Note: Excerpt from Renewing the Church by the Spirit (Eerdmans 2020) as part of the book series Theological Education between the Times. Reprinted by permission of the publisher. Citations have been omitted.
This introduction lays out in brief the current global sociohistorical context within which anxiety about theological education is being felt, presents the theological thesis and thrust of the book, and outlines its basic orientation and presentation.
Flattening Theological Education: Whence and Whither in the Twenty-First Century?
Theological education exists not in a sociohistorical vacuum but in a political economy that is currently squeezing higher education more generally. As misleading as are journalistic metaphors for those desiring more rigorous thoughtfulness, I still think Thomas Friedman’s best-selling book titled The World Is Flat helpfully locates our present situation. Friedman’s notion of flatness and two interrelated motifs – connectedness and networks – can be used as a springboard to characterize what is presently going on.
By identifying the world as flat, Friedman is theorizing about the collaborative, horizontal world created by the forces of globalization. A flat world eliminates both the institutional hierarchy that dominated the medieval and early modern world and the intermediaries that facilitated the transfer of goods, services and knowledge. Supply and demand occur less and less as chains of agents, organizations and processes, and more and more as direct exchanges. Further, the global economy is also constituted by transnational linkages: work is outsourced, offshored and uploaded, directly establishing individuals in the informational economy. This is not to say that every person is now competing against everyone else, since there remains a gap between those able to enter into and reap the benefits of this flattened economy and those not so privileged for various reasons such as poverty, underdeveloped national and social infrastructures, and lack of education.
Connectedness refers first and foremost to the primary medium of such global linkages: the technologically sustained and expanding Internet. The haves and the have-nots are surely devolving into those with and without access to the digital world. If for Friedman the Internet is the conduit primarily of economic globalization, sociologist Manuel Castells suggests that this central pipeline of the third millennium’s informational economy also directs the many flows that affect the cultural, social and political relationships of human lives. Social media is increasingly the platform upon which personal and collective identities are forged, ideologies are developed and challenged, and political campaigns are carried out. Paradoxically, though individual voices are being amplified as never before, the globally connected stage is now a cacophony of sounds.
What characterizes our flat and connected humanity is that it is networked. Earlier communal and national links are being replaced by very fluid and dynamic electronic, social, organizational, transnational and relational connections mediating the sharing, transfer and mobilization of people, wealth, knowledge and power. Arguably this informational and networked economy allows more individual autonomy and encourages innovative creativity precisely through the cross-fertilization that results when persons with divergent backgrounds converge on common initiatives and interests. The challenge is that the older social structures are practically superfluous in this new regime. Its leveling out touches every sphere of human life around the globe, except perhaps one: the chasm between rich and poor. Networks come and go, expand and contract, overlap and diverge, or fluctuate and morph as members (individuals or organizations) are drawn in or phase out.
Higher education in general is being radically disrupted amid these trends. Its elitism no longer holds its earlier prestige, and its products are increasingly professional credentials to meet dynamic market demands. Formerly funded by taxpayers and the welfare state, higher education is now increasingly privatized and part of the market economy. Education is thus opening up, not only because of the Internet but also because of our changing informational economy.
Renewing Theological Education: After Pentecost
Theological education cannot avoid the impact of these broader developments. Its institutions used to rely on hierarchical ecclesial connections that are now fraying in a flattened, connected and networked world. Further, if institutions of theological education formerly served Christian churches, the nature of ecclesiality is itself being called into question in a diversifying post-Christian and postcolonial world, to the point that theological educators are now less sure about the identity of their primary constituents. How might theological education reconstruct itself in a postmodern, post-Western, post-Enlightenment and even post-Christendom age?
While I don’t fault others for resorting to practical responses to the crisis in theological education – whether to secure financial viability, replenish a diminishing student enrollment, or establish relevant programs and curricula for the consumer market – my own approach is decidedly theological. Though others have preceded me down this path, I both propose a broader theological analysis of education and cast a more precise theological vision.
My own ecclesial location, the modern pentecostal movement, rarely talks about an ecclesial crisis and more often dispenses a triumphalist rhetoric, buoyed by demographers touting how world Christianity is growing largely because of the achievements of these pentecostal and charismatic movements. How can theological education serve these developments at the vanguard of world Christian growth but also be more subdued about the inevitable comings and goings of social forms? The key, I think, is to be both ecclesiological and more fully pneumatological. Because the church exists as the body of Christ and as the fellowship of the Spirit (II Corinthians 13:13), there is no nonpentecostal church – no people of God upon whom the Spirit has not been poured out (Acts 2:33). I would go further and argue that part of the crisis of the church today has to do with its Pentecost-related pneumatic aspects not being recognized, or at best being marginalized. To ask about the role of the Spirit in theological education, then, ought to be of interest to all who seek to root such efforts more deeply in the redemptive work of God in our time. How might theological education be reconceptualized from this perspective after both Easter and Pentecost?
