate threat to the institution of tenure emanates from other quarters. Specifically, it comes from a marriage of ecclesial pragmatism, which regards theology as an irrelevant “head trip,” and an emphasis on scholastic managerial efficiency. The pragmatic ecclesial-academic manager sometimes views tenure as an inconvenient medieval survival, a quaint convention that clouds management strategies and confuses lines of institutional control. But this view merely indicates how easily the contemporary relevance of tenure may be overlooked by those who fail to grasp either the importance of theology or the risks inherent in advancing one’s own theological statements.

There are additional and indispensable sides to fostering theological conversation and inquiry which I can’t develop in these brief remarks. I mean things like encouraging congregations to support regular opportunities for theological education and discussion among adults, encouraging seminary faculty to participate in these conversations, and devising additional church-related journals that will discuss theological issues and themes in ways which address ministers, seminaries, and laypeople.

But I hope my main point for this afternoon is clear. Now is the time to support faithful, wide-ranging, rigorous, and free theological conversation and inquiry in the Presbyterian Church (USA). There has never been a time when it was more important to do so. But we shall not succeed apart from strong and relatively independent theological seminaries that are unafraid to be vigorously theological and genuinely Reformed.

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