I am hardly the first person to notice tensions between Christian traditions and university classrooms. Two hundred years ago, they were familiar enough to teachers who wanted to save a place for the advanced study of Christianity within new European universities.
Schleiermacher Makes a Place for Theology – At a Cost
The most familiar example is probably the founding of the (Humboldt) University of Berlin in 1811. Friedrich Schleiermacher is a key figure, though neither the first nor perhaps the most effective. He is credited with formulating a durable argument for keeping Christian theology within modern universities. Though I disagree with his argument, I will follow his vocabulary. Here and in the rest of the book, I use “theology” roughly as Schleiermacher does: it names the whole of what might be taught as Christian tradition, including the varied fields offered by a “divinity school” or “seminary.” I acknowledge the sharp disagreements about what those fields actually are. My account of teaching should be wide enough to cover many of the alternatives.
Back to Schleiermacher in Berlin. Six hundred years earlier, theology had entered some of the original European universities as one of the constitutive faculties. It stood alongside medicine and law as an advanced course of study after the liberal arts. The price of admission for getting theology into medieval universities? Adopting a guild model for teaching it. The compromise was not entirely successful. (Theology’s place among the faculties was never as settled as it can seem to the critic or defender of institutional forms.) For Schleiermacher, the pressing question was whether the medieval arrangement should survive the growth of natural science, antichurch philosophies and the sharp-eyed interests of the modern nation-state.
Schleiermacher first published his views on the topic telegraphically, as propositions or theses (Kurze Darstellung des theologischen Studiums). They are easy to misunderstand, especially for readers who haven’t learned his idiosyncratic vocabulary. They are also strategic proposals in a negotiation. Still, even a hasty reading makes a few things clear. The theology that Schleiermacher wants to keep in universities is defined as a body of knowledge, the science (Wissenschaft) required for church leadership. As an expert in such knowledge, a university professor of theology is obliged to contribute to corresponding fields elsewhere in the university. As a member of the faculty of theology, a professor must share in the distinctive purpose of training future church leaders. The various topics in theology are held together only as a response to a practical and political problem – namely, staffing churches. (Though he wishes it were otherwise, Schleiermacher assumes that clergy appointments will involve the state.) Without that purpose, the various pieces of theological knowledge would scatter back to their corresponding fields in the other faculties.
Even when it is read hastily, Schleiermacher’s early text explains why discussions of “theological education” often focus only on clergy training, as if the two topics were interchangeable. He cannot be blamed for inventing that confusion. In churches with exclusive theologies of priesthood, theology’s secrets were frequently restricted to the ordained. Schleiermacher shows how it is possible to arrive at a similar restriction from professional principles. Whenever it begins, and however it is justified, the reduction of theology to ministerial formation is unfortunate. Among other consequences, it cuts out much of the inheritance of Christian writing. Many influential books now used to train clergy were written for wider audiences. Their authors found the unity of theology in more embracing aims – say, in the hope of leading all human souls toward God. Theology can be the intellectual vocation of any adult Christian.
What Is Wissenshaft? Theology’s Place in the University, and Vice Versa
Schleiermacher balances the professional unity of the theology faculty with its place in the whole university. Each component of university theology must maintain its connections to corresponding fields in other faculties: biblical interpretation connects to classics or Near Eastern languages, Christian ethics to philosophical ethics, and so on. The relation is so close that each theological field is pulled back into its corresponding field elsewhere if theology loses its unifying purpose of professional education. (The history of some university-based divinity schools in the United States confirms the point.) “Without this [unifying] relation this same information ceases to be theological and each aspect of it devolves to some other science.” Schleiermacher secures intellectual respectability for the parts of university theology by subordinating them to other faculties. The subordination has consequences. For example, topics in university theology must be cut up according to the patterns of their counterpart sciences in the university at large. The content of each topic will also change with shifts in the corresponding field. Church history will soon become whatever academic history now is. It must abandon distinctively Christian ideas about historical processes or styles of history writing. If church historians resist the prevailing standards in the university’s department of history, they risk cutting off the faculty of theology from the rest of the university – and so undermining the pact that tolerates theology anywhere within the modern university.
