At the 2018 ON faculty retreat, which took place just before Karam Forum, we were richly blessed by a keynote address from Greg Jones of Duke Divinity School. Reflecting on his 13 years’ tenure as that school’s dean, his experiences as provost of Baylor University and other sources of insight, Jones wove together a powerful vision for what it means to carry theological education into the challenging environment of the 21st century. You can listen to the address here.
Jones emphasized that the challenges confronting theological education are also confronting every other area of higher education – and, in a bigger sense, every area of life in our cultures. He shared that as provost of Baylor, he was responsible to help over a dozen schools, from the liberal arts to the professions, think about their future and their economic models. All of them, he said, would have to change radically to survive. In ten years, he said, they’ll all look very different from what they are and do today.
The deeper challenge, however, is to see the present moment not in terms of how we can survive – which leads to a bunker mentality – but in terms of the new opportunities it offers to accomplish God’s mission. Precisely because everyone in every field of endeavor is facing the challenges of disruption, there is a deeply felt need for someone to provide the kind of synoptic vision and authentic practice that only the church can ultimately provide. “This should be our moment!” Jones encouraged.
Unfortunately, nostalgia makes the past seem more comfortable than it really was, and the survival-bunker mentality is hard to shake. Jones drew a parallel to the grumbling Israelites who, facing the rigors of the wilderness, spoke of returning to the false comfort of slavery in Egypt. At least there were stable enrollments. “Each of our schools has a Back to Egypt Committee,” lamented Jones.
Paths forward will rely on what Jones called “traditioned innovation.” As Christians, we are the last people in the world who can just declare that the past doesn’t matter – yet the challenge is to bring the past into the future in a living way, a way that’s adapted to changing cultural conditions. Invoking Jaroslav Pelikan’s distinction between traditionalism (the dead faith of the living) and tradition (the living faith of the dead), Jones encouraged us to think of innovation as something that can serve tradition rather than replace it.
Only a living, intimate relationship with God makes traditioned innovation possible. Jones cited the account of the daughters of Zelophehad in Numbers 27:1-11. These women came to Moses asking for a change in the ordinary rules to allow them to receive their father’s inheritance in the holy land. Moses did not make a decision about the claim by himself, but took the case to the Lord; it was the Lord who affirmed the women’s claim (“the daughters of Zelophehad are right”) and ordered Moses to deliver the inheritance to them. Our relationship with our gracious and powerful God provides the independent standpoint from which we can evaluate which innovations renew traditions rather than destroy them.
As we return to our schools for the new semester and encounter our respective Back to Egypt Committees, we draw strength from God and from one another to face the future with hope and pursue the vast opportunities for new life in a new world – through an old gospel.