The renewal of theological education in a flat, connected and networked world can be found by reconsidering the primordial Pentecost outpouring of the Spirit. This pneumatic event not only initiated the embryonic church but also catalyzed the church’s mission in and to the world. Thus, every chapter of the present book engages at some level the Lukan narrative and considers the implications of the Pentecost event and its aftermath for contemporary theological education in a third-millennium context that is deeply glocal – both local and global. What I try to retrieve, however, is not just a prescribed number of steps toward sustainability or profitability. Instead, I wish to nurture a kind of theological sensibility – a pneumatological imagination, more precisely – that, when confronted with specific curricular, pedagogical and policy questions in dynamically shifting environments, can explore effective contextual responses by asking, in effect: What has the Spirit done? What might the Spirit be doing? What would the Spirit do? What would the Spirit wish for or empower us to do? In short, mine is a theological re-visioning of theological education that cultivates a hermeneutical and methodological imagination for renewing the church in its participation in the mission of God in the twenty-first century. It is a vision retrieved from the past but intended for the future.
Overview of the Book
The movement of the book’s three parts follows this ecclesiological, missiological and educational arc. It considers education holistically as involving not only minds (the cognitive) but also bodies (the affective) and activities (the behavioral) – heads, hearts and hands. Such a triadic conceptualization is both amenable to historic theological explication in terms connecting orthodoxy (beliefs) to orthopathy (desires) and orthopraxy (practices), and consistent with the ethos and sensibilities of the relational, affective and pragmatic spirituality of pentecostal and charismatic churches and movements. Our journey begins with the church as the heart of theological education (the who), then proceeds through the church’s missional vocation that charts the telos (or purpose) and hands of theological education (the why), and arrives at the intellectual core of the enterprise that can be comprehended as the task or “head” of theological education (the how).
Part 1 explains the evolution of the church in our increasingly flat—that is, connected and networked – world. We begin by discussing the church and its theological-educational fortunes in North America (our immediate location and context), move to consider how even this space and reality are progressively flattened vis-a-vis the so-called Global South, and then review the internal dynamics of such flattening that are shaping new ecclesial forms and expressions. The discussion in part 1 of the book looks at the primary audiences and constituencies of theological education. How are such theological learners being shaped by flattening forces? And what social and institutional dynamics can be drawn from observable ecclesiological trends that can help us understand better what theological institutions are engaging or ought to serve? My argument in these three chapters is that theological education needs to engage the rapidly de-institutionalizing forms of the twenty-first-century church and yet attend to the search for spiritual experience and significance that marks contemporary religious life.
Even if we manage to correlate theological education better with its consumers (learners in ever-mutating types of churches), the question arises: To what ends? Unless we can be clear about the goals of such churches, the rationale for theological education will teeter. The telos of the church is the coming reign of God proclaimed by Jesus and the apostolic church, and it is this missional trajectory that orients the why of the church and therefore ought also to direct the thrust of theological education. Part 2 of the book thus explores the public theological content, economic shape and personal character of such a missional imagination. I will urge that what the church does in her participation in the missio Dei is live out its witness in the public environment, embody its life in the global economic cosmopolis, and shape learners for spirited, networked and faithful discipleship-citizenship.
These ecclesiological and missiological considerations then set us up for a deeper burrowing into the task of theological education in part 3. Here is where I flesh out in more specificity (while being thoroughly theological and pneumatological) the work of theological education given its audience (the church) and its purpose (the missio Dei). Chapters 7 through 9 thus look at the curricular/disciplinary, pedagogical and scholarly aspects of that undertaking. What does it mean to be intentional about the work of the Spirit in these aspects of the theological educational task? Throughout, I connect what happens within the educational endeavor with the ecclesial and missional discussions. The goal is to re-vision theological education for a spiritually vital and connected-networked global humanity.
Yet the path to that goal of a Spirit-ed theological education is accessible solely through the Spirit of Pentecost. Driving my argument is the work of the Spirit poured out upon all flesh – especially as recounted by the Third Evangelist in his two books in the Christian canon: Luke and Acts – to form Jesus followers into an ecclesial and missional community of disciples. Can theological education today be bolstered by such an ancient image and narrative? I believe so, and I invite you to an extended consideration of that conviction.