Christian higher education, like all institutions of learning across the country, find themselves in a dramatic period of disruption. The forces of change already in play in higher education are only accentuated by COVID-19’s impact on global health and economies. These developments have left university leaders, faculty, students, donors and alumni alike wondering together what the future of higher education will look like in the coming years. While this uncertainty brings with it formidable challenges, it also offers the opportunity for creative disruption, out of which innovative leaders can form new and better modes of theological education.
Greg Jones, Dean of Duke Divinity School, spoke compellingly to these very issues at Karam Forum 2020. In his keynote address on the event’s opening night, Jones identified challenges facing institutions of higher education in America, contextualized them within the history of Christian theological education, and issued a timely invitation to embrace these challenges with a Christ-centered commitment to “traditioned innovation” in the academy.
We’ve made plans to continue the conversation on the future of theological education at Karam Forum 2021! Mark your calendars to join Mark Labberton, John Nunes, Darrell Bock, Jack Miranda, Paul Williams and many more in Los Angeles on January 4-5. Stay tuned for announcements about this event as we keep abreast of continuing developments. When registration opens, ON newsletter readers will be the first to know!
In his talk at Karam Forum 2020, Greg Jones proposed these timely, complex questions: What does it look like for Christian higher education to hold onto tradition while still staying open to innovation? What does it look like to innovate while also valuing what’s come before?
Before we can accurately answer these questions, Jones suggests, we must first acknowledge that higher education in general – theological education included – is imprisoned by the weakness of our imaginations. A disintegration of imagination has caused us to lose sight of where we are going institutionally. It has also silenced the big-picture “why” questions that infuse institutional practices and programs with a vital sense of overarching purpose. We have bracketed questions of purpose for the sake credentialing. Instead of developing new ecosystems for new patterns of relationships, we are stuck trying to pour new wine into old wineskins. But this need not be so.
To renew the power of our imagination for what education can be, Jones proposes that theological educators embrace a spirit of innovation. He distinguishes innovation from simply throwing out new ideas, or trying new things for the sake of something new. Rather, true innovation requires bringing the best of what has come before into the future through new and creative channels. This practice is what he calls traditioned innovation.
Traditioned innovation holds two concerns in delicate tension: the desire to preserve what has come before, and the dedication to forging new and better ways. Traditioned innovation is not traditionalism, Jones emphasizes, for in the words of Jaroslav Pelikan, “tradition is the living faith of the dead, while traditionalism is the dead faith of the living.” Only God, the true innovator, can create out of nothing. We, his co-creators and co-laborers, must create out of a generative intermingling of past reality and future possibility. Traditioned innovation is not relegated to a particular course or department, but rather it is best woven throughout an entire institutional fabric, inviting the comprehensive community to participate in this creative construction.
While these principles hold true for all of higher education, theological education has unique opportunities for witness. Rather than maintaining narrow conceptions of what theological education entails, or whether the MDiv is the best and only degree for future pastoral ministry, theological educators can adopt a much more expansive vision. Jones reminds us that the Christian story is a story about everything, and thus our theological education should speak to everything. It ought to be more than merely shaping minds, but also shaping ways of life and being in the world.
“If Christ is the true human,” Jones says, “we shouldn’t be treating ourselves as if we’re brains on sticks.” Ultimately, this traditioned innovation is rooted in the power of Christ’s resurrection, which is constantly calling us through the Holy Spirit to embrace the new movement and energy of resurrection life.
A panel discussion follows Jones’ talk, featuring Charlie Self of Assemblies of God Theological Seminary, Nathan Hitchcock of Sevensided Consulting and Charisse Jones of Asbury Theological Seminary. The session begins with insightful comments from host J. Michael Thigpen of the Evangelical Theological Society.
If you enjoyed this session, hold January 4-5 on your calendar for Karam Forum 2021! Mark Labberton, John Nunes, Darrell Bock, Jack Miranda, Paul Williams and many more will carry this conversation forward in Los Angeles.