“For the people of God, theology has too often been reduced by the dimensions of the schooling model with which it has been associated into a cognitiveness of language abstracted from the realities of culture. The contextual character of all theology, whether good or bad, has been misplaced, buried under the weight of the western respect for the expert (in this case, theologian), its character as response to the challenges of history forgotten in our preoccupation with it only as the awesome, cumulative history of that response. The pastoral dimensions of theology are befogged by the church’s understanding of theology as a schooling science, abstract, done by experts, yielding universal principles applicable in all times and cultures). And often, due to specialized or traditional understandings of science on the part of theologians who themselves are anxious to retain that pastoral aspect, the concrete relation of theology to the life of the people of God remains obscured. Inevitably, also the focus of such theology remains oriented around the traditional loci of anthropology, Christology, soteriology, etc, loci reflecting thematic arrangements for the study of theology as it has, in its past, addressed western contexts and western worldviews. The impact of this structural methodology on the third world church is to leave them further abstracted from their own contexts and its problems. To what part of the historical tradition they identify with “theology” will they go to find answers for such questions as ancestor worship, the power structures of animism, and the Muslim misconstructions of Jesus as the Son of God?”
Theological Education and the Search for Excellenceby Harvie Conn WTJ — V41 #2 — Spring 1979 —351
I found this quote from Conn very compelling not only because it acknowledges that our search for excellence is itself an inculturated search in need of redemption but also because it acknowledges that the problems many of us encounter as we leave seminary and enter ministry are very real (one problem being that our theology is better suited for a classroom than for the rigors of real day to day living). And these problems are compounded even further for the Third World church leaders who come to our seminaries for education and return home with more than they bargained for.
Simply put, systematic theology is a wonderful gift to the church but its not the only gift. And the stuff of ‘systematic theology’ is itself informed by a Western value system of schooling as a means to the end of excellency in theological education, excellency defined in Western terms. Something that could and perhaps should chasten our use and evaluation of systematic theology is this statement by Conn, “The contextual character of all theology”, all theology is contextual. Every theology arises from a context and a worldview. The goal for a healthy expression of theology is not to seek a decontextualized or de-worldview-ized form of dogma, but rather to connect our theology with the daily challenges the church is facing, to give theology back to the people of God.
Some of the ways I believe we can give theology back to the people of God is to revisit the contextual nature of our systematic theologies, not to de-historisize them, but to ask ourselves are we giving enough attention to the present questions and needs of the church as we train up leaders – we need to consider the content of our classes. But we can’t really stop there because as Conn so clearly pointed out its our entire models of education that are themselves in need of review, are our current seminary models really that effective? – we need to consider the model of our education. And in order to do these things well and apropriately – we need to revisit the old question, what is theology? Until we take a more holistic approach to reconsidering our seminary models, all the changes we may make will be merely 21st century pindants tacked on an older Western educational suit coat.
What are your thoughts on Conn’s comment? And the need to give theology back to the people of God, does it need to be given back or do they already have it (probably a bit of both in my estimates)?