The scope of this pact is displayed in the opening words of Schleiermacher’s first version of his basic argument: “Theology is a positive Wissenschaft . . .” It would take some effort to recover his exact sense of “positive.” I emphasize instead the word Wissenschaft, “science” or body of knowledge. Theology must become Wissenschaft to get through the university gates. Its transformation or redefinition excludes many traditional notions about Christian teaching. For example, to call theology Wissenschaft means that it is not conveyed primarily through symbols or rituals. It is not taught chiefly in “literary” genres or by bodily habituation – the way one might begin to teach sitting meditation or Japanese tea. So far as Wissenschaft remains the watchword of the modern university, theological instruction in faculties of divinity cannot be taught principally by liturgy, allegorical interpretation or bodily practice. It cannot be handed down by visionary transmission or the repeated meditation of texts that shatter language. Yet teachers of Christian theology have depended on each of these means.
I add, on Schleiermacher’s behalf, that he never imagined that the modern university would be the only place for pursuing theology. His own example points in other directions. He wrote in a range of rhetorical registers, especially in the splendid and fully “literary” Speeches on Religion to Its Cultured Despisers. In his dialogue Christmas Eve, the story of an intimate household celebration discloses a poignant theology of incarnation. Schleiermacher’s academic proposal does not describe all theological teaching or writing. It is a strategy for dealing with new universities constructed around particular models of knowledge. Unfortunately, versions of the proposal have become the norm in theological education more generally. Its expectations have crept into other Christian institutions – through university training of seminary teachers, accrediting agencies, changing expectations around credentials and so on. What is more striking, many advocates of university-based theology still rehearse versions of Schleiermacher’s arguments and tailor curricula to something like his assumptions. The exclusions required to secure theology a place in the modern university have become general norms for any theology that wants to be educationally respectable.
Theology as a Cistern of Displaced Knowledge and Resistant Pedagogy
I realize, of course, that “the modern university” is not a single thing frozen just at the moment Schleiermacher first wrote about these questions. Modern American universities now include a much wider range of teaching styles than figured in plans for the university in Berlin. Other debates since Schleiermacher have expanded the fields a university is expected to accommodate. In the 1950s, for example, there was national discussion about the introduction of studio art courses and the faculty positions needed to staff them. Similar controversies have surrounded the rise since 1950 of university-based creative-writing programs – or career training and marketable skills. I wonder whether the old anxiety of intellectual respectability prevents news of these innovations from reaching some precincts where theology is taught according to alien models of “rigor.”
Still, I rehearse the story about Schleiermacher and the new university to draw other conclusions. I believe that the future of Christian theological education is roughly the reverse of what he proposed. He offered, if only as a strategy, the model of a university faculty of theology held together by the professional goals of ministerial formation. The disciplinary content of its curriculum and its forms of teaching were to be borrowed from the rest of the university. If that were the only reason for having a university faculty of theology (or seminaries modeled after it), the collapse of professional models of ministry would render them pointless. But the surviving faculties do have a point within universities and the larger economies of knowledge. In my experience, seminaries and divinity schools can be underground cisterns of displaced but still alluring forms of teaching. They can serve as sites of resistance to the trivialization of teaching implied by so many professional models. University faculties of theology and the seminaries linked to them sometimes conspire in forms of teaching that are strong alternatives to reductive emphases on information transfer. Theological education can be – should be – distinguished by resistant pedagogies. Or so I urge.
Exercise: Rewrite Schleiermacher around a different analogy for enfranchising theology within contemporary universities. For example, what if you argued that Christian theology is actually more like creative writing, studio art or performance?
Exercise: Make a list of all the forms of Christian teaching presented in the theological texts you teach. How many of them do you tend to omit when planning classes? How many of them embarrass you? Why exactly?
A possible corollary: Conforming theological education to prevailing university models encourages us to forget some powerful means for teaching theology. Forgetting them, we also forget how to recognize them as we read or write. Remembering them, we may come to regret some of what we have been teaching as theology. A change of teaching forms requires that “contents” be examined all over again.